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   Chapter 25 No.25

The Desert of Wheat By Zane Grey Characters: 23462

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Jim's last letter was not taken seriously by the other members of the Anderson family. The father shook his head dubiously. "That ain't like Jim," but made no other comment. Mrs. Anderson sighed. The young sisters were not given to worry. Lenore, however, was haunted by an unwritten meaning in her brother's letter.

Weeks before, she had written to Dorn and told him to hunt up Jim. No reply had yet come from Dorn. Every day augmented her uneasiness, until it was dreadful to look for letters that did not come. All this fortified her, however, to expect calamity. Like a bolt out of the clear sky it came in the shape of a telegram from Camp -- saying that Jim was dying.

The shock prostrated the mother. Jim had been her favorite. Mr. Anderson left at once for the East. Lenore had the care of her mother and the management of "Many Waters" on her hands, which duties kept her mercifully occupied. Mrs. Anderson, however, after a day, rallied surprisingly. Lenore sensed in her mother the strength of the spirit that sacrificed to a noble and universal cause. It seemed to be Mrs. Anderson's conviction that Jim had been shot, or injured by accident in gun-training, or at least by a horse. Lenore did not share her mother's idea and was reluctant to dispel it. On the evening of the fifth day after Mr. Anderson's departure a message came, saying that he had arrived too late to see Jim alive. Mrs. Anderson bore the news bravely, though she weakened perceptibly.

The family waited then for further news. None came. Day after day passed. Then one evening, while Lenore strolled in the gloaming, Kathleen came running to burst out with the announcement of their father's arrival. He had telephoned from Vale for a car to meet him.

Not long after that, Lenore, who had gone to her room, heard the return of the car and recognized her father's voice. She ran down in time to see him being embraced by the girls, and her mother leaning with bowed head on his shoulder.

"Yes, I fetched Jim-back," he said, steadily, but very low. "It's all arranged.… An' we'll bury him to-morrow."

"Oh-dad!" cried Lenore.

"Hello, my girl!" he replied, and kissed her. "I'm sorry to tell you I couldn't locate Kurt Dorn.… That New York-an' that trainin' camp!"

He held up his hands in utter futility of expression. Lenore's quick eyes noted his face had grown thin and haggard, and she made sure with a pang that his hair was whiter.

"I'm sure glad to be home," he said, with a heavy expulsion of breath. "I want to clean up an' have a bite to eat."

* * *

Lenore was so disappointed at failing to hear from Dorn that she did not think how singular it was her father did not tell more about Jim. Later he seemed more like himself, and told them simply that Jim had contracted pneumonia and died without any message for his folk at home. This prostrated Mrs. Anderson again.

Later Lenore sought her father in his room. He could not conceal from her that he had something heartrending on his mind. Then there was more than tragedy in his expression. Lenore felt a leap of fear at what seemed her father's hidden anger. She appealed to him-importuned him. Plainer it came to her that he wanted to relieve himself of a burden. Then doubling her persuasions, she finally got him to talk.

"Lenore, it's not been so long ago that right here in this room Jim begged me to let him enlist. He wasn't of age. But would I let him go-to fight for the honor of our country-for the future safety of our home?… We all felt the boy's eagerness, his fire, his patriotism. Wayward as he's been, we suddenly were proud of him. We let him go. We gave him up. He was a part of our flesh an' blood-sent by us Andersons-to do our share."

Anderson paused in his halting speech, and swallowed hard. His white face twitched strangely and his brow was clammy. Lenore saw that his piercing gaze looked far beyond her for the instant that he broke down.

"Jim was a born fighter," the father resumed. "He wasn't vicious. He just had a leanin' to help anybody. As a lad he fought for his little pards-always on the right side-an' he always fought fair.… This opportunity to train for a soldier made a man of him. He'd have made his mark in the war. Strong an' game an' fierce, he'd … he'd … Well, he's dead-he's dead!… Four months after enlistment he's dead.… An' he never had a rifle in his hands! He never had his hands on a machine-gun or a piece of artillery!… He never had a uniform! He never had an overcoat! He never …"

Then Mr. Anderson's voice shook so that he had to stop to gain control. Lenore was horrified. She felt a burning stir within her.

"Lemme get this-out," choked Anderson, his face now livid, his veins bulging. "I'm drove to tell it. I was near all day locatin' Jim's company. Found the tent where he'd lived. It was cold, damp, muddy. Jim's messmates spoke high of him. Called him a prince!… They all owed him money. He'd done many a good turn for them. He had only a thin blanket, an' he caught cold. All the boys had colds. One night he gave that blanket to a boy sicker than he was. Next day he got worse.… There was miles an' miles of them tents. I like to never found the hospital where they'd sent Jim. An' then it was six o'clock in the mornin'-a raw, bleak day that'd freeze one of us to the marrow. I had trouble gettin' in. But a soldier went with me an'-an' …"

Anderson's voice went to a whisper, and he looked pityingly at Lenore.

"That hospital was a barn. No doctors! Too early.… The nurses weren't in sight. I met one later, an', poor girl! she looked ready to drop herself!… We found Jim in one of the little rooms. No heat! It was winter there.… Only a bed!… Jim lay on the floor, dead! He'd fallen or pitched off the bed. He had on only his underclothes that he had on-when he-left home.… He was stiff-an' must have-been dead-a good while."

Lenore held out her trembling hands. "Dead-Jim dead-like that!" she faltered.

"Yes. He got pneumonia," replied Anderson, hoarsely. "The camp was full of it."

"But-my God! Were not the-the poor boys taken care of?" implored Lenore, faintly.

"It's a terrible time. All was done that could be done!"

"Then-it was all-for nothing?"

"All! All! Our boy an' many like him-the best blood of our country-Western blood-dead because … because …"

Anderson's voice failed him.

"Oh, Jim! Oh, my brother!… Dead like a poor neglected dog! Jim-who enlisted to fight-for-"

Lenore broke down then and hurried away to her room.

With great difficulty Mrs. Anderson was revived, and it became manifest that the prop upon which she had leaned had been slipped from under her. The spirit which had made her strong to endure the death of her boy failed when the sordid bald truth of a miserable and horrible waste of life gave the lie to the splendid fighting chance Jim had dreamed of.

When Anderson realized that she was fading daily he exhausted himself in long expositions of the illness and injury and death common to armies in the making. More deaths came from these causes than from war. It was the elision of the weaker element-the survival of the fittest; and some, indeed very many, mothers must lose their sons that way. The government was sound at the core, he claimed; and his own rage was at the few incompetents and profiteers. These must be weeded out-a process that was going on. The gigantic task of a government to draft and prepare a great army and navy was something beyond the grasp of ordinary minds. Anderson talked about what he had seen and heard, proving the wonderful stride already made. But all that he said now made no impression upon Mrs. Anderson. She had made her supreme sacrifice for a certain end, and that was as much the boy's fiery ambition to fight as it was her duty, common with other mothers, to furnish a man at the front. What a hopeless, awful sacrifice! She sank under it.

Those were trying days for Lenore, just succeeding her father's return; and she had little time to think of herself. When the mail came, day after day, without a letter from Dorn, she felt the pang in her breast grow heavier. Intimations crowded upon her of impending troubles that would make the present ones seem light.

It was not long until the mother was laid to rest beside the son.

When that day ended, Lenore and her father faced each other in her room, where he had always been wont to come for sympathy. They gazed at each other, with hard, dry eyes. Stark-naked truth-grim reality-the nature of this catastrophe-the consciousness of war-dawned for each in the look of the other. Brutal shock and then this second exceeding bitter woe awakened their minds to the futility of individual life.

"Lenore-it's over!" he said, huskily, as he sank into a chair. "Like a nightmare!… What have I got to live for?"

"You have us girls," replied Lenore. "And if you did not have us there would be many others for you to live for.… Dad, can't you see-now?"

"I reckon. But I'm growin' old an' mebbe I've quit."

"No, dad, you'll never quit. Suppose all we Americans quit. That'd mean a German victory. Never! Never! Never!"

"By God! you're right!" he ejaculated, with the trembling strain of his face suddenly fixing. Blood and life shot into his eyes. He got up heavily and began to stride to and fro before her. "You see clearer than me. You always did, Lenore."

"I'm beginning to see, but I can't tell you," replied Lenore, closing her eyes. Indeed, there seemed a colossal vision before her, veiled and strange. "Whatever happens, we cannot break. It's because of the war. We have our tasks-greater now than ever we believe could be thrust upon us. Yours to show men what you are made of! To raise wheat as never before in your life! Mine to show my sisters and my friends-all the women-what their duty is. We must sacrifice, work, prepare, and fight for the future."

"I reckon," he nodded solemnly. "Loss of mother an' Jim changes this damned war. Whatever's in my power to do must go on. So some one can take it up when I-"

"That's the great conception, dad," added Lenore, earnestly. "We are tragically awakened. We've been surprised-terribly struck in the dark. Something monstrous and horrible!… I can feel the menace in it for all-over every family in this broad land."

"Lenore, you said once that Jim-Now, how'd you know it was all over for him?"

"A woman's heart, dad. When I said good-by to Jim I knew it was good-by forever."

"Did you feel that way about Kurt Dorn?"

"No. He will come back to me. I dream it. It's in my spirit-my instinct of life, my flesh-and-blood life of the future-it's in my belief in God. Kurt Dorn's ordeal will be worse than death for him. But I believe as I pray-that he will come home alive."

"Then, after all, you do hope," said her father. "Lenore, when I was down East, I seen what women were doin'. The bad women are good an' the good women are great. I think women have more to do with war then men, even if they do stay home. It must be because women are mothers.… Lenore, you've bucked me up. I'll go at things now. The need for wheat next year will be beyond calculation. I'll buy ten thousand acres of that wheatland round old Chris Dorn's farm. An' my shot at the Germans will be wheat. I'll raise a million bushels!"

* * *

Next morning in the mail was a long, thick envelope addressed to Lenore in handwriting that shook her heart and made her fly to the seclusion of her room.

New York City, November -.

DEAREST,-when you receive this I will be in France.

Then Lenore sustained a strange shock. The beloved handwriting faded, the thick sheets of paper fell; and all about her seemed dark and whirling,

as the sudden joy and excitement stirred by the letter changed to sickening pain.

"France! He's in France?" she whispered. "Oh, Kurt!" A storm of love and terror burst over her. It had the onset and the advantage of a bewildering surprise. It laid low, for the moment, her fortifications of sacrifice, strength, and resolve. She had been forced into womanhood, and her fear, her agony, were all the keener for the intelligence and spirit that had repudiated selfish love. Kurt Dorn was in France in the land of the trenches! Strife possessed her and had a moment of raw, bitter triumph. She bit her lips and clenched her fists, to restrain the impulse to rush madly around the room, to scream out her fear and hate. With forcing her thought, with hard return to old well-learned arguments, there came back the nobler emotions. But when she took up the letter again, with trembling hands, her heart fluttered high and sick, and she saw the words through blurred eyes.

…I'll give the letter to an ensign, who has promised to mail it the moment he gets back to New York.

Lenore, your letter telling me about Jim was held up in the mail. But thank goodness, I got it in time. I'd already been transferred, and expected orders any day to go on board the transport, where I am writing now. I'd have written you, or at least telegraphed you, yesterday, after seeing Jim, if I had not expected to see him again to-day. But this morning we were marched on board and I cannot even get this letter off to you.

Lenore, your brother is a very sick boy. I lost some hours finding him. They did not want to let me see him. But I implored-said that I was engaged to his sister-and finally I got in. The nurse was very sympathetic. But I didn't care for the doctors in charge. They seemed hard, hurried, brusque. But they have their troubles. The hospital was a long barracks, and it was full of cripples.

The nurse took me into a small, bare room, too damp and cold for a sick man, and I said so. She just looked at me.

Jim looks like you more than any other of the Andersons. I recognized that at the same moment I saw how very sick he was. They had told me outside that he had a bad case of pneumonia. He was awake, perfectly conscious, and he stared at me with eyes that set my heart going.

"Hello, Jim!" I said, and offered my hand, as I sat down on the bed. He was too weak to shake hands.

"Who're you?" he asked. He couldn't speak very well. When I told him my name and that I was his sister's fiancé his face changed so he did not look like the same person. It was beautiful. Oh, it showed how homesick he was! Then I talked a blue streak about you, about the girls, about "Many Waters"-how I lost my wheat, and everything. He was intensely interested, and when I got through he whispered that he guessed Lenore had picked a "winner." What do you think of that? He was curious about me, and asked me questions till the nurse made him stop. I was never so glad about anything as I was about the happiness it evidently gave him to meet me and hear from home. I promised to come next day if we did not sail. Then he showed what I must call despair. He must have been passionately eager to get to France. The nurse dragged me out. Jim called weakly after me: "Good-by, Kurt. Stick some Germans for me!" I'll never forget his tone nor his look.… Lenore, he doesn't expect to get over to France.

I questioned the nurse, and she shook her head doubtfully. She looked sad. She said Jim had been the lion of his regiment. I questioned a doctor, and he was annoyed. He put me off with a sharp statement that Jim was not in danger. But I think he is. I hope and pray he recovers.

Thursday.

We sailed yesterday. It was a wonderful experience, leaving Hoboken. Our transport and the dock looked as if they had a huge swarm of yellow bees hanging over everything. The bees were soldiers. The most profound emotion I ever had-except the one when you told me you loved me-came over me as the big boat swung free of the dock-of the good old U.S., of home. I wanted to jump off and swim through the eddying green water to the piles and hide in them till the boat had gone. As we backed out, pulled up tugs, and got started down the river, my thrills increased, until we passed the Statue of Liberty-and then I couldn't tell how I felt. One thing, I could not see very well.… I gazed beyond the colossal statue that France gave to the U.S.-'way across the water and the ships and the docks toward the West that I was leaving. Feeling like mine then only comes once to a man in his life. First I seemed to see all the vast space, the farms, valleys, woods, deserts, rivers, and mountains between me and my golden wheat-hills. Then I saw my home, and it was as if I had a magnificent photograph before my very eyes. A sudden rush of tears blinded me. Such a storm of sweetness, regret, memory! Then at last you-you as you stood before me last, the very loveliest girl in all the world. My heart almost burst, and in the wild, sick pain of the moment I had a strange, comforting flash of thought that a man who could leave you must be impelled by something great in store for him. I feel that. I told you once. To laugh at death! That is what I shall do. But perhaps that is not the great experience which will come to me.

I saw the sun set in the sea, 'way back toward the western horizon, where the thin, dark line that was land disappeared in the red glow. The wind blows hard. The water is rough, dark gray, and cold. I like the taste of the spray. Our boat rolls heavily and many boys are already sick. I do not imagine the motion will affect me. It is stuffy below-deck. I'll spend what time I can above, where I can see and feel. It was dark just now when I came below. And as I looked out into the windy darkness and strife I was struck by the strangeness of the sea and how it seemed to be like my soul. For a long time I have been looking into my soul, and I find such ceaseless strife, such dark, unlit depths, such chaos. These thoughts and emotions, always with me, keep me from getting close to my comrades. No, not me, but it keeps them away from me. I think they regard me strangely. They all talk of submarines. They are afraid. Some will lose sleep at night. But I never think of a submarine when I gaze out over the tumbling black waters. What I think of, what I am going after, what I need seems far, far away. Always! I am no closer now than when I was at your home. So it has not to do with distance. And Lenore, maybe it has not to do with trenches or Germans.

Wednesday.

It grows harder to get a chance to write and harder for me to express myself. When I could write I have to work or am on duty; when I have a little leisure I am somehow clamped. This old chugging boat beats the waves hour after hour, all day and all night. I can feel the vibration when I'm asleep. Many things happen that would interest you, just the duty and play of the soldiers, for that matter, and the stories I hear going from lip to lip, and the accidents. Oh! so much happens. But all these rush out of my mind the moment I sit down to write. There is something at work in me as vast and heaving as the ocean.

At first I had a fear, a dislike of the ocean. But that is gone. It is indescribable to stand on the open deck at night as we are driving on and on and on-to look up at the grand, silent stars, that know, that understand, yet are somehow merciless-to look out across the starlit, moving sea. Its ceaseless movement at first distressed me; now I feel that it is perpetually moving to try to become still. To seek a level! To find itself! To quiet down to peace! But that will never be. And I think if the ocean is not like the human heart, then what is it like?

This voyage will be good for me. The hard, incessant objective life, the physical life of a soldier, somehow comes to a halt on board ship. And every hour now is immeasurable for me. Whatever the mystery of life, of death, of what drives me, of why I cannot help fight the demon in me, of this thing called war-the certainty is that these dark, strange nights on the sea have given me a hope and faith that the truth is not utterly unattainable.

Sunday.

We're in the danger zone now, with destroyers around us and a cruiser ahead. I am all eyes and ears. I lose sleep at night from thinking so hard. The ship doctor stopped me the other day-studied my face. Then he said: "You're too intense. You think too hard.… Are you afraid?" And I laughed in his face. "Absolutely no!" I told him. "Then forget-and mix with the boys. Play-cut up-fight-do anything but think!" That doctor is a good chap, but he doesn't figure Kurt Dorn if he imagines the Germans can kill me by making me think.

We're nearing France now, and the very air is charged. An aeroplane came out to meet us-welcome us, I guess, and it flew low. The soldiers went wild. I never had such a thrill. That air game would just suit me, if I were fitted for it. But I'm no mechanic. Besides, I'm too big and heavy. My place will be in the front line with a bayonet. Strange how a bayonet fascinates me!

They say we can't write home anything about the war. I'll write you something, whenever I can. Don't be unhappy if you do not hear often-or if my letters cease to come. My heart and my mind are full of you. Whatever comes to me-the training over here-the going to the trenches-the fighting-I shall be safe if only I can remember you.

With love,

Kurt.

Lenore carried that letter in her bosom when she went out to walk in the fields, to go over the old ground she and Kurt had trod hand in hand. From the stone seat above the brook she watched the sunset. All was still except the murmur of the running water, and somehow she could not long bear that. As the light began to shade on the slopes, she faced them, feeling, as always, a strength come to her from their familiar lines. Twilight found her high above the ranch, and absolutely alone. She would have this lonely hour, and then, all her mind and energy must go to what she knew was imperative duty. She would work to the limit of her endurance.

It was an autumn twilight, with a cool wind, gray sky, and sad, barren slopes. The fertile valley seemed half obscured in melancholy haze, and over toward the dim hills beyond night had already fallen. No stars, no moon, no afterglow of sunset illumined the grayness that in this hour seemed prophetic of Lenore's future.

"'Safe!' he said. 'I shall be safe if only I can remember you,'" she whispered to herself, wonderingly. "What did he mean?"

Pondering the thought, she divined it had to do with Dorn's singular spiritual mood. He had gone to lend his body as so much physical brawn, so much weight, to a concerted movement of men, but his mind was apart from a harmony with that. Lenore felt that whatever had been the sacrifice made by Kurt Dorn, it had been passed with his decision to go to war. What she prayed for then was something of his spirit.

Slowly, in the gathering darkness, she descended the long slope. The approaching night seemed sad, with autumn song of insects. All about her breathed faith, from the black hills above, the gray slopes below, from the shadowy void, from the murmuring of insect life in the grass. The rugged fallow ground under her feet seemed to her to be a symbol of faith-faith that winter would come and pass-the spring sun and rain would burst the seeds of wheat-and another summer would see the golden fields of waving grain. If she did not live to see them, they would be there just the same; and so life and nature had faith in its promise. That strange whisper was to Lenore the whisper of God.

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