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Wanderer of the Wasteland
Zane Grey (1923) Country of origin: USA
Available texts by the same author here
Gaining the open, Adam strode swiftly down the trail to where the canyon spread wide and ended in the boulder-strewn desert.
The world in which he moved seemed transfigured, radiant with the last glow of dying day, with a glory of golden gleam. His heart pounded and his blood flooded to and fro, swelling his veins. Life on the earth for him had been shot through and through with celestial fire. His feet were planted on the warm sands and his hands reached to touch the grey old boulders. He needed these to assure himself that he had not been turned into the soft, cool wind or the slanting amber rays so thickly glistening with particles of dust, or the great, soaring king of the eagles. Adam crushed a bunch of odorous sage to his face, smelled it, breathed it, tasted it; and the bitter sweetness thrilled his senses. It was real. It was a part of the vast and glowing desert, of the wonderful earth, of the infinite universe that he yearned to incorporate into his being. The last glorious rays of the setting sun shone upon him and magnified his stature in a long, purple shadow. How the last warmth seemed to kiss his cheek as it sank behind the rim of the range! The huge boulders were warm and alive under his hands. He pricked his fingers upon the cholla thorns just to see the ruddy drops of his life's current; and there was strange joy in the sting which proved him flesh and blood and nerve. He stood alone, as he had many thousands of times on the grey old desert, his feet on the sand, his knees in the sage; but the being alone then was inexpressibly different It was as if he had, like the tarantula wasp, been born from a cocoon stage in a dark, dead cell, into a beautiful world of light, of freedom, of colour, of beauty, of all that was life. He felt the glory of his beating heart, his throbbing pulse, his sight and all his sense. He turned his face to the cool, sweet sage-scented breeze, and then he lifted it to the afterglow of sunset. Ah! the new, strange joy of life--the incalculable force of the natural man!
The luminous desert stretched before him, valley and mountain, and beyond them was other range and other valley, leading to the sea, and across its heaving bosom were other lands; and above him was the vast, deep-blue sky with its pale evening star, and beyond them began the infinite.
Adam felt himself a part of it all. His ecstasy was that he lived. Nature could not deny him. He stood there, young and strong and vital.
Then he heard Genie calling him. With a start he turned to answer. She was running down the trail. How swift, how lithe, how light! The desert had given her the freedom, the grace, the suppleness of its wild denizens. Like a fawn she bounded over the stones, and her hair caught the last gleams of glowing sunlight. When she neared Adam she checked her flying steps, pattering to a halt, one brown hand over her breast.
"Wheooo!" she burst out, panting. "I--couldn't--find--you. Why'd--you come--so far?"
The something that had come between Adam's sight and the desert now surrounded Genie. Immeasurably she was transformed, and the change seemed a mystery.
"We must hurry back. It'll soon be dark. Come," he replied.
With step as free and swift as his she kept pace with him. "Wanny, you stole up on me--tried to scare me--while I was bathing," she said, with arch reproach.
"Genie, it was an accident," he returned, hurriedly, and how strangely the blood tingled in his face! "I meant to scare you--yes. But I--I never thought--I never dreamed...Genie, I give you my word...Please say you believe me!"
"Why, Wanny," she said, in surprise, "of course I believe you! It's nothing to mind about. I didn't mind."
"Thank you. I--I'm glad you take it that way," replied Adam. "I'm sorry I was so--so stupid."
"How funny you are!" she exclaimed, and her gay laugh pealed out. "What's there to be sorry about?...You see, I forgot it was getting late...Ooooo how good the water felt! I just couldn't get enough...You did scare me just a little. I heard you--and was scared before I looked...Wanny, I guess I was imagining things--dreaming, you call it. I was all wet, and looking at myself in the sunlight. I'd never seen myself like that. I'd read of mermaids with shining scales of gold, and nymphs of the woods catching falling blossoms. And I guess I thought I was them--and everything."
Then Adam scorned the old husk of worldliness that had incased his mind in his boyhood, and clung round it still. This child of nature had taught him many a thought-provoking lesson, and here was another, somehow elevating and on a level with his mental progress of the day. Genie had never lived in the world, nor had she been taught many of its customs. She was like a shy, wild young fawn; she was a dreaming, exuberant girl. Genie had been taught to write and study and read, and was far from being ignorant; but she had not understood the meaning of Adam's apology. What struck Adam so deeply and confounded him again was the fact that her innocent and sweet smile now, as she gazed up at him, was little different from the one upon her face when she saw him staring at her nude. She had been surprised at his concern and had laughed at his contrition. And that low, rippling laugh, so full of vital and natural life, seemed to blow, as the desert wind blew worn and withered leaves, all of Adam's recalled sophistications back into the past whence they had come.
Adam and Genie walked hand in hand down the long boulder-strewn slope to the valley floor, where the cholla shone paling silver in gathering twilight, and the delicate crucifixion tree deceived the eye. The lonely November twilight deepened into night. The stars shone bright. The cool wind blew. The sage rustled.
Sleep did not soon woo Adam's eyelids this night, with the consequence that he awoke a little later than his usual hour. The rose of the dawn had bloomed.
Then Adam, on his knees, by the brown running stream, in the midst of his ablutions, halted to stare at the sunrise. Had it ever before been so strangely beautiful? During his sleep the earth had revolved, and, lo! here was the sun again. Wonderful and perennial truth! Not only had it revolved, but it had gone on its mysterious journey, hurtling through space at inconceivable rapidity. While he slept! Again he had awakened. A thousand years ago he had awakened just like this, so it seemed, to the sunrise, to the loneliness of lonely places, to the beauty of nature, to the joy of life. He sensed some past state, which, when he thought about it, faded back illusively and was gone. But he knew he had lived somewhere before this. All of life was in him. The marvellous spirit he felt now would never die.
There dawned upon Adam a sudden consciousness of Genie's beauty. She was the last realised and the most beautiful creation of the desert around him.
It came to him as a great surprise. She, too, knelt at the stream, splashing the cool water, bathing her face, wetting the dark, gold-tinted locks and brushing them back. Curiously and absorbingly Adam gazed at her, with eyes from which some blinding shutter had fallen. Yes, she was beautiful. It seemed a simple fact that he had overlooked, yet it was amazing. It distracted him.
"Wanny, you're all eyes," cried Genie, gaily. "What's the matter with me? Why do you look so?"
"Genie, you're growing up," he replied, soberly.
"Well, you'd have known that before if you'd seen me sewing," she said.
"How old are you?" he asked.
"Guess I'm nearly seventeen," she said, and the words brought back the dreams.
"Why, you're a young lady!" ejaculated Adam. "And--and----" He had been about to add that she was beautiful, but he held his tongue.
"I guess that, too...Hold out your arm."
Adam complied, and was further amazed to see, as she walked under his outstretched arm, that the glossy, wavy crown of her head almost touched it. She was as tall and slim and graceful as an arrow-weed.
"There! I'll have you know you're a mighty big man," she said. "And if you weren't so big I'd come clear up to your shoulder."
"Genie, don't you want to leave this desert?" he queried, bluntly.
"Oh no," she replied, instantly. "I love it. And--and--please don't make me think of towns, of lots of people. I want to run wild like a road runner. I'd be perfectly happy if I didn't have to spend half the day mending these old clothes...Wanny, if they get any worse they'll fall off me--and then I'll have to run around like you saw me yesterday!...Oh, but for the thorns, that 'd be grand!" Her light, rippling laugh rang out, sweet and gay.
Adam waited for her later, in the shade of Taquitch Canyon, where from the topmost of a jumble of boulders he watched a distant waterfall, white and green as it flashed over a dark cliff.
He watched her coming. Her ragged boy's garb with its patches and rents no longer hid her femininity and her charm from his eyes. He saw anew. The litheness of her, the round and graceful figure from flying feet to glinting hair, cried aloud to the loneliness of Adam's heart the truth of her. An enchantment hung upon her very movements. She travelled from rock to rock, poising, balancing, leaping, and her curly hair danced on her head. Quick as those of a wildcat were her leaps. And her gay, sweet call or cry, birdlike and wild, echoed from the cliffs.
She was coming to Adam across the great jumble of rocks--a girl wonderful as a sprite. And her coming was suddenly realised as fulfilment of dreams. Adam faced the truth of some facts about his dreaming. Lonely hours on lonely slopes, of waiting and watching, had created the shadow of a woman or a girl gliding in the golden glow of the afternoon sunlight, coming to charm away forever the silence and solitude. So innumerable times he had dreamed, but never realised till now those dreams. She was coming, and the sleepy shade awoke to a gleam and a voice. The lacey waterfall shone white and its murmur seemed music of many streams. A canyon swallow twittered.
Adam thought how passing strange had been the tortures, the awakenings, and changings of his desert experience. And here was a vague dream fulfilled! This realisation was unutterably sweet--so sweet because these years had been barren of youth, steeped in unconscious growing worship of beauty, spent alone with pains and toils. He watched her coming. Fresh as the foam of the waterfall, clean as the winds of the heights, wild as the wild young fawn--so she seemed! Youth and gaiety--beauty and life!
But suddenly Adam seemed struck by an emotion, if not of terror, then of dread at some inconceivable and appalling nature of her presence. That emotion was of the distant past as was the vague peril of her approach. A girl--a woman creature--mystery of the ages--the giver of life as the sun gave heat--had come to him, out of the clouds or the desert sands, and the fatality of her coming was somewhat terrible.
Genie reached the huge boulder upon which Adam sat, and like a squirrel she ran up its steep side, to plump herself breathless and panting down against his knees.
"Ah! Old Taquitch--here's another--Indian maiden--for you to steal," she said, roguishly. "But before you--carry me up to the clouds--duck me under the waterfall!"
All the accumulated thought and emotion of recent hours concentrated in the gaze he fixed upon her face.
Her trilling laugh pealed out. She thought he was playing Taquitch, god of the heights. He was teasing her with his piercing eyes.
"Look! Look at me, O Taquitch!" she cried, with deep pretended solemnity. "I am Ula, princess of the Coahuilas. I have left my father's house. I have seen the sun shining in your face, oh, god of the lightnings! And I love--I love--I love with all the Indian's heart. I will go with you to the peaks. But never--nevermore shall you steal another maiden!"
Adam scarcely heard Genie. He was piercing through eyes and face to the mind and soul and life and meaning of her beauty. Her skin was creamy, golden brown, transparent, with tiny tracery of veins underneath and faint tints of rose. The low forehead and level brows showed moist and soft and thoughtful under the dark, damp curls with their amber glints. A hint of desert leanness hid in the contour of her oval face. Her mouth was strong, with bowed upper lip, the under sensitive and sad--a red, sweet mouth, like a flower. And her eyes, now meeting his so frankly, losing the mock solemnity and the fun, became deep-brown, crystal gulfs of light and shade, of thought and feeling, beautiful with the beauty of exquisite colour, but lovelier for the youth, the joy and wonder of life, the innocence of soul.
"Wanny--are you--playing?" she asked, tremulously, and her warm little hand clasped his.
That changed the spell of her. To look at her beauty was nothing comparable with the warm throb of her young pulsing life. Out of Adam's slow and painful and intense thought at last evolved a nucleus of revelation. But those clear eyes strangely checked this growing sense of a truth about to overwhelm him. They made him think, and thought had begun to waver and pale beside some subtler faculty of his being. Thus he realised the slow preponderance of feeling over thought, of body over soul, of physical over spiritual. And in this realisation of unequal conflict he divined the meaning of his strange sense of peril in Genie's presence. The peril lay in the sophistication of his mind, not in Genie's beauty. Naturally as the mating of the birds he wanted her. That was all. It was like her simplicity, inevitable as life itself, and true to nature! But in his thoughts, flashing after comprehension, the simple fact loomed with staggering, overwhelming significance.
Bidding Genie rest or amuse herself, Adam climbed to a ledge above the waterfall, and there, with the mighty mass of mountain crowding out the light, he threw himself upon the bare stone.
Not long did he torment himself with wonder and fury and bewilderment over an indubitable fact. Almost at once he sank into a self-accusing state which grew from bad to worse, until he was sick, sore, base, and malignant in his arraignment of self. Again the old order of mind, the habit of youthful training, the learned precepts and maxims and laws, flooded back to augment his trouble. And when they got their sway he cursed himself, he hated himself, he beat his breast in the shame of an abasement terribly and inevitably and irretrievably true at that hour.
But this was a short-lived passion. It did not ring true to Adam. It was his youth had suffered shame--the youth trained by his mother--the youth that had fallen upon wild and evil days at old Picacho. His youth flaming up with all its chivalry, its ideals, its sense of honour and modesty, its white-hot shame at even an unconscious wrong to a girl! Not the desert philosophy of manhood that saw nature clearly and saw it whole!
"Peace!" he cried, huskily, as if driving back a ghost of his youth. "I am no beast--no animal!"
Nay, he was a lonely wanderer of the wastelands, who many and many a time had dreamed himself sweetheart, lover, husband of all the beautiful women in the world. Ah! it was his love of beauty, of life!
And so in his dreams, nature, like a panther in ambush, had come upon him unawares to grip him before he knew. Aye--he wanted Genie now--yearned for her with all that intense and longing desire which had falsely seemed love and joy of the whole living world. But it was not what it seemed. All the tenderness of a brother, all the affection of a father Adam had for Genie--emotions that now faded before the master spirit and the imperious flame of life. How little and pitiful arose the memory of Margarita Arallanes--how pale beside this blood fire of his senses! Life had failed him in his youth; life had cheated him. Yet he had arisen on stepping stones of agony to intenser love of that life. He had been faithful, while life had mocked him.
Passionate love of life, to see, to hear, to feel, to touch, had come to him with its saving grace, after the ruthless and violent strife of the desert had taught him to survive. But these were not the soul of nature. This was not nature's secret. He was a man, a creature of inherited instincts that the desert had intensified. In nature's eyes he was no different from the lonely desert bird or beast seeking its mate. The law was not wrong, but all the progress of mankind as represented in Adam's revolt made that law wrong.
When at last he had driven shame from his mind and justified his manhood over the instincts of which he could have no control, then he faced the ordeal.
Contending tides of passion and strife! That had been his desert life. And as the years had passed each new mounting tumult in heart or soul, each fight against men or elements, had exceeded the last. Would there never be an end? Was this his great ordeal--the last--before which he must go down in defeat? No--by all the gods false or true--no, it should never be! Thus he shot arrowy lightnings of soul at the fiery army of instincts trooping on to overwhelm his consciousness.
For a long time the ordeal never got so far as argument. It was revel of the senses, unleashed at last, untamed by the past, fiercer and stronger and more irresistible for all disuse. Melancholy and terrible was the truth that his desert years, so hard, so clean, so cold, so pure, the restraint of his enforced exile, had developed in him instincts masterless in their importunity. Life shrieking out of his flesh and blood for the future that nature demanded! There was revolt here, conscienceless revolt against the futility of manhood, voices from the old bones of his ancestors, from the dim and mystic past. Here at last was revealed the deepest secret of the desert, the eternal law men read in its lonely, naked face--self-preservation and reproduction. The individual lived and fought and perished, but the species survived.
Adam's instinctive reaction seemed that of a savage into whose surging blood had been ejected some inhibitory current of humanism which chafed at the quivering shores of his veins and tried to dam the flood. He was like a strong man convulsed by fever. Like the strung thread of a bent bow he vibrated.
There came a knocking at the gate of his mind. The tempter! The voice of the serpent! Nature or devil, it was all one--a mighty and eloquent and persuasive force. It whispered to Adam that he was alone on the desert. Fate had been cruel. Love had betrayed him. Life had denied him. A criminal, surely not forgotten by justice, he could never leave the lonely wastelands to live. A motherless, fatherless girl, with no kith or kin, had been left in his care, and he had saved her, succoured her. Care and health and love had made her beautiful. By all the laws of nature she was his, to hold, to cherish, to cheer the lonely, grey years. He had but to open his arms and call to her, reveal to her the mystery and glory of life, and she would be his forever. Unconsciously she herself leaned toward this fate, tempting him in all her innocence. She would grow into a glorious woman--the keen, sweet, fierce youth of her answering to the work of the desert. Were not all desert flowers more rare and vivid--were not all desert creatures more beautiful and strong than their like elsewhere? Genie would be his, as the eagle had its mate, and she would never know any other life. She would be compensation for his suffering, a companion for his wandering. Think! the joy of her, the thrill of her! The wonderful fire of her dark eyes and the dance of her curls and the red lips ripe for kisses! No man had any right to deny himself immortality. What was the world and its customs to him? Where was the all-wise and beneficent God who looked after the miserable and forlorn? Like was life, and that was everything. Beauty in life--that was eternal, the meaning of nature, and every man must love it, share it, and mark the image of himself upon the future. Lastly and most potent, the present fleeting hour that must soon pass! Let him grasp his precious jewel before it was too late--live in the moment. Life might be eternal, but not for him. Soon the seeping sand would nestle round his bleached bones and fill the sockets where once his eyes had burned. Genie was a gift of chance. He had wandered down into this valley, and now his life should never be lonely again. Lover of beauty and worshipper of nature, he had but to extend his arms to receive a treasure far greater than the gold of the desert, more beautiful than its flaming flowers, more mysterious than its fierce and inevitable life. A girl whose white body, like a transparent opal, let the sunshine through! A woman, gift of the ages to man, flame of love and life, most beautiful of all things quick or dead, a mystery for man to cherish, to love, to keep, to bind!
Then, at the instant when Adam's fall was imminent, and catastrophe leaned like the huge overhanging mountain mass, he wrestled up to fling the supremity of his soul into the teeth of nature.
"No!...No!" he gasped, hoarsely. "Not for me!"
At the last he saw clearly. The love he had for Genie now proclaimed itself. The other had not been love, whatever its greatness, its importunity, its almost blasting power. He was an outcast, and any day a man or men might seek him out to kill him or be killed. What madness was this of his to chain a joyous girl to his wandering steps? What but woe to her and remorse to him could ever come of such relation? Genie was so full of life and love that she hated to leave even the loneliness of the desert. To her, in the simplicity and adaptation of her nature, he was all. But she was a child, and the day he placed her in an environment where youth called to youth, and there were work, play, study, cheer, and love, he would become a memory. The kisses of her red ripe lips were not for him. The dance of her glinting curls, the flash of her speaking eyes, the gold-brown flesh of her, had been created by nature; and nature must go on with its inscrutable design, its eternal progress, leaving him outside the pale. The joy he was to feel in Genie must come of memory, when soon he had gone on down into the lonely wastelands. She would owe life and happiness to him, and, though she might not know it, he always would. A child, a girl, a woman--and some day perhaps a wife and mother--some happy man's blessing and joy--and these by the same inevitable nature that had tortured him would reward him in the solemn white days and the lonely starlit nights. For he had been and would be the creator of their smiles. How fierce and false had been his struggle, in the light of thought, when the truth was that he would give his life to spare Genie a moment's pain!