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   Chapter 17 No.17

The Desert of Wheat By Zane Grey Characters: 16495

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


An August twilight settled softly down over "Many Waters" while Lenore Anderson dreamily gazed from her window out over the darkening fields so tranquil now after the day's harvest toil.

Of late, in thoughtful hours such as this, she had become conscious of strain, of longing. She had fought out a battle with herself, had confessed her love for Kurt Dorn, and, surrendering to the enchantment of that truth, had felt her love grow with every thought of him and every beat of a thrilling pulse. In spite of a longing that amounted to pain and a nameless dread she could not deny, she was happy. And she waited, with a woman's presaging sense of events, for a crisis that was coming.

Presently she heard her father down-stairs, his heavy tread and hearty voice. These strenuous harvest days left him little time for his family. And Lenore, having lost herself in her dreams, had not, of late, sought him out in the fields. She was waiting, and, besides, his keen eyes, at once so penetrating and so kind, had confused her. Few secrets had she ever kept from her father.

"Where's Lenore?" she heard him ask, down in the dining-room.

"Lenorry's mooning," replied Kathleen, with a giggle.

"Ah-huh? Well, whereabouts is she moonin'?" went on Anderson.

"Why, in her room!" retorted the child. "And you can't get a word out of her with a crowbar."

Anderson's laugh rang out with a jingle of tableware. He was eating his supper. Then Lenore heard her mother and Rose and Kathleen all burst out with news of a letter come that day from Jim, away training to be a soldier. It was Rose who read this letter aloud to her father, and outside of her swift, soft voice the absolute silence attested to the attention of the listeners. Lenore's heart shook as she distinguished a phrase here and there, for Jim's letter had been wonderful for her. He had gained weight! He was getting husky enough to lick his father! He was feeling great! There was not a boy in the outfit who could beat him to a stuffed bag of a German soldier! And he sure could make some job with that old bayonet! So ran Jim's message to the loved ones at home. Then a strange pride replaced the quake in Lenore's heart. Not now would she have had Jim stay home. She had sacrificed him. Something subtler than thought told her she would never see him again. And, oh, how dear he had become!

Then Anderson roared his delight in that letter and banged the table with his fist. The girls excitedly talked in unison. But the mother was significantly silent. Lenore forgot them presently and went back to her dreaming. It was just about dark when her father called.

"Lenore."

"Yes, father," she replied.

"I'm comin' up," he said, and his heavy tread sounded in the hall. It was followed by the swift patter of little feet. "Say, you kids go back. I want to talk to Lenore."

"Daddy," came Kathleen's shrill, guilty whisper, "I was only in fun-about her mooning."

The father laughed again and slowly mounted the stairs. Lenore reflected uneasily that he seldom came to her room. Also, when he was most concerned with trouble he usually sought her.

"Hello! All in the dark?" he said, as he came in. "May I turn on the light?"

Lenore assented, though not quite readily. But Anderson did not turn on the light. He bumped into things on the way to where she was curled up in her window-seat, and he dropped wearily into Lenore's big arm-chair.

"How are you, daddy?" she inquired.

"Dog tired, but feelin' fine," he replied. "I've got a meetin' at eight an' I need a rest. Reckon I'd like to smoke-an' talk to you-if you don't mind."

"I'd sure rather listen to my dad than any one," she replied, softly. She knew he had come with news or trouble or need of help. He always began that way. She could measure his mood by the preliminaries before his disclosure. And she fortified herself.

"Wasn't that a great letter from the boy?" began Anderson, as he lit a cigar. By the flash of the match Lenore got a glimpse of his dark and unguarded face. Indeed, she did well to fortify herself.

"Fine!… He wrote it to me. I laughed. I swelled with pride. It sent my blood racing. It filled me with fight.… Then I sneaked up here to cry."

"Ah-huh!" exclaimed Anderson, with a loud sigh. Then for a moment of silence the end of his cigar alternately paled and glowed. "Lenore, did you get any-any kind of a hunch from Jim's letter?"

"I don't exactly understand what you mean," replied Lenore.

"Did somethin'-strange an' different come to you?" queried Anderson, haltingly, as if words were difficult to express what he meant.

"Why, yes-I had many strange feelings."

"Jim's letter was just like he talks. But to me it said somethin' he never meant an' didn't know.… Jim will never come back!"

"Yes, dad-I divined just that," whispered Lenore.

"Strange about that," mused Anderson, with a pull on his cigar.

And then followed a silence. Lenore felt how long ago her father had made his sacrifice. There did not seem to be any need for more words about Jim. But there seemed a bigness in the bond of understanding between her and her father. A cause united them, and they were sustained by unfaltering courage. The great thing was the divine spark in the boy who could not have been held back. Lenore gazed out into the darkening shadows. The night was very still, except for the hum of insects, and the cool air felt sweet on her face. The shadows, the silence, the sleeping atmosphere hovering over "Many Waters," seemed charged with a quality of present sadness, of the inexplicable great world moving to its fate.

"Lenore, you haven't been around much lately," resumed Anderson. "Sure you're missed. An' Jake swears a lot more than usual."

"Father, you told me to stay at home," she replied.

"So I did. An' I reckon it's just as well. But when did you ever before mind me?"

"Why, I always obey you," replied Lenore, with her low laugh.

"Ah-huh! Not so I'd notice it.… Lenore, have you seen the big clouds of smoke driftin' over 'Many Waters' these last few days?"

"Yes. And I've smelled smoke, too.… From forest fire, is it not?"

"There's fire in some of the timber, but the wind's wrong for us to get smoke from the foot-hills."

"Then where does the smoke come from?" queried Lenore, quickly.

"Some of the Bend wheat country's been burned over."

"Burned! You mean the wheat?"

"Sure."

"Oh! What part of the Bend?"

"I reckon it's what you called young Dorn's desert of wheat."

"Oh, what a pity!… Have you had word?"

"Nothin' but rumors yet. But I'm fearin' the worst an' I'm sorry for our young friend."

A sharp pain shot through Lenore's breast, leaving behind an ache.

"It will ruin him!" she whispered.

"Aw no, not that bad," declared Anderson, and there was a red streak in the dark where evidently he waved his cigar in quick, decisive action. "It'll only be tough on him an' sort of embarrassin' for me-an' you. That boy's proud.… I'll bet he raised hell among them I.W.W.'s, if he got to them." And Anderson chuckled with the delight he always felt in the Western appreciation of summary violence justly dealt.

Lenore felt the rising tide of her anger. She was her father's daughter, yet always had been slow to wrath. That was her mother's softness and gentleness tempering the hard spirit of her father. But now her blood ran hot, beating and bursting about her throat and temples. And there was a leap and quiver to her body.

"Dastards! Father, those foreign I.W.W. devils should be shot!" she cried, passionately. "To ruin those poor, heroic farmers! To ruin that-that boy! It's a crime! And, oh, to burn his beautiful field of wheat-with all his hopes! Oh, what shall I call that!"

"Wal, lass, I reckon it'd take stronger speech than any you know," responded Anderson. "An' I'm usin' that same."

Lenore sat there trembling, with hot tears running down her cheeks, with her fists clenched so tight that her nails cut into her palms. Rage only proved to her how impotent she was to avert catastrophe. How bitter and black were some trials! She shrank with a sense of acute pain at thought of the despair there must be in the soul of Kurt Dorn.

"Lenore,"

began Anderson, slowly-his tone was stronger, vibrant with feeling-"you love this young Dorn!"

A tumultuous shock shifted Lenore's emotions. She quivered as before, but this was a long, shuddering thrill shot over her by that spoken affirmation. What she had whispered shyly and fearfully to herself when alone and hidden-what had seemed a wonderful and forbidden secret-her father had spoken out. Lenore gasped. Her anger fled as it had never been. Even in the dark she hid her face and tried to grasp the wild, whirling thoughts and emotions now storming her. He had not asked. He had affirmed. He knew. She could not deceive him even if she would. And then for a moment she was weak, at the mercy of contending tides.

"Sure I seen he was in love with you," Anderson was saying. "Seen that right off, an' I reckon I'd not thought much of him if he hadn't been.… But I wasn't sure of you till the day Dorn saved you from Ruenke an' fetched you back. Then I seen. An' I've been waitin' for you to tell me."

"There's-nothing-to tell," faltered Lenore.

"I reckon there is," he replied. Leaning over, he threw his cigar out of the window and took hold of her.

Lenore had never felt him so impelling. She was not proof against the strong, warm pressure of his hand. She felt in its clasp, as she had when a little girl, a great and sure safety. It drew her irresistibly. She crept into his arms and buried her face on his shoulder, and she had a feeling that if she could not relieve her heart it would burst.

"Oh, d-dad," she whispered, with a soft, hushed voice that broke tremulously at her lips, "I-I love him!… I do love him.… It's terrible!… I knew it-that last time you took me to his home-when he said he was going to war.… And, oh, now you know!"

Anderson held her tight against his broad breast that lifted her with its great heave. "Ah-huh! Reckon that's some relief. I wasn't so darn sure," said Anderson. "Has he spoken to you?"

"Spoken! What do you mean?"

"Has Dorn told you he loved you?"

Lenore lifted her face. If that confession of hers had been relief to her father it had been more so to her. What had seemed terrible began to feel natural. Still, she was all intense, vibrating, internally convulsed.

"Yes, he has," she replied, shyly. "But such a confession! He told it as if to explain what he thought was boldness on his part. He had fallen in love with me at first sight!… And then meeting me was too much for him. He wanted me to know. He was going away to war. He asked nothing.… He seemed to apologize for-for daring to love me. He asked nothing. And he has absolutely not the slightest idea I care for him."

"Wal, I'll be dog-goned!" ejaculated Anderson. "What's the matter with him?"

"Dad, he is proud," replied Lenore, dreamily. "He's had a hard struggle out there in his desert of wheat. They've always been poor. He imagines there's a vast distance between an heiress of 'Many Waters' and a farmer boy. Then, more than all, I think, the war has fixed a morbid trouble in his mind. God knows it must be real enough! A house divided against itself is what he called his home. His father is German. He is American. He worshiped his mother, who was a native of the United States. He has become estranged from his father. I don't know-I'm not sure-but I felt that he was obsessed by a calamity in his German blood. I divined that was the great reason for his eagerness to go to war."

"Wal, Kurt Dorn's not goin' to war," replied her father. "I fixed that all right."

An amazing and rapturous start thrilled over Lenore. "Daddy!" she cried, leaping up in his arms, "what have you done?"

"I got exemption for him, that's what," replied Anderson, with great satisfaction.

"Exemption!" exclaimed Lenore, in bewilderment.

"Don't you remember the government official from Washington? You met him in Spokane. He was out West to inspire the farmers to raise more wheat. There are many young farmers needed a thousand times more on the wheat-fields than on the battle-fields. An' Kurt Dorn is one of them. That boy will make the biggest sower of wheat in the Northwest. I recommended exemption for Dorn. An' he's exempted an' doesn't know it."

"Doesn't know! He'll never accept exemption," declared Lenore.

"Lass, I'm some worried myself," rejoined Anderson. "Reckon you've explained Dorn to me-that somethin' queer about him.… But he's sensible. He can be told things. An' he'll see how much more he's needed to raise wheat than to kill Germans."

"But, father-suppose he wants to kill Germans?" asked Lenore, earnestly. How strangely she felt things about Dorn that she could not explain.

"Then, by George! it's up to you, my girl," replied her father, grimly. "Understand me. I've no sentiment about Dorn in this matter. One good wheat-raiser is worth a dozen soldiers. To win the war-to feed our country after the war-why, only a man like me knows what it 'll take! It means millions of bushels of wheat!… I've sent my own boy. He'll fight with the best or the worst of them. But he'd never been a man to raise wheat. All Jim ever raised is hell. An' his kind is needed now. So let him go to war. But Dorn must be kept home. An' that's up to Lenore Anderson."

"Me!… Oh-how?" cried Lenore, faintly.

"Woman's wiles, daughter," said Anderson, with his frank laugh. "When Dorn comes let me try to show him his duty. The Northwest can't spare young men like him. He'll see that. If he has lost his wheat he'll come down here to make me take the land in payment of the debt. I'll accept it. Then he'll say he's goin' to war, an' then I'll say he ain't.… We'll have it out. I'll offer him such a chance here an' in the Bend that he'd have to be crazy to refuse. But if he has got a twist in his mind-if he thinks he's got to go out an' kill Germans-then you'll have to change him."

"But, dad, how on earth can I do that?" implored Lenore, distracted between hope and joy and fear.

"You're a woman now. An' women are in this war up to their eyes. You'll be doin' more to keep him home than if you let him go. He's moony about you. You can make him stay. An' it's your future-your happiness.… Child, no Anderson ever loves twice."

"I cannot throw myself into his arms," whispered Lenore, very low.

"Reckon I didn't mean you to," returned Anderson, gruffly.

"Then-if-if he does not ask me to-to marry him-how can I-"

"Lenore, no man on earth could resist you if you just let yourself be sweet-as sweet as you are sometimes. Dorn could never leave you!"

"I'm not so sure of that, daddy," she murmured.

"Then take my word for it," he replied, and he got up from the chair, though still holding her. "I'll have to go now.… But I've shown my hand to you. Your happiness is more to me than anythin' else in this world. You love that boy. He loves you. An' I never met a finer lad! Wal, here's the point. He need be no slacker to stay home. He can do more good here. Then outside of bein' a wheat man for his army an' his country he can be one for me. I'm growin' old, my lass!… Here's the biggest ranch in Washington to look after, an' I want Kurt Dorn to look after it.… Now, Lenore, do we understand each other?"

She put her arms around his neck. "Dear old daddy, you're the wonderfulest father any girl ever had! I would do my best-I would obey even if I did not love Kurt Dorn.… To hear you speak so of him-oh, its sweet! It-chokes me!… Now, good-night.… Hurry, before I-"

She kissed him and gently pushed him out of the room. Then before the sound of his slow footfalls had quite passed out of hearing she lay prone upon her bed, her face buried in the pillow, her hands clutching the coverlet, utterly surrendered to a breaking storm of emotion. Terrible indeed had come that presaged crisis of her life. Love of her wild brother Jim, gone to atone forever for the errors of his youth; love of her father, confessing at last the sad fear that haunted him; love of Dorn, that stalwart clear-eyed lad who set his face so bravely toward a hopeless, tragic fate-these were the burden of the flood of her passion, and all they involved, rushing her from girlhood into womanhood, calling to her with imperious desires, with deathless loyalty.

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