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Wanderer of the Wasteland
Zane Grey (1923) Country of origin: USA
Available texts by the same author here
Adam Larey gazed with hard and wondering eyes down the silent current of the red river upon which he meant to drift away into the desert.
The Rio Colorado was no river to trust. It chafed at its banks as if to engulf them; muddy and thick it swirled and glided along in flood, sweeping in curves back and forth from Arizona to California shore. Majestic and gleaming under the hot sky, it swung southward between wide green borders of willow and cottonwood toward a stark and naked upflung wilderness of mountain peaks, the red ramparts of the unknown and trackless desert.
Adam rushed down the bank and threw his pack into a boat. There his rapid action seemed checked by the same violence that had inspired his haste. He looked back, up at the dusty adobe town of Ehrenberg, asleep now under the glaring noonday heat. It would not wake out of that siesta till the return of the weary gold diggers, or the arrival of the stagecoach or the steamer. A tall Indian, swarthy and unkempt, stood motionless in the shade of a wall, watching stolidly.
Adam broke down then. Sobs made his utterance incoherent. "Guerd is no brother--of mine--any more!" he burst out. His accent was one of humiliation and cheated love. "And as for--for her--I'll never--never think of her--again."
When once more he turned to the river, a spirit wrestled with the emotion that had unnerved him. Adam Larey appeared to be a boy of eighteen, with darkly tanned, clear-cut and comely face, and a lofty stature, straight and spare and wide. Untying the boat from its mooring, he became conscious of a singular thrill. Sight of the silent river fascinated him. If it had been drink that had fortified his reckless resolve, it was some strange call to the wildness in him that had stirred exaltation in the prospect of adventure. But there was more. Never again to be dominated by that selfish Guerd, his brother who had taken all and given nothing. Guerd would be stung by this desertion. Perhaps he would be sorry. That thought gave Adam a pang. Long habit of being influenced, and strength of love fostered in playmate days, these made him waver. But the tide of resentment surged up once more; and there flowed the red Colorado, rolling away to the southwest, a gateway to the illimitable wastes of desert land, with its mystery, its adventure, its gold and alluring freedom.
"I'll go," he declared, passionately, and with a shove he sent the boat adrift and leaped over the prow to the rowing seat. The boat floated lazily, half circling, till it edged into the current; then, as if grasped by unseen power, it glided downstream. Adam seemed to feel the resistless current of this mysterious river take hold of his heart. There would be no coming back--no breasting that mighty flood with puny oars. The moment was sudden and poignant in its revelation. How swiftly receded the cluster of brown adobe huts, the sombre, motionless Indian! He had left Ehrenberg behind, and a brother who was his only near relative, and a little sum of love that had failed him.
"I'm done with Guerd forever," he muttered, looking back with hard dry eyes. "It's his fault. Mother always warned me....Ah! if she had lived I would still be home. Home! and not here--in this awful desert of heat and wastelands--among men like wolves and women like..."
He did not finish the thought, but from his pack he took a bottle that glittered in the sunlight, and, waving it defiantly at the backward scene of glare and dust and lonely habitation, he drank deeply. Then he flung the bottle from him with a violent gesture of repulsion. He had no love for strong drink. The bottle fell with hollow splash, rode the muddy swirls, and sank. Whereupon Adam applied himself to the oars with long and powerful sweep.
In that moment of bitter soliloquy there had flashed through Adam Larey's mind memories and pictures of the past--the old homestead back East, vivid and unforgettable--the sad face of his mother, who had loved him as she had never loved his brother Guerd. There had been a mystery about the father who had died in Adam's childhood. Adam thought of these facts now, seeing a vague connection between them and his presence there alone upon that desert river. When his mother died she had left all her money to him. But Adam had shared his small fortune with Guerd. That money had been the beginning of evil days. If it had not changed Guerd it had awakened slumbering jealousy and passion. Guerd squandered his share and disgraced himself in the home town. Then had begun his ceaseless importunity for Adam to leave college, to see life, to seek adventures, to sail round the Horn to the California gold fields. Adam had been true to the brother spirit within him and the voice of the tempter had fallen upon too thrilling ears. Yearning to be with his brother, and to see wild life upon his own account, Adam yielded to the importunity. He chose, however, to travel westward by land. At various points en route Guerd had fallen in with evil companions, among whom he seemed to feel freer. At Tucson he launched himself upon the easy and doubtful career of a gambler, which practice did not spare even his brother. At Ehrenberg, Guerd had found life to his liking--a mining and outfitting post remote from civilization, where he made friends compatible with his lately developed tastes, where he finally filched the favour of dark eyes that had smiled first upon Adam.
It was a June sun that burned down upon the Colorado desert and its red river. Adam Larey had taken to rowing the boat with a powerful energy. But the fiery liquor he had absorbed and the intense heat beating down upon him soon prostrated him, half-drunk and wholly helpless, upon the bottom of the leaky boat, now at the mercy of the current.
Strangest of all rivers was the Rio Colorado. Many names it had borne, though none so fitting and lasting as that which designated its colour. Neither crimson nor scarlet was it, nor any nameable shade of red, yet somehow red was its hue. Like blood with life gone from it! With its source at high altitude, fed by snow fields and a thousand lakes and streams, the Colorado stormed its great canyoned confines with a mighty torrent; and then, spent and levelled, but still tremendous and insatiate, it bore down across the desert with its burden of silt and sand. It was silent, it seemed to glide along, yet it was appalling.
The boat that carried Adam Larey might as well have been a rudderless craft in an ocean current. Slowly round and round it turned, as if every rod of the river was an eddy, sweeping near one shore and then the other. The hot hours of the afternoon waned. Sunset was a glaring blaze without clouds. Cranes and bitterns swept in lumbering flight over the wide green crests of the bottom lands, and desert buzzards sailed down from the ruddy sky. The boat drifted on. Before darkness fell the boat had drifted out of the current into a back eddy, where slowly it rode round and round, at last to catch hold of the arrow-weeds and lodge in a thicket.
At dawn Adam Larey awoke, sober enough, but sick and aching, parched with thirst. The eastern horizon, rose-flushed and golden, told him of the advent of another day. He thrilled even in his misery. Scooping up the muddy and sand-laden water, which was cold and held a taste of snow, he quenched his thirst and bathed his hot face. Then opening his pack, he took out food he had been careful to bring.
Then he endeavoured to get his bearings. Adam could see by the stain on the arrow-weeds that the flood had subsided a foot during the night. A reasonable calculation was that he had drifted a good many miles. "I'll row till it gets hot, then rest up in a shady place," he decided. Pushing away from the reeds, he set the oars and rowed out to meet the current. As soon as that caught him the motion became exhilarating. By and bye, what with the exercise and the cool breeze of morning on his face and the sweet, dank smell of river lowlands, he began to wear off the effects of the liquor and with it the disgust and sense of unfitness with which it had left him. Then at length gloom faded from his mind, though a pang abided in his breast. It was not an unfamiliar sensation. Resolutely he faced that wide travelling river, grateful for something nameless that seemed borne on its bosom, conscious of a strange expansion of his soul, ready to see, to hear, to smell, to feel, to taste the wildness and wonder of freedom as he had dreamed it.
The sun rose, and Adam's face and hands felt as if some hot material thing had touched them. He began to sweat, which was all that was needed to restore his usual healthy feeling of body. From time to time he saw herons, and other long-legged waterfowl, and snipe flitting over the sand bars, and sombre, grey-hued birds that he could not name. The spell of river or desert hovered over these birds. The fact brought to Adam the strange nature of this silence. Like an invisible blanket it covered all, water and brush and land.
"It's desert silence," he said, wonderingly.
When he raised the oars and rested them there seemed absolutely no sound. And this fact struck him overpoweringly with its meaning and with a sudden unfamiliar joy. On the gentle wind came a fragrant hot breath that mingled with the rank odour of flooded bottom lands. The sun, hot as it was, felt good upon his face and back. He loved the sun, as he hated the cold.
"Maybe Guerd's coaxing me West will turn out well for me," soliloquised Adam, with resurging boyish hope. "As the Mexicans say, Quien sabe?"
At length he espied a sloping bank where it appeared safe to risk landing. This was a cove comparatively free of brush, and the bank sloped gradually to the water. The summit of the bank was about forty or fifty feet high, and before Adam had wholly ascended it he began to see the bronze tips of mountains on all sides.
"By Jove!" exclaimed Adam. "No sign of man! No sign of life!"
Some distance from the river bank stood a high knoll. Adam climbed to the top of it, and what he saw here made him yearn for the mountain peaks. He had never stood at any great elevation. Southward the Colorado appeared to enter a mountain gateway and to turn and disappear.
When he had refreshed himself with food and drink he settled himself into a comfortable position to rest and sleep a little while. He had plucked at the roots of love, but not yet had he torn it from his heart. Guerd, his brother! The old boyhood days flashed up. Adam found the pang deep in his heart and ineradicable. The old beautiful bond, the something warm and intimate between him and Guerd, was gone for ever. For its loss there could be no recompense. He knew every hour would sever him the farther from this brother who had proved false. Adam hid his face in the dry grass, and there in the loneliness of that desert he began to see into the gulf of his soul.
"I can fight--I can forget!" he muttered. Then he set his mind to the problem of his immediate future. Where would he go? There were two points below on the river Picacho, a mining camp, and Yuma, a frontier town--about both of which he had heard strange, exciting tales. And at that moment Adam felt a reckless eagerness for adventure, and a sadness for the retreating of his old dream of successful and useful life. At length he fell asleep.
When he awoke he felt hot and wet with sweat. A luminous gold light shone through the willows and there was vivid colour in the west. He had slept hours. When he moved to sit up he heard rustlings in the willows. These unseen creatures roused interest and caution in Adam. In his travels across Arizona he had passed through wild places and incidents. And remembering tales of bad Indians, bad Mexicans, bad white men, and the fierce beasts and reptiles of the desert, Adam fortified himself to encounters that must come.
When he stepped out of the shady covert it was to see river and valley as if encompassed by an immense loneliness, different, somehow, for the few hours of his thought and slumber. The river seemed redder and the mountains veiled in ruby haze. Earth and sky were bathed in the hue of sunset light.
He descended to the river. Shoving the boat off, he applied himself to the oars. His strong strokes, aided by the current, sent the boat along swiftly, perhaps ten miles an hour. The rose faded out of the sky, the clouds turned drab, the blue deepened, and a pale star shone. Twilight failed. With the cooling of the air Adam lay back more powerfully upon the oars. Night fell, and one by one, and then many by many, the stars came out. This night ride began to be thrilling. There must have been danger ahead. By night the river seemed vast, hurrying, shadowy, and silent as the grave. Its silence wore upon Adam until it seemed unnatural.
As the stars multiplied and brightened, the deep cut where the river wound changed its character, becoming dark and clear where it had been gloomily impenetrable. The dim, high outlines of the banks showed, and above them loomed the black domes of mountains. From time to time he turned the boat, and resting upon his oars, he drifted with the current, straining his eyes and ears. These moments of inaction brought the cold, tingling prickle of skin up and down his back. It was impossible not to be afraid, yet he thrilled even in his fear. In the clear obscurity of the night he could see several rods ahead of him over the gleaming river. But the peril that haunted Adam seemed more in the distant shadows, round the bends. What a soundless, nameless, unintelligible river! To be alone on a river like that, so vast, so strange, with the grand and solemn arch of heaven blazed and clouded white by stars, taught a lesson incalculable in its effects.
The hour came when an invisible something, like a blight, passed across the heavens, paling the blue, dimming the starlight. The intense purity of the sky sustained a dull change, then darkened. Adam welcomed the first faint gleam of light over the eastern horizon. It brightened. The wan stars faded. The mountains heightened their clearness of silhouette, and along the bold, dark outlines appeared a faint rose colour, herald of the sun. It deepened, it spread as the grey light turned pink and yellow. The shadows lifted from the river valley and it was day again.
"Always I have slept away the great hour," said Adam. An exhilaration uplifted him.
He drifted round a bend in the river while once more eating sparingly of his food; and suddenly he espied a high column of smoke rising to the southwest. Whereupon he took the oars again and, having become rested and encouraged, he rowed with a stroke that would make short work of the few miles to the camp.
"Picacho!" soliloquised Adam, remembering tales he had heard. "Now what shall I do?...I'll work at anything." He carried a considerable sum of money in a belt round his waist--the last of the money left him by his mother, and he wanted to keep it as long as possible.
Adam was not long in reaching the landing, which appeared to be only a muddy bank. A small, dilapidated stern-wheel steamer, such as Adam had seen on the Ohio River, lay resting upon the mud. On the bow sat a gaunt weather-beaten man with a grizzled beard. He held a long crooked fishing pole out over the water, and evidently was fishing. The bank sloped up to fine white sand and a dense growth of green, in the middle of which there appeared to be a narrow lane. Here in a flowing serape stood a Mexican girl, slender and small, with a single touch of red in all her darkness of dress.
Adam ran the boat ashore. Lifting his pack, he climbed a narrow bench of the bank and walked down to a point opposite the fisherman. Adam greeted him and inquired if this place was Picacho.
"Mornin' stranger," came the reply. "Yes, this here's the gold diggin's, an' she's hummin' these days."
"Catching any fish?" Adam inquired, with interest.
"Yep; I ketched one day before yestiddy," replied the man, complacently.
"What kind?" went on Adam.
"I'll be doggoned if I know, but he was good to eat," answered the angler, with a grin. "Where you hail from, stranger?"
"So I reckoned. No Westerner would tackle the Colorado when she was in flood. I opine you hit the river at Ehrenberg. Wal, you're lucky. Goin' to prospect for gold?"
"No, I'd rather work. Can I get a job here?"
"Son, if you're as straight as you look you can get a good job. But a husky lad like you, if he stayed sober, could strike it rich in the diggin's."
"How about a place to eat and sleep?"
"Thet ain't so easy to find up at the camp. It's a few miles up the canyon. But say, I'm forgettin' about the feller who stayed here with the Mexicans. They jest buried him. You could get his place. It's the 'dobe house--first one. Ask Margarita, there. She'll show you."
Thus directed, Adam saw the Mexican girl standing above him. Climbing the path to the top of the bank, he threw down his pack.
"Buenas dias, senor." The girl's soft, liquid accents fitted a dark, piquant little face, framed by hair as black as the wing of a raven, and lighted by big eyes, like night.
Adam's Spanish was not that of the Mexicans, but it enabled him to talk fairly well. He replied to the girl's greeting, yet hesitated with the query he had on his lips. He felt a slight shrinking as these dark eyes reminded him of others of like allurement which he had willed to forget. Yet he experienced a warmth and thrill of pleasure in a pretty face. Women invariably smiled upon Adam. This one, a girl in her teens, smiled with half-lowered eyes, the more provocative for that; and she turned partly away with a lithe, quick grace. Adam's hesitation had been a sudden chill at the proximity of something feminine and attractive--of something that had hurt him. But it passed. He had done more than boldly step across the threshold of a new and freer life.