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   Chapter 15 No.15

The Desert of Wheat By Zane Grey Characters: 16085

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


It seemed that Kurt did not altogether lose consciousness, for he had vague sensations of being dragged along the ground. Presently the darkness cleared from his mind and he opened his eyes. He lay on his back. Looking up, he saw stars through the thin, broken clouds of smoke. A huge pile of railroad ties loomed up beside him.

He tried to take note of his situation. His hands were tied in front of him, not so securely, he imagined, that he could not work them free. His legs had not been tied. Both his head and shoulder, on the left side, pained him severely. Upon looking around, Kurt presently made out the dark form of a man. He appeared rigid with attention, but that evidently had no relation to Kurt. The man was listening and watching for his comrades. Kurt heard no voices or shots. After a little while, however, he thought he heard distant footsteps on the gravel. He hardly knew what to make of his predicament. If there was only one guard over him, escape did not seem difficult, unless that guard had a gun.

"Hello, you!" he called.

"Hello, yourself" replied the man, jerking up in evident surprise.

"What's your name?" inquired Kurt, amiably.

"Well, it ain't J.J. Hill or Anderson," came the gruff response.

Kurt laughed. "But you would be one of those names if you could, now wouldn't you?" went on Kurt.

"My name is Dennis," gloomily returned the man.

"It certainly is. That is the name of all I.W.W.'s," said Kurt.

"Say, are you the fellow who had the shot-gun?"

"I sure am," replied Kurt.

"I ought to knock you on the head."

"Why?"

"Because I'll have to eat standing up for a month."

"Yes?" queried Kurt.

"The seat of my pants must have made a good target, for you sure pasted it full of birdshot."

Kurt smothered a laugh. Then he felt the old anger leap up. "Didn't you burn my wheat?"

"Are you that young Dorn?"

"Yes, I am," replied Kurt, hotly.

"Well, I didn't burn one damn straw of your old wheat."

"You didn't! But you're with these men? You're an I.W.W. You've been fighting these farmers here."

"If you want to know, I'm a tramp," said the man, bitterly. "Years ago I was a prosperous oil-producer in Ohio. I had a fine oil-field. Along comes a big fellow, tries to buy me out, and, failing that, he shot off dynamite charges into the ground next my oil-field.… Choked my wells! Ruined me!… I came west-went to farming. Along comes a corporation, steals my water for irrigation-and my land went back to desert.… So I quit working and trying to be honest. It doesn't pay. The rich men are getting all the richer at the expense of the poor. So now I'm a tramp."

"Friend, that's a hard-luck story," said Kurt. "It sure makes me think.… But I'll tell you what-you don't belong to this I.W.W. outfit, even if you are a tramp."

"Why not?"

"Because you're American! That's why."

"Well, I know I am. But I can be American and travel with a labor union, can't I?"

"No. This I.W.W. is no labor union. It never was. Their very first rule is to abolish capital. They're anarchists. And now they're backed by German money. The I.W.W. is an enemy to America. All this hampering of railroads, destruction of timber and wheat, is an aid to Germany in the war. The United States is at war! My God! man, can't you see it's your own country that must suffer for such deals as this wheat-burning to-night?"

"The hell you say!" ejaculated the man, in amaze.

"This Glidden is a German agent-perhaps a spy. He's no labor leader. What does he care for the interests of such men as you?"

"Young man, if you don't shut up you'll give me a hankering to go back to real work."

"I hope I do. Let me give you a hunch. Throw down this I.W.W. outfit. Go to Ruxton and get Anderson of 'Many Waters' ranch to give you a job. Tell him who you are and that I sent you."

"Anderson of 'Many Waters,' hey? Well, maybe it'll surprise you to know that Glidden is operating there, has a lot of men there, and is going there from here."

"No, it doesn't surprise me. I hope he does go there. For if he does he'll get killed."

"Sssssh!" whispered the guard. "Here comes some of the gang."

Kurt heard low voices and soft footfalls. Some dark forms loomed up.

"Bradford, has he come to yet?" queried the brutal voice of Glidden.

"Nope," replied the guard. "I guess he had a hard knock. He's never budged."

"We've got to beat it out of here," said Glidden. "It's long after midnight. There's a freight-train down the track. I want all the gang to board it. You run along, Bradford, and catch up with the others."

"What're you going to do with this young fellow?" queried Bradford, curiously.

"That's none of your business," returned Glidden.

"Maybe not. But I reckon I'll ask, anyhow. You want me to join your I.W.W., and I'm asking questions. Labor strikes-standing up for your rights-is one thing, and burning wheat or slugging young farmers is another. Are you going to let this Dorn go?"

Kurt could plainly see the group of five men, Bradford standing over the smaller Glidden, and the others strung and silent in the intensity of the moment.

"I'll cut his throat," hissed Glidden.

Bradford lunged heavily. The blow he struck Glidden was square in the face. Glidden would have had a hard fall but for the obstruction in the shape of his comrades, upon whom he was knocked. They held him up. Glidden sagged inertly, evidently stunned or unconscious. Bradford backed guardedly away out of their reach, then, wheeling, he began to run with heavy, plodding strides.

Glidden's comrades seemed anxiously holding him up, peering at him, but no one spoke. Kurt saw his opportunity. With one strong wrench he freed his hands. Feeling in his pocket for his gun, he was disturbed to find that it had been taken. He had no weapon. But he did not hesitate. Bounding up, he rushed like a hurricane upon the unprepared group. He saw Glidden's pale face upheld to the light of the stars, and by it saw that Glidden was recovering. With all his might Kurt swung as he rushed, and the blow he gave the I.W.W. leader far exceeded Bradford's. Glidden was lifted so powerfully against one of his men that they both fell. Then Kurt, striking right and left, beat down the other two, and, leaping over them, he bounded away into the darkness. Shrill piercing yells behind him lent him wings.

But he ran right into another group of I.W.W. men, dozens in number, he thought, and by the light of what appeared to be a fire they saw him as quickly as he saw them. The yells behind were significant enough. Kurt had to turn to run back, and he had to run the gauntlet of the men he had assaulted. They promptly began to shoot at Kurt. The whistle of lead was uncomfortably close. Never had he run so fleetly. When he flashed past the end of the line of cars, into comparative open, he found himself in the light of a new fire. This was a shed perhaps a score of rods or less from the station. Some one was yelling beyond this, and Kurt thought he recognized Jerry's voice, but he did not tarry to make sure. Bullets scattering the gravel ahead of him and singing around his head, and hoarse cries behind, with a heavy-booted tread of pursuers, gave Kurt occasion to hurry. He flew across the freight-yard, intending to distance his pursuers, then circle round the station to the village.

Once he looked back. The gang, well spread out, was not far behind him, just coming into the light of the new fire. No one in it could ever catch him, of that Kurt was sure.

Suddenly a powerful puff of air, like a blast of wind, seemed to lift him. At the same instant a dazzling, blinding, yellow blaze illuminated the whole scene. The solid earth seemed to rock under Kurt's flying feet, and then a terrific roar appalled him. He was thrown headlong through the air, and all about him seemed streaks and rays and bursts of fire. He alighted to plow through the dirt until the momentum of force had been expended. Then he lay prone, gasping and choking,

almost blind, but sensitive to the rain of gravel and debris, the fearful cries of terrified men, taste of smoke and dust, and the rank smell of exploded gasoline.

Kurt got up to grope his way through the murky darkness. He could escape now. If that explosion had not killed his pursuers it had certainly scared them off. He heard men running and yelling off to the left. A rumble of a train came from below the village. Finally Kurt got clear of the smoke, to find that he had wandered off into one of the fields opposite the station. Here he halted to rest a little and to take cognizance of his condition. It surprised him to find out that he was only bruised, scratched, and sore. He had expected to find himself full of bullets.

"Whew! They blew up the gasoline-shed!" he soliloquized. "But some of them miscalculated, for if I don't lose my guess there was a bunch of I.W.W. closer to that gasoline than I was.… Some adventure!… I got another punch at Glidden. I felt it in my bones that I'd get a crack at him. Oh, for another!… And that Bradford! He did make me think. How he slugged Glidden! Good! Good! There's your old American spirit coming out."

Kurt sat down to rest and to listen. He found he needed a rest. The only sound he heard was the rumbling of a train, gradually drawing away. A heavy smoke rose from the freight-yard, but there were no longer any blazes or patches of red fire. Perhaps the explosion had smothered all the flames.

It had been a rather strenuous evening, he reflected. A good deal of satisfaction lay in the fact that he had severely punished some of the I.W.W. members, if he had not done away with any of them.

When he thought of Glidden, however, he did not feel any satisfaction. His fury was gone, but in its place was a strong judgment that such men should be made examples. He certainly did not want to run across Glidden again, because if he did he would have blood on his hands.

Kurt's chance meeting with the man Bradford seemed far the most interesting, if not thrilling, incident of the evening. It opened up a new point of view. How many of the men of that motley and ill-governed I.W.W. had grievances like Bradford's? Perhaps there were many. Kurt tried to remember instances when, in the Northwest wheat country, laborers and farmers had been cheated or deceived by men of large interests. It made him grave to discover that he could recall many such instances. His own father had long nursed a grievance against Anderson. Neuman, his father's friend, had a hard name. And there were many who had profited by the misfortune of others. That, after all, was a condition of life. He took it for granted, then, that all members of the I.W.W. were not vicious or dishonest. He was glad to have this proof. The I.W.W. had been organized by labor agitators, and they were the ones to blame, and their punishment should be severest. Kurt began to see where the war, cruel as it would be, was going to be of immeasurable benefit to the country.

It amazed Kurt, presently, to note that dawn was at hand. He waited awhile longer, wanting to be sure not to meet any lingering members of the I.W.W. It appeared, indeed, that they had all gone.

He crossed the freight-yard. A black ruin, still smoldering, lay where the elevators had been. That wonderful wheat yield of his had been destroyed. In the gray dawn it was hard to realize. He felt a lump in his throat. Several tracks were littered with the remains of burned freight-cars. When Kurt reached the street he saw men in front of the cottages. Some one hailed him, and then several shouted. They met him half-way. Jerry and Olsen were in the party.

"We was pretty much scared," said Jerry, and his haggard face showed his anxiety.

"Boy, we thought the I.W.W. had made off with you," added Olsen, extending his hand.

"Not much! Where are they?" replied Kurt.

"Gone on a freight-train. When Jerry blew up the gasoline-shed that fixed the I.W.W."

"Jerry, did you do that?" queried Kurt.

"I reckon."

"Well, you nearly blew me off the map. I was running, just below the shed. When that explosion came I was lifted and thrown a mile. Thought I'd never light!"

"So far as we can tell, nobody was killed," said Olsen. "Some of our fellows have got bullet-holes to nurse. But no one is bad hurt."

"That's good. I guess we came out lucky," replied Kurt.

"You must have had some fight, runnin' off that way after the I.W.W.'s. We heard you shootin' an' the I.W.W.'s yellin'. That part was fun. Tell us what happened to you."

So Kurt had to narrate his experiences from the time he stole off with the big shot-gun until his friends saw him again. It made rather a long story, which manifestly was of exceeding interest to the villagers.

"Dorn," said one of the men, "you an' Jerry saved this here village from bein' burned."

"We all had a share. I'm sure glad they're gone. Now what damage was done?"

It turned out that there had been little hurt to the property of the villagers. Some freight-cars full of barley, loaded and billed by the railroad people, had been burned, and this loss of grain would probably be paid for by the company. The loss of wheat would fall upon Kurt. In the haste of that great harvest and its transportation to the village no provision had been made for loss. The railroad company had not accepted his wheat for transportation, and was not liable.

"Olsen, according to our agreement I owe you fifteen thousand dollars," said Kurt.

"Yes, but forget it," replied Olsen. "You're the loser here."

"I'll pay it," replied Kurt.

"But, boy, you're ruined!" ejaculated the farmer. "You can't pay that big price now. An' we don't expect it."

"Didn't you leave your burning fields to come help us save ours?" queried Kurt.

"Sure. But there wasn't much of mine to burn."

"And so did many of the other men who came to help. I tell you, Olsen, that means a great deal to me. I'll pay my debt or-or-"

"But how can you?" interrupted Olsen, reasonably. "Sometime, when you raise another crop like this year, then you could pay."

"The farm will bring that much more than I owe Anderson."

"You'll give up the farm?" exclaimed Olsen.

"Yes. I'll square myself."

"Dorn, we won't take that money," said the farmer, deliberately.

"You'll have to take it. I'll send you a check soon-perhaps to-morrow."

"Give up your land!" repeated Olsen. "Why, that's unheard of! Land in your family so many years!… What will you do?"

"Olsen, I waited for the draft just on account of my father. If it had not been for him I'd have enlisted. Anyway, I'm going to war."

That silenced the little group of grimy-faced men.

"Jerry, get our horses and we'll ride home," said Kurt.

The tall foreman strode off. Kurt sensed something poignant in the feelings of the men, especially Olsen. This matter of the I.W.W. dealing had brought Kurt and his neighbors closer together. And he thought it a good opportunity for a few words about the United States and the war and Germany. So he launched forth into an eloquent expression of some of his convictions. He was still talking when Jerry returned with the horses. At length he broke off, rather abruptly, and, saying good-by, he mounted.

"Hold on, Kurt," called Olsen, and left the group to lay a hand on the horse and to speak low. "What you said struck me deep. It applies pretty hard to us of the Bend. We've always been farmers, with no thought of country. An' that's because we left our native country to come here. I'm not German an' I've never been for Germany. But many of my neighbors an' friends are Germans. This war never has come close till now. I know Germans in this country. They have left their fatherland an' they are lost to that fatherland!… It may take some time to stir them up, to make them see, but the day will come.… Take my word for it, Dorn, the German-Americans of the Northwest, when it comes to a pinch, will find themselves an' be true to the country they have adopted."

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