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Wanderer of the Wasteland
Zane Grey (1923) Country of origin: USA
Available texts by the same author here
So as the slow, solemn days drifted onward, like the wonderful river which dominated the desert valley, it came to pass that the dreaming, pondering Adam suddenly awakened to the danger in this dusky-eyed maiden.
The realisation came to Adam at the still sunset hour when he and Margarita were watching the river slide like a gleam of gold out of the west. They were walking among the scattered mesquites along the sandy bank, a place lonesome and hidden from the village behind, yet open to the wide space of river and valley beyond. The air seemed full of marvelous tints of gold and rose and purple. The majestic scene, beautiful and sad, needed life to make it perfect. Adam, more than usually drawn by Margarita's sympathy, was trying to tell her something of the burden on his mind, that he was alone in the world, with only a hard grey future before him, with no one to care whether he lived or died.
Then had come his awakening. It did not speak well for Margarita's conceptions of behavior, but it proved her a creature of heart and blood. To be suddenly enveloped by a wind of flame, in the slender twining form of this girl of Spanish nature, was for Adam at once a revelation and a catastrophe. But if he was staggered, he was also responsive, as in a former moment of poignancy he had vowed he would be. A strong and shuddering power took hold of his heart and he felt the leap, the beat, the burn of his blood. When he lifted Margarita and gathered her in a close embrace it was more than a hot upflashing of boyish passion that flushed his face and started tears from under his tight-shut eyelids. It was a sore hunger for he knew not what, a gratefulness that he could express only by violence, a yielding to something deeper and more far-reaching than was true of the moment.
Adam loosened Margarita's hold upon his neck and held her back from him so he could see her face. It was sweet, rosy. Her eyes were shining, black and fathomless as night, soft with a light that had never shone upon Adam from any other woman's.
"Girl, do you--love me?" he demanded, and if his voice broke with the strange eagerness of a boy, his look had all the sternness of a man.
"Ah...!" whispered Margarita.
"You--you big-hearted girl!" he exclaimed, with a laugh that was glad, yet had a tremor in it. "Margarita, I--I must love you, too--since I feel so queer."
Then he bent to her lips, and from these first real kisses that had ever been spent upon him by a woman he realised in one flash his danger. He released Margarita in a consideration she did not comprehend; and in her pouting reproach, her soft-eyed appeal, her little brown hands that would not let go of him, there was further menace to his principles.
Adam, gay and teasing, yet kindly and tactfully, tried to find a way to resist her.
"Senorita, some one will see us," he said.
"But, child, we--we must think."
"Senor, no woman ever thinks when love is in her heart and on her lips."
Her reply seemed to rebuke Adam, for he sensed in it what might be true of life, rather than just of this one little girl, swayed by unknown and uncontrollable forces. She appeared to him then subtly and strongly, as if there was infinitely more than willful love in her. But it did not seem to be the peril of her proffered love that restrained Adam so much as the strange consciousness of the willingness of his spirit to meet hers halfway.
Suddenly Margarita's mood changed. She became like a cat that had been purring under a soft, agreeable hand and then had been stroked the wrong way.
"Senor think he love me?" she flashed, growing white.
"Yes--I said so--Margarita. Of course I do," he hastened to assure her.
"Maybe you--a gringo liar!"
Adam might have resented this insulting hint but for his uncertainty of himself, his consequent embarrassment, and his thrilling sense of the nearness of her blazing eyes. What a little devil she looked! This did not antagonize Adam, but it gave him proof of his impudence, of his dreaming carelessness. Margarita might not be a girl to whom he should have made love, but it was too late. Besides, he did not regret that. Only he was upset; he wanted to think.
"If the grande senor trifle--Margarita will cut out his heart!"
This swift speech, inflexible and wonderful with a passion that revealed to Adam the half-savage nature of a woman whose race was alien to his, astounded and horrified him, and yet made his blood tingle wildly.
"Margarita, I do not trifle," replied Adam, earnestly. "God knows I'm glad you--you care for me. How have I offended you? What is it you want?"
"Let senor swear he love me," she demanded, imperiously.
Adam answered to that with the wildness that truly seemed flashing more and more from him; and the laughter and boldness on his lips hid the gravity that had settled there. He was no clod. Under the softness of him hid a flint that struck fire.
As Margarita had been alluring and provocative, then as furious as a barbarian queen, so she now changed again to another personality in which it pleased her to be proud, cold, aloof, an outraged woman to be wooed back to tenderness. If, at the last moment of the walk home, Margarita evinced signs of another sudden transformation, Adam appeared not to note them. Leaving her in the dusk at the door where the senora sat, he strode away to the bank of the river. When he felt himself free and safe once more, he let out a great breath of relief.
"Whew! Now I've done it!...So, she'd cut my heart out? And I had to swear I loved her! The little savage!...But she's amazing--and she's adorable, with all her cat claws. Wouldn't Guerd rave over a girl like Margarita?...And here I am, standing on my two feet, in possession of all my faculties, Adam Larey, a boy who thought he had principles--yet now I'm a ranting lover of a dark-skinned, black-eyed slip of a greaser girl! It can't be true!"
With that outburst came sobering thought. Adam's resolve not to ponder and brood about himself was as if it had never been. He knew he would never make such a resolve again. For hours he strolled up and down the sandy bank, deep in thought, yet aware of the night and the stars, the encompassing mountains, and the silent, gleaming river winding away in the gloom. As he had become used to being alone out in the solitude and darkness, there had come to him a vague awakening sense of their affinity with his nature. Success and people might fail and betray him, but the silent, lonely starlit nights were going to be teachers, even as they had been to the Wise Men of the Arabian waste.
Adam at length gave up in despair and went to bed, hoping in slumber to forget a complexity of circumstance and emotion that seemed to him an epitome of his callow helplessness. The desert began to loom to Adam as a region inimical to comfort and culture. He had almost decided that the physical nature of the desert was going to be good for him. But what of its spirit, mood, passion as typified by Margarita Arallanes?
Adam could ask himself that far-reaching query, and yet, all the answer he got was a rush of hot blood at memory of the sweet fire of her kisses. He saw her to be a simple child of the desert, like an Indian, answering to savage impulses, wholly unconscious of what had been a breach of womanly reserve and restraint. Was she good or bad? How could she be bad if she did not know any better? Thus Adam pondered and conjectured, and cursed his ignorance, and lamented his failings, all the time honest to acknowledge that he was fond of Margarita and drawn to her. About the only conclusion he formed from his perplexity was the one that he owed it to Margarita to live up to his principles.
At this juncture he recollected Merryvale's significant remarks about the qualities needed by men who were to survive in the desert, and his nobler sentiments suffered a rout. The suddenness, harshness, fierceness of the desert grafted different and combating qualities upon a man or else it snuffed him out, like a candle blown by a gusty wind.
Next morning, as every morning, the awakening was sweet, fresh, new, hopeful. Another day! And the wonderful dry keenness of the air, the colours that made the earth seem a land of enchantment, were enough in themselves to make life worth living. In the morning he always felt like a boy.
Margarita's repentance for her moods of yesterday took a material turn in the preparation of an unusually good breakfast for Adam. He was always hungry and good meals were rare. Adam liked her attentions, and he encouraged them; though not before the senora or Arallanes, for the former approved too obviously and the latter disapproved too mysteriously.
When, some time later, a boat arrived, Adam was among the first to meet it at the dock.
He encountered MacKay coming ashore in the company of a man and two women, one of whom was young. The manager showed a beaming face for the first time in many days. Repairs for the mill engine had come. MacKay at once introduced Adam to the party; and it so turned out that presently the manager, who was extremely busy, left his friends for Adam to entertain. They were people whom Adam liked immediately, and as the girl was pretty, of a blonde type seldom seen in the south-west, it seemed to Adam that his task was more than agreeable, He showed them around the little village and then explained how interesting it would be for them to see the gold mill. How long a time it seemed since he had been in the company of a girl like those he had known at home! She was merry, intelligent, a little shy.
He was invited aboard the boat to have lunch with the mother and daughter. Everything tended to make this a red-letter day for Adam. The hours passed all too swiftly and time came for the boat to depart. When the boat swung free from the shore Adam read in the girl's eyes the thought keen in his own mind--that they would never meet again. The round of circumstances might never again bring a girl like that into Adam's life, if it were to be lived in these untrodden ways. He waved his hand with all the eloquence which it would express. Then the obtruding foliage on the bank hid the boat and the girl was gone. His last thought was a selfish one--that his brother Guerd would not see her at Ehrenberg.
Some of MacKay's labourers were working with unloaded freight on the dock. One of these was Regan, the little Irishman who had been keen to mark Adam on several occasions. He winked at MacKay and pointed at Adam.
"Mac, shure thot boy's a divil with the wimmen!"
MacKay roared with laughter and looked significantly past Adam as if this mirth was not wholly due to his presence alone. Someone else seemed implicated. Suddenly Adam turned. Margarita stood there, with face and mien of a tragedy queen, and it seemed to Adam that her burning black eyes did not see anything in the world but him. Then, with one of her swift actions, graceful and lithe, yet violent, she wheeled and fled.
"O, Lord!" murmured Adam, aghast at the sudden-dawning significance of the case. He had absolutely forgotten Margarita's existence. Most assuredly she had seen every move of his with her big eyes, and read his mind, too. He could not see the humour of his situation at the moment, but as he took a short cut through the shady mesquites toward his hut, he presently espied Margarita in ambush. What fiendish glee this predicament of his would have aroused in his brother Guerd! Adam, the lofty, the supercilious, had come a cropper at last--such would have been Guerd's scorn and rapture!
Margarita came rushing from the side, right upon him even as he turned. So swiftly she came that he could not get a good look at her, but she appeared a writhing, supple little thing, instinct with fury. Hissing Spanish maledictions, she flung herself upward, and before he could ward her off she had slapped and scratched his face and beat wildly at him with flying brown fists. He thrust her away, but she sprang back. Then, suddenly hot with anger, he grasped her and, jerking her off her feet, he shook her with far from gentle force, and did not desist till he saw that he was hurting her. Letting her down and holding her at arm's length, he gazed hard at the white face framed by dishevelled black hair and lighted by eyes so magnificently expressive of supreme passion that his anger was shocked into wonder and admiration. Desert eyes! Right there a conception dawned in his mind--he was seeing a spirit through eyes developed by the desert.
"Margarita!" he exclaimed, "are you a cat--that you----"
"I hate you," she hissed, interrupting him. The expulsion of her breath, the bursting swell of her breast, the quiver of her whole lissom body, all were exceedingly potent of an intensity that utterly amazed Adam. Such a little girl, such a frail strength, such a deficient brain to hold all that passion! What would she do if she had real cause for wrath?
"Ah, Margarita, you don't mean that. I didn't do anything. Let me tell you."
She repeated her passionate utterance, and Adam saw that he could no more change her then than he could hope to move the mountain. Resentment stirred in him.
"Well," he burst out, boyishly, "if you're so darned fickle as that I'm glad you do hate me."
Then he released his hold on her arms and, turning away without another glance in her direction, he strode from the glade. He took the gun he had repaired and set off down the river trail. When he got into the bottom lands of willow and cottonwood he glided noiselessly along, watching and listening for game of some kind.
In the wide mouth of a wash not more than a mile from the village, Adam halted to admire some exceedingly beautiful trees. The first was one of a species he had often noted there, and it was a particularly fine specimen, perhaps five times as high as his head and full and round in proportion. The trunk was large at the ground, soon separating into innumerable branches that in turn spread and drooped and separated into a million twigs and stems and points. Trunk and branch and twig, every inch of this wonderful tree was a bright, soft green colour, as smooth as if polished, and it did not have a single leaf. As Adam gazed at this strange, unknown tree, grasping the nature of it and its exquisite colour and grace and life, he wondered anew at the marvel of the desert.
As he walked around to the side toward the river he heard a cry. Wheeling quickly, he espied Margarita running toward him. Margarita's hair was flying. Blood showed on her white face. She had torn her dress.
"Margarita!" cried Adam, as he reached her. "What's the matter?"
She was so out of breath she could scarcely speak.
"Felix--he hide back there--in trail," she panted. "Margarita watch--she know--she go round."
The girl laboured under extreme agitation, which, however, did not seem to be fright.
"Felix? You mean the Mexican who drew a knife on your father? The fellow I threw around--up at Picacho?"
"Si--senor," replied Margarita.
"Well, what of it? Why does Felix hide up in the trail?"
"Felix swore revenge. He kill you."
"Oh--ho!...So that's it," ejaculated Adam, and he whistled his surprise. A hot, tight sensation struck deeply inside him. "Then you came to find me--warn me?"
She nodded vehemently and clung to him, evidently wearied and weakening.
"Margarita, that was good of you," said Adam, earnestly, and he led her out of the sun into the shade of the tree. With his handkerchief he wiped the blood from thorn scratches on her cheek. The dusky eyes shone with a vastly different light from the lurid hate of a few hours back. "I thank you, girl, and I'll not forget it...But why did you run out in the sun and through the thorns to warn me?"
"Senor know now--he kill Felix before Felix kill him," replied Margarita, in speech that might have been naive had its simplicity not been so deadly.
Adam laughed again, a little grimly. This was not the first time there had been forced upon him a hint of the inevitableness of life in the desert. But it was not his duty to ambush the Mexican who would ambush him. The little coldness thrilled out of Adam to the close, throbbing presence of Margarita. The fragrance, the very breath of her, went to his head like wine.
"But girl--only a little while ago--you slapped me--scratched me--hated me," he said, in wonder and reproach.
"No--no--no! Margarita love senor!" she cried, and seemed to twine around him and climb into his arms at once. The same fire, the same intensity as of that unforgetable moment of hate and passion, dominated her now, only it was love.
And this time it was Adam who sought her red lips and returned her kisses. Again that shuddering wild gust in his blood! It was as strange and imperious to him then as in a sober reflection it had been bold, gripping, physical, a drawing of him not sanctioned by his will. In this instance he was weaker in its grip, but still he conquered. Releasing Margarita, he led her to a shady place in the sand under the green tree, and found a seat where he could lean against a low branch. Margarita fell against his shoulder, and there clung to him and wept. Her dusky hair rippled over him, soft and silky to the touch of his fingers. The poor, faded dress, of a fabric unknown to Adam, ragged and dusty and torn, and the little shoes, worn and cracked, showing the soles of her stockingless feet, spoke eloquently of poverty. Adam noted the slender grace of her slight form, the arch of the bare instep, and the shapeliness of her ankles, brown almost as an Indian's. And all at once there charged over him an overwhelming sense of the pitifulness and the wonderfulness of her--a ragged, half-dressed little Mexican girl, whose care of her hair and face, and the few knots of ribbon, betrayed the worshipful vanity that was the jewel of her soul, and whose physical perfection was in such strange contrast to the cramped, undeveloped mind.
"My God!" whispered Adam, under his breath. Something big and undefined was born in him then. He saw her, he pitied her, he loved her, he wanted her; but these feelings were not so much what constituted the bigness and vagueness that waved through his soul. He could not grasp it. But it had to do with the life, the beauty, the passion, the soul of this Mexican girl; and it was akin to a reverence he felt for the things in her that she could not understand.
Margarita soon recovered, and assumed a demeanour so shy and modest and wistful that Adam could not believe she was the same girl. Nevertheless, he took good care not to awaken her other characteristics.
"Margarita, what is the name of this beautiful tree?" he asked.
"Palo verde. It means green tree."
It interested him then to instruct himself further in regard to the desert growths that had been strange to him; and to this end he led Margarita from one point to another, pleased to learn how familiar she was with every growing thing.
Presently Margarita brought to Adam's gaze a tree that resembled smoke, so blue-grey was it, so soft and hazy against the sky, so columnar and mushrooming. What a strange, graceful tree and what deep-blue blossoms it bore! Upon examination Adam was amazed to discover that every branch and twig of this tree was a thorn. A hard, cruel, beautiful tree of thorns that at a little distance resembled smoke!
"Palo Christi," murmured Margarita, making the sign of the cross. And she told Adam that this was the Crucifixion tree, which was the species that furnished the crown of thorns for the head of Christ.
Sunset ended several happy and profitable hours for Adam. He had not forgotten about the Mexican, Felix, and had thought it just as well to let time pass and to keep out of trouble as long as he could. He and Margarita reached home without seeing any sign of Felix. Arallanes, however, had espied the Mexican sneaking around, and he warned Adam in no uncertain terms. Merryvale, too, had a word for Adam's ear; and it was significant that he did not advise a waiting course. In spite of all Adam's reflections he did not need a great deal of urging. After supper he started off for Picacho with Arallanes and a teamster who was freighting supplies up to the camp.
Picacho was in full blast when they arrived. The dim lights, the discordant yells, the raw smell of spirits, the violence of the crude gambling hall worked upon Adam's already excited mind; and by the time he had imbibed a few drinks he was ready for anything. But they did not find Felix.
Then Adam, if not half drunk, at least somewhat under the influence of rum, started to walk back to his lodgings. The walk was long and, by reason of the heavy, dragging sand, one of considerable labour. Adam was in full possession of his faculties when he reached the village. But his blood was hot from the exercise, and the excitement of the prospective battle of the early evening had given way to an excitement of the senses, in the youthful romance felt in the dark, the starlight, the wildness of the place. So when in the pale gloom of the mesquites Margarita glided to him like a lissom spectre, to enfold him and cling and whisper, Adam had neither the will, nor the heart, nor the desire to resist her.