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Wanderer of the Wasteland
Zane Grey (1923) Country of origin: USA
Available texts by the same author here
Going down into the desert, Adam found that his steps were no longer wandering and aimless. And the nearer he got to the canyon pass in the Chocolates, the stronger grew his strange eagerness.
For years memory of that camp where he had fought starvation had drawn him like a magnet. He was weary with delving into the gulf of himself, trying to know his nature and heart and soul. Always he was beyond himself. No sooner was one mystery solved than another and deeper one presented itself; one victory gained, then a more desperate trial faced him. He only knew the old camp called him resistlessly. Something would come to him there.
Travel and tasks of morn and eve were so habitual with him that they made little break in his thought. And that thought, like his desert steps, had travelled in a circle. He was nearing the places where he had begun his fight with physical forces. His every step brought him so much closer to the terrible deed that had so bitterly coloured and directed his desert life.
He crossed the sandy basin from the Sierra Madres to the Chocolates in four days, two of his camps being dry. And on the fifth, in the afternoon, when the long shadows had begun to creep out from the mountains across sand and sage, he climbed the swelling, well-remembered slope where Charley Jim had lured the antelope, and gazed down into the oasis where he had all but starved to death, and where Oella had saved his life.
What struck him with gladness was to find the grey-green lonely scene identical with the picture in his memory. How well he remembered! And it was twelve years--thirteen--fourteen years! Yet time had made little or no change in the oasis. Nature worked slowly in the desert.
His burros scented the water and trotted down the sage bank, bobbing their packs, kicking up little puffs of odorous dust. Adam stood still and gazed long. He seemed to be almost ready to draw a deep, full breath of melancholy joy. Then he descended to the sandy, rock-studded floor of the canyon, and on the wide, white stream bed, where, as always, a slender stream tinkled over the pearly pebbles. How strange that he should fall into the exact course where once he had worn a trail! The flat stones upon which he stepped were as familiar as if he had trod them yesterday. But inside the palm grove time had made changes. The thatched huts were gone and the open places were overgrown with brush. No one had inhabited the oasis for many years.
Leisurely he pitched camp, working with a sense of comfort and pleasure at the anticipation of a permanent, or at least an indefinite stay there. Of all his lonely camps on the desert, this had been the loneliest. He called it Lost Oasis. Here he could spend days and weeks, basking like a lizard in the sunshine, feeling his loneliness, listening to the silence; and he could climb to the heights and dream, and watch, and live again those wonderful, revealing, unthinking moments when he went back to savage nature.
After his work and meal were finished, and sunset was colouring the sky, Adam wandered around through the willows and along the stream. He stood for some time looking down upon the sandy bar where he had stumbled in pursuit of the rattlesnake and it had bitten him in the face. And then he went from one familiar place to another, sitting at last in the twilight, under the palms where Oella had nursed and fed him back to life and strength. Where was she now--that tranquil, sombre-eyed Indian maiden who had refused to wed one of her race and who had died of a broken heart? The twilight seemed prophetic, the rustling palms seemed whispering. Both sadness and pleasure mingled in Adam's return.
But the nameless something, the vague assurance of content, the end of that restless, strange, sense of hurrying onward still to seek, to find--these feelings seemed about to come to him, yet held tantalisingly aloof. To-morrow surely! He was tired with his long travel, and it would take a little time once more to adjust himself to loneliness. The perfect peace of loneliness had not yet come back to him. His mind was too full to attend to the seeing, listening, feeling that constituted harmony with the desert. Yet something was beginning to come between remembrances of the immediate past and the insistent premonitions of the present. When he lay down in his blankets to hear the low rustle of the wind in the palms and to see the haunting stars, it was to realise that they were the same as always, but that he himself had changed.
Next day he climbed to the heights where he had learned to hunt mountain sheep, where he had learned the watching, listening, primitive joy of the Indian. He thrilled in the climb, he breathed deep of the keen, cold wind, he gazed after with piercing eyes. Hours, like those of a lonely eagle on a crag, Adam spent there, and he wooed back to him the watching, listening power with its reward of sweet, wild elation. But as the westering sun sent him down the mountain, he felt a vague regret. The indefinable something eluded him.
In the dusk Adam walked along the rim of the slope above the oasis. He had watched the sunset fade over the desert, and the shading of twilight, and the gathering of dusk.
He wondered what it would mean to him now to be lost without water or food down there in the wasteland. Would panic seize him? He imagined it would be only as long as he was not sure of death. When he realised that, he would find strength and peace to meet his doom. But what agony to look up at the starlit heaven and breathe farewell to beautiful life, to the strong, sweet wine of nature, to the memory of love!
To die alone down there? Ah! Why did his thoughts turn to death? To lie down on the sand and the sage of the desert, in the dead darkness of night, would be terrible. Yet, would it really be? Would not something come to his soul? A strong man's farewell to life, out there on the lonesome desert, would be elemental and natural. But the hour of facing death--how sad, lonely, tragic! Yet it had been bravely met by countless men over all the desolate deserts of the dreary world. All men did not feel alike. Perhaps the strongest, bravest, calmest, would suffer the least. Still, it was Adam's conviction that to look up at the indifferent heavens, and to send a hopeless cry out across the desert, realising the end, remembering with anguish the faces of loved ones, would indeed be a bursting of the heart.
Life was so short. Hope and love so futile! Home and family--ah! a brother--should be treasured, and lived for with all the power of blood and mind. Friends should be precious. It was realisation that a man needed.
A crescent beautiful moon soared up over the dark bulk of the mountain. Adam paced to and fro in a sandy glade of the oasis. All the immensity of desert and infinity of sky seemed to be at work to overwhelm him. The stars--so white, wonderful, watching, eyes of heaven, remorseless and wise Not a sigh of wind stirred under the palms, not a quiver of a leaf. Nature seemed so strange, beautiful, waiting. All waited! Was it for him? The shadows on the white sand wrote Adam's story of wild youth and crime and flight and agony and passion and love. How sad the low chirp of insects! Adam paced there a long time, thinking thoughts he never had before, feeling things he never felt before--realising the brevity of life, the soul of sorrow, the truth of nature, the sweetness of women, the glory of children, the happiness of work and home.
Something was charging the air around Adam; something was surging deep in his soul.
What was the meaning of that which confounded his emotions? Adam's soul seemed trembling on the verge of a great lesson, that had been hidden all the years and now began to dawn upon him in the glory of the firmament--in the immensity of the earth--in the sense of endless space--in the meaning of time--in the nothingness of man.
Suddenly a faint coldness, not of wind nor of chill air, but of something intangible, stole over Adam. He shivered. He had felt it before, though never so strong. And his sense of loneliness vanished. He was not alone! All around he peered, not frightened or aghast, but uncertain, vaguely conscious of a sense that seemed unnatural. The shadow of his lofty form showed dark on the sand. It walked with him as he walked. Was there a spirit in keeping with his steps?
Disturbed in mind, Adam went to bed. When he awoke there had come to him in the night, in his sleep or in his dreams, whispered words from Genie's mother, ringing words from Ruth Virey, "I will come to you out on the desert." Mrs. Linwood had meant that to be proof of immortal life of the soul--of God. And Ruth had rung at him: "I would be a man. I would never run. I would never hide!"
Then the still, small voice of conscience became a clarion. Torment seized Adam. The lonely lure of the desert had betrayed him. There was no rest--no peace. He was driven. He had dreamed of himself as a wanderer driven down the naked shingles of the desert. No dream, but reality!
He spent the day upon the heights, feeling that there, if anywhere, he might shake this burden of his consciousness. In vain! He was a civilised man, and only in rare moments could he go back to the forgetfulness of the savage. He had a soul. It was a living flame. The heights failed him. A haunting whisper breathed in the wind and an invisible spirit kept pace with his steps. And at last, in slow-mounting swell of heart, with terror in his soul, he faced the south. Ah! How sharp the pang in his breast! Picacho! There, purple against the sky, seemingly close, stood up the turreted and castled peak under the shadow of which lay the grave of his brother. And Adam sent out a lonely and terrible cry down the winds toward the place that resistlessly called him. He was called and he must go. He had wandered in a circle. All his steps had bent toward the scene of his crime. From the first to the last he had been wandering back to his punishment. He saw it now. That was the call--that the guide--that the nameless something charging the air.
Realisation gave him a moment's savageness--the power of body over mind. Heart and blood and pulse and nerve burst red hot to the fight, and to passionate love of liberty, of life. He was in the grasp of a giant of the ages. He fought as he had fought thirst, starvation, loneliness--as he had fought the desert and the wild beasts and wilder men of that desert. The deep and powerful instinct which he had conquered for Genie's sake--the noble emotion of love and bliss that he had overcome for Ruth's sake--what were these compared to the hell in his heart now? It was love of life that made him a fierce wild cat of the desert. Had not the desert taught him its secret to survive, to breathe, to see, to listen, to live?
Thus the I of Adam's soul was arraigned in pitiless strife with the Me of his body. Like a wild and hunted creature he roamed the mountain top, halting at the old resting places, there to sit like a stone, to lie on his face, to writhe and fight and cry in his torment. At sunset he staggered down the trail, spent and haggard, to take up useless tasks, to find food tasteless and sleep impossible. Thus passed the next day and yet another, before there came a break in his passion and his strength.
The violence of physical effort wore itself out. He remained in camp, still locked in deadly grip with himself, but wearing to that end in which his conscience would rise supreme, or he would sink forever debased.
A perfect white night came in which Adam felt that the oasis and its environment presented a soul-quieting scene. What incredible paradox that he must go to nature for the strength to save himself from himself! To the nature that made him a savage--that urged in him the strife of the wolf! The moon, half full, shone overhead in a cloudless blue sky where great white stars twinkled. No wind stirred. The palms drooped, sad and graceful, strangely quiet. They were meant for wind. The shadows they cast were of nameless shapes. A wavering dark line of horizon wandered away to be lost in the wilderness. So still, so tranquil, so sweet the night! There were only two sounds--the melancholy notes of a night hawk, and the low, faint moan from the desert. The desert to Adam seemed a vast river, flowing slowly down the levels of the earth to distant gates. Its moan was one of immutable power and motive. By this soft, low, strange moan the world seemed to be dominated. A spirit was out there in the gloom--a spirit from the illimitable, star-studded infinite above. And it was this spirit that came at rare intervals, and whispered to Adam's consciousness. Madman or knave, he was being conquered.
"I would never hide!" Ruth Virey had said in passionate scorn.
She was like her mother, wonderful as steel in her will. Yet these women seemed all heart. They transcended men in love, in sacrifice, in that living flame of soul, turbulent and unquenchable as the fire of the sun.
"I'll hide no more!" burst from Adam, and the whisper startled him, like those soundless whispers in the shadows.
He could live no longer a life in hiding. He must stand, in his own consciousness, if only for a moment, free to look any man in the face, free to be worthy to love Ruth Virey, free as the eagle of his spirit. He would no longer hide from man, from punishment. Love of that purple-eyed girl had been a stinging, quickening spur. But it was only instrumental in the overthrow of fear. Some other power, not physical, not love, but cold, pure, passionless, spiritual, had been drawing him like a wavering compass needle to its pole.
Was it the faith Genie's dying mother had placed in God? Was it a godlike something in him which conflicted with nature? Was it the strange progress of life, inscrutable and inflexible, that dragged men down or lifted them up, made them base or made them great?
The darkness of his mind, the blackness of the abyss of his soul, seemed about to be illumined. But the truth held aloof. Yet could he not see what constituted greatness in any man? What was it to be great? The beasts of the desert and the birds recognised it--strength--speed-- ferocity--tenacity of life. The Indians worshipped greatness so that they looked up and prayed to their gods. They worshipped stature, and power and skill of hand, and fleetness of foot, and above all--endurance. More, they endowed their great chieftains with wisdom. But above all--to endure pain, heat, shock, all of the desert hardships, all of the agonies of life--to endure--that was their symbol of greatness.
Adam asked no other for himself or for any man. To endure and to surmount the ills of life! Any man could be great. He had his choice. To realise at last--to face the inevitable fight in any walk of life--to work and to endure--to slave and to suffer in silence--to stand like a savage the bloody bruises and broken bones--to bite the tongue and hold back the gasp--to plod on down the trails or the roads or the streets and to be true to an ideal--to endure the stings and blows of misfortune--to bear up under loss--to fight the bitterness of defeat and the weakness of grief--to be victor over anger--to smile when tears were close--to resist disease and evil men and base instincts--to hate hate and to love love--to go on when it would seem good to die--to seek ever the glory and the dream--to look up with unquenchable faith in something evermore about to be--that was what any man could do and so be great!
At midnight Adam paced under the palms. All seemed dim, grey, cool, spectral, rustling, whispering. The old familiar sounds were there, only rendered different by his mood. Midnight was haunting. Somehow the desert with its mustering shadows, dark and vast and strange, resembled his soul and his destiny and the mystery of himself. How sweet the loneliness and solitude of the oasis! There under the palms he could walk and be himself, with only the eye of nature and of spirit on him in this final hour of his extremity.
Happiness was not imperative; self-indulgence was not essential to life. Adam realised he had done wonderful things--perhaps noble things. But nothing great. Perhaps all his agony had been preparation for this supreme ordeal.
How saving and splendid would it be, if out of his stultified youth, with its blinded love of brother and its weakness of will--if out of the bitter sting of infidelity and his fatal, tragic deed--if out of the long torture of hardship of the desert and its strife and its contact with souls as wild as his--how glorious it would be if out of this terrible tide of dark, contending years, so full of remorse and fear and endless atonement, there should rise a man who, trained now in the desert's ferocity to survive, should use that force to a noble aim, and, climbing beyond his nature, sacrifice himself to the old Biblical law--a life for a life--and with faith in unknown future lend his spirit to the progress of the ages!
Adam divined that he did not belong to himself. What he wanted for himself, selfishly, was not commensurable with the need of others in this life. He was concerned here with many ideals, the highest of which was sacrifice, that the evil of him should not go on. Since he had loved Ruth Virey the whole value of life had shifted. Life was sweet, but no longer if he had to hide, no longer under the ban of crime. The stain must be washed away. By slow and gradual change, by torments innumerable, had he come to this realisation. He had deceived himself by love of life. But the truth in him was the truth of the immortality of his soul, just as it was truth that he inherited instincts of the savage. Life was renewal. Every base, selfish man held back its spirituality.
"No more! No more!" cried Adam, looking up.
And in that cry he accepted the spirit of life, the mighty being that pulsated there in the darkness, the whispering voice of Genie's mother, the love of Ruth that never was to be his, the strange, desperate fights with his instincts, the stranger fight of his renunciation--he accepted these on faith as his idea of God.
"I will give my life for my brother's," he said. "I will offer myself in punishment for my crime. I will pay with my body that I may save my soul!"