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Wanderer of the Wasteland
Zane Grey (1923) Country of origin: USA
Available texts by the same author here
"The foxes have holes--the birds of the air have nests!" cried Adam.
Was it he who lay there with aching heart and burning eyes? Ah! Again the lonely wasteland claimed him. That illimitable desert was home. Whose face was that limned on the clouds, and set into the beaten bossy mosaic of the sands, and sculptured in the contour of the dim, coloured ranges?
His burros nipped the sage behind him as he lay, back against a stone, on the lofty height of the Sierra Madre divide, gazing down into that boundless void. What was it that had happened? Ah! He had fled! And he lived over again for the thousandth time, that week--that fleeting week of transport with its endless regrets--in which he had found Genie a home, in which the daughter of Magdalene Virey had stormed his soul.
Vague and happy those first days when he bought the valley lands and flooded them with cattle--vague because of the slow gathering of insupportable and unconscious love--happy because he lived with Genie's rapture and her romance. Vivid were some of the memories--when he placed in Genie's little brown hands papers and deeds and bankbooks, and by a gesture as if by magic, proclaimed to her wondering sense the truth of a tale of Aladdin; when, to the serious-faced mother, pondering the costs, he announced her once more owner of the long-regretted land; when, to a fire-eyed lad, he had drawn aside the veil of the future.
But vague, mystic as a troubled dream, the inception of a love that rose like the blaze of the sun--vague as the opaque dawn of the desert! Whenever he looked up, by night or day, at task or idleness, there shone the lovely face, pale as a dawn-hazed star, a face like Magdalene Virey's, with all of its beauty, but naught of its passion, with all of its charm, yet none of its havoc. With youth, and bloom, and wide-open purple eyes, dark as midnight, staring at fate. And a voice like the voice of her mother, sweet, but not mocking, haunted the dreams of the man and lived in the winds.
"And you are a desert man," she had said.
"Yes--a desert man," he had replied.
"There's a place I want to go some day--when I am twenty-one...Death Valley! Do you know it? My grandfather says I'm mad."
"Death Valley! For such as you? Stay--never go near that awful hell!"
The ghastly white pit and its naked red walls, the midnight furnace winds with their wailing roar, the long, long slopes to the avalanche graves! Ah! the torment of his heart, the tragedy he would hide, and the secret he must keep, and the miniature that burned in its place--they drew her with the invisible cords of life and fate. What he would spare her surged in the air that she breathed.
She had come to him under the oaks, and yet again, quitting her friends, drawn to the lonely desert man.
"They told me Genie's story," she said, and her eyes spoke eloquent praise her lips denied. "And so--her mother, and father died on the desert...Tell me, desert man, what does Death Valley look like?"
"It is night; it is hell--death and desolation--the grave of the desert, yellow and red and grey--lonely, lonely, lonely silent land!"
"But you love it!...Genie says the Indians call you Eagle--because you have the eye of the eagle...Tell me...Tell me..."
And she made him talk, and she came again. Vague, sweet, first hours they were, with their drawing pain. Was it well to wake in the night, with eyes darker than the darkness, peering into his soul? Her mother's eyes--with all the glory and none of the shame She had come another day and then the next, while time stood still with its mocking wait.
Not vaguely came a scene: "I will tell you of the desert," and a part of his story followed, brief and hard.
"Ah! I would be a man," she said. "I would never run. I would never hide."
Mocking words from a tongue too sweet to mock! She had her mother's spirit. And Adam groped in the gloom, to the glee of his devils of scorn. The grass by day and the grass by night felt the impress of his face. Then love--first real love of youth, and noble passion of man--blazed as the sun in his face. From that revelation all was clear in the bursting light of calamity.
Ruth was coming under the oaks. She liked the cool shade and hated the glare. She was nineteen, with a woman's form and her mother's eyes--proud, sweet, aloof.
"Desert man, I am lonesome," she said. "My grandfather has gone again. He is chasing some new will-o'-the-wisp. Gold and mines, cattle and land--and now it's water. He has an ear for every man."
"Lonesome? You! What do you know of loneliness?" asked Adam.
"There's a loneliness of soul."
"Ah! but you are young. Go help Genie plan her home."
"Genie and Gene! Two people with but one voice! They cannot hear or see anyone but themselves. It's a pity to invade their paradise. I will not...And, oh, how beautiful the world must be to them!"
"Ruth, is it not so to you?"
"Beautiful lands and greens and waters!" she exclaimed, in restless discontent. "But I cannot live on scenery. There is joy here, but none for me...I lost my mother and I can't forget. She had to leave me and go with him--my father. My father who loved me as a child and hated me as a girl. Oh, it's all a mystery! She went with him to the desert. Gold mad--she said he was. She had her debt to pay. And I could not be taken to Death Valley."
"You have never heard from her since the parting?"
"Never...And I am a woman now. Some day I will go to Death Valley."
"Why?" he asked.
"Because they went there."
"But no one lives long in that valley of death."
"Then I will find their graves," she said.
"Ruth, you must not. What good can come of your travelling there? I've told you of its desolate and forbidding nature. You are all wrong. Wait! Perhaps your mother will--perhaps you will hear of her some day."
"Oh, desert man, I was a child when we parted. I'm a woman now. I want to know. The mystery haunts me. She loved me--ah, so well!...Sometimes I cannot bear to live. My grandfather hides me in lonely places. We meet but few people, and those he repels. It is because of me...Desert man, I am lonelier than was Genie. She is like a bird. She must have lived on the sun and the winds. But I am no child, and I am forlorn."
Brooding purple eyes of trouble, of longing, of discontent, of fire for life! The heart and soul from Ruth Virey--the heritage of need and unrest--shone from her eyes. All unconsciously she longed to be loved. She stood on the threshold of womanhood like a leaf in a storm.
"Talk with me, walk with me, desert man," she said wistfully. "You were Taquitch for Genie. Be Eagle for me. Your eyes know the desert where my mother sleeps--where perhaps her spirit wanders. You soothe my troubled heart. Oh, I can feel myself with you, for you understand."
Thus Adam's soul was stormed. Magdalene Virey had presaged the future. In the dark stillness of the night, sleepless, haunted, tossed by torment, it was revealed to him that Magdalene Virey had risen out of the depths on noble love for him, and through that love she had seen with mystic eyes into the future. She had projected that love into the spirit of the desert, and it had guided Adam's wandering steps to her daughter Ruth. Was this only a wanderer's dream as he lay on the hills? Was it only a knot in the tangled skein of his desert life? Was it inscrutable design of a power he disdained?
Be what this might, the one great love of his years possessed him, fierce and resistless on its march to his defeat. It mocked his ordeal. It flaunted a banner in his face--noble love, noble passion, love of the soul, all that revered woman, wife, mother, and babe. He had found his mate. Strange how he remembered Margarita Arallanes, and the wild boy's love of a day. Poor, pale, wasteful, sinful, lustful little gleam! And he recalled the spell of Genie--that strong call of nature in the wilderness. Above both he had arisen. But Ruth Virey was the woman. He could win her. The truth beat at his temples, constricted his throat. Ruth was the flower of her mother's tragic longing to be loved. Ruth burned with that longing. And life was not to be denied. Magdalene Virey had given him this child of her agony. She trusted the fate of Ruth in his hands. She saw with superhuman eyes.
A deep tenderness for Ruth pervaded Adam's soul. Who, of all men, could love her, save her, content her as he? It was not thought of her kisses, of her embraces, that plucked at the roots of his will. Like a passing wave the thrill of such bliss went out to the might of a nobler tide. To save Ruth from the fate of her mother, from the peril of her own heart! And in the saving, a home--happiness--the tender smile of a mother--and the kiss of a child!
"But I am a criminal! I am a murderer! Any day I might be hanged before her very eyes!" he whispered, with his face in the grass, his fingers digging the turf. "Still--no one would ever recognise me now...Ah! but he--that human wolf Collishaw--would not he know me?...Oh, if there be God--help me in my extremity!"
Once again he met her. As he rode up the valley at sunset she came out of the oak grove.
"I've been with Genie. Desert man, her happiness frightens me. Oh, I love her! You tell me of your hard, lonely, terrible desert life. Why, your ears should ring with bells of joy forever. It is you who have built her castle. What other deeds, like that, have you done--in those bitter years you tell of?"
"Not many, Ruth--perhaps not one."
"I don't believe you. I am learning you, desert man. And, oh, I wish you knew how it swells my heart to hear Genie tell of what you did for her. Every day she tells me something new...Ah! and more--for to-day she said you would be leaving soon."
"Yes, Ruth--soon," he said.
"Back to the lonely land?"
"Yes, back to the sage and sand and the big dark hills. Yes, it will be a lonely land," he replied, sadly.
"And you will wander down the trails until you meet some one--some woman or child or man--sick or miserable or lost--and then you will stop."
Adam had no answer.
"The Indians called you Eagle," she went on, and her tone startled him with its hint of remembered mockery. "You have the desert eye--you see so far...But you don't see here!...Why should you waste your splendid strength, your magnificent manhood, wandering over the desert if it's only for unhappy people? Desert man, you are great. But you could do more good here--you could find more misery here...I know one whose heart is breaking. And you've never seen, for all your eagle eye!"
"Listen, you morbid girl," he returned, stung as with fire. "I am not great. I am lost. I go to the desert because it is home...Don't think of me! But look to yourself. Look into your heart. Fear it, Ruth Virey. You are a spoiled, dreamful, passionate child. But you have a mind and you have a will. You can conquer your unrest, your discontent. Revere the memory of your mother, but grieve no more. The past is dead. Learn to fight. You are no fighter. You are weak. You give in to loneliness, sadness, longing. Resolve to be a woman! You must live your life. Make it worth while. Every man, every woman, has a burden. Lift yours cheerfully and begin to climb...Work for your grandfather. He needs your help. Love those with whom fate has placed you. And fight--fight the dark moods, the selfish thoughts, the hateful memories! Fight like a desert beast for your life. Work--work till you bruise those beautiful hands. Work with a hoe, if you can find nothing else. Love to see things grow green and flower and give fruit. Love the animals, the birds, and learn from them; love all nature, so that when you meet a man some day, the man, you can love him. That is what it means to be a woman. You are a beautiful, sweet, useless, and petulant girl. But be so no more. Be a woman!"
Pale and shocked, with brimming eyes and tremulous lips, she replied.
"Stay--stay desert man, and make me a woman!"
And those sad dark eyes and those sweet murmured words had made him flee--flee like a craven in the night. Yes, for Ruth's sake he had fled. Not a farewell to Genie--not a wave of his hand, but gone in the night--gone forever out of their lives!
"The foxes have holes--the birds of the air have nests!" cried Adam, to the listening silence.
Was it he who lay there with broken heart and magnified sight? Yes, wanderer of the wasteland again! Back to the lonely land! That limitless expanse of rock and sand was home. Was not that Ruth's face limned on the clouds? Did not her sad, reproachful eyes haunt him in the dim, purple distances?
From the lofty divide of the Sierra Madres Adam gazed down into the void he called home. Beyond the grey sands and far beyond the red reaches he saw across the California Desert into Arizona, and down into Mexico, and to the dim, blue Gulf.
Home! All the years of Adam's desert experience were needed to grasp the meaning of the stupendous scene. The eye of the eagle, the sight of the condor, supreme over the desert, most marvellous and delicate work of nature, could only behold, could only range that sun-blasted burned-out empire of the wastelands. Only the mind of man, the thought of man, could understand it. And for Adam it was home, and to his piercing eyes a thing, a place, a world, terribly true and beautiful and comforting, upon which he seemed driven to gaze and gaze, so that forever it must be limned on his vision and his memory.
The day was one of sunlight and storm, of blue sky and purple clouds and fleecy white, of palls of swirling grey snow and dark veils of downward-streaming rain. The Sierra Madres rolled away on either side, range on range, rising to the north in the might of slow league-long mountain swell, until far against the stormy sky stood the old white-capped heave of San Gorgonio looming over the grey Mohave; and to the south, like the wave undulations of a calm sea, sank the long low lines of the arid arm of desert land.
Beneath Adam piled the foothills, round and old and grey, sage grey, lavender grey, lilac grey, all so straggly grey--upheaved hills of aged earth and dust and stone. Hill by hill they lowered, with glaring gorges between, solitary hills and winding ranges and clustered domes, split by canyons and cleft by brushy ravines--miles and miles of foothills, reluctantly surrendering allegiance to the peaks above, moving downward as surely as the grains of their slopes, weathering and spreading at last in the sands.
Away and away flowed that grey Sahara with its specks of sage, ribbed by its ridges of dunes. Immense and unbounded it swept to its centre, the Salton Sink--bowl of the desert--a great lake of coloured silt, a ghastly, glaring stain on the earth, over which the storm clouds trailed their veils of rain, and shadows like colossal ships sailed the sandy main. Away to the southward it flowed, level and shining, at last to rise and meet the blue sky in lucent spurs of gold and white. This landmark contrasted singularly with the Salton Sink. It was the illusive and shifting line of the Superstition Mountains, where the wind sheeted the sands, and by night or day, like the changing of tides, went on with its mysterious transformation. These giant sand hills caught the sunlight through a rift in the broken clouds. And dim under the dunes showed the scalloped, dark shadows.
But these foothills and sand plains were only the edge of the desert. Beyond marched the mountain ranges. Vast, upheaved, crinkled crust of the naked earth, scored by fire, scarred by age, cracked by earthquake, and stained in the rusty reds and coloured chocolates of the iron rocks! Down to the rim of the Salton Sink sheered a ragged range. Over it centred the lowering storm clouds, grey and drab and purple, with rays of the sun filtering through, lighting the grim, dark hardness, showing the smoky gloom. And where the ridge ran down to the desert, to make the lines of the sandy lake, it resembled a shore of the river Styx.
Beyond gleamed the Chocolate Mountains, sharp in the sunshine, canyoned and blue. And still beyond them, over the valley and far, rose the myriad mountains of Arizona, dim, hazed land, mystic land, like a land of desert dreams. In the distant south, around the blunt end of the Chocolates, came a valley winding palely green, with a line following its centre, where the Rio Colorado meandered in its course to the blue waters of the Gulf. Over the shadowy shapes of mountains in haze, over the horizon of Arizona, there seemed a blank, pale wall of sky, strange to the eye. Was it the oblivion of sight, the infinitude of heaven? Piercing constant gaze at last brought to Adam the ghostly mountains of Mexico, the faintest of faint tracery of peaks, doubtful, then lost, the lonely Sonorian land.
"And that is my home!" he cried to the winds. Slow tears bathed his eyes, and, closing them, he rested his strained sight. A strange peace seemed to have stolen over him with his vision and grasp of the desert. A low, soft moan of wind in the crevices of rocks lulled his senses for the revel that was to come. He heard his burros nipping at the brush behind his back. From the heights an eagle shrilled its wild whistle of freedom and of solitude. One of the burros brayed, loud and bawling, a jarring note in a silence. Discordant sound it was, that yet brought a smile and a pang to Adam. For only yesterday--or was it long ago--what was it that had happened?
When he opened his eyes the desert under him and the infinity over him had been transfigured.
Only the full blaze of the sun! But a glory dwelt in the clouds and in the wide blue expanse of heaven. Silver-edged rents, purple ships in a golden sky, the long, fan-shaped rays of the sun, white rainbows of haze--these extended from the north across the arch to the open--a great peacefulness of light, deep and tender and blue.
Beneath lay the mirror of earth, the sun-fired ranges like chased and beaten gold, laid with shining jewels all around the resplendent desert. Mountains of porphyry marched down to the sands, rocks of bronze red burned down to the sands. The white columnar pillars of the clouds seemed reflected in the desert, slow-gliding across the lucent wastes; and the mosaic of mountain and plain had its mirage in the sky. Above and below worked the alchemy of nature, mutable and evanescent, the dying of day, the passing of life.