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Wanderer of the Wasteland
Zane Grey (1923) Country of origin: USA
Available texts by the same author here
Adam was thrown prostrate. In the thick, smothering dust he all but lost his senses. Adam felt what seemed a stream of stones rolling over his feet. The thundering, deafening roar rolled on, spread and thinned to a rattling crash, deadened and ceased. Then from the hollows of the hills boomed a mighty echo, a lifting and throwing of measureless sound, that thumped from battlement to battlement and rumbled away like muttering thunder.
The silence then was terrible by contrast. As horror relaxed its grim clutch Adam began to realise that miraculously he had been spared. In the hot, dusty pall he fought for breath like a drowning man. The heavy dust settled and the lighter drifted away.
Adam clambered to his feet. The huge boulder that had been his ship of safety appeared to be surrounded by a sea of small rocks, level with where he stood. The avalanche had spread a deep layer of rocks all over and beyond the space adjacent to the camp. Not a vestige of the shack remained. Magdalene Virey had been buried forever beneath a mass of stone. Adam's great frame shuddered with the convulsions of his emotion. He bent and bowed under the inevitable. "Oh, too late! too late!...Yet I knew all the time!" was the mournful cry he sent out into the silence. Dazed, sick, horror-stricken, he bowed there above Magdalene Virey's sepulchre and salt tears burned his eyes and splashed down upon the dusty stones. He suffered, dully at first, and then acutely, as his stunned consciousness began to recover. Tragic this situation had been from the beginning, and it could have had but one end.
Suddenly he remembered Virey. The thought transformed him.
"He must have slid with the avalanche," muttered Adam. "Buried under here somewhere. One sepulchre for him and wife!...So he wanted it--alive or dead!"
The lower part of the great slope was now solid rock, dusty and earthy in places, in others the grey colour of live granite. It led his eye upward, half a mile, to the wide, riblike ridge that marked the lower margin of another slope of weathered rocks. It shone in the hot sunlight. Dark veils of heat rose, resembling smoke against the sky. The very air seemed trembling, and over that mountain-side hovered the shadow of catastrophe.
A moving white object caught Adam's roving sight. His desert eyes magnified that white object. A man! He was toiling over the loose stones.
"Virey!" burst out Adam, and with the explosion of the word all of the desert stormed in him, and his nature was no different from the cataclysm that had shorn and scarred the slope.
Like a wide-lunged primordial giant, Adam lifted his roar of rage toward the heights--a yell that clapped fierce echoes from the cliffs. Virey heard. He began to clamber faster over the rocks and sheered off toward the right, where, under the beetling, steep slopes, every rod was more fraught with peril.
Adam bounded like a huge soft-footed cat over and up the hummocky spread of the avalanche. Virey's only avenue of escape lay upward and to the left. Once Adam cut him off there, he was in a trap.
To the right over the ridge small stones began to show rolling and bouncing, then shooting like bullets off the bare slant below. Virey was out of Adam's sight now, but evidently still headed in the fatal direction. Like a mountain sheep, surest-footed of beasts, Adam bounded from loose rock to sharp corner across the wide holes, on and upward.
Another low, vast slope spread out and sheered gradually up before him, breaking its uniformity far to the right, and waving gracefully to steep slants of loose rock perilous to behold. Adam heard the faint cracking of stones. He hurried on, working away from the left, until he was climbing straight toward the splintered, toppling mass of mountain peak, a mile above him. All now, in every direction, was broken rock, round, sharp, flat, octagonal, every shape, but mostly round, showing how in the process of ages the rolling and grinding had worn off the edges. Here the heat smoked up. When Adam laid a hurried hand on a stone he did not leave it there long.
At length he again espied Virey, far to the right and half a mile farther up, climbing like a weary beast on hands and feet. By choice or by mistake he had gone upward to the most hazardous zone of all that treacherous, unstable mountain-side. Even now the little dusty slides rolled from under him. Adam strode on. He made short cuts. He avoided the looser slides. He zigzagged the steeper places. He would attend to safe stepping stones for a few rods, then halt to lift his gaze toward that white-shirted man toiling up like a crippled ape. The mountain slope, though huge and wide under the glaring sun, seemed to lose something of its openness. The red battlements and ramparts of the heights were frowning down upon it, casting a shadow of menace, if not of shade. The terrible forces of nature became manifest. Here the thunderbolts boomed and the storms battled, and in past ages the earthquake and volcanic fire had fretted the once noble peak. It was ruined. It had disintegrated. Ready to spread its million cracks and crumble, it lowered gloomily.
Red, sinister, bare, ghastly, this smoky slope under the pitiless sun was a fitting place for Wansfell to get his hands on Virey--murderer of a woman. Adam thought of it that way because he remembered how Virey had been fascinated at the story of Baldy McKue. But mostly Adam's mind worked like the cunning instinct of a wolf to circumvent its prey. Thoughts were but flashes. The red tinge in Adam's sight did not all come from the colour of the rock. And it was when he halted to look or rest that he thought at all.
But the time came when he halted for more than that. Placing his hands around his mouth, he expanded his deep lungs and burst into trumpet-like yell:
"VIREY!" The fugitive heard, turned from his toiling, slid to a seat on the precarious slope, and waited. "I'LL BREAK YOUR BONES!"
A wild cry pealed down to ring in Adam's ears. He had struck terror to the heart of the murderer. And Adam beat down his savage eagerness, so as to lengthen the time till Virey's doom. Not thus did the desert in Adam speak, but what the desert had made him. Agony, blood, death! They were almost as old as the rocks. Other animate shapes in another age, had met in strife there, under the silent, beetling peak. Life was the only uttermost precious thing. All else, all suffering, all possession, was nothing. To kill a man was elemental, as to save him was divine.
Virey's progress became a haunting and all-satisfying spectacle to behold, and Adam's pursuit became studied, calculated, retarded--a thing as cruel as the poised beak of a vulture.
Virey got halfway up a grey, desolate, weathered slant, immense in its spread, another fan-shaped, waiting avalanche. The red ragged heights loomed above; below hung a mountainside as unstable as water, restrained perhaps, by a mere pebble. Here Virey halted. Farther he could not climb. Like a spent and cornered rat he meant to show fight.
Adam soon reached a point directly below Virey, some hundreds of yards--a long, hard climb. He paused to catch his breath.
"Bad slope for me if he begins to roll stones!" muttered Adam, grimly.
But neither rolling stones nor avalanches could stop Adam. The end of this tragedy was fixed. It had been set for all the years of Virey's life and back into the past. The very stones cried out. Glaring sun, smoking heat, shining slope, and the nameless shadow--all were tinged with a hue inimical to Virey's life. The lonely, solemn, silent desert day, at full noontide heat, bespoke the culmination of something Virey had long ago ordained. Far below, over the lower hills of the Panamints, yawned Death Valley, ghastly grey through the leaden haze, an abyss of ashes, iron walled and sun blasted, hateful and horrible as the portal of hell. High up and beyond, faintly red against an obscure space of sky, towered the Funerals, grand and desolate.
Adam began to climb the weathered slope, taking a zigzag course. Sliding stones only slightly retarded his ascent. He stepped too quickly. Usually when a stone slipped his weight had left it.
Virey set loose a boulder. It slid, rolled, leaped, fell with a crack, and then took to hurtling bounds, starting a multitude of smaller stones. Adam kept keen eye on the boulder and paid no attention to the others. Then he stepped aside out of its course. As it whizzed past him Virey slid another loose upon the slope. Adam climbed even as the rock bounded down, and a few strides took him to one side. Virey ran over, directly in line with Adam, and started another huge rock. Thus by keeping on a zigzag ascent Adam kept climbing most of the time, and managed to avoid the larger missiles. The smaller ones, however, could not all be avoided. And their contact was no slight matter. Virey tugged upon a large rock, deeply embedded, and rolled it down. Huge, bounding, crashing, it started a rattling slide that would have swept Adam to destruction had it caught him. But he leaped out of line just in the nick of time. Virey began to work harder, to set loose smaller stones and more of them, so that soon he had the slope a perilous ascent for Adam. They cracked and banged down, and the debris rattled after them. Adam swerved and leaped and ran. He smelled the brimstone powder and the granite dust. Fortunately, no cloud of dust collected to obscure his watchful sight. He climbed on, swiftly when advantage offered, cautiously when he must take time to leap and dodge. Then a big rock started a multitude of small ones, and all clattered and spread. Adam dashed forward and backward. The heavier stones bounced high, and as many came at one time, he could not watch all. As he dodged one, another waved the hair of his head, and then another, striking his shoulder, knocked him down. The instant he lay there, other stones rolled over him. Adam scrambled up. Even pain could not change his fierce cold implacability, but it accelerated his action. He played no longer with Virey. He yelled again what he meant to do with his hands, and he spread them aloft, great, claw-like members, the sight of which inflamed Virey to desperation. Frantically he ploughed up the stones and rolled them, until he had a deluge plunging down the slope. But it was not written that Adam should be disabled. Narrow shaves he had, and exceeding risks he took, yet closer and closer he climbed. Only a hundred yards now separated the men. Adam could plainly see Virey's ragged shirt, flying in shreds, his ashen face, his wet hair matted over his eyes.
Suddenly above the cracks and rattling clash rose a heavy, penetrating sound. Mighty rasp of a loose body against one of solidity! Startled to a halt, Adam gazed down at his feet. The rocks seemed to be heaving. Then a dreadful yell broke sharply. Virey! Adam flashed his gaze upward in time to see the whole slope move. And that move was accompanied by a rattling crash, growing louder and more prolonged. Virey stood stricken by mortal terror in the midst of an avalanche.
Wheeling swiftly, Adam bounded away and down, his giant strides reaching farther and faster, his quivering body light and supple, his eye guiding his flying feet to surfaces that were safe. Behind, beyond, above him the mountain slope roared until sound no longer meant anything. His ears were useless. The slope under him heaved and waved. Running for his life, he was at the same time riding an avalanche. The accelerating motion under him was strange and terrifying. It endowed him with wings. His feet scarcely touched the stones and in a few seconds he had bounded off the moving section of slope.
Then he halted to turn and see, irresistibly called to watch Virey go to what must soon be a just punishment. The avalanche, waving like swells of the sea, seemed slowing its motion. Thin dust clouds of powdered rock hung over it. Adam again became aware of sound--a long-drawn, rattling roar, decreasing, deadening, dying. Suddenly as the avalanche had started it halted. But it gave forth grating, ominous warnings. Only an upper layer of the loose rock had slid down, and the under layer appeared precisely like what the surface had been--rocks and rocks of all sizes, just as loose, just as ready to roll.
Adam dared to stride back upon that exposed under layer, the better to see straight down the steep slope. Grim and grisly it shone beneath the gloomy sun. Perhaps the powdered dust created an obscurity high in the air, but low down all was clear.
Virey could be plainly seen, embedded to his hips in the loose stones. Writhing, squirming, wrestling, he sought to free himself from that grip of granite. In vain! He was caught in a vice of his own making. Prisoner of the mountain side that he had used to betray his wife! He had turned toward Adam, face upward. There seemed a change in him, but in the racking excitement of that moment Adam could not tell what.
Then that desert instinct, like the bursting of a flood, moved Adam to the violence of strife, the ruthlessness of nature, the blood-spilling of men. Madness of hate seized him. The torrid heat of that desert sun boiled in his blood, the granite of the slope hardened in his heart, the red veils of smoky shadows coloured his sight. Loneliness and solitude were terrible forces of nature--primitive as the beginnings of life. For years the contending strife of the desert had been his. For months desolation, death, decay of Death Valley!
"MY TURN!" he yelled, in voice of thunder, and, bristling haired, supple, and long armed, with strength and laugh and face of a savage, he heaved a huge rock.
It rolled, it cracked, it banged, it hurtled high, to crash and smash, and then, leaping aloft, instinct as if with mockery, it went over Virey's head to go on down over the precipice, whence it sent up a sliding roar. Adam heaved another stone and watched it. Virey grew motionless as a statue. He could not dance and dodge away from rolling rocks as Adam had done. How strangely that second rock rolled! Starting in line with Virey, it swerved to the right, then hit the slope and swerved back in line, then, hitting again, swerved once more, missing the miserable victim by a small margin.
"AHA THERE, VIREY!" yelled Adam, waving his hands. "ALL DAY AND ALL NIGHT I'LL ROLL STONES!"
Virey was mute. He was chained. He was helpless. He could not move or faint or die. Retribution had overtaken him. The nature of it was to be the nature of the slow torture and merciless death he had inflicted upon his wife. As he had chosen the most deadly and lonely and awful spot on earth to hide her and kill her, so the nature that he had embraced now chose to turn upon him. There was law here--law of the unknown forces in life and in the elements. At that very moment a vulture streaked down from the hazed heights and sailed, a black shadow of widespread wings, across the slope. What had given this grisly-omened bird sight and scent illimitable?
Adam braced his brawny shoulder under the bulge of a rock weighing tons. Purple grew his face. His muscles split his shirt. His bones cracked. But there was a nameless joy in this exercise of his enormous strength. They were two men--one was weak, the other was strong, And nature could not abide both. The huge rock grated, groaned, stirred, moved--and turned over, slowly to roll, to crunch, to pound, and then, to gather speed, growing a thing of power, ponderous, active, changing, at last to hurtle into the air, to plunge down with thunderous crash, then to roll straight as a bee line at Virey. But a few yards in front of him it rose aloft, with something of grace, airily, and, sailing over Virey's head, it banged and boomed out of sight below. Long the echoes clapped, and at last the silence, the speaking silence of that place closed on the slope. It awoke again to Adam's rolling of a stone and another and another and then two together. All these rocks rolled differently. They were playthings of the god of the mountain. The mover of thunderbolts might have been aiming his colossal missiles at an invisible target. All these rolling stones seemed to head straight for Virey, but they were at the last instant deflected by chance. They hit the slope and passed wide or high. They were in league with the evil spirit that had dominated Virey. They were instruments of torture. They were of the nature of the desert. They belonged to Death Valley.
Adam did not soon tire at his gigantic task. The rolling stones fascinated him. From dead things they leaped to life. How they hurtled through space! Some shot aloft a hundred feet. Others split, and rolled, like wheels, down and down, the halves passing on either side of the doomed Virey. A multitude of rocks Adam turned loose, and then another multitude. Into the heaving of every one went his intent to kill. But Virey bore a charmed life.
A time came when Adam rolled his last stone. Like the very first one, it sped straight for Virey, and just as it appeared about to crush him it veered to one side. Adam stared grim and aghast. Could he never kill Virey as Virey had murdered his wife and tried to kill him?
"She--said I'd--never kill--you!" panted Adam, and the doubt in him was a strange, struggling thing, soon beaten down by his insatiable rage. Then he took a stride downward, meaning to descend and finish Virey with his hands.
As he stepped down the avalanche below grated with strange, harsh sound. It seemed to warn him. Halting, he gazed with clearer eyes. What was this change in Virey? Adam bent and peered. Had the man's hair turned snow white?
Adam made another and a longer stride downward. And that instant the slope trembled. Virey flung up his arm as if to ward off another rolling stone. A rending, as of the rock-bound fastness of the slope, yielding its hold--then the avalanche, with Virey in the centre, moved downward, slowly heaving like a swell of weighted waves, and started to roll with angry roar. It gathered a ponderous momentum. It would never stop again on that slope. A shining, red-tinged dust cloud shrouded Virey. And then the avalanche, spilling over the declivity below, shocked the whole mountain slope, and lifted to the heavens a thick-crashing, rolling roar of thunder. Death Valley engulfed the hollow echo and boomed thunder across to the battlements of the Funeral Mountains. And when the last rumble wore away, silence and solitude reigned there, pervasive and peaceful, as they had in the ages before man, with his passions, had evolved to vex nature.