The Story of a Bad Boy

by Thomas Bailey Aldrich

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XVIII. The Heritage of the Desert

"MESCAL'S far out in front by this time. Depend on it, Hare," went on Naab. "That trick was the cunning Indian of her. She'll ride Silvermane into White Sage to-morrow night. Then she'll hide from Snap. The Bishop will take care of her. She'll be safe for the present in White Sage. Now we must bury these men. To-morrow--my son. Then--"

"What then?" Hare straightened up.

Unutterable pain darkened the flame in the Mormon's gaze. For an instant his face worked spasmodically, only to stiffen into a stony mask. It was the old conflict once more, the never-ending war between flesh and spirit. And now the flesh had prevailed.

"The time has come!" said George Naab.

"Yes," replied his father, harshly.

A great calm settled over Hare; his blood ceased to race, his mind to riot; in August Naab's momentous word he knew the old man had found himself. At last he had learned the lesson of the desert--to strike first and hard.

"Zeke, hitch up a team," said August Naab. "No--wait a moment. Here comes Piute. Let's hear what he has to say."

Piute appeared on the zigzag cliff-trail, driving a burro at dangerous speed.

"He's sighted Silvermane and the rustlers," suggested George, as the shepherd approached.

Naab translated the excited Indian's mingling of Navajo and Piute languages to mean just what George had said. "Snap ahead of riders-- Silvermane far, far ahead of Snap--running fast--damn!"

"Mescal's pushing him hard to make the sand-strip," said George.

"Piute--three fires to-night--Lookout Point!" This order meant the execution of August Naab's hurry-signal for the Navajos, and after he had given it, he waved the Indian toward the cliff, and lapsed into a silence which no one dared to break.

Naab consigned the bodies of the rustlers to the famous cemetery under the red wall. He laid Dene in grave thirty-one. It was the grave that the outlaw had promised as the last resting-place of Dene's spy. Chance and Culver he buried together. It was noteworthy that no Mormon rites were conferred on Culver, once a Mormon in good standing, nor were any prayers spoken over the open graves.

What did August Naab intend to do? That was the question in Hare's mind as he left the house. It was a silent day, warm as summer, though the sun was overcast with gray clouds; the birds were quiet in the trees; there was no bray of burro or clarion-call of peacock, even the hum of the river had fallen into silence. Hare wandered over the farm and down the red lane, brooding over the issue. Naab's few words had been full of meaning; the cold gloom so foreign to his nature, had been even more impressive. His had been the revolt of the meek. The gentle, the loving, the administering, the spiritual uses of his life had failed.

Hare recalled what the desert had done to his own nature, how it had bred in him its impulse to fight, to resist, to survive. If he, a stranger of a few years, could be moulded in the flaming furnace of its fiery life, what then must be the cast of August Naab, born on the desert, and sleeping five nights out of seven on the sands for sixty years?

The desert! Hare trembled as he grasped all its meaning. Then he slowly resolved that meaning. There were the measureless distances to narrow the eye and teach restraint; the untrodden trails, the shifting sands, the thorny brakes, the broken lava to pierce the flesh; the heights and depths, unscalable and unplumbed. And over all the sun, red and burning.

The parched plants of the desert fought for life, growing far apart, sending enormous roots deep to pierce the sand and split the rock for moisture, arming every leaf with a barbed thorn or poisoned sap, never thriving and ever thirsting.

The creatures of the desert endured the sun and lived without water, and were at endless war. The hawk had a keener eye than his fellow of more fruitful lands, sharper beak, greater spread of wings, and claws of deeper curve. For him there was little to eat, a rabbit now, a rock-rat then; nature made his swoop like lightning and it never missed its aim. The gaunt wolf never failed in his sure scent, in his silent hunt. The lizard flicked an invisible tongue into the heart of a flower; and the bee he caught stung with a poisoned sting. The battle of life went to the strong.

So the desert trained each of its wild things to survive. No eye of the desert but burned with the flame of the sun. To kill or to escape death- -that was the dominant motive. To fight barrenness and heat--that was stern enough, but each creature must fight his fellow.

What then of the men who drifted into the desert and survived? They must of necessity endure the wind and heat, the drouth and famine; they must grow lean and hard, keen-eyed and silent. The weak, the humble, the sacrificing must be winnowed from among them. As each man developed he took on some aspect of the desert--Holderness had the amber clearness of its distances in his eyes, its deceit in his soul; August Naab, the magnificence of the desert-pine in his giant form, its strength in his heart; Snap Naab, the cast of the hawk-beak in his face, its cruelty in his nature. But all shared alike in the common element of survival-- ferocity. August Naab had subdued his to the promptings of a Christ-like spirit; yet did not his very energy, his wonderful tirelessness, his will to achieve, his power to resist, partake of that fierceness? Moreover, after many struggles, he too had been overcome by the desert's call for blood. His mystery was no longer a mystery. Always in those moments of revelation which he disclaimed, he had seen himself as faithful to the desert in the end.

Hare's slumbers that night were broken. He dreamed of a great gray horse leaping in the sky from cloud to cloud with the lightning and the thunder under his hoofs, the storm-winds sweeping from his silver mane. He dreamed of Mescal's brooding eyes. They were dark gateways of the desert open only to him, and he entered to chase the alluring stars deep into the purple distance. He dreamed of himself waiting in serene confidence for some unknown thing to pass. He awakened late in the morning and found the house hushed. The day wore on in a repose unstirred by breeze and sound, in accord with the mourning of August Naab. At noon a solemn procession wended its slow course to the shadow of the red cliff, and as solemnly returned.

Then a long-drawn piercing Indian whoop broke the midday hush. It heralded the approach of the Navajos. In single-file they rode up the lane, and when the falcon-eyed Eschtah dismounted before his white friend, the line of his warriors still turned the corner of the red wall. Next to the chieftain rode Scarbreast, the grim war-lord of the Navajos. His followers trailed into the grove. Their sinewy bronze bodies, almost naked, glistened wet from the river. Full a hundred strong were they, a silent, lean-limbed desert troop.

"The White Prophet's fires burned bright," said the chieftain. "Eschtah is here."

"The Navajo is a friend," replied Naab. "The white man needs counsel and help. He has fallen upon evil days."

"Eschtah sees war in the eyes of his friend."

"War, chief, war! Let the Navajo and his warriors rest and eat. Then we shall speak."

A single command from the Navajo broke the waiting files of warriors. Mustangs were turned into the fields, packs were unstrapped from the burros, blankets spread under the cottonwoods. When the afternoon waned and the shade from the western wall crept into the oasis, August Naab came from his cabin clad in buckskins, with a large blue Colt swinging handle outward from his left hip. He ordered his sons to replenish the fire which had been built in the circle, and when the fierce-eyed Indians gathered round the blaze he called to his women to bring meat and drink.

Hare's unnatural calmness had prevailed until he saw Naab stride out to front the waiting Indians. Then a ripple of cold passed over him. He leaned against a tree in the shadow and watched the gray-faced giant stalking to and fro before his Indian friends. A long while he strode in the circle of light to pause at length before the chieftains and to break the impressive silence with his deep voice.

"Eschtah sees before him a friend stung to his heart. Men of his own color have long injured him, yet have lived. The Mormon loved his fellows and forgave. Five sons he laid in their graves, yet his heart was not hardened. His first-born went the trail of the fire-water and is an outcast from his people. Many enemies has he and one is a chief. He has killed the white man's friends, stolen his cattle, and his water. To-day the white man laid another son in his grave. What thinks the chief? Would he not crush the scorpion that stung him?"

The old Navajo answered in speech which, when translated, was as stately as the Mormon's.

"Eschtah respects his friend, but he has not thought him wise. The White Prophet sees visions of things to come, but his blood is cold. He asks too much of the white man's God. He is a chief; he has an eye like the lightning, an arm strong as the pine, yet he has not struck. Eschtah grieves. He does not wish to shed blood for pleasure. But Eschtah's friend has let too many selfish men cross his range and drink at his springs. Only a few can live on the desert. Let him who has found the springs and the trails keep them for his own. Let him who came too late go away to find for himself, to prove himself a warrior, or let his bones whiten in the sand. The Navajo counsels his white friend to kill."

"The great Eschtah speaks wise words," said Naab. "The White Prophet is richer for them. He will lay aside the prayers to his unseeing God, and will seek his foe."

"It is well."

"The white man's foe is strong," went on the Mormon; "he has many men, they will fight. If Eschtah sends his braves with his friend there will be war. Many braves will fall. The White Prophet wishes to save them if he can. He will go forth alone to kill his foe. If the sun sets four times and the white man is not here, then Eschtah will send his great war-chief and his warriors. They will kill whom they find at the white man's springs. And thereafter half of all the white man's cattle that were stolen shall be Eschtah's, so that he watch over the water and range."

"Eschtah greets a chief," answered the Indian. "The White Prophet knows he will kill his enemy, but he is not sure he will return. He is not sure that the little braves of his foe will fly like the winds, yet he hopes. So he holds the Navajo back to the last. Eschtah will watch the sun set four times. If his white friend returns he will rejoice. If he does not return the Navajo will send his warriors on the trail."

August Naab walked swiftly from the circle of light into the darkness; his heavy steps sounded on the porch, and in the hallway. His three sons went toward their cabins with bowed heads and silent tongues. Eschtah folded his blanket about him and stalked off into the gloom of the grove, followed by his warriors.

Hare remained in the shadow of the cottonwood where he had stood unnoticed. He had not moved a muscle since he had heard August Naab's declaration. That one word of Naab's intention, "Alone!" had arrested him. For it had struck into his heart and mind. It had paralyzed him with the revelation it brought; for Hare now knew as he had never known anything before, that he would forestall August Naab, avenge the death of Dave, and kill the rustler Holderness. Through blinding shock he passed slowly into cold acceptance of his heritage from the desert.

The two long years of his desert training were as an open page to Hare's unveiled eyes. The life he owed to August Naab, the strength built up by the old man's knowledge of the healing power of plateau and range--these lay in a long curve between the day Naab had lifted him out of the White Sage trail and this day of the Mormon's extremity. A long curve with Holderness's insulting blow at the beginning, his murder of a beloved friend at the end! For Hare remembered the blow, and never would he forget Dave's last words. Yet unforgetable as these were, it was duty rather than revenge that called him. This was August Naab's hour of need. Hare knew himself to be the tool of inscrutable fate; he was the one to fight the old desert-scarred Mormon's battle. Hare recalled how humbly he had expressed his gratitude to Naab, and the apparent impossibility of ever repaying him, and then Naab's reply: "Lad, you can never tell how one man may repay another." Hare could pay his own debt and that of the many wanderers who had drifted across the sands to find a home with the Mormon. These men stirred in their graves, and from out the shadow of the cliff whispered the voice of Mescal's nameless father: "Is there no one to rise up for this old hero of the desert?"

Softly Hare slipped into his room. Putting on coat and belt and catching up his rifle he stole out again stealthily, like an Indian. In the darkness of the wagon-shed he felt for his saddle, and finding it, he groped with eager hands for the grain-box; raising the lid he filled a measure with grain, and emptied it into his saddle-bag. Then lifting the saddle he carried it out of the yard, through the gate and across the lane to the corrals. The wilder mustangs in the far corral began to kick and snort, and those in the corral where Black Bolly was kept trooped noisily to the bars. Bolly whinnied and thrust her black muzzle over the fence. Hare placed a caressing hand on her while he waited listening and watching. It was not unusual for the mustangs to get restless at any time, and Hare was confident that this would pass without investigation.

Gradually the restless stampings and suspicious snortings ceased, and Hare, letting down the bars, led Bolly out into the lane. It was the work of a moment to saddle her; his bridle hung where he always kept it, on the pommel, and with nimble fingers he shortened the several straps to fit Bolly's head, and slipped the bit between her teeth. Then he put up the bars of the gate.

Before mounting he stood a moment thinking coolly, deliberately numbering the several necessities he must not forget--grain for Bolly, food for himself, his Colt and Winchester, cartridges, canteen, matches, knife. He inserted a hand into one of his saddle-bags expecting to find some strips of meat. The bag was empty. He felt in the other one, and under the grain he found what he sought. The canteen lay in the coil of his lasso tied to the saddle, and its heavy canvas covering was damp to his touch. With that he thrust the long Winchester into its saddle-sheath, and swung his leg over the mustang.

The house of the Naabs was dark and still. The dying council-fire cast flickering shadows under the black cottonwoods where the Navajos slept. The faint breeze that rustled the leaves brought the low sullen roar of the river.

Hare guided Bolly into the thick dust of the lane, laid the bridle loosely on her neck for her to choose the trail, and silently rode out into the lonely desert night.


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