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   Chapter 2 No.2

The Desert of Wheat By Zane Grey Characters: 14979

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


"We've got over sixteen hundred acres in fallow ground, a half-section in rye, another half in wheat-Turkey Red-and this section you see, six hundred and forty acres, in Bluestem," said Kurt.

Anderson's keen eyes swept from near at hand to far away, down the gentle, billowy slope and up the far hillside. The wheat was two feet high, beginning to be thick and heavy at the heads, as if struggling to burst. A fragrant, dry, wheaty smell, mingled with dust, came on the soft summer breeze, and a faint silken rustle. The greenish, almost blue color near at hand gradually in the distance grew lighter, and then yellow, and finally took on a tinge of gold. There was a living spirit in that vast wheat-field.

"Dorn, it's the finest wheat I've seen!" exclaimed Anderson, with the admiration of the farmer who aspired high. "In fact, it's the only fine field of wheat I've seen since we left the foot-hills. How is that?"

"Late spring and dry weather," replied Dorn. "Most of the farmers' reports are poor. If we get rain over the Bend country we'll have only an average yield this year. If we don't get rain-then flat failure."

Miss Anderson evinced an interest in the subject and she wanted to know why this particular field, identical with all the others for miles around, should have a promise of a magnificent crop when the others had no promise at all.

"This section lay fallow a long time," replied Dorn. "Snow lasted here on this north slope quite a while. My father used a method of soil cultivation intended to conserve moisture. The seed wheat was especially selected. And if we have rain during the next ten days this section of Bluestem will yield fifty bushels to the acre."

"Fifty bushels!" ejaculated Anderson.

"Bluestem? Why do you call it that when it's green and yellow?" queried the girl.

"It's a name. There are many varieties of wheat. Bluestem is best here in this desert country because it resists drought, it produces large yield, it does not break, and the flour-mills rate it very high. Bluestem is not good in wet soils."

Anderson tramped along the edge of the field, peering down, here and there pulling a shaft of wheat and examining it. The girl gazed with dreamy eyes across the undulating sea. And Dorn watched her.

"We have a ranch-thousands of acres-but not like this," she said.

"What's the difference?" asked Dorn.

She appeared pensive and in doubt.

"I hardly know. What would you call this-this scene?"

"Why, I call it the desert of wheat! But no one else does," he replied.

"I named father's ranch 'Many Waters.' I think those names tell the difference."

"Isn't my desert beautiful?"

"No. It has a sameness-a monotony that would drive me mad. It looks as if the whole world had gone to wheat. It makes me think-oppresses me. All this means that we live by wheat alone. These bare hills! They're too open to wind and sun and snow. They look like the toil of ages."

"Miss Anderson, there is such a thing as love for the earth-the bare brown earth. You know we came from dust, and to dust we return! These fields are human to my father. And they have come to speak to me-a language I don't understand yet. But I mean-what you see-the growing wheat here, the field of clods over there, the wind and dust and glare and heat, the eternal sameness of the open space-these are the things around which my life has centered, and when I go away from them I am not content."

Anderson came back to the young couple, carrying some heads of wheat in his hand.

"Smut!" he exclaimed, showing both diseased and healthy specimens of wheat. "Had to hunt hard to find that. Smut is the bane of all wheat-growers. I never saw so little of it as there is here. In fact, we know scarcely nothin' about smut an' its cure, if there is any. You farmers who raise only grain have got the work down to a science. This Bluestem is not bearded wheat, like Turkey Red. Has that beard anythin' to do with smut?"

"I think not. The parasite, or fungus, lives inside the wheat."

"Never heard that before. No wonder smut is the worst trouble for wheat-raisers in the Northwest. I've fields literally full of smut. An' we never are rid of it. One farmer has one idea, an' some one else another. What could be of greater importance to a farmer? We're at war. The men who claim to know say that wheat will win the war. An' we lose millions of bushels from this smut. That's to say it's a terrible fact to face. I'd like to get your ideas."

Dorn, happening to glance again at Miss Anderson, an act that seemed to be growing habitual, read curiosity and interest, and something more, in her direct blue eyes. The circumstance embarrassed him, though it tugged at the flood-gates of his knowledge. He could talk about wheat, and he did like to. Yet here was a girl who might be supposed to be bored. Still, she did not appear to be. That warm glance was not politeness.

"Yes, I'd like to hear every word you can say about wheat," she said, with an encouraging little nod.

"Sure she would," added Anderson, with an affectionate hand on her shoulder. "She's a farmer's daughter. She'll be a farmer's wife."

He laughed at this last sally. The girl blushed. Dorn smiled and shook his head doubtfully.

"I imagine that good fortune will never befall a farmer," he said.

"Well, if it should," she replied, archly, "just consider how I might surprise him with my knowledge of wheat.… Indeed, Mr. Dorn, I am interested. I've never been in the Bend before-in your desert of wheat. I never before felt the greatness of loving the soil-or caring for it-of growing things from seed. Yet the Bible teaches that, and I read my Bible. Please tell us. The more you say the more I'll like it."

Dorn was not proof against this eloquence. And he quoted two of his authorities, Heald and Woolman, of the State Agricultural Experiment Station, where he had studied for two years.

"Bunt, or stinking smut, is caused by two different species of microscopic fungi which live as parasites in the wheat plant. Both are essentially similar in their effects and their life-history. Tilletia tritici, or the rough-spored variety, is the common stinking smut of the Pacific regions, while Tilletia foetans, or the smooth-spored species, is the one generally found in the eastern United States.

"The smut 'berries,' or 'balls,' from an infected head contain millions of minute bodies, the spores or 'seeds' of the smut fungus. These reproduce the smut in somewhat the same way that a true seed develops into a new plant. A single smut ball of average size contains a sufficient number of spores to give one for each grain of wheat in five or six bushels. It takes eight smut spores to equal the diameter of a human hair. Normal wheat grains from an infected field may have so many spores lodged on their surface as to give them a dark color, but other grains which show no difference in color to the naked eye may still contain a sufficient number of spores to produce a smutty crop if seed treatment is not practised.

"When living smut spores are introduced into the soil with the seed wheat, or exist in the soil in which smut-free wheat is sown, a certain percentage of the wheat plants are likely to become infected. The smut spore germinates and produces first a stage of the smut plant in the soil. This first stage never infects a young seedling direct, but gives rise to secondary spores, or sporida, from which infection thr

eads may arise and penetrate the shoot of a young seedling and reach the growing point. Here the fungus threads keep pace with the growth of the plant and reach maturity at or slightly before harvest-time.

"Since this disease is caused by an internal parasite, it is natural to expect certain responses to its presence. It should be noted first that the smut fungus is living at the expense of its host plant, the wheat, and its effect on the host may be summarized as follows: The consumption of food, the destruction of food in the sporulating process, and the stimulating or retarding effect on normal physiological processes.

"Badly smutted plants remain in many cases under-size and produce fewer and smaller heads. In the Fife and Bluestem varieties the infected heads previous to maturity exhibit a darker green color, and remain green longer than the normal heads. In some varieties the infected heads stand erect, when normal ones begin to droop as a result of the increasing weight of the ripening grain.

"A crop may become infected with smut in a number of different ways. Smut was originally introduced with the seed, and many farmers are still planting it every season with their seed wheat. Wheat taken from a smutty crop will have countless numbers of loose spores adhering to the grains, also a certain number of unbroken smut balls. These are always a source of danger, even when the seed is treated with fungicides before sowing.

"There are also chances for the infection of a crop if absolutely smut-free seed is employed. First, soil infection from a previous smutty crop; second, soil infection from wind-blown spores. Experiments have shown that separated spores from crushed smut balls lose their effective power in from two to three months, provided the soil is moist and loose, and in no case do they survive a winter.

"It does not seem probable that wheat smut will be controlled by any single practice, but rather by the combined use of various methods: crop rotation; the use of clean seed; seed treatment with fungicides; cultural practices and breeding; and selection of varieties.

"Failure to practise crop rotation is undoubtedly one of the main explanations for the general prevalence of smut in the wheat-fields of eastern Washington. Even with an intervening summer fallow, the smut from a previous crop may be a source of infection. Experience shows that a fall stubble crop is less liable to smut infection than a crop following summer fallow. The apparent explanation for this condition is the fact that the summer fallow becomes infected with wind-blown spores, while in a stubble crop the wind-blown spores, as well as those originating from the previous crop, are buried in plowing.

"If clean seed or properly treated seed had been used by all farmers we should never have had a smut problem. High per cents. of smut indicate either soil infection or imperfect treatment. The principle of the chemical treatment is to use a poison which will kill the superficial spores of the smut and not materially injure the germinating power of the seed. The hot-water treatment is only recommended when one of the chemical 'steeps' is not effective.

"Certain cultural practices are beneficial in reducing the amount of smut in all cases, while the value of others depends to some extent upon the source of the smut spores. The factors which always influence the amount of smut are the temperature of the soil during the germinating period, the amount of soil moisture, and the depth of seeding. Where seed-borne spores are the only sources of infection, attention to the three factors mentioned will give the only cultural practices for reducing the amount of smut.

"Early seeding has been practised by various farmers, and they report a marked reduction in smut.

"The replowing of the summer fallow after the first fall rains is generally effective in reducing the amount of smut.

"Very late planting-that is, four or five weeks after the first good fall rains-is also an effective practice. Fall tillage of summer fallow, other than plowing, seems to be beneficial.

"No smut-immune varieties of wheat are known, but the standard varieties show varying degrees of resistance. Spring wheats generally suffer less from smut than winter varieties. This is not due to any superior resistance, but rather to the fact that they escape infection. If only spring wheats were grown our smut problem would largely disappear; but a return to this practice is not suggested, since the winter wheats are much more desirable. It seems probable that the conditions which prevail during the growing season may have considerable influence on the per cent of smut in any given variety."

* * *

When Dorn finished his discourse, to receive the thanks of his listeners, they walked back through the yard toward the road. Mr. Anderson, who led the way, halted rather abruptly.

"Hum! Who're those men talkin' to my driver?" he queried.

Dorn then saw a couple of strangers standing near the motor-car, engaged in apparently close conversation with the chauffeur. Upon the moment they glanced up to see Mr. Anderson approaching, and they rather hurriedly departed. Dorn had noted a good many strangers lately-men whose garb was not that of farmers, whose faces seemed foreign, whose actions were suspicious.

"I'll bet a hundred they're I.W.W.'s," declared Anderson. "Take my hunch, Dorn."

The strangers passed on down the road without looking back.

"Wonder where they'll sleep to-night?" muttered Dorn.

Anderson rather sharply asked his driver what the two men wanted. And the reply he got was that they were inquiring about work.

"Did they speak English?" went on the rancher.

"Well enough to make themselves understood," replied the driver.

Dorn did not get a good impression from the shifty eyes and air of taciturnity of Mr. Anderson's man, and it was evident that the blunt rancher restrained himself. He helped his daughter into the car, and then put on his long coat. Next he shook hands with Dorn.

"Young man, I've enjoyed meetin' you, an' have sure profited from same," he said. "Which makes up for your dad! I'll run over here again to see you-around harvest-time. An' I'll be wishin' for that rain."

"Thank you. If it does rain I'll be happy to see you," replied Dorn, with a smile.

"Well, if it doesn't rain I won't come. I'll put it off another year, an' cuss them other fellers into holdin' off, too."

"You're very kind. I don't know how I'd-we'd ever repay you in that case."

"Don't mention it. Say, how far did you say it was to Palmer? We'll have lunch there."

"It's fifteen miles-that way," answered Dorn. "If it wasn't for-for father I'd like you to stay-and break some of my bread."

Dorn was looking at the girl as he spoke. Her steady gaze had been on him ever since she entered the car, and in the shade of her hat and the veil she was adjusting her eyes seemed very dark and sweet and thoughtful. She brightly nodded her thanks as she held the veil aside with both hands.

"I wish you luck. Good-by," she said, and closed the veil.

Still, Dorn could see her eyes through it, and now they were sweeter, more mysterious, more provocative of haunting thoughts. It flashed over him with dread certainty that he had fallen in love with her. The shock struck him mute. He had no reply for the rancher's hearty farewell. Then the car lurched away and dust rose in a cloud.

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