When he awakened he found, to his surprise, that his companion haddeparted. A trail in the sand led off to the north. There was nowater in that direction. Cameron shrugged his shoulders; it was nothis affair; he had his own problems. And straightway he forgot hisstrange visitor.
Cameron began his day, grateful for the solitude that was now unbroken,for the canyon-furrowed and cactus-spired scene that now showed no signof life. He traveled southwest, never straying far from the dry streambed; and in a desultory way, without eagerness, he hunted for signs ofgold.
The work was toilsome, yet the periods of rest in which he indulgedwere not taken because of fatigue. He rested to look, to listen, tofeel. What the vast silent world meant to him had always been amystical thing, which he felt in all its incalculable power, but neverunderstood.
That day, while it was yet light, and he was digging in a moistwhite-bordered wash for water, he was brought sharply up by hearing thecrack of hard hoofs on stone. There down the canyon came a man and aburro. Cameron recognized them.
"Hello, friend," called the man, halting. "Our trails crossed again.That's good."
"Hello," replied Cameron, slowly. "Any mineral sign to-day?"
They made camp together, ate their frugal meal, smoked a pipe, androlled in their blankets without exchanging many words. In the morningthe same reticence, the same aloofness characterized the manner ofboth. But Cameron's companion, when he had packed his burro and wasready to start, faced about and said: "We might stay together, if it'sall right with you."
"I never take a partner," replied Cameron.
"You're alone; I'm alone," said the other, mildly. "It's a big place.If we find gold there'll be enough for two."
"I don't go down into the desert for gold alone," rejoined Cameron,with a chill note in his swift reply.
His companion's deep-set, luminous eyes emitted a singular flash. Itmoved Cameron to say that in the years of his wandering he had met noman who could endure equally with him the blasting heat, the blindingdust storms, the wilderness of sand and rock and lava and cactus, theterrible silence and desolation of the desert. Cameron waved a handtoward the wide, shimmering, shadowy descent of plain and range. "Imay strike through the Sonora Desert. I may head for Pinacate or northfor the Colorado Basin. You are an old man."
"I don't know the country, but to me one place is the same as another,"replied his companion. For moments he seemed to forget himself, andswept his far-reaching gaze out over the colored gulf of stone andsand. Then with gentle slaps he drove his burro in behind Cameron."Yes, I'm old. I'm lonely, too. It's come to me just lately. But,friend, I can still travel, and for a few days my company won't hurtyou."
"Have it your way," said Cameron.
They began a slow march down into the desert. At sunset they campedunder the lee of a low mesa. Cameron was glad his comrade had theIndian habit of silence. Another day's travel found the prospectorsdeep in the wilderness. Then there came a breaking of reserve,noticeable in the elder man, almost imperceptibly gradual in Cameron.Beside the meager mesquite campfire this gray-faced, thoughtful oldprospector would remove his black pipe from his mouth to talk a little;and Cameron would listen, and sometimes unlock his lips to speak aword. And so, as Cameron began to respond to the influence of a desertless lonely than habitual, he began to take keener note of his comrade,and found him different from any other he had ever encountered in thewilderness. This man never grumbled at the heat, the glare, the drivingsand, the sour water, the scant fare. During the daylight hours he wasseldom idle. At night he sat dreaming before the fire or paced to andfro in the gloom. He slept but little, and that long after Cameron hadhad his own rest. He was tireless, patient, brooding.
Cameron's awakened interest brought home to him the realization thatfor years he had shunned companionship. In those years only three menhad wandered into the desert with him, and these had left their bonesto bleach in the shifting sands. Cameron had not cared to know theirsecrets. But the more he studied this latest comrade the more he beganto suspect that he might have missed something in the others. In hisown driving passion to take his secret into the limitless abode ofsilence and desolation, where he could be alone with it, he hadforgotten that life dealt shocks to other men. Somehow this silentcomrade reminded him.
One afternoon late, after they had toiled up a white, winding wash ofsand and gravel, they came upon a dry waterhole. Cameron dug deep intothe sand, but without avail. He was turning to retrace weary stepsback to the last water when his comrade asked him to wait. Cameronwatched him search in his pack and bring forth what appeared to be asmall, forked branch of a peach tree. He grasped the prongs of thefork and held them before him with the end standing straight out, andthen he began to walk along the stream bed. Cameron, at first amused,then amazed, then pitying, and at last curious, kept pace with theprospector. He saw a strong tension of his comrade's wrists, as if hewas holding hard against a considerable force. The end of the peachbranch began to quiver and turn. Cameron reached out a hand to touchit, and was astounded at feeling a powerful vibrant force pulling thebranch downward. He felt it as a magnetic shock. The branch keptturning, and at length pointed to the ground.
"Dig here," said the prospector.
"What!" ejaculated Cameron. Had the man lost his mind?
Then Cameron stood by while his comrade dug in the sand. Three feet hedug--four--five, and the sand grew dark, then moist. At six feet waterbegan to seep through.
"Get the little basket in my pack," he said.
Cameron complied, and saw his comrade drop the basket into the deephole, where it kept the sides from caving in and allowed the water toseep through. While Cameron watched, the basket filled. Of all thestrange incidents of his desert career this was the strangest.Curiously he picked up the peach branch and held it as he had seen itheld. The thing, however, was dead in his hands.
"I see you haven't got it," remarked his comrade. "Few men have."
"Got what?" demanded Cameron.
"A power to find water that way. Back in Illinois an old German usedto do that to locate wells. He showed me I had the same power. I can'texplain. But you needn't look so dumfounded. There's nothingsupernatural about it."
"You mean it's a simple fact--that some men have a magnetism, a forceor power to find water as you did?"
"Yes. It's not unusual on the farms back in Illinois, Ohio,Pennsylvania. The old German I spoke of made money traveling roundwith his peach fork."
"What a gift for a man in the desert!"
They entered a region where mineral abounded, and their march becameslower. Generally they took the course of a wash, one on each side,and let the burros travel leisurely along nipping at the bleachedblades of scant grass, or at sage or cactus, while they searched in thecanyons and under the ledges for signs of gold. When they found anyrock that hinted of gold they picked off a piece and gave it a chemicaltest. The search was fascinating. They interspersed the work withlong, restful moments when they looked afar down the vast reaches andsmoky shingles to the line of dim mountains. Some impelling desire, notall the lure of gold, took them to the top of mesas and escarpments;and here, when they had dug and picked, they rested and gazed out atthe wide prospect. Then, as the sun lost its heat and sank lowering todent its red disk behind far-distant spurs, they halted in a shadycanyon or likely spot in a dry wash and tried for water. When theyfound it they unpacked, gave drink to the tired burros, and turned themloose. Dead mesquite served for the campfire. While the strangetwilight deepened into weird night they sat propped against stones,with eyes on the dying embers of the fire, and soon they lay on thesand with the light of white stars on their dark faces.
Each succeeding day and night Cameron felt himself more and more drawnto this strange man. He found that after hours of burning toil he hadinsensibly grown nearer to his comrade
. He reflected that after a fewweeks in the desert he had always become a different man. Incivilization, in the rough mining camps, he had been a prey to unrestand gloom. But once down on the great billowing sweep of this lonelyworld, he could look into his unquiet soul without bitterness. Did notthe desert magnify men? Cameron believed that wild men in wild places,fighting cold, heat, starvation, thirst, barrenness, facing theelements in all their ferocity, usually retrograded, descended to thesavage, lost all heart and soul and became mere brutes. Likewise hebelieved that men wandering or lost in the wilderness often reversedthat brutal order of life and became noble, wonderful, super-human. Sonow he did not marvel at a slow stir stealing warmer along his veins,and at the premonition that perhaps he and this man, alone on thedesert, driven there by life's mysterious and remorseless motive, wereto see each other through God's eyes.
His companion was one who thought of himself last. It humiliatedCameron that in spite of growing keenness he could not hinder him fromdoing more than an equal share of the day's work. The man was mild,gentle, quiet, mostly silent, yet under all his softness he seemed tobe made of the fiber of steel. Cameron could not thwart him.Moreover, he appeared to want to find gold for Cameron, not forhimself. Cameron's hands always trembled at the turning of rock thatpromised gold; he had enough of the prospector's passion for fortune tothrill at the chance of a strike. But the other never showed the leasttrace of excitement.
One night they were encamped at the head of a canyon. The day had beenexceedingly hot, and long after sundown the radiation of heat from therocks persisted. A desert bird whistled a wild, melancholy note from adark cliff, and a distant coyote wailed mournfully. The stars shonewhite until the huge moon rose to burn out all their whiteness. And onthis night Cameron watched his comrade, and yielded to interest he hadnot heretofore voiced.
"Pardner, what drives you into the desert?"
"Do I seem to be a driven man?"
"No. But I feel it. Do you come to forget?"
"Ah!" softly exclaimed Cameron. Always he seemed to have known that.He said no more. He watched the old man rise and begin his nightlypace to and fro, up and down. With slow, soft tread, forward and back,tirelessly and ceaselessly, he paced that beat. He did not look up atthe stars or follow the radiant track of the moon along the canyonramparts. He hung his head. He was lost in another world. It was aworld which the lonely desert made real. He looked a dark, sad,plodding figure, and somehow impressed Cameron with the helplessness ofmen.
Cameron grew acutely conscious of the pang in his own breast, of thefire in his heart, the strife and torment of his passion-driven soul.He had come into the desert to remember a woman. She appeared to himthen as she had looked when first she entered his life--a golden-hairedgirl, blue-eyed, white-skinned, red-lipped, tall and slender andbeautiful. He had never forgotten, and an old, sickening remorseknocked at his heart. He rose and climbed out of the canyon and to thetop of a mesa, where he paced to and fro and looked down into the weirdand mystic shadows, like the darkness of his passion, and farther ondown the moon track and the glittering stretches that vanished in thecold, blue horizon. The moon soared radiant and calm, the white starsshone serene. The vault of heaven seemed illimitable and divine. Thedesert surrounded him, silver-streaked and black-mantled, a chaos ofrock and sand, silent, austere, ancient, always waiting. It spoke toCameron. It was a naked corpse, but it had a soul. In that wildsolitude the white stars looked down upon him pitilessly and pityingly.They had shone upon a desert that might once have been alive and wasnow dead, and might again throb with life, only to die. It was aterrible ordeal for him to stand alone and realize that he was only aman facing eternity. But that was what gave him strength to endure.Somehow he was a part of it all, some atom in that vastness, somehownecessary to an inscrutable purpose, something indestructible in thatdesolate world of ruin and death and decay, something perishable andchangeable and growing under all the fixity of heaven. In thatendless, silent hall of desert there was a spirit; and Cameron felthovering near him what he imagined to be phantoms of peace.
He returned to camp and sought his comrade.
"I reckon we're two of a kind," he said. "It was a woman who drove meinto the desert. But I come to remember. The desert's the only placeI can do that."
"Was she your wife?" asked the elder man.
A long silence ensued. A cool wind blew up the canyon, sifting thesand through the dry sage, driving away the last of the lingering heat.The campfire wore down to a ruddy ashen heap.
"I had a daughter," said Cameron's comrade. "She lost her mother atbirth. And I--I didn't know how to bring up a girl. She was prettyand gay. It was the--the old story."
His words were peculiarly significant to Cameron. They distressed him.He had been wrapped up in his remorse. If ever in the past he hadthought of any one connected with the girl he had wronged he had longforgotten. But the consequences of such wrong were far-reaching. Theystruck at the roots of a home. Here in the desert he was confronted bythe spectacle of a splendid man, a father, wasting his life because hecould not forget--because there was nothing left to live for. Cameronunderstood better now why his comrade was drawn by the desert.
"Well, tell me more?" asked Cameron, earnestly.
"It was the old, old story. My girl was pretty and free. The youngbucks ran after her. I guess she did not run away from them. And I wasaway a good deal--working in another town. She was in love with a wildfellow. I knew nothing of it till too late. He was engaged to marryher. But he didn't come back. And when the disgrace became plain toall, my girl left home. She went West. After a while I heard fromher. She was well--working--living for her baby. A long time passed.I had no ties. I drifted West. Her lover had also gone West. Inthose days everybody went West. I trailed him, intending to kill him.But I lost his trail. Neither could I find any trace of her. She hadmoved on, driven, no doubt, by the hound of her past. Since then Ihave taken to the wilds, hunting gold on the desert."
"Yes, it's the old, old story, only sadder, I think," said Cameron; andhis voice was strained and unnatural. "Pardner, what Illinois town wasit you hailed from?"
"And your--your name?" went on Cameron huskily.
That name might as well have been a bullet. Cameron stood erect,motionless, as men sometimes stand momentarily when shot straightthrough the heart. In an instant, when thoughts resurged like blindingflashes of lightning through his mind, he was a swaying, quivering,terror-stricken man. He mumbled something hoarsely and backed into theshadow. But he need not have feared discovery, however surely hisagitation might have betrayed him. Warren sat brooding over thecampfire, oblivious of his comrade, absorbed in the past.
Cameron swiftly walked away in the gloom, with the blood thrummingthick in his ears, whispering over and over:
"Merciful God! Nell was his daughter!"