AUGUST NAAB hoped that Mescal might have returned in his absence; but to Hare such hope was vain. The women of the oasis met them with gloomy faces presaging bad news, and they were reluctant to tell it. Mescal's flight had been forgotten in the sterner and sadder misfortune that had followed.
Snap Naab's wife lay dangerously ill, the victim of his drunken frenzy. For days after the departure of August and Jack the man had kept himself in a stupor; then his store of drink failing, he had come out of his almost senseless state into an insane frenzy. He had tried to kill his wife and wreck his cottage, being prevented in the nick of time by Dave Naab, the only one of his brothers who dared approach him. Then he had ridden off on the White Sage trail and had not been heard from since.
The Mormon put forth all his skill in surgery and medicine to save the life of his son's wife, but he admitted that he had grave misgivings as to her recovery. But these in no manner affected his patience, gentleness, and cheer. While there was life there was hope, said August Naab. He bade Hare, after he had rested awhile, to pack and ride out to the range, and tell his sons that he would come later.
It was a relief to leave the oasis, and Hare started the same day, and made Silver Cup that night. As he rode under the low-branching cedars toward the bright camp-fire he looked about him sharply. But not one of the four faces ruddy in the glow belonged to Snap Naab.
"Hello, Jack," called Dave Naab, into the dark. "I knew that was you. Silvermane sure rings bells when he hoofs it down the stones. How're you and dad? and did you find Mescal? I'll bet that desert child led you clear to the Little Colorado."
Hare told the story of the fruitless search.
"It's no more than we expected," said Dave. "The man doesn't live who can trail the peon. Mescal's like a captured wild mustang that's slipped her halter and gone free. She'll die out there on the desert or turn into a stalk of the Indian cactus for which she's named. It's a pity, for she's a good girl, too good for Snap."
"What's your news?" inquired Hare.
"Oh, nothing much," replied Dave, with a short laugh. "The cattle wintered well. We've had little to do but hang round and watch. Zeke and I chased old Whitefoot one day, and got pretty close to Seeping Springs. We met Joe Stube, a rider who was once a friend of Zeke's. He's with Holderness now, and he said that Holderness had rebuilt the corrals at the spring; also he has put up a big cabin, and he has a dozen riders there. Stube told us Snap had been shooting up White Sage. He finished up by killing Snood. They got into an argument about you."
"Yes, it seems that Snood took your part, and Snap wouldn't stand for it. Too bad! Snood was a good fellow. There's no use talking, Snap's going too far--he is--" Dave did not conclude his remark, and the silence was more significant than any utterance.
"What will the Mormons in White Sage say about Snap's killing Snood?"
"They've said a lot. This even-break business goes all right among gun-fighters, but the Mormons call killing murder. They've outlawed Culver, and Snap will be outlawed next."
"Your father hinted that Snap would find the desert too small for him and me?"
"Jack, you can't be too careful. I've wanted to speak to you about it. Snap will ride in here some day and then--" Dave's pause was not reassuring.
And it was only on the third day after Dave's remark that Hare, riding down the mountain with a deer he had shot, looked out from the trail and saw Snap's cream pinto trotting toward Silver Cup. Beside Snap rode a tall man on a big bay. When Hare reached camp he reported to George and Zeke what he had seen, and learned in reply that Dave had already caught sight of the horsemen, and had gone down to the edge of the cedars. While they were speaking Dave hurriedly ran up the trail.
"It's Snap and Holderness," he called out, sharply "What's Snap doing with Holderness? What's he bringing him here for?"
"I don't like the looks of it," replied Zeke, deliberately.
"Jack, what what'll you do?" asked Dave, suddenly
"Do? What can I do? I'm not going to run out of camp because of a visit from men who don't like me."
"It might be wisest."
"Do you ask me to run to avoid a meeting with your brother?"
"No." The dull red came to Dave's cheek. "But will you draw on him?"
"Certainly not. He's August Naab's son and your brother."
"Yes, and you're my friend, which Snap won't think of. Will you draw on Holderness, then?"
"For the life of me, Dave, I can't tell you," replied Hare, pacing the trail. "Something must break loose in me before I can kill a man. I'd draw, I suppose, in self-defence. But what good would it do me to pull too late? Dave, this thing is what I've feared. I'm not afraid of Snap or Holderness, not that way. I mean I'm not ready. Look here, would either of them shoot an unarmed man?"
"Lord, I hope not; I don't think so. But you're packing your gun."
Hare unbuckled his cartridge-belt, which held his Colt, and hung it over the pommel of his saddle; then he sat down on one of the stone seats near the camp-fire.
"There they come," whispered Zeke, and he rose to his feet, followed by George.
"Steady, you fellows," said Dave, with a warning glance. "I'll do the talking."
Holderness and Snap appeared among the cedars, and trotting out into the glade reined in their mounts a few paces from the fire. Dave Naab stood directly before Hare, and George and Zeke stepped aside.
"Howdy, boys?" called out Holderness, with a smile, which was like a gleam of light playing on a frozen lake. His amber eyes were steady, their gaze contracted into piercing yellow points. Dave studied the cattle-man with cool scorn, but refusing to speak to him, addressed his brother.
"Snap, what do you mean by riding in here with this fellow?"
"I'm Holderness's new foreman. We're just looking round," replied Snap. The hard lines, the sullen shade the hawk-beak cruelty had returned tenfold to his face and his glance was like a living, leaping flame.
"New foreman!" exclaimed Dave. His jaw dropped and he stared in amazement. "No--you can't mean that--you're drunk!"
"That's what I said," growled Snap.
"You're a liar!" shouted Dave, a crimson blot blurring with the brown on his cheeks. He jumped off the ground m his fury.
"It's true, Naab; he's my new foreman," put in Holderness, suavely. "A hundred a month--in gold--and I've got as good a place for you."
"Well, by G--d!" Dave's arms came down and his face blanched to his lips. "Holderness!"
"I know what you'd say," interrupted the ranchman.
"But stop it. I know you're game. And what's the use of fighting? I'm talking business. I'll--"
"You can't talk business or anything else to me," said Dave Naab, and he veered sharply toward his brother. "Say it again, Snap Naab. You've hired out to ride for this man?"
"You're going against your father, your brothers, your own flesh and blood?"
"I can't see it that way."
"Then you're a drunken, easily-led fool. This man's no rancher. He's a rustler. He ruined Martin Cole, the father of your first wife. He's stolen our cattle; he's jumped our water-rights. He's trying to break us. For God's sake, ain't you a man?"
"Things have gone bad for me," replied Snap, sullenly, shifting in his saddle. "I reckon I'll do better to cut out alone for myself."
"You crooked cur! But you're only my half-brother, after all. I always knew you'd come to something bad, but I never thought you'd disgrace the Naabs and break your father's heart. Now then, what do you want here? Be quick. This's our range and you and your boss can't ride here. You can't even water your horses. Out with it!"
At this, Hare, who had been so absorbed as to forget himself, suddenly felt a cold tightening of the skin of his face, and a hard swell of his breast. The dance of Snap's eyes, the downward flit of his hand seemed instantaneous with a red flash and loud report. Instinctively Hare dodged, but the light impact of something like a puff of air gave place to a tearing hot agony. Then he slipped down, back to the stone, with a bloody hand fumbling at his breast.
Dave leaped with tigerish agility, and knocking up the levelled Colt, held Snap as in a vise. George Naab gave Holderness's horse a sharp kick which made the mettlesome beast jump so suddenly that his rider was nearly unseated. Zeke ran to Hare and laid him back against the stone.
"Cool down, there!" ordered Zeke. "He's done for."
"My God--my God!" cried Dave, in a broken voice. "Not--not dead?"
"Shot through the heart!"
Dave Naab flung Snap backward, almost off his horse. "D--n you! run, or I'll kill you. And you, Holderness! Remember! If we ever meet again--you draw!" He tore a branch from a cedar and slashed both horses. They plunged out of the glade, and clattering over the stones, brushing the cedars, disappeared. Dave groped blindly back toward his brothers.
"Zeke, this's awful. Another murder by Snap! And my friend! . . . Who's to tell father?"
Then Hare sat up, leaning against the stone, his shirt open and his bare shoulder bloody; his face was pale, but his eyes were smiling. "Cheer up, Dave. I'm not dead yet."
"Sure he's not," said Zeke. "He ducked none too soon, or too late, and caught the bullet high up in the shoulder."
Dave sat down very quietly without a word, and the hand he laid on Hare's knee shook a little.
"When I saw George go for his gun," went on Zeke, "I knew there'd be a lively time in a minute if it wasn't stopped, so I just said Jack was dead."
"Do you think they came over to get me?" asked Hare.
"No doubt," replied Dave, lifting his face and wiping the sweat from his brow. "I knew that from the first, but I was so dazed by Snap's going over to Holderness that I couldn't keep my wits, and I didn't mark Snap edging over till too late."
"Listen, I hear horses," said Zeke, looking up from his task over Hare's wound.
"It's Billy, up on the home trail," added George "Yes, and there's father with him. Good Lord, must we tell him about Snap?"
"Some one must tell him," answered Dave.
"That'll be you, then. You always do the talking."
August Naab galloped into the glade, and swung himself out of the saddle. "I heard a shot. What's this? Who's hurt?--Hare! Why--lad--how is it with you?"
"Not bad," rejoined Hare.
"Let me see," August thrust Zeke aside. "A bullet-hole--just missed the bone--not serious. Tie it up tight. I'll take him home to-morrow. . . . Hare, who's been here?"
"Snap rode in and left his respects."
"Snap! Already? Yet I knew it--I saw it. You had Providence with you, lad, for this wound is not bad. Snap surprised you, then?"
"No. I knew it was coming."
"Jack hung his belt and gun on Silvermane's saddle," said Dave. "He didn't feel as if he could draw on either Snap or Holderness--"
"Yes. Snap rode in with Holderness. Hare thought if he was unarmed they wouldn't draw. But Snap did."
"Was he drunk?"
"No. They came over to kill Hare." Dave went on to recount the incident in full. "And--and see here, dad--that's not all. Snap's gone to the bad."
Dave Naab hid his face while he told of his brother's treachery; the others turned away, and Hare closes his eyes.
For long moments there was silence broken only by the tramp of the old man as he strode heavily to and fro. At last the footsteps ceased, and Hare opened his eyes to see Naab's tall form erect, his arms uplifted, his shaggy head rigid.
"Hare," began August, presently. "I'm responsible for this cowardly attack on you. I brought you out here. This is the second one. Beware of the third! I see--but tell me, do you remember that I said you must meet Snap as man to man?"
"Don't you want to live?"
"You hold to no Mormon creed?"
"Why, no," Hare replied, wonderingly.
"What was the reason I taught you my trick with a gun?"
"I suppose it was to help me to defend myself."
"Then why do you let yourself be shot down in cold blood? Why did you hang up your gun? Why didn't you draw on Snap? Was it because of his father, his brothers, his family?"
"Partly, but not altogether," replied Hare, slowly. "I didn't know before what I know now. My flesh sickened at the thought of killing a man, even to save my own life; and to kill--your son--"
"No son of mine!" thundered Naab. "Remember that when next you meet. I don't want your blood on my hands. Don't stand to be killed like a sheep! If you have felt duty to me, I release you."
Zeke finished bandaging the wound. Making a bed of blankets he lifted Hare into it, and covered him, cautioning him to lie still. Hare had a sensation of extreme lassitude, a deep drowsiness which permeated even to his bones. There were intervals of oblivion, then a time when the stars blinked in his eyes; he heard the wind, Silvermane's bell, the murmur of voices, yet all seemed remote from him, intangible as things in a dream.
He rode home next day, drooping in the saddle and fainting at the end of the trail, with the strong arm of August Naab upholding him. His wound was dressed and he was put to bed, where he lay sleeping most of the time, brooding the rest.
In three weeks he was in the saddle again, riding out over the red strip of desert toward the range. During his convalescence he had learned that he had come to the sombre line of choice. Either he must deliberately back away, and show his unfitness to survive in the desert, or he must step across into its dark wilds. The stern question haunted him. Yet he knew a swift decision waited on the crucial moment.
He sought lonely rides more than ever, and, like Silvermane, he was always watching and listening. His duties carried him half way to Seeping Springs, across the valley to the red wall, up the slope of Coconina far into the forest of stately pines. What with Silvermane's wonderful scent and sight, and his own constant watchfulness, there were never range-riders or wild horses nor even deer near him without his knowledge.
The days flew by; spring had long since given place to summer; the blaze of sun and blast of flying sand were succeeded by the cooling breezes from the mountain; October brought the flurries of snow and November the dark storm-clouds.
Hare was the last of the riders to be driven off the mountain. The brothers were waiting for him at Silver Cup, and they at once packed and started for home.
August Naab listened to the details of the range-riding since his absence, with silent surprise. Holderness and Snap had kept away from Silver Cup after the supposed killing of Hare. Occasionally a group of horsemen rode across the valley or up a trail within sight of Dave and his followers, but there was never a meeting. Not a steer had been driven off the range that summer and fall; and except for the menace always hanging in the blue smoke over Seeping Springs the range-riding had passed without unusual incident.
So for Hare the months had gone by swiftly; though when he looked back afterward they seemed years. The winter at the oasis he filled as best he could, with the children playing in the yard, with Silvermane under the sunny lee of the great red wall, with any work that offered itself. It was during the long evenings, when he could not be active, that time oppressed him, and the memories of the past hurt him. A glimpse of the red sunset through the cliff-gate toward the west would start the train of thought; he both loved and hated the Painted Desert. Mescal was there in the purple shadows. He dreamed of her in the glowing embers of the log-fire. He saw her on Black Bolly with hair flying free to the wind. And he could not shut out the picture of her sitting in the corner of the room, silent, with bowed head, while the man to whom she was pledged hung close over her. That memory had a sting. It was like a spark of fire dropped on the wound in his breast where the desert-hawk had struck him. It was like a light gleaming on the sombre line he was waiting to cross.