The Desert Valley by Jackson Gregory


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Page 1

The Desert

Over many wide regions of the south-western desert country of Arizona
and New Mexico lies an eternal spell of silence and mystery. Across
the sand-ridges come many foreign things, both animate and inanimate,
which are engulfed in its immensity, which frequently disappear for all
time from the sight of men, blotted out like a bird which flies free
from a lighted room into the outside darkness. As though in
compensation for that which it has taken, the desert from time to time
allows new marvels, riven from its vitals, to emerge.

Though death-still, it has a voice which calls ceaselessly to those
human hearts tuned to its messages: hostile and harsh, it draws and
urges; repellent, it profligately awards health and wealth; inviting,
it kills. And always it keeps its own counsel; it is without peer in
its lonesomeness, and without confidants; it heaps its sand over its
secrets to hide them from its flashing stars.

You see the bobbing ears of a pack-animal and the dusty hat and stoop
shoulders of a man. They are symbols of mystery. They rise briefly
against the skyline, they are gone into the grey distance. Something
beckons or something drives. They are lost to human sight, perhaps to
human memory, like a couple of chips drifting out into the ocean.
Patient time may witness their return; it is still likely that soon
another incarnation will have closed for man and beast, that they will
have left to mark their passing a few glisteningly white bones,
polished untiringly by tiny sand-chisels in the grip of the desert
winds. They may find gold, but they may not come in time to water.
The desert is equally conversant with the actions of men mad with gold
and mad with thirst.

To push out along into this immensity is to evince the heart of a brave
man or the brain of a fool. The endeavour to traverse the forbidden
garden of silence implies on the part of the agent an adventurous
nature. Hence it would seem no great task to catalogue those human
beings who set their backs to the gentler world and press forward into
the naked embrace of this merciless land. Yet as many sorts and
conditions come here each year as are to be found outside.

Silence, ruthlessness, mystery--these are the attributes of the desert.
True, it has its softer phases--veiled dawns and dusks, rainbow hues,
moon and stars. But these are but tender blossoms from a spiked,
poisonous stalk, like the flowers of the cactus. They are brief and
evanescent; the iron parent is everlasting.

Chapter I

A Bluebird's Feather

In the dusk a pack-horse crested a low-lying sand-ridge, put up its
head and sniffed, pushed forward eagerly, its nostrils twitching as it
turned a little more toward the north, going straight toward the
water-hole. The pack was slipping as far to one side as it had listed
to the other half an hour ago; in the restraining rope there were a
dozen intricate knots where one would have amply sufficed. The horse
broke into a trot, blazing its own trail through the mesquite; a parcel
slipped; the slack rope grew slacker because of the subsequent
readjustment; half a dozen bundles dropped after the first. A voice,
thin and irritable, shouted 'Whoa!' and the man in turn was briefly
outlined against the pale sky as he scrambled up the ridge. He was a
little man and plainly weary; he walked as though his boots hurt him;
he carried a wide, new hat in one hand; the skin was peeling from his
blistered face. From his other hand trailed a big handkerchief. He
was perhaps fifty or sixty. He called 'Whoa!' again, and made what
haste he could after his horse.

A moment later a second horse appeared against the sky, following the
man, topping the ridge, passing on. In silhouette it appeared no
normal animal but some weird monstrosity, a misshapen body covered
everywhere with odd wart-like excrescences. Close by, these unique
growths resolved themselves into at least a score of canteens and
water-bottles of many shapes and sizes, strung together with bits of
rope. Undoubtedly the hand which had tied the other knots had
constructed these. This horse in turn sniffed and went forward with a
quickened pace.

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Fri 5th Jun 2020, 23:01