"JACK! the saddle's slipping!" cried Mescal, clinging closer to him. "What luck!" Hare muttered through clinched teeth, and pulled hard on the bridle. But the mouth of the stallion was iron; regardless of the sawing bit, he galloped on. Hare called steadily: "Whoa there, Silver! Whoa-- slow now--whoa--easy!" and finally halted him. Hare swung down, and as he lifted Mescal off, the saddle slipped to the ground.
"Lucky not to get a spill! The girth snapped. It was wet, and dried out." Hare hurriedly began to repair the break with buckskin thongs that he found in a saddle-bag.
"Listen! Hear the yells!" Oh! hurry!" cried Mescal.
"I've never ridden bareback. Suppose you go ahead with Silver, and I'll hide in the cedars till dark, then walk home!"
"No--No. There's time, but hurry."
"It's got to be strong," muttered Hare, holding the strap over his knee and pulling the laced knot with all his strength, "for we'll have to ride some. If it comes loose--Good-bye!"
Silvermane's broad chest muscles rippled and he stamped restlessly. The dog whined and looked back. Mescal had the blanket smooth on the gray when Hare threw the saddle over him. The yells had ceased, but clattering hoofs on the stony trail were a greater menace. While Hare's brown hands worked swiftly over buckle and strap Mescal climbed to a seat behind the saddle.
"Get into the saddle," said Hare, leaping astride and pressing forward over the pommel. "Slip down--there! and hold to me. Go! Silver!"
The rapid pounding of the stallion's hoofs drowned the clatter coming up the trail. A backward glance relieved Hare, for dust-clouds some few hundred yards in the rear showed the position of the pursuing horsemen. He held in Silvermane to a steady gallop. The trail was up-hill, and steep enough to wind even a desert racer, if put to his limit.
"Look back!" cried Mescal. "Can you see them? Is Snap with them?"
"I can't see for trees," replied Hare, over his shoulder. "There's dust- -we're far in the lead--never fear, Mescal. The lead's all we want."
Cedars grew thickly all the way up the steeper part of the divide, and ended abruptly at a pathway of stone, where the ascent became gradual. When Silvermane struck out of the grove upon this slope Hare kept turning keen glances rearward. The dust cloud rolled to the edge of the cedars, and out of it trooped half-a-dozen horsemen who began to shoot as soon as they had reached the open. Bullets zipped along the red stone, cutting little puffs of red dust, and sung through the air.
"Good God!" cried Hare. "They're firing on us! They'd shoot a woman!"
"Has it taken you so long to learn that?"
Hare slashed his steed with the switch. But Silvermane needed no goad or spur; he had been shot at before, and the whistle of one bullet was sufficient to stretch his gallop into a run. Then distance between him and his pursuers grew wider and wider and soon he was out of range. The yells of the rustlers seemed at first to come from baffled rage, but Mescal's startled cry shoveled their meaning. Other horsemen appeared ahead and to the right of him, tearing down the ridge to the divide. Evidently they had been returning from the western curve of Coconina.
The direction in which Silvermane was stretching was the only possible one for Hare. If he swerved off the trail to the left it would be upon rough rising ground. Not only must he outride this second band to the point where the trail went down on the other side of the divide, but also he must get beyond it before they came within rifle range.
"Now! Silver! Go! Go!" Fast as the noble stallion was speeding he answered to the call. He was in the open now, free of stones and brush, with the spang of rifles in the air. The wind rushed into Hare's ears, filling them with a hollow roar; the ground blurred by in reddish sheets. The horsemen cut down the half mile to a quarter, lessened that, swept closer and closer, till Hare recognized Chance and Culver, and Snap Naab on his cream-colored pinto. Seeing that they could not head the invincible stallion they sheered more to the right. But Silvermane thundered on, crossing the line ahead of them at full three hundred yards, and went over the divide, drawing them in behind dime
Then, at the sharp crack of the rifles, leaden messengers whizzed high in the air over horse and riders, and skipped along the red shale in front of the running dog.
"Oh--Silvermane!" cried Hare. It was just a call, as if the horse were human, and knew what that pace meant to his master. The stern business of the race had ceased to rest on Hare. Silvermane was out to the front! He was like a level-rushing thunderbolt. Hare felt the instantaneous pause between his long low leaps, the gather of mighty muscles, the strain, the tension, then the quivering expulsion of force. It was a perilous ride down that red slope, not so much from the hissing bullets as from the washes and gullies which Silvermane sailed over in magnificent leaps. Hare thrilled with savage delight in the wonderful prowess of his desert king, in the primal instinct of joy at escaping with the woman he loved.
"Outrun!" he cried, with blazing eyes. Mescal's white face was pressed close to his shoulder. "Silver has beaten them. They'll hang on till we reach the sand-strip, hoping the slow-down will let them come up in time. But they'll be far too late."
The rustlers continued on the trail, firing desultorily, till Silvermane so far distanced them that even the necessary lapse into a walk in the red sand placed him beyond range when they arrived at the strip.
"They've turned back, Mescal. We're safe. Why, you look as you did the day the bear ran for you."
"I'd rather a bear got me than Snap. Jack, did you see him?"
"See him? Rather! I'll bet he nearly killed his pinto. Mescal, what do you think of Silvermane now? Can he run? Can he outrun Bolly?"
"Yes--yes. Oh! Jack! how I'll love him! Look back again. Are we safe? Will we ever be safe?"
It was still daylight when they rounded the portal of the oasis and entered the lane with the familiar wall on one side, the peeled fence-pickets on the other. Wolf dashed on ahead, and presently a chorus of barks announced that he had been met by the other dogs. Silvermane neighed shrilly, and the horses and mustangs in the corrals trooped noisily to the lower sides and hung inquisitive heads over the top bars.
A Navajo whom Hare remembered stared with axe idle by the woodpile, then Judith Naab dropped a bundle of sticks and with a cry of gladness ran from the house. Before Silvermane had come to a full stop Mescal was off. She put her arms around his neck and kissed him, then she left Judith to dart to the corral where a little black mustang had begun to whistle and stamp and try to climb over the bars.
August Naab, bareheaded, with shaggy locks shaking at every step, strode off the porch and his great hands lifted Hare from the saddle.
"Every day I've watched the river for you," he said. His eyes were warm and his grasp like a vise.
"Mescal--child!" he continued, as she came running to him. "Safe and well. He's brought you back. Thank the Lord!" He took her to his breast and bent his gray head over her.
Then the crowd of big and little Naabs burst from the house and came under the cottonwoods to offer noisy welcome to Mescal and Hare.
"Jack, you look done up," said Dave Naab solicitously, when the first greetings had been spoken, and Mother Ruth had led Mescal indoors. "Silvermane, too--he's wet and winded. He's been running?"
"Yes, a little," replied Hare, as he removed the saddle from the weary horse.
"Ah! What's this?" questioned August Naab, with his hand on Silvermane's flank. He touched a raw groove, and the stallion flinched. "Hare, a bullet made that!"
"Then you didn't ride in by the Navajo crossing?"
"No. I came by Silver Cup."
"Silver Cup? How on earth did you get down there?"
"We climbed out of the canyon up over Coconina, and so made the spring."
Naab whistled in surprise and he flashed another keen glance over Hare and his horse. "Your story can wait. I know about what it is--after you reached Silver Cup. Come in, come in, Dave will look out for the stallion."
But Hare would allow no one else to attend to Silvermane. He rubbed the tired gray, gave him a drink at the trough, led him to the corral, and took leave of him with a caress like Mescal's. Then he went to his room and bathed himself and changed his clothes, afterward presenting himself at the supper-table to eat like one famished. Mescal and he ate alone, as they had been too late for the regular hour. The women-folk waited upon them as if they could not do enough. There were pleasant words and smiles; but in spite of them something sombre attended the meal. There was a shadow in each face, each step was slow, each voice subdued. Naab and his sons were waiting for Hare when he entered the sitting room, and after his entrance the door was closed. They were all quiet and stern, especially the father. "Tell us all," said Naab, simply.
While Hare was telling his adventures not a word or a move interrupted him till he spoke of Silvermane's running Dene down.
"That's the second time!" rolled out Naab. "The stallion will kill him yet!"
Hare finished his story.
"What don't you owe to that whirlwind of a horse!" exclaimed Dave Naab. No other comment on Hare or Silvermane was offered by the Naabs.
"You knew Holderness had taken in Silver Cup?" inquired Hare.
August Naab nodded gloomily.
"I guess we knew it," replied Dave for him. "While I was in White Sage and the boys were here at home, Holderness rode to the spring and took possession. I called to see him on my way back, but he wasn't around. Snap was there, the boss of a bunch of riders. Dene, too, was there."
"Did you go right into camp?" asked Hare.
"Sure. I was looking for Holderness. There were eighteen or twenty riders in the bunch. I talked to several of them, Mormons, good fellows, they used to be. Also I had some words with Dene. He said: 'I shore was sorry Snap got to my spy first. I wanted him bad, an' I'm shore goin' to have his white horse.' Snap and Dene, all of them, thought you were number thirty-one in dad's cemetery."
"Not yet," said Hare. "Dene certainly looked as if he saw a ghost when Silvermane jumped for him. Well, he's at Silver Cup now. They're all there. What's to be done about it? They're openly thieves. The new brand on all your stock proves that."
"Such a trick we never heard of," replied August Naab. "If we had we might have spared ourselves the labor of branding the stock."
"But that new brand of Holderness's upon yours proves his guilt."
"It's not now a question of proof. It's one of possession. Holderness has stolen my water and my stock."
"They are worse than rustlers; firing on Mescal and me proves that."
"Why didn't you unlimber the long rifle?" interposed Dave, curiously.
"I got it full of water and sand. That reminds me I must see about cleaning it. I never thought of shooting back. Silvermane was running too fast."
"Jack, you can see I am in the worst fix of my life," said August Naab. "My sons have persuaded me that I was pushed off my ranges too easily. I've come to believe Martin Cole; certainly his prophecy has come true. Dave brought news from White Sage, and it's almost unbelievable. Holderness has proclaimed himself or has actually got himself elected sheriff. He holds office over the Mormons from whom he steals. Scarcely a day goes by in the village without a killing. The Mormons north of Lund finally banded together, hanged some rustlers, and drove the others out. Many of them have come down into our country, and Holderness now has a strong force. But the Mormons will rise against him. I know it; I see it. I am waiting for it. We are God-fearing, life-loving men, slow to wrath. But--"
The deep rolling burr in his voice showed emotion too deep for words.
"They need a leader," replied Hare, sharply.
August Naab rose with haggard face and his eyes had the look of a man accused.
"Dad figures this way," put in Dave. "On the one hand we lose our water and stock without bloodshed. We have a living in the oasis. There's little here to attract rustlers, so we may live in peace if we give up our rights. On the other hand, suppose Dad gets the Navajos down here and we join them and go after Holderness and his gang. There's going to be an all-fired bloody fight. Of course we'd wipe out the rustlers, but some of us would get killed--and there are the wives and kids. See!"
The force of August Naab's argument for peace, entirely aside from his Christian repugnance to the shedding of blood, was plainly unassailable.
"Remember what Snap said?" asked Hare, suddenly. "One man to kill Dene! Therefore one man to kill Holderness! That would break the power of this band."
"Ah! you've said it," replied Dave, raising a tense arm. "It's a one-man job. D--n Snap! He could have done it, if he hadn't gone to the bad. But it won't be easy. I tried to get Holderness. He was wise, and his men politely said they had enjoyed my call, but I wasn't to come again."
"One man to kill Holderness!" repeated Hare.
August Naab cast at the speaker one of his far-seeing glances; then he shook himself, as if to throw off the grip of something hard and inevitable. "I'm still master here," he said, and his voice showed the conquest of his passions.
"I give up Silver Cup and my stock. Maybe that will content Holderness."
Some days went by pleasantly for Hare, as he rested from his long exertions. Naab's former cheer and that of his family reasserted itself once the decision was made, and the daily life went on as usual. The sons worked in the fields by day, and in the evening played at pitching horseshoes on the bare circle where the children romped. The women went on baking, sewing, and singing. August Naab's prayers were more fervent than ever, and he even prayed for the soul of the man who had robbed him. Mescal's cheeks soon rounded out to their old contour and her eyes shone with a happier light than Hare had ever seen there. The races between Silvermane and Black Bolly were renewed on the long stretch under the wall, and Mescal forgot that she had once acknowledged the superiority of the gray. The cottonwoods showered silken floss till the cabins and grass were white; the birds returned to the oasis; the sun kissed warm color into the cherries, and the distant noise of the river seemed like the humming of a swarm of bees.
"Here, Jack," said August Naab, one morning, "get a spade and come with me. There's a break somewhere in the ditch."
Hare went with him out along the fence by the alfalfa fields, and round the corner of red wall toward the irrigating dam.
"Well, Jack, I suppose you'll be asking me for Mescal one of these days," said Naab.
"Yes," replied Hare.
"There's a little story to tell you about Mescal, when the day comes."
"Tell it now."
"No. Not yet. I'm glad you found her. I never knew her to be so happy, not even when she was a child. But somehow there's a better feeling between her and my womenfolk. The old antagonism is gone. Well, well, life is so. I pray that things may turn out well for you and her. But I fear--I seem to see--Hare, I'm a poor man once more. I can't do for you what I'd like. Still we'll see, we'll hope."
Hare was perfectly happy. The old Mormon's hint did not disturb him; even the thought of Snap Naab did not return to trouble his contentment. The full present was sufficient for Hare, and his joy bubbled over, bringing smiles to August's grave face. Never had a summer afternoon in the oasis been so fair. The green fields, the red walls, the blue sky, all seemed drenched in deeper, richer hues. The wind-song in the crags, the river-murmur from the canyon, filled Hare's ears with music. To be alive, to feel the sun, to see the colors, to hear the sounds, was beautiful; and to know that Mescal awaited him, was enough.
Work on the washed-out bank of the ditch had not gone far when Naab raised his head as if listening.
"Did you hear anything?" he asked.
"No," replied Hare.
"The roar of the river is heavy here. Maybe I was mistaken. I thought I heard shots." Then he went on spading clay into the break, but he stopped every moment or so, uneasily, as if he could not get rid of some disturbing thought. Suddenly he dropped the spade and his eyes flashed.
"Judith! Judith! Here!" he called. Wheeling with a sudden premonition of evil Hare saw the girl running along the wall toward them. Her face was white as death; she wrung her hands and her cries rose above the sound of the river. Naab sprang toward her and Hare ran at his heels.
"Father!-- Father!" she panted. "Come--quick--the rustlers!--the rustlers! Snap!--Dene--Oh--hurry! They've killed Dave--they've got Mescal!"
Death itself shuddered through Hare's veins and then a raging flood of fire. He bounded forward to be flung back by Naab's arm.
"Fool! Would you throw away your life? Go slowly. We'll slip through the fields, under the trees."
Sick and cold Hare hurried by Naab's side round the wall and into the alfalfa. There were moments when he was weak and trembling; others when he could have leaped like a tiger to rend and kill.
They left the fields and went on more cautiously into the grove. The screaming and wailing of women added certainty to their doubt and dread.
"I see only the women--the children--no--there's a man--Zeke," said Hare, bending low to gaze under the branches.
"Go slow," muttered Naab.
"The rustlers rode off--after Mescal--she's gone!" panted Judith.
Hare, spurred by the possibilities in the half-crazed girl's speech, cast caution to the winds and dashed forward into the glade. Naab's heavy steps thudded behind him.
In the corner of the porch scared and stupefied children huddled in a heap. George and Billy bent over Dave, who sat white-faced against the steps. Blood oozed through the fingers pressed to his breast. Zeke was trying to calm the women.
"My God! Dave!" cried Hare. "You're not hard hit? Don't say it!"
"Hard hit--Jack--old fellow," replied Dave, with a pale smile. His face was white and clammy.
August Naab looked once at him and groaned, "My son! My son!"
"Dad--I got Chance and Culver--there they lie in the road--not bungled, either!"
Hare saw the inert forms of two men lying near the gate; one rested on his face, arm outstretched with a Colt gripped in the stiff hand; the other lay on his back, his spurs deep in the ground, as if driven there in his last convulsion.
August Naab and Zeke carried the injured man into the house. The women and children followed, and Hare, with Billy and George, entered last.
"Dad--I'm shot clean through--low down," said Dave, as they laid him on a couch. "It's just as well I--as any one--somebody had to--start this fight."
Naab got the children and the girls out of the room. The women were silent now, except Dave's wife, who clung to him with low moans. He smiled upon all with a quick intent smile, then he held out a hand to Hare.
"Jack, we got--to be--good friends. Don't forget--that--when you meet-- Holderness. He shot me--from behind Chance and Culver--and after I fell- -I killed them both--trying to get him. You--won't hang up--your gun-- again--will you?"
Hare wrung the cold hand clasping his so feebly. "No! Dave, no!" Then he fled from the room. For an hour he stood on the porch waiting in dumb misery. George and Zeke came noiselessly out, followed by their father.
"It's all over, Hare." Another tragedy had passed by this man of the desert, and left his strength unshaken, but his deadly quiet and the gloom of his iron face were more terrible to see than any grief.
"Father, and you, Hare, come out into the road," said George.
Another motionless form lay beyond Chance and Culver. It was that of a slight man, flat on his back, his arms wide, his long black hair in the dust. Under the white level brow the face had been crushed into a bloody curve.
"Dene!" burst from Hare, in a whisper.
"Killed by a horse!" exclaimed August Naab. "Ah! What horse?"
"Silvermane!" replied George.
"Who rode my horse--tell me--quick!" cried Hare, in a frenzy.
"It was Mescal. Listen. Let me tell you how it all happened. I was out at the forge when I heard a bunch of horses coming up the lane. I wasn't packing my gun, but I ran anyway. When I got to the house there was Dave facing Snap, Dene, and a bunch of rustlers. I saw Chance at first, but not Holderness. There must have been twenty men.
"'I came after Mescal, that's what,' Snap was saying.
"'You can't have her,' Dave answered.
"'We'll shore take her, an' we want Silvermane, too,' said Dene.
"'So you're a horse-thief as well as a rustler?' asked Dave.
"'Naab, I ain't in any mind to fool. Snap wants the girl, an' I want Silvermane, an' that damned spy that come back to life.'
"Then Holderness spoke from the back of the crowd: 'Naab, you'd better hurry, if you don't want the house burned!'
"Dave drew and Holderness fired from behind the men. Dave fell, raised up and shot Chance and Culver, then dropped his gun.
"With that the women in the house began to scream, and Mescal ran out saying she'd go with Snap if they'd do no more harm.
"'All right,' said Snap, 'get a horse, hurry--hurry!'
"Then Dene dismounted and went toward the corral saying, 'I shore want Silvermane.'
"Mescal reached the gate ahead of Dene. 'Let me get Silvermane. He's wild; he doesn't know you; he'll kick you if you go near him.' She dropped the bars and went up to the horse. He was rearing and snorting. She coaxed him down and then stepped up on the fence to untie him. When she had him loose she leaped off the fence to his back, screaming as she hit him with the halter. Silvermane snorted and jumped, and in three jumps he was going like a bullet. Dene tried to stop him, and was knocked twenty feet. He was raising up when the stallion ran over him. He never moved again. Once in the lane Silvermane got going--Lord! how he did run! Mescal hung low over his neck like an Indian. He was gone in a cloud of dust before Snap and the rustlers knew what had happened. Snap came to first and, yelling and waving his gun, spurred down the lane. The rest of the rustlers galloped after him."
August Naab placed a sympathetic hand on Hare's shaking shoulder.
"You see, lad, things are never so bad as they seem at first. Snap might as well try to catch a bird as Silvermane."