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Wanderer of the Wasteland
Zane Grey (1923) Country of origin: USA
Available texts by the same author here
July! At last the endlessly long, increasingly hot June days brought the leaden-hazed month of July, when no sane man ever attempted to cross Death Valley while the sun was high.
In all hours, even in the darkness, the bold, rugged slopes of the Panamints reflected sinister shades of red. And the valley was one of grey swirling shadows and waving veils of heat like transparent smoke. Beyond that vast, strange, dim valley rose the drab and ochre slopes of the Funeral Mountains, sweeping up to the bronze battlements and on to the lilac and purple peaks blurred in the leaden-hued haze that obscured the sky. The sun was sky-broad, an illimitable flare, with a lurid white heart into which no man could look.
Adam was compelled to curtail his activities. He did not suffer greatly from the heat, but he felt its weakening power. Ever his blood seemed at fever heat. Early in the mornings and late in the evenings he prepared simple meals, which, as the days dragged on, were less and ever less partaken of by his companions and himself. During the midday hours, through the terrible heat, he lay in the shade, sweltering and oppressed, in a stupor of sleep. The nights were the only relief from the immense and merciless glare, the bearing down of invisible bars of red-hot iron. Most of these long hours of darkness Adam lay awake or walked in the gloom or sat in the awful stillness, waiting for he knew not what. But that he waited for something he knew with augmenting dread.
When the full blast of this summer heat came, Virey changed physically and mentally. He grew thin. He walked with bowed shoulders. His tongue protruded slightly and he always panted. Every day he ate less and slept less than on the day before. He obeyed no demands from Adam and took no precautions. His sufferings would have been less and his strength would have been greater had he refrained from exposing himself to the sun. But he revelled in proofs of the nature of Death Valley.
And if Virey had ever worn a mask in front of Adam he now dropped it. Indeed he ignored Adam, no longer with scorn or indifference, but as if unaware of his presence. Whenever Adam wanted to be heard by Virey, which desire diminished daily, he had to block his path, confront him forcefully. Virey was given over wholly to his obsession. His hate possessed him body and soul. And if it had ever been a primitive hate to destroy, it had been restrained, and therefore rendered infinitely cruel, by the slow, measured process of thought, of premeditation.
Often when Adam absented himself from camp, Virey had a trick of climbing the weathered slope to roll down rocks. He seemed mad to do this. Yet when Adam returned he would come clambering down, wet and spent, a haggard sweating wretch not yet quite beyond fear. In vain had Adam argued, pleaded, talked with him; in vain had been the strident scorn of a man and the curses of rage. Virey, however, had a dread of Adam's huge hands. Something about them fascinated him. When one of these, clenched in an enormous fist, was shoved under his nose with a last threat, then Virey would retire sullenly to the shack. In every way that was possible he kept before Magdalene Virey the spectacle of his ruin and the consciousness that it was her doing. These midsummer days soon made him a gaunt, unshaven, hollow-eyed wretch. Miserable and unkempt he presented himself at meals, and sat there, a haggard ghost, to mouth a little food and to stare at his wife with accusing eyes. He reminded her of cool, shaded rooms, of exquisite linen and china, of dainty morsels, of carved-glass pitchers full of refreshing drink and clinking ice. Always he kept before her the heat, the squalour, the dirt, the horror of Death Valley. When he could present himself before her with his thin, torn garments clinging wet to his emaciated body, his nerves gone from useless exertions, his hands bloody and shaking as if with palsy, his tongue hanging out--when he could surprise her thus and see her shrink, then he experienced rapture. He seemed to cry out: Woman! behold the wreck of Virey!
But if that was rapture for him, to gloat over the doom of her seemed his glory. Day by day Death Valley wrought by invisible lines and shades a havoc in Magdalene Virey's beauty. To look at her was to have striking proof that Death Valley had never been intended for a woman, no matter how magnificent her spirit. The only spirit that could prevail here was the one which had lost its earthly habiliments. Like a cat playing with a mouse, Virey watched his wife. Like Mephistopheles gloating over the soul of a lost woman, Virey attended to the slow manifestations of his wife's failing strength. He meant to squeeze every drop of blood out of her heart and still keep, if possible, life lingering in her. His most terrible bitterness seemed to consist of his failure to hide her utterly and forever from the gaze of any man save himself. Here he had hidden her in the most desolate place in the world, yet another man had come, and, like all the others, had been ready to lay down his life for her. Virey writhed under this circumstance over which he had no control. It was really the only truth about the whole situation that he was able to grasp. The terrible tragedy of his hate was that it was not hate, but love. Like a cannibal, he would have eaten his wife raw, not from hunger, but from his passion to consume her, incorporate her heart and blood and flesh into his, make her body his forever. Thought of her soul, her mind, her spirit, never occurred to Virey. So he never realised how she escaped him, never understood her mocking scorn.
But through his thick and heat-hazed brain there must have pierced some divination of his failing power to torture her. The time came when he ceased to confront her like a scarecrow, he ceased accusing her, he ceased to hold before her the past and its contrast to the present, he gave up his refinement of cruelty. This marked in Virey a further change, a greater abasement. He reverted to instinct. He retrograded to a savage in his hate, and that hate found its outlet altogether in primitive ways.
Adam's keen eye saw all this, and the slow boil in his blood was not all owing to the torrid heat of Death Valley. His great hands, so efficient and ruthless, seemed fettered. A thousand times he had muttered to the silence of the night, to the solemn, hazed daylight, to the rocks that had souls, and to the invisible presence ever beside him: "How long must I stand this? How long--how long?"
One afternoon as he awoke late from the sweltering siesta he heard Mrs. Virey scream. The cry startled him, because she had never done that before. He ran.
Adam found her lying at the foot of the stone bench in a dead faint. The brown had left her skin. How white the wasted face! What dark shadows under the hollow eyes! His heart smote him remorselessly.
As he knelt and was about to lift her head he espied a huge, hairy spider crawling out of the folds of her grey gown. It was a tarantula, one of the ugliest of the species. Adam flipped it off with his hand and killed it under his boot.
Then with basin of water and wetted scarf he essayed to bring Mrs. Virey back to consciousness. She did not come to quickly, but at last she stirred, and opened her eyes with a flutter. She seemed to be awakening from a nightmare of fear, loathing, and horror. For that instant her sight did not take in Adam, but was a dark, humid, dilated vision of memory.
"Magdalene, I killed the tarantula," said he. "It can't harm you now...Wake up! Why, you're stiff and you look like--like I don't know what!...You fainted and I've had a time bringing you to."
"Oh!" she cried. "It's you." And then she clung to him while he lifted her, steadying her upon her feet, and placed her on the stone bench. "So I fainted?...Ugh! That loathsome spider! Where is it?"
"I covered it with sand," he replied.
"Would it have--bitten me?"
"No. Not unless you grasped it."
Slowly she recovered and, letting go of him, leaned back in the seat. Crystal beads of sweat stood out upon her white brow. Her hair was wet. Her sensitive lips quivered.
"I've a perfect horror of mice, bugs, snakes, spiders--anything that crawls," she said. "I can't restrain it. I inherited it from my mother...And what has mind got to do with most of a woman's feelings? Virey has finally found that out."
"Virey!...What do you mean?" rejoined Adam.
"I was leaning back here on the bench when suddenly I heard Virey slipping up behind me. I knew he was up to something. But I wouldn't turn to see what. Then with two sticks he held the tarantula out over me--almost in my face. I screamed. I seemed to freeze inside. He dropped the tarantula in my lap...Then all went black."
"Where--is he now?" asked Adam, finding it difficult to speak.
"He's in the shack."
Adam made a giant stride in that direction, only to be caught and detained by her clinging hands. Earnestly she gazed up at him, with melancholy, searching eyes.
He uttered a loud laugh, mirthless, a mere explosion of surcharged breath. "No!...I can't get angry. I can't be a man any more. This Death Valley and the sun--and you--have worked on my mind...But I'll tell you what--nothing can stop me from beating Virey--so he'll never do that again."
"Ah I...So I've worked on your mind? Then it's the only great deed I ever did...Wansfell, I told you Virey has threatened to shoot you. He's meant to more than once, but when you have come he has been afraid. But he might."
"I wish to heaven he'd try it," responded Adam, and, loosing the woman's hold upon his hands, he strode toward the shack.
"Virey, come out!" he called, loudly, though without any particular feeling. There was no reply, and he repeated the call, this time louder. Still Virey remained silent. Waiting a moment longer, Adam finally spoke again, with deliberate, cold voice. "Virey, I don't want to mess up that room with all your wife's belongings in there. So come outside."
At that Adam heard a quick, panting breath. Then Virey appeared--came to the door of the shack. Adam could not have told what the man's distorted face resembled. He carried a gun, and his heart was ferocious if his will was weak.
"Don't you--lay one of your--bloody hands on me," he panted.
Adam took two long strides and halted before Virey, not six feet distant.
"So you've got your little gun, eh?" he queried, without any particular force. Adam had been compelled to smother all that mighty passion within him, or he could not have answered for his actions. "What are you going to do with it?"
"If you make a--move at me--I'll kill you," came the husky, panting response.
"Virey, I'm going to beat you within an inch of your worthless life," declared Adam, monotonously, as if he had learned this speech by rote. "But I've got to talk first. I'm full of a million things to call you."
"Damn you, I'll not listen," replied Virey, beginning to shake with excitement. The idea of using the gun had become an intent and was acting powerfully upon him. "You leave my--camp--you get out--of this valley!"
"Virey, are you crazy?" queried Adam. The use of his voice had changed that deadlock of his feelings. He must not trust himself to bandy speech with Virey. The beating must be administered quickly or there would be something worse. Yet how desperately hard not to try to awaken conscience or sense in this man!
"No, I'm not crazy," yelled Virey.
"If you're not crazy, then that trick of throwing a tarantula on your wife was damnable--mean--hellish--monstrous...My God! man, can't you see what a coward you are? To torture her--as if you were a heathen! That delicate woman--all quivering nerves! To pick on a weakness, like that of a child! Virey, if you're not crazy you're the worst brute I've ever met on the desert. You've sunk lower than men whom the desert has made beasts. You--"
"Beast I am--thanks to my delicate wife," cried Virey, with exceeding bitter passion. "Delicate? Ha-ha! The last lover of Magdalene Virey can't see she's strong as steel--alive as red fire! How she clings to memory! How she has nine lives of a cat--and hangs on to them--just to remember!...And you--meddler! You desert rat of a preacher. Get out--or I'll kill you!"
"Shoot and be damned!" flashed Adam, as with leap as swift as his voice he reached a sweeping arm.
Virey's face turned ashen. He raised the gun. Adam knocked it up just as it exploded. The powder burned his forehead, but the bullet sped high. Another blow sent the gun flying to the sand. Then Adam, fastening a powerful grip on Virey, clutching shirt and collar and throat at once, dragged him before the stone bench where Mrs. Virey sat, wide-eyed and pale. Here Adam tripped the man and threw him heavily upon the sand. Before he could rise Adam straddled him, bearing him down. Then Adam's big right hand swept and dug in the sand to uncover the dead tarantula.
"Ah! here's your spider!" he shouted. And he rubbed the hairy, half-crushed tarantula in Virey's face. The man screamed and wrestled. "Good! you open your mouth. Now we'll see...Eat it--eat it, damn your cowardly soul!" Then Adam essayed to thrust the spider between Virey's open lips. He succeeded only partly. Virey let out a strangling, spitting yell, then closed his teeth as a vice. Adam smeared what was left of the crushed tarantula all over Virey's face.
"Now get up," he ordered, and, rising himself, he kicked Virey. Adam, in the liberation of his emotions by action, was now safe from himself. He would not kill Virey. He could even hold in his enormous strength. He could even think of the joy of violence that was rioting inside him, of the ruthless fierceness with which he could have rent this man limb from limb.
Virey, hissing and panting in a frenzy, scrambled to his feet. Fight was in him now. He leaped at Adam, only to meet a blow that laid him on the sand. It had not stunned him. Up he sprang, bloody, livid, and was at Adam again. His frenzy lent him strength and in that moment he had no fear of man or devil. The desert rage was on him. He swung his fists, beat wildly at Adam, tore and clawed. Adam slapped him with great broad hands that clapped like boards, and then, when Virey lunged close, he closed his fist and smashed it into Virey's face. The man of the cities went ploughing in the sand. Then on his hands and knees he crawled like a dog, and, finding a stone, he jumped up to fling it. Adam dodged the missile. Wildly Virey clutched for more, throwing one after another. Adam caught one and threw it back, to crack hard on his opponent's shin. Virey yelled no more. His rage took complete possession of him. Grasping up a large rock, he held it as a mace and rushed upon Adam to brain him. That action and intent to kill was the only big response he had made to this wild environment. He beat at Adam. He lunged up to meet his foe's lofty head. He had no fear. But he was mad. No dawning came to him that he was being toyed with. Strong and furious at the moment, he might have succeeded in killing a lesser man. But before Adam he was powerless to do murder. Then the time came when Adam knocked the rock out of his hand and began to beat him, blow on blow to face and body, with violence, but with checked strength, so that Virey staggered here and there, upheld by fists. At last, whipped out of rage and power to retaliate, Virey fell to the sands. Adam dragged him into the shack and left him prostrate and moaning, an abject beaten wretch who realised his condition.
Most difficult of all for Adam then was to face Mrs. Virey. Yet the instant he did he realised that his ignorance of women was infinite.
"Did the bullet--when he fired--did it hit you?" she queried, her large eyes, intense and glowing, wonderfully dark with emotion, flashing over him.
"No--it missed--me," panted Adam, as with heavy breath he sank upon the stone bench.
"I picked up the gun. I was afraid he'd find it. You'd better keep it now," she said, and slipped it into his pocket.
"What a--dis--gusting--sight for you--to have--to watch!" exclaimed Adam, trying to speak and breathe at once.
"It was frightful--terrible at first," she returned. "But after the gun went flying--and you had stopped trying to make him eat the--the spider--ugh! how sickening I...After that it got to be--well, Wansfell, it was the first time in the years I've known my husband that I respected him. He meant to kill you. It amazed me. I admired him...And as for you--to see you tower over him--and parry his blows--and hit him when you liked--and knock him and drag him--oh, that roused a terrible something in me! I never felt so before in my whole life. I was some other woman. I watched the blood flow, I heard the thuds and heavy breaths, I actually smelled the heat of you, I was so close--and it all inflamed me, made me strung with savage excitement--I had almost said joy...God knows, Wansfell, we have hidden natures within our breasts."
"If only it's a lesson to him!" sighed Adam.
"Then it were well done," she replied, "but I doubt--I doubt. Virey is hopeless. Let us forget...And now will you please help me search in the sand here for something I dropped. It fell from my lap when I fainted, I suppose. It's a small ivory case with a miniature I think all the world of. Last and best of my treasures!"
Adam raked in the sand along the base of the bench, and presently found the lost treasure. How passionately, with what eloquent cry of rapture, did she clutch it!
"Look!" she exclaimed, with wonderful thrill in her voice, and held the little case open before Adam's eyes.
He saw a miniature painting of a girl's face, oval, pure as a flower, with beautiful curls of dark bronze, and magnificent eyes. In these last Adam recognised the mother of this girl. The look of them, the pride and fire, if not the colour, were the same as Magdalene Virey's.
"A sweet and lovely face," said Adam.
"Ruth!" she whispered. "My daughter--my only child--my baby that I abandoned to save her happiness!...Oh, mockery of life that I was given such a heart to love--that I was given such a perfect child!"
The midsummer midnight furnace winds began to blow.
They did not blow every night or many nights consecutively; otherwise all life in the valley would soon have become extinct. Adam found the hot winds heretofore, that he had imagined were those for which the valley was famed, were really comfortable compared with these terrible furnace blasts. In trying to understand their nature, Adam concluded they were caused by a displacement of higher currents of cool air. Sometime during the middle of the night there began a downward current of cool air from the mountain heights; and this caused a disturbance of the vast area of hot air in the burning valley below sea level. The tremendous pressure drove the hot air to find an outlet so it could rise to let the cool air down, and thus there came gusts and gales of furnace winds, rushing down the valley, roaring up the canyons.
The camp of the Vireys, almost in the centre of one of these outlets and scarcely a quarter of a mile from the main valley, lay open to the full fury of these winds.
The first of August was a hazy, blistering day in which the valley smoked. Veils of transparent black heat--shrouds of moving white transparent heat! The mountains' tops were invisible, as if obscured in thin, leaden-hued fog; their bases showed dull, sinister red through the haze. Nothing moved except the strange veils and the terrible heaven-wide sun that seemed to have burst. It was a day when, if a man touched an unshaded stone with his naked hand, he would be burned as by a hot iron. A solemn, silent, sulphurous, smoky, deadly day, inimical to life!
But at last the sunset of red hell ended that day and merciful darkness intervened. The fore part of the night was hot, yet endurable, and a relief compared to the sunlit hours. Adam marked, however, or imagined, a singular, ominous, reddish hue of the dim stars, a vast still veil between him and the sky, a waiting hush. He walked out into the open, peering through the dimness, trying to comprehend. The colour of the stars and heavens, and of the dull black slopes, and of the night itself, seemed that of a world burned out. Immense, dim, mysterious, empty, desolate! Had this Death Valley finally unhinged his mind? But he convinced himself that it was normal. The unreality, the terror, the forbidding hush of all the elements, the imminence of catastrophe--these were all actually present. Anything could happen here. Exaggeration of sense was impossible. This Death Valley was only a niche of the universe and the universe only a part of the infinite. He felt his intelligence and emotion, and at the same time the conviction that only a step away was death. The old wonder arose--was death the end? Not possible! Yet the cruelty, the impassivity of nature, letting the iron consequences fall--this seemed to crush him. For the sake of a woman who suffered agony of body and mind, Adam was at war with nature and the spirit of creation. Why? The eternal query had no answer. It never would be answered.
As the hours wore away the air grew hotter, denser. Like a blanket it seemed to lie heavily on Adam. It was the hottest, stillest, most oppressive, strangest night of all his desert experience. Sleep was impossible. Rest was impossible. Inaction was impossible. Every breath seemed impossible of fulfilment. A pressure constricted Adam's lungs. The slow, gentle walk that he drove himself to take, which it was impossible to keep from taking, brought out a hot flood of sweat on his body, and the drops burned as they trickled down his flesh.
"If the winds blow to-night!" he muttered, in irresistible dread.
Something told him they would blow. To-night they would blow harder and hotter than ever before. The day of leaden fire had promised that. Nature had her midnight change to make in the elements. Time would not stand still. The universe prevailed on its inscrutable course; the planets burned; the suns blazed upon their earths; and this ball of rock on which Adam clung, groaning with the other pygmies of his kind, whirled and hurtled through space, now dark and then light, now hot and then cold slave to a blazing master ninety million miles away. It was all so inconceivable, inscrutable, unbelievable.
There came a movement of air fanning his cheek, emphasising the warmth. He smelled anew the dry alkali dust, the smoky odour, almost like brimstone. The hour was near midnight and the death-like silence brooded no more. A low moan, as of a lost soul, moved somewhere on the still air. Weird, dismal, uncanny, it fitted the spectral shadows and shapes around him, and the night with its mystery. No human sound, though it resembled the mourn of humanity! A puff of hot wind struck Adam in the face, rushed by, rustling the dead and withered brush, passed on to lull and die away. It seemed to leave a slow movement in the still air, a soft, restless, uneasy shifting, as of an immense volume becoming unsettled, Adam knew. Behind that sudden birth of life the dead air pressed the furious blasts of hell--the midnight furnace wind of Death Valley.
Adam listened. How strange, low, sad the moan! His keen ears, attuned to all varieties of desert sound, seemed to fill and expand. The moan swelled to a low roar, lulling now, then rising. Like no sound he had ever heard before, it had strange affinity with the abyss of shadows. Suddenly the air around Adam began a steady movement northward. Its density increased, or else the movement, or pressure behind, made it appear so. And it grew swift, until it rustled the brush. Down in the valley the roar swelled like the movement of a mighty storm through a forest. When the gale reached the gateway below Adam it gave a hollow bellow.
The last of the warm, still air was pressed beyond Adam, apparently leaving a vacuum, for there did not appear to be air enough to breathe. The roar of wind sounded still quite distant, though now loud. Then the hot blast struck Adam--a burning, withering wind. It was as if he had suddenly faced an open furnace from which flames and sparks leaped out upon him. That he could breathe, that he lived a moment, seemed a marvel. Wind and roar filled the wide space between the slopes and rushed on, carrying sand and dust and even shadows with it. That blast softened in volume and had almost died away when another whooped up through the gateway, louder and stronger and hotter than its predecessor. It blew down Adam's sun shelter of brush and carried the branches rustling away. Then stormed contending tides of winds until, what with burning blasts and whirling dust devils and air thick with powdered salt and alkali, life became indeed a torment for Adam, man of the desert as he was.
In the face of these furnace winds, tenacity of life had new meaning for Adam. The struggle to breathe was the struggle of a dying man to live. But Adam found that he could survive. It took labour, greater even than toiling through a sandstorm, or across a sun-scorched waste to a distant water hole. And it was involuntary labour. His great lungs were not a bellows for him to open when he chose. They were compelled to work. But the process, in addition to the burn and sting, the incessant thirst, the dust-laden air, the hot skull-bone like an iron lid that must fly off, and the strange, dim, red starlight, the sombre red varying shadow, the weird rush and roar and lull--all these created heroic fortitude if a man was to endure. Adam understood why no human being could long exist in Death Valley.
"She will not live through the night," muttered Adam, "But if she does, I think I'll take her away."
While in the unearthly starlit gloom, so dimly red, Adam slowly plodded across to the Virey camp, that idea grew in his mind. It had augmented before this hour, only to faint at the strength of her spirit, but to-night was different. It marked a climax. If Magdalene Virey showed any weakening, any change of spirit, Adam knew he would have reached the end of his endurance.
She would be lying or sitting on the stone bench. It was not possible to breathe inside the shack. Terrible as were the furnace winds, they had to be breasted--they had to be fought for the very air of life. She had not the strength to walk up and down, to and fro, through those endless hours.
Adam's keen eyes, peering through the red-tinged obscurity, made out the dark shape of Virey staggering along back and forth like an old man driven and bewildered, hounded by the death he feared. The sight gave Adam a moment of fierce satisfaction. Strong as was the influence of Magdalene Virey, it could not keep down hate for this selfish and fallen man. Selfish beyond all other frailty of human nature! The narrow mind obsessed with self--the I and me and mine--the miserable littleness that could not forgive, that could not understand! Adam had pity even in his hate.
He found the woman on the bench, lying prone, a white, limp, fragile shape, motionless as stone. Sitting down, he bent over to look into her face. Her unfathomable eyes, wide and dark and strained, stirred his heart as never before. They were eyes to which sleep was a stranger--haunted eyes, like the strange midnight at which they gazed out, supernaturally bright, mirroring the dim stars, beautiful as the waking dreams never to come true--eyes of melancholy, of unutterable passion, of deathless spirit. They were the eyes of woman and of love.
Adam took her wasted hand and held it while waiting for the wind to lull so that she could hear him speak. At length the hot blast moved on, like the receding of a fire.
"Magdalene, I can't stand this any longer," he said.
"You mean--these winds--of hell?" she panted, in a whisper.
"No. I mean your suffering. I might have stood your spiritual ordeal. Your remorse--your agony of loss of the daughter Ruth--your brave spirit defying Virey's hate...But I can't stand your physical torment. You're wasting away. You're withering--burning up. This hand is hot as fire--and dry as a leaf. You must drink more water...Magdalene, lift your head."
"I--cannot," she whispered, with wan smile. "No--strength left."
Adam lifted her head and gave her water to drink. Then as he laid her back another blast of wind came roaring through the strange opaque night. How it moaned and wailed around the huge boulders and through the brush! It was a dance of wind fiends, hounding the lost spirits of this valley of horrors. Adam felt the slow, tight tide of his blood called stingingly to his skin and his extremities, and there it burned. It was not only his heart and his lungs that were oppressed, but the very life of his body seemed to be pressing to escape through the pores of his skin--pressed from inward by the terrible struggle to survive and pressed back from outside by the tremendous blast of wind! The wind roared by and lulled to a moan. The wave of invisible fire passed on. Out there in the dim starlight Virey staggered back and forth under the too great burden of his fate. He made no sound. He was a spectre. Beyond the grey level of gloom with its strange shadows rose the immense slope of loose stones, all shining with dim, pale-red glow, all seemingly alive, waiting for the slide of the avalanche. And on the instant a rock cracked with faint ring, rolled with little hollow reports, mockingly, full of terrible and latent power. It had ominous answer in a slight jar of the earth under Adam's feet, perhaps an earthquake settling of the crust, and then the whole vast slope moved with a low, grating sound, neither roar nor crash, nor rattle. The avalanche had slipped a foot. Adam could have pealed out a cry of dread for this woman. What a ghastly fantasy the struggle for life in Death Valley! What mockery of wind and desert and avalanche!
"Wansfell--listen," whispered the woman. "Do you hear--it passing on?"
"Yes," replied Adam, bending lower to see her eyes. Did she mean that the roar of wind was dying away?
"The stormy blast of hell--with restless fury--drives the spirits onward!" she said, her voice rising.
"I know--I understand. But you mustn't speak such thoughts. You must not give up to the wandering of your mind. You must fight," implored Adam.
"My friend--the fight is over--the victory is mine...I shall escape Virey. He possessed my body--poor weak thing of flesh!...but he wanted my love--my soul...My soul to kill! He'll never have either...Wansfell, I'll not live--through the night...I am dying now."
"No--no!" cried Adam, huskily. "You only imagine that. It's only the oppression of these winds--and the terror of the night--this awful, unearthly valley of death. You'll live. The winds will wear out soon. If only you fight you'll live...And to-morrow--Magdalene, so help me God--I'll take you away!"
He expected the inflexible and magnetic opposition of her will, the resistless power of her spirit to uplift and transform. And this time he was adamant. At last the desert force within him had arisen above all spiritual obstacles. The thing that called was life--life as it had been in the beginning of time. But no mockery or eloquence of refusal was forthcoming from Magdalene Virey. Instead, she placed the little ivory case, containing the miniature painting of her daughter Ruth, in Adam's hand and softly pressed it there.
"But--if I should die--I want you to have this picture of Ruth," she said. "I've had to hide it from Virey--to gaze upon it in his absence. Take it, my friend, and keep it, and look at it until it draws you to her...Wansfell, I'll not bewilder you by mystic prophecies. But I tell you solemnly--with the clairvoyant truth given to a woman who feels the presence of death--that my daughter Ruth will cross your wanderer's trail--come into your life--and love you...Remember what I tell you. I see!...You are a young man still. She is a budding girl. You two will meet, perhaps in your own wastelands. Ruth is all of me--magnified a thousand times. More--she is as lovely as an unfolding rose at dawn. She will be a white, living flame...It will be as if I had met you long ago--when I was a girl--and gave you what by the nature of life was yours...Wansfell, you wakened my heart--saved my soul--taught me peace...I wonder how you did it. You were just a man...There's a falseness of life--the scales fell from my eyes one by one. It is the heart, the flesh, the bursting stream of red blood that count with nature. All this strife, this travail, makes toward a perfection never to be attained. But effort and pain, agony of flesh, and victory over mind make strength, virility...Nature loves barbarian women who nurse their children. I--with all my love--could not nurse my baby Ruth. It's a mystery no longer. Death Valley and a primitive man have opened my eyes. Nature did not intend people to live in cities, but in forests, as lived the Aryans of India, or like the savages of Brazilian jungles. Like the desert beasts, self-sufficient, bringing forth few of their kind, but better, stronger species. The weak perish. So should the weak among men...Ah! hear the roar! Another wind of death!...But I've said all...Wansfell, go find Ruth--find me in her--and--remember!"
The rich voice, growing faint at the last, failed as another furnace blast came swooping up with its dust and heat. Adam bowed his head and endured. It passed and another came. The woman lay with closed eyes and limp body and nerveless hands. Hours passed and the terrible winds subsided. The shadow of a man that was Virey swaying to and fro, like a drunken spectre, vanished in the shack. The woman slept. Adam watched by her side till dawn, and when the grey light came he could no more have been changed than could the night have been recalled. He would find the burros and pack them and saddle one for Magdalene Virey to ride; he would start to climb out of Death Valley and when another night fell he would have her safe on the cool mountain heights. If Virey tried to prevent this, it would mean the terrible end he merited. Adam gazed down upon the sleeping woman. How transparent, how frail a creature! She mystified Adam. She represented the creative force in life. She possessed that unintelligible and fatal thing in nature--the greatest, the most irresistible, the purest expression of truth, of what nature strove so desperately for--and it was beauty. Her youth, her error, her mocking acceptance of life, her magnificent spirit, her mother longing, her agony and her physical pangs, her awakening and repentance and victory--all were written on the pale face and with the indestructible charm of line and curve and classic feature constituted its infinite loveliness. She was a sleeping woman, yet she was close to the angels.
Adam looked from her to the ivory case in his hand.
"Her daughter Ruth--for me!" he said, wonderingly. "How strange if we met! If--if--But that's impossible. She was wandering in mind."
He carried the little case to his camp, searched in his pack for an old silk scarf, and, tearing this, he carefully wrapped the gift and deposited it inside the leather money belt he wore hidden round his waist.
"Now to get ready to leave Death Valley!" he exclaimed, in grim exultance.
Adam's burros seldom strayed far from camp. This morning, however, he did not find them near the spring nor down in the notches of the mountain wall. So he bent his steps in the other direction. At last, round a corner of slope, out of sight of camp, he espied them, and soon had them trotting ahead of him.
He had traversed probably half the distance he had come when the burro Jinny halted to shoot up her long ears. Something moving had attracted her attention, but Adam could not see it. He drove her on. Again she stopped. Adam could now see the shack, and as he peered sharply there seemed to cross his vision a bounding grey object. He rubbed his eyes and muttered. Perhaps the heat had affected his sight. Then between him and the shack flashed a rough object, grey-white in colour, and it had the bounding motion of a jack-rabbit. But it could not have been a rabbit because it was too large, and, besides, there were none in the valley. A wild cat, perhaps? Adam urged Jinny on, and it struck him that she was acting queerly. This burro never grew contrary without cause. When she squealed and sheered off to one side Adam knew something was amiss. That vague shock returned to his consciousness, stronger, more certain and bewildering. Halting so as to hear better, he held his breath and listened. Crack and roll of rock--slow sliding rattle--crack! The mystery of the bounding grey objects was solved. Virey had again taken to rolling rocks down the slope.
Adam broke into a run. He was quite a distance from the shack, though now he could see it plainly. No person was in sight. More than once, as he looked, he saw rocks bound high above the brush and fall to puff up dust. Virey was industrious this morning, making up for lost time, taking sure advantage of Adam's absence. Adam ran faster. He reached a point opposite the fanlike edge of the great slant of loose stones, and here he seemed to get into a zone of concatenated sounds. The wind, created by his run, filled his ears. And his sight, too, seemed not to be trusted. Did it not magnify a bounding rock and puff of dust into many rocks and puffs? Streaks were running low down in the brush raising little dusty streams. He saw clumps of brush shake and bend. If something queer, such as had affected Jinny, did not possess his sight and mind, then it surely possessed Death Valley. For something was wrong.
Suddenly Adam's ears were deafened by a splitting shock. He plunged in his giant stride, slowed and halted. He heard the last of a sliding roar. The avalanche had slipped. But it had stopped. Bounding rocks hurtled in front of Adam, behind him, the puffs and streaks of dust were everywhere. He heard the whiz and thud of a rolling rock passing close behind him. As he gazed a large stone bounded from the ground and seemed to pass right through the shack. The shack collapsed. Adam's heart leaped to his throat. He was riveted to the spot. Then, mercifully it seemed, a white form glided out from the sun shelter. It was the woman, still unharmed. The sight unclamped Adam's voice and muscle.
"Go across! Hurry!" yelled Adam, with all the power of his lungs. He measured the distance between him and her. Two hundred yards! Rocks were hurtling and pounding across that space.
The woman heard him. She waved her white hand and it seemed she was waving him back out of peril. Then she pointed up the slope. Adam wheeled. What a thrilling sight! Rocks were streaking down, hurtling into the air, falling to crack powder from other rocks, that likewise were set in motion. Far up the long grey slope, with its million facets of stones shining in the sunlight, appeared Virey, working frantically. No longer did he seek to frighten his wife. He meant to kill her. His insane genius had read the secret of the slope, and in an instant he would have the avalanche in motion. The cracking clamour increased. Adam opened his lips to yell a terrible threat up at Virey, but a whizzing boulder, large as a bucket, flashing within a foot of his head, awakened him to his own peril. He saw other rocks bounding down in line with him, and, changing his position, stepping, leaping, dodging, he managed to evade them. He had no fear for himself, but terror for the woman, and for Virey deadly rage possessed his heart.
Then a piercing split, as of rocks rent asunder, a rattling crash, and the lower half of the great grey slope was in motion. The avalanche! Adam leaped at the startling sound, and, bounding a few yards to a huge boulder, high as his head and higher, he mounted it. There, unmindful of himself, he wheeled to look for Magdalene Virey. Too late to reach her! She faced that avalanche, arms spread aloft, every line of her body instinct with the magnificent spirit which had been her doom.
"Run! Run! Run!" shrieked Adam, wildly.
Lost was his piercing shriek in the swallowing, gathering might of the crashing roar of the avalanche. A pall of dust, a grey tumbling mass, moved down ponderously, majestically, to hide from Adam's sight the white form of Magdalene Virey. It spread to where Adam stood, enveloped him, and then, in boom and thunder and crash as of falling worlds, the boulder was lifted and carried along with the avalanche.