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Wanderer of the Wasteland
Zane Grey (1923) Country of origin: USA
Available texts by the same author here
Consciousness returned to Adam. He was lying under an ironwood tree, over branches of which a canvas had been stretched, evidently to shade him from the sun. The day appeared to be far spent.
His head seemed to have been relieved of a hot metal band; his tongue was no longer bursting in his mouth; the boil of his blood had subsided. His skin felt moist.
Then he heard the rough voice of a man talking to animals, apparently burros. Movement of body was difficult and somewhat painful; however, he managed to sit up and look around. Hide-covered boxes and packsaddles, with duffle and utensils of a prospector, were littered about, and conspicuous among the articles near him were three large canvas-covered canteens, still wet. Upon the smouldering embers of a camp fire steamed a black iron pot. A little beyond the first stood a very short, broad man, back turned; and he was evidently feeding choice morsels of some kind to five eager and jealous burros.
"Spoiled--every darn one of you!" he was saying, and the kindness of his voice belied its roughness. "Why, I used to have burros that could lick labels off tin cans an' call it a square meal!"
Then he turned and espied Adam watching him.
"Hullo! You've come to," he said, with interest.
Adam's gaze encountered an extraordinary-looking man. He could not have been taller than five and a half feet, and the enormous breadth of him made him appear as wide as he was long. He was not fat. His immense bulk was sheer brawn, betokening remarkable strength. His dusty, ragged clothes were patched like a crazy-quilt. He had an immense head, a shock of shaggy hair beginning to show streaks of grey, and a broad face tanned dark as an Indian's, the lower half of which was covered with a scant grizzled beard. His eyes, big, dark, rolling, resembled those of an ox. His expression seemed to be one of set tranquillity--the impressiveness of bronze.
Adam's voice was a husky whisper: "Where am--I? Who are you?"
"Young man, my name's Dismukes," came the reply, "an' you're ninety miles from anywhere--an' alive, which's more than I'd bet on yesterday."
The words brought Adam a shock of memory. Out there the desert smoked, sweltering in the spent heat of the setting sun. Slowly Adam lay back upon the blanket and bundle that had been placed under him for a bed. The man sat down on one of the hide-covered boxes, fastening his great eyes upon Adam.
"Am I--all right?" whispered Adam.
"Yes, but it was a close shave," replied the other.
"You said--something about yesterday. Tell me."
Dismukes fumbled in his patched vest and, fetching forth a stumpy pipe, he proceeded to fill it. It was noticeable that he had to use his little finger to press down the tobacco into the bowl, as the other fingers of his enormous hands were too large. Adam had never before seen such scarred calloused hands.
"It was day before yesterday I run across you," began Dismukes, after a comfortable pull at his pipe. "My burro Jinny has the best eyes of the pack outfit. When I seen her ears go up I got to lookin' hard, an' presently spied you staggerin' in a circle. I'd seen men do that before. Sometimes you'd run, an' again you'd wag along, an' then you'd fall an' crawl. I caught you an' had to tie you with my rope. You were out of your head. An' you looked hard--all dried up--tongue black an' hangin' out. I thought you were done for. I poured a canteen of water over your head an' then packed you over here where there's wood an' water. You couldn't make a sound, but all the same I knew you were ravin' fur water. I fed you water a spoonful at a time, an' every little while I emptied a canteen over you. Was up all night with you that night. You recovered awful slow. Yesterday I'd not have gambled much on your chances. But to-day you came round. I got you to swallow some soft grub, an' I guess you'll soon be pretty good. You'll be weak, though. You're awful thin. I'm curious about how much you weighed. You look as if you might have been a husky lad."
"I was," whispered Adam. "Hundred and eighty-five--or ninety."
"So I thought. You'll not go over one hundred an' twenty now. You've lost about seventy pounds...Oh, it's a fact! You see, the body is 'most all water, an' on this desert in summer a man just dries up an' blows away."
"Seventy--pounds!" exclaimed Adam, incredulously. But when he glanced at his shrunken hands he believed the incomprehensible fact. "I must be skin--and bones."
"Mostly bones. But they're long, heavy bones, an' if you ever get any flesh on them you'll be a darned big man. I'm glad they're not goin' to bleach white on the desert, where I've seen so many these last ten years."
"You saved my life?" suddenly queried Adam.
"Boy, there's no doubt of that," returned the other. "Another hour would have finished you."
"I--I thank you...But--so help me God--I wish you hadn't," whispered Adam, poignantly.
Dismukes spent a strange gaze upon Adam.
"What's your name?" he asked.
Adam halted over the conviction that he could never reveal his identity; and there leaped to his lips the name the loquacious Regan had given him.
"Wansfell," he replied.
Dismukes averted his gaze. Manifestly he divined that Adam had lied. "Well, it's no matter what a man calls himself in this country," he said. "Only everybody an' everything has to have a name."
"You're a prospector?"
"Yes. But I'm more a miner. I hunt for gold. I don't waste time tryin' to sell claims. Years ago I set out to find a fortune in gold. My limit was five hundred thousand dollars. I've already got a third of it--in banks an' hid away safe."
"When you get it--your fortune--what then?" inquired Adam, with thrilling curiosity.
"I'll enjoy life. I have no ties--no people. Then I'll see the world," replied the prospector, in deep and sonorous voice.
A wonderful passion radiated from him. Adam saw a quiver, run over the huge frame. This Dismukes evidently was as extraordinary in character as in appearance. Adam felt the man's strangeness, his intelligence, and the inflexible will and fiery Yet all at once Adam felt steal over him an emotion of pity that he could not understand. How strange men were!
At this juncture the prospector was compelled to drive the burros out of camp. Then he attended to his cooking over the fire, and presently brought a bowl of steaming food to Adam.
"Eat this slow--with a spoon," he said gruffly. "Never forget that a man starved for grub or water can kill himself quick."
During Adam's long drawn-out meal the sun set and the mantle of heat seemed to move away for the coming of shadows. Adam found that his weakness was greater than he had supposed, rendering the effort of sitting up one he was glad to end. He lay back on the blankets, wanting to think over his situation rather than fall asleep, but he found himself very drowsy, and his mind vaguely wandered until it was a blank. Upon awakening he saw the first grey dawn arch the sky. He felt better, almost like his old self, except for that queer sensation of thinness and lightness, most noticeable when he lifted his hand. Dismukes was already astir, and there, a few rods from camp, stood the ludicrous burros, as if they had not moved all night. Adam got up and stretched his limbs, pleased to find that he appeared to be all right again, except for a little dizziness.
Dismukes evinced gladness at the fact of Adam's improvement. "Good!" he exclaimed. "You'd be strong enough to ride a burro to-day. But it's goin' to be hot, like yesterday. We'd better not risk travellin'."
"How do you know it's going to be as hot as yesterday?" inquired Adam.
"I can tell by the feel an' smell of the air, an' mostly that dull lead coloured haze you see over the mountains."
Adam thought the air seemed cool and fresh, but he did see a dull pall over the mountains. Farther toward the east, where the sunrise lifted an immense and wondrous glow, this haze was not visible.
The remark of Dismukes anent the riding of a burro disturbed Adam. This kindly prospector meant to take him on to his destination. Impossible! Adam had fled to the desert to hide, and the desert must hide him, alive or dead. The old, thick, clamouring emotions knocked at his heart. Adam felt gratitude toward Dismukes for not questioning him, and that forbearance made him want to tell something of his story. Yet how reluctant he was to open his lips on that score! He helped Dismukes with the simple morning meal, and afterward with odds and ends of tasks, all the time cheerful and questioning, putting off what he knew was inevitable. The day did come on hot--so hot that life was just bearable for men and beasts in the shade of the big ironwood tree. Adam slept some of the hours away. He awoke stronger, with more active mind. Of the next meal Dismukes permitted Adam to eat heartily. And later, while Dismukes smoked and Adam sat before the camp fire, the moment of revelation came, quite unexpectedly.
"Wansfell, you'll not be goin' to Yuma with me to-morrow," asserted Dismukes quietly.
The words startled Adam. He dropped his head. "No--no! Thank you--I won't--I can't go," he replied, trembling. The sound of his voice agitated him further.
"Buy, tell me or not, just as you please. But I'm a man you can trust."
The kindliness and a nameless power invested in this speech broke down what little restraint remained with Adam.
"I--I can't go...I'm an outcast...I must hide--hide in the--desert," burst out Adam, covering his face with his hands.
"Was that why you came to the desert?"
"But, boy, you came without a canteen or grub or burro or gun--or anythin'. In all my years on the desert I never saw the like of that before. An' only a miracle saved your life. That miracle was Jinny's eyes. You owe your life to a long-eared, white-faced burro. Jinny has eyes like a mountain sheep. She saw you--miles off. An' such luck won't be yours twice. You can't last on this desert without the things to sustain life...How did it happen that I found you here alone--without anythin'?"
"No time. I--I had to run!" panted Adam.
"What'd you do? Don't be afraid to tell me. The desert is a place for secrets, and it's a lonely place where a man learns to read the souls of men--when he meets them. You're not vicious. You're no----But never mind--tell me without wastin' more words. Maybe I can help you."
"No one can--help me," cried Adam.
"That's not so," quickly spoke up Dismukes, his voice deep and rolling. "Some one can help you--an' maybe it's me."
Here Adam completely broke down. "I--I did--something--awful!"
"No crime, boy--say it was no crime," earnestly returned the prospector.
"O my God! Yes--yes! It was--a crime!" sobbed Adam, shuddering. "But, man--I swear, horrible as it was--I'm innocent! I swear that. Believe me. I was driven--driven by wrongs, by hate, by taunts. If I'd stood them longer I'd have been a white-livered coward. But I was driven and half drunk."
"Well--well!" ejaculated Dismukes, shaking his shaggy head. "It's bad. But I believe you an' you needn't tell me any more. Life is hell! I was young once...An' now you've got to hide away from men--to live on the desert--to be one of us wanderers of the wastelands?"
"Yes. I must hide. And I want--I need to live--to suffer--to atone!"
"Boy, do you believe in God?" asked the prospector.
"I don't know. I think so," replied Adam, lifting his head and striving for composure. "My mother was religious. But my father was not."
"Well--well, if you believed in God your case would not be hopeless. But some men--a few out of the many wanderers--find God out here in these wilds. Maybe you will...Can you tell me what you think you want to do?"
"Oh--to go alone--into the loneliest place--to live there for years--for ever," replied Adam, with passion.
"Alone. That is my way. An' I understand how you feel--what you need. Are you going to hunt gold?"
"Have you any money?"
"Yes. More than I'll ever need. I'd like to throw it all away--or give it to you. But it--it was my mother's...And I promised her I'd not squander it--that I'd try to save."
"Boy, never mind--an' I don't want your money," interrupted Dismukes. "An' don't do any fool trick with it. You'll need it to buy outfits. You can always trust Indians to go to the freightin' posts for you. But never let any white men in this desert know you got money. That's a hard comparison, an' it's justified."
"I'm already sick with the love men have for money," said Adam bitterly.
"An' now to figure out an' make good all that brag of mine," went on Dismukes, reflectively. "I'll need only two days' grub to get to Yuma. There's one sure water hole. I can give you one of my canteens an' Jinny, the burro that saved your life. She's tricky, but a blamed good burro. An' by making up enough bread I can spare my oven. So, all told, I guess I can outfit you good enough for you to reach a canyon up here to the west where Indians live. I know them. They're good. You can stay with them until the hot weather passes. No danger of any white men runnin' across you there."
"But you mustn't let me have all your outfit," protested Adam.
"I'm not. It's only the grub an' one burro."
"Won't you run a risk--with only two days' rations?"
"Wansfell, every move you can make on this desert is a risk," replied Dismukes, seriously. "Learn that right off. But I'm sure. Only accidents or unforeseen circumstances ever make risks for me now. I'm what they call a desert rat."
"You're most kind," said Adam, choking up again, "to help a stranger--this way."
"Boy, I don't call that help," declared Dismukes. "That's just doin' for a man as I'd want to be done by. When I talked about help I meant somethin' else."
"What? God knows I need it. I'll be grateful. I'll do as you tell me," replied Adam, with a strange thrill stirring in him.
"You are a boy--no matter if you're bigger than most men. You've got the mind of a boy. What a damn pity you've got to do this hidin' game!" Under strong feeling the prospector got up, and, emptying his pipe, he began to take short strides to and fro in the limited shade cast by the ironwood tree. The indomitable forces of the man showed in his step, in the way he carried himself. Presently he turned to Adam and the great ox eyes burned intensely. "Wansfell, if you were a man, I'd never feel the way I do. But you're only a youngster--you're not bad--you've had bad luck--an' for you I can break my rule--an' I'll do it if you're in earnest. I've never talked about the desert--about its secrets--what it's taught me. But I'll tell you what the desert is--how it'll be your salvation--how to be a wanderer of the wasteland is to be strong, free, happy--if you are honest, if you're big enough for it."
"Dismukes, I swear I'm honest--and I'll be big, by God or I'll die trying," declared Adam, passionately.
The prospector gave Adam a long, steady stare, a strange gaze such as must have read his soul.
"Wansfell, if you can live on the desert you'll grow like it," he said, solemnly, as if he were pronouncing a benediction.
Adam gathered from this speech that Dismukes meant to unbosom himself of many secrets of this wonderful wasteland. Evidently, however, the prospector was not then ready to talk further. With thoughtful mien and plodding gait he resumed his short walk to and fro. It struck Adam then that his appearance was almost as ludicrous as that of his burros, yet at the same time his presence somehow conveyed a singular sadness. Years of loneliness burdened the wide bowed shoulders of this desert man. Adam divined then, in a gust of gratitude, that this plodding image of Dismukes would always remain in his mind as a picture, a symbol of the actual good in human nature.
The hot day closed without Adam ever venturing out of the shade of the tree. Once or twice he had put his hand in a sunny spot to feel the heat, and it had burned. The night mantled down with its tense silence, all-embracing, and the stars began to glow white. As Dismukes sat down near Adam in the glow of the camp fire it was manifest from the absence of his pipe, and the penetrating, possession-taking power in his eyes, that he was under the dominance of a singular passion.
"Wansfell," he began, in low, deep voice, "it took me many years to learn how to live on the desert. I had the strength an' the vitality of ten ordinary men. Many time in those desperate years was I close to death from thirst--from starvation--from poison water--from sickness--from bad men--and last, though not least--from loneliness. If I had met a man like myself, as I am now, I might have been spared a hell of sufferin'. I did meet desert men who could have helped me. But they passed me by. The desert locks men's lips. Let every man save his own life--find his own soul. That's the unwritten law of the wastelands of the world. I've broken it for you because I want to do by you as I'd have liked to be done by. An' because I see somethin' in you."
Dismukes paused here to draw a long breath. In the flickering firelight he seemed a squatting giant immovable by physical force, and of a will unquenchable while life lasted.
"Men crawl over the desert like ants whose nests have been destroyed an' who have become separated from one another," went on Dismukes. "They all know the lure of the desert. Each man has his own idea of why the desert claims him. Mine was gold--is gold--so that some day I can travel over the world, rich an' free, an' see life. Another man's will be the need to hide--or the longin' to forget--or the call of adventure--or hate of the world--or love of a woman. Another class is that of bad men. Robbers, murderers. They are many. There are also many men, an' a few women, who just drift or wander or get lost in the desert. An' out of all these, if they stay in the desert, but few survive. They die or they are killed. The Great American Desert is a vast place an' it is covered by unmarked graves an' bleached bones. I've seen so many--so many."
Dismukes paused again while his broad breast heaved with a sigh.
"I was talkin' about what men think the desert means to them. In my case I say gold, an' I say that as the other man will claim he loves the silence or the colour or the loneliness. But I'm wrong, an' so is he. The great reason why the desert holds men lies deeper. I feel that. But I've never had the brains to solve it. I do know, however, that life on this wasteland is fierce an' terrible. Plants, reptiles, beasts, birds, an' men all have to fight for life far out of proportion to what's necessary in fertile parts of the earth. You will learn that early, an' if you are a watcher an' a thinker you will understand it.
"The desert is no place for white men. An oasis is fit for Indians. They survive there. But they don't thrive. I respect the Indians. It will be well for you to live a while with Indians...Now what I most want you to know is this."
The speaker's pause this time was impressive, and he raised one of his huge hands, like a monstrous claw, making a gesture at once eloquent and strong.
"When the desert claims men it makes most of them beasts. They sink to that fierce level in order to live. They are trained by the eternal strife that surrounds them. A man of evil nature survivin' in the desert becomes more terrible than a beast. He is a vulture. On the other hand. there are men whom the desert makes like it. Yes--fierce an' elemental an' terrible, like the heat an' the storm an' the avalanche, but greater in another sense--greater through that eternal strife to live--beyond any words of mine to tell. What such men have lived--the patience, the endurance, the toil--the fights with men an' all that makes the desert--the wanderin's an' perils an' tortures--the horrible loneliness that must be fought hardest, by mind as well as action--all these struggles are beyond ordinary comprehension an' belief. But I know. I've met a few such men, an' if it's possible for the divinity of God to walk abroad on earth in the shape of mankind, it was invested in them. The reason must be that in the development by the desert, in case of these few men who did not retrograde, the spiritual kept pace with the physical. It means these men never forgot, never reverted to mere unthinking instinct, never let the hard, fierce, brutal action of survival of the desert kill their souls. Spirit was stronger than body. I've learned this of these men, though I never had the power to attain it. It takes brains. I was only fairly educated. An' though I've studied all my years on the desert, an' never gave up, I wasn't big enough to climb as high as I can see. I tell you all this, Wansfell, because it may be your salvation. Never give up to the desert or to any of its minions! Never cease to fight! You must fight to live--an' so make that fight equally for your mind an' your soul! Thus you will repent for your crime, whatever that was. Remember--the secret is never to forget your hold on the past--your memories--an' through thinkin' of them to save your mind an' apply it to all that faces you out there."
Rising from his seat, Dismukes made a wide, sweeping gesture, symbolical of a limitless expanse. "An' the gist of all this talk of mine--this hope of mine to do for you as I'd have been done by--is that if you fight an' think together like a man meanin' to repent of his sin--somewhere out there in the loneliness an' silence you will find God!"
With that he abruptly left the camp fire to stride off into the darkness: and the sonorous roll of his last words seemed to linger on the quiet air.
Every one of his intense words had been burned into Adam's sensitive mind in characters and meanings never to be forgotten. Dismukes had found eager and fertile soil for the planting of the seeds of his toil-earned philosophy. The effect upon Adam was profound, and so wrought upon his emotions that the black and hateful consciousness which had returned to haunt him was as but a shadow of his thought. Adam stared out into the night where Dismukes had vanished. Something great had happened. Was the man Dismukes a fanatic, a religious wanderer of the wasteland who imagined he had found in Adam an apt pupil, or who had preached a sermon because the opportunity presented? No! The prospector had the faith to give out of his lesson of life on the desert. His motive was the same as when he had risked much to follow Adam, staggering blindly across the hot sands to his death. And as Adam felt the mounting passion of conviction, of gratitude, his stirred mind seemed suddenly to burst into a radiant and scintillating inspiration of resolve to be the man Dismukes had described, to fight and to think and to remember as had no one ever before done on the desert. It was all that seemed left for him. Repentance! Expiation! True to himself at the last in spite of a horrible and fatal blunder!
"Oh, Guerd! Guerd, my brother!" he cried, shuddering at the whisper of that name. "Wherever you are in spirit--hear me!...I'll rise above wrongs and hate and revenge I'll remember our boyhood--how I loved you! I'll atone for my crime! I'll never forget...I'll fight and think to save my soul--and pray for yours! Hear me and forgive--you who drove me out into the wastelands!"