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Wanderer of the Wasteland
Zane Grey (1923) Country of origin: USA
Available texts by the same author here
When the following March came, Adam had been a week plodding southward over the yucca plateaus of the Mohave. The desert had changed its face. Left behind were the rare calico-veined ranges of mountains, the royal-purple porphyries, the wonderful white granites, the green-blue coppers, the yellow sulphurs, and the ruddy red irons. This desert had colour, but not so vivid, not so striking. And it had become more hospitable to the survival of plant life. The sandy floor was no longer monotonously grey.
Adam loved the grotesque yucca trees. They were really trees that afforded shade and firewood, and they brought back no bitter-sweet memories like the palo verdes. The yuccas were fresh and green, renewed in the spring from the dusty grey sunburnt trees they had been in the autumn. Many of them bore great cone-shaped buds about to open, and on others had blossomed large white flowers with streaks of pink. A yucca forest presented a strange sight. These desert trees were deformed, weird, bristling, shaggy trunked, with grotesque shapes like spectres in torture.
Adam travelled leisurely, although a nameless and invisible hand seemed to beckon him from the beyond. His wandering steps were again guided, and something awaited him far down toward the Rio Colorado. He was completing a vast circle of the desert, and he could not resist that call, that wandering quest down toward the place which had given the colour and direction to his life. But the way must be long, and as there were the thorns and rocks for his feet, so must there be bruises to his spirit.
At night on the moon-blanched desert, under the weird, spectral-armed yuccas, Adam had revelation of the clearness of teaching that was to become his. The years had been preparing him. When would come his supreme trial? What would it be? And there came a whisper out of the lonely darkness, on the cool night wind, that some day he would go back to find the grave of his brother and to meet the punishment that was his due. Then all that was physical, all that was fierce, enduring, natural, thrust the thought from him. But though the savage desert life in him burned strong and resistless, yet he began to hear a new, a different, a higher voice of conscience. He imagined he stifled it with fiercely repudiating gestures, but all the wonderful strength of his brawny hands, magnified a thousand times, could not thrust a thought from him.
Toward sunset one day Adam was down on the level desert floor, plodding along a sandy trail around the western wall of San Jacinto. The first bisnagi cacti he saw seemed to greet him as old friends. They were small, only a foot or so high, and sparsely scattered over the long rocky slope that led to the base of the mountain wall. The tops of these cacti were as pink as wild roses. Adam was sweeping his gaze along to see how far they grew out on the desert when he discovered that his burro Jinny had espied moving objects.
Coming toward Adam, still a goodly distance off, were two men and two burros, one of which appeared to have a rider. Presently they appeared to see Adam, for they halted, burros and all, for a moment. It struck Adam that when they started on again they sheered a little off a straight following of the trail. Whereupon Adam, too, sheered a little off, so as to pass near them. When they got fairly close he saw two rough-looking men, one driving a packed burro, and the other leading a burro upon which was a ragged slip of a girl. The sunlight caught a brown flash of her face. When nearly abreast, Adam hailed them.
"Howdy, stranger!" they replied, halting. "Come from inside?"
"No. I'm down from the Mohave," replied Adam. "How's the water? Reckon you came by the cottonwoods?"
"Nope. There ain't none there," replied one of the men, shortly. "Plenty an' fine water down the trail."
"Thanks. Where you headed for?"
"Riverside. My gal hyar is sick an' pinin' fer home."
Adam had been aware of the rather sharp scrutiny of these travellers and that they had exchanged whispers. Such procedures were natural on the desert, only in this case they struck Adam as peculiar. Then he shifted his gaze to the girl on the burro. He could not see her face, as it was bowed. Apparently she was weeping. She made a coarse, drab little figure. But her hair shone in the light of the setting sun--rather short and curly, a rich dark brown with glints of gold.
Adam replied to the curt good-bye of the men, and after another glance at them, as they went on, he faced ahead to his own course. Then he heard low sharp words, "Shet up!" Wheeling, he was in time to see one of these men roughly shake the girl, and speak further words too low for Adam to distinguish. Adam's natural conclusion was that the father had impatiently admonished the child for crying. Something made Adam hesitate and wonder; and presently, as he proceeded on his way, the same subtle something turned him round to watch the receding figures. Again he caught a gleam of sunlight from that girl's glossy head.
"Humph! Somehow I don't like the looks of those fellows," muttered Adam. He was annoyed with himself, first for being so inquisitive, and secondly for not having gone over to take a closer look at them. Shaking his head, dissatisfied with himself, Adam trudged on.
"They said no water at the cottonwood," went on Adam. "No water when the peak is still white with snow. Either they lied or didn't know."
Adam turned again to gaze after the little party. He had nothing tangible upon which to hang suspicions. He went on, then wheeled about once more, realising that the farther on he travelled the stronger grew his desire to look back. Suddenly the feeling cleared of its vagueness--no longer curiosity. It had been his thoughts that had inhibited him.
"I'll go back," said Adam. Tying his burros to greasewood bushes near the trail, he started to stride back over the ground he had covered. After a while he caught a glimmer of firelight through the darkness. They had made dry camp hardly five miles beyond the place where Adam had passed them.
It developed that these travellers had gone off the trail to camp in a wide, deep wash. Adam lost sight of the campfire glimmer, and had to hunt round until he came to the edge of the wash. A good-sized fire of greasewood and sage had been started, so that it would burn down to hot embers for cooking purposes. As Adam stalked out of the gloom into the camp he saw both men busy with preparations for the meal. The girl sat in a disconsolate attitude. She espied Adam before either of the men heard him. Adam saw her quiver and start erect. Not fright, indeed, was it that animated her. Suddenly one of the men rose, with his hand going to his hip.
"Who goes thar?" he demanded, warningly.
Adam halted inside the circle of light. "Say, I lost my coat. Must have fallen off my pack. Did you fellows find it?"
"No, we didn't find no coat," replied the man, slowly. He straightened up, with his hand dropping to his side. The other fellow was on his knees mixing dough in a pan.
Adam advanced with natural manner, but his eyes, hidden under the shadow of his wide hat brim, took swift stock of that camp.
"Pshaw! I was sure hoping you'd found it," he said, as he reached the fire. "I had a time locating your camp. Funny you'd come way off the trail, down in here."
"Funny or not, stranger, it's our bizness," gruffly replied the man standing. He peered keenly at Adam.
"Sure," replied Adam, with slow and apparent good nature. He was close to the man now, as close as he ever needed to get to any man who might make a threatening move. And he looked past him at the girl. She had a pale little face, too small for a pair of wonderful dark eyes that seemed full of woe and terror. She held out thin brown hands to Adam.
"Reckon you'd better go an' hunt fer yer coat," returned the man, significantly.
In one stride Adam loomed over him, his leisurely, casual manner suddenly transformed to an attitude of menace. He stood fully a foot and a half over this stockily built man, who also suddenly underwent a change. He stiffened. Warily he peered up, just a second behind Adam in decision. His mind worked too slowly to get the advantage in this situation.
"Say, I'm curious about this girl you've got with you," said Adam, deliberately.
The man gave a start. "Aw, you are, hey?" he rasped out. "Wal, see hyar, stranger, curious fellars sometimes die sudden, with their boots on."
Adam's force gathered for swift action. Keeping a sharp gaze riveted on this man, he addressed the girl: "Little girl, what's wrong? Are you----"
"Shet up! If you blab out I'll slit your tongue," yelled the fellow, whirling fiercely. No father ever spoke that way to his child. And no child ever showed such terror of her father.
"Girl, don't be afraid. Speak!" called Adam, in a voice that rang.
"Oh, save me--save me!" she cried, wildly.
Then the man, hissing like a snake, was reaching for his gun when Adam struck him. He fell clear across the fire, and, rolling over some packs, lay still. The other one, cursing, started to crawl, to reach with flour-whitened hand for a gun lying in a belt upon the sand. Adam kicked the gun away and pounced upon the man. Fiercely he yelled and struggled. Adam bore him down, burrowing his face in the sand. Then placing a ponderous knee on the back of the man's neck, he knelt there, holding him down.
"Girl, throw me that piece of rope," said Adam, pointing.
She shakily got up, her bare feet sinking in the sand, and, picking up the rope, she threw it to Adam. In short order he bound the man's arms behind his back.
"Now, little girl, you can tell me what's wrong," said Adam, rising.
"Oh, they took me away--from mother!" she whispered.
"Your mother? Where?"
"She's at the cottonwoods. We live there."
Adam could not see her plainly. The fire had burned down. He threw on more greasewood and some sage, that flared up with sparkling smoke. Then he drew the girl to the light. What a thin arm she had! And in the small face and staring eyes he read more than the fear that seemed now losing its intensity. Starvation! No man so quick as Adam to see that!
"You live there? Then he lied about the water?" asked Adam.
"Oh yes--he lied."
"Who are these men?"
"I don't know. They camped at the water. I--I was out--gathering firewood. One of them--the one you hit--grabbed me--carried me off. He put his hand--on my mouth. Then the other man came--with the burros...My mother's sick. She didn't know what happened. She'll be terribly frightened...Oh, please take me--home!"
"Indeed I will," replied Adam, heartily. "Don't worry any more. Come now. Walk right behind me."
Adam led the way out of camp without another glance at the two men, one of whom was groaning. The girl kept close at Adam's heels. Away from the circle of camp-fire glow, he could see the grey aisles of clean sand between the clumps of greasewood, and he wound in and out between these until he found the trail. Suddenly he remembered the girl had no shoes.
"You'll stick your feet full of cactus," he said. "You should have on your shoes."
"I have no shoes," she replied. "But cactus doesn't hurt me--except the cholla. Do you know cholla? Even the Indians think cholla bad."
"Guess I do, little girl. Let me carry you."
"I can walk."
So they set off on the starlit trail, and here she walked beside him. Adam noted that she was taller than he would have taken her to be, her small head coming up to his elbow. She had the free stride of an Indian. He gazed out across the level grey and drab desert. Whatever way he directed his wandering steps over this land of waste, he was always gravitating toward new adventure. For him the lonely reaches and rock-ribbed canyons were sure to harbour, sooner or later, some humanity that drew him like a magnet. Everywhere the desert had its evil, its suffering, its youth and age. The heat of Adam's anger subsided with the thought that somehow he had let the ruffians off easily; and the presence of this girl, a mere child, apparently, for all her height, brought home to him the mystery, the sorrow, the marvel of life on the desert. A sick woman with a child living in the lonely shadow of San Jacinto! Adam felt in this girl's presence, as he had seen starvation in her face, a cruelty of life, of fate. But how infinitely grateful he felt for the random wandering steps which had led him down that trail!
All at once a slim, rough little hand slipped into his. Instinctively Adam closed his own great hand over it. That touch gave him such a thrill as he had never before felt in all his life. It seemed to link his strength and this child's trust. The rough little fingers and calloused little palm might have belonged to a hard-labouring boy, but the touch was feminine. Adam, desert trained by years that had dominated even the habits ingrained in his youth, and answering mostly to instinct, received here an unintelligible shock that stirred to the touch of a trusting hand but was nothing physical. His body, his mind, his soul seemed but an exhaustive instrument of creation over which the desert played masterfully.
"It was lucky you happened along," said the girl.
"Yes," replied Adam, as if startled.
"They were bad men. And, oh, I was so glad to see them--at first. It's so lonely. No one ever comes except the Indians--and they come to beg things to eat--never to give. I thought those white men were prospectors and would give me a little flour or coffee--or something mother would like. We've had so little to eat."
"That so? Well, I have a full pack," replied Adam. "Plenty of flour, coffee, sugar, bacon, canned milk, dried fruit."
"And you'll give us some?" she asked, eagerly, in a whisper.
"All you need."
"Oh, you're good--good as those men were bad!" she exclaimed, with a throb of joy. "Mother has just starved herself for me. You see, the Indian who packed supplies to us hasn't come for long. Nobody has come--except those bad men. And our food gave out little by little. Mother starved herself for me...Oh, I couldn't make her eat. She'd say she didn't want what I'd cook. Then I'd have to eat it."
"Isn't your mother able to get about?" asked Adam, turning to peer down into the dark little face.
"Oh no! She's dying of consumption," was the low, sad reply.
"And your father?" asked Adam, a little huskily.
"He died two years ago. I guess it's two, for the peak has been white twice."
"Died?--here in the desert?"
"Yes. We buried him by the running water where he loved to sit."
"Tell me--how did your parents and you come to be here."
"They both had consumption long before I was born," replied the girl. "Father had it--but mother didn't--when they were married. That was back in Iowa. Mother caught it from him. And they both were going to die. They had tried every way to get well, but the doctors said they couldn't...So father and mother started West in a prairie schooner. I was born in it, somewhere in Kansas. They tried place after place, trying to find a climate that would cure them. I remember as far back as Arizona. But father never improved till we got to this valley. Here he was getting strong again. Then my uncle came and he found gold over the mountains. That made father mad to get rich--to have gold for me. He worked too hard--and then he died. Mother has been slowly failing ever since."
"It's a sad story, little girl," replied Adam. "The desert is full of sad stories...But your uncle--what became of him."
"He went off prospecting for gold. But he came back several times. And the last was just before father died. Then he said he would come back again for me some day and take me out of the desert. Mother lives on that hope. But I don't want him to come. All I pray for is that she gets well. I would never leave her."
"So you've lived all your life on the desert?"
"Yes. Mother says I never slept under a real roof."
"And how old are you?"
"So old as that? Well! I thought you were younger. And, little girl--may I ask how you learned to talk so--as if you had been to school?"
"My mother was a school-teacher. She taught me."
"What's your name?"
"It's Eugenie Linwood. But I don't like Eugenie. Father and mother always called me Genie...What's your name?"
"Mine is Wansfell."
"You're the biggest man I ever saw. I thought the Yuma Indians were giants, but you're bigger. My poor father was not big or strong."
Presently Adam saw the dark-grey forms of his burros along the trail. Jinny appeared to be more contrary than usual, and kicked spitefully at Adam as he untied her. And as Adam drove her ahead with the other burro she often lagged to take a nip at the sage. During the several miles farther down the trail Adam was hard put to it to keep her going steadily. The girl began to tire, a circumstance which Adam had expected. She refused to be assisted, or to be put on one of the burros. The trail began to circle round the black bulge of the mountain, finally running into the shadow, where objects were hard to see. The murmur of flowing water soon reached Adam's ears--most welcome and beautiful sound to desert man. And then big cottonwoods loomed up, and beyond them the gleam of starlight on stately palm trees. Adam peering low down through the shadows, distinguished a thatch-roofed hut.
"We'll not tell mother about the bad men," whispered the girl. "It'll only scare her."
"All right, Genie," said Adam, and he permitted himself to be led to a door of the hut. Dark as pitch was it inside.
"Mother, are you awake?" called Genie.
"Oh, child, where have you been?" rejoined a voice, faint and weak, with a note of relief. "I woke up in the dark...I called. You didn't come."
Then followed a cough that had a shuddering significance for Adam.
"Mother, I'm sorry. I--I met a man on the trail. A Mr. Wansfell. We talked. And he came with me. He has a new pack of good things to eat. And, oh, mother! he's--he's different from those men who were here; he'll help us."
"Madam, I'll be happy to do anything I can for you and your little girl," said Adam, in his deep, kindly tones.
"Sir, your voice startled me," replied the woman, with a gasp. "But it's a voice I trust. The looks of men in this hard country deceive me sometimes--but never their voices...Sir, if you will help us in our extremity, you will have the gratitude of a dying woman--of a mother."
The darkness was intense inside the hut, and Adam leaning at the door, could see nothing. The girl touched his arm, timidly, almost appealingly, as Adam hesitated over his reply.
"You can--trust me," he said, presently. "My name is Wansfell. I'm just a desert wanderer. If I may--I'll stay here--look after your little girl till her uncle comes."
"At last--God has answered my--prayer!" exclaimed the woman, pantingly.
Adam unpacked his burros a half dozen rods from the hut, under a spreading cottonwood and near the juncture of two little streams of water that flowed down out of the gloom, one on each side of the great corner of mountain. And Adam's big hands made short shift of camp tasks that night. The hut appeared to be substantial and well made, with upright poles and thatch, covered by a thatched roof of palm leaves. The girl came out and watched him, and Adam had never seen hungrier eyes even in an Indian.
"It'd be fun to watch you--you're so quick--if I wasn't starved," said Genie.
What a slender, almost flat slip of a girl! Her dress was in tatters, showing bare brown flesh in places. The pinched little face further stirred Adam's pity. And there waved over him a strange pride in his immense strength, his wonderful hands, his desert knowledge that now could be put to the greatest good ever offered him in his wanderings.
"Genie, when you're starved you must eat very slowly--and only a little."
"I know. I've known all about people starving and thirsting. But I'm not that badly off. I've had a little to eat."
"Honest Injun?" he queried.
She had never heard that expression, so he changed it to another of like meaning.
"I wouldn't lie," she replied, with direct simplicity that indeed reminded Adam of an Indian.
Never had Adam prepared so good a camp dinner in such short time. And then, hungry as Genie was, she insisted that her mother should be served first. She took a lighted candle Adam gave her and led the way into the hut, while he followed, carrying food and drink that he believed best for a woman so weak and starved. The hut had two rooms, the first being a kitchen with stone floor and well furnished with camp utensils. The second room contained two rude cots made of poles and palm leaves, upon one of which Adam saw a pale shadow of a woman whose eyes verified the tragic words she had spoken.
Despite the way Adam stooped as he entered, his lofty head brushed the palm-leafed roof. Genie laughed when he bumped against a cross-beam.
"Mother, he's the tallest man!" exclaimed the girl. "He could never live in our hut...Now sit up, mother dear...Doesn't it all smell good. Oooooo! The Indian fairy has come."
"Genie, will you hold the candle so I can see the face of this kind man?" asked the woman, when she had been propped up in bed.
The girl complied, with another little laugh. Adam had not before been subjected to a scrutiny like the one he bore then. It seemed to come from beyond this place and time. "Sir, you are a man such as I have never seen," she said, at length.
Plain it was to Adam that the sincerity, or whatever she saw in him, meant more to her than the precious food of which she stood in such dire need. Her hair was straggly and grey, her brow lined by pain and care, her burning eyes were sunk deep in dark hollows, and the rest of her features seemed mere pale shadows.
"I'm glad for your confidence," he said. "But never mind me. Try to eat some now."
"Mother, there's plenty," added Genie, with soft eagerness. "You can't fib to me about this. Oh, smell that soup! And there's rice--clean white rice with sugar and milk!"
"Child, if there's plenty, go and eat...Thank you, sir, I can help myself."
Adam followed Genie out, and presently the look of her, as she sat on the sand, in ravenous bewilderment of what to eat first, brought back poignantly to him the starvation days of his earlier experience. How blessed to appreciate food! Indeed, Genie would have made a little glutton of herself had not Adam wisely obviated that danger for her.
Later, when she and her mother were asleep, he strolled under the cottonwoods along the murmuring stream where the bright stars shone reflected in the dark water. The place had the fragrance of spring, of fresh snow water, of green growths and blossoming flowers. Frogs were trilling from the gloom, a sweet, melodious music seldom heard by Adam. A faint, soft night breeze rustled in the palm leaves. The ragged mountain-side rose precipitously, a slanted mass of huge rocks, their shining surfaces alternating with the dark blank spaces. Above spread the sky, a wonderful deep blue, velvety, intense, from which blazed magnificent white stars, and countless trains and groups of smaller stars.
Rest and thought came to him then. Destiny had dealt him many parts to play on the desert. So many violent, harsh, and bitter tasks! But this was to be different. Not upon evil days had he fallen! Nor had his wandering steps here taken hold of hell! The fragrance under the shadow of this looming mountain was the fragrance of an oasis. And in that silent shadow slept a child who would soon be an orphan. Adam had his chance to live awhile in one of the desert's fruitful and blossoming spots. Only a desert man could appreciate the rest, the ease, the joy, the contrast of that opportunity. He could befriend an unfortunate child. But as refreshing and splendid as were these things, they were as naught compared to the blessing that would be breathed upon his head by a dying mother. Adam, lifting up his face to the starlight, felt that all his intense and passionate soul could only faintly divine what the agony of that mother had been, what now would be her relief. She knew. Her prayer had been answered. And Adam pondered and pondered over the meaning of her prayer and the significance of his wandering steps. He seemed to feel the low beat of a mighty heart, the encompassing embrace of a mighty and invisible spirit.