FOR a few days after the capture of Silvermane, a time full to the brim of excitement for Hare, he had no word with Mescal, save for morning and evening greetings. When he did come to seek her, with a purpose which had grown more impelling since August Naab's arrival, he learned to his bewilderment that she avoided him. She gave him no chance to speak with her alone; her accustomed resting-place on the rim at sunset knew her no more; early after supper she retired to her tent.
Hare nursed a grievance for forty-eight hours, and then, taking advantage of Piute's absence on an errand down to the farm, and of the Naabs' strenuous day with four vicious wild horses in the corral at one time, he walked out to the pasture where Mescal shepherded the flock.
"Mescal, why are you avoiding me?" he asked. "What has happened?"
She looked tired and unhappy, and her gaze, instead of meeting his, wandered to the crags.
"Nothing," she replied.
"But there must be something. You have given me no chance to talk to you, and I wanted to know if you'd let me speak to Father Naab."
"To Father Naab? Why--what about?"
"About you, of course--and me--that I love you and want to marry you."
She turned white. "No--no!"
Hare paused blankly, not so much at her refusal as at the unmistakable fear in her face.
"Why--not?" he asked presently, with an odd sense of trouble. There was more here than Mescal's habitual shyness.
"Because he'll be terribly angry."
"Angry--I don't understand. Why angry?"
The girl did not answer, and looked so forlorn that Hare attempted to take her in his arms. She resisted and broke from him.
"You must never--never do that again."
Hare drew back sharply.
"Why not? What's wrong? You must tell me, Mescal."
"I remembered." She hung her head.
"I am pledged to marry Father Naab's eldest son."
For a moment Hare did not understand. He stared at her unbelievingly.
"What did you say?" he asked, slowly.
Mescal repeated her words in a whisper.
"But--but Mescal--I love you. You let me kiss you," said Hare stupidly, as if he did not grasp her meaning. "You let me kiss you," he repeated.
"Oh, Jack, I forgot," she wailed. "It was so new, so strange, to have you up here. It was like a kind of dream. And after--after you kissed me I--I found out--"
Her silence answered him.
"But, Mescal, if you really love me you can't marry any one else," said Hare. It was the simple persistence of a simple swain.
"Oh, you don't know, you don't know. It's impossible!"
"Impossible!" Hare's anger flared up. "You let me believe I had won you. What kind of a girl are you? You were not true. Your actions were lies."
"Not lies," she faltered, and turned her face from him.
With no gentle hand he grasped her arm and forced her to look at him. But the misery in her eyes overcame him, and he roughly threw his arms around her and held her close.
"It can't be a lie. You do care for me--love me. Look at me." He drew her head back from his breast. Her face was pale and drawn; her eyes closed tight, with tears forcing a way out under the long lashes; her lips were parted. He bowed to their sweet nearness; he kissed them again and again, while the shade of the cedars seemed to whirl about him. "I love you, Mescal. You are mine--I will have you--I will keep you--I will not let him have you!"
She vibrated to that like a keen strung wire under a strong touch. All in a flash the trembling, shame-stricken girl was transformed. She leaned back in his arms, supple, pliant with quivering life, and for the first time gave him wide-open level eyes, in which there were now no tears, no shyness, no fear, but a dark smouldering fire.
"You do love me, Mescal?"
"I--I couldn't help it."
There was a pause, tense with feeling.
"Mescal, tell me--about your being pledged," he said, at last.
"I gave him my promise because there was nothing else to do. I was pledged to--to him in the church at White Sage. It can't be changed. I've got to marry--Father Naab's eldest son."
"Eldest son?" echoed Jack, suddenly mindful of the implication. "Why! that's Snap Naab. Ah! I begin to see light. That--Mescal--"
"I hate him."
"You hate him and you're pledged to marry him! . . . God! Mescal, I'd utterly forgotten Snap Naab already has a wife."
"You've also forgotten that we're Mormons."
"Are you a Mormon?" he queried bluntly.
"I've been raised as one."
"That's not an answer. Are you one? Do you believe any man under God's sky ought to have more than one wife at a time?"
"No. But I've been taught that it gave woman greater glory in heaven. There have been men here before you, men who talked to me, and I doubted before I ever saw you. And afterward--I knew."
"Would not Father Naab release you?"
"Release me? Why, he would have taken me as a wife for himself but for Mother Mary. She hates me. So he pledged me to Snap."
"Does August Naab love you?"
"Love me? No. Not in the way you mean--perhaps as a daughter. But Mormons teach duty to church first, and say such love comes--to the wives--afterward. But it doesn't--not in the women I've seen. There's Mother Ruth--her heart is broken. She loves me, and I can tell."
"When was this--this marriage to be?"
"I don't know. Father Naab promised me to his son when he came home from the Navajo range. It would be soon if they found out that you and I-- Jack, Snap Naab would kill you!"
The sudden thought startled the girl. Her eyes betrayed her terror.
"I mightn't be so easy to kill," said Hare, darkly. The words came unbidden, his first answer to the wild influences about him. "Mescal, I'm sorry--maybe I've brought you unhappiness.
"No. No. To be with you has been like sitting there on the rim watching the desert, the greatest happiness I have ever known. I used to love to be with the children, but Mother Mary forbade. When I am down there, which is seldom, I'm not allowed to play with the children any more."
"What can I do?" asked Hare, passionately.
"Don't speak to Father Naab. Don't let him guess. Don't leave me here alone," she answered low. It was not the Navajo speaking in her now. Love had sounded depths hitherto unplumbed; a quick, soft impulsiveness made the contrast sharp and vivid.
"How can I help but leave you if he wants me on the cattle ranges?"
"I don't know. You must think. He has been so pleased with what you've done. He's had Mormons up here, and two men not of his Church, and they did nothing. You've been ill, besides you're different. He will keep me with the sheep as long as he can, for two reasons--because I drive them best, he says, and because Snap Naab's wife must be persuaded to welcome me in her home."
"I'll stay, if I have to get a relapse and go down on my back again," declared Jack. "I hate to deceive him, but Mescal, pledged or not--I love you, and I won't give up hope."
Her hands flew to her face again and tried to hide the dark blush.
"Mescal, there's one question I wish you'd answer. Does August Naab think he'll make a Mormon of me? Is that the secret of his wonderful kindness?"
"Of course he believes he'll make a Mormon of you. That's his religion. He's felt that way over all the strangers who ever came out here. But he'd be the same to them without his hopes. I don't know the secret of his kindness, but I think he loves everybody and everything. And Jack, he's so good. I owe him all my life. He would not let the Navajos take me; he raised me, kept me, taught me. I can't break my promise to him. He's been a father to me, and I love him."
"I think I love him, too," replied Hare, simply.
With an effort he left her at last and mounted the grassy slope and climbed high up among the tottering yellow crags; and there he battled with himself. Whatever the charm of Mescal's surrender, and the insistence of his love, stern hammer-strokes of fairness, duty, honor, beat into his brain his debt to the man who had saved him. It was a long-drawn-out battle not to be won merely by saying right was right. He loved Mescal, she loved him; and something born in him with his new health, with the breath of this sage and juniper forest, with the sight of purple canyons and silent beckoning desert, made him fiercely tena- cious of all that life had come to mean for him. He could not give her up--and yet--
Twilight forced Hare from his lofty retreat, and he trod his way campward, weary and jaded, but victorious over himself. He thought he had renounced his hope of Mescal; he returned with a resolve to be true to August, and to himself; bitterness he would not allow himself to feel. And yet he feared the rising in him of a new spirit akin to that of the desert itself, intractable and free.
"Well, Jack, we rode down the last of Silvermane's band," said August, at supper. "The Navajos came up and helped us out. To-morrow you'll see some fun, when we start to break Silvermane. As soon as that's done I'll go, leaving the Indians to bring the horses down when they're broken."
"Are you going to leave Silvermane with me?" asked Jack.
"Surely. Why, in three days, if I don't lose my guess, he'll be like a lamb. Those desert stallions can be made into the finest kind of saddle-horses. I've seen one or two. I want you to stay up here with the sheep. You're getting well, you'll soon be a strapping big fellow. Then when we drive the sheep down in the fall you can begin life on the cattle ranges, driving wild steers. There's where you'll grow lean and hard, like an iron bar. You'll need that horse, too, my lad."
"Why--because he's fast?" queried Jack, quickly answering to the implied suggestion.
August nodded gloomily. "I haven't the gift of revelation, but I've come to believe Martin Cole. Holderness is building an outpost for his riders close to Seeping Springs. He has no water. If he tries to pipe my water--" The pause was not a threat; it implied the Mormon's doubt of himself. "Then Dene is on the march this way. He's driven some of Marshall's cattle from the range next to mine. Dene got away with about a hundred head. The barefaced robber sold them in Lund to a buying company from Salt Lake."
"Is he openly an outlaw, a rustler?" inquired Hare.
"Everybody knows it, and he's finding White Sage and vicinity warmer than it was. Every time he comes in he and his band shoot up things pretty lively. Now the Mormons are slow to wrath. But they are awakening. All the way from Salt Lake to the border outlaws have come in. They'll never get the power on this desert that they had in the places from which they've been driven. Men of the Holderness type are more to be dreaded. He's a rancher, greedy, unscrupulous, but hard to corner in dishonesty. Dene is only a bad man, a gun-fighter. He and all his ilk will get run out of Utah. Did you ever hear of Plummer, John Slade, Boone Helm, any of those bad men?"
"Well, they were men to fear. Plummer was a sheriff in Idaho, a man high in the estimation of his townspeople, but he was the leader of the most desperate band of criminals ever known in the West; and he instigated the murder of, or killed outright, more than one hundred men. Slade was a bad man, fatal on the draw. Helm was a killing machine. These men all tried Utah, and had to get out. So will Dene have to get out. But I'm afraid there'll be warm times before that happens. When you get in the thick of it you'll appreciate Silvermane."
"I surely will. But I can't see that wild stallion with a saddle and a bridle, eating oats like any common horse, and being led to water."
"Well, he'll come to your whistle, presently, if I'm not greatly mistaken. You must make him love you, Jack. It can be done with any wild creature. Be gentle, but firm. Teach him to obey the slightest touch of rein, to stand when you throw your bridle on the ground, to come at your whistle. Always remember this. He's a desert-bred horse; he can live on scant browse and little water. Never break him of those best virtues in a horse. Never feed him grain if you can find a little patch of browse; never give him a drink till he needs it. That's one-tenth as often as a tame horse. Some day you'll be caught in the desert, and with these qualities of endurance Silvermane will carry you out."
Silvermane snorted defiance from the cedar corral next morning when the Naabs, and Indians, and Hare appeared. A half-naked sinewy Navajo with a face as changeless as a bronze mask sat astride August's blindfolded roan, Charger. He rode bareback except for a blanket strapped upon the horse; he carried only a long, thick halter, with a loop and a knot. When August opened the improvised gate, with its sharp bayonet-like branches of cedar, the Indian rode into the corral. The watchers climbed to the knoll. Silvermane snorted a blast of fear and anger. August's huge roan showed uneasiness; he stamped, and shook his head, as if to rid himself of the blinders.
Into the farthest corner of densely packed cedar boughs Silvermane pressed himself and watched. The Indian rode around the corral, circling closer and closer, yet appearing not to see the stallion. Many rounds he made; closer he got, and always with the same steady gait. Silvermane left his corner and tried another. The old unwearying round brought Charger and the Navajo close by him. Silvermane pranced out of his thicket of boughs; he whistled; he wheeled with his shiny hoofs lifting. In an hour the Indian was edging the outer circle of the corral, with the stallion pivoting in the centre, ears laid back, eyes shooting sparks, fight in every line of him. And the circle narrowed inward.
Suddenly the Navajo sent the roan at Silvermane and threw his halter. It spread out like a lasso, and the loop went over the head of the stallion, slipped to the knot and held fast, while the rope tightened. Silvermane leaped up, forehoofs pawing the air, and his long shrill cry was neither whistle, snort, nor screech, but all combined. He came down, missing Charger with his hoofs, sliding off his haunches. The Indian, his bronze muscles rippling, close-hauled on the rope, making half hitches round his bony wrist.
In a whirl of dust the roan drew closer to the gray, and Silvermane began a mad race around the corral. The roan ran with him nose to nose. When Silvermane saw he could not shake him, he opened his jaws, rolled back his lip in an ugly snarl, his white teeth glistening, and tried to bite. But the Indian's moccasined foot shot up under the stallion's ear and pressed him back. Then the roan hugged Silvermane so close that half the time the Navajo virtually rode two horses. But for the rigidity of his arms, and the play and sudden tension of his leg-muscles, the Indian's work would have appeared commonplace, so dexterous was he, so perfectly at home in his dangerous seat. Suddenly he whooped and August Naab hauled back the gate, and the two horses, neck and neck, thundered out upon the level stretch.
"Good!" cried August. "Let him rip now, Navvy. All over but the work, Jack. I feared Silvermane would spear himself on some of those dead cedar spikes in the corral. He's safe now."
Jack watched the horses plunge at breakneck speed down the stretch, circle at the forest edge, and come tearing back. Silvermane was pulling the roan faster than he had ever gone in his life, but the dark Indian kept his graceful seat. The speed slackened on the second turn, and de- creased as, mile after mile, the imperturbable Indian held roan and gray side to side and let them run.
The time passed, but Hare's interest in the breaking of the stallion never flagged. He began to understand the Indian, and to feel what the restraint and drag must be to the horse. Never for a moment could Silvermane elude the huge roan, the tight halter, the relentless Navajo. Gallop fell to trot, and trot to jog, and jog to walk; and hour by hour, without whip or spur or word, the breaker of desert mustangs drove the wild stallion. If there were cruelty it was in his implacable slow patience, his farsighted purpose. Silvermane would have killed himself in an hour; he would have cut himself to pieces in one headlong dash, but that steel arm suffered him only to wear himself out. Late that afternoon the Navajo led a dripping, drooping, foam-lashed stallion into the corral, tied him with the halter, and left him.
Later Silvermane drank of the water poured into the corral trough, and had not the strength or spirit to resent the Navajo's caressing hand on his mane.
Next morning the Indian rode again into the corral on blindfolded Charger. Again he dragged Silvermane out on the level and drove him up and down with remorseless, machine-like persistence. At noon he took him back, tied him up, and roped him fast. Silvermane tried to rear and kick, but the saddle went on, strapped with a flash of the dark-skinned hands. Then again Silvermane ran the level stretch beside the giant roan, only he carried a saddle now. At the first, he broke out with free wild stride as if to run forever from under the hateful thing. But as the afternoon waned he crept weariedly back to the corral.
On the morning of the third day the Navajo went into the corral without Charger, and roped the gray, tied him fast, and saddled him. Then he loosed the lassoes except the one around Silvermane's neck, which he whipped under his foreleg to draw him down. Silvermane heaved a groan which plainly said he never wanted to rise again. Swiftly the Indian knelt on the stallion's head; his hands flashed; there was a scream, a click of steel on bone; and proud Silvermane jumped to his feet with a bit between his teeth.
The Navajo, firmly in the saddle, rose with him, and Silvermane leaped through the corral gate, and out upon the stretch, lengthening out with every stride, and settling into a wild, despairing burst of speed. The white mane waved in the wind; the half-naked Navajo swayed to the motion. Horse and rider disappeared in the cedars.
They were gone all day. Toward night they appeared on the stretch. The Indian rode into camp and, dismounting, handed the bridle-rein to Naab. He spoke no word; his dark impassiveness invited no comment. Silvermane was dust-covered and sweat-stained. His silver crest had the same proud beauty, his neck still the splendid arch, his head the noble outline, but his was a broken spirit.
"Here, my lad," said August Naab, throwing the bridle-rein over Hare's arm. "What did I say once about seeing you on a great gray horse? Ah! Well, take him and know this: you've the swiftest horse in this desert country."