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   Chapter 9 No.9

The Desert of Wheat By Zane Grey Characters: 26730

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Kurt Dorn had indeed no hope of ever seeing Lenore Anderson again, and he suffered a pang that seemed to leave his heart numb, though Anderson's timely visit might turn out as providential as the saving rain-storm. The wheat waved and rustled as if with renewed and bursting life. The exquisite rainbow still shone, a beautiful promise, in the sky. But Dorn could not be happy in that moment.

This day Lenore Anderson had seemed a bewildering fulfilment of the sweetness he had imagined was latent in her. She had meant what was beyond him to understand. She had gently put a hand to his lips, to check the bitter words, and he had dared to kiss her soft fingers. The thrill, the sweetness, the incomprehensible and perhaps imagined response of her pulse would never leave him. He watched the big car until it was out of sight.

The afternoon was only half advanced and there were numberless tasks to do. He decided he could think and plan while he worked. As he was about to turn away he espied another automobile, this one coming from the opposite direction to that Anderson had taken. The sight of it reminded Dorn of the I.W.W. trick of throwing phosphorus cakes into the wheat. He was suspicious of that car. It slowed down in front of the Dorn homestead, turned into the yard, and stopped near where Dorn stood. The dust had caked in layers upon it. Someone hailed him and asked if this was the Dorn farm. Kurt answered in the affirmative, whereupon a tall man, wearing a long linen coat, opened the car door to step out. In the car remained the driver and another man.

"My name is Hall," announced the stranger, with a pleasant manner. "I'm from Washington, D.C. I represent the government and am in the Northwest in the interest of the Conservation Commission. Your name has been recommended to me as one of the progressive young wheat-growers of the Bend; particularly that you are an American, located in a country exceedingly important to the United States just now-a country where foreign-born people predominate."

Kurt, somewhat startled and awed, managed to give a courteous greeting to his visitor, and asked him into the house. But Mr. Hall preferred to sit outdoors on the porch. He threw off hat and coat, and, taking an easy chair, he produced some cigars.

"Will you smoke?" he asked, offering one.

Kurt declined with thanks. He was aware of this man's penetrating, yet kindly scrutiny of him, and he had begun to wonder. This was no ordinary visitor.

"Have you been drafted?" abruptly queried Mr. Hall.

"Yes, sir. Mine was the first number," replied Kurt, with a little pride.

"Do you want exemption?" swiftly came the second query.

It shocked Dorn, then stung him.

"No," he said, forcibly.

"Your father's sympathy is with Germany, I understand."

"Well, sir, I don't know how you understand that, but it's true-to my regret and shame."

"You want to fight?" went on the official.

"I hate the idea of war. But I-I guess I want to fight. Maybe that's because I'm feeling scrappy over these I.W.W. tricks."

"Dorn, the I.W.W. is only one of the many phases of war that we must meet," returned Mr. Hall, and then for a moment he thoughtfully drew upon his cigar.

"Young man, I like your talk. And I'll tell you a secret. My name's not Hall. Never mind my name. For you it's Uncle Sam!"

Whereupon, with a winning and fascinating manner that seemed to Kurt at once intimate and flattering, he began to talk fluently of the meaning of his visit, and of its cardinal importance. The government was looking far ahead, preparing for a tremendous, and perhaps a lengthy, war. The food of the country must be conserved. Wheat was one of the most vital things in the whole world, and the wheat of America was incalculably precious-only the government knew how precious. If the war was short a wheat famine would come afterward; if it was long, the famine would come before the war ended. But it was inevitable. The very outcome of the war itself depended upon wheat.

The government expected a nation-wide propaganda by the German interests which would be carried on secretly and boldly, in every conceivable way, to alienate the labor organizations, to bribe or menace the harvesters, to despoil crops, and particularly to put obstacles in the way of the raising and harvesting, the transporting and storing of wheat. It would take an army to protect the nation's grain.

Dorn was earnestly besought by this official to compass his district, to find out who could be depended upon by the United States and who was antagonistic, to impress upon the minds of all his neighbors the exceeding need of greater and more persistent cultivation of wheat.

"I accept. I'll do my best," replied Kurt, grimly. "I'll be going some the next two weeks."

"It's deplorable that most of the wheat in this section is a failure," said the official. "But we must make up for that next year. I see you have one magnificent wheat-field. But, fact is, I heard of that long before I got here."

"Yes? Where?" ejaculated Kurt, quick to catch a significance in the other's words.

"I've motored direct from Wheatly. And I'm sorry to say that what I have now to tell you is not pleasant.… Your father sold this wheat for eighty thousand dollars in cash. The money was seen to be paid over by a mill-operator of Spokane.… And your father is reported to be suspiciously interested in the I.W.W. men now at Wheatly."

"Oh, that's awful!" exclaimed Kurt, with a groan. "How did you learn that?"

"From American farmers-men that I had been instructed to approach, the same as in your case. The information came quite by accident, however, and through my inquiring about the I.W.W."

"Father has not been rational since the President declared war. He's very old. I've had trouble with him. He might do anything."

"My boy, there are multitudes of irrational men nowadays and the number is growing.… I advise you to go at once to Wheatly and bring your father home. It was openly said that he was taking risks with that large sum of money."

"Risks! Why, I can't understand that. The wheat's not harvested yet, let alone hauled to town. And to-day I learned the I.W.W. are working a trick with cakes of phosphorus, to burn the wheat."

Kurt produced the cake of phosphorus and explained its significance to the curious official.

"Cunning devils! Who but a German would ever have thought of that?" he exclaimed. "German science! To such ends the Germans put their supreme knowledge!"

"I wonder what my father will say about this phosphorus trick. I just wonder. He loves the wheat. His wheat has taken prizes at three world's fairs. Maybe to see our wheat burn would untwist that twist in his brain and make him American."

"I doubt it. Only death changes the state of a real German, physical, moral, and spiritual. Come, ride back to Glencoe with me. I'll drop you there. You can hire a car and make Wheatly before dark."

Kurt ran indoors, thinking hard as he changed clothes. He told the housekeeper to tell Jerry he was called away and would be back next day. Putting money and a revolver in his pocket, he started out, but hesitated and halted. He happened to think that he was a poor shot with a revolver and a fine one with a rifle. So he went back for his rifle, a small high-power, repeating gun that he could take apart and hide under his coat. When he reached the porch the official glanced from the weapon to Kurt's face and said, with a flash of spirit:

"It appears that you are in earnest!"

"I am. Something told me to take this," responded Kurt, as he dismounted the rifle. "I've already had one run-in with an I.W.W. I know tough customers when I see them. These foreigners are the kind I don't want near me. And if I see one trying to fire the wheat I'll shoot his leg off."

"I'm inclined to think that Uncle Sam would not deplore your shooting a little higher.… Dorn, you're fine! You're all I heard you were! Shake hands!"

Kurt tingled all over as he followed the official out to the car and took the seat given him beside the driver. "Back to Glencoe," was the order. And then, even if conversation had been in order, it would scarcely have been possible. That driver could drive! He had no fear and he knew his car. Kurt could drive himself, but he thought that if he had been as good as this fellow he would have chosen one of two magnificent services for the army-an ambulance-driver at the front or an aeroplane scout.

On the way to Glencoe several squads of idling and marching men were passed, all of whom bore the earmarks of the I.W.W. Sight of them made Kurt hug his gun and wonder at himself. Never had he been a coward, but neither had he been one to seek a fight. This suave, distinguished government official, by his own significant metaphor, Uncle Sam gone abroad to find true hearts, had wrought powerfully upon Kurt's temper. He sensed events. He revolved in mind the need for him to be cool and decisive when facing the circumstances that were sure to arise.

At Glencoe, which was reached so speedily that Kurt could scarcely credit his eyes, the official said; "You'll hear from me. Good-by and good luck!"

Kurt hired a young man he knew to drive him over to Wheatly. All the way Kurt brooded about his father's strange action. The old man had left home before the rain-storm. How did he know he could guarantee so many bushels of wheat as the selling-price indicated? Kurt divined that his father had acted upon one of his strange weather prophecies. For he must have been absolutely sure of rain to save the wheat.

Darkness had settled down when Kurt reached Wheatly and left the car at the railroad station. Wheatly was a fairly good-sized little town. There seemed to be an unusual number of men on the dark streets. Dim lights showed here and there. Kurt passed several times near groups of conversing men, but he did not hear any significant talk.

Most of the stores were open and well filled with men, but to Kurt's sharp eyes there appeared to be much more gossip going on than business. The town was not as slow and quiet as was usual with Bend towns. He listened for war talk, and heard none. Two out of every three men who spoke in his hearing did not use the English language. Kurt went into the office of the first hotel he found. There was no one present. He glanced at an old register lying on the desk. No guests had registered for several days.

Then Kurt went out and accosted a man leaning against a hitching-rail.

"What's going on in this town?"

The man stood rather indistinctly in the uncertain light. Kurt, however, made out his eyes and they were regarding him suspiciously.

"Nothin' onusual," was the reply.

"Has harvesting begun in these parts?"

"Some barley cut, but no wheat. Next week, I reckon."

"How's the wheat?"

"Some bad an' some good."

"Is this town a headquarters for the I.W.W.?"

"No. But there's a big camp of I.W.W.'s near here. Reckon you're one of them union fellers?"

"I am not," declared Kurt, bluntly.

"Reckon you sure look like one, with thet gun under your coat."

"Are you going to hire I.W.W. men?" asked Kurt, ignoring the other's observation.

"I'm only a farm-hand," was the sullen reply. "An' I tell you I won't join no I.W.W."

Kurt spared himself a moment to give this fellow a few strong proofs of the fact that any farm-hand was wise to take such a stand against the labor organization. Leaving the fellow gaping and staring after him, Kurt crossed the street to enter another hotel. It was more pretentious than the first, with a large, well lighted office. There were loungers at the tables. Kurt walked to the desk. A man leaned upon his elbows. He asked Kurt if he wanted a room. This man, evidently the proprietor, was a German, though he spoke English.

"I'm not sure," replied Kurt. "Will you let me look at the register?"

The man shoved the book around. Kurt did not find the name he sought.

"My father, Chris Dorn, is in town. Can you tell me where I'll find him?"

"So you're young Dorn," replied the other, with instant change to friendliness. "I've heard of you. Yes, the old man is here. He made a big wheat deal to-day. He's eating his supper."

Kurt stepped to the door indicated, and, looking into the dining-room, he at once espied his father's huge head with its shock of gray hair. He appeared to be in earnest colloquy with a man whose bulk matched his own. Kurt hesitated, and finally went back to the desk.

"Who's the big man with my father?" he asked.

"He is a big man, both ways. Don't you know him?" rejoined the proprietor, in a lower voice.

"I'm not sure," answered Kurt. The lowered tone had a significance that decided Kurt to admit nothing.

"That's Neuman from Ruxton, one of the biggest wheat men in Washington."

Kurt repressed a whistle of surprise. Neuman was Anderson's only rival in the great, fertile valley. What were Neuman and Chris Dorn doing with their heads together?

"I thought he was Neuman," replied Kurt, feeling his way. "Is he in on the big deal with father?"

"Which one?" queried the proprietor, with shrewd eyes, taking Kurt's measure. "You're in on both, of course."

"Sure. I mean the wheat sale, not the I.W.W. deal," replied Kurt. He hazarded a guess with

that mention of the I.W.W. No sooner had the words passed his lips than he divined he was on the track of sinister events.

"Your father sold out to that Spokane miller. No, Neuman is not in on that."

"I was surprised to hear father had sold the wheat. Was it speculation or guarantee?"

"Old Chris guaranteed sixty bushels. There were friends of his here who advised against it. Did you have rain over there?"

"Fine. The wheat will go over sixty bushels. I'm sorry I couldn't get here sooner."

"When it rained you hurried over to boost the price. Well, it's too late."

"Is Glidden here?" queried Kurt, hazarding another guess.

"Don't talk so loud," warned the proprietor. "Yes, he just got here in a car with two other men. He's up-stairs having supper in his room."

"Supper!" Kurt echoed the word, and averted his face to hide the leap of his blood. "That reminds me, I'm hungry."

He went into the big, dimly lighted dining-room. There was a shelf on one side as he went in, and here, with his back turned to the room, he laid the disjointed gun and his hat. Several newspapers lying near attracted his eye. Quickly he slipped them under and around the gun, and then took a seat at the nearest table. A buxom German waitress came for his order. He gave it while he gazed around at his grim-faced old father and the burly Neuman, and his ears throbbed to the beat of his blood. His hand trembled on the table. His thoughts flashed almost too swiftly for comprehension. It took a stern effort to gain self-control.

Evil of some nature was afoot. Neuman's presence there was a strange, disturbing fact. Kurt had made two guesses, both alarmingly correct. If he had any more illusions or hopes, he dispelled them. His father had been won over by this arch conspirator of the I.W.W. And, despite his father's close-fistedness where money was concerned, that eighty thousand dollars, or part of it, was in danger.

Kurt wondered how he could get possession of it. If he could he would return it to the bank and wire a warning to the Spokane buyer that the wheat was not safe. He might persuade his father to turn over the amount of the debt to Anderson. While thinking and planning, Kurt kept an eye on his father and rather neglected his supper. Presently, when old Dorn and Neuman rose and left the dining-room, Kurt followed them. His father was whispering to the proprietor over the desk, and at Kurt's touch he glared his astonishment.

"You here! What for?" he demanded, gruffly, in German.

"I had to see you," replied Kurt, in English.

"Did it rain?" was the old man's second demand, husky and serious.

"The wheat is made, if we can harvest it," answered Kurt.

The blaze of joy on old Dorn's face gave Kurt a twinge of pain. He hated to dispel it. "Come aside, here, a minute," he whispered, and drew his father over to a corner under a lamp. "I've got bad news. Look at this!" He produced the cake of phosphorus, careful to hide it from other curious eyes there, and with swift, low words he explained its meaning. He expected an outburst of surprise and fury, but he was mistaken.

"I know about that," whispered his father, hoarsely. "There won't be any thrown in my wheat."

"Father! What assurance have you of that?" queried Kurt, astounded.

The old man nodded his gray head wisely. He knew, but he did not speak.

"Do you think these I.W.W. plotters will spare your wheat?" asked Kurt. "You are wrong. They may lie to your face. But they'll betray you. The I.W.W. is backed by-by interests that want to embarrass the government."

"What government?"

"Why, ours-the U.S. government!"

"That's not my government. The more it's embarrassed the better it will suit me."

In the stress of the moment Kurt had forgotten his father's bitter and unchangeable hatred.

"But you're-you're stupid," he hissed, passionately. "That government has protected you for fifty years."

Old Dorn growled into his beard. His huge ox-eyes rolled. Kurt realized then finally how implacable and hopeless he was-how utterly German. Then Kurt importuned him to return the eighty thousand dollars to the bank until he was sure the wheat was harvested and hauled to the railroad.

"My wheat won't burn," was old Dorn's stubborn reply.

"Well, then, give me Anderson's thirty thousand. I'll take it to him at once. Our debt will be paid. We'll have it off our minds."

"No hurry about that," replied his father.

"But there is hurry," returned Kurt, in a hot whisper. "Anderson came to see you to-day. He wants his money."

"Neuman holds the small end of that debt. I'll pay him. Anderson can wait."

Kurt felt no amaze. He expected anything. But he could scarcely contain his fury. How this old man, his father, whom he had loved-how he had responded to the influences that must destroy him!

"Anderson shall not wait," declared Kurt. "I've got some say in this matter. I've worked like a dog in those wheat-fields. I've a right to demand Anderson's money. He needs it. He has a tremendous harvest on his hands."

Old Dorn shook his huge head in somber and gloomy thought. His broad face, his deep eyes, seemed to mask and to hide. It was an expression Kurt had seldom seen there, but had always hated. It seemed so old to Kurt, that alien look, something not born of his time.

"Anderson is a capitalist," said Chris Dorn, deep in his beard. "He seeks control of farmers and wheat in the Northwest. Ranch after ranch he's gained by taking up and foreclosing mortgages. He's against labor. He grinds down the poor. He cheated Neuman out of a hundred thousand bushels of wheat. He bought up my debt. He meant to ruin me. He-"

"You're talking I.W.W. rot," whispered Kurt, shaking with the effort to subdue his feelings. "Anderson is fine, big, square-a developer of the Northwest. Not an enemy! He's our friend. Oh! if only you had an American's eyes, just for a minute!… Father, I want that money for Anderson."

"My son, I run my own business," replied Dorn, sullenly, with a pale fire in his opaque eyes. "You're a wild boy, unfaithful to your blood. You've fallen in love with an American girl.… Anderson says he needs money!"… With hard, gloomy face the old man shook his head. "He thinks he'll harvest!" Again that strange shake of finality. "I know what I know.… I keep my money.… We'll have other rule.… I keep my money."

Kurt had vibrated to those most significant words and he stared speechless at his father.

"Go home. Get ready for harvest," suddenly ordered old Dorn, as if he had just awakened to the fact of Kurt's disobedience in lingering here.

"All right, father," replied Kurt, and, turning on his heel, he strode outdoors.

When he got beyond the light he turned and went back to a position where in the dark he could watch without being seen. His father and the hotel proprietor were again engaged in earnest colloquy. Neuman had disappeared. Kurt saw the huge shadow of a man pass across a drawn blind in a room up-stairs. Then he saw smaller shadows, and arms raised in vehement gesticulation. The very shadows were sinister. Men passed in and out of the hotel. Once old Dorn came to the door and peered all around. Kurt observed that there was a dark side entrance to this hotel. Presently Neuman returned to the desk and said something to old Dorn, who shook his head emphatically, and then threw himself into a chair, in a brooding posture that Kurt knew well. He had seen it so often that he knew it had to do with money. His father was refusing demands of some kind. Neuman again left the office, this time with the proprietor. They were absent some little time.

During this period Kurt leaned against a tree, hidden in the shadow, with keen eyes watching and with puzzled, anxious mind. He had determined, in case his father left that office with Neuman, on one of those significant disappearances, to slip into the hotel at the side entrance and go up-stairs to listen at the door of the room with the closely drawn blind. Neuman returned soon with the hotel man, and the two of them half led, half dragged old Dorn out into the street. They took the direction toward the railroad. Kurt followed at a safe distance on the opposite side of the street. Soon they passed the stores with lighted windows, then several dark houses, and at length the railroad station. Perhaps they were bound for the train. Kurt heard rumbling in the distance. But they went beyond the station, across the track, and turned to the right.

Kurt was soft-footed and keen-eyed. He just kept the dim shadows in range. They were heading for some freight-cars that stood upon a side-track. The dark figures disappeared behind them. Then one figure reappeared, coming back. Kurt crouched low. This man passed within a few yards of Kurt and he was whispering to himself. After he was safely out of earshot Kurt stole on stealthily until he reached the end of the freight-cars. Here he paused, listening. He thought he heard low voices, but he could not see the men he was following. No doubt they were waiting in the secluded gloom for the other men apparently necessary for that secret conference. Kurt had sensed this event and he had determined to be present. He tried not to conjecture. It was best for him to apply all his faculties to the task of slipping unseen and unheard close to these men who had involved his father in some dark plot.

Not long after Kurt hid himself on the other side of the freight-car he heard soft-padded footsteps and subdued voices. Dark shapes appeared to come out of the gloom. They passed him. He distinguished low, guttural voices, speaking German. These men, three in number, were scarcely out of sight when Kurt laid his rifle on the projecting shelf of the freight-car and followed them.

Presently he came to deep shadow, where he paused. Low voices drew him on again, then a light made him thrill. Now and then the light appeared to be darkened by moving figures. A dark object loomed up to cut off Kurt's view. It was a pile of railroad ties, and beyond it loomed another. Stealing along these, he soon saw the light again, quite close. By its glow he recognized his father's huge frame, back to him, and the burly Neuman on the other side, and Glidden, whose dark face was working as he talked. These three were sitting, evidently on a flat pile of ties, and the other two men stood behind. Kurt could not make out the meaning of the low voices. Pressing closer to the freight-car, he cautiously and noiselessly advanced.

Glidden was importuning with expressive hands and swift, low utterance. His face gleamed dark, hard, strong, intensely strung with corded, quivering muscles, with eyes apparently green orbs of fire. He spoke in German.

Kurt dared not go closer unless he wanted to be discovered, and not yet was he ready for that. He might hear some word to help explain his father's strange, significant intimations about Anderson.

"…must-have-money," Glidden was saying. To Kurt's eyes treachery gleamed in that working face. Neuman bent over to whisper gruffly in Dorn's ear. One of the silent men standing rubbed his hands together. Old Dorn's head was bowed. Then Glidden spoke so low and so swiftly that Kurt could not connect sentences, but with mounting blood he stood transfixed and horrified, to gather meaning from word on word, until he realized Anderson's doom, with other rich men of the Northwest, was sealed-that there were to be burnings of wheat-fields and of storehouses and of freight-trains-destruction everywhere.

"I give money," said old Dorn, and with heavy movement he drew from inside his coat a large package wrapped in newspaper. He laid it before him in the light and began to unwrap it. Soon there were disclosed two bundles of bills-the eighty thousand dollars.

Kurt thrilled in all his being. His poor father was being misled and robbed. A melancholy flash of comfort came to Kurt! Then at sight of Glidden's hungry eyes and working face and clutching hands Kurt pulled his hat far down, drew his revolver, and leaped forward with a yell, "Hands up!"

He discharged the revolver right in the faces of the stunned plotters, and, snatching up the bundle of money, he leaped over the light, knocking one of the men down, and was gone into the darkness, without having slowed in the least his swift action.

Wheeling round the end of the freight-car, he darted back, risking a hard fall in the darkness, and ran along the several cars to the first one, where he grasped his rifle and kept on. He heard his father's roar, like that of a mad bull, and shrill yells from the other men. Kurt laughed grimly. They would never catch him in the dark. While he ran he stuffed the money into his inside coat pockets. Beyond the railroad station he slowed down to catch his breath. His breast was heaving, his pulse hammering, and his skin was streaming. The excitement was the greatest under which he had ever labored.

"Now-what shall-I do?" he panted. A freight-train was lumbering toward him and the head-light was almost at the station. The train appeared to be going slowly through without stopping. Kurt hurried on down the track a little farther. Then he waited. He would get on that train and make his way somehow to Ruxton, there to warn Anderson of the plot against his life.

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