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   Chapter 11 No.11

The Desert of Wheat By Zane Grey Characters: 17406

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Late in the forenoon of the next day Kurt Dorn reached home. A hot harvest wind breathed off the wheat-fields. It swelled his heart to see the change in the color of that section of Bluestem-the gold had a tinge of rich, ripe brown.

Kurt's father awaited him, a haggard, gloomy-faced man, unkempt and hollow-eyed.

"Was it you who robbed me?" he shouted hoarsely.

"Yes," replied Kurt. He had caught the eager hope and fear in the old man's tone. Kurt expected that confession would bring on his father's terrible fury, a mood to dread. But old Dorn showed immense relief. He sat down in his relaxation from what must have been intense strain. Kurt saw a weariness, a shade, in the gray lined face that had never been there before.

"What did you do with the money?" asked the old man.

"I banked it in Kilo," replied Kurt. "Then I wired your miller in Spokane.… So you're safe if we can harvest the wheat."

Old Dorn nodded thoughtfully. There had come a subtle change in him. Presently he asked Kurt if men had been hired for the harvest.

"No. I've not seen any I would trust," replied Kurt, and then he briefly outlined Anderson's plan to insure a quick and safe harvesting of the grain. Old Dorn objected to this on account of the expense. Kurt argued with him and patiently tried to show him the imperative need of it. Dorn, apparently, was not to be won over; however, he was remarkably mild in comparison with what Kurt had expected.

"Father, do you realize now that the men you were dealing with at Wheatly are dishonest? I mean with you. They would betray you."

Old Dorn had no answer for this. Evidently he had sustained some kind of shock that he was not willing to admit.

"Look here, father," went on Kurt, in slow earnestness. He spoke in English, because nothing would make him break his word and ever again speak a word of German. And his father was not quick to comprehend English. "Can't you see that the I.W.W. mean to cripple us wheat farmers this harvest?"

"No," replied old Dorn, stubbornly.

"But they do. They don't want work. If they accept work it is for a chance to do damage. All this I.W.W. talk about more wages and shorter hours is deceit. They make a bold face of discontent. That is all a lie. The I.W.W. is out to ruin the great wheat-fields and the great lumber forests of the Northwest."

"I do not believe that," declared his father, stoutly. "What for?"

Kurt meant to be careful of that subject.

"No matter what for. It does not make any difference what it's for. We've got to meet it to save our wheat.… Now won't you believe me? Won't you let me manage the harvest?"

"I will not believe," replied old Dorn, stubbornly. "Not about my wheat. I know they mean to destroy. They are against rich men like Anderson. But not me or my wheat!"

"There is where you are wrong. I'll prove it in a very few days. But in that time I can prepare for them and outwit them. Will you let me?"

"Go ahead," replied old Dorn, gruffly.

It was a concession that Kurt was amazed and delighted to gain. And he set about at once to act upon it. He changed his clothes and satisfied his hunger; then, saddling his horse, he started out to visit his farmer neighbors.

The day bade fair to be rich in experience. Jerry, the foreman, was patrolling his long beat up and down the highway. Jerry carried a shot-gun and looked like a sentry. The men under him were on the other side of the section of wheat, and the ground was so rolling that they could not be seen from the highway. Jerry was unmistakably glad and relieved to see Kurt.

"Some goin's-on," he declared, with a grin. "Since you left there's been one hundred and sixteen I.W.W. tramps along this here road."

"Have you had any trouble?" inquired Kurt.

"Wal, I reckon it wasn't trouble, but every time I took a peg at some sneak I sort of broke out sweatin' cold."

"You shot at them?"

"Sure I shot when I seen any loafin' along in the dark. Two of them shot back at me, an' after thet I wasn't particular to aim high.… Reckon I'm about dead for sleep."

"I'll relieve you to-night," replied Kurt. "Jerry, doesn't the wheat look great?"

"Wal, I reckon. An' walkin' along here when it's quiet an' no wind blowin', I can just hear the wheat crack. It's gittin' ripe fast, an' sure the biggest crop we ever raised.… But I'm tellin' you-when I think how we'll ever harvest it my insides just sinks like lead!"

Kurt then outlined Anderson's plan, which was received by the foreman with eager approval and the assurance that the neighbor farmers would rally to his call.

Kurt found his nearest neighbor, Olsen, cutting a thin, scarcely ripe barley. Olsen was running a new McCormack harvester, and appeared delighted with the machine, but cast down by the grain prospects. He did not intend to cut his wheat at all. It was a dead loss.

"Two sections-twelve hundred an' eighty acres!" he repeated, gloomily. "An' the third bad year! Dorn, I can't pay the interest to my bank."

Olsen's sun-dried and wind-carved visage was as hard and rugged and heroic as this desert that had resisted him for years. Kurt saw under the lines and the bronze all the toil and pain and unquenchable hope that had made Olsen a type of the men who had cultivated this desert of wheat.

"I'll give you five hundred dollars to help me harvest," said Kurt, bluntly, and briefly stated his plan.

Olsen whistled. He complimented Anderson's shrewd sense. He spoke glowingly of that magnificent section of wheat that absolutely must be saved. He promised Kurt every horse and every man on his farm. But he refused the five hundred dollars.

"Oh, say, you'll have to accept it," declared Kurt.

"You've done me good turns," asserted Olsen.

"But nothing like this. Why, this will be a rush job, with all the men and horses and machines and wagons I can get. It'll cost ten-fifteen thousand dollars to harvest that section. Even at that, and paying Anderson, we'll clear twenty thousand or more. Olsen, you've got to take the money."

"All right, if you insist. I'm needin' it bad enough," replied Olsen.

Further conversation with Olsen gleaned the facts that he was the only farmer in their immediate neighborhood who did not have at least a little grain worth harvesting. But the amount was small and would require only slight time. Olsen named farmers that very likely would not take kindly to Dorn's proposition, and had best not be approached. The majority, however, would stand by him, irrespective of the large wage offered, because the issue was one to appeal to the pride of the Bend farmers. Olsen appeared surprisingly well informed upon the tactics of the I.W.W., and predicted that they would cause trouble, but be run out of the country. He made the shrewd observation that when even those farmers who sympathized with Germany discovered that their wheat-fields were being menaced by foreign influences and protected by the home government, they would experience a change of heart. Olsen said the war would be a good thing for the United States, because they would win it, and during the winning would learn and suffer and achieve much.

Kurt rode away from Olsen in a more thoughtful frame of mind. How different and interesting the points of view of different men! Olsen had never taken the time to become a naturalized citizen of the United States. There had never been anything to force him to do it. But his understanding of the worth of the United States and his loyalty to it were manifest in his love for his wheatlands. In fact, they were inseparable. Probably there were millions of pioneers, emigrants, aliens, all over the country who were like Olsen, who needed the fire of the crucible to mold them into a unity with Americans. Of such, Americans were molded!

* * *

Kurt rode all day, and when, late that night, he got home, weary and sore and choked, he had enlisted the services of thirty-five farmers to help him harvest the now famous section of wheat.

His father had plainly doubted the willingness of these neighbors to abandon their own labors, for the Bend exacted toil for every hour of every season, whether rich or poor in yield. Likewise he was plainly moved by the facts. His seamed and shaded face of gloom had a moment of light.

"They will make short work of this harvest," he said, thoughtfully.

"I should say so," retorted Kurt. "We'll harvest and haul that grain to the railroad in just three days."

"Impossible!" ejaculated Dorn.

"You'll see," declared Kurt. "You'll see who's managing this harvest."

He could not restrain his little outburst of pride. For the moment the great overhanging sense of c

alamity that for long had haunted him faded into the background. It did seem sure that they would save this splendid yield of wheat. How much that meant to Kurt-in freedom from debt, in natural love of the fruition of harvest, in the loyalty to his government! He realized how strange and strong was the need in him to prove he was American to the very core of his heart. He did not yet understand that incentive, but he felt it.

After eating dinner Kurt took his rifle and went out to relieve Jerry.

"Only a few more days and nights!" he exclaimed to his foreman. "Then we'll have all the harvesters in the country right in our wheat."

"Wal, a hell of a lot can happen before then," declared Jerry, pessimistically.

Kurt was brought back to realities rather suddenly. But questioning Jerry did not elicit any new or immediate cause for worry. Jerry appeared tired out.

"You go get some sleep," said Kurt.

"All right. Bill's been dividin' this night watch with me. I reckon he'll be out when he wakes up," replied Jerry, and trudged away.

Kurt shouldered his rifle and slowly walked along the road with a strange sense that he was already doing army duty in protecting property which was at once his own and his country's.

The night was dark, cool, and quiet. The heavens were starry bright. A faint breeze brought the tiny crackling of the wheat. From far distant came the bay of a hound. The road stretched away pale and yellow into the gloom. In the silence and loneliness and darkness, in all around him, and far across the dry, whispering fields, there was an invisible presence that had its affinity in him, hovered over him shadowless and immense, and waved in the bursting wheat. It was life. He felt the wheat ripening. He felt it in reawakened tenderness for his old father and in the stir of memory of Lenore Anderson. The past active and important hours had left little room for thought of her.

But now she came back to him, a spirit in keeping with his steps, a shadow under the stars, a picture of sweet, wonderful young womanhood. His whole relation of thought toward her had undergone some marvelous change. The most divine of gifts had been granted him-an opportunity to save her from harm, perhaps from death. He had served her father. How greatly he could not tell, but if measured by the gratitude in her eyes it would have been infinite. He recalled that expression-blue, warm, soft, and indescribably strange with its unuttered hidden meaning. It was all-satisfying for him to realize that she had been compelled to give him a separate and distinct place in her mind. He must stand apart from all others she knew. It had been his fortune to preserve her happiness and the happiness that she must be to sisters and mother, and that some day she would bestow upon some lucky man. They would all owe it to him. And Lenore Anderson knew he loved her.

These things had transformed his relation of thought toward her. He had no regret, no jealousy, no fear. Even the pang of suppressed and overwhelming love had gone with his confession.

But he did remember her presence, her beauty, her intent blue glance, and the faint, dreaming smile of her lips-remembered them with a thrill, and a wave of emotion, and a contraction of his heart. He had promised to see her once more, to afford her the opportunity, no doubt, to thank him, to try to make him see her gratitude. He would go, but he wished it need not be. He asked no more. And seeing her again might change his fulness of joy to something of pain.

So Kurt trod the long road in the darkness and silence, pausing, and checking his dreams now and then, to listen and to watch. He heard no suspicious sounds, nor did he meet any one. The night was melancholy, with a hint of fall in its cool breath.

Soon he would be walking a beat in one of the training-camps, with a bugle-call in his ears and the turmoil of thousands of soldiers in the making around him: soon, too, he would be walking the deck of a transport, looking back down the moon-blanched wake of the ship toward home, listening to the mysterious moan of the ocean; and then soon feeling under his feet the soil of a foreign country, with hideous and incomparable war shrieking its shell furies and its man anguish all about him. But no matter how far away he ever got, he knew Lenore Anderson would be with him as she was there on that dim, lonely starlit country road.

And in these long hours of his vigil Kurt Dorn divined a relation between his love for Lenore Anderson and a terrible need that had grown upon him. A need of his heart and his soul! More than he needed her, if even in his wildest dreams he had permitted himself visions of an earthly paradise, he needed to prove to his blood and his spirit that he was actually and truly American. He had no doubt of his intelligence, his reason, his choice. The secret lay hidden in the depths of him, and he knew it came from the springs of the mother who had begotten him. His mother had given him birth, and by every tie he was mostly hers.

Kurt had been in college during the first year of the world war. And his name, his fair hair and complexion, his fluency in German, and his remarkable efficiency in handicrafts had opened him to many a hint, many a veiled sarcasm that had stung him like a poison brand. There was injustice in all this war spirit. It changed the minds of men and women. He had not doubted himself until those terrible scenes with his father, and, though he had reacted to them as an American, he had felt the drawing, burning blood tie. He hated everything German and he knew he was wrong in doing so. He had clear conception in his mind of the difference between the German war motives and means, and those of the other nations.

Kurt's problem was to understand himself. His great fight was with his own soul. His material difficulties and his despairing love had suddenly been transformed, so that they had lent his spirit wings. How many poor boys and girls in America must be helplessly divided between parents and country! How many faithful and blind parents, obedient to the laws of mind and heart, set for all time, must see a favorite son go out to fight against all they had held sacred!

That was all bad enough, but Kurt had more to contend with. No illusions had he of a chastened German spirit, a clarified German mind, an unbrutalized German heart. Kurt knew his father. What would change his father? Nothing but death! Death for himself or death for his only son! Kurt had an incalculable call to prove forever to himself that he was free. He had to spill his own blood to prove himself, or he had to spill that of an enemy. And he preferred that it should be his own. But that did not change a vivid and terrible picture which haunted him at times. He saw a dark, wide, and barren shingle of the world, a desert of desolation made by man, where strange, windy shrieks and thundering booms and awful cries went up in the night, and where drifting palls of smoke made starless sky, and bursts of reddish fires made hell.

Suddenly Kurt's slow pacing along the road was halted, as was the trend of his thought. He was not sure he had heard a sound. But he quivered all over. The night was far advanced now; the wind was almost still; the wheat was smooth and dark as the bosom of a resting sea. Kurt listened. He imagined he heard, far away, the faint roar of an automobile. But it might have been a train on the railroad. Sometimes on still nights he caught sounds like that.

Then a swish in the wheat, a soft thud, very low, unmistakably came to Kurt's ear. He listened, turning his ear to the wind. Presently he heard it again-a sound relating both to wheat and earth. In a hot flash he divined that some one had thrown fairly heavy bodies into the wheat-fields. Phosphorus cakes! Kurt held his breath while he peered down the gloomy road, his heart pounding, his hands gripping the rifle. And when he descried a dim form stealthily coming toward him he yelled, "Halt!"

Instantly the form wavered, moved swiftly, with quick pad of footfalls. Kurt shot once-twice-three times-and aimed as best he could to hit. The form either fell or went on out of sight in the gloom. Kurt answered the excited shouts of his men, calling them to come across to him. Then he went cautiously down the road, peering on the ground for a dark form. But he failed to find it, and presently had to admit that in the dark his aim had been poor. Bill came out to relieve Kurt, and together they went up and down the road for a mile without any glimpse of a skulking form. It was almost daylight when Kurt went home to get a few hours' sleep.

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