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   Chapter 7 No.7

The Desert of Wheat By Zane Grey Characters: 27782

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Three days later, Lenore accompanied her father on the ride to the Bend country. She sat in the back seat of the car with Jake-an arrangement very gratifying to the cowboy, but received with ill-concealed displeasure by the driver, Nash. They had arranged to start at sunrise, and it became manifest that Nash had expected Lenore to sit beside him all during the long ride. It was her father, however, who took the front seat, and behind Nash's back he had slyly winked at Lenore, as if to compliment her on the evident success of their deep plot. Lenore, at the first opportunity that presented, shot Nash a warning glance which was sincere enough. Jake had begun to use keen eyes, and there was no telling what he might do.

The morning was cool, sweet, fresh, with a red sun presaging a hot day. The big car hummed like a droning bee and seemed to cover the miles as if by magic. Lenore sat with face uncovered, enjoying the breeze and the endless colorful scene flashing by, listening to Jake's amusing comments, and trying to keep back thought of what discovery might await her before the end of this day.

Once across the Copper River, they struck the gradual ascent, and here the temperature began to mount and the dust to fly. Lenore drew her veils close and, leaning comfortably back, she resigned herself to wait and to endure.

By the flight of a crow it was about a hundred miles from Anderson's ranch to Palmer; but by the round-about roads necessary to take the distance was a great deal longer. Lenore was well aware when they got up on the desert, and the time came when she thought she would suffocate. There appeared to be intolerable hours in which no one spoke and only the hum and creak of the machine throbbed in her ears. She could not see through her veils and did not part them until a stop was made at Palmer.

Her father got out, sputtering and gasping, shaking the dust in clouds from his long linen coat. Jake, who always said he lived on dust and heat, averred it was not exactly a regular fine day. Lenore looked out, trying to get a breath of air. Nash busied himself with the hot engine.

The little country town appeared dead, and buried under dust. There was not a person in sight nor a sound to be heard. The sky resembled molten lead, with a blazing center too bright for the gaze of man.

Anderson and Jake went into the little hotel to get some refreshments. Lenore preferred to stay in the car, saying she wanted only a cool drink. The moment the two men were out of sight Nash straightened up to gaze darkly and hungrily at Lenore.

"This's a good a chance as we'll get," he said, in an eager, hurried whisper.

"For what?" asked Lenore, aghast.

"To run off," he replied, huskily.

Lenore had proceeded so cleverly to carry out her scheme that in three days Nash had begun to implore and demand that she elope with him. He had been so much of a fool. But she as yet had found out but little about him. His right name was Ruenke. He was a socialist. He had plenty of money and hinted of mysterious sources for more.

At this Lenore hid her face, and while she fell back in pretended distress, she really wanted to laugh. She had learned something new in these few days, and that was to hate.

"Oh no! no!" she murmured. "I-I can't think of that-yet."

"But why not?" he demanded, in shrill violence. His gloved hand clenched on the tool he held.

"Mother has been so unhappy-with my brother Jim-off to the war. I-I just couldn't-now. Harry, you must give me time. It's all so-so sudden. Please wait!"

Nash appeared divided between two emotions. Lenore watched him from behind her parted veil. She had been astonished to find out that, side by side with her intense disgust and shame at the part she was playing, there was a strong, keen, passionate interest in it, owing to the fact that, though she could prove little against this man, her woman's intuition had sensed his secret deadly antagonism toward her father. By little significant mannerisms and revelations he had more and more betrayed the German in him. She saw it in his overbearing conceit, his almost instant assumption that he was her master. At first Lenore feared him, but, as she learned to hate him she lost her fear. She had never been alone with him except under such circumstances as this; and she had decided she would not be.

"Wait?" he was expostulating. "But it's going to get hot for me."

"Oh!… What do you mean?" she begged. "You frighten me."

"Lenore, the I.W.W. will have hard sledding in this wheat country. I belong to that. I told you. But the union is run differently this summer. And I've got work to do-that I don't like, since I fell in love with you. Come, run off with me and I'll give it up."

Lenore trembled at this admission. She appeared to be close upon further discovery.

"Harry, how wildly you talk!" she exclaimed. "I hardly know you. You frighten me with your mysterious talk.… Have-a-a little consideration for me."

Nash strode back to lean into the car. Behind his huge goggles his eyes gleamed. His gloved hand closed hard on her arm.

"It is sudden. It's got to be sudden," he said, in fierce undertone. "You must trust me."

"I will. But you must confide in me," she replied, earnestly. "I'm not quite a fool. You're rushing me-too-too-"

Suddenly he released her, threw up his hand, then quickly stepped back to the front of the car. Jake stood in the door of the hotel. He had seen that action of Nash's. Then Anderson appeared, followed by a boy carrying a glass of water for Lenore. They approached the car, Jake sauntering last, with his curious gaze on Nash.

"Go in an' get a bite an' a drink," said Anderson to the driver. "An' hurry."

Nash obeyed. Jake's eyes never left him until he entered the door. Then Jake stepped in beside Lenore.

"Thet water's wet, anyhow," he drawled.

"We'll get a good cold drink at Dorn's," said Anderson. "Lass, how are you makin' it?"

"Fine," she replied, smiling.

"So I seen," significantly added Jake, with a piercing glance at her.

Lenore realized then that she would have to confide in Jake or run the risk of having violence done to Nash. So she nodded wisely at the cowboy and winked mischievously, and, taking advantage of Anderson's entering the car, she whispered in Jake's ear: "I'm finding out things. Tell you-later."

The cowboy looked anything but convinced; and he glanced with narrowed eyes at Nash as that worthy hurried back to the car.

With a lurch and a leap the car left Palmer behind in a cloud of dust. The air was furnace-hot, oppressive, and exceedingly dry. Lenore's lips smarted so that she continually moistened them. On all sides stretched dreary parched wheat-fields. Anderson shook his head sadly. Jake said: "Ain't thet too bad? Not half growed, an' sure too late now."

Near at hand Lenore saw the short immature dirty-whitish wheat, and she realized that it was ruined.

"It's been gettin' worse, Jake," remarked Anderson. "Most of this won't be cut at all. An' what is cut won't yield seedlings. I see a yellow patch here an' there on the north slopes, but on the most part the Bend's a failure."

"Father, you remember Dorn's section, that promised so well?" asked Lenore.

"Yes. But it promised only in case of rain. I look for the worst," replied Anderson, regretfully.

"It looks like storm-clouds over there," said Lenore, pointing far ahead.

Through the drifting veils of heat, far across the bare, dreamy hills of fallow and the blasted fields of wheat, stood up some huge white columnar clouds, a vivid contrast to the coppery sky.

"By George! there's a thunderhead!" exclaimed Anderson. "Jake, what do you make of that?"

"Looks good to me," replied Jake, who was always hopeful.

Lenore bore the hot wind and the fine, choking dust without covering her face. She wanted to see all the hills and valleys of this desert of wheat. Her heart beat a little faster as, looking across that waste on waste of heroic labor, she realized she was nearing the end of a ride that might be momentous for her. The very aspect of that wide, treeless expanse, with all its overwhelming meaning, seemed to make her a stronger and more thoughtful girl. If those endless wheat-fields were indeed ruined, what a pity, what a tragedy! Not only would young Dorn be ruined, but perhaps many other toiling farmers. Somehow Lenore felt no hopeless certainty of ruin for the young man in whom she was interested.

"There, on that slope!" spoke up Anderson, pointing to a field which was yellow in contrast to the surrounding gray field. "There's a half-section of fair wheat."

But such tinges of harvest gold were not many in half a dozen miles of dreary hills. Where were the beautiful shadows in the wheat? wondered Lenore. Not a breath of wind appeared to stir across those fields.

As the car neared the top of a hill the road curved into another, and Lenore saw a dusty flash of another car passing on ahead.

Suddenly Jake leaned forward.

"Boss, I seen somethin' throwed out of thet car-into the wheat," he said.

"What?-Mebbe it was a bottle," replied Anderson, peering ahead.

"Nope. Sure wasn't thet.… There! I seen it again. Watch, boss!"

Lenore strained her eyes and felt a stir of her pulses. Jake's voice was perturbing. Was it strange that Nash slowed up a little where there was no apparent need? Then Lenore saw a hand flash out of the side of the car ahead and throw a small, glinting object into the wheat.

"There! Seen it again," said Jake.

"I saw!… Jake, mark that spot.… Nash, slow down," yelled Anderson.

Lenore gathered from the look of her father and the cowboy that something was amiss, but she could not guess what it might be. Nash bent sullenly at his task of driving.

"I reckon about here," said Jake, waving his hand.

"Stop her," ordered Anderson, and as the car came to a halt he got out, followed by Jake.

"Wal, I marked it by thet rock," declared the cowboy.

"So did I," responded Anderson. "Let's get over the fence an' find what it was they threw in there."

Jake rested a lean hand on a post and vaulted the fence. But Anderson had to climb laboriously and painfully over the barbed-wire obstruction. Lenore marveled at his silence and his persistence. Anderson hated wire fences. Presently he got over, and then he divided his time between searching in the wheat and peering after the strange car that was drawing far away.

Lenore saw Jake pick up something and scrutinize it.

"I'll be dog-goned!" he muttered. Then he approached Anderson. "What is thet?"

"Jake, you can lambaste me if I ever saw the likes," replied Anderson. "But it looks bad. Let's rustle after that car."

As Anderson clambered into his seat once more he looked dark and grim.

"Catch that car ahead," he tersely ordered Nash. Whereupon the driver began to go through his usual motions in starting.

"Lenore, what do you make of this?" queried Anderson, turning to show her a small cake of some gray substance, soft and wet to the touch.

"I don't know what it is," replied Lenore, wonderingly. "Do you?"

"No. An' I'd give a lot-Say, Nash, hurry! Overhaul that car!"

Anderson turned to see why his order had not been obeyed. He looked angry. Nash made hurried motions. The car trembled, the machinery began to whir-then came a tremendous buzzing roar, a violent shaking of the car, followed by sharp explosions, and silence.

"You stripped the gears!" shouted Anderson, with the red fading out of his face.

"No; but something's wrong," replied Nash. He got out to examine the engine.

Anderson manifestly controlled strong feeling. Lenore saw Jake's hand go to her father's shoulder. "Boss," he whispered, "we can't ketch thet car now." Anderson resigned himself, averted his face so that he could not see Nash, who was tinkering with the engine. Lenore believed then that Nash had deliberately stalled the engine or disordered something, so as to permit the escape of the strange car ahead. She saw it turn off the long, straight road ahead and disappear to the right. After some minutes' delay Nash resumed his seat and started the car once more.

From the top of the next hill Lenore saw the Dorn farm and home. All the wheat looked parched. She remembered, however, that the section of promising grain lay on the north slope, and therefore out of sight from where she was.

"Looks as bad as any," said Anderson. "Good-by to my money."

Lenore shut her eyes and thought of herself, her inward state. She seemed calm, and glad to have that first part of the journey almost ended. Her motive in coming was not now the impelling thing that had actuated her.

When next the car slowed down she heard her father say, "Drive in by the house."

Then Lenore, opening her eyes, saw the gate, the trim little orchard with its scant shade, the gray old weatherbeaten house which she remembered so well. The big porch looked inviting, as it was shady and held an old rocking-chair and a bench with blue cushions. A door stood wide open. No one appeared to be on the premises.

"Nash, blow your horn an' then hunt around for somebody," said Anderson. "Come, get out, Lenore. You must be half dead."

"Oh no. Only half dust and half fire," replied Lenore, laughing, as she stepped out. What a relief to get rid of coat, veils, bonnet, and to sit on a shady porch where a faint breeze blew! Just at that instant she heard a low, distant rumbling. Thunder! It thrilled her. Jake brought her a cold, refreshing drink, and she sent him back after another. She wet her handkerchief and bathed her hot face. It was indeed very comfortable there after that long hot ride.

"Miss Lenore, I seen thet Nash pawin' you," said the cowboy, "an' by Gosh! I couldn't believe my eyes!"

"Not so loud! Jake, the young g

entleman imagines I'm in love with him," replied Lenore.

"Wall, I'll remove his imagining'," declared Jake, coolly.

"Jake, you will do nothing."

"Ahuh! Then you air in love with him?"

Lenore was compelled to explain to this loyal cowboy just what the situation meant. Whereupon Jake swore his amaze, and said, "I'm a-goin' to lick him, anyhow, fer thet!" And he caught up the tin cup and shuffled away.

Footsteps and voices sounded on the path, upon which presently appeared Anderson and young Dorn.

"Father's gone to Wheatly," he was saying. "But I'm glad to tell you we'll pay twenty thousand dollars on the debt as soon as we harvest. If it rains we'll pay it all and have thirty thousand left."

"Good! I sure hope it rains. An' that thunder sounds hopeful," responded Anderson.

"It's been hopeful like that for several days, but no rain," said Dorn. And then, espying Lenore, he seemed startled out of his eagerness. He flushed slightly. "I-I didn't see-you had brought your daughter."

He greeted her somewhat bashfully. And Lenore returned the greeting calmly, watching him steadily and waiting for the nameless sensations she had imagined would attend this meeting. But whatever these might be, they did not come to overwhelm her. The gladness of his voice, as he had spoken so eagerly to her father about the debt, had made her feel very kindly toward him. It might have been natural for a young man to resent this dragging debt. But he was fine. She observed, as he sat down, that, once the smile and flush left his face, he seemed somewhat thinner and older than she had pictured him. A shadow lay in his eyes and his lips were sad. He had evidently been working, upon their arrival. He wore overalls, dusty and ragged; his arms, bare to the elbow, were brown and muscular; his thin cotton shirt was wet with sweat and it clung to his powerful shoulders.

Anderson surveyed the young man with friendly glance.

"What's your first name?" he queried, with his blunt frankness.

"Kurt," was the reply.

"Is that American?"

"No. Neither is Dorn. But Kurt Dorn is an American."

"Hum! So I see, an' I'm powerful glad.… An' you've saved the big section of promisin' wheat?"

"Yes. We've been lucky. It's the best and finest wheat father ever raised. If it rains the yield will go sixty bushels to the acre."

"Sixty? Whew!" ejaculated Anderson.

Lenore smiled at these wheat men, and said: "It surely will rain-and likely storm to-day. I am a prophet who never fails."

"By George! that's true! Lenore has anybody beat when it comes to figurin' the weather," declared Anderson.

Dorn looked at her without speaking, but his smile seemed to say that she could not help being a prophet of good, of hope, of joy.

"Say, Lenore, how many bushels in a section at sixty per acre?" went on Anderson.

"Thirty-eight thousand four hundred," replied Lenore.

"An' what'll you sell for?" asked Anderson of Dorn.

"Father has sold at two dollars and twenty-five cents a bushel," replied Dorn.

"Good! But he ought to have waited. The government will set a higher price.… How much will that come to, Lenore?"

Dorn's smile, as he watched Lenore do her mental arithmetic, attested to the fact that he already had figured out the sum.

"Eighty-six thousand four hundred dollars," replied Lenore. "Is that right?"

"An' you'll have thirty thousand dollars left after all debts are paid?" inquired Anderson.

"Yes, sir. I can hardly realize it. That's a fortune-for one section of wheat. But we've had four bad seasons.… Oh, if it only rains to-day!"

Lenore turned her cheek to the faint west wind. And then she looked long at the slowly spreading clouds, white and beautiful, high up near the sky-line, and dark and forbidding down along the horizon.

"I knew a girl who could feel things move when no one else could," said Lenore. "I'm sensitive like that-at least about wind and rain. Right now I can feel rain in the air."

"Then you have brought me luck," said Dorn, earnestly. "Indeed I guess my luck has turned. I hated the idea of going away with that debt unpaid."

"Are you-going away?" asked Lenore, in surprise.

"Yes, rather," he replied, with a short, sardonic laugh. He fumbled in a pocket of his overalls and drew forth a paper which he opened. A flame burned the fairness from his face; his eyes darkened and shone with peculiar intensity of pride. "I was the first man drafted in this Bend country.… My number was the first called!"

"Drafted!" echoed Lenore, and she seemed to be standing on the threshold of an amazing and terrible truth.

"Lass, we forget," said her father, rather thickly.

"Oh, but-why?" cried Lenore. She had voiced the same poignant appeal to her brother Jim. Why need he-why must he go to war? What for? And Jim had called out a bitter curse on the Germans he meant to kill.

"Why?" returned Dorn, with the sad, thoughtful shadow returning to his eyes. "How many times have I asked myself that?… In one way, I don't know.… I haven't told father yet!… It's not for his sake.… But when I think deeply-when I can feel and see-I mean I'm going for my country.… For you and your sisters."

Like a soldier then Lenore received her mortal blow facing him who dealt it, and it was a sudden overwhelming realization of love. No confusion, no embarrassment, no shame attended the agony of that revelation. Outwardly she did not seem to change at all. She felt her father's eyes upon her; but she had no wish to hide the tumult of her heart. The moment made her a woman. Where was the fulfilment of those vague, stingingly sweet dreamy fancies of love? Where was her maiden reserve, that she so boldly recognized an unsolicited passion? Her eyes met Dorn's steadily, and she felt some vital and compelling spirit pass from her to him. She saw him struggle with what he could not understand. It was his glance that wavered and fell, his hand that trembled, his breast that heaved. She loved him. There had been no beginning. Always he had lived in her dreams. And like her brother he was going to kill and to be killed.

Then Lenore gazed away across the wheat-fields. The shadows came waving toward her. A stronger breeze fanned her cheeks. The heavens were darkening and low thunder rolled along the battlements of the great clouds.

"Say, Kurt, what do you make of this?" asked Anderson. Lenore, turning, saw her father hold out the little gray cake that Jake had found in the wheat-field.

Young Dorn seized it quickly, felt and smelled and bit it.

"Where'd you get this?" he asked, with excitement.

Anderson related the circumstance of its discovery.

"It's a preparation, mostly phosphorus," replied Dorn. "When the moisture evaporates it will ignite-set fire to any dry substance.… That is a trick of the I.W.W. to burn the wheat-fields."

"By all that's --!" swore Anderson, with his jaw bulging. "Jake an' I knew it meant bad. But we didn't know what."

"I've been expecting tricks of all kinds," said Dorn. "I have four men watching the section."

"Good! Say, that car turned off to the right back here some miles.… But, worse luck, the I.W.W.'s can work at night."

"We'll watch at night, too," replied Dorn.

Lenore was conscious of anger encroaching upon the melancholy splendor of her emotions, and the change was bitter.

"When the rain comes, won't it counteract the ignition of that phosphorus?" she asked, eagerly, for she knew that rain would come.

"Only for the time being. It 'll be just as dry this time to-morrow as it is now."

"Then the wheat's goin' to burn," declared Anderson, grimly. "If that trick has been worked all over this country you're goin' to have worse 'n a prairie fire. The job on hand is to save this one section that has a fortune tied up in it."

"Mr. Anderson, that job looks almost hopeless, in the light of this phosphorus trick. What on earth can be done? I've four men. I can't hire any more, because I can't trust these strangers. And how can four men-or five, counting me, watch a square mile of wheat day and night?"

The situation looked hopeless to Lenore and she was sick. What cruel fates toyed with this young farmer! He seemed to be sinking under this last crowning blow. There in the sky, rolling up and rumbling, was the long-deferred rain-storm that meant freedom from debt, and a fortune besides. But of what avail the rain if it was to rush the wheat to full bursting measure only for the infernal touch of the foreigner?

Anderson, however, was no longer a boy. He had dealt with many and many a trial. Never was he plunged into despair until after the dread crisis had come to pass. His red forehead, frowning and ridged with swelling blood-vessels, showed the bent of his mind.

"Oh, it is hard!" said Lenore to Dorn. "I'm so sorry! But don't give up. While there's life there's hope!"

He looked up with tears in his eyes.

"Thank you.… I did weaken. You see I've let myself believe too much-for dad's sake. I don't care about the money for myself.… Money! What good will money be to me-now? It's over for me.… To get the wheat cut-harvested-that's all I hoped.… The army-war-France-I go to be-"

"Hush!" whispered Lenore, and she put a soft hand upon his lips, checking the end of that bitter speech. She felt him start, and the look she met pierced her soul. "Hush!… It's going to rain!… Father will find some way to save the wheat!… And you are coming home-after the war!"

He crushed her hand to his hot lips.

"You make me-ashamed. I won't give-up," he said, brokenly. "And when I'm over-there-in the trenches, I'll think-"

"Dorn, listen to this," rang out Anderson. "We'll fool that I.W.W. gang.…It's a-goin' to rain. So far so good. To-morrow you take this cake of phosphorus an' ride around all over the country. Show it an' tell the farmers their wheat's goin' to burn. An' offer them whose fields are already ruined-that fire can't do no more harm-offer them big money to help you save your section. Half a hundred men could put out a fire if one did start. An' these neighbors of yours, some of them will jump at a chance to beat the I.W.W.… Boy, it can be done!"

He ended with a big fist held aloft in triumph.

"See! Didn't I tell you?" murmured Lenore, softly. It touched her deeply to see Dorn respond to hope. His haggard face suddenly warmed and glowed.

"I never thought of that," he burst out, radiantly. "We can save the wheat.… Mr. Anderson, I-I can't thank you enough."

"Don't try," replied the rancher.

"I tell you it will rain," cried Lenore, gaily. "Let's walk out there-watch the storm come across the hills. I love to see the shadows blow over the wheat."

Lenore became aware, as she passed the car, that Nash was glaring at her in no unmistakable manner. She had forgotten all about him. The sight of his jealous face somehow added to her strange exhilaration.

They crossed the road from the house, and, facing the west, had free prospect of the miles of billowy hills and the magnificent ordnance of the storm-clouds. The deep, low mutterings of thunder seemed a grand and welcome music. Lenore stole a look at Dorn, to see him, bareheaded, face upturned, entranced. It was only a rain-storm coming! Down in the valley country such storms were frequent at this season, too common for their meaning to be appreciated. Here in the desert of wheat rain was a blessing, life itself.

The creamy-white, rounded edge of the approaching clouds came and coalesced, spread and mushroomed. Under them the body of the storm was purple, lit now and then by a flash of lightning. Long, drifting veils of rain, gray as thin fog, hung suspended between sky and earth.

"Listen!" exclaimed Dorn.

A warm wind, laden with dry scent of wheat, struck Lenore's face and waved her hair. It brought a silken, sweeping rustle, a whispering of the bearded grain. The soft sound thrilled Lenore. It seemed a sweet, hopeful message that waiting had been rewarded, that the drought could be broken. Again, and more beautiful than ever before in her life, she saw the waves of shadow as they came forward over the wheat. Rippling, like breezes over the surface of a golden lake, they came in long, broken lines, moving, following, changing, until the whole wheat-field seemed in shadowy motion.

The cloud pageant rolled on above and beyond. Lenore felt a sweet drop of rain splash upon her upturned face. It seemed like a caress. There came a pattering around her. Suddenly rose a damp, faint smell of dust. Beyond the hill showed a gray pall of rain, coming slowly, charged with a low roar. The whisper of the sweeping wheat was swallowed up.

Lenore stood her ground until heavy rain drops fell thick and fast upon her, sinking through her thin waist to thrill her flesh; and then, with a last gay call to those two man lovers of wheat and storms, she ran for the porch.

There they joined her, Anderson puffing and smiling, Dorn still with that rapt look upon his face. The rain swept up and roared on the roof, while all around was streaked gray.

"Boy, there's your thirty-thousand-dollar rain!" shouted Anderson.

But Dorn did not hear. Once he smiled at Lenore as if she were the good fairy who had brought about this miracle. In his look Lenore had deeper realization of him, of nature, and of life. She loved rain, but always, thenceforth, she would reverence it. Fresh, cool fragrance of a renewed soil filled the air. All that dusty gray hue of the earth had vanished, and it was wet and green and bright. Even as she gazed the water seemed to sink in as it fell, a precious relief to thirsty soil. The thunder rolled away eastward and the storm passed. The thin clouds following soon cleared away from the western sky, rain-washed and blue, with a rainbow curving down to bury its exquisite hues in the golden wheat.

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