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   Chapter 6 No.6

The Desert of Wheat By Zane Grey Characters: 25933

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Singing of birds at her window awakened Lenore. The dawn streamed in bright and sweetly fragrant. The wheat-fields seemed a rosy gold, and all that open slope called to her thrillingly of the beauty of the world and the happiness of youth. It was not possible to be morbid at dawn. "I hear! I hear!" she whispered. "From a thousand slopes far and wide!"

At the breakfast-table, when there came opportunity, she looked up serenely and said, "Father, on second thought I will go the Bend, thank you!"

Anderson laid down his knife and fork and his eyes opened wide in surprise. "Changed your mind!" he exclaimed.

"That's a privilege I have, you know," she replied, calmly.

Mrs. Anderson appeared more anxious than surprised. "Daughter, don't go. That will be a fearful ride."

"Hum! Sure glad to have you, lass," added Anderson, with his keen eyes on her.

"Let me go, too," begged Rose.

Kathleen was solemnly gazing at Lenore, with the wise, penetrating eyes of extreme youth.

"Lenore, I'll bet you've got a new beau up there," she declared.

Lenore flushed scarlet. She was less angry with her little sister than with the incomprehensible fact of a playful word bringing the blood stingingly to her neck and face.

"Kitty, you forget your manners," she said, sharply.

"Kit is fresh. She's an awful child," added Rose, with a superior air.

"I didn't say a thing," cried Kathleen, hotly. "Lenore, if it isn't true, why'd you blush so red?"

"Hush, you silly children!" ordered the mother, reprovingly.

Lenore was glad to finish that meal and to get outdoors. She could smile now at that shrewd and terrible Kitty, but recollection of her father's keen eyes was confusing. Lenore felt there was really nothing to blush for; still, she could scarcely tell her father that upon awakening this morning she had found her mind made up-that only by going to the Bend country could she determine the true state of her feelings. She simply dared not accuse herself of being in unusually radiant spirits because she was going to undertake a long, hard ride into a barren, desert country.

The grave and thoughtful mood of last night had gone with her slumbers. Often Lenore had found problems decided for her while she slept. On this fresh, sweet summer morning, with the sun bright and warm, presaging a hot and glorious day, Lenore wanted to run with the winds, to wade through the alfalfa, to watch with strange and renewed pleasure the waves of shadow as they went over the wheat. All her life she had known and loved the fields of waving gold. But they had never been to her what they had become overnight. Perhaps this was because it had been said that the issue of the great war, the salvation of the world, and its happiness, its hope, depended upon the millions of broad acres of golden grain. Bread was the staff of life. Lenore felt that she was changing and growing. If anything should happen to her brother Jim she would be heiress to thousands of acres of wheat. A pang shot through her heart. She had to drive the cold thought away. And she must learn-must know the bigness of this question. The women of the country would be called upon to help, to do their share.

She ran down through the grove and across the bridge, coming abruptly upon Nash, her father's driver. He had the car out.

"Good morning," he said, with a smile, doffing his cap.

Lenore returned his greeting and asked if her father intended to go anywhere.

"No. I'm taking telegrams to Huntington."

"Telegrams? What's the matter with the 'phone?" she queried.

"Wire was cut yesterday."

"By I.W.W. men?"

"So your father says. I don't know."

"Something ought to be done to those men," said Lenore, severely.

Nash was a dark-browed, heavy-jawed young man, with light eyes and hair. He appeared to be intelligent and had some breeding, but his manner when alone with Lenore-he had driven her to town several times-was not the same as when her father was present. Lenore had not bothered her mind about it. But to-day the look in his eyes was offensive to her.

"Between you and me, Lenore, I've sympathy for those poor devils," he said.

Lenore drew back rather haughtily at this familiar use of her first name. "It doesn't concern me," she said, coldly and turned away.

"Won't you ride along with me? I'm driving around for the mail," he called after her.

"No," returned Lenore, shortly, and hurried on out of earshot. The impertinence of the fellow!

"Mawnin', Miss Lenore!" drawled a cheery voice. The voice and the jingle of spurs behind her told Lenore of the presence of the best liked of all her father's men.

"Good morning, Jake! Where's my dad?"

"Wal, he's with Adams, an' I wouldn't be Adams for no money," replied the cowboy.

"Neither would I," laughed Lenore.

"Reckon you ain't ridin' this mawnin'. You sure look powerful fine, Miss Lenore, but you can't ride in thet dress."

"Jake, nothing but an aeroplane would satisfy me to-day."

"Want to fly, hey? Wal, excuse me from them birds. I seen one, an' thet's enough for me.… An', changin' the subject, Miss Lenore, beggin' your pardon-you ain't ridin' in the car much these days."

"No, Jake, I'm not," she replied, and looked at the cowboy. She would have trusted Jake as she would her brother Jim. And now he looked earnest.

"Wal, I'm sure glad. I heerd Nash call an' ask you to go with him. I seen his eyes when he said it.… Sure I know you'd never look at the likes of him. But I want to tell you-he ain't no good. I've been watchin' him. Your dad's orders. He's mixed up with the I.W.W.'s. But thet ain't what I mean. It's-He's-I-"

"Thank you, Jake," replied Lenore, as the cowboy floundered. "I appreciate your thought of me. But you needn't worry."

"I was worryin' a little," he said. "You see, I know men better 'n your dad, an' I reckon this Nash would do anythin'."

"What's father keeping him for?"

"Wal, Anderson wants to find out a lot about thet I.W.W., an' he ain't above takin' risks to do it, either."

The stable-boys and men Lenore passed all had an eager good morning for her. She often boasted to her father that she could run "Many Waters" as well as he. Sometimes there were difficulties that Lenore had no little part in smoothing over. The barns and corrals were familiar places to her, and she insisted upon petting every horse, in some instances to Jake's manifest concern.

"Some of them bosses are bad," he insisted.

"To be sure they are-when wicked cowboys cuff and kick them," replied Lenore, laughingly.

"Wal, if I'm wicked, I'm a-goin' to war," said Jake, reflectively. "Them Germans bother me."

"But, Jake, you don't come in the draft age, do you?"

"Jest how old do you think I am?"

"Sometimes about fourteen, Jake."

"Much obliged. Wal, the fact is I'm over age, but I'll gamble I can pack a gun an' shoot as straight an' eat as much as any young feller."

"I'll bet so, too, Jake. But I hope you won't go. We absolutely could not run this ranch without you."

"Sure I knew thet. Wal then, I reckon I'll hang around till you're married, Miss Lenore," he drawled.

Again the scarlet mantled Lenore's cheeks.

"Good. We'll have many harvests then, Jake, and many rides," she replied.

"Aw, I don't know-" he began.

But Lenore ran away so that she could hear no more.

"What's the matter with me that people-that Jake should-?" she began, and ended with a hand on each soft, hot cheek. There was something different about her, that seemed certain. And if her eyes were as bright as the day, with its deep blue and white clouds and shining green and golden fields, then any one might think what he liked and have proof for his tormenting.

"But married! I? Not much. Do I want a husband getting shot?"

The path Lenore trod so lightly led along a great peach and apple orchard where the trees were set far apart and the soil was cultivated, so that not a weed nor a blade of grass showed. The fragrance of fruit in the air, however, did not come from this orchard, for the trees were young and the reddening fruit rare. Down the wide aisles she saw the thick and abundant green of the older orchards.

At length Lenore reached the alfalfa-fields, and here among the mounds of newly cut hay that smelled so fresh and sweet she wanted to roll, and she had to run. Two great wagons with four horses each were being loaded. Lenore knew all the workmen except one. Silas Warner, an old, gray-headed farmer, had been with her father as long as she could remember.

"Whar you goin', lass?" he called, as he halted to wipe his red face with a huge bandana. "It's too hot to run the way you're a-doin'."

"Oh, Silas, it's a grand morning!" she replied.

"Why, so 'tis! Pitchin' hay hyar made me think it was hot," he said, as she tripped on. "Now, lass, don't go up to the wheat-fields."

But Lenore heard heedlessly, and she ran on till she came to the uncut alfalfa, which impeded her progress. A wonderful space of green and purple stretched away before her, and into it she waded. It came up to her knees, rich, thick, soft, and redolent of blossom and ripeness. Hard tramping it soon got to be. She grew hot and breathless, and her legs ached from the force expended in making progress through the tangled hay. At last she was almost across the field, far from the cutters, and here she flung herself, to roll and lie flat and gaze up through the deep azure of sky, wonderingly, as if to penetrate its secret. And then she hid her face in the fragrant thickness that seemed to force a whisper from her.

"I wonder-how will I feel-when I see him-again.… Oh, I wonder!"

The sound of the whispered words, the question, the inevitableness of something involuntary, proved traitors to her happy dreams, her assurance, her composure. She tried to burrow under the hay, to hide from that tremendous bright-blue eye, the sky. Suddenly she lay very quiet, feeling the strange glow and throb and race of her blood, sensing the mystery of her body, trying to trace the thrills, to control this queer, tremulous, internal state. But she found she could not think clearly; she could only feel. And she gave up trying. It was sweet to feel.

She rose and went on. Another field lay beyond, a gradual slope, covered with a new growth of alfalfa. It was a light green-a contrast to the rich darkness of that behind her. At the end of this field ran a swift little brook, clear and musical, open to the sky in places, and in others hidden under flowery banks. Birds sang from invisible coverts; a quail sent up clear flutelike notes; and a lark caroled, seemingly out of the sky.

Lenore wet her feet crossing the brook, and, climbing the little knoll above, she sat down upon a stone to dry them in the sun. It had a burn that felt good. No matter how hot the sun ever got there, she liked it. Always there seemed air to breathe and the shade was pleasant.

From this vantage-point, a favorite one with Lenore, she could see all the alfalfa-fields, the hill crowned by the beautiful white-and-red house, the acres of garden, and the miles of orchards. The grazing and grain fields began behind her.

The brook murmured below her and the birds sang. She heard the bees humming by. The air out here was clear of scent of fruit and hay, and it bore a drier odor, not so sweet. She could see the workmen, first those among the alfalfa, and then the men, and women, too, bending over on the vegetable-gardens. Likewise she could see the gleam of peaches, apples, pears and plums-a colorful and mixed gleam, delightful to the eye.

Wet or dry, it seemed that her feet refused to stay still, and once again she was wandering. A gray, slate-colored field of oats invited her steps, and across this stretch she saw a long yellow slope of barley, where the men were cutting. Beyond waved the golden fields of wheat. Lenore imagined that when she reached them she would not desire to wander farther.

There were two machines cutting on the barley slope, one drawn by eight horses, and the other by twelve. When Lenore had crossed the oat-field she discovered a number of strange men lounging in the scant shade of a line of low trees that separated the fields. Here she saw Adams, the foreman; and he espied her at the same moment. He had been sitting down, talking to the men. At once he rose to come toward Lenore.

"Is your father with you?" he asked.

"No; he's too slow for me," replied Lenore. "Who are these men?"

"They're strangers looking for jobs."

"I.W.W. men?" queried Lenore, in lower voice.

"Surely must be," he replied. Adams was not a young, not a robust man, and he seemed to carry a burden of worry. "Your father said he would come right out."

"I hope he doesn't," said Lenore, bluntly. "Father has a way with him, you know."

"Yes, I know. And it's the way we're needing here in the Valley," replied the foreman, significan

tly.

"Is that the new harvester-thresher father just bought?" asked Lenore, pointing to the huge machine, shining and creeping behind the twelve horses.

"Yes, that's the McCormack and it's a dandy," returned Adams. "With machines like that we can get along without the I.W.W."

"I want a ride on it," declared Lenore, and she ran along to meet the harvester. She waved her hand to the driver, Bill Jones, another old hand, long employed by her father. Bill hauled back on the many-branched reins, and when the horses stopped the clattering, whirring roar of the machine also ceased.

"Howdy, miss! Reckon this 's a regular I.W.W. hold-up."

"Worse than that, Bill," gaily replied Lenore as she mounted the platform where another man sat on a bag of barley. Lenore did not recognize him. He looked rugged and honest, and beamed upon her.

"Watch out fer yer dress," he said, pointing with grimy hand to the dusty wheels and braces so near her.

"Let me drive, Bill?" she asked.

"Wal, now, I wisht I could," he replied, dryly. "You sure can drive, miss. But drivin' ain't all this here job."

"What can't I do? I'll bet you-"

"I never seen a girl that could throw anythin' straight. Did you?"

"Well, not so very. I forgot how you drove the horses.… Go ahead. Don't let me delay the harvest."

Bill called sonorously to his twelve horses, and as they bent and strained and began to bob their heads, the clattering roar filled the air. Also a cloud of dust and thin, flying streams of chaff enveloped Lenore. The high stalks of barley, in wide sheets, fell before the cutter upon an apron, to be carried by feeders into the body of the machine. The straw, denuded of its grain, came out at the rear, to be dropped, while the grain streamed out of a tube on the side next to Lenore, to fall into an open sack. It made a short shift of harvesting.

Lenore liked the even, nodding rhythm of the plodding horses, and the way Bill threw a pebble from a sack on his seat, to hit this or that horse not keeping in line or pulling his share. Bill's aim was unerring. He never hit the wrong horse, which would have been the case had he used a whip. The grain came out in so tiny a stream that Lenore wondered how a bag was ever filled. But she saw presently that even a tiny stream, if running steadily, soon made bulk. That was proof of the value of small things, even atoms.

No marvel was it that Bill and his helper were as grimy as stokers of a furnace. Lenore began to choke with the fine dust and to feel her eyes smart and to see it settle on her hands and dress. She then had appreciation of the nature of a ten-hour day for workmen cutting eighteen acres of barley. How would they ever cut the two thousand acres of wheat? No wonder many men were needed. Lenore sympathized with the operators of that harvester-thresher, but she did not like the dirt. If she had been a man, though, that labor, hard as it was, would have appealed to her. Harvesting the grain was beautiful, whether in the old, slow method of threshing or with one of these modern man-saving machines.

She jumped off, and the big, ponderous thing, almost gifted with intelligence, it seemed to Lenore, rolled on with its whirring roar, drawing its cloud of dust, and leaving behind a litter of straw.

It developed then that Adams had walked along with the machine, and he now addressed her.

"Will you be staying here till your father comes?" he asked.

"No, Mr. Adams. Why do you ask?"

"You oughtn't come out here alone or go back alone.… All these strange men! Some of them hard customers! You'll excuse me, miss, but this harvest is not like other harvests."

"I'll wait for my father and I'll not go out of sight," replied Lenore. Thanking the foreman for his thoughtfulness, she walked away, and soon she stood at the edge of the first wheat-field.

The grain was not yet ripe but near at hand it was a pale gold. The wind, out of the west, waved and swept the wheat, while the almost imperceptible shadows followed.

A road half overgrown with grass and goldenrod bordered the wheat-field, and it wound away down toward the house. Her father appeared mounted on the white horse he always rode. Lenore sat down in the grass to wait for him. Nodding stalks of goldenrod leaned to her face. When looked at closely, how truly gold their color! Yet it was not such a gold as that of the rich blaze of ripe wheat. She was admitting to her consciousness a jealousy of anything comparable to wheat. And suddenly she confessed that her natural love for it had been augmented by a subtle growing sentiment. Not sentiment about the war or the need of the Allies or meaning of the staff of life. She had sensed young Dorn's passion for wheat and it had made a difference to her.

"No use lying to myself!" she soliloquized. "I think of him!.. I can't help it… I ran out here, wild, restless, unable to reason… just because I'd decided to see him again-to make sure I-I really didn't care.… How furious-how ridiculous I'll feel-when-when-"

Lenore did not complete her thought, because she was not sure. Nothing could be any truer than the fact that she had no idea how she would feel. She began sensitively to distrust herself. She who had always been so sure of motives, so contented with things as they were, had been struck by an absurd fancy that haunted because it was fiercely repudiated and scorned, that would give her no rest until it was proven false. But suppose it were true!

A succeeding blankness of mind awoke to the clip-clop of hoofs and her father's cheery halloo.

Anderson dismounted and, throwing his bridle, he sat down heavily beside her.

"You can ride back home," he said.

Lenore knew she had been reproved for her wandering out there, and she made a motion to rise. His big hand held her down.

"No hurry, now I'm here. Grand day, ain't it? An' I see the barley's goin'. Them sacks look good to me."

Lenore waited with some perturbation. She had a guilty conscience and she feared he meant to quiz her about her sudden change of front regarding the Bend trip. So she could not look up and she could not say a word.

"Jake says that Nash has been tryin' to make up to you. Any sense in what he says?" asked her father, bluntly.

"Why, hardly. Oh, I've noticed Nash is-is rather fresh, as Rose calls it," replied Lenore, somewhat relieved at this unexpected query.

"Yes, he's been makin' eyes at Rose. She told me," replied Anderson.

"Discharge him," said Lenore, forcibly.

"So I ought. But let me tell you, Lenore. I've been hopin' to get Nash dead to rights."

"What more do you want?" she demanded.

"I mean regardin' his relation to the I.W.W.… Listen. Here's the point. Nash has been tracked an' caught in secret talks with prominent men in this country. Men of foreign blood an' mebbe foreign sympathies. We're at the start of big an' bad times in the good old U.S. No one can tell how bad. Well, you know my position in the Golden Valley. I'm looked to. Reckon this I.W.W. has got me a marked man. I'm packin' two guns right now. An' you bet Jake is packin' the same. We don't travel far apart any more this summer."

Lenore had started shudderingly and her look showed her voiceless fear.

"You needn't tell your mother," he went on, more intimately. "I can trust you an' … To come back to Nash. He an' this Glidden-you remember, one of those men at Dorn's house-they are usin' gold. They must have barrels of it. If I could find out where that gold comes from! Probably they don't know. But I might find out if men here in our own country are hatchin' plots with the I.W.W."

"Plots! What for?" queried Lenore, breathlessly.

"To destroy my wheat, to drive off or bribe the harvest-hands, to cripple the crop yield in the Northwest; to draw the militia here; in short, to harass an' weaken an' slow down our government in its preparation against Germany."

"Why, that is terrible!" declared Lenore.

"I've a hunch from Jake-there's a whisper of a plot to put me out of the way," said Anderson, darkly.

"Oh-good Heavens! You don't mean it!" cried Lenore, distractedly.

"Sure I do. But that's no way for Anderson's daughter to take it. Our women have got to fight, too. We've all got to meet these German hired devils with their own weapons. Now, lass, you know you'll get these wheatlands of mine some day. It's in my will. That's because you, like your dad, always loved the wheat. You'd fight, wouldn't you, to save your grain for our soldiers-bread for your own brother Jim-an' for your own land?"

"Fight! Would I?" burst out Lenore, with a passionate little cry.

"Good! Now you're talkin'!" exclaimed her father.

"I'll find out about this Nash-if you'll let me," declared Lenore, as if inspired.

"How? What do you mean, girl?"

"I'll encourage him. I'll make him think I'm a wishy-washy moonstruck girl, smitten with him. All's fair in war!… If he means ill by my father-"

Anderson muttered low under his breath and his big hand snapped hard at the nodding goldenrod.

"For my sake-to help me-you'd encourage Nash-flirt with him a little-find out all you could?"

"Yes, I would!" she cried, deliberately. But she wanted to cover her face with her hands. She trembled slightly, then grew cold, with a sickening disgust at this strange, new, uprising self.

"Wait a minute before you say too much," went on Anderson. "You're my best-beloved child, my Lenore, the lass I've been so proud of all my life. I'd spill blood to avenge an insult to you.… But, Lenore, we've entered upon a terrible war. People out here, especially the women, don't realize it yet. But you must realize it. When I said good-by to Jim, my son, I-I felt I'd never look upon his face again!… I gave him up. I could have held him back-got exemption for him. But, no, by God! I gave him up-to make safety and happiness and prosperity for-say, your children, an' Rose's, an' Kathleen's.… I'm workin' now for the future. So must every loyal man an' every loyal woman! We love our own country. An' I ask you to see as I see the terrible danger to that country. Think of you an' Rose an' Kathleen bein' treated like those poor Belgian girls! Well, you'd get that an' worse if the Germans won this war. An' the point is, for us to win, every last one of us must fight, sacrifice to that end, an' hang together."

Anderson paused huskily and swallowed hard while he looked away across the fields. Lenore felt herself drawn by an irresistible power. The west wind rustled through the waving wheat. She heard the whir of the threshers. Yet all seemed unreal. Her father's passion had made this place another world.

"So much for that," resumed Anderson. "I'm goin' to do my best. An' I may make blunders. I'll play the game as it's dealt out to me. Lord knows I feel all in the dark. But it's the nature of the effort, the spirit, that'll count. I'm goin' to save most of the wheat on my ranches. An' bein' a Westerner who can see ahead, I know there's goin' to be blood spilled.… I'd give a lot to know who sent this Nash spyin' on me. I'm satisfied now he's an agent, a spy, a plotter for a gang that's marked me. I can't prove it yet, but I feel it. Maybe nothin' worth while-worth the trouble-will ever be found out from him. But I don't figure that way. I say play their own game an' take a chance.… If you encouraged Nash you'd probably find out all about him. The worst of it is could you be slick enough? Could a girl as fine an' square an' high-spirited as you ever double-cross a man, even a scoundrel like Nash? I reckon you could, considerin' the motive. Women are wonderful.… Well, if you can fool him, make him think he's a winner, flatter him till he swells up like a toad, promise to elope with him, be curious, jealous, make him tell where he goes, whom he meets, show his letters, all without ever sufferin' his hand on you, I'll give my consent. I'd think more of you for it. Now the question is, can you do it?"

"Yes," whispered Lenore.

"Good!" exploded Anderson, in a great relief. Then he began to mop his wet face. He arose, showing the weight of heavy guns in his pockets, and he gazed across the wheat-fields. "That wheat'll be ripe in a week. It sure looks fine.… Lenore, you ride back home now. Don't let Jake pump you. He's powerful curious. An' I'll go give these I.W.W.'s a first dose of Anderson."

He turned away without looking at her, and he hesitated, bending over to pluck a stem of goldenrod.

"Lass-you're-you're like your mother", he said, unsteadily. "An' she helped me win out durin' my struggle here. You're brave an' you're big."

Lenore wanted to say something, to show her feeling, to make her task seem lighter, but she could not speak.

"We're pards now-with no secrets", he continued, with a different note in his voice. "An' I want you to know that it ain't likely Nash or Glidden will get out of this country alive."

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