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   Chapter 24 No.24

The Desert of Wheat By Zane Grey Characters: 29676

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Camp-, October-.

Dear Sister Lenore,-It's been long since I wrote you. I'm sorry, dear. But I haven't just been in shape to write. Have been transferred to a training-camp not far from New York. I don't like it. The air is raw, penetrating, different from our high mountain air in the West. So many gray, gloomy days! And wet-why you never saw a rain in Washington! Fine bunch of boys, though. We get up in the morning at 4:30. Sweep the streets of the camp! I'm glad to get up and sweep, for I'm near frozen long before daylight. Yesterday I peeled potatoes till my hands were cramped. Nine million spuds, I guess! I'm wearing citizen's clothes-too thin, by gosh!-and sleeping in a tent, on a canvas cot, with one blanket. Wouldn't care a-(scoose me, sis)-I wouldn't mind if I had a real gun, and some real fighting to look forward to. Some life, I don't think! But I meant to tell you why I'm here.

You remember how I always took to cowboys. Well, I got chummy with a big cow puncher from Montana. His name was Andersen. Isn't that queer? His name same as mine except for the last e where I have o. He's a Swede or Norwegian. True-blue American? Well, I should smile. Like all cowboys! He's six feet four, broad as a door, with a flat head of an Indian, and a huge, bulging chin. Not real handsome, but say! he's one of the finest fellows that ever lived. We call him Montana.

There were a lot of rough-necks in our outfit, and right away I got in bad. You know I never was much on holding my temper. Anyway, I got licked powerful fine, as dad would say, and I'd been all beaten up but for Montana. That made us two fast friends, and sure some enemies, you bet.

We had the tough luck to run into six of the rough-necks, just outside of the little town, where they'd been drinking. I never heard the name of one of that outfit. We weren't acquainted at all. Strange how they changed my soldier career, right at the start! This day, when we met them, they got fresh, and of course I had to start something. I soaked that rough-neck, sis, and don't you forget it. Well, it was a fight, sure. I got laid out-not knocked out, for I could see-but I wasn't any help to pard Montana. It looked as if he didn't need any. The rough-necks jumped him. Then, one after another, he piled them up in the road. Just a swing-and down went each one-cold. But the fellow I hit came to and, grabbing up a pick-handle, with all his might he soaked Montana over the head. What an awful crack! Montana went down, and there was blood everywhere.

They took Montana to the hospital, sewed up his head. It wasn't long before he seemed all right again, but he told me sometimes he felt queer. Then they put us on a troop-train, with boys from California and all over, and we came East. I haven't seen any of those other Western boys, though, since we got here.

One day, without any warning, Montana keeled over, down and out. Paralysis! They took him to a hospital in New York. No hope, the doctors said, and he was getting worse all the time. But some New York surgeon advised operation, anyway. So they opened that healed-over place in his head, where the pick-handle hit-and what do you think they found? A splinter off that pick-handle, stuck two inches under his skull, in his brain! They took it out. Every day they expected Montana to die. But he didn't. But he will die. I went over to see him. He's unconscious part of the time-crazy the rest. No part of his right side moves! It broke me all up. Why couldn't that soak he got have been on the Kaiser's head?

I tell you, Lenore, a fellow has his eye teeth cut in this getting ready to go to war. It makes me sick. I enlisted to fight, not to be chased into a climate that doesn't agree with me-not to sweep roads and juggle a wooden gun. There are a lot of things, but say! I've got to cut out that kind of talk.

I feel almost as far away from you all as if I were in China. But I'm nearer France! I hope you're well and standing pat, Lenore. Remember, you're dad's white hope. I was the black sheep, you know. Tell him I don't regard my transfer as a disgrace. The officers didn't and he needn't. Give my love to mother and the girls. Tell them not to worry. Maybe the war will be over before-I'll write you often now, so cheer up.

Your loving brother,

Jim.

Camp-, October-.

My Dearest Lenore,-If my writing is not very legible it is because my hand shakes when I begin this sweet and sacred privilege of writing to my promised wife. My other letter was short, and this is the second in the weeks since I left you. What an endless time! You must understand and forgive me for not writing oftener and for not giving you definite address.

I did not want to be in the Western regiment, for reasons hard to understand. I enlisted in New York and am trying hard to get into the Rainbow Division, with some hope of success. There is nothing to me in being a member of a crack regiment, but it seems that this one will see action first of all American units. I don't want to be an officer, either.

How will it be possible for me to write you as I want to-letters that will be free of the plague of myself-letters that you can treasure if I never come back? Sleeping and waking, I never forget the wonderful truth of your love for me. It did not seem real when I was with you, but, now that we are separated, I know that it is real. Mostly my mind contains only two things-this constant memory of you, and that other terrible thing of which I will not speak. All else that I think or do seems to be mechanical.

The work, the training, is not difficult for me, though so many boys find it desperately hard. You know I followed a plow, and that is real toil. Right now I see the brown fallow hills and the great squares of gold. But visions or thoughts of home are rare. That is well, for they hurt like a stab. I cannot think now of a single thing connected with my training here that I want to tell you. Yet some things I must tell. For instance, we have different instructors, and naturally some are more forcible than others. We have one at whom the boys laugh. He tickles them. They like him. But he is an ordeal for me. The reason is that in our first bayonet practice, when we rushed and thrust a stuffed bag, he made us yell, "God damn you, German-die!" I don't imagine this to be general practice in army exercises, but the fact is he started us that way. I can't forget. When I begin to charge with a bayonet those words leap silently, but terribly, to my lips. Think of this as reality, Lenore-a sad and incomprehensible truth in 1917. All in me that is spiritual, reasonable, all that was once hopeful, revolts at this actuality and its meaning. But there is another side, that dark one, which revels in anticipation. It is the cave-man in me, hiding by night, waiting with a bludgeon to slay. I am beginning to be struck by the gradual change in my comrades. I fancied that I alone had suffered a retrogression. I have a deep consciousness of baseness that is going to keep me aloof from them. I seem to be alone with my own soul. Yet I seem to be abnormally keen to impressions. I feel what is going on in the soldiers' minds, and it shocks me, set me wondering, forces me to doubt myself. I keep saying it must be my peculiar way of looking at things.

Lenore, I remember your appeal to me. Shall I ever forget your sweet face-your sad eyes when you bade me hope in God?-I am trying, but I do not see God yet. Perhaps that is because of my morbidness-my limitations. Perhaps I will face him over there, when I go down into the Valley of the Shadow. One thing, however, I do begin to see is that there is a divinity in men. Slowly something divine is revealing itself to me. To give up work, property, friends, sister, mother, home, sweetheart, to sacrifice all and go out to fight for country, for honor-that indeed is divine. It is beautiful. It inspires a man and lifts his head. But, alas! if he is a thinking man, when he comes in contact with the actual physical preparation for war, he finds that the divinity was the hour of his sacrifice and that, to become a good soldier, he must change, forget, grow hard, strong, merciless, brutal, humorous, and callous, all of which is to say base. I see boys who are tender-hearted, who love life, who were born sufferers, who cannot inflict pain! How many silent cries of protest, of wonder, of agony, must go up in the night over this camp! The sum of them would be monstrous. The sound of them, if voiced, would be a clarion blast to the world. It is sacrifice that is divine, and not the making of an efficient soldier.

I shall write you endlessly. The action of writing relieves me. I feel less burdened now. Sometimes I cannot bear the burden of all this unintelligible consciousness. My mind is not large enough. Sometimes I feel that I am going to be every soldier and every enemy-each one in his strife or his drifting or his agony or his death. But despite that feeling I seem alone in a horde. I make no friends. I have no way to pass my leisure but writing. I can hardly read at all. When off duty the boys amuse themselves in a hundred ways-going to town, the theaters, and movies; chasing the girls (especially that to judge by their talk); play; boxing; games; and I am sorry to add, many of them gamble and drink. But I cannot do any of these things. I cannot forget what I am here for. I cannot forget that I am training to kill men. Never do I forget that soon I will face death. What a terrible, strange, vague thrill that sends shivering over me! Amusement and forgetfulness are past for Kurt Dorn. I am concerned with my soul. I am fighting that black passion which makes of me a sleepless watcher and thinker.

If this war only lets me live long enough to understand its meaning! Perhaps that meaning will be the meaning of life, in which case I am longing for the unattainable. But underneath it all must be a colossal movement of evolution, of spiritual growth-or of retrogression. Who knows? When I ask myself what I am going to fight for, I answer-for my country, as a patriot-for my hate, as an individual. My time is almost up. I go on duty. The rain is roaring on the thin roof. How it rains in this East! Whole days and nights it pours. I cannot help but think of my desert hills, always so barren and yellow, with the dust-clouds whirling. One day of this rain, useless and wasted here, would have saved the Bend crop of wheat. Nature is almost as inscrutable as God.

Lenore, good-by for this time. Think of me, but not as lonely or unhappy or uncomfortable out there in the cold, raw, black, wet night. I will be neither. Some one-a spirit-will keep beside me as I step the beat. I have put unhappiness behind me. And no rain or mud or chill will ever feaze me.

Yours with love,

Kurt Dorn.

Camp-, October-.

Dear Sister Lenore,-After that little letter of yours I could do nothing more than look up another pin like the one I sent Kathleen. I inclose it. Hope you will wear it.

I'm very curious to see what your package contains. It hasn't arrived yet. All the mail comes late. That makes the boys sore.

The weather hasn't been so wet lately as when I last wrote, but it's colder. Believe me these tents are not steam-heated! But we grin and try to look happy. It's not the most cheerful thing to hear the old call in the morning and tumble out in the cold gray dawn. Say! I've got two blankets now. Two! Just time for mess, then we hike down the road. I'm in for artillery now, I guess. The air service really fascinated me, but you can't have what you want in this business.

Saturday.-This letter will be in sections. No use sending you a little dab of news now and then. I'll write when I can, and mail when the letter assumes real proportions. Your package arrived and I was delighted. I think I slept better last night on your little pillow than any night since we were called out. My pillow before was your sleeveless jersey.

It's after three A.M. and I'm on guard-that is, battery guard, and I have to be up from midnight to reveille, not on a post, but in my tent, so that if any of my men (I'm a corporal now), whom I relieve every two hours, get into trouble they can call me. Non-coms. go on guard once in six days, so about every sixth night I get along with no sleep.

We have been ordered to do away with all personal property except shaving outfit and absolutely necessary articles. We can't keep a foot-locker, trunk, valise, or even an ordinary soap-box in our tents. Everything must be put in one barrack bag, a canvas sack just like a laundry-bag.

Thank the girls for the silk handkerchief and candy they sent. I sure have the sweetest sisters of any boy I know. I never appreciated them when I had them. I'm learning bitter truths these days. And tell mother I'll write her soon. Thank her for the pajamas and the napkins. Tell her I'm sorry a soldier has no use for either.

This morning I did my washing of the past two weeks, and I was so busy that I didn't hear the bugle blow, and thereby got on the "black book." Which means that I won't get any time off soon.

Before I forget, Lenore, let me tell you that I've taken ten thousand dollars' life insurance from the government, in your favor as beneficiary. This costs me only about six and a half dollars per month, and in case of my death-Well, I'm a soldier, now. Please tell Rose I've taken a fifty-dollar Liberty Bond of the new issue for her. This I'm paying at the rate of five dollars per month and it will be delivered to her at the end of ten months. Both of these, of course, I'm paying out of my government pay as a soldier. The money dad sent me I spent like water, lent to the boys, threw away. Tell him not to send me any more. Tell him the time has come for Jim Anderson to make good. I've a rich dad and he's the best dad any harum-scarum boy ever had. I'm going to prove more than one thing this trip.

We hear so many rumors, and none of them ever come true. One of them is funny-that we have so many rich men with political influence in our regiment that we will never get to France! Isn't that the limit? But it's funny because, if we have rich men, I'd like to see them. Still, there are thirty thousand soldiers here, and in my neck of the woods such rumors are laughed and cussed at. We hear also that we're going to be ordered South. I wish that would come true. It's so cold and drab and muddy and monotonous.

My friend Montana fooled everybody. He didn't die. He seems to be hanging on. Lately he recovered consciousness. Told me he had no feeling on his left side, except sometimes his hand itched, you know, like prickly needles. But Montana will never be any good again. That fine big cowboy! He's been one grand soldier.

It sickens me sometimes to think of the difference between what thrilled me about this war game and what we get. Maybe, though-There goes my call. I must close. Love to all.

Jim.

New York City, October-.

Dearest Lenore,-It seems about time that I had a letter from you. I'm sure letters are on the way, but they do not come quickly. The boys complain of the mail service. Isn't it strange that there is not a soul to write me except you? Jeff, my farm-hand, will write me whenever I write him, which I haven't done yet.

I'm on duty here in New York at an armory bazaar. It's certainly the irony of fate. Why did the officer pick on me, I'd like to know? But I've never complained of an order so far, and I'm standing it. Several of us-and they chose the husky boys-have been sent over here, for absolutely no purpose that I can see except to exhibit ourselves in uniform. It's a woman's bazaar, to raise money for war-relief work and so on. The hall is almost as large as that field back of your house, and every night it is packed with people, mostly young. My comrades are having fun out of it, but I feel like a fish out of water.

Just the same, Lenore, I'm learning more every day. If I was not so disgusted I'd think this was a wonderful opportunity. As it is, I regard it only as an experience over which I have no control and that interests me in spite of myself. New York is an awful place-endless, narrow, torn-up streets crowded with hurrying throngs, taxicabs, cars, and full of noise and dust. I am always choked for air. And these streets reek. Where do the people come from and where are they going? They look wild, as if they had to go somewhere, but did not know where that was. I've no time or inclination to see New York, though under happier circumstances I think I'd like to.

People in the East seem strange to me. Still, as I never mingled with many people in the West, I cannot say truly whether Eastern people are different from Western people. But I think so. Anyway, while I was in Spokane, Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles I did not think people were greatly concerned about the war. Denver people appeared not to realize there was a war. But here in New York everything is war. You can't escape it. You see that war will soon obsess rich and poor, alien and neutral and belligerent, pacifist and militarist. Since I wrote you last I've tried to read the newspapers sent to us. It's hard to tell you which makes me the sicker-the prattle of the pacifist or the mathematics of the military experts. Both miss the spirit of men. Neither has any soul. I think the German minds must all be mathematical.

But I want to write about the women and girls I see, here in New York, in the camps and towns, on the trains, everywhere. Lenore, the war has thrown them off their balance. I have seen and studied at close hand women of all classes. Believe me, as the boys say, I have thought more than twice whether or not I would tell you the stark truth. But somehow I am impelled to. I have an overwhelming conviction that all American girls and mothers should know what the truth is. They will never be told, Lenore, and most would never believe if they were told. And that is one thing wrong with people.

I believe every soldier, from the time he enlists until the war is ended, should be kept away from women. This is a sweeping statement and you must take into account the mind of him who makes it. But I am not leaping at conclusions. The soldier boys have terrible peril facing them long before they get to the trenches. Not all, or nearly all, the soldiers are going to be vitally affected by the rottenness of great cities or by the mushroom hotbeds of vice springing up near the camps. These evils exist and are being opposed by military and government, by police and Y.M.C.A., and good influence of good people. But they will never wholly stamp it out.

Nor do I want to say much about the society women who are "rushing" the officers. There may be one here and there with her heart in the right place, but with most of them it must be, first, this something about war that has unbalanced women; and secondly, a fad, a novelty, a new sentimental stunt, a fashion set by some leader. Likewise I want to say but little about the horde of common, street-chasing, rattled-brained women and girls who lie in wait for soldiers at every corner, so to speak. All these, to be sure, may be unconsciously actuated by motives that do not appear on the surface; and if this be true, their actions are less bold, less raw than they look.

What I want to dwell upon is my impression of something strange, unbalanced, incomprehensible, about the frank conduct of so many well-educated, refined, and good women I see; and about the eagerness, restlessness, the singular response of nice girls to situations that are not natural.

To-night a handsome, stylishly gowned woman of about thirty came up to me with a radiant smile and a strange brightness in her eyes. There were five hundred couples dancing on the floor, and the music and sound of sliding feet made it difficult to hear her. She said: "You handsome soldier boy! Come dance with me?" I replied politely that I did not dance. Then she took hold of me and said, "I'll teach you." I saw a wedding-ring on the hand she laid on my arm. Then I looked straight at her, "Madam, very soon I'll be learning the dance of death over in France, and my mind's concerned with that." She grew red with anger. She seemed amazed. And she snapped, "Well, you are a queer soldier!" Later I watched her flirting and dancing with an officer.

Overtures and advances innumerable have been made to me, ranging from the assured possession-taking onslaught like this woman's to the slight, subtle something, felt more than seen, of a more complex nature. And, Lenore, I blush to tell you this, but I've been mobbed by girls. They have a thousand ways of letting a soldier know! I could not begin to tell them. But I do not actually realize what it is that is conveyed, that I know; and I am positive the very large majority of soldiers misunderstand. At night I listen to the talks of my comrades, and, well-if the girls only heard! Many times I go out of hearing, and when I cannot do that I refuse to hear.

Lenore, I am talking about nice girls now. I am merciless. There are many girls like you-they seem like you, though none so pretty. I mean, you know, there are certain manners and distinctions that at once mark a really nice girl. For a month I've been thrown here and there, so that it seems I've seen as many girls as soldiers. I have been sent to different entertainments given for soldiers. At one place a woman got up and invited the girls to ask the boys to dance. At another a crowd of girls were lined up wearing different ribbons, and the boys marched along until each one found the girl wearing a ribbon to match the one he wore. That was his partner. It was interesting to see the eager, mischievous, brooding eyes of these girls as they watched and waited. Just as interesting was it to see this boy's face when he found his partner was ugly, and that boy swell with pride when he found he had picked a "winner." It was all adventure for both boys and girls. But I saw more than that in it. Whenever I could not avoid meeting a girl I tried to be agreeable and to talk about war, and soldiers, and what was going on. I did not dance, of course, and I imagine more than one girl found me a "queer soldier."

It always has touched me, though, to see and feel the sweetness, graciousness, sympathy, kindness, and that other indefinable something, in the girls I have met. How they made me think of you, Lenore! No doubt about their hearts, their loyalty, their Americanism. Every soldier who goes to France can fight for some girl! They make you feel that. I believe I have gone deeper than most soldiers in considering what I will call war-relation of the sexes. If it is normal, then underneath it all is a tremendous inscrutable design of nature or God. If that be true, actually true, then war must be inevitable and right! How horrible! My thoughts confound me sometimes. Anyway, the point I want to make is this: I heard an officer tell an irate father, whose two daughters had been insulted by soldiers: "My dear sir, it is regrettable. These men will be punished. But they are not greatly to blame, because so many girls throw themselves at their heads. Your daughters did not, of course, but they should not have come here." That illustrates the fixed idea of the military, all through the ranks-Women throw themselves at soldiers! It is true that they do. But the idea is false, nevertheless, because the mass of girls are misunderstood.

Misunderstood!-I can tell you why. Surely the mass of American girls are nice, fine, sweet, wholesome. They are young. The news of war liberates something in them that we can find no name for. But it must be noble. A soldier! The very name, from childhood, is one to make a girl thrill. What then the actual thing, the uniform, invested somehow with chivalry and courage, the clean-cut athletic young man, somber and fascinating with his intent eyes, his serious brow, or his devil-may-care gallantry, the compelling presence of him that breathes of his sacrifice, of his near departure to privation, to squalid, comfortless trenches, to the fire and hell of war, to blood and agony and death-in a word to fight, fight, fight for women!… So through this beautiful emotion women lose their balance and many are misunderstood. Those who would not and could not be bold are susceptible to advances that in an ordinary time would not affect them. War invests a soldier with a glamour. Love at first sight, flirtations, rash intimacies, quick engagements, immediate marriages. The soldier who is soon going away to fight and perhaps to die strikes hard at the very heart of a girl. Either she is not her real self then, or else she is suddenly transported to a womanhood that is instinctive, elemental, universal for the future. She feels what she does not know. She surrenders because there is an imperative call to the depths of her nature. She sacrifices because she is the inspiritor of the soldier, the reward for his loss, the savior of the race. If women are the spoils of barbarous conquerors, they are also the sinews, the strength, the soul of defenders.

And so, however you look at it, war means for women sacrifice, disillusion, heartbreak, agony, doom. I feel that so powerfully that I am overcome; I am sick at the gaiety and playing; I am full of fear, wonder, admiration, and hopeless pity for them.

No man can tell what is going on in the souls of soldiers while noble women are offering love and tenderness, throwing themselves upon the altar of war, hoping blindly to send their great spirits marching to the front. Perhaps the man who lives through the war will feel the change in his soul if he cannot tell it. Day by day I think I see a change in my comrades. As they grow physically stronger they seem to grow spiritually lesser. But maybe that is only my idea. I see evidences of fear, anger, sullenness, moodiness, shame. I see a growing indifference to fatigue, toil, pain. As these boys harden physically they harden mentally. Always, 'way off there is the war, and that seems closely related to the near duty here-what it takes to make a man. These fellows will measure men differently after this experience with sacrifice, obedience, labor, and pain. In that they will become great. But I do not think these things stimulate a man's mind. Changes are going on in me, some of which I am unable to define. For instance, physically I am much bigger and stronger than I was. I weigh one hundred and eighty pounds! As for my mind, something is always tugging at it. I feel that it grows tired. It wants to forget. In spite of my will, all of these keen desires of mine to know everything lag and fail often, and I catch myself drifting. I see and feel and hear without thinking. I am only an animal then. At these times sight of blood, or a fight, or a plunging horse, or a broken leg-and these sights are common-affects me little until I am quickened and think about the meaning of it all. At such moments I have a revulsion of feeling. With memory comes a revolt, and so on, until I am the distressed, inquisitive, and morbid person I am now. I shudder at what war will make me. Actual contact with earth, exploding guns, fighting comrades, striking foes, will make brutes of us all. It is wrong to shed another man's blood. If life was meant for that why do we have progress? I cannot reconcile a God with all this horror. I have misgivings about my mind. If I feel so acutely here in safety and comfort, what shall I feel over there in peril and agony? I fear I shall laugh at death. Oh, Lenore, consider that! To laugh in the ghastly face of death! If I yield utterly to a fiendish joy of bloody combat, then my mind will fail, and that in itself would be evidence of God.

I do not read over my letters to you, I just write. Forgive me if they are not happier. Every hour I think of you. At night I see your face in the shadow of the tent wall. And I love you unutterably.

Faithfully,

Kurt Dorn.

Camp --, November -,

Dear Sister,-It's bad news I've got for you this time. Something bids me tell you, though up to now I've kept unpleasant facts to myself.

The weather has knocked me out. My cold came back, got worse and worse. Three days ago I had a chill that lasted for fifteen minutes. I shook like a leaf. It left me, and then I got a terrible pain in my side. But I didn't give in, which I feel now was a mistake. I stayed up till I dropped.

I'm here in the hospital. It's a long shed with three stoves, and a lot of beds with other sick boys. My bed is far away from a stove. The pain is bad yet, but duller, and I've fever. I'm pretty sick, honey. Tell mother and dad, but not the girls. Give my love to all. And don't worry. It'll all come right in the end. This beastly climate's to blame.

Later,-It's night now. I was interrupted. I'll write a few more lines. Hope you can read them. It's late and the wind is moaning outside. It's so cold and dismal. The fellow in the bed next to me is out of his head. Poor devil! He broke his knee, and they put off the operation-too busy! So few doctors and so many patients! And now he'll lose his leg. He's talking about home. Oh, Lenore! Home! I never knew what home was-till now.

I'm worse to-night. But I'm always bad at night. Only, to-night I feel strange. There's a weight on my chest, besides the pain. That moan of wind makes me feel so lonely. There's no one here-and I'm so cold. I've thought a lot about you girls and mother and dad. Tell dad I made good.

Jim

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