Desert Gold (Chapter 6, page 1 of 12)

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Chapter 6

Toward evening of a lowering December day, some fifty miles west of
Forlorn River, a horseman rode along an old, dimly defined trail. From
time to time he halted to study the lay of the land ahead. It was bare,
somber, ridgy desert, covered with dun-colored greasewood and stunted
prickly pear. Distant mountains hemmed in the valley, raising black
spurs above the round lomas and the square-walled mesas.

This lonely horseman bestrode a steed of magnificent build, perfectly
white except for a dark bar of color running down the noble head from
ears to nose. Sweatcaked dust stained the long flanks. The horse had
been running. His mane and tail were laced and knotted to keep their
length out of reach of grasping cactus and brush. Clumsy home-made
leather shields covered the front of his forelegs and ran up well to
his wide breast. What otherwise would have been muscular symmetry of
limb was marred by many a scar and many a lump. He was lean, gaunt,
worn, a huge machine of muscle and bone, beautiful only in head and
mane, a weight-carrier, a horse strong and fierce like the desert that
had bred him.

The rider fitted the horse as he fitted the saddle. He was a young man
of exceedingly powerful physique, wide-shouldered, long-armed,
big-legged. His lean face, where it was not red, blistered and
peeling, was the hue of bronze. He had a dark eye, a falcon gaze,
roving and keen. His jaw was prominent and set, mastiff-like; his lips
were stern. It was youth with its softness not yet quite burned and
hardened away that kept the whole cast of his face from being ruthless.

This young man was Dick Gale, but not the listless traveler, nor the
lounging wanderer who, two months before, had by chance dropped into
Casita. Friendship, chivalry, love--the deep-seated, unplumbed
emotions that had been stirred into being with all their incalculable
power for spiritual change, had rendered different the meaning of life.
In the moment almost of their realization the desert had claimed Gale,
and had drawn him into its crucible. The desert had multiplied weeks
into years. Heat, thirst, hunger, loneliness, toil, fear, ferocity,
pain--he knew them all. He had felt them all--the white sun, with its
glazed, coalescing, lurid fire; the caked split lips and rasping,
dry-puffed tongue; the sickening ache in the pit of his stomach; the
insupportable silence, the empty space, the utter desolation, the
contempt of life; the weary ride, the long climb, the plod in sand, the
search, search, search for water; the sleepless night alone, the watch
and wait, the dread of ambush, the swift flight; the fierce pursuit of
men wild as Bedouins and as fleet, the willingness to deal sudden
death, the pain of poison thorn, the stinging tear of lead through
flesh; and that strange paradox of the burning desert, the cold at
night, the piercing icy wind, the dew that penetrated to the marrow,
the numbing desert cold of the dawn.

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