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Wanderer of the Wasteland

Country of origin: USA USA
Available texts by the same author here Dokument

Chapter 20

   Adam's return to camp was as vague as one of his desert nightmares. But as thought gained something of ascendency over agitation he became aware of blood and dust and sweat caked with his clothes upon his person, proving the effect of his supreme exertions. He had heaved an endless number of rocks, he had heaved the mountainside down upon Virey, all to no avail. A higher power had claimed him. And the spirit of Magdalene Virey, like her living presence, had inscrutably come between Adam and revenge.
   Adam's return to camp was as vague as one of his desert nightmares. But as thought gained something of ascendency over agitation he became aware of blood and dust and sweat caked with his clothes upon his person, proving the effect of his supreme exertions. He had heaved an endless number of rocks, he had heaved the mountainside down upon Virey, all to no avail. A higher power had claimed him. And the spirit of Magdalene Virey, like her living presence, had inscrutably come between Adam and revenge.
   When Adam had packed his burros, twilight in the clefts of the hills had deepened to purple. He filled his canteens, and started the burros down toward the gateway. The place behind him was as silent as a grave. Adam did not look back. He felt the grey obscurity close over the scene.
   Down at the gateway he saw that the valley was still light with the afterglow of sunset. Diagonally and far across the ashen waste he descried the little dark patch which he knew to be an oasis, where the waters of Furnace Creek sank into the sands.
   The intense heat, the vast stillness, the strange radiation from the sand, the peculiar grey light of the valley, told Adam that the midnight furnace winds would blow long before he reached his destination. But he welcomed any physical ordeal. He saw how a great strife with the elements, a strain to the uttermost of his strength and his passion to fight, would save his faith, his hope, perhaps his mind.
   So gradual was the change from twilight to darkness that he would scarcely have noted it but for the dimming of the notched peak. Out there in the open valley it was not dark. It was really the colour of moonlight on marble. Wan, opaque, mystic, it made distance false. The mountains seemed far away and the stars close. Like the bottom of the Dead Sea, drained of its bitter waters, was this Death Valley. Action, strong and steady use of muscle, always had served to drive subjective broodings and wonderings and imaginings from Adam's mind. But not here, in this sink, at night! He seemed continually and immensely confronted with the unreality of a fact--a live man alone on the salt dead waste of Death Valley. Measureless and unbreakable solitude! The waste hole into which drained the bitter dregs of the desert!
   He plodded on, driving the burros ahead of him. Jinny was contrary. Every few steps she edged off a straight line, and the angle of her ears and head showed that she was watching her master. She did not want to cross the valley. Instinct taught her the wisdom of opposition. Many a burro had saved its master's life by stubborn refusal to travel the wrong way. Adam was patient, even kind, but he relentlessly drove her on in the direction he had chosen.
   At length the ashen level plain changed its hue and its surface. The salt crust became hummocky and a dirty grey. The colour caused false steps on his part, and the burros groped at fault, weary and discouraged. Adam would mount a slow heave, only to find it a hollow crust that broke with his weight. Some months before--or was it years?--when he had crossed the valley, far below this line, the layer of salt crust had been softer and under it ran murky waters, heavy as vitriol. Dry now as sunbaked clay! It made travel more difficult, although less dangerous. Adam broke through once. It reminded him that Dismukes had said the floor of Death Valley was "Forty feet from hell!" Not for a long while had he thought of Dismukes, yet this hazardous direction he was taking now appeared to be the outcome of long-made plans to meet the old prospector.
   Long hours and slow miles passed behind him. When the burros broke through Adam had a task for all his strength. Once he could not pull Jinny out of a pitfall without unpacking her. And the time came when he had the added task of leading the way and dragging the burros with ropes. Burros did not lead well on good ground, let alone over this scored and burst salt crust.
   The heat and oppressiveness and dense silence increased toward midnight; and then began a soft and steady movement of air down the valley. Adam felt a prickling of his skin and a drying of the sweat upon him. An immense and mournful moan breathed over the wasteland, like that of a mighty soul in travail. Adam got out of the hummocky zone upon the dry, crisp, white level of salt, soda, borax, alkali, where thin, pale sheets of powder moved with the silken rustle of seeping and shifting sands. Most fortunate was the fact that the rising wind was at his back. He strode on, again driving the burros ahead, holding straight for the dim notched peak. The rising wind changed the silence, the night, the stars, the valley--changed all in some unearthly manner. It seemed to muster all together, to move all, to insulate even the loneliness, and clothe them in transforming, drifting shrouds of white, formless bodies impelled by nameless domination. Phantasmagoria of white winds, weird and wild! Midnight furnace blasts of Death Valley! Nature's equilibrium--nature's eternal and perfect balance of the elements!
   Out here in the open, the hollow roar that had swelled and lulled through the canyons was absent. An incessant moaning, now rising, now falling, attended the winds on their march down the valley. Other difference there was here, and it was in the more intense heat. And the blowing of white shrouds into the opaque gloom, the sweeping of sheets of powdery dust along the level floor, the thick air that bore taste of bitter salt and odour of poison gas--these indeed seemed not phenomena of normal earth. The wind increased to a gale. Then suddenly it lulled and died, leaving the valley to a pale, silent deadness; and again preceded by a mournful wail, it rose harder and fiercer till it was blowing seventy miles an hour. These winds were the blasts of fury. They held heated substance. The power behind them was the illimitable upper air, high as the sky and wide as the desert, relentlessly bearing down to drive away the day's torrid heat.
   The gales accelerated Adam's progress, so that sometimes he was almost running. Often he was thrown to his knees. And when the midnight storm reached its height the light of the stars failed, the outline of mountains faded in a white, whirling chaos, dim and moaning and terrible. Adam felt as if blood and flesh were burning up, drying out, shrivelling and cracking. He lost his direction and clung to the burros, knowing their instinct to be surer guide than his. There came a time when pain left him, when sense of physical contacts and motions began to fade, when his brain seemed to reel. The burros dragged him on, and lower he swayed; oftener he plunged to his knees, ploughing his big hands in the salt and lowering his face into the flying sheets of powder. He gasped and coughed and choked, and fought to breathe through his smothering scarf. And at last, as he fell exhausted, blind and almost asphyxiated, the hot gales died away. The change of air saved Adam from unconsciousness. He lay there, gradually recovering, until he gained feeling enough to know the burros were pulling on the rope which tied them and him together. They were squealing. They were trying to drag him, to warn him, to frighten him into the action that would save his life. Thus goaded, Adam essayed to get upon his feet, and the effort seemed a vague, interminable lifting of colossal weights, and a climbing up dragging stairs of sand. But for the burros he would have plunged in a circle.
   Then followed a black and horrible interval in which he seemed hauled across a pale shingle of naked earth, peopled with spectres, a wandering, lost man, still alive but half dead, leashed to the spirits of burros he had driven to their death. Uphill, always uphill they pulled him, with his feet clogged by the clutching sands. A grey dawn broke, and his entrance into the light resembled climbing out of sombre depths to the open world. Another drab wall of iron rock seemed to loom over him. The valley of the white shadows of death had been crossed. A green patch of mesquites and cottonwoods gleamed cool and dark out of the grey sands. The burros ran, with bobbing packs, straight to the water they had scented. Staggering on after them, Adam managed to remove their burdens; and that took the remnant of his strength. Yielding to a dead darkness of sense, he fell under the trees.
   When he came to the day had far advanced and the sun, sloping to the west, was sinking behind the Panamints. Adam stumbled up, his muscles numb, as if contracted and robbed of their elasticity. His thirst told the story of that day's heat, which had parched him, even while he lay asleep in the shade. Hunger did not trouble him. Either he was weak from exertion or had suffered from breathing poisoned air or had lost something of his equilibrium. Whatever was wrong, it surely behoved him to get out of the lower part of the valley, up above sea level to a place where he could regain his strength. To that end he hunted for his burros. They were close by, and he soon packed them, though with much less than his usual dexterity. Then he started, following the course of the running water.
   This Furnace Creek ran down out of a deep-mouthed canyon, with yellow walls of gravel. The water looked like vinegar, and it was hot and had a bad taste. Yet it would sustain life of man and beasts. Adam followed the lines of mesquites that marked its course up the gradually ascending floor of the canyon. He soon felt a loosening of the weight upon his lungs, and lessening of air pressure. Twilight caught him a couple of miles up the canyon where a wide, long thicket of weeds and grass and mesquites marked the turning of Furnace Creek into the drab hills, and where springs and little streams trickled down from the arroyos.
   Up one of these arroyos, in the midst of some gnarled mesquites, Adam made camp. Darkness soon set in, and he ate by the light of a camp fire. After he had partaken of food he discovered that he was hungry. Also, his eyelids drooped heavily. Despite these healthy reactions and a deeper interest in his surroundings, Adam knew he was not entirely well. He endeavoured to sit up awhile, and tried to think. There were intervals when a deadlock occurred between thoughts. The old pleasure, the old watchful listening, the old intimate sense of loneliness, had gone from him. His mind did not seem to be on physical things at hand, or on the present moment. And when he actually discovered that all the time he looked down toward Death Valley he exclaimed, aghast: "I'm not here; I'm down there!"
   Gloomy and depressed, he rolled in his blankets. And he slept twelve hours. Next day he felt better in body, but no different in mind. He set to work making a comfortable camp in spite of the fact that he did not seem to want to stay there. Hard work and plenty of food improved his condition. His strength of limb soon rallied to rest and nourishment. But the strange state of mind persisted, and began to encroach upon every moment. It took effort of will to attend to any action. Dismukes must be in this locality somewhere, according to the little map, but, though Adam remembered this, and reflected how it accounted for his own presence there, he could not dwell seriously upon the fact. Dismukes seemed relegated to the vague future. There was an impondering present imperative something that haunted Adam, yet eluded his grasp. At night he walked under the stars and could not shake off the spell; and next day, when in an idle hour he found himself walking again and again down the gravel-bedded canyon toward Death Valley, then he divined that what he had attributed to absentmindedness was a far more serious aberration.
   The discovery brought about a shock that quickened his mental processes. What ailed him? He was well and strong again. What was wrong with his mind? Where had gone the old dreaming content, the self-sufficient communion with all visible forms of nature, and the half-conscious affinity with all the invisible spirit of the wilderness? How strangely he had been warped out of his orbit! Something nameless and dreadful and calling had come between him and his consciousness. Why did he face the west, at dawn, in the solemn white-hot noon, at the red sunset hour, and in the silent lonely watches of the night? Why did not the stars of the east lure his dreamy gaze as those in the west? He made the astounding discovery that there were moments, and moments increasing in number, when he did not feel alone. Some one walked in his shadow at noontide. At twilight a spirit seemed in keeping with his wandering westward steps. The world and natural objects and old habits seemed far off. He found himself whispering vagrant fancies, the substance of which, once realised, was baffling and disheartening. And at last he divined that a longing to return to Death Valley consumed him.
   "Ah! So that's it!" he muttered, in consternation.
   "But why?"
   It came to Adam then--the secret of the mystery. Death Valley called him. All that it was, all that it contained, all he had lived there, sent out insidious and enchanting voices of terrible silent power. The long shadow of that valley of purple shadows still enveloped him. Death, desolation, and decay; the appalling nudity of the racked bowels of the earth; the abode of solitude and silence, where shrieked the furies of the midnight winds; the grave of Magdalene Virey--these haunted Adam and lured him back with resistless and insupportable claim.
   "Death Valley again--for me. I shall go mad," soliloquised Adam.
   At last his mind was slowly being unhinged by the forces of the desert. Some places of the earth were too strong, too inhuman, too old, and too wasted for any man. Adam realised his peril, and that the worst of his case consisted in an indifference which he did not want to combat. Unless something happened--a great, intervening, destructive agent to counteract the all enfolding, trancelike spell of Death Valley--Adam would return to the valley of avalanches and there he would go mad.
   And the very instant he resigned himself, a cry pierced his dull ear. Sharply he sat up. The hour was near the middle of the forenoon. The day was hot and still. Adam's pulses slowly quieted down. He had been mistaken. The water babbled by his camp, bees flew over with droning hum. Then as he relaxed he was again startled by a cry, faint and far off. It appeared to come from up the canyon, round the low yellow corner of wall. He listened intently, but the sound was not repeated. Was not the desert full of silent voices? About this cry there was a tangible reality that stirred Adam out of his dreams, his glooms.
   Adam went on, and climbed up the gravel bank on the left side, to a bare slope, and from that to the top of a ridge. His sluggish blood quickened. The old exploring instinct awoke. He had heard a distant cry. What next? There was something in the air.
   Then Adam gazed around him to a distance. Adam shuddered and thrilled at the beetling, rugged, broken walls that marked the gateway where so often he had stood with Magdalene Virey to watch the transformations of shadowed dawn and sunset in Death Valley.
   He descended to a level, and strode on, looking everywhere, halting now and then to listen, every moment gaining some hold on his old self. He went on and on, slow and sure, missing not a rod of ground, as if the very stones might speak to him. He welcomed his growing intensity of sensation, because it meant that he had either received a premonition or had reverted to his old self, or perhaps both.
   Adam plodded along this wide gravel wash, with the high bronze saw-toothed peaks of the Funerals on the left, and some yellow-clay dunes showing their tips over the bank on the right. At length he came to a place that suggested a possible sloping of these coloured clay dunes down into a basin or canyon. Climbing up the bank, he took a few steps across the narrow top, there to be halted as if he had been struck.
   He had been confronted by a tremendous amphitheatre, a yellow gulf, a labyrinthine maze so astounding that he discredited his sight.
   Before him and on each side the earth was as bare as the bareness of rock--a mystic region of steps and slopes and slants, of channels and dunes and mounds, of cone-shaped and fan-shaped ridges, all of denuded crinkly clay with tiny tracery of erosion as graceful as the veins of a leaf, all merging their marvellous hues in a mosaic of golden amber, of cream yellow, of mauve, of bronze cinnamon. How bleak and ghastly, yet how beautiful in their stark purity of denudation! Endless was the number of smooth, scalloped, and ribbed surfaces, all curving with exquisite line and grace down into the dry channels under the dunes. At the base of the lower circle of the amphitheatre the golds and yellows and russets were strongest, but along the wide wing, moving away toward the abyss below were more vividly wonderful hues--a dark, beautiful mouse colour on the left contrasting with a strange pearly cream on the other. These were striking bands of colour sweeping the eye away as far as they extended, and jealously drawing it back again. Between these great corners of the curve, climbed ridges of grey and heliotrope to meet streaks of green--the mineral green of copper, like the colour of the sea in sunlight--and snowy traceries of white that were narrow veins of outcropping borax. High up above the rim of the amphitheatre along the battlements of the mountain, stood out a zigzag belt of rusty red, from which the iron stain had run downward to tinge the lower hues. Above all this wondrous colouration upheaved the bare breast of the mountain, growing darker with earthy browns until the bold ramparts of the peak, grey like rock, gleamed pale against the leaden-blue sky. Low down through the opening of the amphitheatre gleamed a void, a distant bottom of the bowl, dim and purple and ghastly, with shining white streaks like silver streams--and this was Death Valley.
   And then Adam, with breast oppressed by feelings too deep for utterance, retracted his far-seeing gaze, once more to look over the whole amazing spectacle, from the crinkly buff clay under his feet to the dim white bottom of the valley. And at this keen instant he again heard a cry. Human it was, or else he had lost his mind, and all which he saw here was disordered imagination.
   Turning back, he ran in the direction whence he believed the sound had come, passing by some rods the point where he had climbed out of the wash. And at the apex of the great curve, toward which tended all the multitude of wrinkles of the denuded slopes, he found a trail coming up out of the amphitheatre and leading down into the wash. The dust bore unmistakable signs of fresh moccasin tracks, of hobnailed boots, and of traces where water had been spilled. The boot impressions led down and the moccasin tracks up; and, as these latter were the fresher, Adam, after a pause of astonishment and a keen glance all around, began to follow them.
   The trail led across the wash and turned west toward where the walls commenced to take on the dignity of a canyon. Bunches of sage and greasewood began to dot the sand, and beyond showed the thickets of mesquite. Some prospector was packing water from the creek up the canyon and down into that amphitheatre. Suddenly Adam thought of Dismukes. He examined the next hobnailed boot track he descried in the dust with minute care. The foot that had made it did not belong to Dismukes. Adam hurried on.
   He came upon a spot where the man he was trailing--surely an Indian--had fallen in the sand. A dark splotch, sticky and wet, had never been made by spilled water. Adam recognised blood when he touched it, but if he had not known it by the feel, he surely would have by the smell. Probably at that instant Adam became fully himself again. He was on the track of events, he sensed some human being in trouble and the encroaching spell of Death Valley lost its power.
   The trail led into the mesquites, to a wet glade rank with sedge and dank with the damp odour of soapy water.
   A few more hurried strides brought Adam upon the body of an Indian, lying face down at the edge of the trickling little stream. His lank matted hair was bloody. A ragged, torn, and stained shirt bore further evidence of violence. Adam turned him over, seeing at a glance that he had been terribly beaten about the head with a blunt instrument. He was gasping. Swiftly Adam scooped up water in his hat. He had heard that kind of a gasp before. Lifting the Indian's head, Adam poured water into the open mouth. Then he bathed the bloodstained face.
   The Indian was of the tribe that had packed supplies for the Vireys. He was apparently fatally hurt. It was evident that he wanted to speak. And from the incoherent mixture of language which these Indians used in conversation with white men Adam gathered significant details of gold, of robbers, of something being driven round and round, grinding stone like maize.
   "Arrastra!" queried Adam.
   The Indian nodded, and made a weak motion of his hand toward the trail that led to the yellow wilderness of clay, and then further gestures, which, with a few more gutturally whispered words, gave Adam the impression that a man of huge bulk, wide of shoulder, was working the old Spanish treadmill--arrastra--grinding for gold. Then the Indian uttered, with a last flash of spirit, the warning he could not speak, and, falling back, he gasped and faded into unconsciousness.
   Adam stood up, thinking hard, muttering aloud some of his thoughts.
   "Arrastra!...That was the way of Dismukes--to grind for gold...He's here--somewhere--down in that yellow hole...Robbers have jumped his claim--probably are holding him--torturing him to tell of hidden gold...and they beat this poor Indian to death."
   There was necessity for quick thought and quick action. The Indian was not dead, but he soon would be. Adam could do nothing for him. It was imperative to decide whether to wait here for the return of the water carrier or at once follow the trail to the yellow clay slopes. Adam wore a gun, but it held only two unused shells, and there was no more ammunition in his pack. The Indian had no weapon. Perhaps the water carrier would be armed. If Dismukes were dead, there need be no rash hurry to avenge him; if he lived as prisoner a little time more or less would not greatly matter. Adam speedily decided to wait a reasonable time for the man who packed water, and, if he came, to kill him and then hurry up the trail. There was, in this way, less danger of being discovered, and, besides, one of the robbers dispatched would render the band just so much weaker. Adam especially favoured this course because of the possibility of getting a weapon.
   "And more," muttered Adam, "if he happens to be a tall man I can pretend to be him--packing water back."
   Therefore Adam screened himself behind a thick clump of mesquite near the trail and waited in ambush like a panther ready to spring.
   As he crouched there, keen eyes up the canyon, ears like those of a listening deer, there flashed into Adam's mind one of Magdalene Virey's unforgettable remarks. "The power of the desert over me lies somewhere in my strange faculty of forgetting self. I watch, I hear, I feel, I smell, but I don't think. Just a gleam--a fleeting moment--then the state of consciousness or lack of consciousness is gone! But in that moment lies the secret lure of the desert. Its power over men!"
   Swiftly as it had come the memory passed, and Adam became for fleeting moments at a time the embodiment of Magdalene Virey's philosophy, all unconscious when thought was absent from feeling. The hour was approaching midday and the wind began to rustle the mesquites and seep the sand. Adam smelled a dry dust somewhat tangy, and tasted the bitterness of it as he licked his lips. Flies had began to buzz around the dead Indian. Instinctively Adam gazed aloft, and, yes, there far above him circled a vulture, and above that another, sweeping down from the invisible depths of blue, magically ringing a flight around the heavens, with never a movement of wings. They sailed round and round, always down. Where did they come from? What power poised them so surely in the air?
   Adam waited. All at once his whole body vibrated with the leap of his heart. A tall, hulking man hove in sight, balancing a bar across his shoulder, from each end of which hung a large bucket. These buckets swung to and fro with the fellow's steps. Like a lazy man, he advanced leisurely. Adam saw a little puff of smoke lift from the red, indistinct patch that was this water carrier's face. He had cigarette or pipe. As he approached nearer and nearer, Adam received steadily growing and changing impressions of the man he was about to kill, until they fixed in the image of a long, loosely jointed body, a soiled shirt open at the neck, bare brown arms, and cruel red face. Just outside the mesquites the robber halted to peer at the spot where the Indian had fallen, and then ahead as if he expected to see a body lying in the trail.
   "Ho! Ho! if thet durned Injin I beat didn't crawl way down hyar! An' his brains oozin' out!" he ejaculated, hoarsely, as he strode between the scratching mesquites, swinging the crossbar and buckets sidewise. "Takes a hell of a lot to kill some critters!"
   Like a released spring Adam shot up. His big hands flashed to cut off a startled yell.
   "Not so much!" he called, grimly, and next instant his giant frame strung to the expenditure of mighty effort.
   At noon the wind was blowing a gusty gale and the sun shone a deep, weird, magenta colour through the pall of yellow dust. The sky was not visible. Down on the ridges and in the washes dust sheets were whipped up at intervals. Clouds of flying sand rustled through the air, and sometimes the wind had force enough to carry grains of gravel. These intermittent blasts resembled the midnight furnace winds, except for the strange fact that they were not so hot, so withering. Every few minutes the canyon would be obscured in sweeping, curling streaks and sheets of dust. Then, as the gale roared away, the dust settled and the air again cleared. But high up, the dull, yellow pall hung, apparently motionless, with that weird sun, like a red-orange moon seen through haze, growing darker.
   The fury of the elements seemed to favour Adam. Heat and gale and obscurity could tend only to relax the vigilance of men. Adam counted upon surprising the gang. To his regret, he had found no weapon on the robber he had overcome. Wearing the man's slouch sombrero pulled down, and carrying the water buckets suspended from the bar across his shoulders, Adam believed that in the thick of the duststorm he might approach near the gang, perhaps get right among them.
   When he got to the top of the amphitheatre, and found it a weird and terrible abyss of flying yellow shadows and full of shriek of wind and moan and roar, he decided he would go down as far as might seem advisable, then try to slip up on the robbers, wherever they were, and get a look at them and their surroundings before rushing to the attack.
   Down, and yet farther, Adam plodded, amazed at the depth of the pit, the bottom of which he had not seen. The plainly defined trail led him on, and in one place huge boot tracks, familiar to him, acted as a spur. The tracks were not many days old and had been made by Dismukes. Adam now expected to find his old friend dead or in some terrible situation. The place, the day, the heat, the wind--all presaged terror, violence, gold, and blood. No human beings would endure this nude and ghastly and burning hell hole of flying dust for anything except gold.
   At last Adam got so far down, so deep into the yellow depths, that pall and roar of duststorm appeared above him. He walked in a strange yellow twilight. And here the sun showed a darker magenta. Fine siftings of dust floated and fell all around him, dry, choking, and, when they touched his face, like invisible sparks of fire.
   Interminably the yellow-walled wash wound this way and that, widening out to the dimensions of a canyon. At length Adam smelled smoke. He was close to a camp of some kind. Depositing the buckets in the trail, he sheered off and went up an intersecting wash.
   When out of sight of the trail, he climbed up a soft clay slope, and, lying flat at the top, he peeped over. More yellow ridges like the ribs of a washboard! They seemed to run out on all sides, in a circling maze, soft and curved and colourful, and shaded by what seemed unnatural shadows. But they were almost level. Here indeed was the pit of the amphitheatre. With slow, desert-trained gaze Adam swept the graceful dunes. All bare! The twilight of changing yellow shadow hindered sure sight at considerable distance, and the sweeping rush of wind above, and then a low hollow roar, made listening useless.
   At length Adam noticed how all the clay ridges or ends of slopes to his right ran about a hundred yards and then sheered down abruptly. Here, then, was the main canyon through which the trail ran. The line of it, a vague break in the yellow colour, turned toward Adam's left. Adam deliberated a moment. Would he go on or return to the trail? Then he arose, crossed the top of the clay ridge, plunged down its soft bank, leaped the sandy and gravelly wash at the bottom, and started up the next ridge. This was exactly like the one he had surmounted. Adam kept on, down and up, down and up, until the yellow twilight in front of him appeared separated by a lazy column of blue. Adam's nostrils made sure of that. It was smoke. Cautiously crawling now, down and up, Adam gained the ridge from behind which rose the smoke. Here he crouched against the soft clay, breathing hard from his exertions, listening and peering.
   The ridges about him began to show streaks of brown earth and ledges of rock. As he looked about he was startled by a rumbling, grating sound. It was continuous, but it had louder rumbles, almost bumps. The sound was rock grating on rock. Adam thought he knew what made it. With all his might he listened, pressing his ear down on the clay. The rumble kept on, but Adam could not hear any other sound until there came a lull in the wind above. Then he heard a squeaking creak--a sound of wood moved tight against wood; then sharp cracks, but of soft substances; then the ring of a shovel on stone; and at last harsh voices.
   So far, so good, thought Adam. Only a few yards of clay separated him from mining operations, and he must see how many men were there and what was the lay of the land, and how best he could proceed. The old animal instinct to rush animated him, requiring severe control. While waiting for the wind to begin again, Adam wondered if he was to see Dismukes. He did not expect to.
   The elements seemed to await Adam's wishes. At that very moment the yellow light shaded a little dimmer and the sinister-hued sun cloaked its ruddy face. The gale above howled, and the circling winds, lower down, gathered up sheets of dust and swept them across the shrouded amphitheatre. And a wave of intenser heat moved down into the pit.
   Adam sank his fingers into the soft clay and crawled up this last slope. The rattle of loosened clay and gravel rolling down was swallowed up in the roar of wind. Reaching the last foot of ascent, Adam cautiously peeped over. He saw a wider space, a sort of round pocket between two yellow ridges, that ran out and widened from a ledge of crumbling rock. He crawled a few inches farther, raised himself a little higher. Then he saw brush roofs of structures, evidently erected for shade. The rumble began again. Higher Adam raised himself. Then he espied a coat hanging on a corner post of one of the structures. Dismukes's coat. Adam could have picked it out of a thousand coats. Excitement now began to encroach upon his cool patience and determination. The gale seemed howling with rage at the truth here, still hidden from Adam's eyes. Higher he raised himself.
   The brush-covered structure farther from him was a sun shelter, and under it lay piles of camp duffle. A camp fire smoked. Adam's swift eyes caught the gleam of guns. The day was too torrid for these campers to pack guns. The nearer structure was large, octagonal shape, built of mesquite posts and brush. From under it came the rumble of rocks and the metallic clink of shovels, and then the creak and crack and the heavy voice.
   Still higher Adam pulled himself so that he might see under the brush shelter. A wide rent in the roof--a huge brown flash across this space--then lower down a movement of men to and fro--rumble of rocks, clink of shovel, thud of earth, creak and crack--a red undershirt--blue jeans--boots, and then passing, bending men nude to the waist--circle and sweep of long dark streak--then again the huge brown flash; it all bewildered Adam, so that one of his usually distinguishing glances failed to convey clear meaning of this scene. Then he looked and looked, and when he had looked a long, breathless moment he fell flat on the soft clay, digging his big hands deep, trembling and straining with the might of his passion to rush like a mad bull down upon the ruffians. It took another moment, that battling restraint. Then he raised to look with clearer, more calculating gaze.
   The brush roof was a shelter for an arrastra. The octagonal shape of this sun shade filled the pocket that nestled between the slopes. Its back stood close to the ledge of crumbling rock from which the gold-bearing ore was being extracted.
   Its front faced the open gully. Under it an arrastra was in operation. As many of these Spanish devices as Adam had seen, no one of them had ever resembled this.
   In the centre of the octagon a round pit had been dug into the ground, and lined and floored with flat stories. An upright beam was set in the middle of this, and was fastened above to the roof. Crossbeams were attached to the upright, and from these crossbeams dragged huge rocks held by chains. A long pole, like the tongue of a wagon, extended from the upright and reached far out, at a height of about four feet from the ground. The principle of operation was to revolve the crossbeams and upright post, dragging the heavy rocks around and around the pit, thus crushing the ore. Adam knew that mercury was then used to absorb the gold from the crevices.
   The motive power sometimes was a horse, and usually it was a mule. But in this instance the motive power was furnished by a man. A huge, broad, squat man naked to the waist I He was bound to the end of the long bar or tongue, and as he pushed it round and round his body was bent almost double. What wonderful brawny arms on which the muscles rippled and strung like ropes. The breast of this giant was covered with grizzled hair. Like a tired ox he bowed his huge head, wagging it from side to side. As he heaved around he exposed his broad back--the huge brown flash that had mystified Adam--and this mighty muscled back showed streaks and spots of blood.
   A gaunt man, rawboned and dark, with a face like a ghoul, stood just outside the circle described by the long bar. He held a mesquite branch, with forked and thorny end, which he used as a goad. Whenever the hairy, half-naked giant passed around this gaunt man would swing the whip. It cracked on the brown back--spattered the drops of blood.
   There were three other men shovelling, carrying, and dumping ore into the pit. One was slight of build and hard of face. A red-undershirted fellow looked tough and wiry, of middle age, a seasoned desert rat, villainous as a reptile. The third man had a small, closely cropped head like a bullet, and a jaw that stood out beyond his brow, a hard visage, smeared with sweat and dust. His big, naked shoulders proclaimed him young.
   And the grizzled giant, whom the others were goading and working to death there in the terrible heat, was Adam's old saviour and friend, Dismukes.
   Cautiously Adam backed and slid down the clay slope, and hurried up and down another. When he had crossed several he turned to the left and ran down to the trail, and followed along that until he reached the spot where he had left the buckets of water.
   There he drank deeply, and tried to restrain his hurry. But he was not tired, or out of breath. And his mind seemed at a deadlock. A weapon, a shovel, a sledge to crush their skulls. To keep between them and their guns! Thus Adam's thoughts had riveted themselves on a few actions. There was, on the surface of his body, a cold, hard, tingling stretch of skin over rippling muscles; and deep internally, the mysterious and manifold life of blood and nerve and bone awoke and flamed under the instinct of the ages. Adam's body then belonged to the past and to what the desert had made it.
   Swinging the crossbar over his shoulders and lifting the buckets, he took the trail down toward the camp! He bowed his head and his shoulders more than the weight of the buckets made necessary. The perverse gale blew more fiercely than ever, and the hollow roar resounded louder, and the yellow gloom of dust descended closer, and a weird, dim light streamed through the pall, down upon the moving shadows. All was sombre, naked, earthy in this thickening, lowering pall. Odour of smoke and dust! A fiercely burning heat that had the weight of hotly pressing lead! Bellow and shriek and moan of gale that died away! It was the portal to an inferno, and Adam was a man descended in age-long successions from simian beasts, and he strode in the image of God, with love his motive, rage his passion, and the wild years of the desert at his back, driving him on.
   He rounded the last corner. There was the camp, fifty yards away. He now could almost straddle the only avenue of escape.
   The wind lulled. A yellow shadow drifted away from the sun, and again it shone with sinister magenta hue. All the air seemed to wait, as if the appalling forces of nature, aghast at the strange lives of men, had halted to watch.
   "Thar's Bill with the water!" yelled the red-shirted man.
   Work and action ceased. The giant Dismukes looked, then heaved erect with head poised like that of a hawk.
   "Aw, Bill, you son-of-a-gun!" called another robber, in welcome. "We damn near died, waitin' fer thet water."
   "Ho! Ho!...Bill, ye musta run ag'in' another Injun."
   Adam walked on, shortening himself a little more, quickening his stride. When he reached and passed the shelter under which lay packs and coats and guns he suddenly quivered, as if released from dragging restraint.
   The robber of slight frame and hard face had walked out from under the shelter. He alone had been silent. He had peered keenly, bending a little.
   "Hey, is thet you, Bill?" he queried, with hard voice which suited his face.
   The gaunt robber cracked his whip. "Fellars, air we locoed by this hyar dust? Damn the deceivin' light!...Too big fer Bill--er I'm blind with heat!"
   "It ain't Bill!" screeched the little man, and he bounded toward where lay the guns.
   Adam dropped the buckets. Down they thudded with a splash. Two of his great leaps intercepted the little man, who veered aside, dodged, and then tried to run by. Adam, with a lunge and a swing, hit him squarely on the side of the head. The blow rang soddenly. Its tremendous power propelled the man off his feet, turning him sidewise as he went through the air, and carried him with terrific force against one of the shelter posts, around which his limp body seemed to wrap itself. Crash! the post gave way, letting the roof sag. Then the smitten man rolled to lodge against a pack, and lay inert.
   Whirling swiftly, Adam drew his gun, and paused a second, ready to rush.
   The robbers stood stock-still.
   "My Gawd!" hoarsely yelled the red-shirted one. "Who's thet?...Did you see him soak Robbins?"
   Dismukes let out a stentorian roar of joy, of hate, of triumph. Like a chained elephant he plunged to escape. Failing that, he surged down to yell: "Aha, you bloody claim jumpers! Now you're done! It's Wansfell!"
   "Wansfell!" flashed the gaunt-faced villain, and that gaunt face turned ashen. "Grab a shovel! Run fer a gun!"
   Then the red-shirted robber swung aloft his shovel and rushed at Adam, bawling fierce curses. Adam shot him through. The man seemed blocked, as if by heavy impact, then, more fiercely, he rushed again. Adam's second and last shot, fired at point-blank, staggered him. But the shovel descended on Adam's head, a hard blow, fortunately from the flat side. Clubbing his gun, Adam beat down the man, who went falling with his shovel under the shelter. Both of the other men charged Adam and the three met at the opening. They leaped so swiftly upon him and were so heavy bodied, that they bore him to the ground. Adam's grim intention was to hang on to both of them, so neither could run to get a weapon. To that end he locked a hold on each. Then began a whirling, wrestling, thudding battle. To make sure of them Adam had handicapped himself. He could not swing his mallet-like fists and he had not been fortunate enough to grip their throats. So, rolling over and over with them, he took the rain of blows, swinging them back, heaving his weight upon them. Foot by foot he won his way farther and farther from where the guns lay. If one yelling robber surged half erect, Adam swung the other to trip him. And once inside the wide doorway of that octagon structure, Adam rose with the struggling men, an iron hand clutching each, and, swinging them wide apart, by giant effort he brought them back into solid and staggering impact. He had hoped to bring their heads together. But only their bodies collided and the force of the collision broke Adam's hold on one. The young man of hulking frame went down, right on the shovel, and, quick to grasp it, he bounded up, fierce and strong. But as he swung aloft the weapon, Adam let go of the gaunt-faced man and hit him, knocking him against the other. They staggered back, almost falling.
   Swift on that advantage, Adam swung a fist to the bulging jaw of the man with the shovel. As if struck by a catapult, he went down over the wooden beam and the shovel flew far. Then Adam blocked the doorway. The other fellow charged him, only to be knocked back. As he reeled, his comrade, panting loud, straddled the long beam. Just then Dismukes with quick wits heaved forward on the beam to which he was bound, and the claim jumper went sprawling in the dirt. Dismukes celebrated his entrance into the fray with another stentorian yell.
   Adam awoke now to a different and more intense sense of the fight. He had his antagonists cornered. They could never get by him to secure a gun. And the fierce zest of violent strife, the ruthless law of the desert, the survival of the strongest, the blood lust, would have made him refuse any weapon save his hands. He stood on his feet and his hands were enough. Like a wolf he snapped his teeth, then locked his jaw. As he swung and battled and threw these foes backward a strange, wild joy accelerated his actions. When he struck, the sodden blow felt good. He avoided no return blows. He breasted them. The smell of sweat and blood, the heat of panting breaths in his face, the feel of hot, rippling muscle, all tended to make him the fiercer. His sight stayed keen, though tinged with red. He saw the beady, evil eyes of the big robber, like hot green fire, and the bruised and bleeding face with its snarling mouth; and as he saw it, he struck out hard with savage thrill. He saw the gaunt and sallow visage of the other, bloody mouthed, with malignant gaze of frenzied hate, of glinting intent to kill, and as he saw he beat him down.
   Then into his pulsing senses burst a terrible yell from Dismukes. The gaunt-faced man had fallen into the pit of the arrastra, and Dismukes had suddenly started ahead, shoving the beam over him. The big rocks dragging by chains from the crossbeam began to pound around on the ore. Jar and rumble! Then a piercing scream issued from the man who had been caught under the rocks, who was being dragged around the arrastra.
   Adam saw, even as he knocked back another rush of the other man.
   The huge prospector bent to his task. Supreme was his tremendous effort. Strength of ten men! Blood gushed from the cuts on his brawny back. Faster he shoved until he was running. And as he came around, the ferocity of his bristling face and the swelling of the great chest with its mats of hair seemed to prove him half man, half beast, a gorilla in a death grapple.
   Again the big robber lunged up, to lower his head and charge at Adam. He was past yelling. He did not seek to escape. He would have given his life to kill.
   "MORE ORE, PARD WANSFELL!" yelled Dismukes, as with whistling breath he shoved round the terrible mill of rumbling rocks. A horrible, long-drawn cry issued from under them.
   Then the sweep of the long beam caught the man who was charging Adam. Down to his knees it forced him, and, catching under his chin, was dragging him, when the upright post gave way with a crash. The released beam, under the tremendous momentum of Dismukes' massive weight and strength, seemed to flash across the half circle, lifting and carrying the man. A low wall of rock caught his body, and the beam, swinging free from its fastenings, cracked his head as if it had been a ripe melon.

Chapter 21 >

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Created: August 28, 2012
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