The Sombre Line





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."



"About me!"



"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 in 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?"



"That's it."



"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--"



"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 closed 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?"



"Yes."



"Don't you want to live?"



"Of course."



"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.





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