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   Chapter 26 No.26

The Desert of Wheat By Zane Grey Characters: 28711

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Through the pale obscurity of a French night, cool, raw, moist, with a hint of spring in its freshness, a line of soldiers plodded along the lonely, melancholy lanes. Wan starlight showed in the rifts between the clouds. Neither dark nor light, the midnight hour had its unreality in this line of marching men; and its reality in the dim, vague hedges, its spectral posts, its barren fields.

Rain had ceased to fall, but a fine, cold, penetrating mist filled the air. The ground was muddy in places, slippery in others; and here and there it held pools of water ankle-deep. The stride of the marching men appeared short and dragging, without swing or rhythm. It was weary, yet full of the latent power of youth, of unused vitality. Stern, clean-cut, youthful faces were set northward, unchanging in the shadowy, pale gleams of the night. These faces lifted intensely whenever a strange, muffled, deep-toned roar rolled out of the murky north. The night looked stormy, but that rumble was not thunder. Fifty miles northward, beyond that black and mysterious horizon, great guns were booming war.

Sometimes, as the breeze failed, the night was silent except for the slow, sloppy tramp of the marching soldiers. Then the low voices were hushed. When the wind freshened again it brought at intervals those deep, significant detonations which, as the hours passed, seemed to grow heavier and more thunderous.

At length a faint gray light appeared along the eastern sky, and gradually grew stronger. The dawn of another day was close at hand. It broke as if reluctantly, cold and gray and sunless.

The detachment of United States troops halted for camp outside of the French village of A--.

Kurt Dorn was at mess with his squad.

The months in France had flown away on wings of training and absorbing and waiting. Dorn had changed incalculably. But all he realized of it was that he weighed one hundred and ninety pounds and that he seemed to have lived a hundred swift lives. All that he saw and felt became part of him. His comrades had been won to him as friends by virtue of his ever-ready helping hand, by his devotion to training, by his close-lipped acceptance of all the toils and knocks and pains common to the making of a soldier. The squad lived together as one large family of brothers. Dorn's comrades had at first tormented him with his German name; they had made fun of his abstraction and his letter-writing; they had misunderstood his aloofness. But the ridicule died away, and now, in the presaged nature of events, his comrades, all governed by the physical life of the soldier, took him for a man.

Perhaps it might have been chance, or it might have been true of all the American squads, but the fact was that Dorn's squad was a strangely assorted set of young men. Perhaps that might have been Dorn's conviction from coming to live long with them. They were a part of the New York Division of the -th, all supposed to be New York men. As a matter of fact, this was not true. Dorn was a native of Washington. Sanborn was a thick-set, sturdy fellow with the clear brown tan and clear brown eyes of the Californian. Brewer was from South Carolina, a lean, lanky Southerner, with deep-set dark eyes. Dixon hailed from Massachusetts, from a fighting family, and from Harvard, where he had been a noted athlete. He was a big, lithe, handsome boy, red-faced and curly-haired. Purcell was a New-Yorker, of rich family, highly connected, and his easy, clean, fine ways, with the elegance of his person, his blond distinction, made him stand out from his khaki-clad comrades, though he was clad identically with them. Rogers claimed the Bronx to be his home and he was proud of it. He was little, almost undersized, but a knot of muscle, a keen-faced youth with Irish blood in him. These particular soldiers of the squad were closest to Dorn.

Corporal Bob Owens came swinging in to throw his sombrero down.

"What's the orders, Bob?" some one inquired.

"We're going to rest here," he replied.

The news was taken impatiently by several and agreeably by the majority. They were all travel-stained and worn. Dorn did not comment on the news, but the fact was that he hated the French villages. They were so old, so dirty, so obsolete, so different from what he had been accustomed to. But he loved the pastoral French countryside, so calm and picturesque. He reflected that soon he would see the devastation wrought by the Huns.

"Any news from the front?" asked Dixon.

"I should smile," replied the corporal, grimly.

"Well, open up, you clam!"

Owens thereupon told swiftly and forcibly what he had heard. More advance of the Germans-it was familiar news. But somehow it was taken differently here within sound of the guns. Dorn studied his comrades, wondering if their sensations were similar to his. He expressed nothing of what he felt, but all the others had something to say. Hard, cool, fiery, violent speech that differed as those who uttered it differed, yet its predominant note rang fight.

"Just heard a funny story," said Owens, presently.

"Spring it," somebody replied.

"This comes from Berlin, so they say. According to rumor, the Kaiser and the Crown Prince seldom talk to each other. They happened to meet the other day. And the Crown Prince said: 'Say, pop, what got us into this war?'

"The Emperor replied, 'My son, I was deluded.'

"'Oh, sire, impossible!' exclaimed the Prince. 'How could it be?'

"'Well, some years ago I was visited by a grinning son-of-a-gun from New York-no other than the great T.R. I took him around. He was most interested in my troops. After he had inspected them, and particularly the Imperial Guard, he slapped me on the back and shouted, "Bill, you could lick the world!" … And, my son, I fell for it!'"

This story fetched a roar from every soldier present except Dorn. An absence of mirth in him had been noted before.

"Dorn, can't you laugh!" protested Dixon.

"Sure I can-when I hear something funny," replied Dorn.

His comrades gazed hopelessly at him.

"My Lawd! boy, thet was shore funny," drawled Brewer with his lazy Southern manner.

"Kurt, you're not human," said Owens, sadly. "That's why they call you Demon Dorn."

All the boys in the squad had nicknames. In Dorn's case several had been applied by irrepressible comrades before one stuck. The first one received a poor reception from Kurt. The second happened to be a great blunder for the soldier who invented it. He was not in Dorn's squad, but he knew Dorn pretty well, and in a moment of deviltry he had coined for Dorn the name "Kaiser Dorn." Dorn's reaction to this appellation was discomfiting and painful for the soldier. As he lay flat on the ground, where Dorn had knocked him, he had struggled with a natural rage, quickly to overcome it. He showed the right kind of spirit. He got up. "Dorn, I apologize. I was only in fun. But some fun is about as funny as death." On the way out he suggested a more felicitous name-Demon Dorn. Somehow the boys took to that. It fitted many of Dorn's violent actions in training, especially the way he made a bayonet charge. Dorn objected strenuously. But the name stuck. No comrade or soldier ever again made a hint of Dorn's German name or blood.

"Fellows, if a funny story can't make Dorn laugh, he's absolutely a dead one," said Owens.

"Spring a new one, quick," spoke up some one. "Gee! it's great to laugh.… Why, I've not heard from home for a month!"

"Dorn, will you beat it so I can spring this one?" queried Owens.

"Sure," replied Dorn, amiably, as he started away. "I suppose you think me one of these I-dare-you-to-make-me-laugh sort of chaps."

"Forget her, Dorn-come out of it!" chirped up Rogers.

To Dorn's regret, he believed that he failed his comrades in one way, and he was always trying to make up for it. Part of the training of a soldier was the ever-present need and duty of cheerfulness. Every member of the squad had his secret, his own personal memory, his inner consciousness that he strove to keep hidden. Long ago Dorn had divined that this or that comrade was looking toward the bright side, or pretending there was one. They all played their parts. Like men they faced this incomprehensible duty, this tremendous separation, this dark and looming future, as if it was only hard work that must be done in good spirit. But Dorn, despite all his will, was mostly silent, aloof, brooding, locked up in his eternal strife of mind and soul. He could not help it. Notwithstanding all he saw and divined of the sacrifice and pain of his comrades, he knew that his ordeal was infinitely harder. It was natural that they hoped for the best. He had no hope.

"Boys," said Owens, "there's a squad of Blue Devils camped over here in an old barn. Just back from the front. Some one said there wasn't a man in it who hadn't had a dozen wounds, and some twice that many. We must see that bunch. Bravest soldiers of the whole war! They've been through the three years-at Verdun-on the Marne-and now this awful Flanders drive. It's up to us to see them."

News like this thrilled Dorn. During all the months he had been in France the deeds and valor of these German-named Blue Devils had come to him, here and there and everywhere. Dorn remembered all he heard, and believed it, too, though some of the charges and some of the burdens attributed to these famed soldiers seemed unbelievable. His opportunity had now come. With the moving up to the front he would meet reality; and all within him, the keen, strange eagerness, the curiosity that perplexed, the unintelligible longing, the heat and burn of passion, quickened and intensified.

Not until late in the afternoon, however, did off duty present an opportunity for him to go into the village. It looked the same as the other villages he had visited, and the inhabitants, old men, old women and children, all had the somber eyes, the strained, hungry faces, the oppressed look he had become accustomed to see. But sad as were these inhabitants of a village near the front, there was never in any one of them any absence of welcome to the Americans. Indeed, in most people he met there was a quick flashing of intense joy and gratitude. The Americans had come across the sea to fight beside the French. That was the import, tremendous and beautiful.

Dorn met Dixon and Rogers on the main street of the little village. They had been to see the Blue Devils.

"Better stay away from them," advised Dixon, dubiously.

"No!… Why?" ejaculated Dorn.

Dixon shook his head. "Greatest bunch I ever looked at. But I think they resented our presence. Pat and I were talking about them. It's strange, Dorn, but I believe these Blue Devils that have saved France and England, and perhaps America, too, don't like our being here."

"Impossible!" replied Dorn.

"Go and see for yourself," put in Rogers. "I believe we all ought to look them over."

Thoughtfully Dorn strode on in the direction indicated, and presently he arrived at the end of the village, where in an old orchard he found a low, rambling, dilapidated barn, before which clusters of soldiers in blue lounged around smoking fires. As he drew closer he saw that most of them seemed fixed in gloomy abstraction. A few were employed at some task of hand, and several bent over the pots on fires. Dorn's sweeping gaze took in the whole scene, and his first quick, strange impression was that these soldiers resembled ghouls who had lived in dark holes of mud.

Kurt meant to make the most of his opportunity. To him, in his peculiar need, this meeting would be of greater significance than all else that had happened to him in France. The nearest soldier sat on a flattened pile of straw around which the ground was muddy. At first glance Kurt took him to be an African, so dark were face and eyes. No one heeded Kurt's approach. The moment was poignant to Kurt. He spoke French fairly well, so that it was emotion rather than lack of fluency which made his utterance somewhat unintelligible. The soldier raised his head. His face seemed a black flash-his eyes piercingly black, staring, deep, full of terrible shadow. They did not appear to see in Kurt the man, but only the trim, clean United States army uniform. Kurt repeated his address, this time more clearly.

The Frenchman replied gruffly, and bent again over the faded worn coat he was scraping with a knife. Then Kurt noticed two things-the man's great, hollow, spare frame and the torn shirt, stained many colors, one of which was dark red. His hands resembled both those of a mason, with the horny callous inside, and those of a salt-water fisherman, with bludgy fingers and barked knuckles that never healed.

Dorn had to choose his words slowly, because of unfamiliarity with French, but he was deliberate, too, because he wanted to say the right thing. His eagerness made the Frenchman glance up again. But while Dorn talked of the long waits, the long marches, the arrival at this place, the satisfaction at nearing the front, his listener gave no sign that he heard. But he did hear, and so did several of his comrades.

"We're coming strong," he went on, his voice thrilling. "A million of us this year! We're untrained. We'll have to split up among English and French troops and learn how from you. But we've come-and we'll fight!"

Then the Frenchman put on his coat. That showed him to be an officer. He wore medals. The dark glance he then flashed over Dorn was different from his first. It gave Dorn both a twinge of shame and a thrill of pride. It took in Dorn's characteristic Teutonic blond features, and likewise an officer's swift appreciation of an extraordinarily splendid physique.

"You've German blood," he said.

"Yes. But I'm American," replied Dorn, simply, and he met that soul-searching black gaze with all his intense and fearless spirit. Dorn felt that never in his life had he been subjected to such a test of his manhood, of his truth.

"My name's Huon," said the officer, and he extended one of the huge deformed hands.

"Mine's Dorn," replied Kurt, meeting that hand with his own.

Whereupon the Frenchman spoke rapidly to the comrade nearest him, so rapidly that all Kurt could make of what he said was that here was an American soldier with a new idea.

They drew closer, and it became manifest that the interesting idea was Kurt's news about the American army. It was news here, and carefully pondered by these Frenchmen, as slowly one by one they questioned him. They doubted, but Dorn convinced them. They seemed to like his talk and his looks. Dorn's quick faculties grasped the simplicity of these soldiers. After three terrible years of unprecedented warfare, during which they had performed the impossible, they did not want a fresh army to come along and steal their glory by administering a final blow to a tottering enemy. Gazing into those strange, seared faces, beginning to see behind the iron mask, Dorn learned the one thing a soldier lives, fights, and dies for-glory.

Kurt Dorn was soon made welcome. He was made to exhaust his knowledge of French. He was studied by eyes that had gleamed in the face of death. His hand was wrung by hands that had dealt death. How terribly he felt that! And presently, when his excitement and emotion had subsided to the extent that he could really see what he looked at, then came the reward of reality, with all its incalculable meaning expressed to him in the gleaming bayonets, in the worn accoutrements, in the greatcoats like clapboards of mud, in the hands that were claws, in the feet that hobbled, in the strange, wonderful significance of bodily presence, standing there as proof of valor, of man's limitless endurance. In the faces, ah! there Dorn read the history that made him shudder and lifted him beyond himself. For there in those still, dark faces, of boys grown old in three years, shone the terror of war and the spirit that had resisted it.

Dorn, in his intensity, in the over-emotion of his self-centered passion, so terribly driven to prove to himself something vague yet all-powerful, illusive yet imperious, divined what these Blue Devil soldiers had been through. His mind was more than telepathic. Almost it seemed that souls were bared to him. These soldiers, quiet, intent, made up a grim group of men. They seemed slow, thoughtful, plodding, wrapped and steeped in calm. But Dorn penetrated all this, and established the relation between it and the nameless and dreadful significance of their weapons and medals and uniforms and stripes, and the magnificent vitality that was now all but spent.

Dorn might have resembled a curious, adventure-loving boy, to judge from his handling of rifles and the way he slipped a strong hand along the gleaming bayonet-blades. But he was more than the curious youth: he had begun to grasp a strange, intangible something for which he had no name. Something that must be attainable for him! Something that, for an hour or a moment, would make him a fighter not to be slighted by these supermen!

Whatever his youth or his impelling spirit of manhood, the fact was that he inspired many of these veterans of the bloody years to Homeric narratives of the siege of Verdun, of the retreat toward Paris, of the victory of the Marne, and lastly of the Kaiser's battle, this last and most awful offensive of the resourceful and frightful foe.

Brunelle told how he was the last survivor of a squad at Verdun who had been ordered to hold a breach made in a front stone wall along the out posts. How they had faced a bombardment of heavy guns-a whistling, shrieking, thundering roar, pierced by the higher explosion of a bursting shell-smoke and sulphur and gas-the crumbling of walls and downward fling of shrapnel. How the lives of soldiers were as lives of gnats hurled by wind and burned by flame. Death had a manifold and horrible diversity. A soldier's head, with ghastly face and conscious eyes, momentarily poised in the air while the body rode away invisibly with an exploding shell! He told of men blown up, shot through and riddled and brained and disemboweled, while their comrades, grim and unalterable, standing in a stream of blood, lived through the rain of shells, the smashing of walls, lived to fight like madmen the detachment following the bombardment, and to kill them every one.

Mathie told of the great retreat-how men who had fought for days, who were unbeaten and unafraid, had obeyed an order they hated and could not understand, and had marched day and night, day and night, eating as they toiled on, sleeping while they marched, on and on, bloody-footed, desperate, and terrible, filled with burning thirst and the agony of ceaseless motion, on with dragging legs and laboring breasts and red-hazed eyes, on and onward, unquenchable, with the spirit of France.

Sergeant Delorme spoke of the sudden fierce about-face at the Marne, of the irresistible onslaught of men whose homes had been invaded, whose children had been murdered, whose women had been enslaved, of a ruthless fighting, swift and deadly, and lastly of a bayonet charge by his own division, running down upon superior numbers, engaging them in hand-to-hand conflict, malignant and fatal, routing them over a field of blood and death.

"Monsieur Dorn, do you know the French use of a bayonet?" asked Delorme.

"No," replied Dorn.

"Allons! I will show you," he said, taking up two rifles and handing one to Dorn. "Come. It is so-and so-a trick. The boches can't face cold steel.… Ah, monsieur, you have the supple wrists of a juggler! You have the arms of a giant! You have the eyes of a duelist! You will be one grand spitter of German pigs!"

Dorn felt the blanching of his face, the tingling of his nerves, the tightening of his muscles. A cold and terrible meaning laid hold of him even in the instant when he trembled before this flaming-eyed French veteran who complimented him while he instructed. How easily, Dorn thought, could this soldier slip the bright bayonet over his guard and pierce him from breast to back! How horrible the proximity of that sinister blade, with its glint, its turn, its edge, so potently expressive of its history! Even as Dorn crossed bayonets with this inspired Frenchman he heard a soldier comrade say that Delorme had let daylight through fourteen boches in that memorable victory of the Marne.

"You are very big and strong and quick, monsieur," said the officer Huon, simply. "In bayonet-work you will be a killer of boches."

In their talk and practice and help, in their intent to encourage the young American soldier, these Blue Devils one and all dealt in frank and inevitable terms of death. That was their meaning in life. It was immeasurably horrible for Dorn, because it seemed a realization of his imagined visions. He felt like a child among old savages of a war tribe. Yet he was fascinated by this close-up suggestion of man to man in battle, of German to American, of materialist to idealist, and beyond all control was the bursting surge of his blood. The exercises he had gone through, the trick he had acquired, somehow had strange power to liberate his emotion.

The officer Huon spoke English, and upon his words Dorn hung spellbound.

"You Americans have the fine dash, the nerve. You will perform wonders. But you don't realize what this war is. You will perish of sheer curiosity to see or eagerness to fight. But these are the least of the horrors of this war.

"Actual fighting is to me a relief, a forgetfulness, an excitement, and is so with many of my comrades. We have survived wounds, starvation, shell-shock, poison gas and fire, the diseases of war, the awful toil of the trenches. And each and every one of us who has served long bears in his mind the particular horror that haunts him. I have known veterans to go mad at the screaming of shells. I have seen good soldiers stand upon a trench, inviting the fire that would end suspense. For a man who hopes to escape alive this war is indeed the ninth circle of hell.

"My own particular horrors are mud, water, and cold. I have lived in dark, cold mud-holes so long that my mind concerning them is not right. I know it the moment I come out to rest. Rest! Do you know that we cannot rest? The comfort of this dirty old barn, of these fires, of this bare ground is so great that we cannot rest, we cannot sleep, we cannot do anything. When I think of the past winter I do not remember injury and agony for myself, or the maimed and mangled bodies of my comrades. I remember only the horrible cold, the endless ages of waiting, the hopeless misery of the dugouts, foul, black rat-holes that we had to crawl into through sticky mud and filthy water. Mud, water, and cold, with the stench of the dead clogging your nostrils! That to me is war!… Les Misérables! You Americans will never know that, thank God. For it could not be endured by men who did not belong to this soil. After all, the filthy water is half blood and the mud is part of the dead of our people."

Huon talked on and on, with the eloquence of a Frenchman who relieves himself of a burden. He told of trenches dug in a swamp, lived in and fought in, and then used for the graves of the dead, trenches that had to be lived in again months afterward. The rotting dead were everywhere. When they were covered the rain would come to wash away the earth, exposing them again. That was the strange refrain of this soldier's moody lament-the rain that fell, the mud that forever held him rooted fast in the tracks of his despair. He told of night and storm, of a weary squad of men, lying flat, trying to dig in under cover of rain and darkness, of the hell of cannonade over and around them. He told of hours that blasted men's souls, of death that was a blessing, of escape that was torture beyond the endurance of humans. Crowning that night of horrors piled on horrors, when he had seen a dozen men buried alive in mud lifted by a monster shell, when he had seen a refuge deep underground opened and devastated by a like projectile, came a cloud-burst that flooded the trenches and the fields, drowning soldiers whose injuries and mud-laden garments impeded their movements, and rendering escape for the others an infernal labor and a hideous wretchedness, unutterable and insupportable.

Round the camp-fires the Blue Devils stood or lay, trying to rest. But the habit of the trenches was upon them. Dorn gazed at each and every soldier, so like in strange resemblance, so different in physical characteristics; and the sad, profound, and terrifying knowledge came to him of what they must have in their minds. He realized that all he needed was to suffer and fight and live through some little part of the war they had endured and then some truth would burst upon him. It was there in the restless steps, in the prone forms, in the sunken, glaring eyes. What soldiers, what men, what giants! Three and a half years of unnamable and indescribable fury of action and strife of thought! Not dead, nor stolid like oxen, were these soldiers of France. They had a simplicity that seemed appalling. We have given all; we have stood in the way, borne the brunt, saved you-this was flung at Dorn, not out of their thought, but from their presence. The fact that they were there was enough. He needed only to find these bravest of brave warriors real, alive, throbbing men.

Dorn lingered there, loath to leave. The great lesson of his life held vague connection in some way with this squad of French privates. But he could not pierce the veil. This meeting came as a climax to four months of momentous meetings with the best and the riffraff of many nations. Dorn had studied, talked, listened, and learned. He who had as yet given nothing, fought no enemy, saved no comrade or refugee or child in all this whirlpool of battling millions, felt a profound sense of his littleness, his ignorance. He who had imagined himself unfortunate had been blind, sick, self-centered. Here were soldiers to whom comfort and rest were the sweetest blessings upon the earth, and they could not grasp them. No more could they grasp them than could the gaping civilians and the distinguished travelers grasp what these grand hulks of veteran soldiers had done. Once a group of civilians halted near the soldiers. An officer was their escort. He tried to hurry them on, but failed. Delorme edged away into the gloomy, damp barn rather than meet such visitors. Some of his comrades followed suit. Ferier, the incomparable of the Blue Devils, the wearer of all the French medals and the bearer of twenty-five wounds received in battle-he sneaked away, afraid and humble and sullen, to hide himself from the curious. That action of Ferier's was a revelation to Dorn. He felt a sting of shame. There were two classes of people in relation to this war-those who went to fight and those who stayed behind. What had Delorme or Mathie or Ferier to do with the world of selfish, comfortable, well-fed men? Dorn heard a million voices of France crying out the bitter truth-that if these war-bowed veterans ever returned alive to their homes it would be with hopes and hearts and faiths burned out, with hands forever lost to their old use, with bodies that the war had robbed.

Dorn bade his new-made friends adieu, and in the darkening twilight he hurried toward his own camp.

"If I could go back home now, honorably and well, I would never do it," he muttered. "I couldn't bear to live knowing what I know now-unless I had laughed at this death, and risked it-and dealt it!"

He was full of gladness, of exultation, in contemplation of the wonderful gift the hours had brought him. More than any men of history or present, he honored these soldiers the Germans feared. Like an Indian, Dorn respected brawn, courage, fortitude, silence, aloofness.

"There was a divinity in those soldiers," he soliloquized. "I felt it in their complete ignorance of their greatness. Yet they had pride, jealousy. Oh, the mystery of it all!… When my day comes I'll last one short and terrible hour. I would never make a soldier like one of them. No American could. They are Frenchmen whose homes have been despoiled."

In the tent of his comrades that night Dorn reverted from old habit, and with a passionate eloquence he told all he had seen and heard, and much that he had felt. His influence on these young men, long established, but subtle and unconscious, became in that hour a tangible fact. He stirred them. He felt them thoughtful and sad, and yet more unflinching, stronger and keener for the inevitable day.

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