WeirdSpace Digital Library - Culture without borders
Wanderer of the Wasteland
Zane Grey (1923) Country of origin: USA
Available texts by the same author here
Time passed. The days slipped by to make weeks, and weeks merged into months. Summer with its hot midday hours, when man and beast rested or slept, seemed to shorten its season by half. No human creature ever entered a desert oasis without joy, nor left it without regret. As time went fleeting by Adam now and then remembered Dismukes, and these memories were full of both gladness and pathos. He tried to visualise the old prospector in the new role of traveller, absorber of life, spendthrift, and idler. Nevertheless, Adam could never be sure in his heart that Dismukes would find what he sought.
But for the most part of the still, hot, waking hours, Adam, when he was not working or sleeping, devoted himself to Genie. The girl changed every day--how, he was unable to tell. Most wondrous of all in nature was human life, and beyond all sublimity was the human soul!
Every morning at sunrise Genie knelt by her mother's grave with bowed head and clasped hands, and every evening at sunset or in the golden dusk of twilight she again knelt in prayer.
"Genie, why do you kneel there--now?" asked Adam once, unable to contain his curiosity. "You did not use to do it. Only the last few weeks or month."
"I forgot I'd promised mother," she replied. "Besides, could I pray when I wanted to die?"
"No, I suppose not. It would be hard," replied Adam, gravely. "Please don't think me curious. Tell me, Genie, what do you pray for?"
"I used to pray 'Now I lay me down to sleep,' as mother taught me when I was little. But now I make up my own prayers. I ask God to keep the souls of mother and father in heaven. I pray I may be good and happy, so when they look down and see me they will be glad. I pray for you, and then for every one in the world."
Slow, strong unrest, the endless moving of contending tides, heaved in Adam's breast.
"So you pray for me, Genie?...Well, it is good of you. I hope I'm worthy...But, why do you pray?"
She pondered the question. Thought was developing in Genie. "Before mother died I prayed because she taught me. Since then--lately--it--it lifts me up--it takes away the sorrow here." And she put a hand over her heart.
"Genie, then you believe in God--the God who is supposed to answer your prayers?"
"Yes. And He is not a god like Taquitch--or the beasts and rocks that the Indians worship. My God is all around me, in the sunshine, in the air, in the humming bees and whispering leaves and murmuring water. I feel him everywhere, and in me, too!"
"Genie, tell me one prayer, just one of yours or your mother's that was truly answered," appealed Adam, with earnest feeling.
"We prayed for some one to come. I know mother prayed for some one to save me from being alone--from starving. And I prayed for some one to come and help her--to relieve her terrible dread about me...And you came!"
Adam was silenced. What had he to contend with here? Faith and fact were beyond question, as Genie represented them. What little he knew! He could not even believe that a divine guidance had been the spirit of his wandering steps. But he was changing. Always the future--always the unknown calling--always the presentiment of sterner struggle, of larger growth, of ultimate fulfilment! His illusion, his fetish, his phantasmagoria rivalled the eternal and inexplicable faith of his friend Dismukes.
Andreas Canyon was far from the camp under the cottonwoods, but Adam and Genie, having once feasted their eyes upon its wildness and beauty and grandeur, went back again and again, so that presently the distance in the hot sun was no hindrance, and the wide area of white, glistening, terrible cholla cactus was no obstacle.
For that matter the cactus patch was endurable because of its singular beauty. Adam could not have told why cholla fascinated him, and, though Genie admitted she liked to look at the frosty silver-lighted cones and always had an impulse to prick her fingers on the cruel thorns, she could not explain why.
"Genie, the Yaqui Indians in Sonora love this cholla," said Adam. "Love it as they hate Mexicans. They will strip a Mexican naked, tear the skin off the soles of his feet, and drive him through the cholla until he's dead. It wouldn't take long!...All prospectors hate cholla. I hate it, yet I--I guess I'm a little like the Yaquis. I often prick my finger on cholla just to feel the sting, the burn, the throb. The only pain I could ever compare to that made by cholla is the sting of the sharp horn of a little catfish back in Ohio Oh! I'll never forget that! A poison, burning sting!...But cholla is terrible because the thorns stick in your flesh. When you jerk to free yourself the thorns leave the cones. Each thorn has an invisible barb and it works deeper and deeper into flesh."
"Don't I know!" exclaimed Genie, emphatically. "I've spent whole hours digging them out of my feet and legs. But how pretty the cholla shines! Only it doesn't tell the truth, does it, Wanny?"
"Child, please don't call me Wanny. It's so--so silly," protested Adam.
"It's not. No sillier than your calling me child! I'm nearly fifteen. I'm growing right out of my clothes."
"Call me Adam."
"No, I don't like that name. And I can't call you mister or father or brother."
"But what's wrong with Adam?"
"I read in mother's Bible about Adam and Eve. I hated her when the devil got into her. And I didn't like Adam. And I don't like the name Adam. You'd never have been driven from heaven."
"I'm not so sure about that," said Adam, ruefully. "Genie, I was wicked when I was a--a young man."
"You were! Well, I don't care. You'd never be tempted to disobey the Lord--not by Eve with all her stolen apples!"
"All right, call me Wanny," returned Adam, and he made haste to change the subject. There were times when Genie with her simplicity, her directness, her curiosity, and her innocence, caused Adam extreme perplexity, not to say embarrassment. He remembered his own bringing up. It seemed every year his childhood days came back closer. And thrown as he was in constant companionship with this child of nature, he began to wonder if the sophisticated education of children, especially girls, as it had been in his youth, was as fine and simple and true to life as it might have been.
Andreas Canyon yawned with wide mouth and huge yellow cliffs. Just beyond the mouth of the canyon and across the wide space from cliff to slope bloomed the most verdant and beautiful oasis of that desert region. Huge grey boulders, clean and old, and russet with lichen, made barricade for a clear stream of green water, as if to protect it from blowing desert sand. Yet there were little beaches of white sand, lined by coloured pebbles. Green rushes and flags grew in the water. Beyond the stream, on the side of the flat-rocked slope, lay a many-acred thicket of mesquite, impenetrable except for birds and beasts. The green of the leaves seem dominated by bronze colours of the mistletoe.
The oasis proper, however, was the grove of cottonwoods, sycamores, and palms. How bright green the foliage of cottonwoods--and smooth white the bark of sycamores! But verdant and cool as it was under their shade, Adam and Genie always sought the aloof and stately palms, wonderful trees not native there, planted years and years before by the Spanish padres.
"Oh, I love it here!" exclaimed Genie. "Listen to the palms whisper!"
They stood loftily, with spreading green fanlike leaves at the tops, and all the trunks swathed and bundled apparently in huge cases of straw. These yellow sheaths were no less than the leaves that had died. As the palms grew the new leaves kept bursting from the tufted tops, and those leaves lowest down died and turned yellow.
"Genie, your uncle seems a long time coming back for you," remarked Adam.
"I hope he never comes," she replied.
Adam was surprised and somewhat disconcerted at her reply, and yet strangely pleased.
"Why?" he asked.
"Oh, I never liked him and I don't want to go away with him."
"Your mother said he was a good man--that he loved you."
"Uncle Ed was good, and very kind to me. I--I ought be ashamed," replied Genie. "But he drank, and when he drank he kissed me--he put his hands on me. I hated that."
"Did you ever tell your mother?" inquired Adam.
"Yes. I told her. I asked her why he did that. And she said not to mind--only to keep away from him when he drank."
"Genie, your uncle did wrong, and your mother did wrong not to tell you so," declared Adam, earnestly.
"Wrong? What do you mean--wrong? I only thought I didn't like him."
"Well, I'll tell you some day...But now, to go back to what you said about leaving--you know I'm going with you when your uncle comes."
"Wanny, do you want that time to come soon?" she asked, wistfully.
"Yes, of course, for your sake. You're getting to be a big girl. You must go to school. You must get out to civilisation."
"Oh! I'm crazy to go!" she burst out, covering her face. "Yet I've a feeling I'll hate to leave here...I've been so happy lately."
"Genie, it relieves me to hear you're anxious to go. And it pleases me to know you've been happy lately. You see I'm only a--a man, you know. How little I could do for you! I've tried. I've done my best. But at that best I'm only a poor old homeless outcast--a desert wanderer! I'm--"
"Hush up!" she cried, with quick, sweet warmth. Swiftly she enveloped him, hugged him close, and kissed his cheek. "Wanny, you're grand!...You're like Taquitch--you're my Taquitch with face like the sun! And I love you--love you as I never loved anyone except my mother! And I hope Uncle Ed never comes, so you'll have to take care of me always."
Adam gently disengaged himself from Genie's impulsive arms, yet, despite his embarrassment and confused sense of helplessness, he felt the better for her action. Natural, spontaneous, sincere, it warmed his heart. It proved more than all else what a child she was.
"Genie, let me make sure you understand," he said, gravely. "I love you, too, as if you were my little sister. And if your uncle doesn't come I'll take you somewhere--find you a home. But I never--much as I would like to--never can take care of you always."
"Why?" she flashed, with her terrible directness.
Adam had begun his development of Genie by telling the truth; he had always abided by it; and now, in these awakening days for her, he must never veer from the truth.
"If I tell you why--will you promise never to speak of it--so long as you live?" he asked, solemnly.
"Never! I promise. Never, Wanny!"
"Genie, I am an outcast. I am a hunted man. I can never go back to civilisation and stay."
Then he told her the story of the ruin of his life. When he finished she fell weeping upon his shoulder and clung to him. For Adam the moment was sad and sweet--sad because a few words had opened up the dark, tragic gulf of his soul; and sweet because the passionate grief of a child assured him that even he, wanderer as he was, knew something of sympathy and love.
"But, Wanny, you--could--go and--be--punished--and then--come back!" she cried, between sobs. "You'd--never--have to--hide--any more."
Out of her innocence and simplicity she had spoken confounding truth. What a terrible truth! Those words of child wisdom sowed in Adam the seed of a terrible revolt. Revolt--yea, revolt against this horrible need to hide--this fear and dread of punishment that always and forever so bitterly mocked his manhood. If he could find the strength to rise to the heights of Genie's wisdom--divine philosophy of a child!--he would no longer hate his shadowed wandering steps down the naked shingles and hidden trails of the lonely desert. But, alas! whence would come that strength? Not from the hills! Not from the nature that had made him so strong, so fierce, so sure to preserve his life! It could only come from the spirit that had stood in the dusky twilight beside a dying woman's side. It could come only from the spirit to whom a child prayed while kneeling at her mother's grave. And for Adam that spirit held aloof, illusive as the spectres of the dead, beyond his grasp, an invisible medium, if indeed it was not a phantom, that seemed impossible of reality in the face of the fierce, ruthless, inevitable life and death and decay of the desert. Could God be nature--that thing, that terrible force, light, fire, water, pulse--that quickening of plant, flesh, stone, that dying of all only to renew--that endless purpose and progress, from the first whirling gas globe of the universe, throughout the ages down to the infinitesimal earth so fixed in its circling orbit, so pitiful in its present brief fertility? The answer was as unattainable as to pluck down the stars, as hopeless as to think of the fleeting of the years, as mysterious as the truth of where man came from and whence he was to go.
Snow on the grey old peak! It reminded Adam how, long ago, from far down the valley, he had watched the mountain crown itself in dazzling white. Snow on the heights meant winter that tempered the heat, let loose the storm winds; and therefore, down in the desert, comfort and swiftly flying days. Indeed, so swift were they that Adam, calling out sad and well-remembered words, "Oh, time, stand still here!" seemed to look at a few more golden sunsets and, lo! again it was spring. Time would not stand still! Nor would the budding, blossoming youth of Genie! Nor would the slow-mounting might of the tumult in Adam's soul!
Then swifter than the past, another year flew by. Genie's uncle did not come. And Adam began to doubt that he would ever come. And the hope of Genie's, that he never would come, began insidiously to enter into Adam's thought. Again the loneliness, the solitude and silence, and something more he could not name, began to drag Adam from duty, from effort of mind. The desert never stopped its work, on plant, or rock, or man. Adam knew that he required another shock to quicken his brain, to stir again the spiritual need, to make him fight the subtle, all-pervading, ever-present influence of the desert.
In all that time Adam saw but two white men, prospectors passing by down the sandy trails. Indians came that way but seldom. Across the valley there was an encampment, which he visited occasionally to buy baskets, skins, meat, and to send Indians out after supplies. The great problem was clothes for Genie. It was difficult to get materials, difficult for Genie to make dresses, and impossible to keep her from tearing or wearing or growing out of them. Adam found that Indian moccasins, and tough overalls such as prospectors wore, cut down to suit Genie, and woollen blouses she made herself, were the only things for her. Like a road runner she ran over the rocks and sand! For Genie, cactus was as if it were not! As for a hat, she would not wear one. Adam's responsibility weighed upon him. When he asked Genie what in the world she would wear when he took her out of the desert, to pass through villages and ranches and towns, where people lived, she naively replied, "What I've got on!" And what she wore at the moment was of course, the boyish garb that was all Adam could keep on her, and which happened just then to be minus the moccasins. Genie loved to scoop up the warm white sand with her bare brown feet, and then to dabble them in the running water.
"Well, I give up!" exclaimed Adam, resignedly. "But when we do get to Riverside or San Diego, where there's a store, you've got to go with me to buy girl's dresses and things--and you've got to wear them."
"Oh, Wanny, that will be grand!" she cried, dazzled at the prospect. "But--let's don't go--just yet!"
In the early fall--what month it was Adam could not be sure--he crossed the arm of the valley to the encampment of the Coahuilas. The cool nights and tempering days had made him hungry for meat. He found the Indian hunters at home, and, in fact, they had just packed fresh sheep meat down from the mountain. They were of the same tribe as the old chief, Charley Jim, who had taught Adam so much of the desert during those early hard years over in the Chocolates. Adam always asked for news of Charley Jim, usually to be disappointed. He was a nomad, this old chieftain, and his family had his wandering spirit. Adam shouldered his load of fresh meat and took his way down out of the canyon where the encampment lay, to the well-beaten trail that zigzagged along the irregular base of the mountain.
Adam rested at the dividing points of the trails. It was early in the day, clear and still. How grey and barren and monotonous the desert! All seemed dead. A strange, soft, creeping apathy came over Adam, not a dreaminess, for in his dreams he lived the past and invented the future, but a state wherein he watched, listened, smelled, and felt, all unconscious that he was doing anything. Whenever he fell into this trance, and was roused out of it, or came out of it naturally, then he experienced a wonderful sense of vague content. That feeling was evanescent. Always he longed to get it back, but could not.
In this instant his quick eye caught sight of something that was moving. A prospector with a brace of burros--common sight indeed it was to Adam, though not for the last few years.
The man was coming from the south, but outside of the main trail, for which, no doubt, he was heading. Adam decided to wait and exchange greetings with him. After watching awhile Adam was constrained to mutter "Well, if that fellow isn't a great walker, my eyes are failing!" That interested him all the more. He watched burros and driver grow larger and clearer. Then they disappeared behind a long, low swell of sand fringed by sage and dotted by mesquite. They would reappear presently, coming out behind the ridge at a point near Adam.
Some minutes later he saw that the burros and driver had not only cleared the end of the ridge, but were now within a hundred yards of where he sat. The burros were trotting, with packs bobbing up and down. Only the old slouch hat of the prospector showed above the packs. Manifestly he was a short man.
"Say, but he's a walker!" ejaculated Adam.
Suddenly sight of that old slouch hat gave Adam a thrill. Then the man's shoulders appeared. How enormously broad! Then, as the burros veered to one side, the driver's whole stature was disclosed. What a stride he had, for a man so short! Almost he seemed as wide as he was long. His gait was rolling, ponderous. He wore old, grey, patched clothes that Adam wildly imagined he had seen somewhere.
Suddenly he yelled at the burros: "Hehaw! Gedap!"
That deep voice, those words, brought Adam leaping to his feet, transfixed and thrilling. Had he lost his mind? What trick of desert mirage or illusion! No--the burros were real--they kicked up the dust--rattled the pebbles in the sage; no--the man was real, however he seemed a ghost of Adam's past.
"Dismukes!" shouted Adam, hoarsely.
The prospector halted his long, rolling stride and looked. Then Adam plunged over sand and through sage. He could not believe his eyes. He must get his hands on this man, to prove reality. In a trice the intervening space was covered. Then Adam, breathless and aghast, gazed into a face that he knew, yet which held what he did not know.
"Howdy, Wansfell! Thought I'd meet you sooner or later," said the man.
His voice was unmistakable. He recognised Adam. Beyond any possibility of doubt--Dismukes! In the amaze and gladness of the moment Adam embraced this old saviour and comrade and friend--embraced him as a long-lost brother or as a prodigal son. Then Adam released him, with sudden dawning consciousness that Dismukes seemed to have no feeling whatever about this meeting.
"Dismukes! I had to grab you--just to feel if it was you. I'm knocked clean off my pins," declared Adam, breathing hard.
"Yes, it's me, Wansfell," replied Dismukes. His large, steady eyes, dark brown like those of an ox, held an exceeding and unutterable sadness.
"Back on the desert? You!" exclaimed Adam. "Dismukes, then you lost your gold--bad luck--something happened--you never went to the great cities--to spend your fortune--to live and live?"
"Yes, friend, I went," replied Dismukes.
A great awe fell upon Adam. His keen gaze, cleared of the mist of amaze, saw Dismukes truly. The ox eyes had the shadow of supreme tragedy. Their interest was far off, as if their sight had fixed on a dim, distant mountain range of the horizon. Yet they held peace. The broad face had thinned. Gone was the dark, healthy bronze! And the beard that had once been thick and grizzled was now scant and white. The whole face expressed resignation and peace. Those wonderful wide shoulders of Dismukes appeared just as wide, but they sagged, and the old, tremendous brawn was not there. Strangest of all, Dismukes wore the ragged grey prospector's garb which had been on his person when Adam saw him last. There! the yellow stain of Death Valley clay--and darker stains--sight of which made Adam's flesh creep!
"Ah! So you went, after all," replied Adam, haltingly. "Well! Well!...Let's sit down, old comrade. Here on this stone. I confess my legs feel weak...Never expected to see you again in this world!"
"Wansfell, no man can ever tell. It's folly to think an' toil an' hope for the future."
What strong, sad history of life revealed itself in that reply!
"Ah!...I--But never mind what I think. Dismukes, you've not been on the desert long."
"About a week. Outfitted at San Diego an' came over the mountain trail through El Campo. Landed in Frisco two weeks an' more ago. By ship from Japan."
"Did you have these old clothes hid away somewhere?" inquired Adam. "I remember them."
"No, I packed them wherever I went for the whole three years."
"Three years! Has it been that long?"
"Aye, friend Wansfell, three years."
Adam gazed out across the desert with slowly dimming eyes. The wasteland stretched there, vast and illimitable, the same as all the innumerable times he had gazed. Solemn and grey and old, indifferent to man, yet strengthening through its passionless fidelity to its own task!
"Dismukes, I want you to tell me where you went, what you did, why you came back," said Adam, with earnestness that was entreaty.
Dismukes heaved a long sigh. He wagged the huge, shaggy head that was now grey. But he showed no more indication of emotion. How stolid he seemed--how locked in his aloofness!
"Yes, I'll tell you," he said. "Maybe it'll save you somethin' of what I went through."
Then he became lost in thought, perhaps calling upon memory, raking up the dead leaves of the past. Adam recalled that his own memory of Dismukes and the past brought note of the fact how the old prospector had loved to break his habit of silence, to talk about the desert, and to smoke his black pipe while he discoursed. But now speech did not easily flow and he did not smoke.
"Lookin' back, I seem to see myself as crazy," began Dismukes. "You'll remember how crazy. You'll remember before we parted up there on the Mohave at that borax camp where the young man was--who couldn't drive the mules...Wansfell, from the minute I turned my back on you till now I've never thought of that. Did you drive the ornery mules?"
"Did I?" Adam's query was a grim assertion. "Every day for three months! You remember Old Butch, that grey devil of a mule. Well, Dismukes, the time came when he knew me. If I even picked up the long bull whip Old Butch would scream and run to lay his head on me."
"An' you saw the young driver through his trouble?"
"That I did. And it was more trouble than he told us then. The boss Carricks had was low-down and cunning. He's got smitten with the lad's wife--a pretty girl, but frail in health. He kept Carricks on jobs away from home. We didn't meet the lad any too soon."
"Humph! That's got a familiar sound to me," declared Dismukes. "Wansfell, what'd you do to thet low-down boss?"
"Go on with your story," replied Adam.
"Aha! That's so. I want to make Two Palms Well before dark...Wansfell, like a horned-toad on the desert, I changed my outside at Frisco. Alas! I imagined all within--blood--mind--soul had changed!...Went to Denver, St. Louis, an' looked at the sights, not much disappointed, because my time seemed far ahead. Then I went to my old home. There I had my first jar. Folks all dead! Not a relation livin'. Could not even find my mother's grave. No one remembered me an' I couldn't find anyone I ever knew. The village had grown to a town. My old home was gone. The picture of it--the little grey cottage--the vines an' orchard--lived in my mind. I found the place. All gone! Three new houses there. Forty years is a long time! I didn't build the church or set out a park for the village of my boyhood...Then I went on to Chicago, Philadelphia, New York. Stayed long in New York. At first it fascinated me. I felt I wanted to see it out of curiosity. I was lookin' for some place, somethin' I expected. But I never saw it. The hotels, theatres, saloons, gamblin' hells, an' worse--the operas an' parks an' churches--an' the wonderful stores--I saw them all. Men an' women like ants rushin' to an' fro. No rest, no sleep, no quiet, no peace! I met people, a few good, but most bad. An' in some hotels an' places I got to be well known. I got to have a name for throwin' gold around. Men of business sought my acquaintance, took me to dinners, made much of me--all to get me to invest in their schemes. Women! Aw! the women were my second disappointment! Wansfell, women are like desert mirages. Beautiful women, in silks an' satins, diamonds blazin' on bare necks an' arms, made eyes at me, talked soft an' sweet, an' flattered me an' praised me an' threw themselves at me--all because they thought I had stacks an' rolls an' bags of gold. Never a woman did I meet who liked me, who had any thought to hear my story, to learn my hope! Never a kind whisper! Never any keen eye that saw through my outside!
"Well, I wasn't seein' an' findin' the life I'd hoped for. That New York is as near hell as I ever, got. I saw men with quiet faces an' women who seemed happy. But only in the passin' crowds. I never got to meet any of them. They had their homes an' troubles an' happiness, I figured, an' they were not lookin' for anyone to fleece. It was my habit to get into a crowd an' watch, for I come to believe the mass of busy, workin' ordinary people were good. Maybe if I'd somehow made acquaintance with a few of them it 'd have been better. But that wasn't seein' life. I thought I knew what I wanted.
"All my yearnin's an' dreams seemed to pall on me. Where was the joy? Wansfell, the only joy I had was in findin' some poor beggar or bootblack or poor family, an' givin' them gold. The great city was full of them. An' I gave away thousands of dollars. God knows that was some good. An' now I see if I could have stuck it out, livin' among such people, I might have been of some use in the world. But, man! livin' was not possible in New York. All night the hotels roared. All night the streets hummed an' clanged. There was as many people rushin' around by night as by day, an' different from each other, like bats an hawks. I got restless an' half sick. I couldn't sleep. I seemed suffocatin' for fresh air. I wanted room to breathe. When I looked up at night I couldn't see the stars. Think of that for a desert man!
"At last I knew I couldn't find what I wanted in New York, an' I couldn't hunt any longer there. I had to leave. My plans called for goin' abroad. Then came a strange feelin' that I must have had all the time, but didn't realise. The West called me back. I seemed to want the Middle West, where I'd planned to buy the green farm. But you know I'm a man who sticks to his mind, when it's made up. There were London, Paris, Rome I'd dreamed about an' had planned to see. Well, I had a hell of a fight with somethin' in myself before I could get on that ship. Right off then I got seasick. Wansfell, the bite of a rattlesnake never made me half as sick as that dirty-grey, windy sea. The trip across was a nightmare...London was a dreary place as big as the Mohave an' full of queer fishy-eyed people whom I couldn't understand. But I liked their slow, easygoin' ways. Then Paris...Wansfell, that Paris was a wonderful, glitterin' beautiful city, an' if a city had been a place for me, Paris would have been it. But, I was lost. I couldn't speak French--couldn't learn a word. My tongue refused to twist round their queer words. All the same, I saw what I'd set out to see...Wansfell, if a man fights despair for the women of the world, he'll get licked in Paris. An' the reason is, there you see the same thing in the homely, good, an' virtuous little wives as you see in those terrible, fascinatin', dazzlin' actresses. What that somethin' is I couldn't guess. But you like all French-women. They're gay an' happy an' square. If I applied the truth of this desert to these Frenchwomen, I'd say the somethin' so fascinatin' in them is that the race is peterin' out an' the women are dyin' game.
"From Paris I went to Rome, an' there a queer state of mind came to me. I could look at temples an' old ruins without even seein' them--with my mind on my own country. All this travel idea, seein' and learnin' an' doin' changed so that it was hateful. I cut out Egypt, an' I can't remember much of India an' Japan. But when I got on ship bound for Frisco I couldn't see anythin' for a different reason, an' that was tears. I'd come far to find joy of life, an' now I wept tears of joy because I was homeward bound. It was a great an' splendid feeling!
"The Pacific isn't like the Atlantic. It's vast an' smooth an' peaceful, with swells like the mile-long ridges of the desert. I didn't get seasick. An' on that voyage I got some rest. Maybe the sea is like the desert. Anyway, it calmed me, an' I could think clear once more. As I walked the deck by day, or hung over the rail by night, my yearnin's an' dreams came back. When I reached Frisco I'd take train for the Middle West, an' somewhere I'd buy the green ranch an' settle down to peace an' quiet for the rest of my life. The hope was beautiful. I believed in it. That wild desire to search for the joy of life had to be buried. I had been wrong about that. It was only a dream--a boy's dream, on the hope of which I had spent the manhood of my best years. Ah! it was bitter to realise that. I--who had never given in to defeat...But I conquered my regret because I knew I had just mistaken what I wanted. An' it was not wholly too late!...Wansfell, you've no idea of the size of the old earth. I've been round it. An' that Pacific! Oh, what an endless ocean of waters! It seemed eternal, like the sky. But--at last--I got to--Frisco."
Here Dismukes choked and broke down. The deep, rolling voice lost its strength for a moment. He drew a long, long breath that it hurt Adam to hear.
"Wansfell, when my feet once more touched land it was as though I'd really found happiness," presently went on Dismukes, clearing his throat of huskiness. "I was in the clouds. I could have kissed the very dirt. My own, my native land!...Now for the last leg of the journey--an' the little farm--the home to be--friends to make--perhaps a sweet-faced woman an' a child! Oh, it was as glorious as my lost dreams!
"But suddenly somethin' strange an' terrible seized hold of me. A hand as strong as the wind gripped my heart...The desert called me!...Day an' night I walked the streets. Fierce as the desert itself I fought. Oh, I fought my last an' hardest fight!...On one hand was the dream of my life--the hope of a home an' happiness--what I had slaved for. Forty years of toil! On the other hand the call of the desert! Loneliness, solitude, silence, the white, hot days, the starlit nights, the vast open desert, free and peaceful, the grey wastes, the coloured mountains, sunrise and sunset. Ah! The desert was my only home. I belonged to the silence an' desolation. Forty years a wanderer on the desert, blindly seekin' for gold! But, oh, it was not gold I wanted! Not gold! Nor fortune! That was my dream, my boyish dream. Gold did not nail me to the desert sands. That was only my idea. That was what brought me into the wastelands. I misunderstood the lure of the desert. I thought it was gold, but, no! For me the desert existed as the burrow for the fox. For me the desert linked my strange content to the past ages. For me the soul of the desert was my soul...I had to go back!...I could live nowhere else...Forty years! My youth--my manhood!...I'm old now--old! My dreams are done...Oh, my God!...I HAD TO COME BACK!"
Adam sat confounded in grief, in shock. His lips were mute. Like a statue he gazed across the wasteland, so terribly magnified, so terribly illumined by the old prospector's revelation. How awful the gigantic red rock barriers! How awful the lonely, limitless expanse of sand! The eternal grey, the eternal monotony!
"Comrade, take the story of my life to heart," added Dismukes. "You're a young man still. Think of my forty years of hell, that now has made me a part of the desert. Think of how I set out upon my journey so full of wild, sweet hope! Think of my wonderful journey, through the glitterin' cities, round the world, only to find my hope a delusion...A desert mirage!"
"Man, I cannot think!" burst out Adam. "I am stunned...Oh, the pity of it--the sickening, pitiless fatality! Oh, my heart breaks for you!...Dismukes, of what use is hope? Oh, why do we fight? Where--where does joy abide for such as you and me?"
The great, rolling ox eyes gleamed upon Adam, strong with the soul of peace, of victory in their depths.
"Wansfell, joy an' happiness, whatever makes life worth livin', is in you. No man can go forth to find what he hasn't got within him."
Then he gazed away across the desert, across sand and cactus and mesquite, across the blue-hazed, canyon-streaked ranges toward the north.
"I go to Death Valley," he continued, slowly, in his deep voice. "I had left enough gold to grub-stake me. An' I go to Death Valley, but not to seek my fortune. It will be quiet and lonely there. An' I can think an' rest an' sleep. Perhaps I'll dig a little of the precious yellow dust, just to throw it away. Gold!...The man who loves gold is ruined. Passion makes men mad...An' now I must go."
"Death Valley? No! No!" whispered Adam.
"Straight for Death Valley! It has called me across half the earth. I remember no desert place so lonely an' silent an' free. So different from the noisy world of men that crowds my mind still. There I shall find peace, perhaps my grave. See! life is all a hopin' to find! I go on my way. Wansfell, we never know what drives us. But I am happy now...Our trails have crossed for the last time. Good-bye."
He wrung Adam's hand and quickly whirled to his burros.
"Hehaw! Gedap!" he shouted, with a smack on their haunches. Adam whispered a farewell he could not speak. Then, motionless, he watched the old prospector face the grey wastes toward the north and the beckoning mountains. Adam had an almost irresistible desire to run after Dismukes, to go with him. But the man wanted to be alone. What a stride he had! The fruitless quest had left him that at least. The same old rolling gait, the same doggedness! Dismukes was a man who could not be halted. Adam watched him--saw him at last merge and disappear in the grey, lonely sage. And then into Adam's strained sight seemed to play a quivering mirage--a vision of Death Valley, ghastly and white and naked, the abode of silence and decay set down under its dark-red walls--the end of the desert and the grave of Dismukes.