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Wanderer of the Wasteland
Zane Grey (1923) Country of origin: USA
Available texts by the same author here
Adam's dull eyelids opened on a dim, grey desert dawn. The coming of the dawn was in his mind, and it showed pale through his shut lids. He could not hold back the hours. Something had happened in the night and he would never be the same again. With a sharp pang, a sense of incomprehensible loss, Adam felt die in him the old unreasoning, instinctive boy. And there was more, too deep and too subtle for him to divine. It had to do with a feminine strain in him, a sweetness and purity inherited from his mother and developed by her teachings. It had separated him from his. brother Guerd and kept him aloof from a baseness common to their comrades. Nevertheless, the wildness of this raw, uncouth, primitive West had been his undoing.
It was with bitterness that Adam again faced the growing light. All he could do was to resign himself to fate. The joy of life, the enchantments--all that had made him feel different from other boys and hide his dreams--failed now in this cool dark morning of reality. He could not understand the severity of the judgment he meted out to himself. His spirit suffered an ineffaceable blunting. And the tight-drawing knot in his breast, the gnawing of remorse, the strange, dark oppression--these grew and reached a climax, until something gave way within him and there was a sinking of the heart, a weary and inscrutable feeling.
Then he remembered Margarita, and the very life and current of his blood seemed to change. Like a hot wave the memory of Margarita surged over Adam, her strange new sweetness, the cunning of her when she waylaid him in the dead of the night, the clinging lissomness of her and the whispered incoherence that needed no translation, the inevitableness of the silent, imperious demand of her presence, unashamed and insistent.
Adam leaped out of his blankets, breaking up this mood and thought by violent action. For Adam then the sunrise was glorious, the valley was beautiful, the desert was wild and free, the earth was an immense region to explore, and nature, however insatiable and inexorable, was prodigal of compensations. He drank a sweet cup that held one drop of poison bitterness. Life swelled in his breast. He wished he were an Indian. As he walked along there flashed into mind words spoken long ago by his mother: "My son, you take things too seriously, you feel too intensely the ordinary moments of life." He understood her now, but he could not distinguish ordinary things from great things. How could anything be little?
Margarita's greeting was at once a delight and a surprise. Her smile, the light of her dusky eyes, would have made any man happier. But there was a subtle air about her this morning that gave Adam a slight shock, an undefined impression that he represented less to Margarita than he had on yesterday.
Then came the shrill whistle of the downriver boat. Idle men flocked toward the dock. When Adam reached the open space on the bank before the dock he found it crowded with an unusual number of men, all manifestly more than ordinarily interested in something concerning the boat. By slipping through the mesquites Adam got around to the edge of the crowd.
A tall, gaunt man, clad in black, strode off the gangplank. His height, his form, his gait were familiar to Adam. He had seen that embroidered flowery vest with its silver star conspicuously in sight, and the brown beardless face with its square jaw and seamy lines.
"Collishaw!" ejaculated Adam, in dismay. He recognised in this man one whom he had known at Ehrenberg, a gambling, gun-fighting sheriff to whom Guerd had became attached. As his glance swept back of Collishaw his pulse beat quicker. The next passenger to stride off the gangplank was a very tall, superbly built young man. Adam would have known that form in a crowd of a thousand men. His heart leaped with a great throb. Guerd, his brother!
Guerd looked up. His handsome, heated face, bold and keen and reckless, flashed in the sunlight. His piercing gaze swept over the crowd upon the bank.
"Hello, Adam!" he yelled, with gay, hard laugh. Then he prodded Collishaw and pointed up at Adam. "There he is! We've found him."
Adam plunged away into the thickets of mesquites, and, indifferent to the clawing thorns, he did not halt until he was far down the bank.
It died hard, that regurgitation of brother love. It represented most of his life, and all of his home associations, and the memories of youth. The strength of it proved his loyalty to himself. How warm and fine that suddenly revived emotion! How deep seated, beyond his control! He could have sobbed out over the pity of it, the loss of it, the fallacy of it. Plucked out by the roots, it yet lived hidden in the depths of him. Adam in his flight to be alone had yielded to the amaze and shame and fury stirred in him by a realisation of joy in the mere sight of this brother who hated him. For years his love had fought against the gradual truth of Guerd's hate. He had not been able to prove it, but he felt it. Adam had no fear of Guerd, nor any reason why he could not face him, except this tenderness of which he was ashamed. When he had fought down the mawkish sentiment he would show Guerd and Collishaw what he was made of. Money! That was Guerd's motive, with an added possibility of further desire to dominate and hound.
"I'll fool him," said Adam, resolutely, as he got up to return.
Adam did not know exactly what he would do, but he was certain that he had reached the end of his tether. He went back to the village by a roundabout way. Turning a sharp curve in the canyon he came suddenly upon a number of workmen, mostly Mexicans. They were standing under a wooden trestle that had been built across the canyon at this narrow point. All of them appeared to be gazing upward, and naturally Adam directed his gaze likewise.
Thus without warning he saw the distorted and ghastly face of a man hanging by the neck on a rope tied to the trestle. The spectacle gave Adam a terrible shock.
"That's Collishaw's work," muttered Adam, darkly, and he remembered stories told of the sheriff's grim hand in more than one act of border justice. What a hard country!
In front of the village store Adam encountered Merryvale, and he asked him for particulars about the execution.
"Wal, I don't know much," replied the old watchman, scratching his head. "There's been some placer miners shot an' robbed up the river. This Collishaw is a regular sure-enough sheriff, takin' the law to himself. Reckon there ain't any law. Wal, he an' his deputies say they tracked thet murderin' gang to Picacho, an' swore they identified one of them. Arallanes stuck up for thet greaser. There was a hot argument, an', by Gosh! I jest swore Collishaw was goin' to draw on Arallanes. But Arallanes backed down, as any man not crazy would have done. The greaser swore by all his Virgins thet he wasn't the man, an' was swearin' he could prove it when the rope choked him off....I don't know, Adam. I don't know. I was fer waitin' a little to give the feller a chance. But Collishaw came down here to hang someone an' you bet he was goin' to do it."
"I know him, Merryvale, and you're betting right," replied Adam, forcefully.
"Adam, one of his men is a fine-lookin' young chap thet sure must be your brother. Now, ain't he?"
"Yes, you're right about that, too."
"Wal, wal! You don't seem powerful glad....Son, jest be careful what you say to Collishaw. He's hard an' I reckon he's square as he sees justice, but he doesn't ring right to an old timer like me. He courts the crowd. An' he's been askin' fer you. There he comes now."
The sheriff appeared, approaching with several companions, and halted before the store. His was a striking figure, picturesque, commanding, but his face was repellent. His massive head was set on a bull neck of swarthy and weathered skin like wrinkled leather; his broad face, of similar hue, appeared a mass of crisscrossed lines, deep at the eyes, and long on each side of the cruel, thin-lipped, tight-shut mouth; his chin stuck out like a square rock; and his eyes, dark and glittering, roved incessantly in all directions, had been trained to see men before they saw him.
Adam knew that Collishaw had seen him first, and, acting upon the resolution that he had made down in the thicket, he strode over to the sheriff.
"Collishaw, I've been told you wanted me," said Adam. "Hello, Larey! Yes, I was inquirin' aboot you," replied Collishaw, with the accent of a Texan.
"What do you want of me?" asked Adam.
Collishaw drew Adam aside out of earshot of the other men.
"It's a matter of thet little gamblin' debt you owe Guerd," he replied, in a low voice.
"Collishaw, are you threatening me with some such job as you put up on that poor greaser?" inquired Adam, sarcastically, as he waved his hand up the canyon.
Probably nothing could have surprised this hardened sheriff, but he straightened up with a jerk and shed his confidential and admonishing air.
"No, I can't arrest you on a gamblin' debt," he replied, bluntly, "but I'm shore goin' to make you pay."
"You are, like hell!" retorted Adam. "What had you to do with it? If Guerd owed you money in that game, I'm not responsible. And I didn't pay because I caught Guerd cheating. I'm not much of a gambler, Collishaw, but I'll bet you a stack of gold twenties against your fancy vest that Guerd never collects a dollar of his crooked deal."
With that Adam turned on his heel and strode off toward the river. His hard-earned independence added something to the wrong done him by these men. He saw himself in different light. The rankling of the injustice he had suffered at Ehrenberg had softened only in regard to the girl in the case. Remembering her again, it seemed her part in his alienation from Guerd did not loom so darkly and closely. Margarita had come between that affair and the present hour This other girl had really been nothing to him, but Margarita had become everything. A gratefulness, a big, generous warmth, stirred in Adam's heart for the dark-eyed Mexican girl. What did it matter who she was? In this desert he must learn to adjust differences of class and race and habit in relation to the wildness of time and place.
In the open sandy space leading to the houses near the river Adam met Arallanes. The usually genial foreman appeared pale, sombre, sick. To Adam's surprise, Arallanes would not talk about the hanging. Adam had another significant estimate of the character of Collishaw. Arallanes, however, was not so close lipped concerning Guerd Larey.
"Quien sabe, senor?" he concluded. "Maybe it's best for you. Margarita is a she-cat. You are my friend. I should tell you...But, well, senor, if you would keep Margarita, look out for your brother."
Adam gaped his astonishment and had not a word for Arallanes as he turned away. It took him some time to realise the content of Arallanes' warning and advice. But what fixed itself in Adam's mind was the fact that Guerd had run across Margarita and had been attracted by her. How perfectly natural! How absolutely inevitable! Adam could not remember any girl he had ever admired or liked in all his life that Guerd had not taken away from him. Among the boys at home it used to be a huge joke, in which Adam had good-naturedly shared. All for Guerd! Adam could recall the time when he had been happy to give up anything or anyone to his brother. But out here in the desert, where he was beginning to assimilate the meaning of a man's fight for his life and his possessions, he felt vastly different. Moreover, he had gone too far with Margarita, regrettable as the fact was. She belonged to him, and his principles were such that he believed he owed her a like return of affection, and besides that, loyalty and guardianship. Margarita was only seventeen years old. No doubt Guerd would fascinate her if she was not kept out of his way.
"But--suppose she likes Guerd--and wants him--as she wanted me?" muttered Adam, answering a divining flash of the inevitable order of things to be. Still, he repudiated that. His intellect told him what to expect, but his feeling was too strong to harbour doubt of Margarita. Only last night she had changed the world for him--opened his eyes to life not as it was dreamed, but lived! Adam found the wife of Arallanes home alone.
"Senora, where is Margarita?"
"Margarita is there," she replied, with dark, eloquent glance upon Adam and a slow gesture toward the river bank.
Adam soon espied Guerd and Margarita on the river bank some few rods below the landing place. Here was a pretty sandy nook, shaded by a large mesquite, and somewhat out of sight of passers-by going to and fro from village to dock. Two enormous wheels connected by an iron bar, a piece of discarded mill machinery, stood in the shade of the tree. Margarita sat on the cross-bar and Guerd stood beside her. They were close together, facing a broad sweep of the river and the wonderland of coloured peaks beyond. They did not hear Adam's approach on the soft sand.
"Senorita, one look from your midnight eyes and I fell in love with you," Guerd was declaring, with gay passion, and his hand upon her was as bold as his speech. "You little Spanish princess!...Beautiful as the moon and stars!...Hidden in this mining camp, a desert flower born to blush unseen! I shall--"
It was here that Adam walked around the high wheels to confront them. For him the moment was exceedingly poignant. But despite the tumult within him he preserved a cool and quiet exterior. Margarita's radiance vanished in surprise.
"Well, if it ain't Adam!" ejaculated her companion. "You son-of-a-gun!...Why, you've changed!"
"Guerd," began Adam, and then his voice halted. To meet his brother this way was a tremendous ordeal. And Guerd's presence seemed to charge the very air. Worship of this magnificent brother had been the strongest thing in Adam's life, next to love of mother. To see him again! Guerd Larey's face was beautiful, yet virile and strong. The beauty was mere perfection of feature. The big curved mouth, the square chin, the straight nose, the large hazel-green eyes full of laughter and love of life, the broad forehead and clustering fair hair--all these were features that made him singularly handsome. His skin was clear brown-tan with a tinge of red. Adam saw no change in Guerd, except perhaps an intensifying of an expression of wildness which made him all the more fascinating to look at. For Adam the mocking thing about Guerd's godlike beauty was the fact that it deceived. At heart, at soul, Guerd was as false as hell!
"Adam, are you goin' to shake hands?" queried Guerd, lazily extending his arm. "You sure strike me queer, boy!"
"No," replied Adam, and his quick-revolving thoughts grasped at Guerd's slipshod speech. Guerd had absorbed even the provincial words and idioms of the uncouth West.
"All right. Suit yourself," said Guerd. "I reckon you see I'm rather pleasantly engaged."
"Yes, I see," returned Adam, bitterly, with a fleeting glance at Margarita. She had recovered from her surprise and now showed cunning feminine curiosity. "Guerd, I met Collishaw, and he had the gall to brace me for that gambling debt. And I've hunted you up to tell you that you cheated me. I'll not pay it."
"Oh yes, you will," replied Guerd, smilingly.
"I will not," said Adam, forcefully.
"Boy, you'll pay it or I'll take it out of your hide," declared Guerd, slowly frowning, as if a curious hint of some change in Adam had dawned upon him.
"You can't take it that way--or any other way," retorted Adam.
"But, say--I didn't cheat," remonstrated Guerd, evidently making a last stand of argument to gain his end.
"You lie!" flashed Adam. "You know it. I know it...Guerd, let's waste no words. I told you at Ehrenberg--after you played that shabby trick on me--over the girl there--I told you I was through with you for good."
Guerd seemed to realise with wonder and chagrin that he had now to deal with a man. How the change in his expression thrilled Adam! What relief came to him in the consciousness that he was now stronger than Guerd! He had never been certain of that.
"Through and be damned!" exclaimed Guerd, and he took his arm from around Margarita and rose from his leaning posture to his lofty height. "I'm sick of your milksop ideas. All I want of you is that money. If you don't pony up with it I'll tear your clothes off gettin' it. Savvy that?
"Ha-ha!" laughed Adam, tauntingly. "I say to you what I said to Collishaw--you will--like hell!"
Guerd Larey's lips framed curses that were inaudible. He was astounded. The red flamed his neck and face.
"I'll meet you after I get through talking to this girl," he said.
"Any time you want," rejoined Adam, bitingly, "but I'll have my say now, once and for all...The worm has turned, Guerd Larey. Your goose has stopped laying golden eggs. I will take no more burdens of yours on my shoulders. You've bullied me all my life. You've hated me. I know now. Oh, I remember so well! You robbed me of toys, clothes, playmates. Then girl friends! Then money!...Then--a worthless woman!...You're a fraud--a cheat--a liar...You've fallen in with your kind out here and you're going straight to hell."
The whiteness of Guerd's face attested to his roused passion. But he had more restraint than Adam. He was older, and the difference of age between them showed markedly.
"So you followed me out here to say all that?" he queried.
"No, not altogether," replied Adam. "I came after Margarita."
"Came after Margarita?" echoed Guerd, blankly. "Is that her name? Say, Adam, is this one of your goody-goody tricks? Rescuing a damsel in distress sort of thing!...You and I have fallen out more than once over that. I kick--I----"
"Guerd, we've fallen out for ever," interrupted Adam, and then he turned to the girl. "Margarita, I want you--"
"But it's none of your damned business," burst out Guerd, hotly, interrupting in turn. "What do you care about a Mexican girl? I won't stand your interference. You clear out and let me alone."
"But Guerd--it is my business," returned Adam, haltingly. Some inward force dragged at his tongue. "She's--my girl."
"What!" ejaculated Guerd, incredulously. Then he bent down to peer into Margarita's face, and from that he swept a flashing, keen glance at Adam. His eyes were wonderful then, intensely bright, quickened and sharpened with swift turns of thought. "Boy, you don't mean you're on friendly terms with this greaser girl?"
"Yes," replied Adam.
"You've made love to her!" cried Guerd, and the radiance of his face then was beyond Adam's understanding.
Guerd violently controlled what must have been a spasm of fiendish glee. His amaze, deep as it was, seemed not to be his predominant feeling, but that very amaze was something to force exquisitely upon Adam how far he had fallen. The moment was dark, hateful, far-reaching in effect, impossible to realise. Guerd's glance flashed back and forth from Adam to Margarita. But he had not yet grasped what was the tragic thing for Adam--the truth of how fatefully far this love affair had fallen. Adam's heart sank like lead in his breast. What humiliation he must suffer if he betrayed himself! Hard he fought for composure and dignity to hide his secret.
"Adam, in matters of the heart, where two gentlemen admire the lady in question, the choice is always left to her," began Guerd, with something of mockery in his rich voice. A devil gleamed from him then, and the look of him, the stature, the gallant action of him as he bowed before Margarita, fascinated Adam even in his miserable struggle to appear a man.
"But, Guerd, you--you've known Margarita only a few moments," he expostulated, and the sound of his voice made him weak. "How can you put such a choice to--to her? It's--it's an insult."
"Adam, that is for Margarita to decide," responded Guerd. "Women change. It is something you have not learned." Then as he turned to Margarita he seemed to blaze with magnetism. The grace of him and the beauty of him in that moment made of him a perfect physical embodiment of the emotions of which he was master. He knew his power over women. "Margarita, Adam and I are brothers. We are always falling in love with the same girl. You must choose between us. Adam would tie you down--keep you from the eyes of other men. I would leave you free as a bird."
And he bent over to whisper in her ear, with his strong brown hand on her arm, at once gallant yet masterful.
The scene was a nightmare to Adam. How could this be something that was happening? But he had sight! Margarita seemed a transformed creature, shy, coy, alluring; with the half-veiled dusky eyes, heavy-lidded, lighted with the same fire that had shone in them for Adam.
"Margarita, will you come?" cried Adam, goaded to end this situation.
"No," she replied, softly.
"I beg of you--come!" implored Adam.
The girl shook her black head. A haunting mockery hung around her, in her slight smile, in the light of her face. She radiated a strange glow like the warm shade of an opal. Older she seemed to Adam and surer of herself and somewhat deeper in that mystic obsession of passion he had often sensed in her. No spiritual conception of what Adam regarded as his obligation to her could ever dawn in that little brain. She loved her pretty face and beautiful body. She gloried in her power over men. And the new man she felt to be still unwon--who was stronger of instinct and harder to hold, under whose brutal hand she would cringe and thrill and pant and fight--him she would choose. So Adam read Margarita in that moment. If he had felt love for her, which he doubted, it was dead. A great pity flooded over him. It seemed that of the three there, he was the only one who was true and who understood.
"Margarita, have you forgotten last night?" asked Adam huskily.
"Ah, senor--so long ago and far away!" she said.
Adam whirled abruptly and, plunging into the thicket of mesquites, he tore a way through, unmindful of the thorns. When he reached his quarters there was blood on his hands and face, but the sting of the thorns was as nothing to the hurt in his heart. He lay down.
"Again!" he whispered. "Guerd has come--and it's the same old story. Only worse!...But, it's better so! I--I didn't know--her!...Arallanes knew--he told me...And I--I dreamed so many--many fool things. Yes--it's better--better. I didn't love her right. It--it was something she roused. I never loved her--but if I did love her--it's gone. It's not loss that--that stabs me now. It's Guerd--Guerd! Again--and I ran off from him...'So long ago and far away,' she said! Are all women like that? I can't believe it. I never will. I remember my mother."