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The Desert of Wheat By Zane Grey Characters: 23514

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

Late in June the vast northwestern desert of wheat began to take on a tinge of gold, lending an austere beauty to that endless, rolling, smooth world of treeless hills, where miles of fallow ground and miles of waving grain sloped up to the far-separated homes of the heroic men who had conquered over sage and sand.

These simple homes of farmers seemed lost on an immensity of soft gray and golden billows of land, insignificant dots here and there on distant hills, so far apart that nature only seemed accountable for those broad squares of alternate gold and brown, extending on and on to the waving horizon-line. A lonely, hard, heroic country, where flowers and fruit were not, nor birds and brooks, nor green pastures. Whirling strings of dust looped up over fallow ground, the short, dry wheat lay back from the wind, the haze in the distance was drab and smoky, heavy with substance.

A thousand hills lay bare to the sky, and half of every hill was wheat and half was fallow ground; and all of them, with the shallow valleys between, seemed big and strange and isolated. The beauty of them was austere, as if the hand of man had been held back from making green his home site, as if the immensity of the task had left no time for youth and freshness. Years, long years, were there in the round-hilled, many-furrowed gray old earth. And the wheat looked a century old. Here and there a straight, dusty road stretched from hill to hill, becoming a thin white line, to disappear in the distance. The sun shone hot, the wind blew hard; and over the boundless undulating expanse hovered a shadow that was neither hood of dust nor hue of gold. It was not physical, but lonely, waiting, prophetic, and weird. No wild desert of wastelands, once the home of other races of man, and now gone to decay and death, could have shown so barren an acreage. Half of this wandering patchwork of squares was earth, brown and gray, curried and disked, and rolled and combed and harrowed, with not a tiny leaf of green in all the miles. The other half had only a faint golden promise of mellow harvest; and at long distance it seemed to shimmer and retreat under the hot sun. A singularly beautiful effect of harmony lay in the long, slowly rising slopes, in the rounded hills, in the endless curving lines on all sides. The scene was heroic because of the labor of horny hands; it was sublime because not a hundred harvests, nor three generations of toiling men, could ever rob nature of its limitless space and scorching sun and sweeping dust, of its resistless age-long creep back toward the desert that it had been.

* * *

Here was grown the most bounteous, the richest and finest wheat in all the world. Strange and unfathomable that so much of the bread of man, the staff of life, the hope of civilization in this tragic year 1917, should come from a vast, treeless, waterless, dreary desert!

This wonderful place was an immense valley of considerable altitude called the Columbia Basin, surrounded by the Cascade Mountains on the west, the Coeur d'Alene and Bitter Root Mountains on the east, the Okanozan range to the north, and the Blue Mountains to the south. The valley floor was basalt, from the lava flow of volcanoes in ages past. The rainfall was slight except in the foot-hills of the mountains. The Columbia River, making a prodigious and meandering curve, bordered on three sides what was known as the Bend country. South of this vast area, across the range, began the fertile, many-watered region that extended on down into verdant Oregon. Among the desert hills of this Bend country, near the center of the Basin, where the best wheat was raised, lay widely separated little towns, the names of which gave evidence of the mixed population. It was, of course, an exceedingly prosperous country, a fact manifest in the substantial little towns, if not in the crude and unpretentious homes of the farmers. The acreage of farms ran from a section, six hundred and forty acres, up into the thousands.

* * *

Upon a morning in early July, exactly three months after the United States had declared war upon Germany, a sturdy young farmer strode with darkly troubled face from the presence of his father. At the end of a stormy scene he had promised his father that he would abandon his desire to enlist in the army.

Kurt Dorn walked away from the gray old clapboard house, out to the fence, where he leaned on the gate. He could see for miles in every direction, and to the southward, away on a long yellow slope, rose a stream of dust from a motor-car.

"Must be Anderson-coming to dun father," muttered young Dorn.

This was the day, he remembered, when the wealthy rancher of Ruxton was to look over old Chris Dorn's wheat-fields. Dorn owed thirty-thousand dollars and interest for years, mostly to Anderson. Kurt hated the debt and resented the visit, but he could not help acknowledging that the rancher had been lenient and kind. Long since Kurt had sorrowfully realized that his father was illiterate, hard, grasping, and growing worse with the burden of years.

"If we had rain now-or soon-that section of Bluestem would square father," soliloquized young Dorn, as with keen eyes he surveyed a vast field of wheat, short, smooth, yellowing in the sun. But the cloudless sky, the haze of heat rather betokened a continued drought.

There were reasons, indeed, for Dorn to wear a dark and troubled face as he watched the motor-car speed along ahead of its stream of dust, pass out of sight under the hill, and soon reappear, to turn off the main road and come toward the house. It was a big, closed car, covered with dust. The driver stopped it at the gate and got out.

"Is this Chris Dorn's farm?" he asked.

"Yes," replied Kurt.

Whereupon the door of the car opened and out stepped a short, broad man in a long linen coat.

"Come out, Lenore, an' shake off the dust," he said, and he assisted a young woman to step out. She also wore a long linen coat, and a veil besides. The man removed his coat and threw it into the car. Then he took off his sombrero to beat the dust off of that.

"Phew! The Golden Valley never seen dust like this in a million years!… I'm chokin' for water. An' listen to the car. She's boilin'!"

Then, as he stepped toward Kurt, the rancher showed himself to be a well-preserved man of perhaps fifty-five, of powerful form beginning to sag in the broad shoulders, his face bronzed by long exposure to wind and sun. He had keen gray eyes, and their look was that of a man used to dealing with his kind and well disposed toward them.

"Hello! Are you young Dorn?" he asked.

"Yes, sir," replied Kurt, stepping out.

"I'm Anderson, from Ruxton, come to see your dad. This is my girl Lenore."

Kurt acknowledged the slight bow from the veiled young woman, and then, hesitating, he added, "Won't you come in?"

"No, not yet. I'm chokin' for air an' water. Bring us a drink," replied Anderson.

Kurt hurried away to get a bucket and tin cup. As he drew water from the well he was thinking rather vaguely that it was somehow embarrassing-the fact of Mr. Anderson being accompanied by his daughter. Kurt was afraid of his father. But then, what did it matter? When he returned to the yard he found the rancher sitting in the shade of one of the few apple-trees, and the young lady was standing near, in the act of removing bonnet and veil. She had thrown the linen coat over the seat of an old wagon-bed that lay near.

"Good water is scarce here, but I'm glad we have some," said Kurt; then as he set down the bucket and offered a brimming cupful to the girl he saw her face, and his eyes met hers. He dropped the cup and stared. Then hurriedly, with flushing face, he bent over to recover and refill it.

"Ex-excuse me. I'm-clumsy," he managed to say, and as he handed the cup to her he averted his gaze. For more than a year the memory of this very girl had haunted him. He had seen her twice-the first time at the close of his one year of college at the University of California, and the second time on the street in Spokane. In a glance he had recognized the strong, lithe figure, the sunny hair, the rare golden tint of her complexion, the blue eyes, warm and direct. And he had sustained a shock which momentarily confused him.

"Good water, hey?" dissented Anderson, after drinking a second cup. "Boy that's wet, but it ain't water to drink. Come down in the foot-hills an' I'll show you. My ranch 's called 'Many Waters,' an' you can't keep your feet dry."

"I wish we had some of it here," replied Kurt, wistfully, and he waved a hand at the broad, swelling slopes. The warm breath that blew in from the wheatlands felt dry and smelled dry.

"You're in for a dry spell?" inquired Anderson, with interest that was keen, and kindly as well.

"Father says so. And I fear it, too-for he never makes a mistake in weather or crops."

"A hot, dry spell!… This summer?… Hum!… Boy, do you know that wheat is the most important thing in the world to-day?"

"You mean on account of the war," replied Kurt. "Yes, I know. But father doesn't see that. All he sees is-if we have rain we'll have bumper crops. That big field there would be a record-at war prices.… And he wouldn't be ruined!"

"Ruined?… Oh, he means I'd close on him.… Hum!… Say, what do you see in a big wheat yield-if it rains?"

"Mr. Anderson, I'd like to see our debt paid, but I'm thinking most of wheat for starving peoples. I-I've studied this wheat question. It's the biggest question in this war."

Kurt had forgotten the girl and was unaware of her eyes bent steadily upon him. Anderson had roused to the interest of wheat, and to a deeper study of the young man.

"Say, Dorn, how old are you?" he asked.

"Twenty-four. And Kurt's my first name," was the reply.

"Will this farm fall to you?"

"Yes, if my father does not lose it."

"Hum!… Old Dorn won't lose it, never fear. He raises the best wheat in this section."

"But father never owned the land. We have had three bad years. If the wheat fails this summer-we lose the land, that's all."

"Are you an-American?" queried Anderson, slowly, as if treading on dangerous ground.

"I am," snapped Kurt. "My mother was American. She's dead. Father is German. He's old. He's rabid since the President declared war. He'll never change."

"That's hell. What 're you goin' to do if your country calls you?"

"Go!" replied Kurt, with flashing eyes. "I wanted to enlist. Father and I quarreled over that until I had to give in. He's hard-he's impossible.… I'll wait for the draft and hope I'm called."

"Boy, it's that spirit Germany's roused, an' the best I can say is, God help her!… Have you a brother?"

"No. I'm all father has."

"Well, it makes a tough place for him, an' you, too. Humor him. He's old. An' when you're called-go an' fight. You'll come back."

"If I only knew that-it wouldn't be so hard."

"Hard? It sure is hard. But it'll be the makin' of a great country. It'll weed out the riffraff.… See here, Kurt, I'm goin' to give you a hunch. Have you had any dealin's with the I.W.W.?"

"Yes, last harvest we had trouble, but nothing serious. When I was in Spokane last month I heard a good deal. Strangers have approached us here, too-mostly aliens. I have no use for them, but they always get father's ear. And now!… To tell the truth, I'm worried."

"Boy, you need to be," replied Anderson, earnestly. "We're all worried. I'm goin' to let you read over the laws of that I.W.W. organization. You're to keep mum now, mind you. I belong to the Chamber of Commerce in Spokane. Somebody got hold of these by-laws of this so-called labor union. We've had copies made, an' every honest farmer

in the Northwest is goin' to read them. But carryin' one around is dangerous, I reckon, these days. Here."

Anderson hesitated a moment, peered cautiously around, and then, slipping folded sheets of paper from his inside coat pocket, he evidently made ready to hand them to Kurt.

"Lenore, where's the driver?" he asked.

"He's under the car," replied the girl

Kurt thrilled at the soft sound of her voice. It was something to have been haunted by a girl's face for a year and then suddenly hear her voice.

"He's new to me-that driver-an' I ain't trustin' any new men these days," went on Anderson. "Here now, Dorn. Read that. An' if you don't get red-headed-"

Without finishing his last muttered remark, he opened the sheets of manuscript and spread them out to the young man.

Curiously, and with a little rush of excitement, Kurt began to read. The very first rule of the I.W.W. aimed to abolish capital. Kurt read on with slowly growing amaze, consternation, and anger. When he had finished, his look, without speech, was a question Anderson hastened to answer.

"It's straight goods," he declared. "Them's the sure-enough rules of that gang. We made certain before we acted. Now how do they strike you?"

"Why, that's no labor union!" replied Kurt, hotly. "They're outlaws, thieves, blackmailers, pirates. I-I don't know what!"

"Dorn, we're up against a bad outfit an' the Northwest will see hell this summer. There's trouble in Montana and Idaho. Strangers are driftin' into Washington from all over. We must organize to meet them-to prevent them gettin' a hold out here. It's a labor union, mostly aliens, with dishonest an' unscrupulous leaders, some of them Americans. They aim to take advantage of the war situation. In the newspapers they rave about shorter hours, more pay, acknowledgment of the union. But any fool would see, if he read them laws I showed you, that this I.W.W. is not straight."

"Mr. Anderson, what steps have you taken down in your country?" queried Kurt.

"So far all I've done was to hire my hands for a year, give them high wages, an' caution them when strangers come round to feed them an' be civil an' send them on."

"But we can't do that up here in the Bend," said Dorn, seriously. "We need, say, a hundred thousand men in harvest-time, and not ten thousand all the rest of the year."

"Sure you can't. But you'll have to organize somethin'. Up here in this desert you could have a heap of trouble if that outfit got here strong enough. You'd better tell every farmer you can trust about this I.W.W."

"I've only one American neighbor, and he lives six miles from here," replied Dorn. "Olsen over there is a Swede, and not a naturalized citizen, but I believe he's for the U.S. And there's-"

"Dad," interrupted the girl, "I believe our driver is listening to your very uninteresting conversation."

She spoke demurely, with laughter in her low voice. It made Dorn dare to look at her, and he met a blue blaze that was instantly averted.

Anderson growled, evidently some very hard names, under his breath; his look just then was full of characteristic Western spirit. Then he got up.

"Lenore, I reckon your talk 'll be more interesting than mine," he said, dryly. "I'll go see Dorn an' get this business over."

"I'd rather go with you," hurriedly replied Kurt; and then, as though realizing a seeming discourtesy in his words, his face flamed, and he stammered: "I-I don't mean that. But father is in bad mood. We just quarreled.-I told you-about the war. And-Mr. Anderson,-I'm-I'm a little afraid he'll-"

"Well, son, I'm not afraid," interrupted the rancher. "I'll beard the old lion in his den. You talk to Lenore."

"Please don't speak of the war," said Kurt, appealingly.

"Not a word unless he starts roarin' at Uncle Sam," declared Anderson, with a twinkle in his eyes, and turned toward the house.

"He'll roar, all right," said Kurt, almost with a groan. He knew what an ordeal awaited the rancher, and he hated the fact that it could not be avoided. Then Kurt was confused, astounded, infuriated with himself over a situation he had not brought about and could scarcely realize. He became conscious of pride and shame, and something as black and hopeless as despair.

"Haven't I seen you-before?" asked the girl.

The query surprised and thrilled Kurt out of his self-centered thought.

"I don't know. Have you? Where?" he answered, facing her. It was a relief to find that she still averted her face.

"At Berkeley, in California, the first time, and the second at Spokane, in front of the Davenport," she replied.

"First-and-second?… You-you remembered both times!" he burst out, incredulously.

"Yes. I don't see how I could have helped remembering." Her laugh was low, musical, a little hurried, yet cool.

Dorn was not familiar with girls. He had worked hard all his life, there among those desert hills, and during the few years his father had allowed him for education. He knew wheat, but nothing of the eternal feminine. So it was impossible for him to grasp that this girl was not wholly at her ease. Her words and the cool little laugh suddenly brought home to Kurt the immeasurable distance between him and a daughter of one of the richest ranchers in Washington.

"You mean I-I was impertinent," he began, struggling between shame and pride. "I-I stared at you.… Oh, I must have been rude.… But, Miss Anderson, I-I didn't mean to be. I didn't think you saw me-at all. I don't know what made me do that. It never happened before. I beg your pardon."

A subtle indefinable change, perceptible to Dorn, even in his confused state, came over the girl.

"I did not say you were impertinent," she returned. "I remembered seeing you-notice me, that is all."

Self-possessed, aloof, and kind, Miss Anderson now became an impenetrable mystery to Dorn. But that only accentuated the distance she had intimated lay between them. Her kindness stung him to recover his composure. He wished she had not been kind. What a singular chance that had brought her here to his home-the daughter of a man who came to demand a long-unpaid debt! What a dispelling of the vague thing that had been only a dream! Dorn gazed away across the yellowing hills to the dim blue of the mountains where rolled the Oregon. Despite the color, it was gray-like his future.

"I heard you tell father you had studied wheat," said the girl, presently, evidently trying to make conversation.

"Yes, all my life," replied Kurt. "My study has mostly been under my father. Look at my hands." He held out big, strong hands, scarred and knotted, with horny palms uppermost, and he laughed. "I can be proud of them, Miss Anderson.… But I had a splendid year in California at the university and I graduated from the Washington State Agricultural College."

"You love wheat-the raising of it, I mean?" she inquired.

"It must be that I do, though I never had such a thought. Wheat is so wonderful. No one can guess who does not know it!… The clean, plump grain, the sowing on fallow ground, the long wait, the first tender green, and the change day by day to the deep waving fields of gold-then the harvest, hot, noisy, smoky, full of dust and chaff, and the great combine-harvesters with thirty-four horses. Oh! I guess I do love it all.… I worked in a Spokane flour-mill, too, just to learn how flour is made. There is nothing in the world so white, so clean, so pure as flour made from the wheat of these hills!"

"Next you'll be telling me that you can bake bread," she rejoined, and her laugh was low and sweet. Her eyes shone with soft blue gleams.

"Indeed I can! I bake all the bread we use," he said, stoutly. "And I flatter myself I can beat any girl you know."

"You can beat mine, I'm sure. Before I went to college I did pretty well. But I learned too much there. Now my mother and sisters, and brother Jim, all the family except dad, make fun of my bread."

"You have a brother? How old is he?"

"One brother-Jim, we call him. He-he is just past twenty-one." She faltered the last few words.

Kurt felt on common ground with her then. The sudden break in her voice, the change in her face, the shadowing of the blue eyes-these were eloquent.

"Oh, it's horrible-this need of war!" she exclaimed.

"Yes," he replied, simply. "But maybe your brother will not be called."

"Called! Why, he refused to wait for the draft! He went and enlisted. Dad patted him on the back.… If anything happens to him it'll kill my mother. Jim is her idol. It'd break my heart.… Oh, I hate the very name of Germans!"

"My father is German," said Kurt. "He's been fifty years in America-eighteen years here on this farm. He always hated England. Now he's bitter against America.… I can see a side you can't see. But I don't blame you-for what you said."

"Forgive me. I can't conceive of meaning that against any one who's lived here so long.… Oh, it must be hard for you."

"I'll let my father think I'm forced to join the army. But I'm going to fight against his people. We are a house divided against itself."

"Oh, what a pity!" The girl sighed and her eyes were dark with brooding sorrow.

A step sounded behind them. Mr. Anderson appeared, sombrero off, mopping a very red face. His eyes gleamed, with angry glints; his mouth and chin were working. He flopped down with a great, explosive breath.

"Kurt, your old man is a-a-son of a gun!" he exclaimed, vociferously; manifestly, liberation of speech was a relief.

The young man nodded seriously and knowingly. "I hope, sir-he-he-"

"He did-you just bet your life! He called me a lot in German, but I know cuss words when I hear them. I tried to reason with him-told him I wanted my money-was here to help him get that money off the farm, some way or other. An' he swore I was a capitalist-an enemy to labor an' the Northwest-that I an' my kind had caused the war."

Kurt gazed gravely into the disturbed face of the rancher. Miss Anderson had wide-open eyes of wonder.

"Sure I could have stood all that," went on Anderson, fuming. "But he ordered me out of the house. I got mad an' wouldn't go. Then-by George! he pulled my nose an' called me a bloody Englishman!"

Kurt groaned in the disgrace of the moment. But, amazingly, Miss Anderson burst into a silvery peal of laughter.

"Oh, dad!… that's-just too-good for-anything! You met your-match at last.… You know you always-boasted of your drop of English blood.… And you're sensitive-about your big nose!"

"He must be over seventy," growled Anderson, as if seeking for some excuse to palliate his restraint. "I'm mad-but it was funny." The working of his face finally set in the huge wrinkles of a laugh.

Young Dorn struggled to repress his own mirth, but unguardedly he happened to meet the dancing blue eyes of the girl, merry, provocative, full of youth and fun, and that was too much for him. He laughed with them.

"The joke's on me," said Anderson. "An' I can take one.… Now, young man, I think I gathered from your amiable dad that if the crop of wheat was full I'd get my money. Otherwise I could take over the land. For my part, I'd never do that, but the others interested might do it, even for the little money involved. I tried to buy them out so I'd have the whole mortgage. They would not sell."

"Mr. Anderson, you're a square man, and I'll do-" declared Kurt.

"Come out an' show me the wheat," interrupted Anderson. "Lenore, do you want to go with us?"

"I do," replied the daughter, and she took up her hat to put it on.

Kurt led them through the yard, out past the old barn, to the edge of the open slope where the wheat stretched away, down and up, as far as the eye could see.

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