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Wanderer of the Wasteland
Zane Grey (1923) Country of origin: USA
Available texts by the same author here
Arallanes, the foreman, did not strike Adam as being typical of the Mexicans among whom he lived. He was not a little runt of a swarthy-skinned man, but well built, of a clean olive complexion and regular features.
After supper Arallanes invited Adam to ride up to the camp. Whereupon Margarita asked to be taken. Arallanes laughed, and then talked so fast that Adam could not understand. He gathered, however, that the empty ore train travelled up the canyon to the camp, there to remain until morning. Also Adam perceived that Margarita did not get along well with this man, who was her stepfather. They appeared on the verge of a quarrel. But the senora spoke a few soft words that worked magic upon Arallanes, though they did not change the passion of the girl. How swiftly she had paled! Her black eyes burned with a dusky fire. When she turned them upon Adam it was certain that he had a new sensation.
"Will not the gracious senor take Margarita to the dance?"
That was how Adam translated her swift, eloquent words. Embarrassed and hesitating, he felt that he cut a rather sorry figure before her. Then he realised the singular beauty of her big eyes, sloe black and brilliant, neither half veiled nor shy now, but bold and wide and burning, as if the issue at stake was not trivial.
Arallanes put a hand on Adam. "No, Senor," he said. "Some other time you may take Margarita."
"I--I shall be pleased," stammered Adam.
The girl's red lips curled in pouting scorn, and with a wonderful dusky flash of eyes she whirled away.
Outside, Arallanes led Adam across the sands, still with that familiar hand upon him.
"Boy," he said, in English, "that girl--she no blood of mine. She damn leetle wild cat--mucha Indian--on fire all time."
If ever Adam had felt the certainty of his youthful years, it had been during those last few moments. His collar was hot and tight. A sense of shock remained with him. He had not fortified himself at all, nor had he surrendered himself to recklessness. But to think of going to a dance this very night, in a mining camp, with a dusky-eyed little Spanish girl who appeared exactly what Arallanes had called her--the very idea took Adam's breath with the surprise of it, the wildness of it, the strange appeal to him.
"Senor veree beeg, but young--like colt," said Arallanes, with good nature. "Tenderfeet, the gamblers say...He mos dam' sure have tough feet soon on Picacho!"
"Well, Arallanes, that can't come too soon for me," declared Adam, and the statement seemed to give relief.
They climbed to the track where the ore train stood, already with labourers in almost every car. After a little wait that seemed long to the impatient Adam the train started. The track was built a few feet above the sand, but showed signs of having been submerged, and in fact washed out in places. The canyon was tortuous, and grew more so as it narrowed. Adam descried tunnels dug in the red walls and holes dug in gravel benches, which places Arallanes explained had been made by prospectors hunting for gold. It developed, however, that there was a considerable upgrade. That seemed a long five miles to Adam. The train halted and the labourers yelled merrily.
Arallanes led Adam up a long winding path, quite steep, and the other men followed in single file. When Adam reached a level once more, Arallanes called out, "Picacho!"
But he certainly could not have meant the wide gravelly plateau with its squalid huts, its adobe shacks, its rambling square of low flat buildings, like a stockade fort roofed with poles and dirt. Arallanes meant the mountain that dominated the place--Picacho, the Peak.
Adam faced the west as the sun was setting. The mountain, standing magnificently above the bold knobs and ridges around it, was a dark purple mass framed in sunset gold; and from its frowning summit, notched and edged, streamed a long ruddy golden ray of sunlight that shone down through a wind-worn hole. With the sun blocked and hidden except for that small aperture there was yet a wonderful effect of sunset. A ruddy haze, shading the blue, filled the canyons and the spaces. Picacho seemed grand there, towering to the sky, crowned in gold, aloof, unscalable, a massive rock sculptured by the ages.
Arallanes laughed at Adam, then sauntered on. Mexicans jabbered as they passed, and some of the white men made jocular comment at the boy standing there so wide-eyed and still. A little Irishman gaped at Adam and said to a comrade:
"Begorra, he's after seein' a peanut atop ole Picacho....What-th'-hell now, me young fri'nd? Come hev a drink."
The crowd passed on, and Arallanes lingered, making himself a cigarette the while.
Adam had not been prepared for such a spectacle of grandeur and desolation. He seemed to feel himself a mite flung there, encompassed by colossal and immeasurable fragments of upheaved rock, jagged and jutted, with never a softening curve, and all steeped in vivid and intense light. The plateau was a ridged and scarred waste, lying under the half circle of range behind, and sloping down toward where the river lay hidden. The range to the left bore a crimson crest, and it lost itself in a region of a thousand peaks. The range to the right was cold pure purple and it ended in a dim infinity. Between these ranges, far flung across the Colorado, loomed now with exquisite clearness in Adam's sight the mountain world he had gotten a glimpse of from below. But now he perceived its marvellous all-embracing immensity, magnified by the transparent light, its limitless horizon line an illusion, its thin purple distances unbelievable. The lilac-veiled canyons lay clear in his sight; the naked bones of the mountains showed hungrily the nature of the desert earth; and over all the vast area revealed by the setting sun lay the awful barrenness of a dead world, beautiful and terrible, with its changing rose and topaz hues only mockeries to the lover of life.
A hand fell upon Adam's shoulder.
"Come, let us look at games of gold and women," said Arallanes.
Then he led Adam into a big, poorly lighted, low-ceiled place, as crudely constructed as a shed, and full of noise and smoke. The attraction seemed to be a rude bar, various gambling games, and some hawk-faced, ghastly spectacles of women drinking with men at the tables. From an adjoining apartment came discordant music. This scene was intensely interesting to Adam, yet disappointing. His first sight of a wild frontier gambling hell did not thrill him.
It developed that Arallanes liked to drink and talk loud and laugh, and to take a bold chance at a gambling game. But Adam refused, and meant to avoid drinking as long as he could. He wandered around by himself, to find that everybody was merry and friendly. Adam tried not to look at any of the women while they looked at him. The apartment from which came the music was merely a bare canvas-covered room with a board floor. Dancing was going on.
Adam's aimless steps finally led him back to the sand-floored hall, where he became absorbed in watching a game of poker that a bystander said had no limit. Then Adam sauntered on, and presently was attracted by a quarrel among some Mexicans. To his surprise, it apparently concerned Arallanes. All of them showed the effects of liquor, and, after the manner of their kind, they were gesticulating and talking excitedly. Suddenly one of them drew a knife and lunged toward Arallanes. Adam saw the movement, and then the long shining blade, before he saw what the man looked like. That action silenced the little group.
The outstretched hand, quivering with the skewer-like dagger, paused in its sweep as it reached a point opposite Adam. Instinctively he leaped, and quick as a flash he caught the wrist in a grip so hard that the fellow yelled. Adam, now that he possessed the menacing hand, did not know what to do with it. With a powerful jerk he pulled the Mexican off his feet, and then, exerting his strength to his utmost, he swung him round, knocking over men and tables, until his hold loosened. The knife flew one way and the Mexican the other. He lay where he fell. Arallanes and his comrades made much of Adam.
"We are friends. You will drink with me," said Arallanes, grandly.
Though no one would have suspected it, Adam was really in need of something bracing.
"Senor is only a boy, but he has an arm," said Arallanes, as he clutched Adam's shoulder and biceps with a nervous hand. "When senor becomes a man he will be a giant."
Adam's next change of emotion was from fright to a sense of foolishness at his standing there. Then he had another drink, and after his feelings changed again, and for that matter the whole complexion of everything changed.
He never could have found the narrow path leading down into the canyon. Arallanes was his guide. Walking on the sandy floor was hard work and made him sweat. The loose sand and gravel dragged at his feet. Not long was it before he had walked off the effects of the strong liquor. He became curious as to why the Mexican had threatened Arallanes, and was told that during the day the foreman had discharged this fellow.
"He ran after Margarita," added Arallanes, "and I kicked him out of the house. The women, senor--ah! they do not mind what a man is!...Have a care of Margarita. She has as many loves and lives as a spotted cat."
For the most part, however, the two men were silent on this laborious walk. By and bye the canyon widened out so that Adam could view the great expanse of sky, fretted with fire, and the mountain spurs, rising on all sides, cold and dark against the blue. At last Arallanes announced that they were home. Adam had not seen a single house in the grey shadows. A few more steps, however, brought tangible substance of walls to Adam's touch. Then he drew a long deep breath and realised how tired he was. The darkness gradually changed from pitch black to a pale obscurity. He could see dim, spectral outlines of mesquites, and a star shining through. At first the night appeared to be absolutely silent, but after a while, by straining his ears, he heard a rustling of mice or ground squirrels in the adobe walls. The sound comforted him, however, and when one of them, or at least some little animal, ran softly, over his bed the feeling of utter loneliness was broken.
"I've begun it," he whispered, and meant the lonely life that was to be his. The silence, the darkness, the loneliness seemed to give him deeper thought. The thing that puzzled him and alarmed him was what seemed to be swift changes going on in him. If he changed his mind every hour, now cast down because of memories he could not wholly shake, or lifted to strange exaltation by the beauty of a desert sunset, or again swayed by the appeal of a girl's dusky eyes, and then instinctively leaping into a fight with a Mexican--if he were going to be as vacillating and wild as these impulses led him to suppose he might be, it was certain that he faced a hopeless future.
But could he help himself? Then it seemed his fine instincts, his fine principles, and the hopes and dreams that would not die, began to contend with a new up-rising force in him, a wilder something he had never known, a strange stirring and live emotion.
"But I'm glad," he burst out, as if telling his secret to the darkness. "Glad to be rid of Guerd--damn him and his meanness!...Glad to be alone!...Glad to come into this wild desert!...Glad that girl made eyes at me! I'll not lie to myself. I wanted to hug her--to kiss her--and I'll do it if she'll let me...That gambling hell disgusted me, and sight of the greaser's knife scared me cold. Yet when I got hold of him--felt my strength--how helpless he was--that I could have cracked his bones--why, scared as I was, I felt a strange wild something that is not gone yet...I'm changing. It's a different life. And I've got to meet things as they come, and be game."
Next morning Adam went to work and it developed that this was to copy MacKay's lead-pencil scrawls, and after that was done to keep accurate account of ore mined and operated.
Several days passed before Adam caught up with his work to the hour. Then MacKay, true to his word, said he would set him on a man's job part of the time. The job upon which MacKay put Adam was no less than keeping up the fire under the huge boilers. As wood had to be used for fuel and as it was consumed rapidly, the task of stoking was not easy. Besides, hot as the furnace was, it seemed the sun was hotter. Adam sweat till he could wring water out of his shirt.
That night he made certain MacKay was playing a joke on him. Arallanes confided this intelligence, and even Margarita had been let into the secret. MacKay had many labourers for the hard work, and he wanted to cure the tenderfoot of his desire for a man's job, such as he had asked for. It was all good-natured, and amused Adam. He imagined he knew what he needed, and while he was trying to find it he could have just as much fun as MacKay.
Much to MacKay's surprise, Adam presented himself next afternoon, in boots, overalls, and undershirt, to go on with his job of firing the engine.
"Wasn't yesterday enough?" queried the boss.
"I can stand it."
Then it pleased Adam to see a considerable evidence of respect, in the rough mill operator's expression. For a week Adam kept up with his office work and laboured each afternoon at the stoking job. No one suspected that he suffered, though it was plain enough that he lost flesh and was exceedingly fatigued. Then Margarita's reception of him, when he trudged home in the waning sunset hour, was sweet despite the fact that he tried to repudiate its sweetness. Once she put a little brown hand on his blistered arm, and her touch held the tenderness of woman. All women must be akin. They liked a man who could do things, and the greater his feats of labour or fight the better they liked him.
The following week MacKay took a Herculean labourer off a strenuous job with the ore and put Adam in his place. MacKay maintained his good humour, but he had acquired a little grimness. This long-limbed tenderfoot was a hard nut to crack. Adam's father had been a man of huge stature and tremendous strength; and many a time had Adam heard it said that he might grow to be like his father. Far indeed was he from that now; but he took the brawny and seasoned labourer's place and kept it. If the other job had been toil for Adam, this new one was pain. He learned there what labour meant. Also he learned how there was only one thing that common men understood and respected in a labourer, and it was the grit and muscle to stand the grind. Adam was eighteen years old and far from having reached his growth. This fact might have been manifest to his fellow workers, but it was not that which counted. He realised that those long hours of toil at which he stubbornly stuck had set his spirit in some immeasurable and unquenchable relation to the strange life that he divined was to be his.
Two weeks and more went by. MacKay, in proportion to the growth of his admiration and friendship for Adam, gradually weakened on his joke. And one day, when banteringly he dared Adam to tip a car of ore that two Mexicans were labouring at, and Adam in a single heave sent the tons of ore roaring into the shaft, then MacKay gave up and in true Western fashion swore his defeat and shook hands with the boy.
So in those few days Adam made friends who changed the colour and direction of his life. From Merryvale he learned the legend and history of the frontier. MacKay opened his eyes to the great health for mind and body in sheer toil. Arallanes represented a warmth of friendship that came unsought, showing what might be hidden in any man. Margarita was still an unknown quantity in Adam's development. Their acquaintance had gone on mostly under the eyes of the senora or Arallanes. Sometimes at sunset Adam had sat with her on the sand of the river bank. Her charm grew. Then the unexpected happened. A break occurred in the machinery and a small but invaluable part could not be repaired. It had to come from San Francisco.
Adam seemed to be thrown back upon his own resources. He did not know what to do with himself. Arallanes advised him not to go panning for gold, and to be cautious if he went up to Picacho, for the Mexican, Adam had so roughly handled was the ringleader in a bad gang that it would be well to avoid. All things conspired, it seemed, to throw Adam into the company of Margarita, who always waited around the corner of every hour watching with her dusky eyes.