PAN OF THE DESERT
Even to a high-flying bird this was a country to be passed over quickly. It was burned and brown, littered with fragments of rock, whether vast or small, as if the refuse were tossed here after the making of the world. A passing shower drenched the bald knobs of a range of granite hills and the slant morning sun set the wet rocks aflame with light. In a short time the hills lost their halo and resumed their brown. The moisture evaporated. The sun rose higher and looked sternly across the desert as if he searched for any remaining life which still struggled for existence under his burning course.
And he found life. Hardy cattle moved singly or in small groups and browsed on the withered bunch grass. Summer scorched them, winter humped their backs with cold and arched up their bellies with famine, but they were a breed schooled through generations for this fight against nature. In this junk-shop of the world, rattlesnakes were rulers of the soil. Overhead the buzzards, ominous black specks pendant against the white-hot sky, ruled the air.
It seemed impossible that human beings could live in this rock-wilderness. If so, they must be to other men what the lean, hardy cattle of the hills are to the corn-fed stabled beeves of the States.
Over the shoulder of a hill came a whistling which might have been attributed to the wind, had not this day been deathly calm. It was fit music for such a scene, for it seemed neither of heaven nor earth, but the soul of the great god Pan come back to earth to charm those nameless rocks with his wild, sweet piping. It changed to harmonious phrases loosely connected. Such might be the exultant improvisations of a master violinist.
A great wolf, or a dog as tall and rough coated as a wolf, trotted around the hillside. He paused with one foot lifted and lolling, crimson tongue, as he scanned the distance and then turned to look back in the direction from which he had come. The weird music changed to whistled notes as liquid as a flute. The sound drew closer. A horseman rode out on the shoulder and checked his mount. One could not choose him at first glance as a type of those who fight nature in a region where the thermometer moves through a scale of a hundred and sixty degrees in the year to an accompaniment of cold-stabbing winds and sweltering suns. A thin, handsome face with large brown eyes and black hair, a body tall but rather slenderly made—he might have been a descendant of some ancient family of Norman nobility; but could such proud gentry be found riding the desert in a tall-crowned sombrero with chaps on his legs and a red bandana handkerchief knotted around his throat? That first glance made the rider seem strangely out of place in such surroundings. One might even smile at the contrast, but at the second glance the smile would fade, and at the third, it would be replaced with a stare of interest. It was impossible to tell why one respected this man, but after a time there grew a suspicion of unknown strength in this lone rider, strength like that of a machine which is stopped but only needs a spark of fire to plunge it into irresistible action. Strangely enough, the youthful figure seemed in tune with that region of mighty distances, with that white, cruel sun, with that bird of prey hovering high, high in the air.
It required some study to guess at these qualities of the rider, for they were such things as a child feels more readily than a grown man; but it needed no expert to admire the horse he bestrode. It was a statue in black marble, a steed fit for a Shah of Persia! The stallion stood barely fifteen hands, but to see him was to forget his size. His flanks shimmered like satin in the sun. What promise of power in the smooth, broad hips! Only an Arab poet could run his hand over that shoulder and then speak properly of the matchless curve. Only an Arab could appreciate legs like thin and carefully drawn steel below the knees; or that flow of tail and windy mane; that generous breast with promise of the mighty heart within; that arched neck; that proud head with the pricking ears, wide forehead, and muzzle, as the Sheik said, which might drink from a pint-pot.
A rustling like dried leaves came from among the rocks and the hair rose bristling around the neck of the wolflike dog. With outstretched head he approached the rocks, sniffing, then stopped and turned shining eyes upon his master, who nodded and swung from the saddle. It was a little uncanny, this silent interchange of glances between the beast and the man. The cause of the dog's anxiety was a long rattler which now slid out from beneath a boulder, and giving its harsh warning, coiled, ready to strike. The dog backed away, but instead of growling he looked to the man.
Cowboys frequently practise with their revolvers at snakes, but one of the peculiarities of this rider was that he carried no gun, neither six-shooter nor rifle. He drew out a short knife which might be used to skin a beef or carve meat, though certainly no human being had ever used such a weapon against a five-foot rattler. He stooped and rested both hands on his thighs. His feet were not two paces from the poised head of the snake. As if marvelling at this temerity, the big rattler tucked back his head and sounded the alarm again. In response the cowboy flashed his knife in the sun. Instantly the snake struck but the deadly fangs fell a few inches short of the riding boots. At the same second the man moved. No eye could follow the leap of his hand as it darted down and fastened around the snake just behind the head. The long brown body writhed about his wrist, with rattles clashing. He severed the head deftly and tossed the twisting mass back on the rocks.
Then, as if he had performed the most ordinary act, he rubbed his gloves in the sand, cleansed his knife in a similar manner, and stepped back to his horse. Contrary to the rules of horse-nature, the stallion had not flinched at sight of the snake, but actually advanced a high-headed pace or two with his short ears laid flat on his neck, and a sudden red fury in his eyes. He seemed to watch for an opportunity to help his master. As the man approached after killing the snake the stallion let his ears go forward again and touched his nose against his master's shoulder. When the latter swung into the saddle, the wolf-dog came to his side, reared, and resting his forefeet on the stirrup stared up into the rider's face. The man nodded to him, whereat, as if he understood a spoken word, the dog dropped back and trotted ahead. The rider touched the reins and galloped down the easy slope. The little episode had given the effect of a three-cornered conversation. Yet the man had been as silent as the animals.
In a moment he was lost among the hills, but still his whistling came back, fainter and fainter, until it was merely a thrilling whisper that dwelt in the air but came from no certain direction.
His course lay towards a road which looped whitely across the hills. The road twisted over a low ridge where a house stood among a grove of cottonwoods dense enough and tall enough to break the main force of any wind. On the same road, a thousand yards closer to the rider of the black stallion, was Morgan's place.