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   Chapter 10 No.10

The Desert of Wheat By Zane Grey Characters: 22994

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Kurt rode to Adrian on that freight, and upon arriving in the yards there he jumped off, only to mount another, headed south. He meant to be traveling while it was dark. No passenger-trains ran at night and he wanted to put as much distance between him and Wheatly as possible before daylight.

He had piled into an open box-car. It was empty, at least of freight, and the floor appeared to have a thin covering of hay. The train, gathering headway, made a rattling rolling roar. Kurt hesitated about getting up and groping back in the pitch-black corners of the car. He felt that it contained a presence besides his own. And suddenly he was startled by an object blacker than the shadow, that sidled up close to him. Kurt could not keep the cold chills from chasing up and down his back. The object was a man, who reached for Kurt and felt of him with a skinny hand.

"I.W.W.?" he whispered, hoarsely, in Kurt's ear.

"Yes," replied Kurt.

"Was that Adrian where you got on?"

"It sure was," answered Kurt, with grim humor.

"Than you're the feller?"

"Sure," replied Kurt. It was evident that he had embarked upon an adventure.

"When do we stall this freight?"

"Not while we're on it, you can gamble."

Other dark forms sidled out of the gloomy depths of that cavern-like corner and drew close to Kurt. He realized that he had fallen in with I.W.W. men who apparently had taken him for an expected messenger or leader. He was importuned for tobacco, drink, and money, and he judged that his begging companions consisted of an American tramp, an Austrian, a negro, and a German. Fine society to fall into! That eighty thousand dollars became a tremendous burden.

"How many men on this freight?" queried Kurt, thinking he could ask questions better than answer them. And he was told there were about twenty-five, all of whom expected money. At this information Kurt rather closely pressed his hand upon the revolver in his side coat pocket. By asking questions and making judicious replies he passed what he felt was the dark mark in that mixed company of I.W.W. men; and at length, one by one, they melted away to their warmer corners, leaving Kurt by the door. He did not mind the cold. He wanted to be where, at the first indication of a stop, he could jump off the train.

With his hand on his gun and hugging the bulging coat pockets close to him, Kurt settled himself for what he believed would be interminable hours. He strained eyes and ears for a possible attack from the riffraff I.W.W. men hidden there in the car. And that was why, perhaps, that it seemed only a short while until the train bumped and slowed, preparatory to stopping. The instant it was safe Kurt jumped out and stole away in the gloom. A fence obstructed further passage. He peered around to make out that he was in a road. Thereupon he hurried along it until he was out of hearing of the train. There was light in the east, heralding a dawn that Kurt surely would welcome. He sat down to wait, and addressed to his bewildered judgment a query as to whether or not he ought to keep on carrying the burdensome rifle. It was not only heavy, but when daylight came it might attract attention, and his bulging coat would certainly invite curiosity. He was in a predicament; nevertheless, he decided to hang on to the rifle.

He almost fell asleep, waiting there with his back against a fence-post. The dawn came, and then the rosy sunrise. And he discovered, not half a mile away, a good-sized town, where he believed he surely could hire an automobile.

Waiting grew to be so tedious that he decided to risk the early hour, and proceeded toward the town. Upon the outskirts he met a farmer boy, who, in reply to a question, said that the town was Connell. Kurt found another early riser in the person of a blacksmith who evidently was a Yankee and proud of it. He owned a car that he was willing to hire out on good security. Kurt satisfied him on that score, and then proceeded to ask how to get across the Copper River and into Golden Valley. The highway followed the railroad from that town to Kahlotus, and there crossed a big trunk-line railroad, to turn south toward the river.

In half an hour, during which time Kurt was enabled to breakfast, the car was ready. It was a large car, rather ancient and the worse for wear, but its owner assured Kurt that it would take him where he wanted to go and he need not be afraid to drive fast. With that inspiring knowledge Kurt started off.

Before ten o'clock Kurt reached Kilo, far across the Copper River, with the Blue Mountains in sight, and from there less confusing directions to follow. He had been lucky. He had passed the wreck of the freight-train upon which he had ridden from Adrian; his car had been surrounded by rough men, and only quick wits saved him at least delay; he had been hailed by more than one group of tramping I.W.W. men; and he had passed camps and freight-yards where idlers were congregated. And lastly, he had seen, far across the valley, a pall of smoke from forest fire.

He was going to reach "Many Waters" in time to warn Anderson, and that fact gave him strange exultation. When it was assured and he had the eighty thousand dollars deposited in a bank he could feel that his gray, gloomy future would have several happy memories. How would Lenore Anderson feel toward a man who had saved her father? The thought was too rich, too sweet for Kurt to dwell upon.

Before noon Kurt began to climb gradually up off the wonderfully fertile bottom-lands where the endless orchards and boundless gardens delighted his eye, and the towns grew fewer and farther between. Kurt halted at Huntington for water, and when he was about ready to start a man rushed out of a store, glanced hurriedly up and down the almost deserted street, and, espying Kurt, ran to him.

"Message over 'phone! I.W.W.! Hell to pay!" he cried, excitedly.

"What's up? Tell me the message," replied Kurt, calmly.

"It just come-from Vale. Anderson, the big rancher! He 'phoned to send men out on all roads-to stop his car! His daughter's in it! She's been made off with! I.W.W.'s!"

Kurt's heart leaped. The bursting blood burned through him and receded to leave him cold, tingling. Anything might happen to him this day! He reached inside the seat to grasp the disjointed rifle, and three swift movements seemed to serve to unwrap it and put the pieces together.

"What else did Anderson say?" he asked, sharply.

"That likely the car would head for the hills, where the I.W.W.'s are camped."

"What road from here leads that way?"

"Take the left-hand road at the end of town," replied the man, more calmly. "Ten miles down you'll come to a fork. There's where the I.W.W.'s will turn off to go up into the foot-hills. Anderson just 'phoned. You can head off his car if it's on the hill road. But you'll have to drive.… Do you know Anderson's car? Don't you want men with you?"

"No time!" called Kurt, as he leaped into the seat and jammed on the power.

"I'll send cars all over," shouted the man, as Kurt whirred away.

Kurt's eyes and hands and feet hurt with the sudden intensity of strain. All his nervous force seemed set upon the one great task of driving and guiding that car at the limit of its speed. Huntington flashed behind, two indistinct streaks of houses. An open road, slightly rising, stretched ahead. The wind pressed so hard that he could scarcely breathe. The car gave forth a humming roar.

Kurt's heart labored, swollen and tight, high in his breast, and his thoughts were swift, tumultuous. An agony of dread battled with a dominating but strange certainty. He felt belief in his luck. Circumstances one by one had led to this drive, and in every one passed by he felt the direction of chance.

He sped by fields of wheat, a wagon that he missed by an inch, some stragglers on the road, and then, far ahead, he saw a sign-post of the forks. As he neared it he gradually shut off the power, to stop at the cross-roads. There he got out to search for fresh car tracks turning up to the right. There were none. If Anderson's car was coming on that road he would meet it.

Kurt started again, but at reasonable speed, while his eyes were sharp on the road ahead. It was empty. It sloped down for a long way, and made a wide curve to the right, along the base of hilly pastureland, and then again turned. And just as Kurt's keen gaze traveled that far a big automobile rounded the bend, coming fast. He recognized the red color, the shape of the car.

"Anderson's!" he cried, with that same lift of his heart, that bursting gush of blood. "No dream!… I see it!… And I'll stop it!"

The advantage was all his. He would run along at reasonable speed, choose a narrow place, stop his car so as to obstruct the road, and get out with his rifle.

It seemed a long stretch down that long slope, and his car crept along while the other gradually closed the gap. Slower and slower Kurt ran, then turned half across the road and stopped. When he stepped out the other car was two hundred yards or more distant. Kurt saw when the driver slackened his speed. There appeared to be only two people in the car, both in front. But Kurt could not be sure of that until it was only fifty yards away.

Then he swung out his rifle and waved for the driver to stop. But he did not stop. Kurt heard a scream. He saw a white face. He saw the driver swing his hand across that white face, dashing it back.

"Halt!" yelled Kurt, at the top of his lungs.

But the driver hunched down and put on the power. The red car leaped. As it flashed by Kurt recognized Nash and Anderson's daughter. She looked terrified. Kurt dared not shoot, for fear of hitting the girl. Nash swerved, took the narrow space left him, smashing the right front wheel of Kurt's car, and got by.

Kurt stepped aside and took a quick shot at the tire of Nash's left hind wheel. He missed. His heart sank and he was like ice as he risked another. The little high-power bullet struck and blew the tire off the wheel. Nash's car lurched, skidded into the bank not thirty yards away.

With a bound Kurt started for it, and he was there when Nash had twisted out of his seat and over the door.

"Far enough! Don't move!" ordered Kurt, presenting the rifle.

Nash was ghastly white, with hunted eyes and open mouth, and his hands shook.

"Oh it's-Kurt Dorn!" cried a broken voice.

Kurt saw the girl fumble with the door on her side, open it, and stagger out of his sight. Then she reappeared round the car. Bareheaded, disheveled, white as chalk, with burning eyes and bleeding lips, she gazed at Kurt as if to make sure of her deliverance.

"Miss Anderson-if he's harmed you-" broke out Kurt, hoarsely.

"Oh!… Don't kill him!… He hasn't touched me," she replied, wildly.

"But your lips are bleeding."

"Are they?" She put a trembling hand to them. "He-he struck me.… That's nothing… But you-you have saved me-from God only knows what!"

"I have! From him?" demanded Kurt. "What is he?"

"He's a German!" returned Lenore, and red burned out of the white of her cheeks. "Secret agent-I.W.W.!… Plotter against my father's life!… Oh, he knocked father off the car-dragged him!… He ran the car away-with me-forced me back-he struck me!… Oh, if I were a man!"

Nash responded with a passion that made his face drip with sweat and distort into savage fury of defeat and hate.

"You two-faced cat!" he hisse

d. "You made love to me! You fooled me! You let me-"

"Shut up!" thundered Kurt. "You German dog! I can't murder you, because I'm American. Do you get that? But I'll beat you within an inch of your life!"

As Kurt bent over to lay down the rifle, Nash darted a hand into the seat for weapon of some kind. But Kurt, in a rush, knocked him over the front guard. Nash howled. He scrambled up with bloody mouth. Kurt was on him again.

"Take that!" cried Kurt, low and hard, as he swung his arm. The big fist that had grasped so many plow-handles took Nash full on that bloody mouth and laid him flat. "Come on, German! Get out of the trench!"

Like a dog Nash thrashed and crawled, scraping his hands in the dirt, to jump up and fling a rock that Kurt ducked by a narrow margin. Nash followed it, swinging wildly, beating at his adversary.

Passion long contained burst in Kurt. He tasted the salt of his own blood where he had bitten his lips. Nash showed as in a red haze. Kurt had to get his hands on this German, and when he did it liberated a strange and terrible joy in him. No weapon would have sufficed. Hardly aware of Nash's blows, Kurt tore at him, swung and choked him, bore him down on the bank, and there beat him into a sodden, bloody-faced heap.

Only then did a cry of distress, seemingly from far off, pierce Kurt's ears. Miss Anderson was pulling at him with frantic hands.

"Oh, don't kill him! Please don't kill him!" she was crying. "Kurt!-for my sake, don't kill him!"

That last poignant appeal brought Kurt to his senses. He let go of Nash. He allowed the girl to lead him back. Panting hard, he tried to draw a deep, full breath.

"Oh, he doesn't move!" whispered Lenore, with wide eyes on Nash.

"Miss Anderson-he's not-even insensible," panted Kurt. "But he's licked-good and hard."

The girl leaned against the side of the car, with a hand buried in her heaving breast. She was recovering. The gray shade left her face. Her eyes, still wide and dark and beginning to glow with softer emotions, were upon Kurt.

"You-you were the one to come," she murmured. "I prayed. I was terribly frightened. Ruenke was taking me-to the I.W.W. camp, up in the hills."

"Ruenke?" queried Kurt.

"Yes, that's his German name."

Kurt awoke to the exigencies of the situation. Searching in the car, he found a leather belt. With this he securely bound Ruenke's hands behind his back, then rolled him down into the road.

"My first German prisoner," said Kurt, half seriously. "Now, Miss Anderson, we must be doing things. We don't want to meet a lot of I.W.W.'s out here. My car is out of commission. I hope yours is not broken."

Kurt got into the car and found, to his satisfaction, that it was not damaged so far as running-gear was concerned. After changing the ruined tire he backed down the road and turned to stop near where Ruenke lay. Opening the rear door, Kurt picked him up as if he had been a sack of wheat and threw him into the car. Next he secured the rifle that had been such a burden and had served him so well in the end.

"Get in, Miss Anderson," he said, "and show me where to drive you home."

She got in beside him, making a grimace as she saw Ruenke lying behind her. Kurt started and ran slowly by the damaged car.

"He knocked a wheel off. I'll have to send back."

"Oh, I thought it was all over when we hit!" said the girl.

Kurt experienced a relaxation that was weakening. He could hardly hold the wheel and his mood became one of exaltation.

"Father suspected this Ruenke," went on Lenore. "But he wanted to find out things from him. And I-I undertook-to twist Mr. Germany round my finger. I made a mess of it.… He lied. I didn't make love to him. But I listened to his love-making, and arrogant German love-making it was! I'm afraid I made eyes at him and let him believe I was smitten.… Oh, and all for nothing! I'm ashamed… But he lied!"

Her confidence, at once pathetic and humorous and contemptuous, augmented Kurt's Homeric mood. He understood that she would not even let him, for a moment, have a wrong impression of her.

"It must have been hard," agreed Kurt. "Didn't you find out anything at all?"

"Not much," she replied. Then she put a hand on his sleeve. "Your knuckles are all bloody."

"So they are. I got that punching our German friend."

"Oh, how you did beat him!" she cried. "I had to look. My ire was up, too!… It wasn't very womanly-of me-that I gloried in the sight."

"But you cried out-you pulled me away!" exclaimed Kurt.

"That was because I was afraid you'd kill him," she replied.

Kurt swerved his glance, for an instant, to her face. It was at once flushed and pale, with the deep blue of downcast eyes shadowy through her long lashes, exceedingly sweet and beautiful to Kurt's sight. He bent his glance again to the road ahead. Miss Anderson felt kindly and gratefully toward him, as was, of course, natural. But she was somehow different from what she had seemed upon the other occasions he had seen her. Kurt's heart was full to bursting.

"I might have killed him," he said. "I'm glad-you stopped me. That-that frenzy of mine seemed to be the breaking of a dam. I have been dammed up within. Something had to break. I've been unhappy for a long time."

"I saw that. What about?" she replied.

"The war, and what it's done to father. We're estranged. I hate everything German. I loved the farm. My chance in life is gone. The wheat debt-the worry about the I.W.W.-and that's not all."

Again she put a gentle hand on his sleeve and left it there for a moment. The touch thrilled all through Kurt.

"I'm sorry. Your position is sad. But maybe it is not utterly hopeless. You-you'll come back after the war."

"I don't know that I want to come back," he said. "For then-it'd be just as bad-worse.… Miss Anderson, it won't hurt to tell you the truth.… A year ago-that first time I saw you-I fell in love with you. I think-when I'm away-over in France-I'd like to feel that you know. It can't hurt you. And it'll be sweet to me.… I fought against the-the madness. But fate was against me.… I saw you again.… And it was all over with me!"

He paused, catching his breath. She was perfectly quiet. He looked on down the winding road. There were dust-clouds in the distance.

"I'm afraid I grew bitter and moody," he went on. "But the last forty-eight hours have changed me forever… I found that my poor old dad had been won over by these unscrupulous German agents of the I.W.W. But I saved his name.… I've got the money he took for the wheat we may never harvest. But if we do harvest I can pay all our debt.… Then I learned of a plot to ruin your father-to kill him!… I was on my way to 'Many Waters.' I can warn him.… Last of all I have saved you."

The little hand dropped away from his coat sleeve. A soft, half-smothered cry escaped her. It seemed to him she was about to weep in her exceeding pity.

"Miss Anderson, I-I'd rather not have-you pity me."

"Mr. Dorn, I certainly don't pity you," she replied, with an unexpected, strange tone. It was full. It seemed to ring in his ears.

"I know there never was and never could be any hope for me. I-I-"

"Oh, you know that!" murmured the soft, strange voice.

But Kurt could not trust his ears and he had to make haste to terminate the confession into which his folly and emotion had betrayed him. He scarcely heard her words.

"Yes.… I told you why I wanted you to know.… And now forget that-and when I'm gone-if you think of me ever, let it be about how much better it made me-to have all this good luck-to help your father and to save you!"

The dust-cloud down the road came from a string of automobiles, flying along at express speed. Kurt saw them with relief.

"Here come the cars on your trail," he called out. "Your father will be in one of them."

* * *

Kurt opened the door of the car and stepped down. He could not help his importance or his pride. Anderson, who came running between two cars that had stopped abreast, was coatless and hatless, covered with dust, pale and fire-eyed.

"Mr. Anderson, your daughter is safe-unharmed," Kurt assured him.

"My girl!" cried the father, huskily, and hurried to where she leaned out of her seat.

"All right, dad," she cried, as she embraced him. "Only a little shaky yet."

It was affecting for Dorn to see that meeting, and through it to share something of its meaning. Anderson's thick neck swelled and colored, and his utterance was unintelligible. His daughter loosened her arm from round him and turned her face toward Kurt. Then he imagined he saw two blue stars, sweetly, strangely shining upon him.

"Father, it was our friend from the Bend," she said. "He happened along."

Anderson suddenly changed to the cool, smiling man Kurt remembered.

"Howdy, Kurt?" he said, and crushed Kurt's hand. "What'd you do to him?"

Kurt made a motion toward the back of the car. Then Anderson looked over the seats. With that he opened the door and in one powerful haul he drew Ruenke sliding out into the road. Ruenke's bruised and bloody face was uppermost, a rather gruesome sight. Anderson glared down upon him, while men from the other cars crowded around. Ruenke's eyes resembled those of a cornered rat. Anderson's jaw bulged, his big hands clenched.

"Bill, you throw this fellow in your car and land him in jail. I'll make a charge against him," said the rancher.

"Mr. Anderson, I can save some valuable time," interposed Kurt. "I've got to return a car I broke down. And there's my wheat. Will you have one of these men drive me back?"

"Sure. But won't you come home with us?" said Anderson.

"I'd like to. But I must get home," replied Kurt. "Please let me speak a few words for your ear alone." He drew Anderson aside and briefly told about the eighty thousand dollars; threw back his coat to show the bulging pockets. Then he asked Anderson's advice.

"I'd deposit the money an' wire the Spokane miller," returned the rancher. "I know him. He'll leave the money in the bank till your wheat is safe. Go to the national bank in Kilo. Mention my name."

Then Kurt told Anderson of the plot against his fortunes and his life.

"Neuman! I.W.W.! German intrigue!" growled the rancher. "All in the same class!… Dorn, I'm forewarned, an' that's forearmed. I'll beat this outfit at their own game."

They returned to Anderson's car. Kurt reached inside for his rifle.

"Aren't you going home with us?" asked the girl.

"Why, Miss Anderson, I-I'm sorry. I-I'd love to see 'Many Waters,'" floundered Kurt. "But I can't go now. There's no need. I must hurry back to-to my troubles."

"I wanted to tell you something-at home," she returned, shyly.

"Tell me now," said Kurt.

She gave him such a glance as he had never received in his life. Kurt felt himself as wax before those blue eyes. She wanted to thank him. That would be sweet, but would only make his ordeal harder. He steeled himself.

"You won't come?" she asked, and her smile was wistful.

"No-thank you ever so much."

"Will you come to see me before you-you go to war?"

"I'll try."

"But you must promise. You've done so much for me and my father.… I-I want you to come to see me-at my home."

"Then I'll come," he replied.

Anderson clambered into the car beside his daughter and laid his big hands on the wheel.

"Sure he'll come, or we'll go after him," he declared, heartily. "So long, son."

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