The Ride into the Desert

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By Sadakichi Hartmann.

THE trail led straight into the desert. On either side, save some dark clumps of green wood and sage brush and a few lonely hills studded with scrub cedars, there was naught but the level monotony of the plain, a naked tractless waste, a silent shoreless sea of sand.

It was a clear moonlight night. The moon, resembling a big silver wafer high in the heavens, seemed to have drowned the light of the stars and crept with a vague grey shimmer over the surface of the earth. Over it the dome of night rose like the huge cover over a dish, welling in the mystic world of the desert—calm and vast as the realm of death—from the rest of life.

On the vague and desolate path a lonesome horseman, followed by two pack mules with tinkling bells, made his way. He was wrapped in a huge cloak, a broad felt hat shaded his sallow face. His eyes gazed straight ahead, and an expression of grim determination trembled in the lines of his mouth.

His task was a proud and solitary one. He was riding away from civilization—into the desert, to escape the torturing memories of his past. He was tired of the life of large cities, sad and empty as the burning course over the trackless plain and shadowless land that lay before him. Such is life, sere and parched as the desert's floor. Those who are happy do not realize their happiness. Man, earth-soiled and toil-worn, is blind until misfortune teaches him to see. He had learnt to see that life is unjust to all and full of lies. The whole globe of ours is but a colossal lie revolving around itsel.f. Loyalty, enthusiasm, honesty, benevolence, friendship were lies, and what is called love is the biggest of them all. Why had he not been able to continue to believe in all those lies, and to remain blind like the rest. He surely had a right to be blind for he had believed in everything man can believe.

Thus he had come to leave all he had known, to search for some calm of life in the vast stretches of the dead landscape. In the wilderness, among the lonely sunhot hills, among wild beasts and savage tribes he hoped to find some allay and appeasement for all that he had lost.

How terribly lonesome it was out here. No call of a bird, no insect chirp, no sound of nature save the occasional rustle of dead weeds under the hoofs of his horse. He would not have been astonished if he had found the path strewn with huge skulls and whitening bones of buffalos, or of some one, lonesome like himself, who had perished on this seat of desolation. He heard a low murmuring noise. Hastily he cocked his rifle with a sharp click, while a sudden fear lit at his heart. There was nothing to disturb him. A few minutes later he had reached a thin sheet of rapid turbid water, only a few feet wide and scarcely two feet deep. Although his water flasks were well filled, he dismounted for a cooling draught. He formed the rim of his hat into a cup and dipped it into the stream, but the water was so charged with sand that it grated on his teeth in drinking.

Slowly he pursued his ride. One solitary white cloud drifted along the sapphire wall of the sky, a strange companion on his nocturnal ride. Where was she drifting too! On what shore would she be stranded! Was her journey aimless like his. Alas, to be as unconcerned, as roving free, heeding neither time nor space, as that fair white pilgrim of the sky!

Suddenly an unlooked-for sight greeted his eyes. In the distance, like some mirage fantasy, lay a settlement, white buildings surrounded by aisles of trees. Were they spectres like the rising dust whirls that occasionally rose in the haze of the desert? For hours he had seen no human abode; he had grown used to the scenes of loneliness without any apparent breath of actuality, but now he recalled a remark made to him at the inn he had left early in the morning, that he would pass the last rancho late in the evening.

The house, a weird whitewashed structure, looked like the ghostlike ruin of some human habitation that sheltered naught but flattering shadows and pale robed phantoms. The solitary horseman intended to gallop past it. He did not care to be reminded of any sign of civilization. Yet as he approached the house, he suddenly drew the reins and halted. The lighted windows were wide. open. In the garden some tall flowers of vague tarnished tints rose motionless into the grayness of the night. All nature seemed lifeless save the foliage of a row of trees which quivered in the moonlight. With hands resting on his rifle, as if lost in some gleaming memory, he stared at the lighted window and at the trees, and he imagined to see the leaves like a rippling stream flow from their branches and to hear the vague murmur of their wavelike motion.

At that moment the sound of a piano was heard from the house, and a woman's voice started a song, vain melancholy sounds and words that were carried in broken fragments to the ghostlike listener outside:

"What holds us fast to this weary life
—As sorrows come and go
Like winds of death that o'er deserts blow
To this bitter strife, so sad and grey
Like a sunless day
In the fall of the year.
When leaves are falling and life is sere.

The song ceased. The man wrapped in his cloak breathed deep. With one hand on the back of his saddle he lifted himself in the stirrups, as if he were waiting for more.

Then the music began anew. The woman's voice seemed to float, surge and billow o'er the boundless waste and to fill with melodies of ebbing joys the vastness of space. How it gripped at his heart. All the feelings that he deemed long buried and forgotten welled up to the surface of his mind, shifting hither and thither in strange agitation not unlike the spinning. swirls of dust that rise from the sand of the desert. He shivered and shrunk together, as in fear of those memories which no man from the large cities can resist. He raised one arm and buried his face in it.

He knew he could not go any farther. He was not born for the hermit life among the sunhot hills under domes of turquoise blue. He lifted his tear-dimmed face into the moonlight night—suddenly turned his horse, pressed his spurs into its flanks and galloped back, like a madman pursued by the furies of desolation, back the road whence he came, back to civilization.