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Wanderer of the Wasteland
Zane Grey (1923) Country of origin: USA
Available texts by the same author here
Some moments elapsed before the stunning effects of this loss had worn off enough to permit Adam's mind to connect the cause of it with the disappearance of Jinny.
After careful scrutiny of tracks near where the pack had lain, Adam became convinced that Jinny was to blame for his destitution. His proofs cumulated in a handful of unburnt matches that manifestly had been flung and scattered away from the pack. The tricky burro, taking advantage of Adam's absence, had pulled the canvas off the pack, and in tearing around in the boxes for morsels to eat she had bitten into the box of matches and set them on fire.
"I didn't think--I didn't think!" cried Adam, remembering the advice of Dismukes.
Overcome by the shock, he sank upon the ground and fell prey to gloomy and hopeless forebodings.
"I'll lie down and die," he muttered. But he could not so much as lie down. He seemed possessed by a devil who would not permit the idea of surrender or death. And this spirit likewise seemed to take him by the hair of his head and lift him up to scatter the tears from his eyes. "Why can't I cuss the luck like a man--then look around to see what's got to be done?"
Jinny had made good her escape. When Adam gave up all hope of finding the burro the hour was near sunset and it was high time that he should decide what to do.
"Go on--to the Indian camp," he declared, tersely.
He decided to start at once and walk in the cool of night, keeping close to the mountain wall so as not to lose his way. His spirits rallied. Going back to the camp scene, he carefully gathered up all the unburnt matches and placed them with others he carried in his pocket. He found his bag of salt only partly consumed, and he made haste to secure it. His canteen lay beside the spring.
The ruddy sunset and the stealing down of twilight and the encroaching blackness of night had no charms for Adam now. His weariness increased as the hours prolonged themselves. Short, frequent rests were more advisable than long ones. The canopy of stars seemed in procession westward; and many a bright one he watched sink behind the black slope of mountain toward which he was bound. There were times when his eyes closed involuntarily and all his body succumbed to sleep as he toiled on. These drowsy spells always came to a painful end, for he would walk into a thorny mesquite. Adam saw a weird, misshapen moon rise late over a dark range to blanch the desert with wan light. He walked all night, and when dawn showed him landmarks now grown familiar he had a moment of exhilaration. The long, low-reaching ridge of mountain loomed right before him. When he rounded the sharp, blunt corner his eyes were greeted by sight of a deep-mouthed canyon yawning out of the range, and full of palms and other green trees. He saw a white stream bed and the shine of water, and what he took to be the roofs of palm-thatched huts.
"I've got there. This is the Indian canyon--where Dismukes told me to stay," said Adam, with pride in his achievement. A first sight of what he took to be habitations cheered him. Again that gloomy companion of his mind was put to rout. It looked worth striving and suffering for--this haven. The barrenness of the desert all around made this green canyon mouth an oasis. It appeared well hidden, too. Few travellers passing along the valley would have suspected its presence. The long, low ridge had to be rounded before the canyon could be detected.
With steps that no longer dragged Adam began his descent of the canyon slope. It was a long, gradual incline, rough toward the bottom, and the bottom was a good deal farther down than it had seemed. At length he reached the wide bed of white boulders, strewn about in profusion, where some flood had rolled them. In the centre of this bed trickled a tiny stream of water, slightly alkaline, Adam decided, judging from the white stain on the margin of sand. Following the stream bed, he made his way up into the zone of green growths, a most welcome change from the open glare of the desert. He plodded on perhaps a mile, without reaching the yellow thatch of palms.
"Will I--never--get there?" panted Adam, almost spent.
Finally Adam reached a well-defined trail leading up out of the stream bed. He followed it to a level flat covered with willows and cottonwoods, all full foliaged and luxuriantly green, and among which stately palms swaddled in huge straw sheaths of their own making, towered with loftily tufted crowns. The dust in the trail showed no imprints of feet. Adam regarded that as strange. Still, he might be far from the camp or village that had looked so close from the slope above. Suddenly he emerged from the green covert into an open glade that contained palm-thatched huts, and he uttered a little cry of joy. But it took only a second glance to convince him that the huts were deserted, and his joy was short lived. Hastily he roamed from one hut to another. He found ollas, great, clay water jars, and pieces of broken pottery, and beds of palm leaves through which the lizards rustled, but no Indians, nor any signs of recent habitation.
"Gone! Gone!" he whispered, hoarsely. "Now--I'll starve--to death!"
His accents of despair contained a note of hardness, of indifference born of his extreme fatigue. His eyes refused to stay open, and sleep glued them shut. When he opened them again it was to the light of another day. Stiff and lame, with a gnawing at the pit of his stomach and an oppressed mind, Adam found himself in sad plight. Limping down to the stream, he bathed his face and quenched his thirst, and then, removing his boots, he saw that his feet were badly blistered. He decided to go barefoot, to save his boots as well as to give the raw places a chance to heal.
Then without any more reflection he wrought himself into a supreme effort of will, and it was so passionate and strong that he believed it would hold as long as intelligence governed his actions.
"My one chance is to live here until the Indians come back," he decided. "There's water here and green growths. It's an oasis where animals, birds, living creatures come to drink...I must eat."
His first move was to make slow and careful examination of the trails. One which led toward the mountain bore faint traces of footprints that a recent rain had mostly obliterated. He lost this trail on the smooth rock slope. The others petered out in the stones and sage. Then he searched along the sand bars of the stream for tracks of living creatures; and he found many, from cat tracks to the delicate ones of tiny birds. After all, then, the desert was an abode for livings thing. The fact stimulated Adam, and he returned to the glade to exercise every faculty he possessed in the invention of instruments or traps or snares.
He had a knife and a pair of long leather boot strings. With these, and a bundle of arrow-weed sticks, and a tough elastic bow of ironwood, and strips of bark, and sharp bits of flinty rock Adam set to work under the strong, inventive guiding spirit of necessity. As a boy he had been an adept at constructing figure-four traps. How marvellous the accuracy of memory! He had been the one to build traps for his brother Guerd, who had not patience or skill, but who loved to set traps in the brier patches for redbirds. Adam's nimble fingers slacked a little as his mind surveyed that best part of his life. To what extremity a man could be reduced! The dexterity of his idle youth to serve him thus in his terrible hour of need! He remembered then his skill at making slings and following this came the inspired thought of the possibility of constructing one. He had a strong rubber band doubled round his pocketbook. Sight of it thrilled him. He immediately left off experimenting with the bow and went to making a sling. His difficulty was to find cords to make connections between the rubbers and a forked prong, and also between the rubbers and a carrier of some sort. For the latter he cut a triangular piece out of the top of his boot. Always in the old days he had utilised leather from cast-off shoes, and had even made a collection of old footgear for this purpose. But where to get the cords? Bark would not be pliable and strong enough. Somewhere from the clothes he wore he must extract cords. The problem proved easy. His suspenders were almost new and they were made of linen threads woven together. When he began to ravel them he made the discovery that there was enough rubber in them to serve for a second sling.
When the instrument was finished he surveyed it with satisfaction. He had no doubt that the deadly accuracy he had once been master of with this boyish engine of destruction would readily return to him. Then he went back to work on the other contrivances he had planned.
A failing of the daylight amazed him. For an instant he imagined a cloud had crossed the sun. But the sun had set and darkness was at hand.
"If days fly like this one, life will soon be over," he soliloquised, with a sigh.
In one of the thatched huts he made a comfortable bed of palm leaves. They seemed to retain the heat of the day. When Adam lay down to go to sleep he experienced a vague, inexplicable sense that the very strangeness of the present circumstance was familiar to him. But he could not hold the sensation, so did not understand it. He was very tired and very sleepy, and there was an uncomfortable empty feeling within him. He looked out and listened, slowly aware of a great, soft, silent black enveloping of his environment by the desert night. There seemed to be an aloofness in the immensity of this approach and insulation--a nature that, once comprehended, would be appalling. This thought just flashed by. His mind seemed concerned with something between worry and fear which persisted till he fell asleep.
In the dim, grey dawn he awoke and realised that it was hunger which had awakened him. And he stole out on his imperative quest. He did not see the sunrise nor the broadening day. His instinct was to hunt. Doves and blackbirds visited the stream, and a covey of desert quail seemed tame; but, owing to overeagerness and clumsiness, he did not succeed in killing a single one. He followed them from place to place, all over the oasis, until he lost sight of them. He baited his two traps with cactus fruit and set them, and he prowled into every nook and cranny of the canyon oasis. Lizards, rattlesnakes, rats, ground squirrels rustled from his stealthy steps. It amazed him how wary they were. He might have caught the rattlesnakes, but the idea of eating them was repugnant and impossible to him. The day passed more swiftly than had yesterday. Its close found him so tired he could scarcely stand, and with gnawing hunger growing worse. The moment he lay down sleep claimed him.
Next day he had more and better opportunities to secure meat, but he failed through haste and poor judgment and inaccuracy. His lessons were severe and they taught him the stern need of perfection. That day he saw a hawk poise high over a spot, dart down swiftly, to rise with a squealing rat in its claws. Again he saw a shrike, marked dull grey and black, sail down from a tree, fly very low along an open space of ground to avoid detection, and pounce upon a lizard. Likewise he saw a horned toad shoot out an extraordinary long and almost invisible tongue, to snatch a bee from a flower. In these actions, Adam divined his first proof of the perfection of desert hunters. They did not fail. But he was not thus equipped.
All during the hot period of the day, when birds and animals rested, Adam practised with his crude weapons. His grave, serious eagerness began to give way to instinctive force, a something of fierceness that began to come out in him. It seemed every moment had its consciousness of self, of plight, of presaged agony, but only in flashes of thought, only fleeting ideas instantly repudiated by the physical. He had given a tremendous direction to his mind and it spent its force that way.
The following morning, just at sunrise, he located the covey of desert quail. They had sailed down from the sage slopes to alight among the willows bordering the stream. Adam crawled on the sand, noiseless as a snake, his sling held in readiness. He was breathless and hot. His blood gushed and beat in his veins. The very pursuit of meat made the saliva drip from his mouth and made his stomach roll with pangs of emptiness. Then the strain, the passion of the moment, were beyond his will to control, even if there had not been a strange, savage joy in them. He glided through the willows, never rustling a branch. The plaintive notes of the quail guided him. Then through an opening he saw them--grey, sleek, plump birds, some of them with tiny plumes. They were picking in the damp sand near the water. Adam, lying flat, stretched his sling and waited for a number of the quail to bunch. Then he shot. The heavy pebble sped true, making grey feathers fly. One quail lay dead. Another fluttered wildly The others ran off through the willows Adam rushed upon the crippled quail, plunging down swift and hard; and catching it, he wrung its neck. Then he picked up the other.
"I got 'em. I got 'em!" he cried, elated, as he felt the warm plump bodies. It was a moment of strange sensation. Breathless, hot, wet with sweat, shaking all over, he seemed to have reverted to the triumph of the boy hunter. But there was more, and it had to do with the physical reactions inside his body. It had to do with hunger.
Picking the feathers off these birds required too much time. Adam skinned them, and cleaned them, and then washed them in the stream. That done, he hurried back to his camp to make a fire and cook them. A quick method would be to broil them. He had learned how to do this with strips of meat. His hunger prevented him from waiting until the fire was right, and it also made him hurry the broiling. The salt that he had rescued from his pack now found its use, and it was not long before he had picked clean the bones of these two quail.
Adam found that this pound or so of meat augmented his hunger. It changed the gnawing sensations, in fact modified them, but it induced a greedy, hot hunger for more. An hour after he had eaten, as far as appetite was concerned, he seemed worse off. Then he set out again in quest of meat.
The hours flew, the day ended, night intervened, and another dawn broke. Success again crowned his hunt. He feasted on doves. Thereafter, day by day, he decimated the covey of tame quail and the flock of tame doves until the few that were left grew wary and finally departed. Then he hunted other birds. Quickly they learned the peril of the white man; and the day came when few birds visited the oasis.
Next to invite Adam's cunning, were the ground squirrels, the trade rats, and the kangaroo rats. He lived off them for days. But they grew so wary that he had to dig them out of the ground, and they finally disappeared. At this juncture, a pair of burros wandered into the oasis. They were exceedingly wild. Adam failed to trap one of them. He watched for hours from a steep place where he might have killed one by throwing down a large rock. But it was in vain. At last, in desperation, holding his naked knife in hand, he chased them over stones and through the willows and under the thorny mesquites, all to no avail. He dropped from exhaustion and weakness, and lay where he had fallen till the next morning.
The pangs of hunger now were maddening. He had suffered them, more or less, and then alleviated them with meat, and then felt them grow keener and stronger until the edge wore off. After a few more meatless days the pains gradually subsided. It was a relief. He began to force himself to go out and hunt. Then an exceedingly good stroke of fortune befell him in that he killed a rabbit. His strength revived, but also his pains.
Then he lost track of days, but many passed, and each one of them took something from him in effort, in wakefulness, in spirit. His aggressiveness diminished daily and lasted only a short while. The time came when he fell to eating rattlesnakes and any living creatures in the oasis that he could kill with a club.
But at length pain left him, and hunger, and then his peril revealed itself. He realised it. The desire to kill diminished. With the cessation of activity there returned a mental state in which he could think back and remember all that he had done there, and also look forward to the inevitable prospect. Every morning he dragged his weary body, now merely skin and bones, out to the stream to drink, and then around and around in a futile hunt. He chewed leaves and bark; he ate mesquite beans and cactus fruit. After a certain number of hours the longer he went without meat the less he cared for it, or for living. But when, now and then, he did kill something to eat, then his instinct to survive flashed up with revived hunger. The process of detachment from passion to live was one of agony, infinitely worse than starvation. He had come to learn that starvation would be the easiest and most painless of deaths. It would have been infinitely welcome but for the thought that always followed resignation--that he had sworn to fight. That kept him alive.
His skin turned brown and shrivelled up like dried parchment wrinkling around bones. He did not recognise his hands, and when he lay flat on the stones to drink from the stream, he saw reflected there a mummified mask with awful eyes.
Longer and longer grew the hours wherein he slept by night and lay idle by day, watching, listening, feeling. Something came back to him or was born in him during these hours. But the truth of his state eluded him. It had to do with peace, with dream, with effacement. He seemed no longer real. The hot sun, the pleasant wind, the murmur of bees, the tinkle of water, the everlasting processional march of the heat veils across the oasis--with all these things his mind seemed happily concerned. At dawn when he awoke his old instinct predominated, and he searched for meat. But unless he had some success this questing mood did not last. It departed as weakness and lassitude overbalanced the night's rest. For the other hours of that day he lay in the sun, or the shade--it did not matter--and felt or dreamed as he starved.
As he watched thus one drowsy noon hour, seeing the honeybees darting to and fro, leaving the flowers to fly in straight line across the oasis, there occurred to him the significance of their toil. He watched these flying bees come and go; and suddenly it flashed over him that at the end of the bee line there must be a hive. Bees made nests in trees. If he could find the nest of the bees that were working here he would find honey. The idea stimulated him.
Adam had never heard how bee hunters lined bees to their hives, but in his dire necessity he instinctively adopted the correct method. He watched the bees fly away, keeping them in sight as long as possible, then he walked to the point he had marked as the last place he had seen them, and here he watched for others. In half an hour the straight bee flights led to a large dead cottonwood, hollow at top and bottom, a tree he had passed hundreds of times. The bees had a hive in the upper chamber of the trunk. Adam set fire to the tree and smoked the bees out. Then the problem consisted of felling the tree, for he had not the strength to climb it. The trunk was rotten inside and out. It burned easily, and he helped along the work by tearing out pieces of the soft wood. Nearly all the day was consumed in this toil, but at length the tree fell, splitting and breaking to pieces. The hollow chamber contained many pounds of honey.
Adam's struggle then was to listen to an intelligence that warned him that if he made a glutton of himself it would cause him great distress, and perhaps kill him. How desperately hard it was to eat sparingly of the delicious honey! He tried, but did not succeed. That restraint was beyond human nature. Nevertheless, he stopped far short of what he wanted. He stored the honey away in ollas left there by the Indians.
All night and next day he paid it severe illness for the honey of which he had partaken. The renewed exercise of internal organs that had ceased to function produced convulsions and retching that made him roll on the ground as a man poisoned. Life was tenacious in him and he recovered; and thereafter, while the honey lasted, he slowly gained strength enough to hunt once more for meat. But the fertile oasis was now as barren of living creatures as was the naked desert outside. Adam's hope revived with his barely recovered strength. He pitied himself in his moments of deluded cheeerfulness, of spirit that refused to die. Long ago his physical being had resigned itself, but his soul seemed beyond defeat. How strange the variations of his moods! His intelligence told him that sight of an animal would instantly revert him to the level of a beast of prey or a stalking, bloodthirsty savage.
During these days his eyes scanned the bronze slope of mountain where the tracks of the Indians had faded. They might return in time to save his life. He hoped in spite of himself. In the early time of his imprisonment there he had prayed for succour, but he had long since ceased that. The desert had locked him in. Every moment, every hour that had passed, the ceaseless hunts and then the dreaming spells, held their clear-cut niches in his memory. Looked back at, they seemed far away in the past, even those as close as yesterday; and every sensation was invested by a pang. At night he slept the slumber of weakness, and so the mockery of the dark hours did not make their terrible mark upon his mind. But the solemn days! They sped swiftly by, yet, remembered, they seemed eternities. Desert-bound days--immeasurably silent--periods of the dominance of the blasting sun; days of infinite space, beyond time, beyond life, as they might have been upon the burned-out moon! The stones that blistered unprotected flesh, the sand and the dust, the rock-ribbed ranges of bronze and rust--these tangible evidences of the earth seemed part of those endless days. There were sky and wind, the domain of the open and its master; but these existed for the eagles, and perhaps for the spirits that wailed down the naked shingles of the desert. A man was nothing. Nature filled this universe and had its inscrutable and ruthless laws.
How little the human body required to subsist on! Adam lived long on that honey; and he gained so much from it that after it was gone the hunger pangs revived a hundred times more fiercely than ever. They had been deadened, which fact left him peace; revived by a windfall of food, they brought him agony. It drove him out to hunt for meat. He became a stalking spectre whose keen eye an insect could not have escaped. Hunger now beset him with all its terrors magnified. To starve was nothing, but to eat while starving was hell! The pangs were as if made by a serpent with teeth of fire tearing at his vitals. Tighter and tighter he buckled his belt until he could squeeze his waist in his long, skinny hands so that his fingers met. Whenever his pains began to subside, like worms growing quiet, then a rat or a stray bird or a lizard or a scaly little side-winder rattlesnake would fall to his cunning, as if in mockery of the death that ever eluded him; and next day the old starving pains would convulse his bowels again.
So that he was driven, a gaunt and ever gaunter shadow of a man, up and down the beaten trails of the oasis. Soon he would fall and die, be sun-dried and blow away like powdered leather on the desert wind. By his agonies he measured the inhospitableness and inevitableness of the wasteland. Every thought had some connection with his torture or some relation to his physical being in its fight for existence. In this desert oasis were living things, creatures grown too wary for him now, and willows, cacti, sages, that had conquered over the barrenness of the desert. On his brain had been etched by words of steel the fact that no power to fight was so great and unquenchable as that of man's. He lived on, he staggered on through the solemn, glaring days.
One morning huge columnar clouds, white as fleece, with dark-grey shades along their lower borders, blotted out the sun. How strangely they shaded the high lights! Usually when clouds formed on the desert they lodged round the peaks and hung there. But these were looming across the wasteland, promising rain. A fresh breeze blew the leaves.
Adam was making his weary round of the oasis, dragging one foot like a dead weight after the other. Once he thought he heard an unusual sound, and with lips wide and with bated breath he listened. Only the mocking, solemn silence! Often he was haunted by the memory of sounds. Seldom indeed did he hear his own voice any more. Then he plodded on again with the eyes of a ferret roving everywhere.
He had proceeded a few rods when a distant but shrill whistle brought him to a startled and thrilling halt. It sounded like the neigh of a horse. Often he had heard the brays of wild burros. In the intense silence, as he strained his ears, he heard only the laboured, muffled throbs of his heart. Gradually his hopes, so new and strange, subsided. Only another mockery of his memory! Or perhaps it was a whistle of the wind in a crevice, or of an eagle in flight.
Parting the willows before him as he walked, he went through the thicket out into the open where the stream flowed. It was very low, just a tiny rill of crystal-clear water. He was about to step forward toward the flat rock where he always knelt to drink when another sound checked him. A loud, high buzz, somehow startling! It had life.
Suddenly he espied a huge rattlesnake coiled in the sand, with head erect and its rattles quivering like the wings of a poised humming bird. The snake had just shed an ugly, brown, scaly skin, and now shone forth resplendent, a beautiful clean grey with markings of black. It did not show any fear. The flat triangular head, sleek and cunning, with its deadly jewel-like eyes, was raised half a foot above the plump coils.
Adam's weary, hopeless hunting instinct sustained a vivifying, galvanising shock. Like a flash he changed, beginning to tremble. He dropped his sling as an ineffective weapon against so large a snake. His staring eyes quivered like the vibrating point of a compass needle as he tried to keep them on the snake and at the same time sight a stone or club with which to attack his quarry. A bursting gush of blood, hot in its tearing pangs, flooded out all over his skin, starting the sweat. His heart lifted high in his breast, almost choking him. A terrible excitement animated him and it was paralleled by a cold and sickening dread that the snake would escape and pounds of meat be lost to him.
Never taking eyes off the snake, Adam stooped down to raise a large rock in his hand. He poised it aloft and, aiming with intense keenness, he flung the missile. It struck the rattlesnake a glancing blow, tearing its flesh and bringing blood. With the buzz of a huge bee caught in a trap the snake lunged at Adam, stretching its mutilated length on the sand.
It was long, thick, fat. Adam smelled the exuding blood and it inflamed him. Almost he became a beast. The savage urge in him then was to fall upon his prey and clutch it with his bare hands and choke and tear and kill. But reason still restrained such limit as that. Stone after stone he flung, missing every time. Then the rattlesnake began to drag itself over the sand. Its injury did not retard a swift progress. Adam tried to bound after it, but he was so weak that swift action seemed beyond him. Still, he headed off the snake and turned it back. Stones were of no avail. He could not hit with them, and every time he bent over to pick one up he got so dizzy that he could scarcely rise.
"Club! Club! Got--have club!" he panted, hoarsely. And espying one along the edge of the stream, he plunged to secure it. This moment gave the rattlesnake time to get ahead. Wildly Adam rushed back, brandishing the club. His tall gaunt form, bent forward, grew overbalanced as he moved, and he made a long fall, halfway across the stream. He got up and reached the snake in time to prevent it from escaping under some brush.
Then he swung the club. It was not easy to hit the snake crawling between the stones. And the club was of rotten wood. It broke. With the blunt end Adam managed to give his victim a blow that retarded its progress.
Adam let out a hoarse yell. Something burst in him--a consummation of the instinct to kill and the instinct to survive. There was no difference between them. Hot, and mad and weak, he staggered after the crippled snake. The chase had transformed the whole internal order of him. He was starving to death, and he smelled the blood of fresh meat. The action infuriated him and the odour maddened him. Not far indeed was he then from the actual seizing of that deadly serpent in his bare hands.
But he tripped and fell again in a long forward plunge. It brought him to the sand almost on top of the snake. And here the rattlesnake stopped to coil, scarcely two feet from Adam's face.
Adam tried to rise on his hands. But his strength had left him. And simultaneously there left him the blood madness of that chase to kill and eat. He realised his peril. The rattlesnake would strike him. Adam had one flashing thought of the justice of it--one sight of the strange, cold, deadly jewel eyes, one swift sense of the beauty and magnificent spirit of this reptile of the desert, and then horror possessed him. He froze to his marrow. The icy mace of terror had stunned him. And with it had passed the flashing of his intelligence. He was only a fearful animal, fascinated by another, dreading death by instinct. And as he collapsed, sagging forward, the rattlesnake struck him in the face with the stinging blow of a red-hot iron. Then Adam fainted.