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   Chapter 3 No.3

The Desert of Wheat By Zane Grey Characters: 28471

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


With a strange knocking of his heart, high up toward his throat, Kurt Dorn stood stock-still, watching the moving cloud of dust until it disappeared over the hill.

No doubt entered his mind. The truth, the fact, was a year old-a long-familiar and dreamy state-but its meaning had not been revealed to him until just a moment past. Everything had changed when she looked out with that sweet, steady gaze through the parted veil and then slowly closed it. She had changed. There was something intangible about her that last moment, baffling, haunting. He leaned against a crooked old gate-post that as a boy he had climbed, and the thought came to him that this spot would all his life be vivid and poignant in his memory. The first sight of a blue-eyed, sunny-haired girl, a year and more before, had struck deep into his unconscious heart; a second sight had made her an unforgettable reality: and a third had been the realization of love.

It was sad, regrettable, incomprehensible, and yet somehow his inner being swelled and throbbed. Her name was Lenore Anderson. Her father was one of the richest men in the state of Washington. She had one brother, Jim, who would not wait for the army draft. Kurt trembled and a hot rush of tears dimmed his eyes. All at once his lot seemed unbearable. An immeasurable barrier had arisen between him and his old father-a hideous thing of blood, of years, of ineradicable difference; the broad acres of wheatland so dear to him were to be taken from him; love had overcome him with headlong rush, a love that could never be returned; and cruelest of all, there was the war calling him to give up his home, his father, his future, and to go out to kill and to be killed.

It came to him while he leaned there, that, remembering the light of Lenore Anderson's eyes, he could not give up to bitterness and hatred, whatever his misfortunes and his fate. She would never be anything to him, but he and her brother Jim and many other young Americans must be incalculable all to her. That thought saved Kurt Dorn. There were other things besides his own career, his happiness; and the way he was placed, however unfortunate from a selfish point of view, must not breed a morbid self-pity.

The moment of his resolution brought a flash, a revelation of what he owed himself. The work and the thought and the feeling of his last few weeks there at home must be intensified. He must do much and live greatly in little time. This was the moment of his renunciation, and he imagined that many a young man who had decided to go to war had experienced a strange spiritual division of self. He wondered also if that moment was not for many of them a let-down, a throwing up of ideals, a helpless retrograding and surrender to the brutalizing spirit of war. But it could never be so for him. It might have been had not that girl come into his life.

The bell for the midday meal roused Kurt from his profound reverie, and he plodded back to the house. Down through the barnyard gate he saw the hired men coming, and a second glance discovered to him that two unknown men were with them. Watching for a moment, Kurt recognized the two strangers that had been talking to Mr. Anderson's driver. They seemed to be talking earnestly now. Kurt saw Jerry, a trusty and long-tried employee, rather unceremoniously break away from these strangers. But they followed him, headed him off, and with vehement nods and gesticulations appeared to be arguing with him. The other hired men pushed closer, evidently listening. Finally Jerry impatiently broke away and tramped toward the house. These strangers sent sharp words after him-words that Kurt could not distinguish, though he caught the tone of scorn. Then the two individuals addressed themselves to the other men; and in close contact the whole party passed out of sight behind the barn.

Thoughtfully Kurt went into the house. He meant to speak to Jerry about the strangers, but he wanted to consider the matter first. He had misgivings. His father was not in the sitting-room, nor in the kitchen. Dinner was ready on the table, and the one servant, an old woman who had served the Dorns for years, appeared impatient at the lack of promptness in the men. Both father and son, except on Sundays, always ate with the hired help. Kurt stepped outside to find Jerry washing at the bench.

"Jerry, what's keeping the men?" queried Kurt.

"Wal, they're palaverin' out there with two I.W.W. fellers," replied Jerry.

Kurt reached for the rope of the farm-bell, and rang it rather sharply. Then he went in to take his place at the table, and Jerry soon followed. Old man Dorn did not appear, which fact was not unusual. The other hired men did not enter until Jerry and Kurt were half done with the meal. They seemed excited and somewhat boisterous, Kurt thought, but once they settled down to eating, after the manner of hungry laborers, they had little to say. Kurt, soon finishing his dinner, went outdoors to wait for Jerry. That individual appeared to be long in coming, and loud voices in the kitchen attested to further argument. At last, however, he lounged out and began to fill a pipe.

"Jerry, I want to talk to you," said Kurt. "Let's get away from the house."

The hired man was a big, lumbering fellow, gnarled like an old oak-tree. He had a good-natured face and honest eyes.

"I reckon you want to hear about them I.W.W. fellers?" he asked, as they walked away.

"Yes," replied Kurt.

"There's been a regular procession of them fellers, the last week or so, walkin' through the country," replied Jerry. "To-day's the first time any of them got to me. But I've heerd talk. Sunday when I was in Palmer the air was full of rumors."

"Rumors of what?" queried Kurt.

"All kinds," answered Jerry, nonchalantly scratching his stubby beard. "There's an army of I.W.W.'s comin' in from eastward. Idaho an' Montana are gittin' a dose now. Short hours; double wages; join the union; sabotage, whatever thet is; capital an' labor fight; threats if you don't fall in line; an' Lord knows what all."

"What did those two fellows want of you?"

"Wanted us to join the I.W.W.," replied the laborer.

"Did they want a job?"

"Not as I heerd. Why, one of them had a wad of bills thet would choke a cow. He did most of the talkin'. The little feller with the beady eyes an' the pock-marks, he didn't say much. He's Austrian an' not long in this country. The big stiff-Glidden, he called himself-must be some shucks in thet I.W.W. He looked an' talked oily at first-very persuadin'; but when I says I wasn't goin' to join no union he got sassy an' bossy. They made me sore, so I told him to go to hell. Then he said the I.W.W. would run the whole Northwest this summer-wheat-fields, lumberin', fruit-harvestin', railroadin'-the whole kaboodle, an' thet any workman who wouldn't join would git his, all right."

"Well, Jerry, what do you think about this organization?" queried Kurt, anxiously.

"Not much. It ain't a square deal. I ain't got no belief in them. What I heerd of their threatenin' methods is like the way this Glidden talks. If I owned a farm I'd drive such fellers off with a whip. There's goin' to be bad doin's if they come driftin' strong into the Bend."

"Jerry, are you satisfied with your job?"

"Sure. I won't join the I.W.W. An' I'll talk ag'in' it. I reckon a few of us will hev to do all the harvestin'. An', considerin' thet, I'll take a dollar a day more on my wages."

"If father does not agree to that, I will," said Kurt. "Now how about the other men?"

"Wal, they all air leanin' toward promises of little work an' lots of pay," answered Jerry, with a laugh. "Morgan's on the fence about joinin'. But Andrew agreed. He's Dutch an' pig-headed. Jansen's only too glad to make trouble fer his boss. They're goin' to lay off the rest of to-day an' talk with Glidden. They all agreed to meet down by the culvert. An' thet's what they was arguin' with me fer-wanted me to come."

"Where's this man Glidden?" demanded Kurt. "I'll give him a piece of my mind."

"I reckon he's hangin' round the farm-out of sight somewhere."

"All right, Jerry. Now you go back to work. You'll never lose anything by sticking to us, I promise you that. Keep your eyes and ears open."

Kurt strode back to the house, and his entrance to the kitchen evidently interrupted a colloquy of some kind. The hired men were still at table. They looked down at their plates and said nothing. Kurt left the sitting-room door open, and, turning, he asked Martha if his father had been to dinner.

"No, an' what's more, when I called he takes to roarin' like a mad bull," replied the woman.

Kurt crossed the sitting-room to knock upon his father's door. The reply forthcoming did justify the old woman's comparison. It certainly caused the hired men to evacuate the kitchen with alacrity. Old Chris Dorn's roar at his son was a German roar, which did not soothe the young man's rising temper. Of late the father had taken altogether to speaking German. He had never spoken English well. And Kurt was rapidly approaching the point where he would not speak German. A deadlock was in sight, and Kurt grimly prepared to meet it. He pounded on the locked door.

"The men are going to lay off," he called.

"Who runs this farm?" was the thundered reply.

"The I.W.W. is going to run it if you sulk indoors as you have done lately," yelled Kurt. He thought that would fetch his father stamping out, but he had reckoned falsely. There was no further sound. Leaving the room in high dudgeon, Kurt hurried out to catch the hired men near at hand and to order them back to work. They trudged off surlily toward the barn.

Then Kurt went on to search for the I.W.W. men, and after looking up and down the road, and all around, he at length found them behind an old strawstack. They were comfortably sitting down, backs to the straw, eating a substantial lunch. Kurt was angry and did not care. His appearance, however, did not faze the strangers. One of them, an American, was a man of about thirty years, clean-shaven, square-jawed, with light, steely, secretive gray eyes, and a look of intelligence and assurance that did not harmonize with his motley garb. His companion was a foreigner, small of stature, with eyes like a ferret and deep pits in his sallow face.

"Do you know you're trespassing?" demanded Kurt.

"You grudge us a little shade, eh, even to eat a bite?" said the American. He wrapped a paper round his lunch and leisurely rose, to fasten penetrating eyes upon the young man. "That's what I heard about you rich farmers of the Bend."

"What business have you coming here?" queried Kurt, with sharp heat. "You sneak out of sight of the farmers. You trespass to get at our men and with a lot of lies and guff you make them discontented with their jobs. I'll fire these men just for listening to you."

"Mister Dorn, we want you to fire them. That's my business out here," replied the American.

"Who are you, anyway?"

"That's my business, too."

Kurt passed from hot to cold. He could not miss the antagonism of this man, a bold and menacing attitude.

"My foreman says your name's Glidden," went on Kurt, cooler this time, "and that you're talking I.W.W. as if you were one of its leaders; that you don't want a job; that you've got a wad of money; that you coax, then threaten; that you've intimidated three of our hands."

"Your Jerry's a marked man," said Glidden, shortly.

"You impudent scoundrel!" exclaimed Kurt. "Now you listen to this. You're the first I.W.W. man I've met. You look and talk like an American. But if you are American you're a traitor. We've a war to fight! War with a powerful country! Germany! And you come spreading discontent in the wheat-fields,… when wheat means life!… Get out of here before I-"

"We'll mark you, too, Mister Dorn, and your wheat-fields," snapped Glidden.

With one swift lunge Kurt knocked the man flat and then leaped to stand over him, watching for a move to draw a weapon. The little foreigner slunk back out of reach.

"I'll start a little marking myself," grimly said Kurt. "Get up!"

Slowly Glidden moved from elbow to knees, and then to his feet. His cheek was puffing out and his nose was bleeding. The light-gray eyes were lurid.

"That's for your I.W.W.!" declared Kurt. "The first rule of your I.W.W. is to abolish capital, hey?"

Kurt had not intended to say that. It slipped out in his fury. But the effect was striking. Glidden gave a violent start and his face turned white. Abruptly he hurried away. His companion shuffled after him. Kurt stared at them, thinking the while that if he had needed any proof of the crookedness of the I.W.W. he had seen it in Glidden's guilty face. The man had been suddenly frightened, and surprise, too, had been prominent in his countenance. Then Kurt remembered how Anderson had intimated that the secrets of the I.W.W. had been long hidden. Kurt, keen and quick in his sensibilities, divined that there was something powerful back of this Glidden's cunning and assurance. Could it be only the power of a new labor organization? That might well be great, but the idea did not convince Kurt. During a hurried and tremendous preparation by the government for war, any disorder such as menaced the country would be little short of a calamity. It might turn out a fatality. This so-called labor union intended to take advantage of a crisis to further its own ends. Yet even so, that fact did not wholly explain Glidden and his subtlety. Some nameless force loomed dark and sinister back of Glidden's meaning, and it was not peril to the wheatlands of the Northwest alone.

Like a huge dog Kurt shook himself and launched into action. There were sense and pleasure in muscular activity, and it lessened the habit of worry. Soon he ascertained that only Morgan had returned to work in the fields. Andrew and Jansen were nowhere to be seen. Jansen had left four horses hitched to a harrow. Kurt went out to take up the work thus abandoned.

It was a long field, and if he had earned a dollar for every time he had traversed its length, during the last ten years, he would ha

ve been a rich man. He could have walked it blindfolded. It was fallow ground, already plowed, disked, rolled, and now the last stage was to harrow it, loosening the soil, conserving the moisture.

Morgan, far to the other side of this section, had the better of the job, for his harrow was a new machine and he could ride while driving the horses. But Kurt, using an old harrow, had to walk. The four big horses plodded at a gait that made Kurt step out to keep up with them. To keep up, to drive a straight line, to hold back on the reins, was labor for a man. It spoke well for Kurt that he had followed that old harrow hundreds of miles, that he could stand the strain, that he loved both the physical sense and the spiritual meaning of the toil.

Driving west, he faced a wind laden with dust as dry as powder. At every sheeted cloud, whipping back from the hoofs of the horses and the steel spikes of the harrow, he had to bat his eyes to keep from being blinded. The smell of dust clogged his nostrils. As soon as he began to sweat under the hot sun the dust caked on his face, itching, stinging, burning. There was dust between his teeth.

Driving back east was a relief. The wind whipped the dust away from him. And he could catch the fragrance of the newly turned soil. How brown and clean and earthy it looked! Where the harrow had cut and ridged, the soil did not look thirsty and parched. But that which was unharrowed cried out for rain. No cloud in the hot sky, except the yellow clouds of dust!

On that trip east across the field, which faced the road, Dorn saw pedestrians in twos and threes passing by. Once he was hailed, but made no answer. He would not have been surprised to see a crowd, yet travelers were scarce in that region. The sight of these men, some of them carrying bags and satchels, was disturbing to the young farmer. Where were they going? All appeared outward bound toward the river. They came, of course, from the little towns, the railroads, the cities. At this season, with harvest-time near at hand, it had been in former years no unusual sight to see strings of laborers passing by. But this year they came earlier, and in greater numbers.

With the wind in his face, however, Dorn saw nothing but the horses and the brown line ahead, and half the time they were wholly obscured in yellow dust. He began thinking about Lenore Anderson, just pondering that strange, steady look of a girl's eyes; and then he did not mind the dust or heat or distance. Never could he be cheated of his thoughts. And those of her, even the painful ones, gave birth to a comfort that he knew must abide with him henceforth on lonely labors such as this, perhaps in the lonelier watches of a soldier's duty. She had been curious, aloof, then sympathetic; she had studied his face; she had been an eloquent-eyed listener to his discourse on wheat. But she had not guessed his secret. Not until her last look-strange, deep, potent-had he guessed that secret himself.

So, with mind both busy and absent, Kurt Dorn harrowed the fallow ground abandoned by his men; and when the day was done, with the sun setting hot and coppery beyond the dim, dark ranges, he guided the tired horses homeward and plodded back of them, weary and spent.

He was to learn from Morgan, at the stables, that the old man had discharged both Andrew and Jansen. And Jansen, liberating some newly assimilated poison, had threatened revenge. He would see that any hired men would learn a thing or two, so that they would not sign up with Chris Dorn. In a fury the old man had driven Jansen out into the road.

Sober and moody, Kurt put the horses away, and, washing the dust grime from sunburnt face and hands, he went to his little attic room, where he changed his damp and sweaty clothes. Then he went down to supper with mind made up to be lenient and silent with his old and sorely tried father.

Chris Dorn sat in the light of the kitchen lamps. He was a huge man with a great, round, bullet-shaped head and a shock of gray hair and bristling, grizzled beard. His face was broad, heavy, and seemed sodden with dark, brooding thought. His eyes, under bushy brows, were pale gleams of fire. He looked immovable as to both bulk and will.

Never before had Kurt Dorn so acutely felt the fixed, contrary, ruthless nature of his parent. Never had the distance between them seemed so great. Kurt shivered and sighed at once. Then, being hungry, he fell to eating in silence. Presently the old man shoved his plate back, and, wiping his face, he growled, in German:

"I discharged Andrew and Jansen."

"Yes, I know," replied Kurt. "It wasn't good judgment. What'll we do for hands?"

"I'll hire more. Men are coming for the harvest."

"But they all belong to the I.W.W.," protested Kurt.

"And what's that?"

In scarcely subdued wrath Kurt described in detail, and to the best of his knowledge, what the I.W.W. was, and he ended by declaring the organization treacherous to the United States.

"How's that?" asked old Dorn, gruffly.

Kurt was actually afraid to tell his father, who never read newspapers, who knew little of what was going on, that if the Allies were to win the war it was wheat that would be the greatest factor. Instead of that he said if the I.W.W. inaugurated strikes and disorder in the Northwest it would embarrass the government.

"Then I'll hire I.W.W. men," said old Dorn.

Kurt battled against a rising temper. This blind old man was his father.

"But I'll not have I.W.W. men on the farm," retorted Kurt. "I just punched one I.W.W. solicitor."

"I'll run this farm. If you don't like my way you can leave," darkly asserted the father.

Kurt fell back in his chair and stared at the turgid, bulging forehead and hard eyes before him. What could be behind them? Had the war brought out a twist in his father's brain? Why were Germans so impossible?

"My Heavens! father, would you turn me out of my home because we disagree?" he asked, desperately.

"In my country sons obey their fathers or they go out for themselves."

"I've not been a disobedient son," declared Kurt. "And here in America sons have more freedom-more say."

"America has no sense of family life-no honest government. I hate the country."

A ball of fire seemed to burst in Kurt.

"That kind of talk infuriates me," he blazed. "I don't care if you are my father. Why in the hell did you come to America? Why did you stay? Why did you marry my mother-an American woman?… That's rot-just spiteful rot! I've heard you tell what life was in Europe when you were a boy. You ran off. You stayed in this country because it was a better country than yours.… Fifty years you've been in America-many years on this farm. And you love this land.… My God! father, can't you and men like you see the truth?"

"Aye, I can," gloomily replied the old man. "The truth is we'll lose the land. That greedy Anderson will drive me off."

"He will not. He's fine-generous," asserted Kurt, earnestly. "All he wanted was to see the prospects of the harvest and perhaps to help you. Anderson has not had interest on his money for three years. I'll bet he's paid interest demanded by the other stockholders in that bank you borrowed from. Why, he's our friend!"

"Aye, and I see more," boomed the father. "He fetched his lass up here to make eyes at my son. I saw her-the sly wench!… Boy, you'll not marry her!"

Kurt choked back his mounting rage.

"Certainly I never will," he said, bitterly. "But I would if she'd have me."

"What!" thundered Dorn, his white locks standing up and shaking like the mane of a lion. "That wheat banker's daughter! Never! I forbid it. You shall not marry any American girl."

"Father, this is idle, foolish rant," cried Kurt, with a high warning note in his voice. "I've no idea of marrying.… But if I had one-whom else could I marry except an American girl?"

"I'll sell the wheat-the land. We'll go back to Germany!"

That was maddening to Kurt. He sprang up, sending dishes to the floor with a crash. He bent over to pound the table with a fist. Violent speech choked him and he felt a cold, tight blanching of his face.

"Listen!" he rang out. "If I go to Germany it'll be as a soldier-to kill Germans!… I'm done-I'm through with the very name.… Listen to the last words I'll ever speak to you in German-the last! To hell with Germany!"

Then Kurt plunged, blind in his passion, out of the door into the night. And as he went he heard his father cry out, brokenly:

"My son! Oh, my son!"

The night was dark and cool. A faint wind blew across the hills, and it was dry, redolent, sweet. The sky seemed an endless curving canopy of dark blue blazing with myriads of stars.

Kurt staggered out of the yard, down along the edge of a wheat-field, to one of the straw-stacks, and there he flung himself down in an agony.

"Oh, I'm ruined-ruined!" he moaned. "The break-has come!… Poor old dad!"

He leaned there against the straw, shaking and throbbing, with a cold perspiration bathing face and body. Even the palms of his hands were wet. A terrible fit of anger was beginning to loose its hold upon him. His breathing was labored in gasps and sobs. Unutterable stupidity of his father-horrible cruelty of his position! What had he ever done in all his life to suffer under such a curse? Yet almost he clung to his wrath, for it had been righteous. That thing, that infernal twist in the brain, that was what was wrong with his father. His father who had been fifty years in the United States! How simple, then, to understand what was wrong with Germany.

"By God! I am-American!" he panted, and it was as if he called to the grave of his mother, over there on the dark, windy hill.

That tremendous uprising of his passion had been a vortex, an end, a decision. And he realized that even to that hour there had been a drag in his blood. It was over now. The hell was done with. His soul was free. This weak, quaking body of his housed his tainted blood and the emotions of his heart, but it could not control his mind, his will. Beat by beat the helpless fury in him subsided, and then he fell back and lay still for a long time, eyes shut, relaxed and still.

A hound bayed mournfully; the insects chirped low, incessantly; the night wind rustled the silken heads of wheat.

After a while the young man sat up and looked at the heavens, at the twinkling white stars, and then away across the shadows of round hills in the dusk. How lonely, sad, intelligible, and yet mystic the night and the scene!

What came to him then was revealing, uplifting-a source of strength to go on. He was not to blame for what had happened; he could not change the future. He had a choice between playing the part of a man or that of a coward, and he had to choose the former. There seemed to be a spirit beside him-the spirit of his mother or of some one who loved him and who would have him be true to an ideal, and, if needful, die for it. No night in all his life before had been like this one. The dreaming hills with their precious rustling wheat meant more than even a spirit could tell. Where had the wheat come from that had seeded these fields? Whence the first and original seeds, and where were the sowers? Back in the ages! The stars, the night, the dark blue of heaven hid the secret in their impenetrableness. Beyond them surely was the answer, and perhaps peace.

Material things-life, success-such as had inspired Kurt Dorn, on this calm night lost their significance and were seen clearly. They could not last. But the wheat there, the hills, the stars-they would go on with their task. Passion was the dominant side of a man declaring itself, and that was a matter of inheritance. But self-sacrifice, with its mercy, its succor, its seed like the wheat, was as infinite as the stars. He had long made up his mind, yet that had not given him absolute restraint. The world was full of little men, but he refused to stay little. This war that had come between him and his father had been bred of the fumes of self-centered minds, turned with an infantile fatality to greedy desires. His poor old blinded father could be excused and forgiven. There were other old men, sick, crippled, idle, who must suffer pain, but whose pain could be lightened. There were babies, children, women, who must suffer for the sins of men, but that suffering need no longer be, if men became honest and true.

His sudden up-flashing love had a few hours back seemed a calamity. But out there beside the whispering wheat, under the passionless stars, in the dreaming night, it had turned into a blessing. He asked nothing but to serve. To serve her, his country, his future! All at once he who had always yearned for something unattainable had greatness thrust upon him. His tragical situation had evoked a spirit from the gods.

To kiss that blue-eyed girl's sweet lips would be a sum of joy, earthly, all-satisfying, precious. The man in him trembled all over at the daring thought. He might revel in such dreams, and surrender to them, since she would never know, but the divinity he sensed there in the presence of those stars did not dwell on a woman's lips. Kisses were for the present, the all too fleeting present; and he had to concern himself with what he might do for one girl's future. It was exquisitely sad and sweet to put it that way, though Kurt knew that if he had never seen Lenore Anderson he would have gone to war just the same. He was not making an abstract sacrifice.

The wheat-fields rolling before him, every clod of which had been pressed by his bare feet as a boy; the father whose changeless blood had sickened at the son of his loins; the life of hope, freedom, of action, of achievement, of wonderful possibility-these seemed lost to Kurt Dorn, a necessary renunciation when he yielded to the call of war.

But no loss, no sting of bullet or bayonet, no torturing victory of approaching death, could balance in the scale against the thought of a picture of one American girl-blue-eyed, red-lipped, golden-haired-as she stepped somewhere in the future, down a summer lane or through a blossoming orchard, on soil that was free.

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