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Wanderer of the Wasteland
Zane Grey (1923) Country of origin: USA
Available texts by the same author here
For Adam's questions Margarita had a shy, "Si, senor," and the same subtle smile that had attracted him. Whereupon he took up his pack and followed her.
Back from the river the sand was thick and heavy, clean and white. The girl led down a path bordered by willows and mesquites which opened into a clearing where stood several squat adobe houses.
Margarita stopped at the first house. The girl's mother appeared to be an indolent person, rather careless of her attire. She greeted Adam in English, but when he exercised some of his laborsome Spanish her dark face beamed with smiles that made it pleasant to behold. The little room indoors, to which she led Adam, was dark, poorly ventilated, and altogether unsatisfactory. Adam said so. The senora waxed eloquent. Margarita managed to convey her great disappointment by one swift look. Then they led him outdoors and round under the low-branching mesquites, where he had to stoop, to a small structure. The walls were made of two rows of long slender poles, nailed upon heavier uprights at the corners, and between these rows had been poured wet adobe mud. The hut contained two rooms, the closed one full of wood and rubbish, and the other, which had an open front, like a porch, faced the river. It was empty, with a floor of white sand. This appeared very much to Adam's liking, and he agreed upon a price for it, to the senora's satisfaction and Margarita's shy rapture. Adam saw the latter with some misgiving, yet he was pleased, and in spite of himself he warmed toward this pretty senorita who had apparently taken a sudden fancy to him. He was a stranger in a strange land, with a sore and yearning heart. While Adam untied his pack and spread out its contents the women fetched a low bench, a bucket of water, and a basin. These simple articles constituted the furniture of his new lodgings. He was to get his meals at the house, where, it was assured, he would be well cared for. In moving away, Margarita, who was looking back, caught her hair in a thorny branch of the mesquite. Adam was quick to spring to her assistance. Then she ran off after her mother.
"What eyes! Well, well!" exclaimed Adam, sensible of a warmth along his veins. Suddenly at that moment he thought of his brother Guerd. "I'm glad he's not here." Margarita had prompted that thought. Guerd was a handsome devil, irresistible to women. Adam went back to his unpacking, conscious of a sobered enthusiasm.
He hung his few clothes and belongings upon the walls, made his bed of blankets on the sand, and then surveyed the homely habitation with pleasure.
He found the old fisherman in precisely the same posture. Adam climbed on board the boat.
"Get any bites?" he queried.
"I believe I jest had one," replied the fisherman.
Adam saw that he was about fifty years old, lean and dried, with a wrinkled tanned face and scant beard.
"Have a smoke," said Adam, proffering one of the last of his cigars. "Lordy!" ejaculated the fisherman, his eyes lighting. "When have I seen one of them?...Young man, you're an obligin' feller. What's your name?"
Adam told him, and that he hailed from the East and had been a tenderfoot for several memorable weeks.
"My handle's Merryvale," replied the other. "I came West twenty-eight years ago when I was about your age. Reckon you're about twenty."
"No. Only eighteen. Say, you must have almost seen the old days of 'forty-nine."
"It was in 'fifty. Yes, I was in the gold rush."
"Did you strike any gold?" asked Adam, eagerly.
"Son, I was a prospector for twenty years. I've made an' lost more than one fortune. Drink an' faro an' bad women!...And now I'm a broken-down night watchman at Picacho."
"I'm sorry," said Adam, sincerely. "I'll bet you've seen some great old times. Won't you tell me about them? You see, I'm footloose now and sort of wild."
Merryvale nodded sympathetically. He studied Adam with eyes that were shrewd and penetrating, for all their kindliness. Wherefore Adam talked frankly about himself and his travels West. Merryvale listened with a nod now and then.
"Son, I hate to see the likes of you hittin' this gold diggin's," he said.
"Why? Oh, I can learn to take care of myself. It must be a man's game. I'll love the desert."
"Wal, son, I oughtn't to discourage you," replied Merryvale. "An' it ain't fair for me to think because I went wrong, an' because I seen so many boys go wrong, thet you'll do the same...But this gold diggin's is a hell of a place for a tough old timer, let alone a boy runnin' wild."
And then he began to talk like a man whose memory was a vast treasure store of history and adventure and life. Gold had been discovered at Picacho in 1864. In 1872 the mill was erected near the river, and the ore was mined five miles up the canyon and hauled down on a narrow-gauge railroad. The machinery and construction for this great enterprise, together with all supplies, were brought by San Francisco steamers round into the Gulf of California, loaded on smaller steamers, and carried up the Colorado River to Picacho. These steamers also hauled supplies to Yuma and Ehrenberg, where they were freighted by wagon trains into the interior. At the present time, 1878, the mine was paying well and there were between five and six hundred men employed. The camp was always full of adventurers and gamblers, together with a few bad women whose capacity for making trouble magnified their number.
"Down here at the boat landin' an' the mill it's always sorta quiet," said Merryvale. "You see, there ain't many men here. An' the gamblin' hells are all up at the camp, where, in fact, everybody goes of an evenin'. Lord knows I've bucked the tiger in every gold camp in California. There's a fever grips a man. I never seen the good of gold to the man thet dug it....So, son, if you're askin' me for a hunch, let me tell you, drink little an' gamble light an' fight shy of the females!"
"Merryvale, I'm more of a tenderfoot than I look, I guess," replied Adam. "You'd hardly believe I never drank till I started West a few months ago. I can't stand liquor."
Adam's face lost its brightness and his eyes shadowed, though they held frankly to Merryvale's curious gaze.
"Son, you're a strappin' youngster an' you've got looks no woman will pass by," said Merryvale. "An' in this country the preference of women brings trouble. Wal, for thet matter, all the trouble anywheres is made by them. But in the desert, where it's wild an' hot an' there's few females of any species, the fightin' gets bloody."
"Women have been the least of my fights or troubles," rejoined Adam. "But lately I had a--a little more serious affair--that ended suddenly before I fell in deep."
"Lordy! son, you'll be a lamb among wolves!" broke in Merryvale. "See here, I'm goin' to start you right. This country is no place for a nice clean boy, more's the shame and pity. Every man who gets on in the West, let alone in the desert where the West is magnified, has got to live up to the standard. He must work, he must endure, he must fight men, he must measure up to women. I ain't sayin' it's a fine standard, but it's the one by which men have survived in a hard country at a hard time."
"Survival of the fittest," muttered Adam, soberly.
"You've said it, son. Thet law makes the livin' things of this desert, whether man or otherwise. Quien sabe? You can never tell what's in a man till he's tried. Son, I've known desert men whose lives were beyond all understandin'. But not one man in a thousand can live on the desert. Thet has to do with his mind first; then his endurance. But to come back to this here Picacho. I'd not be afraid to back you against it if you meet it right."
"How is that?"
"Lordy! son, I wish I could say the right word," returned Merryvale, in pathetic earnestness. "You ain't to be turned back?"
"No. I'm here for better or worse. Back home I had my hopes, my dreams. They're gone--vanished...I've no near relatives except a brother who--who is not my kind. I didn't want to come West. But I seem to have been freed from a cage. This grand wild desert! It will do something wonderful--or terrible with me."
"Wal, wal, you talk like you look," replied Merryvale, with a sigh. "Time was, son, when a hunch of mine might be doubtful. But now I'm old, an' as I go down the years I remember more my youth an' I love it more. You can trust me." Then he paused, taking a deep breath, as if his concluding speech involved somehow his faith in himself and his good will to a stranger. "Be a man with your body! Don't shirk work or play or fight. Eat an' drink an' be merry, but don't live jest for thet. Lend a helpin' hand--be generous with your gold. Put aside a third of your earnin's for gamblin' an' look to lose it. Don't ever get drunk. You can't steer clear of women, good or bad. An' the only way is to be game an' kind an' square."
"Game--kind--square," mused Adam, thoughtfully.
"Wal, I need a new fishin' line," said Merryvale, as he pulled in his rod. "We'll go up to the store an' then I'll take you to the mill."
While passing the adobe house where Adam had engaged board and lodging he asked his companion the name of the people.
"Arallanes--Juan Arallanes lives there," replied Merryvale. "An' he's the whitest greaser I ever seen. He's a foreman of the Mexicans employed at the mill. His wife is nice, too. But thet black-eyed hussy Margarita----"
Merryvale shook his grizzled head, but did not complete his dubious beginning. The suggestion piqued Adam's curiosity. Presently Merryvale pointed out a cluster of huts and cabins and one rather pretentious stone house, low and square, with windows. Both white- and dark-skinned children were playing on the sand in the shady places. Idle men lounged in front of the stone house, which Merryvale said was the store. Upon entering, Adam saw a complete general store of groceries, merchandise, hardware, and supplies; and he felt amazed until he remembered how the river steamers made transportation easy as far as the border of the desert. Then Merryvale led on to the huge structure of stone and iron and wood that Adam had espied from far up the river. As Adam drew near he heard the escape of steam, the roar of heavy machinery, and a sound that must have been a movement and crushing of ore, with a rush of flowing water.
Merryvale evidently found the manager, who was a man of medium height, powerfully built, with an unshaven broad face, strong and ruddy. He wore a red-flannel shirt, wet with sweat, a gun at his belt, overalls thrust into cowhide boots; and altogether he looked a rough and practical miner.
"Mac, shake hands with my young friend here," said Merryvale. "He wants a job."
"Howdy!" replied the other, proffering a big hand that Adam certainly felt belonged to a man. Also he was aware of one quick all-embracing glance. "Are you good at figures?"
"Why, yes," answered Adam, "but I want to work."
"All right. You can help me in the office where I'm stuck. An' I'll give you outside work, besides. To-morrow." And with this brusque promise the manager strode away in a hurry.
"Mac don't get time to eat," explained Merryvale. Adam had to laugh at the incident. Here he had been recommended by a stranger, engaged to work for a man whose name he had not heard and who had not asked his, and no mention made of wages. Adam liked this simplicity.
A man must pass in this country for what he was.
Merryvale went on his way then, leaving Adam alone. It seemed to Adam, as he pondered there, that his impressions of that gold mill did not auger well for a satisfaction with his job. He had no distaste for hard labour, though to bend over a desk did not appeal to him. Then he turned his gaze to the river and valley. What a splendid scene! The green borderland offered soft and relieving contrast to the bare and grisly ridges upon which stood. At that distance the river shone red gold, sweeping through its rugged iron gateway and winding majestically down the valley to lose itself round a bold bluff.
Adam drew a long breath. A scene like this world of mountain wilderness, of untrodden ways, was going to take hold of him. And then, singularly, there flashed into memory an image of the girl, Margarita. Just then Adam resented thought of her. It was not because she had made eyes at him--for he had to confess this was pleasing but because he did not like the idea of a deep and vague emotion running parallel in his mind with thought of a roguish and coquettish little girl, of doubtful yet engaging possibilities.
"I think too much," declared Adam. It was action he needed. Work, play, hunting, exploring, even gold digging--anything with change of scene and movement of muscle--these things that he had instinctively felt to be the need of his body, now seemed equally the need of his soul.