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Desert Night








From: The Heritage Of The Desert

THE gray stallion, finding the rein loose on his neck, trotted forward
and overtook the dog, and thereafter followed at his heels. With the
setting of the sun a slight breeze stirred, and freshened as twilight
fell, rolling away the sultry atmosphere. Then the black desert night
mantled the plain.

For a while this blackness soothed the pain of Hare's sun-blinded eyes.
It was a relief to have the unattainable horizon line blotted out. But
by-and-by the opaque gloom brought home to him, as the day had never
done, the reality of his solitude. He was alone in this immense place of
barrenness, and his dumb companions were the world to him. Wolf
pattered onward, a silent guide; and Silvermane followed, never lagging,
sure-footed in the dark, faithful to his master. All the love Hare had
borne the horse was as nothing to that which came to him on this desert
night. In and out, round and round, ever winding, ever zigzagging,
Silvermane hung close to Wolf, and the sandy lanes between the bowlders
gave forth no sound. Dog and horse, free to choose their trail, trotted
onward miles and miles into the night.

A pale light in the east turned to a glow, then to gold, and the round
disc of the moon silhouetted the black bowlders on the horizon. It
cleared the dotted line and rose, an oval orange-hued strange moon, not
mellow nor silvery nor gloriously brilliant as Hare had known it in the
past, but a vast dead-gold melancholy orb, rising sadly over the desert.
To Hare it was the crowning reminder of lifelessness; it fitted this
world of dull gleaming stones.

Silvermane went lame and slackened his trot, causing Hare to rein in and
dismount. He lifted the right forefoot, the one the horse had favored,
and found a stone imbedded tightly in the cloven hoof. He pried it out
with his knife and mounted again. Wolf shone faintly far ahead, and
presently he uttered a mournful cry which sent a chill to the rider's
heart. The silence had been oppressive before; now it was terrible. It
was not a silence of life. It had been broken suddenly by Wolf's howl,
and had closed sharply after it, without echo; it was a silence of
death.

Hare took care not to fall behind Wolf again, he had no wish to hear
that cry repeated. The dog moved onward with silent feet; the horse
wound after him with hoofs padded in the sand; the moon lifted and the
desert gleamed; the bowlders grew larger and the lanes wider. So the
night wore on, and Hare's eyelids grew heavy, and his whole weary body
cried out for rest and forgetfulness. He nodded until he swayed in the
saddle; then righted himself, only to doze again. The east gave birth to
the morning star. The whitening sky was the harbinger of day. Hare
could not bring himself to face the light and heat, and he stopped at a
wind-worn cave under a shelving rock. He was asleep when he rolled out
on the sand-strewn floor. Once he awoke and it was still day, for his
eyes quickly shut upon the glare. He lay sweltering till once more
slumber claimed him. The dog awakened him, with cold nose and low whine.
Another twilight had fallen. Hare crawled out, stiff and sore, hungry
and parching with thirst. He made an attempt to eat, but it was a
failure. There was a dry burning in his throat, a dizzy feeling in his
brain, and there were red flashes before his eyes. Wolf refused meat,
and Silvermane turned from the grain, and lowered his head to munch a
few blades of desert grass.

Then the journey began, and the night fell black. A cool wind blew from
the west, the white stars blinked, the weird moon rose with its ghastly
glow. Huge bowlders rose before him in grotesque shapes, tombs and
pillars and statues of Nature's dead, carved by wind and sand. But some
had life in Hare's disordered fancy. They loomed and towered over him,
and stalked abroad and peered at him with deep-set eyes.

Hare fought with all his force against this mood of gloom. Wolf was not
a phantom; he trotted forward with unerring instinct; and he would find
water, and that meant life. Silvermane, desert-steeled, would travel to
the furthermost corner of this hell of sand-swept stone. Hare tried to
collect all his spirit, all his energies, but the battle seemed to
be going against him. All about him was silence, breathless silence,
insupportable silence of ages. Desert spectres danced in the darkness.
The worn-out moon gleamed golden over the worn-out waste. Desolation
lurked under the sable shadows.

Hare rode on into the night, tumbled from his saddle in the gray of dawn
to sleep, and stumbled in the twilight to his drooping horse. His eyes
were blind now to the desert shapes, his brain burned and his tongue
filled his mouth. Silvermane trod ever upon Wolf's heels; he had come
into the kingdom of his desert-strength; he lifted his drooping head and
lengthened his stride; weariness had gone and he snorted his welcome to
something on the wind. Then he passed the limping dog and led the way.

Hare held to the pommel and bent dizzily forward in the saddle.
Silvermane was going down, step by step, with metallic clicks upon
flinty rock. Whether he went down or up was all the same to Hare; he
held on with closed eyes and whispered to himself. Down and down, step
by step, cracking the stones with iron-shod hoofs, the gray stallion
worked his perilous way, sure-footed as a mountain-sheep. Then he
stopped with a great slow heave and bent his head.

The black bulge of a canyon rim blurred in Hare's hot eyes. A
trickling sound penetrated his tired brain. His ears had grown like his
eyes--false. Only another delusion! As he had been tortured with the
sight of lake and stream now he was to be tortured with the sound of
running water. Yet he listened, for it was sweet even in its mockery.
What a clear musical tinkle, like silver bells tossing on the wind! He
listened. Soft murmuring flow, babble and gurgle, little hollow fall and
splash!

Suddenly Silvermane, lifting his head, broke the silence of the canyon
with a great sigh of content. It pierced the dull fantasy of Hare's
mind; it burst the gloomy spell. The sigh and the snort which followed
were Silvermane's triumphant signals when he had drunk his fill.

Hare fell from the saddle. The gray dog lay stretched low in the
darkness. Hare crawled beside him and reached out with his hot hands.
Smooth cool marble rock, growing slippery, then wet, led into running
water. He slid forward on his face and wonderful cold thrills quivered
over his burning skin. He drank and drank until he could drink no more.
Then he lay back upon the rock; the madness of his brain went out with
the light of the stars, and he slept.

When he awoke red canyon walls leaned far above him to a gap spanned
by blue sky. A song of rushing water murmured near his ears. He looked
down; a spring gushed from a crack in the wall; Silvermane cropped green
bushes, and Wolf sat on his haunches waiting, but no longer with sad
eyes and strange mien. Hare raised himself, looking again and again, and
slowly gathered his wits. The crimson blur had gone from his eyes and
the burning from his skin, and the painful swelling from his tongue.

He drank long and deeply, and rising with clearing thoughts and thankful
heart, he kissed Wolf's white head, and laid his arms round Silvermane's
neck. He fed them, and ate himself, not without difficulty, for his lips
were puffed and his tongue felt like a piece of rope. When he had eaten,
his strength came back.

At a word Wolf, with a wag of his tail, splashed into the gravelly
stream bed. Hare followed on foot, leading Silvermane. There were little
beds of pebbles and beaches of sand and short steps down which the water
babbled. The canyon was narrow and tortuous; Hare could not see ahead
or below, for the projecting red cliffs, growing higher as he descended,
walled out the view. The blue stream of sky above grew bluer and the
light and shade less bright. For an hour he went down steadily without a
check, and the farther down the rougher grew the way. Bowlders wedged
in narrow places made foaming waterfalls. Silvermane clicked down
confidently.

The slender stream of water, swelled by seeping springs and little
rills, gained the dignity of a brook; it began to dash merrily and
hurriedly downward. The depth of the falls, the height of cliffs, and
the size of the bowlders increased in the descent. Wolf splashed on
unmindful; there was a new spirit in his movements; and when he looked
back for his laboring companions there was friendly protest in his eyes.
Silvermane's mien plainly showed that where a dog could go he could
follow. Silvermane's blood was heated; the desert was an old story
to him; it had only tired him and parched his throat; this canyon of
downward steps and falls, with ever-deepening drops, was new to him, and
roused his mettle; and from his long training in the wilds he had gained
a marvellous sure-footedness.

The canyon narrowed as it deepened; the jutting walls leaned together,
shutting out the light; the sky above was now a ribbon of blue, only to
be seen when Hare threw back his head and stared straight up.

"It'll be easier climbing up, Silvermane," he panted--"if we ever get
the chance."

The sand and gravel and shale had disappeared; all was bare clean-washed
rock. In many places the brook failed as a trail, for it leaped down in
white sheets over mossy cliffs. Hare faced these walls in despair. But
Wolf led on over the ledges and Silvermane followed, nothing daunted.
At last Hare shrank back from a hole which defied him utterly. Even Wolf
hesitated. The canyon was barely twenty feet wide; the floor ended in a
precipice; the stream leaped out and fell into a dark cleft from which
no sound arose. On the right there was a shelf of rock; it was scarce
half a foot broad at the narrowest and then apparently vanished
altogether. Hare stared helplessly up at the slanting shut-in walls.

While he hesitated Wolf pattered out upon the ledge and Silvermane
stamped restlessly. With a desperate fear of losing his beloved horse
Hare let go the bridle and stepped upon the ledge. He walked rapidly,
for a slow step meant uncertainty and a false one meant death. He
heard the sharp ring of Silvermane's shoes, and he listened in agonized
suspense for the slip, the snort, the crash that he feared must come.
But it did not come. Seeing nothing except the narrow ledge, yet feeling
the blue abyss beneath him, he bent all his mind to his task, and
finally walked out into lighter space upon level rock. To his infinite
relief Silvermane appeared rounding a corner out of the dark passage,
and was soon beside him.

Hare cried aloud in welcome.

The canyon widened; there was a clear demarcation where the red walls
gave place to yellow; the brook showed no outlet from its subterranean
channel. Sheer exhaustion made Hare almost forget his mission; the
strength of his resolve had gone into mechanical toil; he kept on,
conscious only of the smart of bruised hands and feet and the ache of
laboring lungs.

Time went on and the sun hung in the midst of the broadening belt of
blue sky. A long slant of yellow slope led down to a sage-covered level,
which Hare crossed, pleased to see blooming cacti and wondering at their
slender lofty green stems shining with gold flowers. He descended into a
ravine which became precipitous. Here he made only slow advance. At the
bottom he found himself in a wonderful lane with an almost level floor;
here flowed a shallow stream bordered by green willows. Wolf took the
direction of the flowing water. Hare's thoughts were all of Mescal, and
his hopes began to mount, his heart to beat high.

He gazed ahead with straining eyes. Presently there was not a break in
the walls. A drowsy hum of falling water came to Hare, strange reminder
of the oasis, the dull roar of the Colorado, and of Mescal.

His flagging energies leaped into life with the canyon suddenly opening
to bright light and blue sky and beautiful valley, white and gold in
blossom, green with grass and cottonwood. On a flower-scented wind
rushed that muffled roar again, like distant thunder.

Wolf dashed into the cottonwoods. Silvermane whistled with satisfaction
and reached for the long grass.

For Hare the light held something more than beauty, the breeze something
more than sweet scent of water and blossom. Both were charged with
meaning--with suspense.

Wolf appeared in the open leaping upon a slender brown-garbed form.

"Mescal!" cried Hare.

With a cry she ran to him, her arms outstretched, her hair flying in the
wind, her dark eyes wild with joy.





Next: Thunder River

Previous: Wolf



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