ON the anniversary of the night Mescal disappeared the mysterious voice which had called to Hare so often and so strangely again pierced his slumber, and brought him bolt upright in his bed shuddering and listening. The dark room was as quiet as a tomb. He fell back into his blankets trembling with emotion. Sleep did not close his eyes again that night; he lay in a fever waiting for the dawn, and when the gray gloom lightened he knew what he must do.
After breakfast he sought August Naab. "May I go across the river?" he asked.
The old man looked up from his carpenter's task and fastened his glance on Hare. "Mescal?"
"I saw it long ago." He shook his head and spread his great hands. "There's no use for me to say what the desert is. If you ever come back you'll bring her. Yes, you may go. It's a man's deed. God keep you!"
Hare spoke to no other person; he filled one saddle-bag with grain, another with meat, bread, and dried fruits, strapped a five-gallon leather water-sack back of Silvermane's saddle, and set out toward the river. At the crossing-bar he removed Silvermane's equipments and placed them in the boat. At that moment a long howl, as of a dog baying the moon, startled him from his musings, and his eyes sought the river-bank, up and down, and then the opposite side. An animal, which at first he took to be a gray timber-wolf, was running along the sand-bar of the landing.
"Pretty white for a wolf," he muttered. "Might be a Navajo dog."
The beast sat down on his haunches and, lifting a lean head, sent up a doleful howl. Then he began trotting along the bar, every few paces stepping to the edge of the water. Presently he spied Hare, and he began to bark furiously.
"It's a dog all right; wants to get across," said Hare. "Where have I seen him?"
Suddenly he sprang to his feet, almost upsetting the boat. "He's like Mescal's Wolf!" He looked closer, his heart beginning to thump, and then he yelled: "Ki-yi! Wolf! Hyer! Hyer!"
The dog leaped straight up in the air, and coming down, began to dash back and forth along the sand with piercing yelps.
"It's Wolf! Mescal must be near," cried Hare. A veil obscured his sight, and every vein was like a hot cord. "Wolf! Wolf! I'm coming!"
With trembling hands he tied Silvermane's bridle to the stern seat of the boat and pushed off. In his eagerness he rowed too hard, dragging Silvermane's nose under water, and he had to check himself. Time and again he turned to call to the dog. At length the bow grated on the sand, and Silvermane emerged with a splash and a snort.
"Wolf, old fellow!" cried Hare. "Where's Mescal? Wolf, where is she?" He threw his arms around the dog. Wolf whined, licked Hare's face, and breaking away, ran up the sandy trail, and back again. But he barked no more; he waited to see if Hare was following.
"All right, Wolf--coming." Never had Hare saddled so speedily, nor mounted so quickly. He sent Silvermane into the willow-skirted trail close behind the dog, up on the rocky bench, and then under the bulging wall. Wolf reached the level between the canyon and Echo Cliffs, and then started straight west toward the Painted Desert. He trotted a few rods and turned to see if the man was coming.
Doubt, fear, uncertainty ceased for Hare. With the first blast of dust-scented air in his face he knew Wolf was leading him to Mescal. He knew that the cry he had heard in his dream was hers, that the old mysterious promise of the desert had at last begun its fulfilment. He gave one sharp exultant answer to that call. The horizon, ever-widening, lay before him, and the treeless plains, the sun-scorched slopes, the sandy stretches, the massed blocks of black mesas, all seemed to welcome him; his soul sang within him.
For Mescal was there. Far away she must be, a mere grain of sand in all that world of drifting sands, perhaps ill, perhaps hurt, but alive, waiting for him, calling for him, crying out with a voice that no distance could silence. He did not see the sharp peaks as pitiless barriers, nor the mesas and domes as black-faced death, nor the moisture-drinking sands as life-sucking foes to plant and beast and man. That painted wonderland had sheltered Mescal for a year. He had loved it for its color, its change, its secrecy; he loved it now because it had not been a grave for Mescal, but a home. Therefore he laughed at the deceiving yellow distances in the foreground of glistening mesas, at the deceiving purple distances of the far-off horizon. The wind blew a song in his ears; the dry desert odors were fragrance in his nostrils; the sand tasted sweet between his teeth, and the quivering heat-waves, veiling the desert in transparent haze, framed beautiful pictures for his eyes.
Wolf kept to the fore for some thirty paces, and though he had ceased to stop, he still looked back to see if the horse and man were following. Hare had noted the dog occasionally in the first hours of travel, but he had given his eyes mostly to the broken line of sky and desert in the west, to the receding contour of Echo Cliffs, to the spread and break of the desert near at hand. Here and there life showed itself in a gaunt coyote sneaking into the cactus, or a horned toad huddling down in the dust, or a jewel-eyed lizard sunning himself upon a stone. It was only when his excited fancy had cooled that Hare came to look closely at Wolf. But for the dog's color he could not have been distinguished from a real wolf. His head and ears and tail drooped, and he was lame in his right front paw.
Hare halted in the shade of a stone, dismounted and called the dog to him. Wolf returned without quickness, without eagerness, without any of the old-time friendliness of shepherding days. His eyes were sad and strange. Hare felt a sudden foreboding, but rejected it with passionate force. Yet a chill remained. Lifting Wolf's paw he discovered that the ball of the foot was worn through; whereupon he called into service a piece of buckskin, and fashioning a rude moccasin he tied it round the foot. Wolf licked his hand, but there was no change in the sad light of his eyes. He turned toward the west as if anxious to be off.
"All right, old fellow," said Hare, "only go slow. From the look of that foot I think you've turned back on a long trail."
Again they faced the west, dog leading, man following, and addressed themselves to a gradual ascent. When it had been surmounted Hare realized that his ride so far had brought him only through an anteroom; the real portal now stood open to the Painted Desert. The immensity of the thing seemed to reach up to him with a thousand lines, ridges, canyons, all ascending out of a purple gulf. The arms of the desert enveloped him, a chill beneath their warmth.
As he descended into the valley, keeping close to Wolf, he marked a straight course in line with a volcanic spur. He was surprised when the dog, though continually threading jumbles of rock, heading canyons, crossing deep washes, and going round obstructions, always veered back to this bearing as true as a compass-needle to its magnet.
Hare felt the air growing warmer and closer as he continued the descent. By mid-afternoon, when he had travelled perhaps thirty miles, he was moist from head to foot, and Silvermane's coat was wet. Looking backward Hare had a blank feeling of loss; the sweeping line of Echo Cliffs had retreated behind the horizon. There was no familiar landmark left.
Sunset brought him to a standstill, as much from its sudden glorious gathering of brilliant crimsons splashed with gold, as from its warning that the day was done. Hare made his camp beside a stone which would serve as a wind-break. He laid his saddle for a pillow and his blanket for a bed. He gave Silvermane a nose-bag full of water and then one of grain; he fed the dog, and afterward attended to his own needs. When his task was done the desert brightness had faded to gray; the warm air had blown away on a cool breeze, and night approached. He scooped out a little hollow in the sand for his hips, took a last look at Silvermane haltered to the rock, and calling Wolf to his side stretched himself to rest. He was used to lying on the ground, under the open sky, out where the wind blew and the sand seeped in, yet all these were different on this night. He was in the Painted Desert; Wolf crept close to him; Mescal lay somewhere under the blue-white stars.
He awakened and arose before any color of dawn hinted of the day. While he fed his four-footed companions the sky warmed and lightened. A tinge of rose gathered in the east. The air was cool and transparent. He tried to cheer Wolf out of his sad-eyed forlornness, and failed.
Hare vaulted into the saddle. The day had its possibilities, and while he had sobered down from his first unthinking exuberance, there was still a ring in his voice as he called to the dog:
"On, Wolf, on, old boy!"
Out of the east burst the sun, and the gray curtain was lifted by shafts of pink and white and gold, flashing westward long trails of color.
When they started the actions of the dog showed Hare that Wolf was not tracking a back-trail, but travelling by instinct. There were draws which necessitated a search for a crossing, and areas of broken rock which had to be rounded, and steep flat mesas rising in the path, and strips of deep sand and canyons impassable for long distances. But the dog always found a way and always came back to a line with the black spur that Hare had marked. It still stood in sharp relief, no nearer than before, receding with every step, an illusive landmark, which Hare began to distrust.
Then quite suddenly it vanished in the ragged blue mass of the Ghost Mountains. Hare had seen them several times, though never so distinctly. The purple tips, the bold rock-ribs, the shadowed canyons, so sharp and clear in the morning light--how impossible to believe that these were only the deceit of the desert mirage! Yet so they were; even for the Navajos they were spirit-mountains.
The splintered desert-floor merged into an area of sand. Wolf slowed his trot, and Silvermane's hoofs sunk deep. Dismounting Hare labored beside him, and felt the heat steal through his boots and burn the soles of his feet. Hare plodded onward, stopping once to tie another moccasin on Wolf's worn paw, this time the left one; and often he pulled the stopper from the water-bag and cooled his parching lips and throat. The waves of the sand-dunes were as the waves of the ocean. He did not look backward, dreading to see what little progress he had made. Ahead were miles on miles of graceful heaps, swelling mounds, crested ridges, all different, yet regular and rhythmical, drift on drift, dune on dune, in endless waves. Wisps of sand were whipped from their summits in white ribbons and wreaths, and pale clouds of sand shrouded little hollows. The morning breeze, rising out of the west, approached in a rippling lines like the crest of an inflowing tide.
Silvermane snorted, lifted his ears and looked westward toward a yellow pall which swooped up from the desert.
"Sand-storm," said Hare, and calling Wolf he made for the nearest rock that was large enough to shelter them. The whirling sand-cloud mushroomed into an enormous desert covering, engulfing the dunes, obscuring the light. The sunlight failed; the day turned to gloom. Then an eddying fog of sand and dust enveloped Hare. His last glimpse be- fore he covered his face with a silk handkerchief was of sheets of sand streaming past his shelter. The storm came with a low, soft, hissing roar, like the sound in a sea-shell magnified. Breathing through the handkerchief Hare avoided inhaling the sand which beat against his face, but the finer dust particles filtered through and stifled him. At first he felt that he would suffocate, and he coughed and gasped; but presently, when the thicker sand-clouds had passed, he managed to get air enough to breathe. Then he waited patiently while the steady seeping rustle swept by, and the band of his hat sagged heavier, and the load on his shoulders had to be continually shaken off, and the weighty trap round his feet crept upward. When the light, fine touch ceased he removed the covering from his face to see himself standing nearly to his knees in sand, and Silvermane's back and the saddle burdened with it. The storm was moving eastward, a dull red now with the sun faintly showing through it like a ball of fire.
"Well, Wolf, old boy, how many storms like that will we have to weather?" asked Hare, in a cheery tone which he had to force. He knew these sand-storms were but vagaries of the desert-wind. Before the hour closed he had to seek the cover of a stone and wait for another to pass. Then he was caught in the open, with not a shelter in sight. He was compelled to turn his back to a third storm, the worst of all, and to bear as best he could the heavy impact of the first blow, and the succeeding rush and flow of sand. After that his head drooped and he wearily trudged beside Silvermane, dreading the interminable distance he must cover before once more gaining hard ground. But he discovered that it was useless to try to judge distance on the desert. What had appeared miles at his last look turned out to be only rods.
It was good to get into the saddle again and face clear air. Far away the black spur again loomed up, now surrounded by groups of mesas with sage-slopes tinged with green. That surely meant the end of this long trail; the faint spots of green lent suggestion of a desert waterhole; there Mescal must be, hidden in some shady canyon. Hare built his hopes anew.
So he pressed on down a plain of bare rock dotted by huge bowlders; and out upon a level floor of scant sage and greasewood where a few living creatures, a desert-hawk sailing low, lizards darting into holes, and a swiftly running ground-bird, emphasized the lack of life in the waste. He entered a zone of clay-dunes of violet and heliotrope hues; and then a belt of lava and cactus. Reddish points studded the desert, and here and there were meagre patches of white grass. Far away myriads of cactus plants showed like a troop of distorted horsemen. As he went on the grass failed, and streams of jagged lava flowed downward. Beds of cinders told of the fury of a volcanic fire. Soon Hare had to dismount to make moccasins for Wolf's hind feet; and to lead Silvermane carefully over the cracked lava. For a while there were strips of ground bare of lava and harboring only an occasional bunch of cactus, but soon every foot free of the reddish iron bore a projecting mass of fierce spikes and thorns. The huge barrel-shaped cacti, and thickets of slender dark-green rods with bayonet points, and broad leaves with yellow spines, drove Hare and his sore-footed fellow-travellers to the lava.
Hare thought there must be an end to it some time, yet it seemed as though he were never to cross that black forbidding inferno. Blistered by the heat, pierced by the thorns, lame from long toil on the lava, he was sorely spent when once more he stepped out upon the bare desert. On pitching camp he made the grievous discovery that the water-bag had leaked or the water had evaporated, for there was only enough left for one more day. He ministered to thirsty dog and horse in silence, his mind revolving the grim fact of his situation.
His little fire of greasewood threw a wan circle into the surrounding blackness. Not a sound hinted of life. He longed for even the bark of a coyote. Silvermane stooped motionless with tired head. Wolf stretched limply on the sand. Hare rolled into his blanket and stretched out with slow aching relief.
He dreamed he was a boy roaming over the green hills of the old farm, wading through dewy clover-fields, and fishing in the Connecticut River. It was the long vacationtime, an endless freedom. Then he was at the swimming-hole, and playmates tied his clothes in knots, and with shouts of glee ran up the bank leaving him there to shiver.
When he awakened the blazing globe of the sun had arisen over the eastern horizon, and the red of the desert swathed all the reach of valley.
Hare pondered whether he should use his water at once or dole it out. That ball of fire in the sky, a glazed circle, like iron at white heat, decided for him. The sun would be hot and would evaporate such water as leakage did not claim, and so he shared alike with Wolf, and gave the rest to Silvermane.
For an hour the mocking lilac mountains hung in the air and then paled in the intense light. The day was soundless and windless, and the heat-waves rose from the desert like smoke. For Hare the realities were the baked clay flats, where Silvermane broke through at every step; the beds of alkali, which sent aloft clouds of powdered dust; the deep gullies full of round bowlders; thickets of mesquite and prickly thorn which tore at his legs; the weary detour to head the canyons; the climb to get between two bridging mesas; and always the haunting presence of the sad-eyed dog. His unrealities were the shimmering sheets of water in every low place; the baseless mountains floating in the air; the green slopes rising close at hand; beautiful buttes of dark blue riding the open sand, like monstrous barks at sea; the changing outlines of desert shapes in pink haze and veils of purple and white lustre--all illusions, all mysterious tricks of the mirage.
In the heat of midday Hare yielded to its influence and reined in his horse under a slate-bank where there was shade. His face was swollen and peeling, and his lips had begun to dry and crack and taste of alkali. Then Wolf pattered on; Silvermane kept at his heels; Hare dozed in the saddle. His eyes burned in their sockets from the glare, and it was a relief to shut out the barren reaches. So the afternoon waned.
Silvermane stumbled, jolting Hare out of his stupid lethargy. Before him spread a great field of bowlders with not a slope or a ridge or a mesa or an escarpment. Not even a tip of a spur rose in the background. He rubbed his sore eyes. Was this another illusion?
When Silvermane started onward Hare thought of the Navajos' custom to trust horse and dog in such an emergency. They were desert-bred; beyond human understanding were their sight and scent. He was at the mercy now of Wolf's instinct and Silvermane's endurance. Resignation brought him a certain calmness of soul, cold as the touch of an icy hand on fevered cheek. He remembered the desert secret in Mescal's eyes; he was about to solve it. He remembered August Naab's words: "It's a man's deed!" If so, he had achieved the spirit of it, if not the letter. He remembered Eschtah's tribute to the wilderness of painted wastes: "There is the grave of the Navajo, and no one knows the trail to the place of his sleep!" He remembered the something evermore about to be, the unknown always subtly calling; now it was revealed in the stone-fettering grip of the desert. It had opened wide to him, bright with its face of danger, beautiful with its painted windows, inscrutable with its alluring call. Bidding him enter, it had closed behind him; now he looked upon it in its iron order, its strange ruins racked by fire, its inevitable remorselessness.
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