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Wanderer of the Wasteland
Zane Grey (1923) Country of origin: USA
Available texts by the same author here
The November morning was keen and cold and Adam and Genie were on their way to spend the day at Andreas Canyon. Adam carried a lunch, a gun, and a book. Genie seemed so exuberant with wonderful spirits that she could scarcely keep her little moccasined feet on the sand. Adam had an unconscious joy in the sight of her.
A dim old Indian trail led up one of the slopes of Andreas Canyon, to which Adam called Genie's attention.
"We'll climb this some day--when it comes time to take you away," said Adam. "It's a hard climb, but the shortest way out. And you'll get to see the desert from the top of old Jacinto. That will be worth all the climb."
His words made Genie pensive. Of late the girl had become more and more beyond Adam's comprehension--wistful and sad and dreamy by turns, now like a bird and again like a thundercloud, but mostly a dancing, singing creature full of unutterable sweetness of life.
Beyond the oasis, some distance up the canyon, was a dense growth of mesquite and other brush. It surrounded a sandy glade in which bubbled forth a crystal spring of hot water. The bottom was clean white sand that boiled up in the centre like shining bubbles. Indians in times past had laid stones around the pool. A small cottonwood tree on the west side of the glade had begun to change the green colour of the leaves to amber and gold. All around the glade, like a wild, untrimmed hedge, the green and brown mesquites stood up, hiding the grey desert, insulating this cool, sandy, beautiful spot, hiding it away from the stern hardness outside.
Genie had never been here. Quickly she lost her pensiveness and began to sing like a lark. She kicked one moccasin one way and the other in another direction. Straightway she was on the stones, with her bare, slender, brown feet in the water.
"Ooooo! It's hot!" she cried, ecstatically. "But, oh, it's fine!" And she dipped them back.
"Genie, you stay here and amuse yourself," said Adam. "I'm going to climb. Maybe I'll be back soon--maybe not. You play and read, and eat the lunch when you're hungry."
"All right, Wanny," she replied, gaily. "But I should think you'd rather stay with me."
Adam had to be alone. He needed to be high above the desert, where he could look down. Another crisis in his transformation was painfully pending. The meeting with Dismukes had been of profound significance, and its effect was going to be far reaching.
He climbed up the zigzag, dim trail, rising till the canyon yawned beneath him, and the green thicket where he had left Genie was but a dot. Then the way led round the slope of the great foothill, where he left the trail and climbed to the craggy summit. It was a round, bare peak of jagged bronze rock, and from this height half a mile above the desert the outlook was magnificent. Beyond and above him the grey walls and fringed peaks of San Jacinto towered sculptured and grand against the azure blue.
Finding a comfortable seat with rest for his back, Adam faced the illimitable gulf of colour and distance below. Always a height such as this, where, like a lonely eagle, he could command an unobstructed view, had been a charm, a strange delight of his desert years. Not wholly had love of climbing, or to see afar, or to feel alone, or to travel in beauty, been accountable for this habit.
Adam's first reward for this climb, before he had settled himself to watch the desert, was sight of a condor. Only rarely did Adam see this great and loneliest of lonely birds--king of the eagles and of the blue heights. Never had Adam seen one close. A wild, slate-coloured bird, huge of build, with grisly neck and wonderful, clean-cut head, cruelly beaked! Even as Adam looked the condor pitched off the crag and spread his enormous wings.
A few flaps of those wide wings--then he sailed, out over the gulf, and around, rising as he circled. When he started he was below Adam; on the first lap of that circle he rose even with Adam's position; and when he came round again he sailed over Adam, perhaps fifty feet. Adam thrilled at the sight. The condor was peering down with gleaming, dark, uncanny eyes. He saw Adam. His keen head and great, crooked beak moved to and fro; the sun shone on his grey-flecked breast; every feather of his immense wings seemed to show, to quiver in the air, and the tip feathers were ragged and separate. He cut the air with a soft swish.
Around he sailed, widening his circle, rising higher, with never a movement of his wings. That fact, assured by Adam's sharp sight, was so marvellous that it fascinated him. What power enabled the condor to rise without propelling himself? No wind stirred down there under the peaks, so he could not lift himself by its aid. He sailed aloft. He came down on one slope of his circle, to rise up on the other, and always he went higher. How easily! How gracefully! He was peering down for sight of prey in which to sink cruel beak and talons. Once he crossed the sun and Adam saw his shadow on the gleaming rocks below. Then his circles widened across the deep canyon high above the higher foothills, until he approached the lofty peak. Higher still, and here the winds of the heights caught him. How he breasted them, sailing on and up, soaring toward the blue!
Adam watched the bird with strained eyes that hurt but never tired. To watch him was one of the things Adam needed. On and ever upward soared the condor. His range had changed with the height. His speed had increased with the wind. His spirit had mounted as he climbed. The craggy grey peak might have harboured his nest and his mate, but he gave no sign. High over the lonely cold heights he soared. There, far above his domain, he circled level for a while, then swooped down like a falling star, miles across the sky, to sail, to soar, to rise again. Away across the heavens he flew, wide winged and free, king of the eagles and of the winds, lonely and grand in the blue. Never a movement of his wings! Higher he sailed. Higher he soared till he was a fading speck, till he was gone out of sight to his realm above.
"Gone!" sighed Adam. "He is gone. And for all I know he may be a spirit of the wind. From his invisible abode in the heavens he can see the sheep on the crags--he can see me here--he can see Genie below--he can see the rabbit at his burrow...Nature! Life! Oh, what use to think? What use to torture myself over mystery I can never solve?--I learn one great truth only to find it involved in greater mystery."
Adam had realised the need of shocks, else the desert influence would insulate him forever in his physical life. The meeting with Dismukes had been one.
Why had Dismukes been compelled to come back to the desert? What was the lure of the silent places? How could men sacrifice friends, people, home, love, civilisation for the solitude and loneliness of the wastelands? Where lay the infinite fascination in death and decay and desolation? Who could solve the desert secret?
Like white, living flames, Adam's thoughts leaped in his mind.
These wanderers of the wastelands, like Dismukes and himself, were not labouring under fancy or blindness or ignorance or imagination or delusion. They were certainly not actuated by a feeling for some nameless thing. The desert was a fact. The spell it cast was a fact. Also it began to dawn upon Adam that nothing in civilisation, among glittering cities and moving people, in palaces or hovels, in wealth or poverty, in fame or ignominy, in any walk of worldly life, could cast a spell of enchantment, could swell women's hearts and claim men's souls like the desert. The secret then had to do with a powerful effect of the desert--that was to say, of lonely and desolate and wild places--upon the mind of human beings.
Adam remembered how Dismukes had loved to travel alone. If he had any selfishness in his great heart, it had been to gloat over the lonely places by himself. Even with Adam he seldom shared those moments of watching and listening. Always, some part of every day, he would spend alone on a ridge, on a height, or out on the sage, communing with this strange affinity of the desert. Adam had known Dismukes, at the end of a hard day's travel, to walk a mile and climb to a ledge, there to do nothing at all but watch and listen. It was habit. He did it without thinking. When Adam confronted him with the fact he was surprised. On Adam's side, this strange faculty or obsession, whatever it was, seemed very much more greatly marked. Dismukes had, or imagined he had, the need to seek gold. Adam had little to do but wander over the waste ways of the desert.
And now Adam, stirred to his depths by the culminating, fatal tragedy of Dismukes's life, and a passionate determination to understand it, delved into his mind and memory as never before, to discover forgotten lessons and larger growths. But not yet in his pondering did they prove to him why every day of his desert life, and particularly in the last few years, had he gone to this or that lonely spot for no reason at all except that it gave him strange, vague happiness. Here was an astounding fact. He could have seen the same beauty, colour, grandeur, right from his camp. The hours he had passed thus were innumerable.
What had he done, what had gone on in his mind, during all these seemingly useless and wasted hours? Nothing! Merely nothing it seemed to sit for hours, gazing out over the desolate, grey-green, barren desert, to sit listening to the solitude, or the soft wind, or the seep of sand, or perhaps the notes of a lonely bird. Nothing, because most of all that time he did not have in his mind the significance of his presence there. He really did not know he was there. This state of apparent unconsciousness had never been known to Adam at all until Magdalene Virey had given him intimation of it. He had felt the thing, but had never thought about it. But during these three years that he had lived near San Jacinto, it had grown until he gained a strange and fleeting power to exercise it voluntarily. Even this voluntary act seemed unthinking.
Adam, now, however, forced it to be a thinking act. And after many futile efforts he at last, for a lightning flash of an instant, seemed to capture the state of mind again. He recognised it because of an equally swift, vague joy that followed. Joy, he called it, for want of a better name. It was not joy. But it was wildly sweet--no--not so--but perhaps sweetly wild. That emotion, then, was the secret of the idle hours--the secret of the doing nothing. If he could only grasp the secret of the nothing! Looked at with profound thought, this nothing resolved itself into exactly what it had seemed to his first vague, wandering thought--merely listening, watching, smelling, feeling the desert. That was all. But now the sense of it began to assume tremendous importance. Adam believed himself to be not only on the track of the secret of the desert's influence, but also of life itself.
Adam realised that during those lonely hours he was one instant a primitive man and the next a thinking, or civilised, man. The thinking man he understood; all difficulty of the problem lay hid in this other side of him. He could watch, he could feel without thinking. That seemed to be the state of the mind of an animal. Only it was a higher state--a state of intense feeling, waiting, watching suspension! Adam divined that it was the mental state of the undeveloped savage, and that it brought fleeting moments of strange emotion.
Beyond all comprehension was the marvel of inscrutable nature. Somehow it had developed man. But the instincts of the ages were born with him when he was born. In blood, bone, tissue, heart, and brain! Wonder beyond that was the wonder that man had ever become civilised at all! Some infinite spirit was behind this.
In the illumination of his mind Adam saw much that had been mystery to him. When he had hunted meat, why had the chase been thrilling, exciting, pressing his heart hot against his side, sending his blood in gusts over his body? What a joy to run and leap after the quarry! Strange indeed had been his lust to kill beasts when, after killing, he was sorry. Stranger than this was a fact keen in his memory--the most vivid and intense feeling--come back from his starvation days when he had a wild rapture in pursuit of birds, rats, snakes that he had to kill with stones. Never, in all the years, had this rapture faded. Relic of his cruel boyhood days, when, like all boys, he had killed for the sake of killing, until some aspect of his bloody, quivering victim awakened conscience! Conscience then must be the great factor in human progress--the difference between savage and civilised man. Terribly strange for Adam to look at his brawny hands and remember what they had done to men! Over him, then, gushed the hot blood, over him quivered the muscular intensity, over him waved the fierce passion which, compared with that of his boyhood, was as the blaze of sun to a candle. He had killed men in ruthless justice, in strife of self-defence, but always afterward he had regretted. He had fought men in a terrible, furious joy, with eyes stinging red, with nerves impervious to pain, with the salt taste of a fellow-creature's blood sweet on his snarling lips but always afterward he was full of wonder and shame.
Just under the skin of every man and every woman, perhaps stronger in one than another, flowed red blood in which primitive instincts still lived and would always live. That was the secret of the desert. The lonely, desolate land, the naked sand and rock-ribbed hills, the wilderness of silence and solitude stirred the instinctive memory of a primitive day. Men watched and listened unthinkingly in the wastelands, for what they knew not, but it was for the fleeting trancelike transformation back to savage nature. There were many reasons for which men became wanderers in the wastelands--love of gold; the need to forget or to remember; passion and crime and wanderlust; the appeal of beauty and sublimity--but what nailed them to the forbidding and inhospitable desert was the instinct of the savage. That was the secret of the spell of the desert. Men who had been confined to cities, chained to dull and humdrum toils, stagnating in the noisy haunts, sore and sick and deflated, standing for some impossible end, when let loose in the grey, iron-walled barrens of the desert were caught by a subtle and insidious enchantment that transfigured some, made beasts of most, and mysteriously bound all. Travellers passing across could not escape it and they must always afterward remember the desert with a thrill of strange pleasure and of vague regret. Women who had been caught by circumstance and nailed to homes along the roads or edges of the desert must feel that nameless charm, though they hated the glaring, desolate void. Magdalene Virey, resigned to her doom in Death Valley, had responded to the nature that was in her.
Through this thing Adam saw the almost inconceivable progress of men upward. If progress had not been slow, nature would never have evolved him. And it seemed well that something of the wild and the primitive must forever remain instinctive in the human race. If the primitive were eliminated from men there would be no more progress. All the gladness of the senses lived in this law. The sweetness of the ages came back in thoughtless watching. The glory of the sunrise, the sadness of the sunset, the whisper of the wind and the murmur of the stream, the music of birds and their beauty--the magic of these came back from the dim, mystic dreamland of the primal day, from the childhood of the race. Nature was every man's mother. Nevertheless, the wonder and the splendour of life was the age-long progress of man toward unattainable perfection, the magnificent victory of humanity over mastery by primal instincts. And the fact that this seemed true to Adam made him wonder if the spirit of this marvellous life was not God.
The sun was westering when he descended the long, zigzag trail. He walked slowly, tired from his mental strain. And when he got down, the sun was just tipping the ramparts above, flooding the canyon with golden haze and ruddy rays. Adam thought that Genie, weary from long waiting, would be asleep on the sand, or at least reading, and that he could slip into the glade to surprise her. They played a game of this sort, and to her had gone most of the victories.
Like a panther he slid through the grasping mesquite boughs, and presently, coming to the denser brush, he stooped low to avoid making a rustle. As he moved along, bending so that he touched the sand with his hands, he came upon two fat beetles wagging and contesting over possession of some little particle. Scooping up a handful of sand, he buried them, and then, as they so ludicrously scrambled out, he gathered them up, intending, if he could get behind Genie unobserved, to drop them on her book or bare feet.
Thus it happened that he did not look ahead until after he had straightened up inside the glade. All before him seemed golden gleams and streaks of sunset rose. The air was thick with amber haze. Genie stood naked, ankle-deep in the bubbling spring. Like an opal her slender white body caught glimmer and sheen. Wondrously transparent she looked, for the sunlight seemed to shine through her! The red-gold tints of her hair burned like a woven cord of fire in bronze. Glistening crystal drops of water fell from her outstretched hands and her round arms gleamed where the white met the line of tan. The light of the sun shone upon her pensive, beautiful face, as she stood wholly unaware of intrusion. Then she caught the sound of Adam's stifled gasp. She saw him. She burst into a scream of startled, wild laughter that rang with a trill through the dell.
Adam, breaking the spell of that transfixed instant, rushed headlong away.