HARE, listening breathlessly, rode on toward the gateway of the cliffs, and when he had passed the corner of the wall he sighed in relief. Spurring Bolly into a trot he rode forward with a strange elation. He had slipped out of the oasis unheard, and it would be morning before August Naab discovered his absence, perhaps longer before he divined his purpose. Then Hare would have a long start. He thrilled with something akin to fear when he pictured the old man's rage, and wondered what change it would make in his plans. Hare saw in mind Naab and his sons, and the Navajos sweeping in pursuit to save him from the rustlers.
But the future must take care of itself, and he addressed all the faculties at his command to cool consideration of the present. The strip of sand under the Blue Star had to be crossed at night--a feat which even the Navajos did not have to their credit. Yet Hare had no shrinking; he had no doubt; he must go on. As he had been drawn to the Painted Desert by a voiceless call, so now he was urged forward by something nameless.
In the blackness of the night it seemed as if he were riding through a vaulted hall swept by a current of air. The night had turned cold, the stars had brightened icily, the rumble of the river had died away when Bolly's ringing trot suddenly changed to a noiseless floundering walk. She had come upon the sand. Hare saw the Blue Star in the cliff, and once more loosed the rein on Bolly's neck. She stopped and champed her bit, and turned her black head to him as if to intimate that she wanted the guidance of a sure arm. But as it was not forthcoming she stepped onward into the yielding sand.
With hands resting idly on the pommel Hare sat at ease in the saddle. The billowy dunes reflected the pale starlight and fell away from him to darken in obscurity. So long as the Blue Star remained in sight he kept his sense of direction; when it had disappeared he felt himself lost. Bolly's course seemed as crooked as the jagged outline of the cliffs. She climbed straight up little knolls, descended them at an angle, turned sharply at wind-washed gullies, made winding detours, zigzagged levels that shone like a polished floor; and at last (so it seemed to Hare) she doubled back on her trail. The black cliff receded over the waves of sand; the stars changed positions, travelled round in the blue dome, and the few that he knew finally sank below the horizon. Bolly never lagged; she was like the homeward - bound horse, indifferent to direction because sure of it, eager to finish the journey because now it was short. Hare was glad though not surprised when she snorted and cracked her iron-shod hoof on a stone at the edge of the sand. He smiled with tightening lips as he rode into the shadow of a rock which he recognized. Bolly had crossed the treacherous belt of dunes and washes and had struck the trail on the other side.
The long level of wind-carved rocks under the cliffs, the ridges of the desert, the miles of slow ascent up to the rough divide, the gradual descent to the cedars--these stretches of his journey took the night hours and ended with the brightening gray in the east. Within a mile of Silver Cup Spring Hare dismounted, to tie folded pads of buckskin on Bolly's hoofs. When her feet were muffled, he cautiously advanced on the trail for the matter of a hundred rods or more; then sheered off to the right into the cedars. He led Bolly slowly, without rattling a stone or snapping a twig, and stopped every few paces to listen. There was no sound other than the wind in the cedars. Presently, with a gasp, he caught the dull gleam of a burned-out camp-fire. Then his movements became as guarded, as noiseless as those of a scouting Indian. The dawn broke over the red wall as he gained the trail beyond the spring.
He skirted the curve of the valley and led Bolly a little way up the wooded slope to a dense thicket of aspens in a hollow. This thicket encircled a patch of grass. Hare pressed the lithe aspens aside to admit Bolly and left her there free. He drew his rifle from its sheath and, after assuring himself that the mustang could not be seen or heard from below, he bent his steps diagonally up the slope.
Every foot of this ground he knew, and he climbed swiftly until he struck the mountain trail. Then, descending, he entered the cedars. At last he reached a point directly above the cliff-camp where he had spent so many days, and this he knew overhung the cabin built by Holderness. He stole down from tree to tree and slipped from thicket to thicket. The sun, red as blood, raised a bright crescent over the red wall; the soft mists of the valley began to glow and move; cattle were working in toward the spring. Never brushing a branch, never dislodging a stone, Hare descended the slope, his eyes keener, his ears sharper with every step. Soon the edge of the gray stone cliff below shut out the lower level of cedars. While resting he listened. Then he marked his course down the last bit of slanting ground to the cliff bench which faced the valley. This space was open, rough with crumbling rock and dead cedar brush--a difficult place to cross without sound. Deliberate in his choice of steps, very slow in moving, Hare went on with a stealth which satisfied even his intent ear. When the wide gray strip of stone drew slowly into the circle of his downcast gaze he sank to the ground with a slight trembling in all his limbs. There was a thick bush on the edge of the cliff; in three steps he could reach it and, unseen himself, look down upon the camp.
A little cloud or smoke rose lazily and capped a slender column of blue. Sounds were wafted softly upward, the low voices of men in conversation, a merry whistle, and then the humming of a tune. Hare's mouth was dry and his temples throbbed as he asked himself what it was best to do. The answer came instantaneously as though it had lain just below the level of his conscious thought. "I'll watch till Holderness walks out into sight, jump up with a yell when he comes, give him time to see me, to draw his gun--then kill him!"
Hare slipped to the bush, drew in a deep long breath that stilled his agitation, and peered over the cliff. The crude shingles of the cabin first rose into sight; then beyond he saw the corral with a number of shaggy mustangs and a great gray horse. Hare stared blankly. As in a dream he saw the proud arch of a splendid neck, the graceful wave of a white-crested mane.
"Silvermane! . . . My God!" he gasped, suddenly. "They caught him--after all!"
He fell backward upon the cliff and lay there with hands clinching his rifle, shudderingly conscious of a blow, trying to comprehend its meaning.
"Silvermane! . . . they caught him--after all!" he kept repeating; then in a flash of agonized understanding he whispered: "Mescal . . . Mescal!"
He rolled upon his face, shutting our the blue sky; his body stretched stiff as a bent spring released from its compress, and his nails dented the stock of his rifle. Then this rigidity softened to sobs that shook him from head to foot. He sat up, haggard and wild-eyed.
Silvermane had been captured, probably by rustlers waiting at the western edge of the sand-strip. Mescal had fallen into the hands of Snap Naab. But Mescal was surely alive and Snap was there to be killed; his long career of unrestrained cruelty was in its last day--something told Hare that this thing must and should be. The stern deliberation of his intent to kill Holderness, the passion of his purpose to pay his debt to August Naab, were as nothing compared to the gathering might of this new resolve; suddenly he felt free and strong as an untamed lion broken free from his captors.
From the cover of the bush he peered again over the cliff. The cabin with its closed door facing him was scarcely two hundred feet down from his hiding-place. One of the rustlers sang as he bent over the camp-fire and raked the coals around the pots; others lounged on a bench waiting for breakfast; some rolled out of their blankets; they stretched and yawned, and pulling on their boots made for the spring. The last man to rise was Snap Naab, and he had slept with his head on the threshold of the door. Evidently Snap had made Mescal a prisoner in the cabin, and no one could go in or out without stepping upon him. The rustler-foreman of Holderness's company had slept with his belt containing two Colts, nor had he removed his boots. Hare noted these details with grim humor. Now the tall Holderness, face shining, gold-red beard agleam, rounded the cabin whistling. Hare watched the rustlers sit down to breakfast, and here and there caught a loud-spoken word, and marked their leisurely care-free manner. Snap Naab took up a pan of food and a cup of coffee, carried them into the cabin, and came out, shutting the door.
After breakfast most of the rustlers set themselves to their various tasks. Hare watched them with the eyes of a lynx watching deer. Several men were arranging articles for packing, and their actions were slow to the point of laziness; others trooped down toward the corral. Holderness rolled a cigarette and stooped over the campfire to reach a burning stick. Snap Naab stalked to and fro before the door of the cabin. He alone of the rustler's band showed restlessness, and more than once he glanced up the trail that led over the divide toward his father's oasis. Holderness sent expectant glances in the other direction toward Seeping Springs. Once his clear voice rang out:
"I tell you, Naab, there's no hurry. We'll ride in tomorrow."
A thousand thoughts flitted through Hare's mind--a steady stream of questions and answers. Why did Snap look anxiously along the oasis trail? It was not that he feared his father or his brothers alone, but there was always the menace of the Navajos. Why was Holderness in no hurry to leave Silver Cup? Why did he lag at the spring when, if he expected riders from his ranch, he could have gone on to meet them, obviously saving time and putting greater distance between him and the men he had wronged? Was it utter fearlessness or only a deep-played game? Holderness and his rustlers, all except the gloomy Naab, were blind to the peril that lay beyond the divide. How soon would August Naab strike out on the White Sage trail? Would he come alone? Whether he came alone or at the head of his hard-riding Navajos he would arrive too late. Holderness's life was not worth a pinch of the ashes he flecked so carelessly from his cigarette. Snap Naab's gloom, his long stride, his nervous hand always on or near the butt of his Colt, spoke the keenness of his desert instinct. For him the sun had arisen red over the red wall. Had he harmed Mescal? Why did he keep the cabin door shut and guard it so closely?
While Hare watched and thought the hours sped by. Holderness lounged about and Snap kept silent guard. The rustlers smoked, slept, and moved about; the day waned, and the shadow of the cliff crept over the cabin. To Hare the time had been as a moment; he was amazed to find the sun had gone down behind Coconina. If August Naab had left the oasis at dawn he must now be near the divide, unless he had been delayed by a wind-storm at the strip of sand. Hare longed to see the roan charger come up over the crest; he longed to see a file of Navajos, plumes waving, dark mustangs gleaming in the red light, sweep down the stony ridge toward the cedars. "If they come," he whispered, "I'll kill Holderness and Snap and any man who tries to open that cabin door."
So he waited in tense watchfulness, his gaze alternating between the wavy line of the divide and the camp glade. Out in the valley it was still daylight, but under the cliff twilight had fallen. All day Hare had strained his ears to hear the talk of the rustlers, and it now occurred to him that if he climbed down through the split in the cliff to the bench where Dave and George had always hidden to watch the spring he would be just above the camp. This descent involved risk, but since it would enable him to see the cabin door when darkness set in, he decided to venture. The moment was propitious, for the rustlers were bustling around, cooking dinner, unrolling blankets, and moving to and fro from spring and corral. Hare crawled back a few yards and along the cliff until he reached the split. It was a narrow steep crack which he well remembered. Going down was attended with two dangers--losing his hold, and the possible rattling of stones. Face foremost he slipped downward with the gliding, sinuous movement of a snake, and reaching the grassy bench he lay quiet. Jesting voices and loud laughter from below reassured him. He had not been heard. His new position afforded every chance to see and hear, and also gave means of rapid, noiseless retreat along the bench to the cedars. Lying flat he crawled stealthily to the bushy fringe of the bench.
A bright fire blazed under the cliff. Men were moving and laughing. The cabin door was open. Mescal stood leaning back from Snap Naab, struggling to release her hands.
"Let me untie them, I say," growled Snap.
Mescal tore loose from him and stepped back. Her hands were bound before her, and twisting them outward, she warded him off. Her dishevelled hair almost hid her dark eyes. They burned in a level glance of hate and defiance. She was a little lioness, quivering with fiery life, fight in every line of her form.
"All right, don't eat then--starve!" said Snap.
"I'll starve before I eat what you give me."
The rustlers laughed. Holderness blew out a puff of smoke and smiled. Snap glowered upon Mescal and then upon his amiable companions. One of them, a ruddyfaced fellow, walked toward Mescal.
"Cool down, Snap, cool down," he said. "We're not goin' to stand for a girl starvin'. She ain't eat a bite yet. Here, Miss, let me untie your hands--there. . . . Say! Naab, d--n you, her wrists are black an' blue!"
"Look out! Your gun!" yelled Snap.
With a swift movement Mescal snatched the man's Colt from its holster and was raising it when he grasped her arm. She winced and dropped the weapon.
"You little Indian devil!" exclaimed the rustler, in a rapt admiration. "Sorry to hurt you, an' more'n sorry to spoil your aim. Thet wasn't kind to throw my own gun on me, jest after I'd played the gentleman, now, was it?"
"I didn't--intend--to shoot--you," panted Mescal.
"Naab, if this's your Mormon kind of wife--excuse me! Though I ain't denyin' she's the sassiest an' sweetest little cat I ever seen!"
"We Mormons don't talk about our women or hear any talk," returned Snap, a dancing fury in his pale eyes. "You're from Nebraska?"
"Yep, jest a plain Nebraska rustler, cattle-thief, an' all round no-good customer, though I ain't taken to houndin' women yet."
For answer Snap Naab's right hand slowly curved upward before him and stopped taut and inflexible, while his strange eyes seemed to shoot sparks.
"See here, Naab, why do you want to throw a gun on me?" asked the rustler, coolly. "Haven't you shot enough of your friends yet? I reckon I've no right to interfere in your affairs. I was only protestin' friendly like, for the little lady. She's game, an' she's called your hand. An' it's not a straight hand. Thet's all, an' d--n if I care whether you are a Mormon or not. I'll bet a hoss Holderness will back me up."
"Snap, he's right," put in Holderness, smoothly. "You needn't be so touchy about Mescal. She's showed what little use she's got for you. If you must rope her around like you do a mustang, be easy about it. Let's have supper. Now, Mescal, you sit here on the bench and behave yourself. I don't want you shooting up my camp."
Snap turned sullenly aside while Holderness seated Mescal near the door and fetched her food and drink. The rustlers squatted round the camp-fire, and conversation ceased in the business of the meal.
To Hare the scene had brought a storm of emotions. Joy at the sight of Mescal, blessed relief to see her unscathed, pride in her fighting spirit--these came side by side with gratitude to the kind Nebraska rustler, strange deepening insight into Holderness's game, unextinguishable white-hot hatred of Snap Naab. And binding all was the ever-mounting will to rescue Mescal, which was held in check by an inexorable judgment; he must continue to wait. And he did wait with blind faith in the something to be, keeping ever in mind the last resort- -the rifle he clutched with eager hands. Meanwhile the darkness descended, the fire sent forth a brighter blaze, and the rustlers finished their supper. Mescal arose and stepped across the threshold of the cabin door.
"Hold on!" ordered Snap, as he approached with swift strides. "Stick out your hands!"
Some of the rustlers grumbled; and one blurted out: "Aw no, Snap, don't tie her up--no!"
"Who says no?" hissed the Mormon, with snapping teeth. As he wheeled upon them his Colt seemed to leap forward, and suddenly quivered at arm's-length, gleaming in the ruddy fire-rays.
Holderness laughed in the muzzle of the weapon. "Go ahead, Snap, tie up your lady love. What a tame little wife she's going to make you! Tie her up, but do it without hurting her."
The rustlers growled or laughed at their leader's order. Snap turned to his task. Mescal stood in the doorway and shrinkingly extended her clasped hands. Holderness whirled to the fire with a look which betrayed his game. Snap bound Mescal's hands securely, thrust her inside the cabin, and after hesitating for a long moment, finally shut the door.
"It's funny about a woman, now, ain't it?" said Nebraska, confidentially, to a companion. "One minnit she'll snatch you bald-headed; the next, she'll melt in your mouth like sugar. An' I'll be darned if the changeablest one ain't the kind to hold a feller longest. But it's h--1. I was married onct. Not any more for mine! A pal I had used to say thet whiskey riled him, thet rattlesnake pisen het up his blood some, but it took a woman to make him plumb bad. D__n if it ain't so. When there's a woman around there's somethin' allus comin' off."
But the strain, instead of relaxing, became portentous. Holderness suddenly showed he was ill at ease; he appeared to be expecting arrivals from the direction of Seeping Springs. Snap Naab leaned against the side of the door, his narrow gaze cunningly studying the rustlers before him. More than any other he had caught a foreshadowing. Like the desert-hawk he could see afar. Suddenly he pressed back against the door, half opening it while he faced the men.
"Stop!" commanded Holderness. The change in his voice was as if it had come from another man. "You don't go in there!"
"I'm going to take the girl and ride to White Sage," replied Naab, in slow deliberation.
"Bah! You say that only for the excuse to get into the cabin with her. You tried it last night and I blocked you. Shut the door, Naab, or something'll happen."
"There's more going to happen than ever you think of, Holderness. Don't interfere now, I'm going."
"Well, go ahead--but you won't take the girl!"
Snap Naab swung off the step, slamming the door behind him.
"So-ho!" he exclaimed, sneeringly. "That's why you've made me foreman, eh?" His claw-like hand moved almost imperceptibly upward while his pale eyes strove to pierce the strength behind Holderness's effrontery. The rustler chief had a trump card to play; one that showed in his sardonic smile.
"Naab, you don't get the girl."
"Maybe you'll get her?" hissed Snap.
"I always intended to."
Surely never before had passion driven Snap's hand to such speed. His Colt gleamed in the camp-fire light. Click! Click! Click! The hammer fell upon empty chambers.
"H--l!" he shrieked.
Holderness laughed sarcastically.
"That's where you're going!" he cried. "Here's to Naab's trick with a gun-- Bah!" And he shot his foreman through the heart.
Snap plunged upon his face. His hands beat the ground like the shuffling wings of a wounded partridge. His fingers gripped the dust, spread convulsively, straightened, and sank limp.
Holderness called through the door of the cabin. "Mescal, I've rid you of your would-be husband. Cheer-up!" Then, pointing to the fallen man, he said to the nearest bystanders: "Some of you drag that out for the coyotes."
The first fellow who bent over Snap happened to be the Nebraska rustler, and he curiously opened the breech of the six-shooter he picked up. "No shells!" he said. He pulled Snap's second Colt from his belt, and unbreeched that. "No shells! Well, d--n me!" He surveyed the group of grim men, not one of whom had any reply.
Holderness again laughed harshly, and turning to the cabin, he fastened the door with a lasso.
It was a long time before Hare recovered from the starting revelation of the plot which had put Mescal into Holderness's power. Bad as Snap Naab had been he would have married her, and such a fate was infinitely preferable to the one that now menaced her. Hare changed his position and settled himself to watch and wait out the night. Every hour Holderness and his men tarried at Silver Cup hastened their approaching doom. Hare's strange prescience of the fatality that overshadowed these men had received its first verification in the sudden taking off of Snap Naab. The deep-scheming Holderness, confident that his strong band meant sure protection, sat and smoked and smiled beside the camp-fire. He had not caught even a hint of Snap Naab's suggested warning. Yet somewhere out on the oasis trail rode a man who, once turned from the saving of life to the lust to kill, would be as immutable as death itself. Behind him waited a troop of Navajos, swift as eagles, merciless as wolves, desert warriors with the sunheated blood of generations in their veins. As Hare waited and watched with all his inner being cold, he could almost feel pity for Holderness. His doom was close. Twice, when the rustler chief had sauntered nearer to the cabin door, as if to enter, Hare had covered him with the rifle, waiting, waiting for the step upon the threshold. But Holderness always checked himself in time, and Hare's finger eased its pressure upon the trigger.
The night closed in black; the clouded sky gave forth no starlight; the wind rose and moaned through the cedars. One by one the rustlers rolled in their blankets and all dropped into slumber while the camp-fire slowly burned down. The night hours wore on to the soft wail of the breeze and the wild notes of far-off trailing coyotes.
Hare, watching sleeplessly, saw one of the prone figures stir. The man raised himself very cautiously; he glanced at his companions, and looked long at Holderness, who lay squarely in the dimming light. Then he softly lowered himself. Hare wondered what the rustler meant to do. Presently he again lifted his head and turned it as if listening intently. His companions were motionless in deep-breathing sleep. Gently he slipped aside his blankets and began to rise. He was slow and guarded of movement; it took him long to stand erect. He stepped between the rustlers with stockinged feet which were as noiseless as an Indian's, and he went toward the cabin door.
He softly edged round the sleeping Holderness, showing a glinting six-shooter in his hand. Hare's resolve to kill him before he reached the door was checked. What did it mean, this rustler's stealthy movements, his passing by Holderness with his drawn weapon! Again doom hovered over the rustler chief. If he stirred!--Hare knew instantly that this softly stepping man was a Mormon; he was true to Snap Naab, to the woman pledged in his creed. He meant to free Mescal.
If ever Hare breathed a prayer it was then. What if one of the band awakened! As the rustler turned at the door his dark face gleamed in the flickering light. He unwound the lasso and opened the door without a sound.
Hare whispered: "Heavens! if he goes in she'll scream! that will wake Holderness--then I must shoot--I must!"
But the Mormon rustler added wisdom to his cunning and stealth.
"Hist!" he whispered into the cabin. "Hist!"
Mescal must have been awake; she must have guessed instantly the meaning of that low whisper, for silently she appeared in the doorway, silently she held forth her bound hands. The man untied the bonds and pointed into the cedars toward the corral. Swift and soundless as a flitting shadow Mescal vanished in the gloom. The Mormon stole with wary, unhurried steps back to his bed and rolled in his blankets.
Hare rose unsteadily, wavering in the hot grip of a moment that seemed to have but one issue--the killing of Holderness. Mescal would soon be upon Silvermane, far out on the White Sage trail, and this time there would be no sand-strip to trap her. But Hare could not kill the rustler while he was sleeping; and he could not awaken him without revealing to his men the escape of the girl. Hare stood there on the bench, gazing down on the blanketed Holderness. Why not kill him now, ending forever his power, and trust to chance for the rest? No, no! Hare flung the temptation from him. To ward off pursuit as long as possible, to aid Mescal in every way to some safe hiding-place, and then to seek Holderness--that was the forethought of a man who had learned to wait.
Under the dark projection of the upper cliff Hare felt his way to the cedar slope, and the trail, and then he went swiftly down into the little hollow where he had left Bolly. The darkness of the forest hindered him, but he came at length to the edge of the aspen thicket; he penetrated it, and guided toward Bolly by a suspicious stamp and neigh, he found her and quieted her with a word. He rode down the hollow, out upon the level valley.
The clouds had broken somewhat, letting pale light down through rifts. All about him cattle were lying in a thick gloom. It was penetrable for only a few rods. The ground was like a cushion under Bolly's hoofs, giving forth no sound. The mustang threw up her head, causing Hare to peer into the night-fog. Rapid hoof-beats broke the silence, a vague gray shadow moved into sight. He saw Silvermane and called as loudly as he dared. The stallion melted into the misty curtain, the beating of hoofs softened and ceased. Hare spurred Bolly to her fleetest. He had a long, silent chase, but it was futile, and unnecessarily hard on the mustang; so he pulled her in to a trot.
Hare kept Bolly to this gait the remainder of the night, and when the eastern sky lightened he found the trail and reached Seeping Springs at dawn. Silvermane's tracks were deep in the clay at the drinking-trough. He rested a few moments, gave Bolly sparingly of grain and water, and once more took to the trail.
From the ridge below the spring he saw Silvermane beyond the valley, miles ahead of him. This day seemed shorter than the foregoing one; it passed while he watched Silvermane grow smaller and smaller and disappear on the looming slope of Coconina. Hare's fear that Mescal would run into the riders Holderness expected from his ranch grew less and less after she had reached the cover of the cedars. That she would rest the stallion at the Navajo pool on the mountain he made certain. Late in the night he came to the camping spot and found no trace to prove that she had halted there even to let Silvermane drink. So he tied the tired mustang and slept until daylight.
He crossed the plateau and began the descent. Before he was half-way down the warm bright sun had cleared the valley of vapor and shadow. Far along the winding white trail shone a speck. It was Silvermane almost out of sight.
"Ten miles--fifteen, more maybe," said Hare. "Mescal will soon be in the village."
Again hours of travel flew by like winged moments. Thoughts of time, distance, monotony, fatigue, purpose, were shut out from his mind. A rushing kaleidoscopic dance of images filled his consciousness, but they were all of Mescal. Safety for her had unsealed the fountain of happiness.
It was near sundown when he rode Black Bolly into White Sage, and took the back road, and the pasture lane to Bishop Caldwell's cottage. John, one of the Bishop's sons, was in the barn-yard and ran to open the gate.
"Mescal!" cried Hare.
"Safe," replied the Mormon.
"Have you hidden her?"
"She's in a secret cave, a Mormon hiding-place for women. Only a few men know of its existence. Rest easy, for she's absolutely safe."
"Thank God! . . . then that's settled." Hare drew a long, deep breath.
"Mescal told us what happened, how she got caught at the sand-strip and escaped from Holderness at Silver Cup. Was Dene hurt?"
"Silvermane killed him."
"Good God! How things come about! I saw you run Dene down that time here in White Sage. It must have been written. Did Holderness shoot Snap Naab?"
"What of old Naab? Won't he come down here now to lead us Mormons against the rustlers?"
"He called the Navajos across the river. He meant to take the trail alone and kill Holderness, keeping the Indians back a few days. If he failed to return then they were to ride out on the rustlers. But his plan must be changed, for I came ahead of him."
"For what? Mescal?"
"No. For Holderness."
"You'll kill him!"
"He'll be coming soon?--When?"
"To-morrow, possibly by daylight. He wants Mescal. There's a chance Naab may have reached Silver Cup before Holderness left, but I doubt it."
"May I know your plan?" The Mormon hesitated while his strong brown face flashed with daring inspiration. "I--I've a good reason."
"Plan?-- Yes. Hide Bolly and Silvermane in the little arbor down in the orchard. I'll stay outside to-night, sleep a little--for I'm dead tired- -and watch in the morning. Holderness will come here with his men, perhaps not openly at first, to drag Mescal away. He'll mean to use strategy. I'll meet him when he comes--that's all."
"It's well. I ask you not to mention this to my father. Come in, now. You need food and rest. Later I'll hide Bolly and Silvermane in the arbor."
Hare met the Bishop and his family with composure, but his arrival following so closely upon Mescal's, increased their alarm. They seemed repelled yet fascinated by his face. Hare ate in silence. John Caldwell did not come in to supper; his brothers mysteriously left the table before finishing the meal. A subdued murmur of voices floated in at the open window.
Darkness found Hare wrapped in a blanket under the trees. He needed sleep that would loose the strange deadlock of his thoughts, clear the blur from his eyes, ease the pain in his head and weariness of limbs--all these weaknesses of which he had suddenly become conscious. Time and again he had almost wooed slumber to him when soft footsteps on the gravel paths, low voices, the gentle closing of the gate, brought him back to the unreal listening wakefulness. The sounds continued late into the night, and when he did fall asleep he dreamed of them. He awoke to a dawn clearer than the light from the noonday sun. In his ears was the ringing of a bell. He could not stand still, and his movements were subtle and swift. His hands took a peculiar, tenacious, hold of everything he chanced to touch. He paced his hidden walk behind the arbor, at every turn glancing sharply up and down the road. Thoughts came to him clearly, yet one was dominant. The morning was curiously quiet, the sons of the Bishop had strangely disappeared--a sense of imminent catastrophe was in the air.
A band of horsemen closely grouped turned into the road and trotted forward. Some of the men wore black masks. Holderness rode at the front, his red-gold beard shining in the sunlight. The steady clip-crop of hoofs and clinking of iron stirrups broke the morning quiet. Holderness, with two of his men, dismounted before the Bishop's gate; the others of the band trotted on down the road. The ring of Holderness's laugh preceded the snap of the gate-latch.
Hare stood calm and cold behind his green covert watching the three men stroll up the garden path. Holderness took a cigarette from his lips as he neared the porch and blew out circles of white smoke. Bishop Caldwell tottered from the cottage rapping the porch-floor with his cane.
"Good-morning, Bishop," greeted Holderness, blandly, baring his head.
"To you, sir," quavered the old man, with his wavering blue eyes fixed on the spurred and belted rustler. Holderness stepped out in front of his companions, a superb man, courteous, smiling, entirely at his ease.
"I rode in to--"
Hare leaped from his hiding-place.
The rustler pivoted on whirling heels.
"Dene's spy!" he exclaimed, aghast. Swift changes swept his mobile features. Fear flickered in his eyes as he faced his foe; then came wonder, a glint of amusement, dark anger, and the terrible instinct of death impending.
"Naab's trick!" hissed Hare, with his hand held high. The suggestion in his words, the meaning in his look, held the three rustlers transfixed. The surprise was his strength.
In Holderness's amber eyes shone his desperate calculation of chances. Hare's fateful glance, impossible to elude, his strung form slightly crouched, his cold deliberate mention of Naab's trick, and more than all the poise of that quivering hand, filled the rustler with a terror that he could not hide.
He had been bidden to draw and he could not summon the force.
"Naab's trick!" repeated Hare, mockingly.
Suddenly Holderness reached for his gun.
Hare's hand leapt like a lightning stroke. Gleam of blue--spurt of red-- crash!
Holderness swayed with blond head swinging backward; the amber of his eyes suddenly darkened; the life in them glazed; like a log he fell clutching the weapon he had half drawn.