The Story of a Bad Boy

by Thomas Bailey Aldrich

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XXI. Mescal

SUMMER gleams of golden sunshine swam under the glistening red walls of the oasis. Shadows from white clouds, like sails on a deep-blue sea, darkened the broad fields of alfalfa. Circling columns of smoke were wafted far above the cottonwoods and floated in the still air. The desert-red color of Navajo blankets brightened the grove.

Half-naked bronze Indians lolled in the shade, lounged on the cabin porches and stood about the sunny glade in idle groups. They wore the dress of peace. A single black-tipped white eagle feather waved above the band binding each black head. They watched the merry children tumble round the playground. Silvermane browsed where he listed under the shady trees, and many a sinewy red hand caressed his flowing mane. Black Bolly neighed her jealous displeasure from the corral, and the other mustangs trampled and kicked and whistled defiance across the bars. The peacocks preened their gorgeous plumage and uttered their clarion calls. The belligerent turkey-gobblers sidled about ruffling their feathers. The blackbirds and swallows sang and twittered their happiness to find old nests in the branches and under the eaves. Over all boomed the dull roar of the Colorado in flood.

It was the morning of Mescal's wedding-day.

August Naab, for once without a task, sat astride a peeled log of driftwood in the lane, and Hare stood beside him.

"Five thousand steers, lad! Why do you refuse them? They're worth ten dollars a head to-day in Salt Lake City. A good start for a young man."

"No, I'm still in your debt."

"Then share alike with my sons in work and profit?"

"Yes, I can accept that."

"Good! Jack, I see happiness and prosperity for you. Do you remember that night on the White Sage trail? Ah! Well, the worst is over. We can look forward to better times. It's not likely the rustlers will ride into Utah again. But this desert will never be free from strife."

"Tell me of Mescal," said Hare.

"Ah! Yes, I'm coming to that." Naab bent his head over the log and chipped off little pieces with his knife." Jack, will you come into the Mormon Church?"

Long had Hare shrunk from this question which he felt must inevitably come, and now he met it as bravely as he could, knowing he would pain his friend.

"No, August, I can't," he replied. "I feel--differently from Mormons about--about women. If it wasn't for that! I look upon you as a father. I'll do anything for you, except that. No one could pray to be a better man than you. Your work, your religion, your life-- Why! I've no words to say what I feel. Teach me what little you can of them, August, but don't ask me--that."

"Well, well," sighed Naab. The gray clearness of his eagle eyes grew shadowed and his worn face was sad. It was the look of a strong wise man who seemed to hear doubt and failure knocking at the gate of his creed. But he loved life too well to be unhappy; he saw it too clearly not to know there was nothing wholly good, wholly perfect, wholly without error. The shade passed from his face like the cloud-shadow from the sunlit lane.

"You ask about Mescal," he mused. "There's little more to tell."

"But her father--can you tell me more of him?"

"Little more than I've already told. He was evidently a man of some rank. I suspected that he ruined his life and became an adventurer. His health was shattered when I brought him here, but he got well after a year or so. He was a splendid, handsome fellow. He spoke very seldom and I don't remember ever seeing him smile. His favorite walk was the river trail. I came upon him there one day, and found him dying. He asked me to have a care of Mescal. And he died muttering a Spanish word, a woman's name, I think."

"I'll cherish Mescal the more," said Hare.

"Cherish her, yes. My Bible will this day give her a name. We know she has the blood of a great chief. Beautiful she is and good. I raised her for the Mormon Church, but God disposes after all, and I--"

A shrill screeching sound split the warm stillness, the long-drawn-out bray of a burro.

"Jack, look down the lane. If it isn't Noddle!"

Under the shady line of the red wall a little gray burro came trotting leisurely along with one long brown ear standing straight up, the other hanging down over his nose.

"By George! it's Noddle!" exclaimed Hare. "He's climbed out of the canyon. Won't this please Mescal?"

"Hey, Mother Mary," called Naab toward the cabin. "Send Mescal out. Here's a wedding-present."

With laughing wonder the women-folk flocked out into the yard. Mescal hung back shy-eyed, roses dyeing the brown of her cheeks.

"Mescal's wedding-present from Thunder River. Just arrived!" called Naab cheerily, yet deep-voiced with the happiness he knew the tidings would give. "A dusty, dirty, shaggy, starved, lop-eared, lazy burro--Noddle!"

Mescal flew out into the lane, and with a strange broken cry of joy that was half a sob she fell upon her knees and clasped the little burro's neck. Noddle wearily flapped his long brown ears, wearily nodded his white nose; then evidently considering the incident closed, he went lazily to sleep.

"Noddle! dear old Noddle!" murmured Mescal, with far-seeing, thought-mirroring eyes. "For you to come back to-day from our canyon! . . . Oh! The long dark nights with the thunder of the river and the lonely voices! . . . they come back to me. . . . Wolf, Wolf, here's Noddle, the same faithful old Noddle!"

August Naab married Mescal and Hare at noon under the shade of the cottonwoods. Eschtah, magnificent in robes of state, stood up with them. The many members of Naab's family and the grave Navajos formed an attentive circle around them. The ceremony was brief. At its close the Mormon lifted his face and arms in characteristic invocation.

"Almighty God, we entreat Thy blessing upon this marriage. Many and inscrutable are Thy ways; strange are the workings of Thy will; wondrous the purpose with which Thou hast brought this man and this woman together. Watch over them in the new path they are to tread, help them in the trials to come; and in Thy good time, when they have reached the fulness of days, when they have known the joy of life and rendered their service, gather them to Thy bosom in that eternal home where we all pray to meet Thy chosen ones of good; yea, and the evil ones purified in Thy mercy. Amen."

Happy congratulations of the Mormon family, a merry romp of children flinging flowers, marriage-dance of singing Navajos--these, with the feast spread under the cottonwoods, filled the warm noon-hours of the day.

Then the chief Eschtah raised his lofty form, and turned his eyes upon the bride and groom.

"Eschtah's hundred summers smile in the face of youth. The arm of the White Chief is strong; the kiss of the Flower of the Desert is sweet. Let Mescal and Jack rest their heads on one pillow, and sleep under the trees, and chant when the dawn brightens in the east. Out of his wise years the Navajo bids them love while they may. Daughter of my race, take the blessing of the Navajo."

Jack lifted Mescal upon Black Bolly and mounted Silvermane. Piute grinned till he shook his earrings and started the pack burros toward the plateau trail. Wolf pattered on before, turning his white head, impatient of delay. Amid tears and waving of hands and cheers they began the zigzag ascent.

When they reached the old camp on the plateau the sun was setting behind the Painted Desert. With hands closely interwoven they watched the color fade and the mustering of purple shadows.

Twilight fell. Piute raked the red coals from the glowing centre of the camp-fire. Wolf crouched all his long white length, his sharp nose on his paws, watching Mescal. Hare watched her, too. The night shone in her eyes, the light of the fire, the old brooding mystic desert-spirit, and something more. The thump of Silvermane's hobbled hoofs was heard in the darkness; Bolly's bell jangled musically. The sheep were bleating. A lonesome coyote barked. The white stars blinked out of the blue and the night breeze whispered softly among the cedars.

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