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The Heritage Of The Desert








From: The Heritage Of The Desert

"MESCAL'S far out in front by this time. Depend on it, Hare," went on
Naab. "That trick was the cunning Indian of her. She'll ride Silvermane
into White Sage to-morrow night. Then she'll hide from Snap. The Bishop
will take care of her. She'll be safe for the present in White Sage. Now
we must bury these men. To-morrow--my son. Then--"

"What then?" Hare straightened up.

Unutterable pain darkened the flame in the Mormon's gaze. For an instant
his face worked spasmodically, only to stiffen into a stony mask. It
was the old conflict once more, the never-ending war between flesh and
spirit. And now the flesh had prevailed.

"The time has come!" said George Naab.

"Yes," replied his father, harshly.

A great calm settled over Hare; his blood ceased to race, his mind to
riot; in August Naab's momentous word he knew the old man had found
himself. At last he had learned the lesson of the desert--to strike
first and hard.

"Zeke, hitch up a team," said August Naab. "No--wait a moment. Here
comes Piute. Let's hear what he has to say."

Piute appeared on the zigzag cliff-trail, driving a burro at dangerous
speed.

"He's sighted Silvermane and the rustlers," suggested George, as the
shepherd approached.

Naab translated the excited Indian's mingling of Navajo and
Piute languages to mean just what George had said. "Snap ahead of
riders--Silvermane far, far ahead of Snap--running fast--damn!"

"Mescal's pushing him hard to make the sand-strip," said George.

"Piute--three fires to-night--Lookout Point!" This order meant the
execution of August Naab's hurry-signal for the Navajos, and after he
had given it, he waved the Indian toward the cliff, and lapsed into a
silence which no one dared to break.

Naab consigned the bodies of the rustlers to the famous cemetery under
the red wall. He laid Dene in grave thirty-one. It was the grave that
the outlaw had promised as the last resting-place of Dene's spy. Chance
and Culver he buried together. It was noteworthy that no Mormon rites
were conferred on Culver, once a Mormon in good standing, nor were any
prayers spoken over the open graves.

What did August Naab intend to do? That was the question in Hare's mind
as he left the house. It was a silent day, warm as summer, though the
sun was overcast with gray clouds; the birds were quiet in the trees;
there was no bray of burro or clarion-call of peacock, even the hum of
the river had fallen into silence. Hare wandered over the farm and down
the red lane, brooding over the issue. Naab's few words had been full
of meaning; the cold gloom so foreign to his nature, had been even more
impressive. His had been the revolt of the meek. The gentle, the loving,
the administering, the spiritual uses of his life had failed.

Hare recalled what the desert had done to his own nature, how it had
bred in him its impulse to fight, to resist, to survive. If he, a
stranger of a few years, could be moulded in the flaming furnace of
its fiery life, what then must be the cast of August Naab, born on the
desert, and sleeping five nights out of seven on the sands for sixty
years?

The desert! Hare trembled as he grasped all its meaning. Then he slowly
resolved that meaning. There were the measureless distances to narrow
the eye and teach restraint; the untrodden trails, the shifting sands,
the thorny brakes, the broken lava to pierce the flesh; the heights and
depths, unscalable and unplumbed. And over all the sun, red and burning.

The parched plants of the desert fought for life, growing far apart,
sending enormous roots deep to pierce the sand and split the rock for
moisture, arming every leaf with a barbed thorn or poisoned sap, never
thriving and ever thirsting.

The creatures of the desert endured the sun and lived without water, and
were at endless war. The hawk had a keener eye than his fellow of more
fruitful lands, sharper beak, greater spread of wings, and claws of
deeper curve. For him there was little to eat, a rabbit now, a rock-rat
then; nature made his swoop like lightning and it never missed its aim.
The gaunt wolf never failed in his sure scent, in his silent hunt. The
lizard flicked an invisible tongue into the heart of a flower; and the
bee he caught stung with a poisoned sting. The battle of life went to
the strong.

So the desert trained each of its wild things to survive. No eye of
the desert but burned with the flame of the sun. To kill or to escape
death--that was the dominant motive. To fight barrenness and heat--that
was stern enough, but each creature must fight his fellow.

What then of the men who drifted into the desert and survived? They must
of necessity endure the wind and heat, the drouth and famine; they must
grow lean and hard, keen-eyed and silent. The weak, the humble, the
sacrificing must be winnowed from among them. As each man developed he
took on some aspect of the desert--Holderness had the amber clearness
of its distances in his eyes, its deceit in his soul; August Naab, the
magnificence of the desert-pine in his giant form, its strength in his
heart; Snap Naab, the cast of the hawk-beak in his face, its cruelty
in his nature. But all shared alike in the common element of
survival--ferocity. August Naab had subdued his to the promptings of
a Christ-like spirit; yet did not his very energy, his wonderful
tirelessness, his will to achieve, his power to resist, partake of that
fierceness? Moreover, after many struggles, he too had been overcome by
the desert's call for blood. His mystery was no longer a mystery. Always
in those moments of revelation which he disclaimed, he had seen himself
as faithful to the desert in the end.

Hare's slumbers that night were broken. He dreamed of a great gray
horse leaping in the sky from cloud to cloud with the lightning and the
thunder under his hoofs, the storm-winds sweeping from his silver mane.
He dreamed of Mescal's brooding eyes. They were dark gateways of the
desert open only to him, and he entered to chase the alluring stars
deep into the purple distance. He dreamed of himself waiting in serene
confidence for some unknown thing to pass. He awakened late in the
morning and found the house hushed. The day wore on in a repose
unstirred by breeze and sound, in accord with the mourning of August
Naab. At noon a solemn procession wended its slow course to the shadow
of the red cliff, and as solemnly returned.

Then a long-drawn piercing Indian whoop broke the midday hush. It
heralded the approach of the Navajos. In single-file they rode up the
lane, and when the falcon-eyed Eschtah dismounted before his white
friend, the line of his warriors still turned the corner of the red
wall. Next to the chieftain rode Scarbreast, the grim war-lord of the
Navajos. His followers trailed into the grove. Their sinewy bronze
bodies, almost naked, glistened wet from the river. Full a hundred
strong were they, a silent, lean-limbed desert troop.

"The White Prophet's fires burned bright," said the chieftain. "Eschtah
is here."

"The Navajo is a friend," replied Naab. "The white man needs counsel and
help. He has fallen upon evil days."

"Eschtah sees war in the eyes of his friend."

"War, chief, war! Let the Navajo and his warriors rest and eat. Then we
shall speak."

A single command from the Navajo broke the waiting files of warriors.
Mustangs were turned into the fields, packs were unstrapped from the
burros, blankets spread under the cottonwoods. When the afternoon waned
and the shade from the western wall crept into the oasis, August Naab
came from his cabin clad in buckskins, with a large blue Colt swinging
handle outward from his left hip. He ordered his sons to replenish
the fire which had been built in the circle, and when the fierce-eyed
Indians gathered round the blaze he called to his women to bring meat
and drink.

Hare's unnatural calmness had prevailed until he saw Naab stride out
to front the waiting Indians. Then a ripple of cold passed over him.
He leaned against a tree in the shadow and watched the gray-faced giant
stalking to and fro before his Indian friends. A long while he strode
in the circle of light to pause at length before the chieftains and to
break the impressive silence with his deep voice.

"Eschtah sees before him a friend stung to his heart. Men of his own
color have long injured him, yet have lived. The Mormon loved his
fellows and forgave. Five sons he laid in their graves, yet his heart
was not hardened. His first-born went the trail of the fire-water and is
an outcast from his people. Many enemies has he and one is a chief. He
has killed the white man's friends, stolen his cattle, and his water.
To-day the white man laid another son in his grave. What thinks the
chief? Would he not crush the scorpion that stung him?"

The old Navajo answered in speech which, when translated, was as stately
as the Mormon's.

"Eschtah respects his friend, but he has not thought him wise. The White
Prophet sees visions of things to come, but his blood is cold. He asks
too much of the white man's God. He is a chief; he has an eye like the
lightning, an arm strong as the pine, yet he has not struck. Eschtah
grieves. He does not wish to shed blood for pleasure. But Eschtah's
friend has let too many selfish men cross his range and drink at his
springs. Only a few can live on the desert. Let him who has found the
springs and the trails keep them for his own. Let him who came too late
go away to find for himself, to prove himself a warrior, or let his
bones whiten in the sand. The Navajo counsels his white friend to kill."

"The great Eschtah speaks wise words," said Naab. "The White Prophet is
richer for them. He will lay aside the prayers to his unseeing God, and
will seek his foe."

"It is well."

"The white man's foe is strong," went on the Mormon; "he has many men,
they will fight. If Eschtah sends his braves with his friend there will
be war. Many braves will fall. The White Prophet wishes to save them
if he can. He will go forth alone to kill his foe. If the sun sets four
times and the white man is not here, then Eschtah will send his great
war-chief and his warriors. They will kill whom they find at the white
man's springs. And thereafter half of all the white man's cattle that
were stolen shall be Eschtah's, so that he watch over the water and
range."

"Eschtah greets a chief," answered the Indian. "The White Prophet knows
he will kill his enemy, but he is not sure he will return. He is not
sure that the little braves of his foe will fly like the winds, yet he
hopes. So he holds the Navajo back to the last. Eschtah will watch the
sun set four times. If his white friend returns he will rejoice. If he
does not return the Navajo will send his warriors on the trail."

August Naab walked swiftly from the circle of light into the darkness;
his heavy steps sounded on the porch, and in the hallway. His three sons
went toward their cabins with bowed heads and silent tongues. Eschtah
folded his blanket about him and stalked off into the gloom of the
grove, followed by his warriors.

Hare remained in the shadow of the cottonwood where he had stood
unnoticed. He had not moved a muscle since he had heard August Naab's
declaration. That one word of Naab's intention, "Alone!" had arrested
him. For it had struck into his heart and mind. It had paralyzed him
with the revelation it brought; for Hare now knew as he had never known
anything before, that he would forestall August Naab, avenge the death
of Dave, and kill the rustler Holderness. Through blinding shock he
passed slowly into cold acceptance of his heritage from the desert.

The two long years of his desert training were as an open page to Hare's
unveiled eyes. The life he owed to August Naab, the strength built up by
the old man's knowledge of the healing power of plateau and range--these
lay in a long curve between the day Naab had lifted him out of the White
Sage trail and this day of the Mormon's extremity. A long curve with
Holderness's insulting blow at the beginning, his murder of a beloved
friend at the end! For Hare remembered the blow, and never would he
forget Dave's last words. Yet unforgetable as these were, it was duty
rather than revenge that called him. This was August Naab's hour of
need. Hare knew himself to be the tool of inscrutable fate; he was the
one to fight the old desert-scarred Mormon's battle. Hare recalled
how humbly he had expressed his gratitude to Naab, and the apparent
impossibility of ever repaying him, and then Naab's reply: "Lad, you can
never tell how one man may repay another." Hare could pay his own debt
and that of the many wanderers who had drifted across the sands to find
a home with the Mormon. These men stirred in their graves, and from out
the shadow of the cliff whispered the voice of Mescal's nameless father:
"Is there no one to rise up for this old hero of the desert?"

Softly Hare slipped into his room. Putting on coat and belt and catching
up his rifle he stole out again stealthily, like an Indian. In the
darkness of the wagon-shed he felt for his saddle, and finding it, he
groped with eager hands for the grain-box; raising the lid he filled a
measure with grain, and emptied it into his saddle-bag. Then lifting the
saddle he carried it out of the yard, through the gate and across the
lane to the corrals. The wilder mustangs in the far corral began to kick
and snort, and those in the corral where Black Bolly was kept trooped
noisily to the bars. Bolly whinnied and thrust her black muzzle over the
fence. Hare placed a caressing hand on her while he waited listening
and watching. It was not unusual for the mustangs to get restless at any
time, and Hare was confident that this would pass without investigation.

Gradually the restless stampings and suspicious snortings ceased, and
Hare, letting down the bars, led Bolly out into the lane. It was the
work of a moment to saddle her; his bridle hung where he always kept it,
on the pommel, and with nimble fingers he shortened the several straps
to fit Bolly's head, and slipped the bit between her teeth. Then he put
up the bars of the gate.

Before mounting he stood a moment thinking coolly, deliberately
numbering the several necessities he must not forget--grain for Bolly,
food for himself, his Colt and Winchester, cartridges, canteen, matches,
knife. He inserted a hand into one of his saddle-bags expecting to find
some strips of meat. The bag was empty. He felt in the other one, and
under the grain he found what he sought. The canteen lay in the coil of
his lasso tied to the saddle, and its heavy canvas covering was damp
to his touch. With that he thrust the long Winchester into its
saddle-sheath, and swung his leg over the mustang.

The house of the Naabs was dark and still. The dying council-fire cast
flickering shadows under the black cottonwoods where the Navajos slept.
The faint breeze that rustled the leaves brought the low sullen roar of
the river.

Hare guided Bolly into the thick dust of the lane, laid the bridle
loosely on her neck for her to choose the trail, and silently rode out
into the lonely desert night.





Next: Unleashed

Previous: The Swoop Of The Hawk



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