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   Chapter 14 No.14

The Desert of Wheat By Zane Grey Characters: 19608

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Kurt rushed back to the house. Encountering Jerry, he ordered him to run and saddle a couple of horses. Then Kurt got his revolver and a box of shells, and, throwing on his coat, he hurried to the barn. Jerry was leading out the horses. It took but short work to saddle them. Jerry was excited and talkative. He asked Kurt many questions, which excited few replies.

When Kurt threw himself into the saddle Jerry yelled, "Which way?"

"Down the trail!" replied Kurt, and was off.

"Aw, we'll break our necks!" came Jerry's yell after him.

Kurt had no fear of the dark. He knew that trail almost as well by night as by day. His horse was a mettlesome colt that had not been worked during the harvest, and he plunged down the dim, winding trail as if, indeed, to verify Jerry's fears. Presently the thin, pale line that was the trail disappeared on the burned wheat-ground. Here Kurt was at fault as to direction, but he did not slacken the pace for that. He heard Jerry pounding along in the rear, trying to catch up. The way the colt jumped ditches and washes and other obstructions proved his keen sight. Kurt let him go. And then the ride became both perilous and thrilling.

Kurt could not see anything on the blackened earth. But he knew from the contour of the hills just about where to expect to reach the fence and the road. And he did not pull the horse too soon. When he found the gate he waited for Jerry, who could be heard calling from the darkness. Kurt answered him.

"Here's the gate!" yelled Kurt, as Jerry came galloping up. "Good road all the way now!"

"Lickity-cut then!" shouted Jerry to whom the pace had evidently communicated enthusiasm.

The ride then became a race, with Kurt drawing ahead. Kurt could see the road, a broad, pale belt, dividing the blackness on either side; and he urged the colt to a run. The wind cut short Kurt's breath, beat at his ears, and roared about them. Closer and closer drew the red flare of the dying fire, casting long rays of light into Kurt's eyes.

The colt was almost run out when he entered the circle of reddish flare. Kurt saw the glowing ruins of the elevators and a long, fiery line of box-cars burned to the wheels. Men were running and shouting round in front of the little railroad station, and several were on the roof with brooms and buckets. The freight-house had burned, and evidently the station itself had been on fire. Across the wide street of the little village the roof of a cottage was burning. Men were on top of it, beating the shingles. Hoarse yells greeted Kurt as he leaped out of the saddle. He heard screams of frightened women. On the other side of the burned box-cars a long, thin column of sparks rose straight upward. Over the ruins of the elevators hung a pall of heavy smoke. Just then Jerry came galloping up, his lean face red in the glow.

"Thet you, Kurt! Say, the sons of guns are burnin' down the town." He leaped off. "Lemme have your bridle. I'll tie the hosses up. Find out what we can do."

Kurt ran here and there, possessed by impotent rage. The wheat was gone! That fact gave him a hollow, sickening pang. He met farmers he knew. They all threw up their hands at sight of him. Not one could find a voice. Finally he met Olsen. The little wheat farmer was white with passion. He carried a gun.

"Hello, Dorn! Ain't this hell? They got your wheat!" he said hoarsely.

"Olsen! How'd it happen? Wasn't anybody set to guard the elevators?"

"Yes. But the I.W.W.'s drove all the guards off but Grimm, an' they beat him up bad. Nobody had nerve enough to shoot."

"Olsen, if I run into the Glidden I'll kill him," declared Kurt.

"So will I.… But, Dorn, they're a hard crowd. They're over there on the side, watchin' the fire. A gang of them! Soon as I can get the men together we'll drive them out of town. There'll be a fight, if I don't miss my guess."

"Hurry the men! Have all of them get their guns! Come on!"

"Not yet, Dorn. We're fightin' fire yet. You an' Jerry help all you can."

Indeed, it appeared there was danger of more than one cottage burning. The exceedingly dry weather of the past weeks had made shingles like tinder, and wherever a glowing spark fell on them there straightway was a smoldering fire. Water, a scarce necessity in that region, had been used until all wells and pumps became dry. It was fortunate that most of the roofs of the little village had been constructed of galvanized iron. Beating out blazes and glowing embers with brooms was not effective enough. When it appeared that the one cottage nearest the rain of sparks was sure to go, Kurt thought of the railroad watertank below the station. He led a number of men with buckets to the tank, and they soon drowned out the smoldering places.

Meanwhile the blazes from the box-cars died out, leaving only the dull glow from the red heap that had once been the elevators. However, this gave forth light enough for any one to be seen a few rods distant. Sparks had ceased to fall, and from that source no further danger need be apprehended. Olsen had been going from man to man, sending those who were not armed home for guns. So it came about that half an hour after Kurt's arrival a score of farmers, villagers, and a few railroaders were collected in a group, listening to the pale-faced Olsen.

"Men, there's only a few of us, an' there's hundreds, mebbe, in thet I.W.W. gang, but we've got to drive them off," he said, doggedly. "There's no tellin' what they'll do if we let them hang around any longer. They know we're weak in numbers. We've got to do some shootin' to scare them away."

Kurt seconded Olsen in ringing voice.

"They've threatened your homes," he said. "They've burned my wheat-ruined me. They were the death of my father.… These are facts I'm telling you. We can't wait for law or for militia. We've got to meet this I.W.W. invasion. They have taken advantage of the war situation. They're backed by German agents. It's now a question of our property. We've got to fight!"

The crowd made noisy and determined response. Most of them had small weapons; a few had shot-guns or rifles.

"Come on, men," called Olsen. "I'll do the talkin'. An' if I say shoot, why, you shoot!"

It was necessary to go around the long line of box-cars. Olsen led the way, with Kurt just back of him. The men spoke but little and in whispers. At the left end of the line the darkness was thick enough to make objects indistinct.

Once around the corner, Kurt plainly descried a big dark crowd of men whose faces showed red in the glow of the huge pile of embers which was all that remained of the elevators. They did not see Olsen's men.

"Hold on," whispered Olsen. "If we get in a fight here we'll be in a bad place. We've nothin' to hide behind. Let's go off-more to the left-an' come up behind those freight-cars on the switches. That'll give us cover an' we'll have the I.W.W.'s in the light."

So he led off to the left, keeping in the shadow, and climbed between several lines of freight-cars, all empty, and finally came out behind the I.W.W.'s. Olsen led to within fifty yards of them, and was halted by some observant member of the gang who sat with the others on top of a flat-car.

This man's yell stilled the coarse talk and laughter of the gang.

"What's that?" shouted a cold, clear voice with authority in it.

Kurt thought he recognized the voice, and it caused a bursting, savage sensation in his blood.

"Here's a bunch of farmers with guns!" yelled the man from the flat-car.

Olsen halted his force near one of the detached lines of box-cars, which he probably meant to take advantage of in case of a fight.

"Hey, you I.W.W.'s!" he shouted, with all his might.

There was a moment's silence.

"There's no I.W.W.'s here," replied the authoritative voice.

Kurt was sure now that he recognized Glidden's voice. Excitement and anger then gave place to deadly rage.

"Who are you?" yelled Olsen.

"We're tramps watchin' the fire," came the reply.

"You set that fire!"

"No, we didn't."

Kurt motioned Olsen to be silent, as with lifting breast he took an involuntary step forward.

"Glidden, I know you!" he shouted, in hard, quick tones. "I'm Kurt Dorn. I've met you. I know your voice.… Take your gang-get out of here-or we'll kill you!"

This pregnant speech caused a blank dead silence. Then came a white flash, a sharp report. Kurt heard the thud of a bullet striking some one near him. The man cried out, but did not fall.

"Spread out an' hide!" ordered Olsen. "An' shoot fer keeps!"

The little crowd broke and melted into the shadows behind and under the box-cars. Kurt crawled under a car and between the wheels, from which vantage-point he looked out. Glidden's gang were there in the red glow, most of them now standing. The sentry who had given the alarm still sat on top of the flat-car, swinging his legs. His companions, however, had jumped down. Kurt heard men of his own party crawling and whispering behind him, and he saw dim, dark, sprawling forms under the far end of the car.

"Boss, the hayseeds have run off," called the man from the flat car.

Laughter and jeers greeted this sally.

Kurt concluded it was about time to begin proceedings. Resting his revolver on the side of the wheel behind which he lay, he took steady aim at the sentry, holding low. Kurt was not a good shot with a revolver and the distance appeared to exceed fifty yards. But as luck would have it, when he pulled trigger the sentry let out a loud bawl of terror and pain, and fell off the car to the ground. Flopping and crawling like a crippled chicken, he got out of sight below.

Kurt's shot was a starter for Olsen's men. Four or five of the shot-guns boomed at once; then the second barrels

were discharged, along with a sharper cracking of small arms. Pandemonium broke loose in Glidden's gang. No doubt, at least, of the effectiveness of the shot-guns! A medley of strange, sharp, enraged, and anguished cries burst upon the air, a prelude to a wild stampede. In a few seconds that lighted spot where the I.W.W. had grouped was vacant, and everywhere were fleeing forms, some swift, others slow. So far as Kurt could see, no one had been fatally injured. But many had been hurt, and that fact augured well for Olsen's force.

Presently a shot came from some hidden enemy. It thudded into the wood of the car over Kurt. Some one on his side answered it, and a heavy bullet, striking iron, whined away into the darkness. Then followed flash here and flash there, with accompanying reports and whistles of lead. From behind and under and on top of cars opened up a fire that proved how well armed these so-called laborers were. Their volley completely drowned the desultory firing of Olsen's squad.

Kurt began to wish for one of the shot-guns. It was this kind of weapon that saved Olsen's followers. There were a hundred chances to one of missing an I.W.W. with a single bullet, while a shot-gun, aimed fairly well, was generally productive of results. Kurt stopped wasting his cartridges. Some one was hurt behind his car and he crawled out to see. A villager named Schmidt had been wounded in the leg, not seriously, but bad enough to disable him. He had been using a double-barreled breech-loading shot-gun, and he wore a vest with rows of shells in the pockets across the front. Kurt borrowed gun and ammunition; and with these he hurried back to his covert, grimly sure of himself. At thought of Glidden he became hot all over, and this heat rather grew with the excitement of battle.

With the heavy fowling-piece loaded, Kurt peeped forth from behind his protecting wheel and watched keenly for flashes or moving dark figures. The I.W.W. had begun to reserve their fire, to shift their positions, and to spread out, judging from a wider range of the reports. It looked as if they meant to try and surround Olsen's band. It was extraordinary-the assurance and deadly intent of this riffraff gang of tramp labor-agitators. In preceding years a crowd of I.W.W. men had been nothing to worry a rancher. Vastly different it seemed now. They acted as if they had the great war back of them.

Kurt crawled out of his hiding-place, and stole from car to car, in search of Olsen. At last he found the rancher, in company with several men, peering from behind a car. One of his companions was sitting down and trying to wrap something round his foot.

"Olsen, they're spreading out to surround us," whispered Kurt.

"That's what Bill here just said," replied Olsen, nervously. "If this keeps up we'll be in a tight place. What'll we do, Dorn?"

"We mustn't break and run, of all things," said Kurt. "They'd burn the village. Tell our men to save their shells.… If I only could get some cracks at a bunch of them together-with this big shot-gun!"

"Say, we've been watchin' that car-the half-size one, there-next the high box-car," whispered Olsen.

"It's full of them. Sometimes we see a dozen shots come from it, all at once."

"Olsen, I've an idea," returned Kurt, excitedly. "You fellows keep shooting-attract their attention. I'll slip below, climb on top of a box-car, and get a rake-off at that bunch."

"It's risky, Dorn," said Olsen, with hesitation. "But if you could get in a few tellin' shots-start that gang on the run!"

"I'll try it," rejoined Kurt, and forthwith stole off back toward the shadow. It struck him that there was more light then when the attack began. The fire had increased, or perhaps the I.W.W. had started another; at any rate, the light was growing stronger, and likewise the danger greater. As he crossed an open space a bullet whizzed by him, and then another zipped by to strike up the gravel ahead. These were not random shots. Some one was aiming at him. How strange and rage-provoking to be shot at deliberately! What a remarkable experience for a young wheat farmer! Raising wheat in the great Northwest had assumed responsibilities. He had to run, and he was the more furious because of that. Another bullet, flying wide, hummed to his left before he gained the shelter of the farthest line of freight-cars. Here he hid and watched. The firing appeared to be all behind him, and, thus encouraged, he stole along to the end of the line of cars, and around. A bright blaze greeted his gaze. An isolated car was on fire. Kurt peered forth to make sure of his bearings, and at length found the high derrick by which he had marked the box-car that he intended to climb.

He could see plainly, and stole up to his objective point, with little risk to himself until he climbed upon the box-car. He crouched low, almost on hands and knees, and finally gained the long shadow of a shed between the tracks. Then he ran past the derrick to the dark side of the car. He could now plainly see the revolver flashes and could hear the thud and spang of their bullets striking. Drawing a deep breath, Kurt climbed up the iron ladder on the dark side of the car.

He had the same sensation that possessed him when he was crawling to get a pot-shot at a flock of wild geese. Only this was mightily more exciting. He did not forget the risk. He lay flat and crawled little by little. Every moment he expected to be discovered. Olsen had evidently called more of his men to his side, for they certainly were shooting diligently. Kurt heard a continuous return fire from the car he was risking so much to get a shot at. At length he was within a yard of the end of the car-as far as he needed to go. He rested a moment. He was laboring for breath, sweating freely, on fire with thrills.

His plan was to raise himself on one knee and fire as many double shots as possible. Presently he lifted his head to locate the car. It was half in the bright light, half in the shadow, lengthwise toward him, about sixty or seventy yards distant, and full of men. He dropped his head, tingling all over. It was a disappointment that the car stood so far away. With fine shot he could not seriously injure any of the I.W.W. contingent, but he was grimly sure of the fright and hurt he could inflict. In his quick glance he had seen flashes of their guns, and many red faces, and dark, huddled forms.

Kurt took four shells and set them, end up, on the roof of the car close to him. Then, cocking the gun, he cautiously raised himself to one knee. He discharged both barrels at once. What a boom and what a terrified outburst of yells! Swiftly he broke the gun, reloaded, fired as before, and then again. The last two shots were fired at the men piling frantically over the side of the car, yelling with fear. Kurt had heard the swishing pattering impact of those swarms of small shot. The I.W.W. gang ran pell-mell down the open track, away from Kurt and toward the light. As he reloaded the gun he saw men running from all points to join the gang. With an old blunderbuss of a shot-gun he had routed the I.W.W. It meant relief to Olsen's men; but Kurt had yet no satisfaction for the burning of his wheat, for the cruel shock that had killed his father.

"Come on, Olsen!" he yelled, at the top of his lungs. "They're a lot of cowards!"

Then in his wild eagerness he leaped off the car. The long jump landed him jarringly, but he did not fall or lose hold of the gun. Recovering his balance, he broke into a run. Kurt was fast on his feet. Not a young man of his neighborhood nor any of his college-mates could outfoot him in a race. And then these I.W.W. fellows ran like stiff-legged tramps, long unused to such mode of action. And some of them were limping as they ran. Kurt gained upon them. When he got within range he halted short and freed two barrels. A howl followed the report. Some of the fleeing ones fell, but were dragged up and on by companions. Kurt reloaded and, bounding forward like a deer, yelling for Olsen, he ran until he was within range, then stopped to shoot again. Thus he continued until the pursued got away from the circle of light. Kurt saw the gang break up, some running one way and some another. There were sheds and cars and piles of lumber along the track, affording places to hide. Kurt was halted by the discovery that he had no more ammunition. Panting, he stopped short, realizing that he had snapped an empty gun at men either too tired or too furious or too desperate to run any farther.

"He's out of shells!" shouted a low, hard voice that made Kurt leap. He welcomed the rush of dark forms, and, swinging the gun round his head, made ready to brain the first antagonist who neared him. But some one leaped upon him from behind. The onslaught carried him to his knees. Bounding up, he broke the gun stock on the head of his assailant, who went down in a heap. Kurt tried to pull his revolver. It became impossible, owing to strong arms encircling him. Wrestling, he freed himself, only to be staggered by a rush of several men, all pouncing upon him at once. Kurt went down, but, once down, he heaved so powerfully that he threw off the whole crew. Up again, like a cat, he began to fight. Big and strong and swift, with fists like a blacksmith's, Kurt bowled over this assailant and that one. He thought he recognized Glidden in a man who kept out of his reach and who was urging on the others. Kurt lunged at him and finally got his hands on him. That was fatal for Kurt, because in his fury he forgot Glidden's comrades. In one second his big hand wrenched a yell of mortal pain out of Glidden; then a combined attack of the others rendered Kurt powerless. A blow on the head stunned him-made all dark.

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