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Wanderer of the Wasteland
Zane Grey (1923) Country of origin: USA
Available texts by the same author here
Adam ran with the strides of a giant. And he came up to a man, ragged and dirty, crawling wearily along, dragging a canteen through the sand.
"Say, hold on!" called Adam, loudly.
The man halted, but did not lift his head, Adam bent down to peer at him.
"What ails you?" queried Adam, sharply.
"Huh!" ejaculated the man, stupidly. Adam's repeated question, accompanied by a shake, brought only a grunt. Adam lifted the man to his feet and, supporting him, began to lead him over the sand. His equilibrium had been upset, and, like all men overcome on the desert, he wanted to plunge off a straight line. Adam persevered, but the labour of holding him was greater than that of supporting him.
At length Adam released the straining fellow, as much out of curiosity to see what he would do as from a realisation that time would not be wasted in this manner. He did not fall, but swayed and staggered around in a circle, like an animal that had been struck on the head. The texture of his ragged garments, the cut of them, the look of the man, despite his soiled and unkempt appearance, marked him as one not commonly met with in the desert.
The coppery sun stood straight overhead and poured down a strong and leaden heat. Adam calculated that they were miles from the camp and would never reach it at this rate. He pondered. He must carry the man. Suiting action to thought, he picked him up and, throwing him over his shoulder, started to plod on. The weight was little to one of Adam's strength, but the squirming and wrestling of the fellow to get down made Adam flounder in the sand.
"You poor devil!" muttered Adam, at last brought to a standstill. "Maybe I can't save your life, anyway."
With that he set the man down and, swinging a powerful blow, laid him stunned upon the sand. Whereupon it was easy to lift him and throw him over a shoulder like an empty sack. Not for a long distance over the sand did that task become prodigious. But at length the burden of a heavy weight and the dragging sand and the hot sun brought Adam to a pass where rest was imperative. He laid the unconscious man down while he recovered breath and strength. Then he picked him up and went on.
After that he plodded slower, rested oftener, weakened more perceptibly. Meanwhile the hours passed, and when he reached the huge gateway in the red iron mountain wall the sun was gone and purple shadows were mustering in the valley. When he reached the more level field where the thick-strewn boulders lay, all before his eyes seemed red. A million needles were stinging his nerves, running like spears of light into his darkened sight.
The limit that he had put upon his endurance was to reach the shack. He did so, and he was nearly blind when the woman's poignant call thrilled his throbbing ears. He saw her--a white shape through ruddy haze. Then he deposited his burden on the sand.
"Oh!" the woman moaned. "He's dead!"
Adam shook his head. Pity, fear, and even terror rang in her poignant cry, but not love.
"Ah!...You've saved him, then...He's injured--there's a great bruise--he breathes so heavily."
While Adam sat panting, unable to speak, the woman wiped her husband's face and worked over him.
"He came back once--and fell into a stupor like this, but not so deep. What can it be?"
"Poison--air," choked Adam.
"Oh, this terrible Death Valley!" she cried.
Adam's sight cleared and he saw the woman, clad in a white robe over her grey dress, a garment clean and rich, falling in thick folds--strange to Adam's sight, recalling the past. The afterglow of sunset shone down into the valley, lighting her face. Once she must have been beautiful. The perfect lines, the noble brow, the curved lips, were there, but her face was thin, strained, tragic. Only the eyes held beauty still.
"You saved him?" she queried, with quick-drawn breath.
"Found him--miles and miles--up the--valley--crawling on--his hands and knees," panted Adam. "I had--to carry him."
"You carried him!" she exclaimed, incredulously. Then the large eyes blazed. "So that's why you were so livid--why you fell? Oh, you splendid man! You giant!...He'd have died out there--alone. I thank you with all my heart."
She reached a white worn hand to touch Adam's with an exquisite eloquence of gratitude.
"Get water--bathe him," said Adam. "Have you ammonia or whisky?" And while he laboriously got to his knees the woman ran into the shack. He rose, feeling giddy and weak. All his muscles seemed beaten and bruised, and his heart pained. Soon the woman came hurrying out, with basin and towel and a little black satchel that evidently contained medicines. Adam helped her work over her husband, but, though they revived him, they could not bring him back to intelligent consciousness.
"Help me carry him in," said Adam.
Inside the little shack it was almost too dark to see plainly. "Have you a light?" he added.
"No," she replied.
"I'll fetch a candle. You watch over him while I move my camp up here. You might change his shirt, if he's got another. I'll be back right away, and I'll start a fire--get some supper for us."
By the time Adam had packed and moved his effects darkness had settled down between the slopes of the mountains. After he had unpacked near the shack, his first move was to light a candle and take it to the door.
"Here's a light, ma'am," he called.
She glided silently out of the gloom, her garments gleaming ghostlike and her white face with its luminous eyes, dark and strange as midnight, looking like a woman's face in tragic dreams. As she took the candle her hand touched Adam's.
"Thank you," she said. "Please don't call me ma'am. My name is Magdalene Virey."
"I'll try to remember...Has your husband come to yet?"
"No. He seems to have fallen into a stupor. Won't you look at him?"
Adam followed her inside and saw that she marked his lofty height. The shack had not been built for anyone of his stature.
"How tall you are!" she murmured.
The candle did not throw a bright light, yet by its aid Adam made out the features of the man whose life he had saved. It seemed to Adam to be the face of a Lucifer whose fiendish passions were now restrained by sleep. Whoever this man was, he had suffered a broken heart and ruined life.
"He's asleep," said Adam. "That's not a trance or stupor. He's worn out. I believe it 'd be better not to wake him."
"You think so?" she replied with quick relief.
"I'm not sure. Perhaps if you watch him awhile you can tell...I'll get some supper and call you."
Adam's habitual dexterity over camp tasks failed him this evening. Presently, however, the supper was ready, and he threw brush on the fire to make a light.
"Mrs. Virey," he called at the door, "come and eat now."
When had the camp fire of his greeted such a vision, except in his vague dreams? Tall, white-gowned, slender, and graceful, with the poise of a woman aloof and proud and the sad face of a Madonna--what a woman to sit at Adam's camp fire in Death Valley! The shadowed and thick light hid the ravages that had by day impaired her beauty. Adam placed a canvas pack for her to sit upon, and then he served her, with something that was not wholly unconscious satisfaction. Of all men, he of the desert could tell the signs of hunger; and the impression had come to him that she was half starved. The way she ate brought home to Adam with a pang the memorable days when he was starving. This woman sitting in the warm, enhancing glow of the camp fire had an exquisitely spiritual face. She had seemed all spirit. But self-preservation was the first instinct and the first law of human nature, or any nature.
"When have I eaten so heartily!" she exclaimed at last. "But, oh! it all tasted so good...Sir, you are a capital cook."
"Thank you," replied Adam, much gratified.
"Do you always fare so well?"
"No. I'm bound to confess I somewhat outdid myself to-night. You see, I seldom have such opportunity to serve a woman."
She rested her elbows on her knees, with her hands under her chin, and looked at him with intense interest. In the night her eyes seemed very full and large, supernaturally bright and tragic. They were the eyes of a woman who still preserved in her something of inherent faith in mankind. Adam divined that she had scarcely looked at him before as an individual with a personality, and that some accent or word of his had struck her singularly.
"It was that miner, Dis--Dis--"
"Dismukes," added Adam.
"Yes. It was he who sent you here. Are you a miner, too?"
"No. I, care little for gold."
"Ah!...What are you, then?"
"Just a wanderer. Wansfell, the Wanderer, they call me."
"They? Who are they?"
"Why, I suppose they are the other wanderers. Men who tramp over the desert--men who seek gold or forgetfulness or peace or solitude--men who are driven--or who hide. These are few, but, taken by the years, they seem many."
"Men of the desert have passed by here, but none like you." she replied, with gravity, and her eyes pierced him. "Why did you come?"
"Years ago my life was ruined," said Adam, slowly. "I chose to fight the desert. And in all the years the thing that helped me most was not to pass by anyone in trouble. The desert sees strange visitors. Life is naked here, like those stark mountain-sides...Dismukes is my friend--he saved me from death once. He is a man who knows this wasteland. He told me about your being here. He said no white woman could live in Death Valley...I wondered--if I might--at least advise you, turn you back--and so I came."
His earnestness deeply affected her.
"Sir, your kind words warm a cold and forlorn heart," she said. "But I cannot be turned back. It's too late."
"No hour is ever too late...Mrs. Virey, I'll not distress you with advice or importunities. I know too well the need and the meaning of peace. But the fact of your being here--a woman of your evident quality--a woman of your sensitiveness and delicate health--why, it is a terrible thing! This is Death Valley. The month is April. Soon it will be May--then June. When midsummer comes you cannot survive here. I know nothing of why you are here--I don't seek to know. But you cannot stay. It would be a miracle for your husband to find gold here, if that is what he seeks. Surely he has discovered that."
"Virey does not seek gold," the woman said.
"Does he know that a white woman absolutely cannot live here in Death Valley? Even the Indians abandon it in summer."
"He knows. There are Shoshone Indians up on the mountains now. They pack supplies to us. They have warned him."
Adam could ask no more, yet how impossible not to feel an absorbing interest in this woman's fate. As he sat with bowed head, watching the glowing and paling of the red embers, he felt her gaze upon him.
"Wansfell, you must have a great heart--like your body," she said, presently. "It is blessed to meet such a man. Your kindness, your interest, soften my harsh and bitter doubt of men. We are utter strangers. But there's something in this desert that bridges time--that bids me open my lips to you...a man who travelled this ghastly valley to serve me!...My husband, Virey, knows that Death Valley is a hell on earth. So do I. That is why he brought me...that is why I came!"
"My God!" breathed Adam, staring incredulously at her. Dismukes had prepared him for tragedy; the desert had shown him many dark and terrible calamities, misfortunes, mysteries; he had imagined he could no longer be thrown off his balance by amaze. But that a sad-eyed, sweet-voiced woman, whose every tone and gesture and look spoke of refinement and education, of a life infinitely removed from the wild ruggedness of the desert West--that she could intimate what seemed in one breath both murder and suicide--this staggered Adam's credulity.
Yet, as he stared at her, realising the tremendous passion of will, of spirit, of something more that emanated from her, divining how in her case intellect and culture had been added to the eternal feminine of her nature, he knew she spoke the truth. Adam had met women on the desert, and all of them were riddles. Yet what a vast range between Margarita Arallanes and Magdalene Virey!
"Won't your husband leave--take you away from here?" asked Adam, slowly.
"Well--I have a way of forcing men to see things. I suppose I--"
"Useless! We have travelled three thousand miles to get to Death Valley. Years ago Elliot Virey read about this awful place. He was always interested. He learned that it was the most arid, ghastly, desolate, and terrible place of death in all the world...Then, when he got me to Sacramento--and to Placerville--he would talk with miners, prospectors, Indians--anyone who could tell him about Death Valley...Virey had a reason for finding a hell on earth. We crossed the mountains, range after range--and here we are...Sir, the hell of which we read--even in its bottommost pit--cannot be worse than Death Valley."
"You will let me take you home--at least out of the desert?" queried Adam, with passionate sharpness.
"Sir, I thank you again," she replied, her voice thrilling richly. "But no--no! You do not understand--you cannot--and it's impossible to explain."
"Ah! Yes, some things are...Suppose you let me move your camp higher up, out of this thick, dead air and heat--where there are trees and good water?"
"But it is not a beautiful and a comfortable camp that Virey--that we want," she said, bitterly.
"Then let me move your shack across the wash out of danger. This spot is the most forbidding I ever saw. That mountain above us is on the move. The whole cracked slope is sliding like a glacier. It is an avalanche waiting for a jar--a slip--something to start it. The rocks are rolling down all the time."
"Have I not heard the rocks--cracking, ringing--in the dead of night!" she cried, shuddering. Her slender form seemed to draw within itself and the white, slim hands clenched her gown. "Rocks! How I've learned to hate them! These rolling rocks are livings things. I've heard them slide and crack, roll and ring--hit the sand with a thump, and then with whistle and thud go by where I lay in the dark...People who live as I have lived know nothing of the elements. I had no fear of the desert--nor of Death Valley. I dared it. I laughed to scorn the idea that any barren wild valley, any maelstrom of the sea, any Sodom of a city could be worse than the chaos of my soul...But I didn't know. I am human. I'm a woman. A woman is meant to bear children. Nothing else!...I learned that I was afraid of the dark--that such fear had been born in me. These rolling rocks got on my nerves. I wait--I listen for them. And I pray...Then the silence--that became so dreadful. It is insupportable. Worse than all is the loneliness...Oh, this God-forsaken, lonely Death Valley! It will drive me mad."
As Adam had anticipated, no matter what strength of will, what sense of secrecy bound this woman's lips, she had been victim to the sound of her own voice, which, liberated by his sympathy, had spoken, and a word, as it were, had led to a full, deep, passionate utterance.
"True. All too terribly true," replied Adam. "And for a woman--for you--these feelings will grow more intense...I beg of you, at least let me move your camp back out of danger."
"No! Not a single foot!" she blazed, as if confronted with something beyond his words. After that she hid her face in her hands. A long silence ensued. Adam, watching her, saw when the tremble and heave of her breast subsided. At length she looked up again, apparently composed. "Perhaps I talked more than I should have. But no matter. It was necessary to tell you something. For you came here to help an unknown woman. Not to anyone else have I breathed a word of the true state of my feelings. My husband watches me like a hawk, but not yet does he know my fears. I'll thank you, when you speak to him, if you stay here so long, not to tell him anything I've said."
"Mrs. Virey, I'll stay as long as you are here," said Adam, simply.
The simplicity of his speech, coupled with the tremendous suggestion in the fact of his physical presence, his strength and knowledge to serve her despite her bitter repudiation, seemed again to knock at the heart of her femininity. In the beginning of human life on the earth, and through its primal development, there was always a man to protect a woman. But subtly and inevitably there had been in Adam's words an intimation that Magdalene Virey stood absolutely alone. More, for with spirit, if not with body, she was fighting Death Valley, and also some terrible relation her husband bore to her.
"Sir--you would stay here--on a possible chance of serving me?" she whispered.
"Yes," replied Adam.
"Virey will not like that."
"I'm not sure, but I suspect it'll not make any difference to me what he likes."
"If you are kind to me he will drive you away," she went on, with agitation.
"Well, as he's your husband he may prevent me from being kind, but he can't drive me away."
"But suppose I ask you to go?"
"If that's the greatest kindness I can do you--well, I'll go...But do you ask me?"
"I--I don't know. I may be forced to--not by him, but by my pride," she said, desperately. "Oh, I'm unstrung! I don't know what to say...After all, just the sound of a kind voice makes me a coward. O God! if people in the world only knew the value of kindness I never did know. This desert of horrors teaches the truth of life. Once I had the world at my feet!...Now I break and bow at the sympathy of a stranger!"
"Never mind your pride," said Adam, in his slow, cool way. "I understand. I've a good deal of a woman in me. Whatever brought you to Death Valley, whatever nails you here, is nothing to me. Even if I learn it, what need that be to you? If you do not want me to stay to work for you, watch over your husband--why, let me stay for my own sake."
She rose and faced him, with soul-searching eyes. She could not escape her nature. Emotion governed her.
"Sir, you speak nobly," she replied, with lips that trembled. "But I don't understand you. Stay here--where I am--for your sake! Explain please."
"I have my burden. Once it was even more terrible than yours. Through that I can feel as you feel now. I have lived the loneliness--the insupportable loneliness--of the desert--the silence, the heat, the hell. But my burden still weighs on my soul. If I might somehow help your husband, who is going wrong, blindly following some road of passion--change him or stop him, why that would ease my burden. If I might save you weariness, or physical pain, or hunger, or thirst, or terror--it would be doing more for myself than for you. We are in Death Valley. You refuse to leave. We are, right here, two hundred feet below sea level. When the furnace heat comes--when the blasting midnight wind comes--it means either madness or death."
"Stay--Sir Knight," she said, with a hollow, ringing gaiety. "Who shall say that chivalry is dead?...Stay and know this. I fear no man. I scorn death...But, ah, the woman of me! I hate dirt and vermin. I'm afraid of pain. I suffer agonies even before I'm hurt. I miss so unforgetably the luxuries of life. And lastly, I have a mortal terror of going mad. Spare me that and you will have my prayers in this world--and beyond...Good-night."
"Good-night," replied Adam.
She left him to the deepening gloom and the dying camp fire. Adam soon grew conscious of extreme fatigue in mind and body. Spreading his blankets on the sands, he stretched his weary, aching body without even an upward glance at the stars, and fell asleep.
Daylight again, as if by the opening of eyelids! The rose colour was vying with the blue of the sky and a noble gold crowned the line of eastern range which Adam could see through the V-shaped split that opened into the valley.
He pulled on his boots, and gave his face an unusual and detrimental luxury in the desert. Water was bad for exposed flesh in arid country. The usual spring and buoyancy of his physical being was lacking this day. Such overstrain as yesterday's would require time to be remedied. So Adam moved slowly and with caution.
First Adam went to the spring. He found a bubbling gush of velvet-looking water pouring out of a hole and running a few rods to sink into the sand. The colour of it seemed inviting--so clear and soft and somehow rich. The music of its murmur, too, was melodious. Adam was a connoisseur of waters. What desert wanderer of years was not? Before he tasted this water, despite its promise, he knew it was not good. Yet it did not have exactly an unpleasant taste. Dismukes had said this water was all right, yet he seldom stayed long enough in one locality to learn the ill-effects of the water. Adam knew he too could live on this water. But he was thinking of the delicate woman lost here in Death Valley with an idiot or a knave of a husband.
The spring was located some two hundred yards or more from the shack and just out of line of the rock-strewn slope. Spreading like a fan, this weathered slant of stones extended its long, curved length in the opposite direction. Adam decided to pitch his permanent camp, or at least sleeping place, here on the grass. Here he erected a brush and canvas shelter to make shade, and deposited his effects under it. That done, he returned to the shack to cook breakfast.
There appeared to be no life in the rude little misshapen hut. Had the man who built it ever been a boy? There were men so utterly helpless and useless out in the wilds, where existence depended upon labour of hands, that they seemed foreign to the descendants of Americans. Adam could not but wonder about the man lying in there, though he tried hard to confine his reflections to the woman. He did not like the situation. Of what avail the strong arm, the desert-taught fierceness to survive? If this man and woman had ever possessed instincts to live, to fight, to reproduce their kind, to be of use in the world, they had subverted them to the debasements of sophisticated and selfish existence. The woman loomed big to Adam, and he believed she had been dragged down by a weak and vicious man.
Leisurely, Adam attended to the preparation of breakfast, prolonging tasks that always passed swiftly through his hands.
"Good morning, Sir Wansfell," called a voice with something of mockery in it, yet rich and wistful--a low-pitched contralto voice full of music and pathos and a pervading bitterness.
It stirred Adam's blood, so sluggish this morning. It seemed to carry an echo from his distant past. Turning, he saw the woman, clad in grey, with girdle of cord twisted around her slender waist. Soft and clean and fleecy, that grey garment, so out of place there, so utterly incongruous against the background of crude shack and wild slope, somehow fitted her voice as it did her fragile shape, somehow set her infinitely apart from the women Adam had met in his desert wanderings. She came from the great world outside, a delicate spark from the solid flint of class, a thoroughbred whom years before the desert might have saved.
"Good morning, Mrs. Virey," returned Adam. "How are you--and did your husband awake?"
"I slept better than for long," she replied, "and I think I know why...Yes, Virey came to. He's conscious, and asked for water. But he's weak--strange. I'd like you to look at him presently."
"Yes, I will."
"And how are you after your tremendous exertions of yesterday?" she inquired.
"Not so spry," said Adam, with a smile. "But I'll be myself in a day or so. I believe the air down in the valley affected me a little. My lungs are sore...I think it would be more comfortable for you if we had breakfast in your kitchen. The sun is hot."
"Indeed yes. So you mean to--to do this--this camp work for me--in spite of--"
"Yes. I always oppose women," he said. "And that is about once every two or three years. You see, women are scarce on the desert."
"Last night I was upset. I am sorry that I was ungracious. I thank you, and I am only too glad to accept your kind service," she said, earnestly.
"That is well. Now, will you help me carry in the breakfast?"
Unreality was not unusual to Adam. The desert had as many unrealities, illusions, and spectres as it had natural and tangible things. But while he sat opposite to this fascinating woman, whose garments exuded some subtle fragrance of perfume, whose shadowed, beautiful face shone like a cameo against the drab wall of the brush shack, he was hard put to it to convince himself of actuality. She ate daintily, but she was hungry. The grey gown fell in graceful folds around the low stone seat. The rude table between them was a box, narrow and uneven.
"Shall I try to get Virey to eat?" she asked, presently. "That depends. On the desert, after a collapse, we are careful with food and water."
"Will you look at him?"
Adam followed her as she swept aside a flap of the canvas partition. This room was larger and lighter. It had an aperture for a window. Adam's quick glance took this in, and then the two narrow beds of blankets raised on brush cots. Virey lay on the one farther from the door. His pallid brow and unshaven face appeared drawn into terrible lines, which, of course, Adam could not be sure were permanent or the result of the collapse in the valley. He inclined, however, to the conviction that Virey's face was the distorted reflection of a tortured soul. Surely he had been handsome once. He had deep-set black eyes, a straight nose, and a mouth that betrayed him, despite its being half hidden under a moustache. Adam, keen and strung in that moment as he received his impressions of Virey, felt the woman's intensity as if he had been studying her instead of her husband. How singular women were! How could it matter to her what opinion he formed of her husband? Adam knew he had been powerfully prejudiced against this man, but he had held in stern abeyance all judgment until he could look at him. For long years Adam had gazed into the face of the desert. Outward appearance could not deceive him. As the cactus revealed its ruthless nature, as the tiny inch-high flower bloomed in its perishable but imperative proof of beauty as well as life, as the long flowing sands of the desert betrayed the destructive design of the universe--so the face of any man was the image of his soul. And Adam recoiled instinctively, if not outwardly, at what he read in Virey's face.
"You're in pain?" queried Adam.
"Yes," came the husky whisper, and Virey put a hand on his breast.
"It's sore here," said Adam, feeling Virey. "You've breathed poisoned air down in the valley. It acts like ether...You just lie quiet for a while. I'll do the work around camp."
"Thank you," whispered Virey.
The woman followed Adam outside and gazed earnestly up at him, unconscious of herself, with her face closer than it had ever been to him and full in the sunlight. It struck Adam that the difference between desert flowers and the faces of beautiful women was one of emotion. How much better to have the brief hour of an unconscious flower, wasting its fragrance on the desert air!
"He's ill, don't you think?" queried the woman.
"No. But he recovers slowly. A man must have a perfect heart and powerful lungs to battle against the many perils in this country. But Virey will get over this all right.
"You never give up, do you?" she inquired.
"Come to think of that, I guess I never do," replied Adam.
"Such a spirit is worthy of a better cause. You are doomed here to failure."
"Well, I'm not infallible, that's certain. But you can never tell. The fact of my standing here is proof of the overcoming of almost impossible things. I can't make Death Valley habitable for you, but I can lessen the hardships. How long have you been here?"
"Several months. But it's years to me."
"Who brought you down? How did you get here?"
"We've had different guides. The last were Shoshone Indians, who accompanied us across a range of mountains, then a valley, and last over the Panamints. They left us here. I rode a horse. Virey walked the last stages of this journey to Death Valley--from which there will be no return. We turned horse and burros loose. I have not seen them since."
"Are these Shoshones supposed to visit you occasionally?"
"Yes. Virey made a deal with them to come every full moon. We've had more supplies than we need. The trouble is that Virey has the inclination to eat, but I have not the skill to prepare food wholesomely under these rough conditions. So we almost starved."
"Well, let me take charge of camp duties. You nurse your husband and don't neglect yourself. It's the least you can do. You'll have hardship and suffering enough, even at best. You've suffered, I can see, but not physically. And you never knew what hardship meant until you got into the desert. If you live, these things will cure you of any trouble. They'll hardly cure Virey, for he has retrograded. Most men in the desert follow the line of least resistance. They sink. But you will not...And let me tell you. There are elemental pangs of hunger, of thirst, of pain that are blessings in disguise. You'll learn what rest is and sleep and loneliness. People who live as you have lived are lopsided. What do they know of life close to the earth? Any other life is false. Cities, swarms of men and women, riches, luxury, poverty--these were not in nature's scheme of life...Mrs. Virey, if anything can change your soul it will be the desert."
"Ah, Sir Wansfell, so you have philosophy as well as chivalry," she replied, with the faint accent that seemed to be mockery of herself. "Change my soul if you can, wanderer of the desert! I am a woman, and a woman is symbolical of change. Teach me to cook, to work, to grow strong, to endure, to fight, to look up at those dark hills whence cometh your strength...I am here in Death Valley. I will never leave it in body. My bones will mingle with the sands and moulder to dust...But my soul--ah! that black gulf of doubt, of agony, of terror, of hate--change that if you can!"
These tragic, eloquent words chained Adam to Death Valley as if they had been links of steel; and thus began his long sojourn there.
Work or action was always necessary to Adam. They had become second nature. He planned a brush shelter from the sun, a sort of outside room adjoining the shack, a stone fireplace and table and seats, a low stone wall to keep out blowing sand, and a thick, heavy stone fence between shack and the slope of sliding rocks. When these tasks were finished there would be others, and always there would be the slopes to climb, the valley to explore. Idleness in Death Valley was a forerunner of madness. There must be a reserve fund of long work and exercise, so that when the blazing, leaden-hazed middays of August came, with idleness imperative, there would be both physical force and unclouded mind to endure them. The men who succumbed to madness in this valley were those who had not understood how to combat it.
That day passed swiftly, and the twilight hour seemed to have less of gloom and forbidding intimations. That might well have been due to his eternal hope. Mrs. Virey showed less gravity and melancholy, and not once did she speak with bitterness or passion. She informed Adam that Virey had improved.
Two more days slipped by, and on the third Virey got up and came forth into the sunlight. Adam happened to be at work near by. He saw Virey gaze around at the improvements that had been made and say something about them to his wife. He looked a man who should have been in the prime of life. Approaching with slow gait and haggard face, he addressed Adam.
"You expect pay for this puttering around?"
"No," replied Adam, shortly.
"Well, when men are used to the desert, as I am, they lend a hand where it is needed. That's not often."
"But I didn't want any such work done round my camp."
"I know, and I excuse you because you're ignorant of desert ways and needs."
"The question of excuse for me is offensive."
Adam, rising abreast of the stone wall he was building, fixed his piercing eyes upon this man. Mrs. Virey stood a little to one side, but not out of range of Adam's gaze. Did a mocking light show in her shadowy eyes? The doubt, the curiosity in her expression must have related to Adam. That slight, subtle something about her revealed to Adam the inevitableness of disappointment in store for him if he still entertained any hopes of amenable relations with Virey.
"We all have to be excused sometimes," said Adam, deliberately. "Now I had to excuse you on the score of ignorance of the desert. You chose this place as a camp. It happens to be the most dangerous spot I ever saw. Any moment a stone may roll down that slope to kill you. Any moment the whole avalanche may start. That slope is an avalanche."
"It's my business where I camp," rejoined Virey.
"Were you aware of the danger here?"
"I am indifferent to danger."
"But you are not alone. You have a woman with you."
Manifestly, Virey had been speaking without weighing words and looking at Adam without really seeing him. The brooding shade passed out of his eyes, and in its place grew a light of interest that leaped to the crystal-cold clearness of a lens.
"You're a prospector," he asserted.
"No. I pan a little gold dust once in a while for fun because I happen across it."
"You're no miner then--nor hunter, nor teamster."
"I've been a little of all you name, but I can't be called any one of them."
"You might be one of the robbers that infest these hills."
"I might be, only I'm not," declared Adam, dryly. The fire in his depths stirred restlessly, but he kept a cool, smothering control over it. He felt disposed to be lenient and kind toward this unfortunate man. If only the woman had not stood there with that half-veiled mocking shadow of doubt in her eyes!
"You're an educated man!" ejaculated Virey, incredulously.
"I might claim to be specially educated in the ways of the desert."
"And the ways of women, are they mysteries to you?" queried Virey, with scorn. His interrogation seemed like a bitter doubt flung out of an immeasurable depth of passion.
"I confess that they are," replied Adam. "I've lived a lonely life. Few women have crossed my trail."
"You don't realise your good fortune--if you tell the truth."
"I would not lie to any man," returned Adam, bluntly. "Bah! Men are all liars, and women make them so. You're hanging around my camp, making a bluff of work."
"I deny that. Heaving these stones is work. You lift a few of them in this hot sun...And my packing you on my back for ten miles over the floor of Death Valley--was that a bluff?"
"You saved my life!" exclaimed the man, stung to passion. There seemed to be contending tides within him--a fight of old habits of thought, fineness of feeling, against an all-absorbing and dominating malignancy. "Man, I can't thank you for that...You've done me no service."
"I don't want or expect thanks. I was thinking of the effort it cost me."
"As a man who was once a gentleman, I do thank you--which is a courtesy due my past. But now that you have put me in debt for a service I didn't want, why do you linger here?"
"I wish to help your wife."
"Ah! that's frank of you. That frankness is something for which I really thank you. But you'll pardon me if I'm inclined to doubt the idealistic nature of your motive to help her."
Adam pondered over this speech without reply. Words always came fluently when he was ready to speak. And he seemed more concerned over Virey's caustic bitterness than over his meaning. Then, as he met the magnificent flash in Magdalene Virey's eyes, he was inspired into revelation of Virey's veiled hint and into a serenity he divined would be kindest to her pride.
"Go ahead and help her," Virey went on. "You have my sincere felicitations. My charming wife is helpless enough. I never knew how helpless till we were thrown upon our own resources. She cannot even cook a potato. And as for baking bread in one of those miserable black ovens, stranger, if you eat some of it I will not be long annoyed by your attentions to her."
"Well, I'll teach her," said Adam.
His practical response irritated Virey excessively. It was as if he wished to insult and inflame, and had not considered a literal application to his words.
"Who are you? What's your name?" he queried, yielding to a roused curiosity.
"Wansfell," replied Adam.
"Wansfell?" echoed Virey. The name struck a chord of memory--a discordant one. He bent forward a little, at a point between curiosity and excitement. "Wansfell? I know that name. Are you the man who in this desert country is called Wansfell the Wanderer?"
"Yes, I'm that Wansfell."
"I heard a prospector tell about you," went on Virey, his haggard face now quickened by thought. "It was at a camp near a gold mine over here somewhere--I forget where. But the prospector said he had seen you kill a man named Mc something--McKin--no, McKue. That's the name...Did he tell the truth?"
"Yes, I'm sorry to say. I killed Baldy McKue--or rather, to speak as I feel, I was the means by which the desert dealt McKue the death justly due him."
Virey now glowed with excitement, changing the man.
"Somehow that story haunted me," he said. "I never heard one like it...This prospector told how you confronted McKue in the street of a mining camp. In front of a gambling hell, or maybe it was a hotel. You yelled like a demon at McKue. He turned white as a sheet. He jerked his gun, began to shoot. But you bore a charmed life. His bullets did not hit you, or, if they did, to no purpose. You leaped upon him. His gun flew one way, his hat another...Then--then you killed him with your hands!...Is that true?"
Adam nodded gloomily. The tale, told vividly by this seemingly galvanised Virey, was not pleasant. And the woman stood there, transfixed, with white face and tragic eyes.
"My God! You killed McKue by sheer strength--with your bare hands!...I had not looked at your hands. I see them now...So McKue was your enemy?"
"No. I never saw him before that day," replied Adam.
Virey slowly drew back wonderingly, yet with instinctive shrinking. Certain it was that his lips stiffened.
"Then why did you kill him?"
"He ill-treated a woman."
Adam turned away as he replied. He did not choose then to show in his eyes the leaping thought that had been born of the memory and of Virey's strange reaction. But he heard him draw a quick, sharp breath and step back. Then a silence ensued. Adam gazed up at the endless slope, at the millions of rocks, all apparently resting lightly in their pockets, ready to plunge down.
"So--so that was it," spoke up Virey, evidently with effort. "I always wondered. Wild West sort of story, you know. Strange I should meet you...Thanks for telling me. I gather it wasn't pleasant for you."
"It's sickening to recall, but I have no regrets," replied Adam.
"Quite so. I understand. Man of the desert--ruthless--inhuman sort of thing."
"Inhuman?" queried Adam, and he looked at Virey, at last stung. Behind Virey's pale, working face and averted eyes Adam read a conscience in tumult, a spirit for the moment terrorised. "Virey, you and I'd never agree on meaning of words...I broke McKue's arms and ribs and legs, and while I cracked them I told him what an inhuman dastard he had been--to ruin a girl, to beat her, to abandon her and her baby--to leave them to die. I told him how I had watched them die...then I broke his neck!...McKue was the inhuman man--not I."
Virey turned away, swaying a little, and his white hand, like a woman's, sought the stone wall for support, until he reached the shack, which he entered.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Virey, that story had to come up," said Adam, confronting her with reluctance. But she surprised him again. He expected to find her sickened, shrinking from him as a bloody monster, perhaps half fainting; he found, however, that she seemed serene, controlling deep emotions which manifested themselves only in the marble whiteness of her cheek, the strained darkness of her eye.
"The story was beautiful. I had not heard it," she said, and the rich tremor of her voice thrilled Adam. "What woman would not revel in such a story?...Wansfell the Wanderer. It should be Sir Wansfell, Knight of the Desert!...Don't look at me so. Have you not learned that the grandest act on earth is when a man fights for the honour or love or happiness or life of a woman?...I am a woman. Many men have loved me. Virey's love is so strong that it is hate. But no man ever yet thought of me--no man ever yet heard the little songs that echoed through my soul--no man ever fought to save me!...My friend, I dare speak as you speak, with the nakedness of the desert. And so I tell you that just now I watched my husband--I listened to the words which told his nature, as if that was new to me. I watched you stand there--I listened to you. And so I dare to tell you--if you come to fight my battles I shall have added to my life of shocks and woes a trouble that will dwarf all the others...the awakening of a woman who has been blind!...The facing of my soul--perhaps its salvation! A crowning agony--a glory come too late!"