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   Chapter 5 No.5

The Desert of Wheat By Zane Grey Characters: 18853

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Golden Valley was the Garden of Eden of the Northwest. The southern slope rose to the Blue Mountains, whence flowed down the innumerable brooks that, uniting to form streams and rivers, abundantly watered the valley.

The black reaches of timber extended down to the grazing-uplands, and these bordered on the sloping golden wheat-fields, which in turn contrasted so vividly with the lower green alfalfa-pastures; then came the orchards with their ruddy, mellow fruit, and lastly the bottom-lands where the vegetable-gardens attested to the wonderful richness of the soil. From the mountain-side the valley seemed a series of colored benches, stepping down, black to gray, and gray to gold, and gold to green with purple tinge, and on to the perfectly ordered, many-hued floor with its innumerable winding, tree-bordered streams glinting in the sunlight.

The extremes of heat and cold never visited Golden Valley. Spokane and the Bend country, just now sweltering in a torrid zone, might as well have been in the Sahara, for all the effect it had on this garden spot of all the Inland Empire. It was hot in the valley, but not unpleasant. In fact, the greatest charm in this secluded vale was its pleasant climate all the year round. No summer cyclones, no winter blizzards, no cloudbursts or bad thunderstorms. It was a country that, once lived in, could never be left.

There were no poor inhabitants in that great area of twenty-five hundred miles; and there were many who were rich. Prosperous little towns dotted the valley floor; and the many smooth, dusty, much-used roads all led to Ruxton, a wealthy and fine city.

* * *

Anderson, the rancher, had driven his car to Spokane. Upon his return he had with him a detective, whom he expected to use in the I.W.W. investigations, and a neighbor rancher. They had left Spokane early and had endured almost insupportable dust and heat. A welcome change began as they slid down from the bare desert into the valley; and once across the Copper River, Anderson began to breathe freer and to feel he was nearing home.

"God's country!" he said, as he struck the first low swell of rising land, where a cool wind from off the wooded and watered hills greeted his face. Dust there still was, but it seemed a different kind and smelled of apple-orchards and alfalfa-fields. Here were hard, smooth roads, and Anderson sped his car miles and miles through a country that was a verdant fragrant bower, and across bright, shady streams and by white little hamlets.

At Huntington he dropped his neighbor rancher, and also the detective, Hall, who was to go disguised into the districts overrun by the I.W.W. A further run of forty miles put him on his own property.

Anderson owned a string of farms and ranches extending from the bottom-lands to the timber-line of the mountains. They represented his life of hard work and fair dealing. Many of these orchard and vegetable lands he had tenant farmers work on shares. The uplands or wheat and grass he operated himself. As he had accumulated property he had changed his place of residence from time to time, at last to build a beautiful and permanent home farther up on the valley slope than any of the others.

It was a modern house, white, with a red roof. Situated upon a high level bench, with the waving gold fields sloping up from it and the green squares of alfalfa and orchards below, it appeared a landmark from all around, and could be plainly seen from Vale, the nearest little town, five miles away.

Anderson had always loved the open, and he wanted a place where he could see the sun rise over the distant valley gateway, and watch it set beyond the bold black range in the west. He could sit on his front porch, wide and shady, and look down over two thousand acres of his own land. But from the back porch no eye could have encompassed the limit of his broad, swelling slopes of grain and grass.

From the main road he drove up to the right of the house, where, under a dip of wooded slope, clustered barns, sheds, corrals, granaries, engine and machinery houses, a store, and the homes of hired men-a little village in itself.

The sounds he heard were a welcome home-the rush of swift water not twenty yards from where he stopped the car in the big courtyard, the pound of hoofs on the barn floor, the shrill whistle of a stallion that saw and recognized him, the drawling laugh of his cowboys and the clink of their spurs as they became aware of his return.

Nash, the suspected driver, was among those who hurried to meet the car.

Anderson's keen, covert glance made note of the driver's worried and anxious face.

"Nash, she'll need a lookin' over," he said, as he uncovered bundles in the back seat and lifted them out.

"All right, sir," replied Nash, eagerly. A note of ended strain was significant in his voice.

"Here, you Jake," cheerily called Anderson to a raw-boned, gaunt-faced fellow who wore the garb of a cowboy.

"Boss, I'm powerful glad to see you home," replied Jake, as he received bundle after bundle until he was loaded down. Then he grinned. "Mebbe you want a pack-hoss."

"You're hoss enough for me. Come on," he said, and, waving the other men aside, he turned toward the green, shady hill above which the red and white of the house just showed.

A bridge crossed the rushing stream. Here Jake dropped some of the bundles, and Anderson recovered them. As he straightened up he looked searchingly at the cowboy. Jake's yellow-gray eyes returned the gaze. And that exchange showed these two of the same breed and sure of each other.

"Nawthin' come off, boss," he drawled, "but I'm glad you're home."

"Did Nash leave the place?" queried Anderson.

"Twice, at night, an' he was gone long. I didn't foller him because I seen he didn't take no luggage, an' thet boy has some sporty clothes. He was sure comin' back."

"Any sign of his pard-that Glidden?"

"Nope. But there's been more'n one new feller snookin' round."

"Have you heard from any of the boys with the cattle?"

"Yep. Bill Weeks rode down. He said a bunch of I.W.W.'s were campin' above Blue Spring. Thet means they've moved on down to the edge of the timber an' oncomfortable near our wheat. Bill says they're killin' our stock fer meat."

"Hum!… How many in the gang?" inquired Anderson, darkly. His early dealings with outlaw rustlers had not left him favorably inclined toward losing a single steer.

"Wal, I reckon we can't say. Mebbe five hundred, countin' all along the valley on this side. Then we hear there's more on the other… Boss, if they git ugly we're goin' to lose stock, wheat, an' mebbe some blood."

"So many as that!" ejaculated the rancher, in amaze.

"They come an' go, an' lately they're most comin'," replied Jake.

"When do we begin cuttin' grain?"

"I reckon to-morrow. Adams didn't want to start till you got back. It'll be barley an' oats fer a few days, an' then the wheat-if we can git the men."

"An' has Adams hired any?"

"Yes, a matter of twenty or so. They swore they wasn't I.W.W.'s, but Adams says, an' so do I, thet some of them are men who first claimed to our old hands thet they did belong to the I.W.W."

"An' so we've got to take a chance if we're goin' to harvest two thousand acres of wheat?"

"I reckon, boss."

"Any reports from Ruxton way?"

"Wal, yes. But I reckon you'd better git your supper 'fore I tell you, boss."

"Jake, you said nothin' had come off."

"Wal, nawthin' has around here. Come on now, boss. Miss Lenore says I was to keep my mouth shut."

"Jake, who's your boss? Me or Lenore?"

"Wal, you air. But I ain't disobeyin' Miss Lenore."

Anderson walked the rest of the way up the shady path to the house without saying any more to Jake. The beautiful white house stood clear of the grove, bright in the rays of the setting sun. A barking of dogs greeted Anderson, and then the pattering of feet. His daughters appeared on the porch. Kathleen, who was ten, made a dive for him, and Rose, who was fourteen, came flying after her. Both girls were screaming joyously. Their sunny hair danced. Lenore waited for him at the step, and as he mounted the porch, burdened by the three girls, his anxious, sadly smiling wife came out to make perfect the welcome home. No-not perfect, for Anderson's joy held a bitter drop, the absence of his only son!

"Oh, dad, what-all did you fetch me?" cried Kathleen, and she deserted her father for the bundle-laden Jake.

"And me!" echoed Rose.

Even Lenore, in the happiness of her father's return, was not proof against the wonder and promise of those many bundles.

They all went within, through a hall to a great, cozy living-room. Mrs. Anderson's very first words, after her welcoming smile, were a half-faltered:

"Any-news of-Jim?"

"Why-yes," replied Anderson, hesitatingly.

Suddenly the three sisters were silent. How closely they resembled one another then-Lenore, a budding woman; Rose, a budding girl; and Kathleen, a rosy, radiant child! Lenore lost a little of her bloom.

"What news, father?" she asked.

"Haven't you heard from him?" returned Anderson.

"Not for a whole week. He wrote the day he reached Spokane. But then he hardly knew anything except that he'd enlisted."

"I'm sure glad Jim didn't wait for the draft," replied the father. "Well, mother an' girls, Jim was gone when I got to Spokane. All

I heard was that he was well when he left for Frisco an' strong for the aviation corps."

"Then he means to-to be an aviator," said Lenore, with quivering lips.

"Sure, if he can get in. An' he's wise. Jim knows engines. He has a knack for machinery. An' nerve! No boy ever had more. He'll make a crack flier."

"But-the danger!" whispered the boy's mother, with a shudder.

"I reckon there'll be a little danger, mother," replied Anderson, cheerfully. "We've got to take our chance on Jim. There's one sure bet. If he had stayed home he'd been fightin' I.W.W.'s!"

That trying moment passed. Mrs. Anderson said that she would see to supper being put on the table at once. The younger girls began untying the bundles. Lenore studied her father's face a moment.

"Jake, you run along," she said to the waiting cowboy. "Wait till after supper before you worry father."

"I'll do thet, Miss Lenore," drawled Jake, "an' if he wants worryin' he'll hev to look me up."

"Lass, I'm only tired, not worried," replied Anderson, as Jake shuffled out with jingling spurs.

"Did anything serious happen in Spokane?" she asked anxiously.

"No. But Spokane men are alive to serious trouble ahead," replied her father. "I spoke to the Chamber of Commerce-sure exploded a bomb in that camp. Then I had conferences with a good many different men. Fact is they ran me pretty hard. Couldn't have slept much, anyhow, in that heat. Lass, this is the place to live!… I'd rather die here than live in Spokane, in summer."

"Did you see the Governor?"

"Yes, an' he wasn't as anxious about the Golden Valley as the Bend country. He's right, too. We're old Westerners here. We can handle trouble. But they're not Americans up there in the Bend."

"Father, we met one American," said Lenore, dreamily.

"By George! we did!… An' that reminds me. There was a government official from Washington, come out to Spokane to investigate conditions. I forget his name. He asked to meet me an' he was curious about the Bend-its loyalty to the U.S. I told him all I knew an' what I thought. An' then he said he was goin' to motor through that wheat-belt an' talk to what Americans he could find, an' impress upon them that they could do as much as soldiers to win the war. Wheat-bread-that's our great gun in this war, Lenore!… I knew this, but I was made pretty blamed sober by that government man. I told him by all means to go to Palmer an' to have a talk with young Dorn. I sure gave that boy a good word. Poor lad! He's true blue. An' to think of him with that old German devil. Old Dorn has always had a hard name. An' this war has brought out the German cussedness."

"Father, I'm glad you spoke well of the young man," said Lenore, still dreamily.

"Hum! You never told me what you thought," replied her father, with a quick glance of inquiry at her. Lenore was gazing out of the window, away across the wheat-fields and the range. Anderson watched her a moment, and then resumed: "If I can get away I'm goin' to drive up to see Dorn again pretty soon. Do you want to go?"

Lenore gave a little start, as if the question had surprised her.

"I-I hardly think so," she replied.

"It's just as well," he said. "That'll be a hard ride.… Guess I'll clean up a little for supper."

Anderson left the room, and, while Kathleen and Rose gleefully squabbled over the bundles, Lenore continued to gaze dreamily out of the window.

* * *

That night Lenore went early to her room, despite the presence of some young people from a neighboring village. She locked her door and sat in the dark beside her open window.

An early moon silvered the long slopes of wheat and made the alfalfa squares seem black. A cool, faint, sweet breeze fanned her cheek. She could smell the fragrance of apples, of new-mown hay, and she could hear the low murmur of running water. A hound bayed off somewhere in the fields. There was no other sound. It was a quiet, beautiful, pastoral scene. But somehow it did not comfort Lenore.

She seemed to doubt the sincerity of what she saw there and loved so well. Moon-blanched and serene, lonely and silent, beautiful and promising, the wide acres of "Many Waters," and the silver slopes and dark mountains beyond, did not tell the truth. 'Way over the dark ranges a hideous war had stretched out a red hand to her country. Her only brother had left his home to fight, and there was no telling if he would ever come back. Evil forces were at work out there in the moonlight. There had come a time for her to be thoughtful.

Her father's asking her to ride to the Bend country had caused some strange little shock of surprise. Lenore had dreamed without thinking. Here in the darkness and silence, watching the crescent moon slowly sink, she did think. And it was to learn that she remembered singularly well the first time she had seen young Dorn, and still more vividly the second time, but the third time seemed both clear and vague. Enough young men had been smitten with Lenore to enable her to gauge the symptoms of these easy-come, easy-go attractions. In fact, they rather repelled her. But she had found Dorn's manner striking, confusing, and unforgettable. And why that should be so interested her intelligence.

It was confusing to discover that she could not lay it to the sympathy she had felt for an American boy in a difficult position, because she had often thought of him long before she had any idea who he was or where he lived.

In the very first place, he had been unforgettable for two reasons-because he had been so struck at sight of her that he had gazed unconsciously, with a glow on his face and a radiance in his eye, as of a young poet spellbound at an inspiration; and because he seemed the physical type of young man she had idealized-a strong, lithe-limbed, blond giant, with a handsome, frank face, clear-cut and smooth, ruddy-cheeked and blue-eyed.

Only after meeting him out there in the desert of wheat had she felt sympathy for him. And now with intelligence and a woman's intuition, barring the old, insidious, dreamy mood, Lenore went over in retrospect all she could remember of that meeting. And the truth made her sharply catch her breath. Dorn had fallen in love with her. Intuition declared that, while her intelligence repudiated it. Stranger than all was the thrill which began somewhere in the unknown depths of her and mounted, to leave her tingling all over. She had told her father that she did not want to ride to the Bend country. But she did want to go! And that thought, flashing up, would not be denied. To want to meet a strange young man again was absolutely a new and irritating discovery for Lenore. It mystified her, because she had not had time to like Dorn. Liking an acquaintance had nothing to do with the fact. And that stunned her.

"Could it be-love at first sight?" she whispered, incredulously, as she stared out over the shadowing fields.

"For me? Why, how absurd-impossible!… I-I only remembered him-a big handsome boy with blazing eyes.… And now I'm sorry for him!"

To whisper her amaze and doubt and consternation only augmented the instinctive recurring emotion. She felt something she could not explain. And that something was scarcely owing to this young man's pitiful position between duty to his father and love for his country. It had to do with his blazing eyes; intangible, dreamlike perceptions of him as not real, of vague sweet fancies that retreated before her introspective questioning. What alarmed Lenore was a tendency of her mind to shirk this revealing analysis. Never before had she been afraid to look into herself. But now she was finding unplumbed wells of feeling, secret chambers of dreams into which she had never let the light, strange instinctive activities, more physical than mental. When in her life before had she experienced a nameless palpitation of her heart?

Long she sat there, staring out into the night. And the change in the aspect of the broad spaces, now dark and impenetrable and mysterious, seemed like the change in the knowledge of herself. Once she had flattered herself that she was an inch of crystal water; now she seemed a complex, aloof, and contrary creature, almost on the verge of tumultuous emotions.

She said her prayers that night, a girlish habit resumed since her brother had declared his intention of enlisting in the army. And to that old prayer, which her mother had prayed before her, she added an appeal of her own. Strange that young Dorn's face should flash out of gloom! It was there, and her brother's was fading.

"I wonder-will he and Jim-meet over there-on the battle-field!" she whispered. She hoped they would. Like tigers those boys would fight the Germans. Her heart beat high. Then a cold wind seemed to blow over her. It had a sickening weight. If that icy and somber wind could have been traced to its source, then the mystery of life would have been clear. But that source was the cause of war, as its effect was the horror of women. A hideous and monstrous thing existed out there in the darkness. Lenore passionately loved her brother, and this black thing had taken him away. Why could not women, who suffered most, have some word in the regulation of events? If women could help govern the world there would be no wars.

At last encroaching drowsiness dulled the poignancy of her feelings and she sank to sleep.

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