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Wanderer of the Wasteland
Zane Grey (1923) Country of origin: USA
Available texts by the same author here
Sunset of that momentous and tragic day found Adam and Dismukes camped beyond the mouth of a wide pass that bisected the Funeral range.
It was a dry camp, but water from a pure spring some miles down had been packed out. Greasewood grew abundantly on the wide flat, and there were bunches of dry grey sage.
Adam felt well-nigh exhausted, and he would have been gloomy and silent but for his comrade. Dismukes might never have been harnessed to the beam of an arrastra and driven like a mule, and his awful tread-mill toil in the terrible heat under the lacerating lash was as if it had never been. Dismukes was elated, he was exultant, he was strangely young again.
Always, to Adam, this giant prospector, Dismukes, had been beyond understanding. But now he was enigmatic. He transcended his old self. In the excitement following his rescue he had not mentioned the fact that Adam had saved his life. Adam thought greatly of this squaring of his old debt. But Dismukes seemed not to consider it. He never mentioned that but for Adam's intervention he would have been goaded like a mule, kicked and flayed and driven in the stifling heat, until he fell down to die. All Dismukes thought of was the gold he had mined, the gold the claim jumpers had mined--the bags of heavy gold that were his, and the possession of which ended forever his life-long toil for a fortune. A hundred times that afternoon, as the men had packed and climbed out of the valley, Dismukes had tried to force upon Adam a half of the gold, a quarter of it, a share. But Adam refused.
"Why, for Lord's sake?" Dismukes at last exploded, his great ox eyes rolling. "It's gold. Most of it I mined before those devils came. It's clean an' honest. You deserve a share. An' the half of it will more than make up the sum I've slaved an' saved to get. Why, man--why won't you take it?"
"Well, friend, I guess the only reason I've got is that it's too heavy to pack," replied Adam. He smiled as he spoke, but the fact was he had no other reason for refusal.
Dismukes stared with wide eyes and open mouth. Adam, apparently, was beyond his comprehension just the same as Dismukes was beyond Adam's. Finally he swore his astonishment, grunted his disapproval, and then, resigning himself to Adam's strange apathy, he straightway glowed again.
Adam, despite his amusement and something of sadness, could not help but respond in a measure to the intense rapture of his friend. Dismukes's great work had ended. His long quest for the Golden Fleece had been rewarded. His thirty-five years of wandering and enduring and toiling were over, and life had suddenly loomed beautiful and enchanting. The dream of boyhood had come true. The fortune had been made. And now to look forward to ease, rest, travel, joy--all that he had slaved for. Marvellous past--magnificent prospect of future!
Adam listened kindly, and went slowly, with tired limbs, about the camp tasks; and now he gazed at Dismukes, and again had an eye for his surroundings. Often he gazed up at the exceedingly high, blunt break in the Funeral range. What cataclysm of nature had made that rent? It was a zigzagged saw-toothed wall, with strata slanted at an angle of forty-five degrees. Zigzag veins of black and red bronze ran through the vast drab mass.
The long purple shadows that Adam loved had begun to fall. Several huge bats with white heads darted in irregular flight over the camp. Adam's hands, and his jaw, too, were swollen and painful as a result of the fight, and he served himself and ate with difficulty. And as for speech, he had little chance for that. Dismukes's words flowed like a desert flood. The man was bewitched. He would consume moments in eloquent description of what he was going to do, then suddenly switch to an irrelevant subject.
"Once, years ago, I was lost on the desert," he said, reminiscently. "First an' only time I ever got lost for sure. Got out of grub. Began to starve. Was goin' to kill an' eat my burro, when he up an' run off. Finally got out of water. That's the last straw, you know...I walked all day an' all night an' all day, only to find myself more lost than ever. I thought I had been travellin' toward the west where some place I'd heard of water an' a ranch. Then I made sure I'd gone the wrong way. Staggerin' an' fallin' an' crawlin' till near daylight, at last I gave up an' stretched out to die. Me! I gave up--was glad to die...I can remember the look of the pale stars--the grey morning light--the awful silence an' loneliness. Yes, I wanted to die quick...An' all at once I heard a rooster crow!"
"Well! You'd lain down to die near a ranch. That was funny," declared Adam. Life did play queer pranks on men.
"Funny! Say, pard Wansfell, there's nothin' funny about death. An' as for life, I never dreamed how glorious it is, until I heard that rooster crow. I'll buy a farm of green an' grassy an' shady land somewhere in the East--land with running water everywhere--an' I'll raise a thousand roosters just to hear them crow."
"Thought you meant to travel," said Adam.
"Sure. But I'll settle down sometime, I suppose," replied Dismukes, reflectively.
"Friend, will you marry?" inquired Adam gravely. How intensely interesting was this man about to go out into the world!
"Marry! What?" ejaculated the prospector.
"A woman, of course."
"My God!" rolled out Dismukes. The thought had startled him. His great ox eyes reflected changes of amazing thought, shadows of old emotions long submerged. "That's somethin' I never did think of. Me marry a woman!...No woman would ever have me."
"Dismukes, you're not so old. And you'll be rich. When you wear off the desert roughness you can find a wife. The world is full of good women who need husbands."
"Wansfell, you ain't serious?" queried Dismukes, puzzled and stirred. He ran a broad hand through his shock of grizzled hair. His eyes were beautiful then. "I never had wife or sweetheart...No girl ever looked at me--when I was a boy. An' these years on the desert, women have been scarce, an' not one was ever anythin' to me."
"Well, when you get among a lot of pretty girls, just squeeze one for me," said Adam, with the smile that was sad.
Plain it was how Adam's attempt at pleasantry, despite its undercurrent, had opened up a vista of bewildering and entrancing prospects for Dismukes. This prospector had grown grizzled on the desert; his long years had been years of loneliness; and now the forgotten dreams and desires of youth thronged thick and sweet in his imagination. Adam left him to that engrossing fancy, hoping it would keep him content and silent for a while.
A golden flare brightened over the Panamint range, silhouetting the long, tapering lines of the peaks. Far to the west, when the sun had set, floated grey and silver-edged clouds, and under them a whorl of rosy, dusky, ruddy haze. All the slopes below were beginning to be enshrouded in purple, and even while Adam watched they grew cold and dark. The heat veils were still rising, but they were from the ridges of dark-brown and pale-grey earth far this side of the mountains. Death Valley was hidden, and for that Adam was glad. The winds had ceased, the clouds of dust had long settled. It was a bold and desolate scene, of wide scope and tremendous dimensions, a big country. The afterglow of sunset transformed the clouds. Then the golden flare faded fast, the clouds paled, the purple gloom deepened. Vast black ridges of mountains stood out like ragged islands in a desolate sea.
"Wansfell," spoke up Dismukes, "you need your hair cut."
"Maybe. But I'm glad it was long to-day when I got hit with the shovel."
"You sure did come near gettin' it cut then," replied Dismukes, with a hard laugh. "I'll tell you what your long hair reminds me of. Years ago I met a big fellow on the desert. Six feet three he was and most as big as you. An' a darn good pard on the trail. Well, he wore his hair very long. It hid his ears. An' in the hottest weather he never let me cut it. Well, the funny part all came out one day. Not so funny for him, to think of it!...We met men on the trail. They shot him an' were nigh on to doin' for me...My big pardner was a horse thief. He'd had his ears cut off for stealin' horses. An' so he wore his hair long like yours to hide the fact he had no ears."
"Friend Dismukes, I have ears, if my long hair is worrying you," replied Adam. "And if I had not had mighty keen ears you'd still be grinding gold for your claim jumpers."
At dusk, while the big bats darted overhead with soft swishing of wings, and the camp fire burned down to red and glowing embers, Dismukes talked and talked. And always he returned to the subject of gold and of his future.
"Pard, I wish you were goin' with me," he said, and the slow, sweeping gesture of the great horny hand had something of sublimity. He waved it away toward the east, and it signified the far places across the desert. "I'm rich. The years of lonely hell an' never-endin' toil are over. No more sour dough! No more thirst an' heat an' dust! No more hoardin' of gold! The time has come for me to spend. I'll bank my gold an' draw my checks. At Frisco I'll boil the alkali out of my carcass. An', shaved an' clipped an' dressed, I'll take akin the name of my youth an' fare forth for adventure. I'll pay for the years of hard grub. I'll eat the best an' drink wine--wine, the sweetest an' oldest of wine! Wine in thin glasses...I'll wear silk next my skin an' sleep on feathers. I'll travel like a prince. I can see the big niggers roll their eyes. Yas, sah, yas sah, the best for you, sah! An' I'll tip them in gold...I'll go to my old home. Some of my people will be livin'. An' when they see me they'll see their ship come in. They'll be rich. I'll not forget the friends of my youth. That little village will have a church or a park as my gift. I'll travel. I'll see the sights an' the cities. New York! Ha! if I like that place, I'll buy it! I'll see all there is to see, buy all there is to buy. I'll be merry, I'll be joyful. I'll live. I'll make up for all the lost years. But I'll never forget the poor an' the miserable. I can spend an' give a hundred dollars a day for the rest of my life. I'll cross the ocean. London! I've met Englishmen in the Southwest. Queer, cold sort of men! I'll see how they live. I'll go all over England. Then Paris! Never was I drunk, but I'll get drunk in Paris. I want to see the wonderful hotels an' shops an' theatres. I'll look at the beautiful French actresses. I'll go to hear the prima donnas sing. I'll throw gold double-eagles on the stage. An' I'll take a fly at Monte Carlo. An' travel on an' on. To Rome, that great city where the thrones of the emperors still stand. I'll go spend a long hour high up in the ruins of the Coliseum. An' dreamin' of the days of the Caesars--seein' the gladiators in the arena--I'll think of you, Wansfell. For there never lived on the old earth a greater fighter than you!...Egypt, the land of sun an' sand! I'll see the grand Sahara. An' I'll travel on an' on, all over the world. When I've seen it I'll come back to my native land. An' then, that green farm, with wooded hills an' runnin' streams! It must be near a city. Horses I'll have an' a man to drive, an' a house of comfort...Mebbe there'll come a woman into my life. Mebbe children! The thought you planted in me, pard, somehow makes me yearn. After all, every man should have a son. I see that now. What blunders we make! But I'm rich, I'm not so old, I'll drink life to the very lees...I see the lights, I hear the voices of laughter an' music, I feel the comfortin' walls of a home. A roof over my head! An' a bed as soft as downy feathers!...Mebbe, O my pard, mebbe the sweet smile of a woman--the touch of a lovin' hand--the good-night kiss of a child!...My God! how the thoughts of life can burn an' thrill!"
Twenty miles a day, resting several hours through the fierce noon heat, the travellers made down across the Mohave Desert. To them, who had conquered the terrible elements and desolation of Death Valley, this waste of the Mohave presented comparatively little to contend with. Still, hardened and daring as they were, they did not incur unnecessary risks.
The time was September, at the end of a fierce, dry summer. Cloudless sky, fervid and quivering air, burning downward rays of sun and rising veils of reflected heat from sand and rock--these were not to be trifled with. Dismukes's little thermometer registered one hundred and thirty degrees in the shade; that is, whenever there was any shade to rest in. They did not burden themselves with the worry of knowing the degrees of heat while they were on the march.
Water holes well known to Dismukes, though out of the beaten track, were found to be dry; and so the travellers had to go out of a direct line to replenish their supply. Under that burning sun even Dismukes and Adam suffered terribly after several hours without water. A very fine penetrating alkali dust irritated the throat and nostrils and augmented the pain of thirst. Once they went a whole day without water, and at sundown reached a well kept by a man who made a living by selling water to prospectors and freighters and drivers of borax wagons. His prices were exorbitant. On this occasion, surlily surveying the parched travellers and the thirsty burros, he said his well was almost dry and he would not sell any water. Dismukes had told Adam that the well-owner bore him a grudge. They expostulated and pleaded with him to no avail. Adam went to the well and, lifting a trap-door he peered down, to see quite a goodly supply of water. Then he returned to the little shack where the bushy-whiskered hoarder of precious water sat on a box with a rifle across his knees. Adam always appeared mild and serene, except when he was angry, at which time a man would have had to be blind not to see his mood. The well-owner probably expected Adam to plead again. But he reckoned falsely. Adam jerked the rifle from him and with a single movement of his hands he broke off the stock. Then he laid those big, hard hands on the man, who seemed to shrink under them.
"Friend, you've plenty of water. It's a live well. You can spare enough to save us. We'll double your pay. Come."
Adam loosened his right hand and doubled up the enormous mallet-like fist and swung it back. The well-owner suddenly changed his front and became animated, and the travellers got all the water they needed. But they did not annoy him further by pitching camp near his place.
This country was crisscrossed by trails, and, arid desert though it was, every few miles showed an abandoned mine, or a prospector working a claim, or a shack containing a desert dweller. Adam and Dismukes were approaching the highway that bisected the Mohave Desert. It grew to be more of a sandy country, and anywhere in sand, water was always scarce. Another of Dismukes's water holes was dry. It had not been visited for months. The one wanderer who had stopped there lay there half buried in the sand, a shrunken mummy of a man with a dark and horrible mockery in the eyeless sockets of his skull. His skin was drawn like light-brown parchment over his face. Adam looked, and then again, and gave a sudden start. He turned the sun-dried visage more to the light. He recognised that face, set in its iron mask of death, with its grin that would grin forever until the brown skull went to dust.
"Regan!" he exclaimed.
"You know him?" queried Dismukes.
"Yes. He was an Irishman I knew years ago. A talky, cheerful fellow. Hard drinker. He loved the desert, but drink kept him in the mining camps. The last time I saw him was at Tecopah, after you left."
"Poor devil! He died of thirst. I know that cast of face...Let's give him a decent burial."
"Yes. Poor Regan! He was the man who named me Wansfell. Why he called me that I never knew--never will know."
Deep in the sand they buried the remains of Regan and erected a rude cross to mark his lonely grave.
Dismukes led Adam off the well-beaten trail one day, up a narrow sandy wash to a closed pocket that smelled old and musty. Here a green spring bubbled from under a bank of sand. Water clear as crystal, slightly green in tinge, sparkled and murmured. A whitish sediment bordered the tiny stream of running water.
"Arsenic!" exclaimed Adam.
"Yes. An' here's where I found a whole caravan of people dead. It was six years ago. Place hasn't changed much. Guess it's filled up a little with blowin' sand...Aha! Look here!"
Dismukes put the toe of his boot against a round white object protruding from the sand. It was a bleached skull.
"Men mad with desert thirst never stop to read," replied Adam, sadly.
In silence Adam and Dismukes gazed down at the glistening white skull. Ghastly as it was, it yet had beauty. Once it had been full of thought, of emotion; and now it was tenanted by desert sand.
Adam and Dismukes spent half a day at that arsenic spring, under the burning sun, suffering the thirst they dared not slake there, and they erected a rude cross that would stand for many and many a day. Deep in the crosspiece Adam cut the words: "DEATH! ARSENIC SPRING! DON'T DRINK! GOOD WATER FIVE MILES. FOLLOW DRY STREAM BED."
Dismukes appeared to get deep satisfaction and even happiness out of this accomplished task. It was a monument to the end of his desert experience. Good will toward his fellow men!
At last the day came when Adam watched Dismukes drive his burros out on the lonely trail, striding along with his rolling gait, a huge short, broad backed man, like a misshapen giant. What a stride he had! The thousands of desert miles it had mastered had not yet taken its force and spring. It was the stride of one who imagined he left nothing of life behind and saw its most calling adventures to the fore. He had tired of the desert. He had used it. He had glutted it of the riches he craved. And now he was heading down the trail toward the glittering haunts of men and the green pastures. Adam watched him with grief and yet with gladness, and still with something of awe. Dismukes's going forever was incomprehensible. Adam felt what he could not analyse. The rolling voice of Dismukes, sonorous and splendid, still rang in Adam's ears; "Pard, we're square!...Good-bye!" Adam understood now why a noble Indian, unspoiled by white men, reverenced a debt which involved life. The paying of that debt was all of unity and brotherhood there existed in the world. If it was great to feel gratitude for the saving of his life, it was far greater to remember he had saved the life of his saviour. Adam, deeply agitated, watched Dismukes stride down the barren trail, behind his bobbing burros, watched him stride on into the lonely, glaring desert, so solemn and limitless and mysterious, until he vanished in the grey monotony.