AUGUST NAAB appeared on the path leading from his fields.
"Mescal, here you are," he greeted. "How about the sheep?"
"Piute's driving them down to the lower range. There are a thousand coyotes hanging about the flock."
"That's bad," rejoined August." Jack, there's evidently some real shooting in store for you. We'll pack to-day and get an early start to-morrow. I'll put you on Noddle; he's slow, but the easiest climber I ever owned. He's like riding . . . What's the matter with you? What's happened to make you angry?"
One of his long strides spanned the distance between them.
"Oh, nothing," said Hare, flushing.
"Lad, I know of few circumstances that justify a lie. You've met Snap."
Hare might still have tried to dissimulate; but one glance at August's stern face showed the uselessness of it. He kept silent.
"Drink makes my son unnatural," said Naab. He breathed heavily as one in conflict with wrath. "We'll not wait till to-morrow to go up on the plateau; we'll go at once."
Then quick surprise awakened for Hare in the meaning in Mescal's eyes; he caught only a fleeting glimpse, a dark flash, and it left him with a glow of an emotion half pleasure, half pain.
"Mescal," went on August, "go into the house, and keep out of Snap's way. Jack, watch me pack. You need to learn these things. I could put all this outfit on two burros, but the trail is narrow, and a wide pack might bump a burro off. Let's see, I've got all your stuff but the saddle; that we'll leave till we get a horse for you. Well, all's ready."
Mescal came at his call and, mounting Black Bolly, rode out toward the cliff wall, with Wolf trotting before her. Hare bestrode Noddle. August, waving good-bye to his women-folk, started the train of burros after Mescal.
How they would be able to climb the face of that steep cliff puzzled Hare. Upon nearer view he discovered the yard-wide trail curving upward in cork-screw fashion round a projecting corner of cliff. The stone was a soft red shale, and the trail had been cut in it at a steep angle. It was so steep that the burros appeared to be climbing straight up. Noddle pattered into it, dropped his head and his long ears and slackened his pace to patient plodding. August walked in the rear.
The first thing that struck Hare was the way the burros in front of him stopped at the curves in the trail, and turned in a space so small that their four feet were close together; yet as they swung their packs they scarcely scraped the wall. At every turn they were higher than he was, going in the opposite direction, yet he could reach out and touch them. He glanced up to see Mescal right above him, leaning forward with her brown hands clasping the pommel. Then he looked out and down; already the green cluster of cottonwoods lay far below. After that sensations pressed upon him. Round and round, up and up, steadily, surely, the beautiful mustang led the train; there were sounds of rattling stones, and click of hoofs, and scrape of pack. On one side towered the iron-stained cliff, not smooth or glistening at close range, but of dull, dead, rotting rock. The trail changed to a zigzag along a seamed and cracked buttress where ledges leaned outward waiting to fall. Then a steeper incline, where the burros crept upward warily, led to a level ledge heading to the left.
Mescal halted on a promontory. She, with her windblown hair, the gleam of white band about her head, and a dash of red along the fringed leggings, gave inexpressible life and beauty to that wild, jagged point of rock, sharp against the glaring sky.
"This is Lookout Point," said Naab. "I keep an Indian here all the time during daylight. He's a peon, a Navajo slave. He can't talk, as he was born without a tongue, or it was cut out, but he has the best eyes of any Indian I know. You see this point commands the farm, the crossing, the Navajo Trail over the river, the Echo Cliffs opposite, where the Navajos signal to me, and also the White Sage Trail."
The oasis shone under the triangular promontory; the river with its rising roar wound in bold curve from the split in the cliffs. To the right white-sloped Coconina breasted the horizon. Forward across the Canyon line opened the many-hued desert.
"With this peon watching here I'm not likely to be surprised," said Naab. "That strip of sand protects me at night from approach, and I've never had anything to fear from across the river."
Naab's peon came from a little cave in the wall; and grinned the greeting he could not speak. To Hare's uneducated eye all Indians resembled each other. Yet this one stood apart from the others, not differing in blanketed leanness, or straggling black hair, or bronze skin, but in the bird-of-prey cast of his features and the wildness of his glittering eyes. Naab gave him a bag from one of the packs, spoke a few words in Navajo, and then slapped the burros into the trail.
The climb thenceforth was more rapid because less steep, and the trail now led among broken fragments of cliff. The color of the stones had changed from red to yellow, and small cedars grew in protected places. Hare's judgment of height had such frequent cause for correction that he gave up trying to estimate the altitude. The ride had begun to tell on his strength, and toward the end he thought he could not manage to stay longer upon Noddle. The air had grown thin and cold, and though the sun was yet an hour high, his fingers were numb.
"Hang on, Jack," cheered August. "We're almost up."
At last Black Bolly disappeared, likewise the bobbing burros, one by one, then Noddle, wagging his ears, reached a level. Then Hare saw a gray-green cedar forest, with yellow crags rising in the background, and a rush of cold wind smote his face. For a moment he choked; he could not get his breath. The air was thin and rare, and he inhaled deeply trying to overcome the suffocation. Presently he realized that the trouble was not with the rarity of the atmosphere, but with the bitter-sweet penetrating odor it carried. He was almost stifled. It was not like the smell of pine, though it made him think of pine-trees.
"Ha! that's good!" said Naab, expanding his great chest. "That's air for you, my lad. Can you taste it? Well, here's camp, your home for many a day, Jack. There's Piute--how do? how're the sheep?"
A short, squat Indian, good-humored of face, shook his black head till the silver rings danced in his ears, and replied: "Bad--damn coyotee!"
"Piute--shake with Jack. Him shoot coyote--got big gun," said Naab.
"How-do-Jack?" replied Piute, extending his hand, and then straightway began examining the new rifle. "Damn--heap big gun!"
"Jack, you'll find this Indian one you can trust, for all he's a Piute outcast," went on August. "I've had him with me ever since Mescal found him on the Coconina Trail five years ago. What Piute doesn't know about this side of Coconina isn't worth learning."
In a depression sheltered from the wind lay the camp. A fire burned in the centre; a conical tent, like a tepee in shape, hung suspended from a cedar branch and was staked at its four points; a leaning slab of rock furnished shelter for camp supplies and for the Indian, and at one end a spring gushed out. A gray-sheathed cedar-tree marked the entrance to this hollow glade, and under it August began preparing Hare's bed.
"Here's the place you're to sleep, rain or shine or snow," he said. "Now I've spent my life sleeping on the ground, and mother earth makes the best bed. I'll dig out a little pit in this soft mat of needles; that's for your hips. Then the tarpaulin so; a blanket so. Now the other blankets. Your feet must be a little higher than your head; you really sleep down hill, which breaks the wind. So you never catch cold. All you need do is to change your position according to the direction of the wind. Pull up the blankets, and then the long end of the tarpaulin. If it rains or snows cover your head, and sleep, my lad, sleep to the song of the wind!"
From where Hare lay, resting a weary body, he could see down into the depression which his position guarded. Naab built up the fire; Piute peeled potatoes with deliberate care; Mescal, on her knees, her brown arms bare, kneaded dough in a basin; Wolf crouched on the ground, and watched his mistress; Black Bolly tossed her head, elevating the bag on her nose so as to get all the grain.
Naab called him to supper, and when Hare set to with a will on the bacon and eggs, and hot biscuits, he nodded approvingly. "That's what I want to see," he said approvingly. "You must eat. Piute will get deer, or you may shoot them yourself; eat all the venison you can. Remember what Scarbreast said. Then rest. That's the secret. If you eat and rest you will gain strength."
The edge of the wall was not a hundred paces from the camp; and when Hare strolled out to it after supper, the sun had dipped the under side of its red disc behind the desert. He watched it sink, while the golden-red flood of light grew darker and darker. Thought seemed remote from him then; he watched, and watched, until he saw the last spark of fire die from the snow-slopes of Coconina. The desert became dimmer and dimmer; the oasis lost its outline in a bottomless purple pit, except for a faint light, like a star.
The bleating of sheep aroused him and he returned to camp. The fire was still bright. Wolf slept close to Mescal's tent; Piute was not in sight; and Naab had rolled himself in blankets. Crawling into his bed, Hare stretched aching legs and lay still, as if he would never move again. Tired as he was, the bleating of the sheep, the clear ring of the bell on Black Bolly, and the faint tinkle of lighter bells on some of the rams, drove away sleep for a while. Accompanied by the sough of the wind through the cedars the music of the bells was sweet, and he listened till he heard no more.
A thin coating of frost crackled on his bed when he awakened; and out from under the shelter of the cedar all the ground was hoar-white. As he slipped from his blankets the same strong smell of black sage and juniper smote him, almost like a blow. His nostrils seemed glued together by some rich piny pitch; and when he opened his lips to breathe a sudden pain, as of a knife-thrust, pierced his lungs. The thought following was as sharp as the pain. Pneumonia! What he had long expected! He sank against the cedar, overcome by the shock. But he rallied presently, for with the reestablishment of the old settled bitterness, which had been forgotten in the interest of his situation, he remembered that he had given up hope. Still, he could not get back at once to his former resignation. He hated to acknowledge that the wildness of this desert canyon country, and the spirit it sought to instil in him, had wakened a desire to live. For it meant only more to give up. And after one short instant of battle he was himself again. He put his hand under his flannel shirt and felt of the soreness of his lungs. He found it not at the apex of the right lung, always the one sensitive spot, but all through his breast. Little panting breaths did not hurt; but the deep inhalation, which alone satisfied him filled his whole chest with thousands of pricking needles. In the depth of his breast was a hollow that burned.
When he had pulled on his boots and coat, and had washed himself in the runway of the spring, his hands were so numb with cold they refused to hold his comb and brush; and he presented himself at the roaring fire half-frozen, dishevelled, trembling, but cheerful. He would not tell Naab. If he had to die to-day, to-morrow or next week, he would lie down under a cedar and die; he could not whine about it to this man.
"Up with the sun!" was Naab's greeting. His cheerfulness was as impelling as his splendid virility. Following the wave of his hand Hare saw the sun, a pale-pink globe through a misty blue, rising between the golden crags of the eastern wall.
Mescal had a shy "good-morning" for him, and Piute a broad smile, and familiar "how-do"; the peon slave, who had finished breakfast and was about to depart, moved his lips in friendly greeting that had no sound.
"Did you hear the coyotes last night?" inquired August "No! Well, of all the choruses I ever heard. There must be a thousand on the bench. Jack, I wish I could spare the time to stay up here with you and shoot some. You'll have practice with the rifle, but don't neglect the Colt. Practice particularly the draw I taught you. Piute has a carbine, and he shoots at the coyotes, but who ever saw an Indian that could hit anything?"
"Damn--gun no good!" growled Piute, who evidently understood English pretty well. Naab laughed, and while Hare ate breakfast he talked of the sheep. The flock he had numbered three thousand. They were a goodly part of them Navajo stock: small, hardy sheep that could live on anything but cactus, and needed little water. This flock had grown from a small number to its present size in a few years. Being remarkably free from the diseases and pests which retard increase in low countries, the sheep had multiplied almost one for one for every year. But for the ravages of wild beasts Naab believed he could raise a flock of many thousands and in a brief time be rich in sheep alone. In the winter he drove them down into the oasis; the other seasons he herded them on the high ranges where the cattle could not climb. There was grass enough on this plateau for a million sheep. After the spring thaw in early March, occasional snows fell till the end of May, and frost hung on until early summer; then the July rains made the plateau a garden.
"Get the forty-four," concluded Naab, "and we'll go out and break it in."
With the long rifle in the hollow of his arm Jack forgot that he was a sick man. When he came within gunshot of the flock the smell of sheep effectually smothered the keen, tasty odor of black sage and juniper. Sheep ranged everywhere under the low cedars. They browsed with noses in the frost, and from all around came the tinkle of tiny bells on the curly-horned rams, and an endless variety of bleats.
"They're spread now," said August. "Mescal drives them on every little while and Piute goes ahead to pick out the best browse. Watch the dog, Jack; he's all but human. His mother was a big shepherd dog that I got in Lund. She must have had a strain of wild blood. Once while I was hunting deer on Coconina she ran off with timber wolves and we thought she was killed. But she came back, and had a litter of three puppies. Two were white, the other black. I think she killed the black one. And she neglected the others. One died, and Mescal raised the other. We called him Wolf. He loves Mescal, and loves the sheep, and hates a wolf. Mescal puts a bell on him when she is driving, and the sheep know the bell. I think it would be a good plan for her to tie something red round his neck--a scarf, so as to keep you from shooting him for a wolf."
Nimble, alert, the big white dog was not still a moment. His duty was to keep the flock compact, to head the stragglers and turn them back; and he knew his part perfectly. There was dash and fire in his work. He never barked. As he circled the flock the small Navajo sheep, edging ever toward forbidden ground, bleated their way back to the fold, the larger ones wheeled reluctantly, and the old belled rams squared themselves, lowering their massive horns as if to butt him. Never, however, did they stand their ground when he reached them, for there was a decision about Wolf which brooked no opposition. At times when he was working on one side a crafty sheep on the other would steal out into the thicket. Then Mescal called and Wolf flashed back to her, lifting his proud head, eager, spirited, ready to take his order. A word, a wave of her whip sufficed for the dog to rout out the recalcitrant sheep and send him bleating to his fellows.
"He manages them easily now," said Naab, "but when the lambs come they can't be kept in. The coyotes and wolves hang out in the thickets and pick up the stragglers. The worst enemy of sheep, though, is the old grizzly bear. Usually he is grouchy, and dangerous to hunt. He comes into the herd, kills the mother sheep, and eats the milk-bag--no more! He will kill forty sheep in a night. Piute saw the tracks of one up on the high range, and believes this bear is following the flock. Let's get off into the woods some little way, into the edge of the thickets--for Piute always keeps to the glades--and see if we can pick off a few coyotes."
August cautioned Jack to step stealthily, and slip from cedar to cedar, to use every bunch of sage and juniper to hide his advance.
"Watch sharp, Jack. I've seen two already. Look for moving things. Don't try to see one quiet, for you can't till after your eye catches him moving. They are gray, gray as the cedars, the grass, the ground. Good! Yes, I see him, but don't shoot. That's too far. Wait. They sneak away, but they return. You can afford to make sure. Here now, by that stone--aim low and be quick."
In the course of a mile, without keeping the sheep near at hand, they saw upward of twenty coyotes, five of which Jack killed in as many shots.
"You've got the hang of it," said Naab, rubbing his hands. "You'll kill the varmints. Piute will skin and salt the pelts. Now I'm going up on the high range to look for bear sign. Go ahead, on your own hook."
Hare was regardless of time while he stole under the cedars and through the thickets, spying out the cunning coyotes. Then Naab's yell pealing out claimed his attention; he answered and returned. When they met he recounted his adventures in mingled excitement and disappointment.
"Are you tired?" asked Naab.
"Tired? No," replied Jack.
"Well, you mustn't overdo the very first day. I've news for you. There are some wild horses on the high range. I didn't see them, but found tracks everywhere. If they come down here you send Piute to close the trail at the upper end of the bench, and you close the one where we came up. There are only two trails where even a deer can get off this plateau, and both are narrow splits in the wall, which can be barred by the gates. We made the gates to keep the sheep in, and they'll serve a turn. If you get the wild horses on the bench send Piute for me at once."
They passed the Indian herding the sheep into a corral built against an uprising ridge of stone. Naab dispatched him to look for the dead coyotes. The three burros were in camp, two wearing empty pack-saddles, and Noddle, for once not asleep, was eating from Mescal's hand.
"Mescal, hadn't I better take Black Bolly home?" asked August.
"Mayn't I keep her?"
"She's yours. But you run a risk. There are wild horses on the range. Will you keep her hobbled?"
"Yes," replied Mescal, reluctantly. "Though I don't believe Bolly would run off from me."
"Look out she doesn't go, hobbles and all. Jack, here's the other bit of news I have for you. There's a big grizzly camping on the trail of our sheep. Now what I want to know is--shall I leave him to you, or put off work and come up here to wait for him myself?"
"Why--" said Jack, slowly, "whatever you say. If you think you can safely leave him to me--I'm willing."
"A grizzly won't be pleasant to face. I never knew one of those sheep-killers that wouldn't run at a man, if wounded."
"Tell me what to do."
"If he comes down it's more than likely to be after dark. Don't risk hunting him then. Wait till morning, and put Wolf on his trail. He'll be up in the rocks, and by holding in the dog you may find him asleep in a cave. However, if you happen to meet him by day do this. Don't waste any shots. Climb a ledge or tree if one be handy. If not, stand your ground. Get down on your knee and shoot and let him come. Mind you, he'll grunt when he's hit, and start for you, and keep coming till he's dead. Have confidence in yourself and your gun, for you can kill him. Aim low, and shoot steady. If he keeps on coming there's always a fatal shot, and that is when he rises. You'll see a bare spot on his breast. Put a forty-four into that, and he'll go down."
August had spoken so easily, quite as if he were explaining how to shear a yearling sheep, that Jack's feelings fluctuated between amazement and laughter. Verily this desert man was stripped of all the false fears of civilization.
"Now, Jack, I'm off. Good-bye and good luck. Mescal, look out for him. . . . So-ho! Noddle! Getup! Biscuit!" And with many a cheery word and slap he urged the burros into the forest, where they and his tall form soon disappeared among the trees.
Piute came stooping toward camp so burdened with coyotes that he could scarcely be seen under the gray pile. With a fervent "damn" he tumbled them under a cedar, and trotted back into the forest for another load. Jack insisted on assuming his share of the duties about camp; and Mescal assigned him to the task of gathering firewood, breaking red-hot sticks of wood into small pieces, and raking them into piles of live coals. Then they ate, these two alone. Jack did not do justice to the supper; excitement had robbed him of appetite. He told Mescal how he had crept upon the coyotes, how so many had eluded him, how he had missed a gray wolf. He plied her with questions about the sheep, and wanted to know if there would be more wolves, and if she thought the "silvertip" would come. He was quite carried away by the events of the day.
The sunset drew him to the rim. Dark clouds were mantling the desert like rolling smoke from a prairie-fire. He almost stumbled over Mescal, who sat with her back to a stone. Wolf lay with his head in her lap, and he growled.
"There's a storm on the desert," she said. "Those smoky streaks are flying sand. We may have snow to-night. It's colder, and the wind is north. See, I've a blanket. You had better get one."
He thanked her and went for it. Piute was eating his supper, and the peon had just come in. The bright campfire was agreeable, yet Hare did not feel cold. But he wrapped himself in a blanket and returned to Mescal and sat beside her. The desert lay indistinct in the foreground, inscrutable beyond; the canyon lost its line in gloom. The solemnity of the scene stilled his unrest, the strange freedom of longings unleashed that day. What had come over him? He shook his head; but with the consciousness of self returned a feeling of fatigue, the burning pain in his chest, the bitter-sweet smell of black sage and juniper.
"You love this outlook?" he asked.
"Do you sit here often?"
"Is it the sunset that you care for, the roar of the river, just being here high above it all?"
"It's that last, perhaps; I don't know."
"Haven't you been lonely?"
"You'd rather be here with the sheep than be in Lund, or Salt Lake City, as Esther and Judith want to be?"
Any other reply from her would not have been consistent with the impression she was making on him. As yet he had hardly regarded her as a young girl; she had been part of this beautiful desert-land. But he began to see in her a responsive being, influenced by his presence. If the situation was wonderful to him what must it be for her? Like a shy, illusive creature, unused to men, she was troubled by questions, fearful of the sound of her own voice. Yet in repose, as she watched the lights and shadows, she was serene, unconscious; her dark, quiet glance was dreamy and sad, and in it was the sombre, brooding strength of the desert.
Twilight and falling dew sent them back to the camp. Piute and Peon were skinning coyotes by the blaze of the fire. The night wind had not yet risen; the sheep were quiet; there was no sound save the crackle of burning cedar sticks. Jack began to talk; he had to talk, so, addressing Piute and the dumb peon, he struck at random into speech, and words flowed with a rush. Piute approved, for he said "damn" whenever his intelligence grasped a meaning, and the peon twisted his lips and fixed his diamond eyes upon Hare in rapt gaze. The sound of a voice was welcome to the sentinels of that lonely sheep-range. Jack talked of cities, of ships, of people, of simple things in the life he had left, and he discovered that Mescal listened. Not only did she listen; she became absorbed; it was romance to her, fulfilment of her vague dreams. Nor did she seek her tent till he ceased; then with a startled "good-night" she was gone.
From under the snugness of his warm blankets Jack watched out the last wakeful moments of that day of days. A star peeped through the fringe of cedar foliage. The wind sighed, and rose steadily, to sweep over him with breath of ice, with the fragrance of juniper and black sage and a tang of cedar.
But that day was only the beginning of eventful days, of increasing charm, of forgetfulness of self, of time that passed unnoted. Every succeeding day was like its predecessor, only richer. Every day the hoar-frost silvered the dawn; the sheep browsed; the coyotes skulked in the thickets; the rifle spoke truer and truer. Every sunset Mescal's changing eyes mirrored the desert. Every twilight Jack sat beside her in the silence; every night, in the camp-fire flare, he talked to Piute and the peon.
The Indians were appreciative listeners, whether they understood Jack or not, but his talk with them was only a presence. He wished to reveal the outside world to Mescal, and he saw with pleasure that every day she grew more interested.
One evening he was telling of New York City, of the monster buildings where men worked, and of the elevated railways, for the time was the late seventies and they were still a novelty. Then something unprecedented occurred, inasmuch as Piute earnestly and vigorously interrupted Jack, demanding to have this last strange story made more clear. Jack did his best in gesture and speech, but he had to appeal to Mescal to translate his meaning to the Indian. This Mescal did with surprising fluency. The result, however, was that Piute took exception to the story of trains carrying people through the air. He lost his grin and regarded Jack with much disfavor. Evidently he was experiencing the bitterness of misplaced trust.
"Heap damn lie!" he exclaimed with a growl, and stalked off into the gloom.
Piute's expressive doubt discomfited Hare, but only momentarily, for Mescal's silvery peal of laughter told him that the incident had brought them closer together. He laughed with her and discovered a well of joyousness behind her reserve. Thereafter he talked directly to Mescal. The ice being broken she began to ask questions, shyly at first, yet more and more eagerly, until she forgot herself in the desire to learn of cities and people; of women especially, what they wore and how they lived, and all that life meant to them.
The sweetest thing which had ever come to Hare was the teaching of this desert girl. How naive in her questions and how quick to grasp she was! The reaching out of her mind was like the unfolding of a rose. Evidently the Mormon restrictions had limited her opportunities to learn.
But her thought had striven to escape its narrow confines, and now, liberated by sympathy and intelligence, it leaped forth.
Lambing-time came late in May, and Mescal, Wolf, Piute and Jack knew no rest. Night-time was safer for the sheep than the day, though the howling of a thousand coyotes made it hideous for the shepherds. All in a day, seemingly, the little fleecy lambs came, as if by magic, and filled the forest with piping bleats. Then they were tottering after their mothers, gamboling at a day's growth, wilful as youth--and the carnage began. Boldly the coyotes darted out of thicket and bush, and many lambs never returned to their mothers. Gaunt shadows hovered always near; the great timber-wolves waited in covert for prey. Piute slept not at all, and the dog's jaws were flecked with blood morning and night. Jack hung up fifty-four coyotes the second day; the third he let them lie, seventy in number. Many times the rifle-barrel burned his hands. His aim grew unerring, so that running brutes in range dropped in their tracks. Many a gray coyote fell with a lamb in his teeth.
One night when sheep and lambs were in the corral, and the shepherds rested round the camp-fire, the dog rose quivering, sniffed the cold wind, and suddenly bristled with every hair standing erect.
"Wolf!" called Mescal.
The sheep began to bleat. A rippling crash, a splintering of wood, told of an irresistible onslaught on the corral fence.
"Chus--chus!" exclaimed Piute.
Wolf, not heeding Mescal's cry, flashed like lightning under the cedars. The rush of the sheep, pattering across the corral was succeeded by an uproar.
"Bear! Bear!" cried Mescal, with dark eyes on Jack. He seized his rifle.
"Don't go," she implored, her hand on his arm. "Not at night--remember Father Naab said not."
"Listen! I won't stand that. I'll go. Here, get in the tree--quick!"
"Do as I say!" It was a command. The girl wavered. He dropped the rifle, and swung her up. "Climb!"
With Piute at his heels he ran out into the darkness.