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   Chapter 16 No.16

The Desert of Wheat By Zane Grey Characters: 7771

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

The sun was up, broad and bright, burning over the darkened wheat-fields, when Kurt and Jerry reached home. Kurt had never seen the farm look like that-ugly and black and bare. But the fallow ground, hundreds of acres of it, billowing away to the south, had not suffered any change of color or beauty. To Kurt it seemed to smile at him, to bid him wait for another spring.

And that thought was poignant, for he remembered he must leave at once for "Many Waters."

He found, when he came to wash the blood and dirt from his person, that his bruises were many. There was a lump on his head, and his hands were skinned. After changing his clothes and packing a few things in a valise, along with his papers, he went down to breakfast. Though preoccupied in mind, he gathered that both the old housekeeper and Jerry were surprised and dismayed to see him ready to leave. He had made no mention of his intentions. And it struck him that this, somehow, was going to be hard.

Indeed, when the moment came he found that speech was difficult and his voice not natural.

"Martha-Jerry-I'm going away for good," he said, huskily. "I mean to make over the farm to Mr. Anderson. I'll leave you in charge here-and recommend that you be kept on. Here's your money up to date.… I'm going away to the war-and the chances are I'll never come back."

The old housekeeper, who had been like a mother to him for many years, began to cry; and Jerry struggled with a regret that he could not speak.

Abruptly Kurt left them and hurried out of the house. How strange that difficult feelings had arisen-emotions he had never considered at all! But the truth was that he was leaving his home forever. All was explained in that.

First he went to the graves of his father and mother, out on the south slope, where there were always wind and sun. The fire had not desecrated the simple burying-ground. There was no grass. But a few trees and bushes kept it from appearing bare.

Kurt sat down in the shade near his mother's grave and looked away across the hills with dim eyes. Something came to him-a subtle assurance that his mother approved of his going to war. Kurt remembered her-slow, quiet, patient, hard-working, dominated by his father.

The slope was hot and still, with only a rustling of leaves in the wind. The air was dry. Kurt missed the sweet fragrance of wheat. What odor there was seemed to be like that of burning weeds. The great, undulating open of the Bend extended on three sides. His parents had spent the best of their lives there and had now been taken to the bosom of the soil they loved. It seemed natural. Many were the last resting-places of toilers of the wheat there on those hills. And surely in the long frontier days, and in the ages before, men innumerable had gone back to the earth from which they had sprung. The dwelling-places of men were beautiful; it was only life that was sad. In this poignant, revealing hour Kurt could not resist human longings and regrets, though he gained incalculable strength from these two graves on the windy slope. It was not for any man to understand to the uttermost the meaning of life.

* * *

When he left he made his way across some of the fallow land and some of the stubble fields that had yielded, alas! so futilely, such abundant harvest. His boyhood days came back to him, when he used to crush down the stubble with his bare feet. Every rod of the way revealed some memory. He went into the barn and climbed into the huge, airy loft. It smelled of straw and years of dust and mice. The swallows darted in and out, twittering. How friendly they were! Year after year they had returned to their nests-the young birds returning to the homes of the old. Home even for birds was a thing of first and vital importance.

It was a very old barn that had not many more useful years to stand. Kurt decided that he w

ould advise that it be strengthened. There were holes in the rough shingling and boards were off the sides. In the corners and on the rafters was an accumulation of grain dust as thick as snow. Mice ran in and out, almost as tame as the swallows. He seemed to be taking leave of them. He recalled that he used to chase and trap mice with all a boy's savage ingenuity. But that boyish instinct, along with so many things so potential then, was gone now.

Best of all he loved the horses. Most of these were old and had given faithful service for many years. Indeed, there was one-Old Badge-that had carried Kurt when he was a boy. Once he and a neighbor boy had gone to the pasture to fetch home the cows. Old Badge was there, and nothing would do but that they ride him. From the fence Kurt mounted to his broad back. Then the neighbor boy, full of the devil, had struck Old Badge with a stick. The horse set off at a gallop for home with Kurt, frantically holding on, bouncing up and down on his back. That had been the ride of Kurt's life. His father had whipped him, too, for the adventure.

How strangely vivid and thought-compelling were these ordinary adjuncts to his life there on the farm. It was only upon giving them up that he discovered their real meaning. The hills of bare fallow and of yellow slope, the old barn with its horses, swallows, mice, and odorous loft, the cows and chickens-these appeared to Kurt, in the illuminating light of farewell, in their true relation to him. For they, and the labor of them, had made him what he was.

Slowly he went back to the old house and climbed the stairs. Only three rooms were there up-stairs, and one of these, his mother's, had not been opened for a long time. It seemed just the same as when he used to go to her with his stubbed toes and his troubles. She had died in that room. And now he was a man, going out to fight for his country. How strange! Why? In his mother's room he could not answer that puzzling question. It stung him, and with a last look, a good-by, and a word of prayer on his lips, he turned to his own little room.

He entered and sat down on the bed. It was small, with the slope of the roof running down so low that he had learned to stoop when close to the wall. There was no ceiling. Bare yellow rafters and dark old shingles showed. He could see light through more than one little hole. The window was small, low, and without glass. How many times he had sat there, leaning out in the hot dusk of summer nights, dreaming dreams that were never to come true. Alas for the hopes and illusions of boyhood! So long as he could remember, this room was most closely associated with his actions and his thoughts. It was a part of him. He almost took it into his confidence as if it were human. Never had he become what he had dared to dream he would, yet, somehow, at that moment he was not ashamed. It struck him then what few belongings he really had. But he had been taught to get along with little.

Living in that room was over for him. He was filled with unutterable sadness. Yet he would not have had it any different. Bigger, and selfless things called to him. He was bidding farewell to his youth and all that it related to. A solemn procession of beautiful memories passed through his mind, born of the nights there in that room of his boyhood, with the wind at the eaves and the rain pattering on the shingles. What strong and vivid pictures! No grief, no pain, no war could rob him of this best heritage from the past.

He got up to go. And then a blinding rush of tears burned his eyes. This room seemed dearer than all the rest of his home. It was hard to leave. His last look was magnified, transformed. "Good-by!" he whispered, with a swelling constriction in his throat. At the head of the dark old stairway he paused a moment, and then with bowed head he slowly descended.

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