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   Chapter 13 No.13

The Desert of Wheat By Zane Grey Characters: 15450

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The bright sun of morning disclosed that wide, rolling region of the Bend to be a dreary, blackened waste surrounding one great wheat-field, rich and mellow and golden.

Kurt Dorn's neighbor, Olsen, in his kind and matter-of-fact way, making obligation seem slight, took charge of Kurt's affairs, and made the necessary and difficult decisions. Nothing must delay the harvesting and transporting of the wheat. The women folk arranged for the burial of old Chris Dorn.

Kurt sat and moved about in a gloomy kind of trance for a day and a half, until his father was laid to rest beside his mother, in the little graveyard on the windy hill. After that his mind slowly cleared. He kept to himself the remainder of that day, avoiding the crowd of harvesters camping in the yard and adjacent field; and at sunset he went to a lonely spot on the verge of the valley, where with sad eyes he watched the last rays of sunlight fade over the blackened hills. All these hours had seemed consecrated to his father's memory, to remembered acts of kindness and of love, of the relation that had gone and would never be again. Reproach and remorse had abided with him until that sunset hour, when the load eased off his heart.

Next morning he went out to the wheat-field.

* * *

What a wonderful harvesting scene greeted Kurt Dorn! Never had its like been seen in the Northwest, nor perhaps in any other place. A huge pall of dust, chaff, and smoke hung over the vast wheat-field, and the air seemed charged with a roar. The glaring gold of the wheat-field appeared to be crisscrossed everywhere with bobbing black streaks of horses-bays, blacks, whites, and reds; by big, moving painted machines, lifting arms and puffing straw; by immense wagons piled high with sheaves of wheat, lumbering down to the smoking engines and the threshers that sent long streams of dust and chaff over the lifting straw-stacks; by wagons following the combines to pick up the plump brown sacks of wheat; and by a string of empty wagons coming in from the road.

Olsen was rushing thirty combine threshers, three engine threshing-machines, forty wagon-teams, and over a hundred men well known to him. There was a guard around the field. This unprecedented harvest had attracted many spectators from the little towns. They had come in cars and on horseback and on foot. Olsen trusted no man on that field except those he knew.

The wonderful wheat-field was cut into a thousand squares and angles and lanes and curves. The big whirring combines passed one another, stopped and waited and turned out of the way, leaving everywhere little patches and cubes of standing wheat, that soon fell before the onslaught of the smaller combines. This scene had no regularity. It was one of confusion; of awkward halts, delays, hurries; of accident. The wind blew clouds of dust and chaff, alternately clearing one space to cloud another. And a strange roar added the last heroic touch to this heroic field. It was indeed the roar of battle-men and horses governing the action of machinery, and all fighting time. For in delay was peril to the wheat.

Once Kurt ran across the tireless and implacable Olsen. He seemed a man of dust and sweat and fury.

"She's half cut an' over twenty thousand bushels gone to the railroad!" he exclaimed. "An' we're speedin' up."

"Olsen, I don't get what's going on," replied Kurt. "All this is like a dream."

"Wake up. You'll be out of debt an' a rich man in three days," added Olsen, and went his way.

In the afternoon Kurt set out to work as he had never worked in his life. There was need of his strong hands in many places, but he could not choose any one labor and stick by it for long. He wanted to do all. It was as if this was not a real and wonderful harvest of his father's greatest wheat yield, but something that embodied all years, all harvests, his father's death, the lifting of the old, hard debt, the days when he had trod the fields barefoot, and this day when, strangely enough, all seemed over for him. Peace dwelt with him, yet no hope. Behind his calm he could have found the old dread, had he cared to look deeply. He loved these heroic workers of the fields. It had been given to him-a great task-to be the means of creating a test for them, his neighbors under a ban of suspicion; and now he could swear they were as true as the gold of the waving wheat. More than a harvest was this most strenuous and colorful of all times ever known in the Bend; it had a significance that uplifted him. It was American.

First Kurt began to load bags of wheat, as they fell from the whirring combines, into the wagons. For his powerful arms a full bag, containing two bushels, was like a toy for a child. With a lift and a heave he threw a bag into a wagon. They were everywhere, these brown bags, dotting the stubble field, appearing as if by magic in the wake of the machines. They rolled off the platforms. This toil, because it was hard and heavy, held Kurt for an hour, but it could not satisfy his enormous hunger to make that whole harvest his own. He passed to pitching sheaves of wheat and then to driving in the wagons. From that he progressed to a seat on one of the immense combines, where he drove twenty-four horses. No driver there was any surer than Kurt of his aim with the little stones he threw to spur a lagging horse. Kurt had felt this when, as a boy, he had begged to be allowed to try his hand; he liked the shifty cloud of fragrant chaff, now and then blinding and choking him; and he liked the steady, rhythmic tramps of hooves and the roaring whir of the great complicated machine. It fascinated him to see the wide swath of nodding wheat tremble and sway and fall, and go sliding up into the inside of that grinding maw, and come out, straw and dust and chaff, and a slender stream of gold filling the bags.

This day Kurt Dorn was gripped by the unknown. Some far-off instinct of future drove him, set his spiritual need, and made him register with his senses all that was so beautiful and good and heroic in the scene about him.

Strangely, now and then a thought of Lenore Anderson entered his mind and made sudden havoc. It tended to retard action. He trembled and thrilled with a realization that every hour brought closer the meeting he could not avoid. And he discovered that it was whenever this memory recurred that he had to leave off his present task and rush to another. Only thus could he forget her.

The late afternoon found him feeding sheaves of wheat to one of the steam-threshers. He stood high upon a platform and pitched sheaves from the wagons upon the sliding track of the ponderous, rattling threshing-machine. The engine stood off fifty yards or more, connected by an endless driving-belt to the thresher. Here indeed were whistle and roar and whir, and the shout of laborers, and the smell of smoke, sweat, dust, and wheat. Kurt had arms of steel. If they tired he never knew it. He toiled, and he watched the long spout of chaff and straw as it streamed from the thresher to lift, magically, a glistening, ever-growing stack. And he felt, as a last and cumulative change, his physical effort, and the physical adjuncts of the scene, pass into something spiritual, into his heart and his memory.

The end of that harvest-time came as a surprise to Kurt. Obsessed with his own emotions, he had actually helped to cut the wheat and harvest it; he had seen it go swath by swath, he had watched the huge wagons lumber away and the huge straw-stacks rise without realizing that the hours of this wonderful harvest were numbered.

Sight of Olsen coming in from across the field, and the sudden cessation of roar and action, made Kurt aw

are of the end. It seemed a calamity. But Olsen was smiling through his dust-caked face. About him were relaxation, an air of finality, and a subtle pride.

"We're through," he said. "She tallies thirty-eight thousand, seven hundred an' forty-one bushels. It's too bad the old man couldn't live to hear that."

Olsen gripped Kurt's hand and wrung it.

"Boy, I reckon you ought to take that a little cheerfuller," he went on. "But-well it's been a hard time.… The men are leavin' now. In two hours the last wagons will unload at the railroad. The wheat will all be in the warehouse. An' our worry's ended."

"I-I hope so," responded Kurt. He seemed overcome with the passionate longing to show his gratitude to Olsen. But the words would not flow. "I-I don't know how to thank you.… All my life-"

"We beat the I.W.W.," interposed the farmer, heartily. "An' now what'll you do, Dorn?"

"Why, I'll hustle to Kilo, get my money, send you a check for yourself and men, pay off the debt to Anderson, and then-"

But Kurt did not conclude his speech. His last words were thought-provoking.

"It's turned out well," said Olsen, with satisfaction, and, shaking hands again with Kurt, he strode back to his horses.

At last the wide, sloping field was bare, except for the huge straw-stacks. A bright procession lumbered down the road, led by the long strings of wagons filled with brown bags. A strange silence had settled down over the farm. The wheat was gone. That waving stretch of gold had fallen to the thresher and the grain had been hauled away. The neighbors had gone, leaving Kurt rich in bushels of wheat, and richer for the hearty farewells and the grips of horny hands. Kurt's heart was full.

* * *

It was evening. Kurt had finished his supper. Already he had packed a few things to take with him on the morrow. He went out to the front of the house. Stars were blinking. There was a low hum of insects from the fields. He missed the soft silken rustle of the wheat. And now it seemed he could sit there in the quiet darkness, in that spot which had been made sweet by Lenore Anderson's presence, and think of her, the meeting soon to come. The feeling abiding with him then must have been happiness, because he was not used to it. Without deserving anything, he had asked a great deal of fate, and, lo! it had been given him. All was well that ended well. He realized now the terrible depths of despair into which he had allowed himself to be plunged. He had been weak, wrong, selfish. There was something that guided events.

He needed to teach himself all this, with strong and repeated force, so that when he went to give Lenore Anderson the opportunity to express her gratitude, to see her sweet face again, and to meet the strange, warm glance of her blue eyes, so mysterious and somehow mocking, he could be a man of restraint, of pride, like any American, like any other college man she knew. This was no time for a man to leave a girl bearing a burden of his unsolicited love, haunted, perhaps, by a generous reproach that she might have been a little to blame. He had told her the truth, and so far he had been dignified. Now let him bid her good-by, leaving no sorrow for her, and, once out of her impelling presence, let come what might come. He could love her then; he could dare what he had never dared; he could surrender himself to the furious, insistent sweetness of a passion that was sheer bliss in its expression. He could imagine kisses on the red lips that were not for him.

A husky shout from somewhere in the rear of the house diverted Kurt's attention. He listened. It came again. His name! It seemed a strange call from out of the troubled past that had just ended. He hurried through the house to the kitchen. The woman stood holding a lamp, staring at Jerry.

Jerry appeared to have sunk against the wall. His face was pallid, with drops of sweat standing out, with distorted, quivering lower jaw. He could not look at Kurt. He could not speak. With shaking hand he pointed toward the back of the house.

Filled with nameless dread, Kurt rushed out. He saw nothing unusual, heard nothing. Rapidly he walked out through the yard, and suddenly he saw a glow in the sky above the barns. Then he ran, so that he could get an unobstructed view of the valley.

The instant he obtained this he halted as if turned to stone. The valley was a place of yellow light. He stared. With the wheat-fields all burned, what was the meaning of such a big light? That broad flare had a center, low down on the valley floor. As he gazed a monstrous flame leaped up, lighting colossal pillars of smoke that swirled upward, and showing plainer than in day the big warehouse and lines of freight-cars at the railroad station, eight miles distant.

"My God!" gasped Kurt. "The warehouse-my wheat-on fire!"

Clear and unmistakable was the horrible truth. Kurt heard the roar of the sinister flames. Transfixed, he stood there, at first hardly able to see and to comprehend. For miles the valley was as light as at noonday. An awful beauty attended the scene. How lurid and sinister the red heart of that fire? How weird and hellish and impressive of destruction those black, mountain-high clouds of smoke! He saw the freight-cars disappear under this fierce blazing and smoking pall. He watched for what seemed endless moments. He saw the changes of that fire, swift and terrible. And only then did Kurt Dorn awaken to the full sense of the calamity.

"All that work-Olsen's sacrifice-and the farmers'-my father's death-all for nothing!" whispered Kurt. "They only waited-those fiends-to fire the warehouse and the cars!"

The catastrophe had fallen. The wheat was burning. He was ruined. His wheatland must go to Anderson. Kurt thought first and most poignantly of the noble farmers who had sacrificed the little in their wheat-fields to save the much in his. Never could he repay them.

Then he became occupied with a horrible heat that seemed to have come from the burning warehouse to all his pulses and veins and to his heart and his soul.

This fiendish work, as had been forecast, was the work of the I.W.W. Behind it was Glidden and perhaps behind him was the grasping, black lust of German might. Kurt's loss was no longer abstract or problematical. It was a loss so real and terrible that it confounded him. He shook and gasped and reeled. He wrung his hands and beat his breast while the tumult swayed him, the physical hate at last yielding up its significance. What then, was his great loss? He could not tell. The thing was mighty, like the sense of terror and loneliness in the black night. Not the loss for his farmer neighbors, so true in his hour of trial! Not the loss of his father, nor the wheat, nor the land, nor his ruined future! But it must be a loss, incalculable and insupportable, to his soul. His great ordeal had been the need, a terrible and incomprehensible need, to kill something intangible in himself. He had meant to do it. And now the need was shifted, subject to a baser instinct. If there was German blood in him, poisoning the very wells of his heart he could have spilled it, and so, whether living or dead, have repudiated the taint. That was now clear in his consciousness. But a baser spark had ignited all the primitive passion of the forebears he felt burning and driving within him. He felt no noble fire. He longed to live, to have a hundredfold his strength and fury, to be gifted with a genius for time and place and bloody deed, to have the war-gods set him a thousand opportunities, to beat with iron mace and cut with sharp bayonet and rend with hard hand-to kill and kill and kill the hideous thing that was German.

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