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   Chapter 12 No.12

The Desert of Wheat By Zane Grey Characters: 18557

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Next day was one of the rare, blistering-hot days with a furnace wind that roared over the wheat-fields. The sky was steely and the sun like copper. It was a day which would bring the wheat to a head.

At breakfast Jerry reported that fresh auto tracks had been made on the road during the night; and that dust and wheat all around the great field showed a fresh tramping.

Kurt believed a deliberate and particular attempt had been made to insure the destruction of the Dorn wheat-field. And he ordered all hands out to search for the dangerous little cakes of phosphorus.

It was difficult to find them. The wheat was almost as high as a man's head and very thick. To force a way through it without tramping it down took care and time. Besides, the soil was soft, and the agents who had perpetrated this vile scheme had perfectly matched the color. Kurt almost stepped on one of the cakes before he saw it. His men were very slow in finding any. But Kurt's father seemed to walk fatally right to them, for in a short hundred yards he found three. They caused a profound change in this gloomy man. Not a word did he utter, but he became animated by a tremendous energy.

The search was discouraging. It was like hunting for dynamite bombs that might explode at any moment. All Kurt's dread of calamity returned fourfold. The intense heat of the day, that would ripen the wheat to bursting, would likewise sooner or later ignite the cakes of phosphorus. And when Jerry found a cake far inside the field, away from the road, showing that powerful had been the arm that had thrown it there, and how impossible it would be to make a thorough search, Kurt almost succumbed to discouragement. Still, he kept up a frenzied hunting and inspired the laborers to do likewise.

About ten o'clock an excited shout from Bill drew Kurt's attention, and he ran along the edge of the field. Bill was sweaty and black, yet through it all Kurt believed he saw the man was pale. He pointed with shaking hand toward Olsen's hill.

Kurt vibrated to a shock. He saw a long circular yellow column rising from the hill, slanting away on the strong wind.

"Dust!" he cried, aghast.

"Smoke!" replied Bill, hoarsely.

The catastrophe had fallen. Olsen's wheat was burning. Kurt experienced a profound sensation of sadness. What a pity! The burning of wheat-the destruction of bread-when part of the world was starving! Tears dimmed his eyes as he watched the swelling column of smoke.

Bill was cursing, and Kurt gathered that the farm-hand was predicting fires all around. This was inevitable. But it meant no great loss for most of the wheat-growers whose yield had failed. For Kurt and his father, if fire got a hold in their wheat, it meant ruin. Kurt's sadness was burned out by a slow and growing rage.

"Bill, go hitch up to the big mower," ordered Kurt. "We'll have to cut all around our field. Bring drinking water and whatever you can lay a hand on … anything to fight fire!"

Bill ran thumping away over the clods. Then it happened that Kurt looked toward his father. The old man was standing with his arms aloft, his face turned toward the burning wheat, and he made a tragic figure that wrung Kurt's heart.

Jerry came running up. "Fire! Fire! Olsen's burnin'! Look! By all thet's dirty, them I.W.W.'s hev done it!… Kurt, we're in fer hell! Thet wind's blowin' straight this way."

"Jerry, we'll fight till we drop," replied Kurt. "Tell the men and father to keep on searching for phosphorus cakes.… Jerry, you keep to the high ground. Watch for fires starting on our land. If you see one yell for us and make for it. Wheat burns slow till it gets started. We can put out fires if we're quick."

"Kurt, there ain't no chance on earth fer us!" yelled Jerry, pale with anger. His big red hands worked. "If fire starts we've got to hev a lot of men.… By Gawd! if I ain't mad!"

"Don't quit, Jerry," said Kurt, fiercely. "You never can tell. It looks hopeless. But we'll never give up. Hustle now!"

Jerry shuffled off as old Dorn came haltingly, as if stunned, toward Kurt. But Kurt did not want to face his father at that moment. He needed to fight to keep up his own courage.

"Never mind that!" yelled Kurt, pointing at Olsen's hill. "Keep looking for those damned pieces of phosphorus!"

With that Kurt dove into the wheat, and, sweeping wide his arms to make a passage, he strode on, his eyes bent piercingly upon the ground close about him. He did not penetrate deeper into the wheat from the road than the distance he estimated a strong arm could send a stone. Almost at once his keen sight was rewarded. He found a cake of phosphorus half buried in the soil. It was dry, hard and hot either from the sun or its own generating power. That inspired Kurt. He hurried on. Long practice enabled him to slip through the wheat as a barefoot country boy could run through the corn-fields. And his passion gave him the eyes of a hunting hawk sweeping down over the grass. To and fro he passed within the limits he had marked, oblivious to time and heat and effort. And covering that part of the wheat-field bordering the road he collected twenty-seven cakes of phosphorus, the last few of which were so hot they burnt his hands.

Then he had to rest. He appeared as wet as if he had been plunged into water; his skin burned, his eyes pained, his breast heaved. Panting and spent, he lay along the edge of the wheat, with closed eyelids and lax muscles.

When he recovered he rose and went back along the road. The last quarter of the immense wheat-field lay upon a slope of a hill, and Kurt had to mount this before he could see the valley. From the summit he saw a sight that caused him to utter a loud exclamation. Many columns of smoke were lifting from the valley, and before him the sky was darkened. Olsen's hill was as if under a cloud. No flames showed anywhere, but in places the line of smoke appeared to be approaching.

"It's a thousand to one against us," he said, bitterly, and looked at his watch. He was amazed to see that three hours had passed since he had given orders to the men. He hurried back to the house. No one was there except the old servant, who was wringing her hands and crying that the house would burn. Throwing the cakes of phosphorus into a watering-trough, Kurt ran into the kitchen, snatched a few biscuits, and then made for the fields, eating as he went.

He hurried down a lane that bordered the big wheat-field. On this side was fallow ground for half the length of the section, and the other half was ripe barley, dry as tinder, and beyond that, in line with the burning fields, a quarter-section of blasted wheat. The men were there. Kurt saw at once that other men with horses and machines were also there. Then he recognized Olsen and two other of his neighbors. As he ran up he was equally astounded and out of breath, so that he could not speak. Old Dorn sat with gray head bowed on his hand.

"Hello!" shouted Olsen. His grimy face broke into a hard smile. "Fires all over! Wheat's burnin' like prairie grass! Them chips of phosphorus are sure from hell!… We've come over to help."

"You-did! You left-your fields!" gasped Kurt.

"Sure. They're not much to leave. And we're goin' to save this section of yours or bust tryin'!… I sent my son in his car, all over, to hurry men here with horses, machines, wagons."

Kurt was overcome. He could only wring Olsen's hand. Here was an answer to one of his brooding, gloomy queries. Something would be gained, even if the wheat was lost. Kurt had scarcely any hope left.

"What's to be done?" he panted, hoarsely. In this extremity Olsen seemed a tower of strength. This sturdy farmer was of Anderson's breed, even if he was a foreigner. And he had fought fires before.

"If we have time we'll mow a line all around your wheat," replied Olsen.

"Reckon we won't have time," interposed Jerry, pointing to a smoke far down in the corner of the stunted wheat. "There's a fire startin'."

"They'll break out all over," said Olsen, and he waved a couple of his men away. One had a scythe and the other a long pole with a wet burlap bag tied on one end. They hurried toward the little cloud of smoke.

"I found a lot of cakes over along the road," declared Kurt, with a grim surety that he had done that well.

"They've surrounded your wheat," returned Olsen. "But if enough men get here we'll save the whole section.… Lucky you've got two wells an' that watertank. We'll need all the water we can get. Keep a man pumpin'. Fetch all the bags an' brooms an' scythes. I'll post lookouts along this lane to watch for fires breakin' out in the big field. When they do we've got to run an' cut an' beat them out.… It won't be long till most of this section is surrounded by fire."

Thin clouds of smoke were then blowing across the fields and the wind that carried them was laden with an odor of burning wheat. To Kurt it seemed to be the fragrance of baking bread.

"How'd it be to begin harvestin'?" queried Jerry. "Thet wheat's ripe."

"No combines should be risked in there until we're sure the danger's past," replied Olsen. "There! I see more of our neighbors comin' down the road. We're goin' to beat the I.W.W."

That galvanized Kur

t into action and he found himself dragging Jerry back to the barns. They hitched a team to a heavy wagon, in record time, and then began to load with whatever was available for fighting fire. They loaded a barrel, and with huge buckets filled it with water. Leaving Jerry to drive, Kurt rushed back to the fields. During his short absence more men, with horses and machines, had arrived; fire had broken out in the stunted wheat, and also, nearer at hand, in the barley. Kurt saw his father laboring like a giant. Olsen was taking charge, directing the men. The sky was obscured now, and all the west was thick with yellow smoke. The south slopes and valley floor were clouding. Only in the east, over the hill, did the air appear clear. Back of Kurt, down across the barley and wheat on the Dorn land, a line of fire was creeping over the hill. This was on the property adjoining Olsen's. Gremniger, the owner, had abandoned his own fields. At the moment he was driving a mower along the edge of the barley, cutting a nine-foot path. Men behind him were stacking the sheaves. The wind was as hot as if from a blast-furnace; the air was thick and oppressive; the light of day was growing dim.

Kurt, mounted on the seat of one of the combine threshers, surveyed with rapid and anxious gaze all the points around him, and it lingered over the magnificent sweep of golden wheat. The wheat bowed in waves before the wind, and the silken rustle, heard above the confusion of yelling men, was like a voice whispering to Kurt. Somehow his dread lessened then and other emotions predominated. He saw more and more farmers arrive, in cars, in wagons, with engines and threshers, until the lane was lined with them and men were hurrying everywhere.

Suddenly Kurt espied a slender column of smoke rising above the wheat out in front of him toward the highway. This was the first sign of fire in the great section that so many farmers had come to protect. Yelling for help, he leaped off the seat and ran with all his might toward the spot. Breasting that thick wheat was almost as hard as breasting waves. Jerry came yelling after him, brandishing a crude beater; and both of them reached the fire at once. It was a small circle, burning slowly. Madly Kurt rushed in to tear and stamp as if the little hissing flames were serpents. He burned his hands through his gloves and his feet through his boots. Jerry beat hard, accompanying his blows with profane speech plainly indicating that he felt he was at work on the I.W.W. In short order they put out this little fire. Returning to his post, Kurt watched until he was called to lend a hand down in the stunted wheat.

Fire had crossed and had gotten a hold on Dorn's lower field. Here the wheat was blasted and so burned all the more fiercely. Horses and mowers had to be taken away to the intervening barley-field. A weird, smoky, and ruddy darkness enveloped the scene. Dim red fire, in lines and dots and curves, appeared on three sides, growing larger and longer, meeting in some places, crisscrossed by black figures of threshing men belaboring the flames. Kurt came across his father working like a mad-man. Kurt warned him not to overexert himself, and the father never heard. Now and then his stentorian yell added to the medley of cries and shouts and blows, and the roar of the wind fanning the flames.

Kurt was put to beating fire in the cut wheat. He stood with flames licking at his boots. It was astonishing how tenacious the fire appeared, how it crept along, eating up the mowed wheat. All the men that could be spared there were unable to check it and keep it out of the standing grain. When it reached this line it lifted a blaze, flamed and roared, and burned like wildfire in grass. The men were driven back, threshing and beating, all to no avail. Kurt fell into despair. There was no hope. It seemed like an inferno.

Flaring high, the light showed the black, violently agitated forms of the fighters, and the clouds of yellow smoke, coalescing and drifting, changing to dark and soaring high.

Olsen had sent three mowers abreast down the whole length of the barley-field before the fire reached that line. It was a wise move, and if anything could do so it would save the day. The leaping flame, thin and high, and a mile long, curled down the last of the standing wheat and caught the fallen barley. But here its speed was checked. It had to lick a way along the ground.

In desperation, in unabated fury, the little army of farmers and laborers, with no thought of personal gain, with what seemed to Kurt a wonderful and noble spirit, attacked this encroaching line of fire like men whose homes and lives and ideals had been threatened with destruction. Kurt's mind worked as swiftly as his tireless hands. This indeed was being in a front line of battle. The scene was weird, dark, fitful, at times impressive and again unreal. These neighbors of his, many of them aliens, some of them Germans, when put to this vital test, were proving themselves. They had shown little liking for the Dorns, but here was love of wheat, and so, in some way, loyalty to the government that needed it. Here was the answer of the Northwest to the I.W.W. No doubt if the perpetrators of that phosphorus trick could have been laid hold of then, blood would have been shed. Kurt sensed in the fierce energy, in the dark, grimy faces, shining and wet under the light, in the hoarse yell and answering shout, a nameless force that was finding itself and centering on one common cause.

His old father toiled as ten men. That burly giant pushed ever in the lead, and his hoarse call and strenuous action told of more than a mercenary rage to save his wheat.

Fire never got across that swath of cut barley. It was beaten out as if by a thousand men. Shadow and gloom enveloped the fighters as they rested where their last strokes had fallen. Over the hills faint reflection of dying flames lit up the dark clouds of smoke. The battle seemed won.

Then came the thrilling cry: "Fire! Fire!"

One of the outposts came running out of the dark.

"Fire! the other side! Fire!" rang out Olsen's yell.

Kurt ran with the gang pell-mell through the dark, up the barley slope, to see a long red line, a high red flare, and lifting clouds of ruddy smoke. Fire in the big wheat-field! The sight inflamed him, carried him beyond his powers, and all he knew was that he became the center of a dark and whirling mêlée encircled by living flames that leaped only to be beaten down. Whether that threshing chaos of fire and smoke and wheat was short or long was beyond him to tell but the fire was extinguished to the last spark.

Walking back with the weary crowd, Kurt felt a clearer breeze upon his face. Smoke was not flying so thickly. Over the western hill, through a rift in the clouds, peeped a star. The only other light he saw twinkled far down the lane. It was that of a lantern. Dark forms barred it now and then. Slowly Kurt recovered his breath. The men were talking and tired voices rang with assurance that the fire was beaten.

Some one called Kurt. The voice was Jerry's. It seemed hoarse and strained. Kurt could see the lean form of his man, standing in the light of the lantern. A small dark group of men, silent and somehow impressive, stood off a little in the shadow.

"Here I am, Jerry," called Kurt, stepping forward. Just then Olsen joined Jerry.

"Boy, we've beat the I.W.W.'s, but-but-" he began, and broke off huskily.

"What's the matter?" queried Kurt, and a cold chill shot over him.

Jerry plucked at his sleeve.

"Your old man-your dad-he's overworked hisself," whispered Jerry. "It's tough.… Nobody could stop him."

Kurt felt that the fulfilment of his icy, sickening dread had come. Jerry's dark face, even in the uncertain light, was tragic.

"Boy, his heart went back on him-he's dead!" said Olsen, solemnly.

Kurt pushed the kind hands aside. A few steps brought him to where, under the light of the lantern, lay his father, pale and still, with a strange softening of the iron cast of intolerance.

"Dead!" whispered Kurt, in awe and horror. "Father! Oh, he's gone!-without a word-"

Again Jerry plucked at Kurt's sleeve.

"I was with him," said Jerry. "I heard him fall an' groan.… I had the light. I bent over, lifted his head.… An' he said, speaking English, 'Tell my son-I was wrong!'… Then he died. An' thet was all."

Kurt staggered away from the whispering, sympathetic foreman, out into the darkness, where he lifted his face in the thankfulness of a breaking heart.

It had, indeed, taken the approach of death to change his hard old father. "Oh, he meant-that if he had his life to live over again-he would be different!" whispered Kurt. That was the one great word needed to reconcile Kurt to his father.

The night had grown still except for the murmuring of the men. Smoke veiled the horizon. Kurt felt an intense and terrible loneliness. He was indeed alone in the world. A hard, tight contraction of throat choked back a sob. If only he could have had a word with his father! But no grief, nothing could detract from the splendid truth of his father's last message. In the black hours soon to come Kurt would have that to sustain him.

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