"BUT the man's almost dead."
The words stung John Hare's fainting spirit into life. He opened his eyes. The desert still stretched before him, the appalling thing that had overpowered him with its deceiving purple distance. Near by stood a sombre group of men.
"Leave him here," said one, addressing a gray-bearded giant. "He's the fellow sent into southern Utah to spy out the cattle thieves. He's all but dead. Dene's outlaws are after him. Don't cross Dene."
The stately answer might have come from a Scottish Covenanter or a follower of Cromwell.
"Martin Cole, I will not go a hair's-breadth out of my way for Dene or any other man. You forget your religion. I see my duty to God."
"Yes, August Naab, I know," replied the little man, bitterly. "You would cast the Scriptures in my teeth, and liken this man to one who went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among thieves. But I've suffered enough at the hands of Dene."
The formal speech, the Biblical references, recalled to the reviving Hare that he was still in the land of the Mormons. As he lay there the strange words of the Mormons linked the hard experience of the last few days with the stern reality of the present.
"Martin Cole, I hold to the spirit of our fathers," replied Naab, like one reading from the Old Testament. "They came into this desert land to worship and multiply in peace. They conquered the desert; they prospered with the years that brought settlers, cattle-men, sheep-herders, all hostile to their religion and their livelihood. Nor did they ever fail to succor the sick and unfortunate. What are our toils and perils compared to theirs? Why should we forsake the path of duty, and turn from mercy because of a cut-throat outlaw? I like not the sign of the times, but I am a Mormon; I trust in God."
"August Naab, I am a Mormon too," returned Cole, "but my hands are stained with blood. Soon yours will be if you keep your water-holes and your cattle. Yes, I know. You're strong, stronger than any of us, far off in your desert oasis, hemmed in by walls, cut off by canyons, guarded by your Navajo friends. But Holderness is creeping slowly on you. He'll ignore your water rights and drive your stock. Soon Dene will steal cattle under your very eyes. Don't make them enemies."
"I can't pass by this helpless man," rolled out August Naab's sonorous voice.
Suddenly, with livid face and shaking hand, Cole pointed westward. "There! Dene and his band! See, under the red wall; see the dust, not ten miles away. See them?"
The desert, gray in the foreground, purple in the distance, sloped to the west. Eyes keen as those of hawks searched die waste, and followed the red mountain rampart, which, sheer in bold height and processional in its craggy sweep, shut out the north. Far away little puffs of dust rose above the white sage, and creeping specks moved at a snail's pace.
"See them? Ah! then look, August Naab, look in the heavens above for my prophecy," cried Cole, fanatically. "The red sunset—the sign of the times—blood!"
A broad bar of dense black shut out the April sky, except in the extreme west, where a strip of pale blue formed background for several clouds of striking color and shape. They alone, in all that expanse, were dyed in the desert's sunset crimson. The largest projected from behind the dark cloud-bank in the shape of a huge fist, and the others, small and round, floated below. To Cole it seemed a giant hand, clutching, with inexorable strength, a bleeding heart. His terror spread to his companions as they stared.
Then, as light surrendered to shade, the sinister color faded; the tracing of the closed hand softened; flush and glow paled, leaving the sky purple, as if mirroring the desert floor. One golden shaft shot up, to be blotted out by sudden darkening change, and the sun had set.
"That may be God's will," said August Naab. "So be it. Martin Cole, take your men and go."
There was a word, half oath, half prayer, and then rattle of stirrups, the creak of saddles, and clink of spurs, followed by the driving rush of fiery horses. Cole and his men disappeared in a pall of yellow dust.
A wan smile lightened John Hare's face as he spoke weakly: "I fear your— generous act—can't save me … may bring you harm. I'd rather you left me—seeing you have women in your party."
"Don't try to talk yet," said August Naab. "You're faint. Here—drink." He stooped to Hare, who was leaning against a sage-bush, and held a flask to his lips. Rising, he called to his men: "Make camp, sons. We've an hour before the outlaws come up, and if they don't go round the sand-dune we'll have longer."
Hare's flagging senses rallied, and he forgot himself in wonder. While the bustle went on, unhitching of wagon-teams, hobbling and feeding of horses, unpacking of camp-supplies, Naab appeared to be lost in deep meditation or prayer. Not once did he glance backward over the trail on which peril was fast approaching. His gaze was fastened on a ridge to the east where desert line, fringed by stunted cedars, met the pale-blue sky, and for a long time he neither spoke nor stirred. At length he turned to the camp-fire; he raked out red coals, and placed the iron pots in position, by way of assistance to the women who were preparing the evening meal.
A cool wind blew in from the desert, rustling the sage, sifting the sand, fanning the dull coals to burning opals. Twilight failed and night fell; one by one great stars shone out, cold and bright. From the zone of blackness surrounding the camp burst the short bark, the hungry whine, the long-drawn-out wail of desert wolves.
"Supper, sons," called Naab, as he replenished the fire with an armful of grease-wood.
Naab's sons had his stature, though not his bulk. They were wiry, rangy men, young, yet somehow old. The desert had multiplied their years. Hare could not have told one face from another, the bronze skin and steel eye and hard line of each were so alike. The women, one middle-aged, the others young, were of comely, serious aspect.
"Mescal," called the Mormon.
A slender girl slipped from one of the covered wagons; she was dark, supple, straight as an Indian.
August Naab dropped to his knees, and, as the members of his family bowed their heads, he extended his hands over them and over the food laid on the ground.
"Lord, we kneel in humble thanksgiving. Bless this food to our use. Strengthen us, guide us, keep us as Thou hast in the past. Bless this stranger within our gates. Help us to help him. Teach us Thy ways, O Lord—Amen."
Hare found himself flushing and thrilling, found himself unable to control a painful binding in his throat. In forty-eight hours he had learned to hate the Mormons unutterably; here, in the presence of this austere man, he felt that hatred wrenched from his heart, and in its place stirred something warm and living. He was glad, for if he had to die, as he believed, either from the deed of evil men, or from this last struggle of his wasted body, he did not want to die in bitterness. That simple prayer recalled the home he had long since left in Connecticut, and the time when he used to tease his sister and anger his father and hurt his mother while grace was being said at the breakfast-table. Now he was alone in the world, sick and dependent upon the kindness of these strangers. But they were really friends—it was a wonderful thought.
"Mescal, wait on the stranger," said August Naab, and the girl knelt beside him, tendering meat and drink. His nerveless fingers refused to hold the cup, and she put it to his lips while he drank. Hot coffee revived him; he ate and grew stronger, and readily began to talk when the Mormon asked for his story.
"There isn't much to tell. My name is Hare. I am twenty-four. My parents are dead. I came West because the doctors said I couldn't live in the East. At first I got better. But my money gave out and work became a necessity. I tramped from place to place, ending up ill in Salt Lake City. People were kind to me there. Some one got me a job with a big cattle company, and sent me to Marysvale, southward over the bleak plains. It was cold; I was ill when I reached Lund. Before I even knew what my duties were for at Lund I was to begin work—men called me a spy. A fellow named Chance threatened me. An innkeeper led me out the back way, gave me bread and water, and said: 'Take this road to Bane; it's sixteen miles. If you make it some one'll give you a lift North.' I walked all night, and all the next day. Then I wandered on till I dropped here where you found me."
"You missed the road to Bane," said Naab. "This is the trail to White Sage. It's a trail of sand and stone that leaves no tracks, a lucky thing for you. Dene wasn't in Lund while you were there—else you wouldn't be here. He hasn't seen you, and he can't be certain of your trail. Maybe he rode to Bane, but still we may find a way—"
One of his sons whistled low, causing Naab to rise slowly, to peer into the darkness, to listen intently.
"Here, get up," he said, extending a hand to Hare. "Pretty shaky, eh? Can you walk? Give me a hold—there… . Mescal, come." The slender girl obeyed, gliding noiselessly like a shadow. "Take his arm." Between them they led Hare to a jumble of stones on the outer edge of the circle of light.
"It wouldn't do to hide," continued Naab, lowering his voice to a swift whisper, "that might be fatal. You're in sight from the camp-fire, but indistinct. By-and-by the outlaws will get here, and if any of them prowl around close, you and Mescal must pretend to be sweethearts. Understand? They'll pass by Mormon love-making without a second look. Now, lad, courage … Mescal, it may save his life."
Naab returned to the fire, his shadow looming in gigantic proportions on the white canopy of a covered wagon. Fitful gusts of wind fretted the blaze; it roared and crackled and sputtered, now illuminating the still forms, then enveloping them in fantastic obscurity. Hare shivered, per- haps from the cold air, perhaps from growing dread. Westward lay the desert, an impenetrable black void; in front, the gloomy mountain wall lifted jagged peaks close to the stars; to the right rose the ridge, the rocks and stunted cedars of its summit standing in weird relief. Suddenly Hare's fugitive glance descried a dark object; he watched intently as it moved and rose from behind the summit of the ridge to make a bold black figure silhouetted against the cold clearness of sky. He saw it distinctly, realized it was close, and breathed hard as the wind-swept mane and tail, the lean, wild shape and single plume resolved themselves into the unmistakable outline of an Indian mustang and rider.
"Look!" he whispered to the girl. "See, a mounted Indian, there on the ridge—there, he's gone—no, I see him again. But that's another. Look! there are more." He ceased in breathless suspense and stared fearfully at a line of mounted Indians moving in single file over the ridge to become lost to view in the intervening blackness. A faint rattling of gravel and the peculiar crack of unshod hoof on stone gave reality to that shadowy train.
"Navajos," said Mescal.
"Navajos!" he echoed. "I heard of them at Lund; 'desert hawks' the men called them, worse than Piutes. Must we not alarm the men?—You—aren't you afraid?
"But they are hostile."
"Not to him." She pointed at the stalwart figure standing against the firelight.
"Ah! I remember. The man Cole spoke of friendly Navajos. They must be close by. What does it mean?"
"I'm not sure. I think they are out there in the cedars, waiting."
"Waiting! For what?"
"Perhaps for a signal."
"Then they were expected?"
"I don't know; I only guess. We used to ride often to White Sage and Lund; now we go seldom, and when we do there seem to be Navajos near the camp at night, and riding the ridges by day. I believe Father Naab knows."
"Your father's risking much for me. He's good. I wish I could show my gratitude."
"I call him Father Naab, but he is not my father."
"A niece or granddaughter, then?"
"I'm no relation. Father Naab raised me in his family. My mother was a Navajo, my father a Spaniard."
"Why!" exclaimed Hare. "When you came out of the wagon I took you for an Indian girl. But the moment you spoke—you talk so well—no one would dream—"
"Mormons are well educated and teach the children they raise," she said, as he paused in embarrassment.
He wanted to ask if she were a Mormon by religion, but the question seemed curious and unnecessary. His interest was aroused; he realized suddenly that he had found pleasure in her low voice; it was new and strange, unlike any woman's voice he had ever heard; and he regarded her closely. He had only time for a glance at her straight, clean-cut profile, when she turned startled eyes on him, eyes black as the night. And they were eyes that looked through and beyond him. She held up a hand, slowly bent toward the wind, and whispered:
Hare heard nothing save the barking of coyotes and the breeze in the sage. He saw, however, the men rise from round the camp-fire to face the north, and the women climb into the wagon, and close the canvas flaps. And he prepared himself, with what fortitude he could command for the approach of the outlaws. He waited, straining to catch a sound. His heart throbbed audibly, like a muffled drum, and for an endless moment his ears seemed deadened to aught else. Then a stronger puff of wind whipped in, banging the rhythmic beat of flying hoofs. Suspense ended. Hare felt the easing of a weight upon him Whatever was to be his fate, it would be soon decided. The sound grew into a clattering roar. A black mass hurled itself over the border of opaque circle, plunged into tile light, and halted.
August Naab deliberately threw a bundle of grease-wood upon the camp-fire. A blaze leaped up, sending abroad a red flare. "Who comes?" he called.
"Friends, Mormons, friends," was the answer.
"Get down—friends—and come to the fire."
Three horsemen advanced to the foreground; others, a troop of eight or ten, remained in the shadow, a silent group.
Hare sank back against the stone. He knew the foremost of those horsemen though he had never seen him.
"Dene," whispered Mescal, and confirmed his instinctive fear.
Hare was nervously alive to the handsome presence of the outlaw. Glimpses that he had caught of "bad" men returned vividly as he noted the clean-shaven face, the youthful, supple body, the cool, careless mien. Dene's eyes glittered as he pulled off his gauntlets and beat the sand out of them; and but for that quick fierce glance his leisurely friendly manner would have disarmed suspicion.
"Are you the Mormon Naab?" he queried.
"August Naab, I am."
"Dry camp, eh? Hosses tired, I reckon. Shore it's a sandy trail. Where's the rest of you fellers?"
"Cole and his men were in a hurry to make White Sage to-night. They were travelling light; I've heavy wagons."
"Naab, I reckon you shore wouldn't tell a lie?"
"I have never lied."
"Heerd of a young feller thet was in Lund—pale chap—lunger, we'd call him back West?"
"I heard that he had been mistaken for a spy at Lund and had fled toward Bane."
"Hadn't seen nothin' of him this side of Lund?"
"Seen any Navvies?"
The outlaw stared hard at him. Apparently he was about to speak of the Navajos, for his quick uplift of head at Naab's blunt affirmative suggested the impulse. But he checked himself and slowly drew on his gloves.
"Naab, I'm shore comin' to visit you some day. Never been over thet range. Heerd you hed fine water, fine cattle. An' say, I seen thet little Navajo girl you have, an' I wouldn't mind seein' her again."
August Naab kicked the fire into brighter blaze. "Yes fine range," he presently replied, his gaze fixed on Dene. "Fine water, fine cattle, fine browse. I've a fine graveyard, too; thirty graves, and not one a woman's. Fine place for graves, the canyon country. You don't have to dig. There's one grave the Indians never named; it's three thousand feet deep."
"Thet must be in hell," replied Dene, with a smile, ignoring the covert meaning. He leisurely surveyed Naab's four sons, the wagons and horses, till his eye fell upon Hare and Mescal. With that he swung in his saddle as if to dismount.
"I shore want a look around."
"Get down, get down," returned the Mormon. The deep voice, unwelcoming, vibrant with an odd ring, would have struck a less suspicious man than Dene. The outlaw wrung his leg back over the pommel, sagged in the saddle, and appeared to be pondering the question. Plainly he was uncertain of his ground. But his indecision was brief.
"Two-Spot, you look 'em over," he ordered.
The third horseman dismounted and went toward the wagons.
Hare, watching this scene, became conscious that his fear had intensified with the recognition of Two-Spot as Chance, the outlaw whom he would not soon forget. In his excitement he moved against Mescal and felt her trembling violently.
"Are you afraid?" he whispered.
"Yes, of Dene."
The outlaw rummaged in one of the wagons, pulled aside the canvas flaps of the other, laughed harshly, and then with clinking spurs tramped through the camp, kicking the beds, overturning a pile of saddles, and making disorder generally, till he spied the couple sitting on the stone in the shadow.
As the outlaw lurched that way, Hare, with a start of recollection, took Mescal in his arms and leaned his head against hers. He felt one of her hands lightly brush his shoulder and rest there, trembling.
Shuffling footsteps scraped the sand, sounded nearer and nearer, slowed and paused.
"Sparkin'! Dead to the world. Ham! Haw! Haw!"
The coarse laugh gave place to moving footsteps. The rattling clink of stirrup and spur mingled with the restless stamp of horse. Chance had mounted. Dene's voice drawled out: "Good-bye, Naab, I shore will see you all some day." The heavy thuds of many hoofs evened into a roar that diminished as it rushed away.
In unutterable relief Hare realized his deliverance. He tried to rise, but power of movement had gone from him.
He was fainting, yet his sensations were singularly acute. Mescal's hand dropped from his shoulder; her cheek, that had been cold against his, grew hot; she quivered through all her slender length. Confusion claimed his senses. Gratitude and hope flooded his soul. Something sweet and beautiful, the touch of this desert girl, rioted in his blood; his heart swelled in exquisite agony. Then he was whirling in darkness; and he knew no more.