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The Scent Of Desert-water








From: The Heritage Of The Desert

SOON the shepherds were left to a quiet unbroken by the whistle of
wild mustangs, the whoop of hunters, the ring of iron-shod hoofs on the
stones. The scream of an eagle, the bleating of sheep, the bark of a
coyote were once more the only familiar sounds accentuating the silence
of the plateau. For Hare, time seemed to stand still. He thought but
little; his whole life was a matter of feeling from without. He rose at
dawn, never failing to see the red sun tip the eastern crags; he glowed
with the touch of cold spring-water and the morning air; he trailed
Silvermane under the cedars and thrilled when the stallion, answering
his call, thumped the ground with hobbled feet and came his way,
learning day by day to be glad at sight of his master. He rode with
Mescal behind the flock; he hunted hour by hour, crawling over the
fragrant brown mats of cedar, through the sage and juniper, up the
grassy slopes. He rode back to camp beside Mescal, drove the sheep,
and put Silvermane to his fleetest to beat Black Bolly down the level
stretch where once the gray, even with freedom at stake, had lost to the
black. Then back to camp and fire and curling blue smoke, a supper that
testified to busy Piute's farmward trips, sunset on the rim, endless
changing desert, the wind in the cedars, bright stars in the blue, and
sleep--so time stood still.

Mescal and Hare were together, or never far apart, from dawn to night.
Until the sheep were in the corral, every moment had its duty, from
camp-work and care of horses to the many problems of the flock, so that
they earned the rest on the rim-wall at sundown. Only a touch of hands
bridged the chasm between them. They never spoke of their love, of
Mescal's future, of Jack's return to hearth; a glance and a smile,
scarcely sad yet not altogether happy, was the substance of their dream.
Where Jack had once talked about the canyon and desert, he now seldom
spoke at all. From watching Mescal he had learned that to see was
enough. But there were moments when some association recalled the
past and the strangeness of the present faced him. Then he was wont to
question Mescal.

"What are you thinking of?" he asked, curiously, interrupting their
silence. She leaned against the rocks and kept a changeless, tranquil,
unseeing gaze on the desert. The level eyes were full of thought, of
sadness, of mystery; they seemed to look afar.

Then she turned to him with puzzled questioning look and enigmatical
reply. "Thinking?" asked her eyes. "I wasn't thinking," were her words.

"I fancied--I don't know exactly what," he went on. "You looked so
earnest. Do you ever think of going to the Navajos?"

"No."

"Or across that Painted Desert to find some place you seem to know, or
see?"

"No."

"I don't know why, but, Mescal, sometimes I have the queerest ideas when
I catch your eyes watching, watching. You look at once happy and sad.
You see something out there that I can't see. Your eyes are haunted.
I've a feeling that if I'd look into them I'd see the sun setting, the
clouds coloring, the twilight shadows changing; and then back of that
the secret of it all--of you--Oh! I can't explain, but it seems so."

"I never had a secret, except the one you know," she answered. "You ask
me so often what I think about, and you always ask me when we're here."
She was silent for a pause. "I don't think at all till you make me. It's
beautiful out there. But that's not what it is to me. I can't tell you.
When I sit down here all within me is--is somehow stilled. I watch--and
it's different from what it is now, since you've made me think. Then I
watch, and I see, that's all."

It came to Hare afterward with a little start of surprise that Mescal's
purposeless, yet all-satisfying, watchful gaze had come to be part of
his own experience. It was inscrutable to him, but he got from it a
fancy, which he tried in vain to dispel, that something would happen to
them out there on the desert.

And then he realized that when they returned to the camp-fire they
seemed freed from this spell of the desert. The blaze-lit circle was
shut in by the darkness; and the immensity of their wild environment,
because for the hour it could not be seen, lost its paralyzing effect.
Hare fell naturally into a talkative mood. Mescal had developed a
vivacity, an ambition which contrasted strongly with her silent moods;
she became alive and curious, human like the girls he had known in the
East, and she fascinated him the more for this complexity.

The July rains did not come; the mists failed; the dews no longer
freshened the grass, and the hot sun began to tell on shepherds and
sheep. Both sought the shade. The flowers withered first--all the
blue-bells and lavender patches of primrose, and pale-yellow lilies, and
white thistle-blossoms. Only the deep magenta of cactus and vermilion
of Indian paint-brush, flowers of the sun, survived the heat. Day by day
the shepherds scanned the sky for storm-clouds that did not appear. The
spring ran lower and lower. At last the ditch that carried water to
the corral went dry, and the margin of the pool began to retreat. Then
Mescal sent Piute down for August Naab.

He arrived at the plateau the next day with Dave and at once ordered the
breaking up of camp.

"It will rain some time," he said, "but we can't wait any longer. Dave,
when did you last see the Blue Star waterhole?"

"On the trip in from Silver Cup, ten days ago. The waterhole was full
then."

"Will there be water enough now?"

"We've got to chance it. There's no water here, and no springs on the
upper range where we can drive sheep; we've got to go round under the
Star."

"That's so," replied August. His fears needed confirmation, because his
hopes always influenced his judgment till no hope was left. "I wish I
had brought Zeke and George. It'll be a hard drive, though we've got
Jack and Mescal to help."

Hot as it was August Naab lost no time in the start. Piute led the train
on foot, and the flock, used to following him, got under way readily.
Dave and Mescal rode along the sides, and August with Jack came behind,
with the pack-burros bringing up the rear. Wolf circled them all,
keeping the flanks close in, heading the lambs that strayed, and, ever
vigilant, made the drive orderly and rapid.

The trail to the upper range was wide and easy of ascent, the first of
it winding under crags, the latter part climbing long slopes. It forked
before the summit, where dark pine trees showed against the sky, one
fork ascending, the other, which Piute took, beginning to go down. It
admitted of no extended view, being shut in for the most part on the
left, but there were times when Hare could see a curving stream of sheep
on half a mile of descending trail. Once started down the flock could
not be stopped, that was as plain as Piute's hard task. There were times
when Hare could have tossed a pebble on the Indian just below him, yet
there were more than three thousand sheep, strung out in line between
them. Clouds of dust rolled up, sheets of gravel and shale rattled down
the inclines, the clatter, clatter, clatter of little hoofs, the steady
baa-baa-baa filled the air. Save for the crowding of lambs off the
trail, and a jamming of sheep in the corners, the drive went on without
mishap. Hare was glad to see the lambs scramble back bleating for their
mothers, and to note that, though peril threatened at every steep turn,
the steady down-flow always made space for the sheep behind. He was
glad, too, when through a wide break ahead his eye followed the face of
a vast cliff down to the red ground below, and he knew the flock would
soon be safe on the level.

A blast as from a furnace smote Hare from this open break in the wall.
The air was dust-laden, and carried besides the smell of dust and the
warm breath of desert growths, a dank odor that was unpleasant.

The sheep massed in a flock on the level, and the drivers spread to
their places. The route lay under projecting red cliffs, between the
base and enormous sections of wall that had broken off and fallen
far out. There was no weathering slope; the wind had carried away the
smaller stones and particles, and had cut the huge pieces of pinnacle
and tower into hollowed forms. This zone of rim merged into another of
strange contrast, the sloping red stream of sand which flowed from the
wall of the canyon.

Piute swung the flock up to the left into an amphitheatre, and there
halted. The sheep formed a densely packed mass in the curve of the wall.
Dave Naab galloped back toward August and Hare, and before he reached
them shouted out: "The waterhole's plugged!"

"What?" yelled his father.

"Plugged, filled with stone and sand."

"Was it a cave-in?"

"I reckon not. There's been no rain."

August spurred his roan after Dave, and Hare kept close behind them,
till they reined in on a muddy bank. What had once been a waterhole was
a red and yellow heap of shale, fragments of stones, gravel, and sand.
There was no water, and the sheep were bleating. August dismounted and
climbed high above the hole to examine the slope; soon he strode down
with giant steps, his huge fists clinched, shaking his gray mane like a
lion.

"I've found the tracks! Somebody climbed up and rolled the stones,
started the cave-in. Who?"

"Holderness's men. They did the same for Martin Cole's waterhole at
Rocky Point. How old are the tracks?"

"Two days, perhaps. We can't follow them. What can be done?"

"Some of Holderness's men are Mormons, and others are square fellows.
They wouldn't stand for such work as this, and somebody ought to ride in
there and tell them."

"And get shot up by the men paid to do the dirty work. No. I won't hear
of it. This amounts to nothing; we seldom use this hole, only twice a
year when driving the flock. But it makes me fear for Silver Cup and
Seeping Springs."

"It makes me fear for the sheep, if this wind doesn't change."

"Ah! I had forgotten the river scent. It's not strong to-night. We might
venture if it wasn't for the strip of sand. We'll camp here and start
the drive at dawn."

The sun went down under a crimson veil; a dull glow spread, fan-shaped,
upward; twilight faded to darkness with the going down of the wind.
August Naab paced to and fro before his tired and thirsty flock.

"I'd like to know," said Hare to Dave, "why those men filled up this
waterhole."

"Holderness wants to cut us off from Silver Cup Spring, and this was a
half-way waterhole. Probably he didn't know we had the sheep upland,
but he wouldn't have cared. He's set himself to get our cattle range and
he'll stop at nothing. Prospects look black for us. Father never gives
up. He doesn't believe yet that we can lose our water. He prays and
hopes, and sees good and mercy in his worst enemies."

"If Holderness works as far as Silver Cup, how will he go to work to
steal another man's range and water?"

"He'll throw up a cabin, send in his men, drive in ten thousand steers."

"Well, will his men try to keep you away from your own water, or your
cattle?"

"Not openly. They'll pretend to welcome us, and drive our cattle away in
our absence. You see there are only five of us to ride the ranges, and
we'd need five times five to watch all the stock."

"Then you can't stop this outrage?"

"There's only one way," said Dave, significantly tapping the black
handle of his Colt. "Holderness thinks he pulls the wool over our eyes
by talking of the cattle company that employs him. He's the company
himself, and he's hand and glove with Dene."

"And I suppose, if your father and you boys were to ride over to
Holderness's newest stand, and tell him to get off there would be a
fight."

"We'd never reach him now, that is, if we went together. One of us alone
might get to see him, especially in White Sage. If we all rode over to
his ranch we'd have to fight his men before we reached the corrals. You
yourself will find it pretty warm when you go out with us on the ranges,
and if you make White Sage you'll find it hot. You're called 'Dene's
spy' there, and the rustlers are still looking for you. I wouldn't worry
about it, though."

"Why not, I'd like to know?" inquired Hare, with a short laugh.

"Well, if you're like the other Gentiles who have come into Utah you
won't have scruples about drawing on a man. Father says the draw comes
natural to you, and you're as quick as he is. Then he says you can beat
any rifle shot he ever saw, and that long-barrelled gun you've got will
shoot a mile. So if it comes to shooting--why, you can shoot. If you
want to run--who's going to catch you on that white-maned stallion? We
talked about you, George and I; we're mighty glad you're well and can
ride with us."

Long into the night Jack Hare thought over this talk. It opened up a
vista of the range-life into which he was soon to enter. He tried to
silence the voice within that cried out, eager and reckless, for the
long rides on the windy open. The years of his illness returned in
fancy, the narrow room with the lamp and the book, and the tears over
stories and dreams of adventure never to be for such as he. And now
how wonderful was life! It was, after all, to be full for him. It was
already full. Already he slept on the ground, open to the sky. He looked
up at a wild black cliff, mountain-high, with its windworn star of blue;
he felt himself on the threshold of the desert, with that subtle mystery
waiting; he knew himself to be close to strenuous action on the ranges,
companion of these sombre Mormons, exposed to their peril, making their
cause his cause, their life his life. What of their friendship, their
confidence? Was he worthy? Would he fail at the pinch? What a man he
must become to approach their simple estimate of him! Because he had
found health and strength, because he could shoot, because he had the
fleetest horse on the desert, were these reasons for their friendship?
No, these were only reasons for their trust. August Naab loved him.
Mescal loved him; Dave and George made of him a brother. "They shall
have my life," he muttered.

The bleating of the sheep heralded another day. With the brightening
light began the drive over the sand. Under the cliff the shade was cool
and fresh; there was no wind; the sheep made good progress. But the
broken line of shade crept inward toward the flock, and passed it. The
sun beat down, and the wind arose. A red haze of fine sand eddied
about the toiling sheep and shepherds. Piute trudged ahead leading the
king-ram, old Socker, the leader of the flock; Mescal and Hare rode
at the right, turning their faces from the sand-filled puffs of
wind; August and Dave drove behind; Wolf, as always, took care of the
stragglers. An hour went by without signs of distress; and with half the
five-mile trip at his back August Naab's voice gathered cheer. The sun
beat hotter. Another hour told a different story--the sheep labored;
they had to be forced by urge of whip, by knees of horses, by Wolf's
threatening bark. They stopped altogether during the frequent hot
sand-blasts, and could not be driven. So time dragged. The flock
straggled out to a long irregular line; rams refused to budge till they
were ready; sheep lay down to rest; lambs fell. But there was an end to
the belt of sand, and August Naab at last drove the lagging trailers out
upon the stony bench.

The sun was about two hours past the meridian; the red walls of the
desert were closing in; the V-shaped split where the Colorado cut
through was in sight. The trail now was wide and unobstructed and the
distance short, yet August Naab ever and anon turned to face the canyon
and shook his head in anxious foreboding.

It quickly dawned upon Hare that the sheep were behaving in a way new
and singular to him. They packed densely now, crowding forward, many
raising their heads over the haunches of others and bleating. They
were not in their usual calm pattering hurry, but nervous, excited, and
continually facing west toward the canyon, noses up.

On the top of the next little ridge Hare heard Silvermane snort as he
did when led to drink. There was a scent of water on the wind. Hare
caught it, a damp, muggy smell. The sheep had noticed it long before,
and now under its nearer, stronger influence began to bleat wildly, to
run faster, to crowd without aim.

"There's work ahead. Keep them packed and going. Turn the wheelers,"
ordered August.

What had been a drive became a flight. And it was well so long as the
sheep headed straight up the trail. Piute had to go to the right to
avoid being run down. Mescal rode up to fill his place. Hare took his
cue from Dave, and rode along the flank, crowding the sheep inward.
August cracked his whip behind. For half a mile the flock kept to the
trail, then, as if by common consent, they sheered off to the right.
With this move August and Dave were transformed from quiet almost
to frenzy. They galloped to the fore, and into the very faces of the
turning sheep, and drove them back. Then the rear-guard of the flock
curved outward.

"Drive them in!" roared August.

Hare sent Silvermane at the deflecting sheep and frightened them into
line.

Wolf no longer had power to chase the stragglers; they had to be turned
by a horse. All along the flank noses pointed outward; here and there
sheep wilder than the others leaped forward to lead a widening wave
of bobbing woolly backs. Mescal engaged one point, Hare another, Dave
another, and August Naab's roan thundered up and down the constantly
broken line. All this while as the shepherds fought back the sheep, the
flight continued faster eastward, farther canyonward. Each side gained,
but the flock gained more toward the canyon than the drivers gained
toward the oasis.

By August's hoarse yells, by Dave's stern face and ceaseless swift
action, by the increasing din, Hare knew terrible danger hung over the
flock; what it was he could not tell. He heard the roar of the river
rapids, and it seemed that the sheep heard it with him. They plunged
madly; they had gone wild from the scent and sound of water. Their eyes
gleamed red; their tongues flew out. There was no aim to the rush of
the great body of sheep, but they followed the leaders and the leaders
followed the scent. And the drivers headed them off, rode them down,
ceaselessly, riding forward to check one outbreak, wheeling backward to
check another.

The flight became a rout. Hare was in the thick of dust and din, of the
terror-stricken jumping mob, of the ever-starting, ever-widening streams
of sheep; he rode and yelled and fired his Colt. The dust choked him,
the sun burned him, the flying pebbles cut his cheek. Once he had a
glimpse of Black Bolly in a melee of dust and sheep; Dave's mustang
blurred in his sight; August's roan seemed to be double. Then
Silvermane, of his own accord, was out before them all.

The sheep had almost gained the victory; their keen noses were pointed
toward the water; nothing could stop their flight; but still the drivers
dashed at them, ever fighting, never wearying, never ceasing.

At the last incline, where a gentle slope led down to a dark break in
the desert, the rout became a stampede. Left and right flanks swung
round, the line lengthened, and round the struggling horses, knee-deep
in woolly backs, split the streams to flow together beyond in one
resistless river of sheep. Mescal forced Bolly out of danger; Dave
escaped the right flank, August and Hare swept on with the flood, till
the horses, sighting the dark canyon, halted to stand like rocks.

"Will they run over the rim?" yelled Hare, horrified. His voice came to
him as a whisper. August Naab, sweat-stained in red dust, haggard, gray
locks streaming in the wind, raised his arms above his head, hopeless.

The long nodding line of woolly forms, lifting like the crest of a
yellow wave, plunged out and down in rounded billow over the canyon
rim. With din of hoofs and bleats the sheep spilled themselves over the
precipice, and an awful deafening roar boomed up from the river, like
the spreading thunderous crash of an avalanche.

How endless seemed that fatal plunge! The last line of sheep, pressing
close to those gone before, and yet impelled by the strange instinct of
life, turned their eyes too late on the brink, carried over by their own
momentum.

The sliding roar ceased; its echo, muffled and hollow, pealed from the
cliffs, then rumbled down the canyon to merge at length in the sullen,
dull, continuous sound of the rapids.

Hare turned at last from that narrow iron-walled cleft, the depth of
which he had not seen, and now had no wish to see; and his eyes fell
upon a little Navajo lamb limping in the trail of the flock, headed for
the canyon, as sure as its mother in purpose. He dismounted and seized
it to find, to his infinite wonder and gladness, that it wore a string
and bell round its neck. It was Mescal's pet.





Next: Riding The Ranges

Previous: The Breaker Of Wild Mustangs



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