PART II. The Country of the Saints.
1. CHAPTER I. ON THE GREAT ALKALI PLAIN.
It has been said there is nothing appertaining to life upon
the broad plain. That is hardly true. Looking down from the
Sierra Blanco, one sees a pathway traced out across the
desert, which winds away and is lost in the extreme distance.
It is rutted with wheels and trodden down by the feet of many
adventurers. Here and there there are scattered white
objects which glisten in the sun, and stand out against the
dull deposit of alkali. Approach, and examine them! They
are bones: some large and coarse, others smaller and more
delicate. The former have belonged to oxen, and the latter
to men. For fifteen hundred miles one may trace this ghastly
caravan route by these scattered remains of those who had
fallen by the wayside.
Looking down on this very scene, there stood upon the fourth
of May, eighteen hundred and forty-seven, a solitary
traveller. His appearance was such that he might have been
the very genius or demon of the region. An observer would
have found it difficult to say whether he was nearer to forty
or to sixty. His face was lean and haggard, and the brown
parchment-like skin was drawn tightly over the projecting
bones; his long, brown hair and beard were all flecked and
dashed with white; his eyes were sunken in his head, and
burned with an unnatural lustre; while the hand which grasped
his rifle was hardly more fleshy than that of a skeleton.
As he stood, he leaned upon his weapon for support, and yet his
tall figure and the massive framework of his bones suggested
a wiry and vigorous constitution. His gaunt face, however,
and his clothes, which hung so baggily over his shrivelled
limbs, proclaimed what it was that gave him that senile and
decrepit appearance. The man was dying -- dying from hunger
and from thirst.
He had toiled painfully down the ravine, and on to this
little elevation, in the vain hope of seeing some signs of
water. Now the great salt plain stretched before his eyes,
and the distant belt of savage mountains, without a sign
anywhere of plant or tree, which might indicate the presence
of moisture. In all that broad landscape there was no gleam
of hope. North, and east, and west he looked with wild
questioning eyes, and then he realised that his wanderings
had come to an end, and that there, on that barren crag,
he was about to die. "Why not here, as well as in a feather
bed, twenty years hence," he muttered, as he seated himself
in the shelter of a boulder.