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   Chapter 21 No.21

The Desert of Wheat By Zane Grey Characters: 8066

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Thirty masked men sat around a long harvest mess-table. Two lanterns furnished light enough to show a bare barnlike structure, the rough-garbed plotters, the grim set of hard lips below the half-masks, and big hands spread out, ready to draw from the hat that was passing.

The talk was low and serious. No names were spoken. A heavy man, at the head of the table, said: "We thirty, picked men, represent the country. Let each member here write on his slip of paper his choice of punishment for the I.W.W.'s-death or deportation.…"

The members of the band bent their masked faces and wrote in a dead silence. A noiseless wind blew through the place. The lanterns flickered; huge shadows moved on the walls. When the papers had been passed back to the leader he read them.

"Deportation," he announced. "So much for the I.W.W. men.… Now for the leader.… But before we vote on what to do with Glidden let me read an extract from one of his speeches. This is authentic. It has been furnished by the detective lately active in our interest. Also it has been published. I read it because I want to bring home to you all an issue that goes beyond our own personal fortunes here."

Leaning toward the flickering flare of the lantern, the leader read from a slip of paper: "If the militia are sent out here to hinder the I.W.W. we will make it so damned hot for the government that no troops will be able to go to France.… I don't give a damn what this country is fighting for.… I am fighting for the rights of labor.… American soldiers are Uncle Sam's scabs in disguise."

The deep, impressive voice ended. The leader's huge fist descended upon the table with a crash. He gazed up and down the rows of sinister masked figures. "Have you anything to say?"

"No," replied one.

"Pass the slips," said another.

And then a man, evidently on in years, for his hair was gray and he looked bent, got up. "Neighbors," he began "I lived here in the early days. For the last few years I've been apologizing for my home town. I don't want to apologize for it any longer."

He sat down. And a current seemed to wave from him around that dark square of figures. The leader cleared his throat as if he had much to say, but he did not speak. Instead he passed the hat. Each man drew forth a slip of paper and wrote upon it. The action was not slow. Presently the hat returned round the table to the leader. He spilled its contents, and with steady hand picked up the first slip of paper.

"Death!" he read, sonorously, and laid it down to pick up another. Again he spoke that grim word. The third brought forth the same, and likewise the next, and all, until the verdict had been called out thirty times.

"At daylight we'll meet," boomed out that heavy voice. "Instruct Glidden's guards to make a show of resistance.… We'll hang Glidden to the railroad bridge. Then each of you get your gangs together. Round up all the I.W.W.'s. Drive them to the railroad yard. There we'll put them aboard a railroad train of empty cars. And that train will pass under the bridge where Glidden will be hanging.… We'll escort them out of the country."

* * *

That August dawn was gray and cool, with gold and pink beginning to break over the dark eastern ranges. The town had not yet awakened. It slept unaware of the stealthy forms passing down the gray road and of the distant hum of motor-cars and trot of hoofs.

Glidden's place of confinement was a square warehouse, near the edge of town. Before the improvised jail guards paced up and down, strangely alert.

Daylight had just cleared away the gray when a crowd of masked men appeared as if by magic and bore down upon the guards. There was an apparent desperate resistance, but, significantly, no cries or shots. The guards were overpowered and bound.

The door of the jail yielded to heavy blows of an ax. In the corner of a dim, bare room groveled Glidden, bound so that he had little use of his body. But he was terribly awake. When six men entered he asked, hoarsely: "What

're you-after?… What-you mean?"

They jerked him erect. They cut the bonds from his legs. They dragged him out into the light of breaking day.

When he saw the masked and armed force he cried: "My God!… What'll you-do with me?"

Ghastly, working, sweating, his face betrayed his terror.

"You're to be hanged by the neck," spoke a heavy, solemn voice.

The man would have collapsed but for the strong hands that upheld him.

"What-for?" he gasped.

"For I.W.W. crimes-for treason-for speeches no American can stand in days like these." Then this deep-voiced man read to Glidden words of his own.

"Do you recognize that?"

Glidden saw how he had spoken his own doom. "Yes, I said that," he had nerve left to say. "But-I insist on arrest-trial-justice!… I'm no criminal.… I've big interests behind me.… You'll suffer-"

A loop of a lasso, slung over his head and jerked tight, choked off his intelligible utterance. But as the silent, ruthless men dragged him away he gave vent to terrible, half-strangled cries.

The sun rose red over the fertile valley-over the harvest fields and the pastures and the orchards, and over the many towns that appeared lost in the green and gold of luxuriance.

In the harvest districts west of the river all the towns were visited by swift-flying motor-cars that halted long enough for a warning to be shouted to the citizens, "Keep off the streets!"

Simultaneously armed forces of men, on foot and on horseback, too numerous to count, appeared in the roads and the harvest fields.

They accosted every man they met. If he were recognized or gave proof of an honest identity he was allowed to go; otherwise he was marched along under arrest. These armed forces were thorough in their search, and in the country districts they had an especial interest in likely camping-places, and around old barns and straw-stacks. In the towns they searched every corner that was big enough to hide a man.

So it happened that many motley groups of men were driven toward the railroad line, where they were held until a freight-train of empty cattle-cars came along. This train halted long enough to have the I.W.W. contingent driven aboard, with its special armed guard following, and then it proceeded on to the next station. As stations were many, so were the halts, and news of the train with its strange freight flashed ahead. Crowds lined the railroad tracks. Many boys and men in these crowds carried rifles and pistols which they leveled at the I.W.W. prisoners as the train passed. Jeers and taunts and threats accompanied this presentation of guns.

Before the last station of that wheat district was reached full three hundred members of the I.W.W., or otherwise suspicious characters, were packed into the open cars. At the last stop the number was greatly augmented, and the armed forces were cut down to the few guards who were to see the I.W.W. deported from the country. Here provisions and drinking-water were put into the cars. And amid a hurrahing roar of thousands the train with its strange load slowly pulled out.

It did not at once gather headway. The engine whistled a prolonged blast-a signal or warning not lost on many of its passengers.

From the front cars rose shrill cries that alarmed the prisoners in the rear. The reason soon became manifest. Arms pointed and eyes stared at the figure of a man hanging from a rope fastened to the center of a high bridge span under which the engine was about to pass.

The figure swayed in the wind. It turned half-way round, disclosing a ghastly, distorted face, and a huge printed placard on the breast, then it turned back again. Slowly the engine drew one car-load after another past the suspended body of the dead man. There were no more cries. All were silent in that slow-moving train. All faces were pale, all eyes transfixed.

The placard on the hanged man's breast bore in glaring red a strange message: Last warning. 3-7-77.

The figures were the ones used in the frontier days by vigilantes.

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