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   Chapter 27 No.27

The Desert of Wheat By Zane Grey Characters: 19911

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The monstrous possibility that had consumed Kurt Dorn for many months at last became an event-he had arrived on the battle-front in France.

All afternoon the company of United States troops had marched from far back of the line, resting, as darkness came on, at a camp of reserves, and then going on. Artillery fire had been desultory during this march; the big guns that had rolled their thunder miles and miles were now silent. But an immense activity and a horde of soldiers back of the lines brought strange leaden oppression to Kurt Dorn's heart.

The last slow travel of his squad over dark, barren space and through deep, narrow, winding lanes in the ground had been a nightmare ending to the long journey. France had not yet become clear to him; he was a stranger in a strange land; in spite of his tremendous interest and excitement, all seemed abstract matters of his feeling, the plague of himself made actuality the substance of dreams. That last day, the cumulation of months of training and travel, had been one in which he had observed, heard, talked and felt in a nervous and fevered excitement. But now he imagined he could not remember any of it. His poignant experience with the Blue Devils had been a reality he could never forget, but now this blackness of subterranean cavern, this damp, sickening odor of earth, this presence of men, the strange, muffled sounds-all these were unreal. How had he come here? His mind labored with a burden strangely like that on his chest. A different, utterly unfamiliar emotion seemed rising over him. Maybe that was because he was very tired and very sleepy. Sometime that night he must go on duty. He ought to sleep. It was impossible. He could not close his eyes. An effort to attend to what he was actually doing disclosed the fact that he was listening with all his strength. For what? He could not answer then. He heard the distant, muffled sounds, and low voices nearer, and thuds and footfalls. His comrades were near him; he heard their breathing; he felt their presence. They were strained and intense; like him, they were locked up in their own prison of emotions.

Always heretofore, on nights that he lay sleepless, Dorn had thought of the two things dearest on earth to him-Lenore Anderson and the golden wheat-hills of his home. This night he called up Lenore's image. It hung there in the blackness, a dim, pale phantom of her sweet face, her beautiful eyes, her sad lips, and then it vanished. Not at all could he call up a vision of his beloved wheat-fields. So the suspicion that something was wrong with his mind became a certainty. It angered him, quickened his sensitiveness, even while he despaired. He ground his teeth and clenched his fists and swore to realize his presence there, and to rise to the occasion as had been his vaunted ambition.

Suddenly he felt something slimy and hairy against his wrist-then a stinging bite. A rat! A trench rat that lived on flesh! He flung his arm violently and beat upon the soft earth. The incident of surprise and disgust helped Dorn at least in one way. His mind had been set upon a strange and supreme condition of his being there, of an emotion about to overcome him. The bite of a rat, drawing blood, made a literal fact of his being a soldier, in a dugout at the front waiting in the blackness for his call to go on guard. This incident proved to Dorn his limitations, and that he was too terribly concerned with his feelings ever to last long as a soldier. But he could not help himself. His pulse, his heart, his brain, all seemed to beat, beat, beat with a nameless passion.

Was he losing his nerve-was he afraid? His denial did not reassure him. He understood that patriotism and passion were emotions, and that the realities of a soldier's life were not.

Dorn forced himself to think of realities, hoping thus to get a grasp upon his vanishing courage. And memory helped him. Not so many days, weeks, months back he had been a different man. At Bordeaux, when his squad first set foot upon French soil! That was a splendid reality. How he had thrilled at the welcome of the French sailors!

Then he thought of the strenuous round of army duties, of training tasks, of traveling in cold box-cars, of endless marches, of camps and villages, of drills and billets. Never to be forgotten was that morning, now seemingly long ago, when an officer had ordered the battalion to pack. "We are going to the front!" he announced. Magic words! What excitement, what whooping, what bragging and joy among the boys, what hurry and bustle and remarkable efficiency! That had been a reality of actual experience, but the meaning of it, the terrible significance, had been beyond the mind of any American.

"I'm here-at the front-now," whispered Dorn to himself. "A few rods away are Germans!" … Inconceivable-no reality at all! He went on with his swift account of things, with his mind ever sharpening, with that strange, mounting emotion flooding to the full, ready to burst its barriers. When he and his comrades had watched their transport trains move away-when they had stood waiting for their own trains-had the idea of actual conflict yet dawned upon them? Dorn had to answer No. He remembered that he had made few friends among the inhabitants of towns and villages where he had stayed. What leisure time he got had been given to a seeking out of sailors, soldiers, and men of all races, with whom he found himself in remarkable contact. The ends of the world brought together by one war! How could his memory ever hold all that had come to him? But it did. Passion liberated it. He saw now that his eye was a lens, his mind a sponge, his heart a gulf.

Out of the hundreds of thousands of American troops in France, what honor it was to be in the chosen battalion to go to the front! Dorn lived only with his squad, but he felt the envy of the whole army. What luck! To be chosen from so many-to go out and see the game through quickly! He began to consider that differently now. The luck might be with the soldiers left behind. Always, underneath Dorn's perplexity and pondering, under his intelligence and spirit at their best, had been a something deeply personal, something of the internal of him, a selfish instinct. It was the nature of man-self-preservation.

Like a tempest swept over Dorn the most significant ordeal and lesson of his experience in France-that wonderful reality when he met the Blue Devils and they took him in. However long he lived, his life must necessarily be transformed from contact with those great men.

The night march over the unending roads, through the gloom and the spectral starlight, with the dull rumblings of cannon shocking his heart-that Dorn lived over, finding strangely a minutest detail of observation and a singular veracity of feeling fixed in his memory.

Afternoon of that very day, at the reserve camp somewhere back there, had brought an officer's address to the soldiers, a strong and emphatic appeal as well as order-to obey, to do one's duty, to take no chances, to be eternally vigilant, to believe that every man had advantage on his side, even in war, if he were not a fool or a daredevil. Dorn had absorbed the speech, remembered every word, but it all seemed futile now. Then had come the impressive inspection of equipment, a careful examination of gas-masks, rifles, knapsacks. After that the order to march!

Dorn imagined that he had remembered little, but he had remembered all. Perhaps the sense of strange unreality was only the twist in his mind. Yet he did not know where he was-what part of France-how far north or south on the front line-in what sector. Could not that account for the sense of feeling lost?

Nevertheless, he was there at the end of all this incomprehensible journey. He became possessed by an irresistible desire to hurry. Once more Dorn attempted to control the far-flinging of his thoughts-to come down to earth. The earth was there under his hand, soft, sticky, moldy, smelling vilely. He dug his fingers into it, until the feel of something like a bone made him jerk them out. Perhaps he had felt a stone. A tiny, creeping, chilly shudder went up his back. Then he remembered, he felt, he saw his little attic room, in the old home back among the wheat-hills of the Northwest. Six thousand miles away! He would never see that room again. What unaccountable vagary of memory had ever recalled it to him? It faded out of his mind.

Some of his comrades whispered; now and then one rolled over; none snored, for none of them slept. Dorn felt more aloof from them than ever. How isolated each one was, locked in his own trouble! Every one of them, like himself, had a lonely soul. Perhaps they were facing it. He could not conceive of a careless, thoughtless, emotionless attitude toward this first night in the front-line trench.

Dorn gradually grew more acutely sensitive to the many faint, rustling, whispering sounds in and near the dugout.

A soldier came stooping into the opaque square of the dugout door. His rifle, striking the framework, gave out a metallic clink. This fellow expelled a sudden heavy breath as if throwing off an oppression.

"Is that you, Sanborn?" This whisper Dorn recognized as Dixon's. It was full of suppressed excitement.

"Yes."

"Guess it's my turn next. How-how does it go?"

Sanborn's laugh had an odd little quaver. "Why, so far as I know, I guess it's all right. Damn queer, though. I wish we'd got here in daytime.… But maybe that wouldn't help."

"Humph!… Pretty quiet out there?"

"So Bob says, but what's he know-more than us? I heard guns up the line, and rifle-fire not so far off."

"Can you see any-"

"Not a damn thing-yet everything," interrupted Sanborn, enigmatically.

"Dixon!" called Owens, low and quickly, from the darkness.

Dixon did not reply. His sudden hard breathing, the brushing of his garments against the door, th

en swift, soft steps dying away attested to the fact of his going.

Dorn tried to compose himself to rest, if not to sleep. He heard Sanborn sit down, and then apparently stay very still for some time. All of a sudden he whispered to himself. Dorn distinguished the word "hell."

"What's ailin' you, pard?" drawled Brewer.

Sanborn growled under his breath, and when some one else in the dugout quizzed him curiously he burst out: "I'll bet you galoots the state of California against a dill pickle that when your turn comes you'll be sick in your gizzards!"

"We'll take our medicine," came in the soft, quiet voice of Purcell.

No more was said. The men all pretended to fall asleep, each ashamed to let his comrade think he was concerned.

A short, dull, heavy rumble seemed to burst the outer stillness. For a moment the dugout was silent as a tomb. No one breathed. Then came a jar of the earth, a creaking of shaken timbers. Some one gasped involuntarily. Another whispered:

"By God! the real thing!"

Dorn wondered how far away that jarring shell had alighted. Not so far! It was the first he had ever heard explode near him. Roaring of cannon, exploding of shell-this had been a source of every-day talk among his comrades. But the jar, the tremble of the earth, had a dreadful significance. Another rumble, another jar, not so heavy or so near this time, and then a few sharply connected reports, clamped Dorn as in a cold vise. Machine-gun shots! Many thousand machine-gun shots had he heard, but none with the life and the spite and the spang of these. Did he imagine the difference? Cold as he felt, he began to sweat, and continually, as he wiped the palms of his hands, they grew wet again. A queer sensation of light-headedness and weakness seemed to possess him. The roots of his will-power seemed numb. Nevertheless, all the more revolving and all-embracing seemed his mind.

The officer in his speech a few hours back had said the sector to which the battalion had been assigned was alive. By this he meant that active bombardment, machine-gun fire, hand-grenade throwing, and gas-shelling, or attack in force might come any time, and certainly must come as soon as the Germans suspected the presence of an American force opposite them.

That was the stunning reality to Dorn-the actual existence of the Huns a few rods distant. But realization of them had not brought him to the verge of panic. He would not flinch at confronting the whole German army. Nor did he imagine he put a great price upon his life. Nor did he have any abnormal dread of pain. Nor had the well-remembered teachings of the Bible troubled his spirit. Was he going to be a coward because of some incalculable thing in him or force operating against him? Already he sat there, shivering and sweating, with the load on his breast growing laborsome, with all his sensorial being absolutely at keenest edge.

Rapid footfalls halted his heart-beats. They came from above, outside the dugout, from the trench.

"Dorn, come out!" called the corporal.

Dorn's response was instant. But he was as blind as if he had no eyes, and he had to feel his way to climb out. The indistinct, blurred form of the corporal seemed half merged in the pale gloom of the trench. A cool wind whipped at Dorn's hot face. Surcharged with emotion, the nature of which he feared, Dorn followed the corporal, stumbling and sliding over the wet boards, knocking bits of earth from the walls, feeling a sick icy gripe in his bowels. Some strange light flared up-died away. Another rumble, distinct, heavy, and vibrating! To his left somewhere the earth received a shock. Dorn felt a wave of air that was not wind.

The corporal led the way past motionless men peering out over the top of the wall, and on to a widening, where an abutment of filled bags loomed up darkly. Here the corporal cautiously climbed up breaks in the wall and stooped behind the fortification. Dorn followed. His legs did not feel natural. Something was lost out of them. Then he saw the little figure of Rogers beside him. Dorn's turn meant Rogers's relief. How pale against the night appeared the face of Rogers! As he peered under his helmet at Dorn a low whining passed in the air overhead. Rogers started slightly. A thump sounded out there, interrupting the corporal, who had begun to speak. He repeated his order to Dorn, bending a little to peer into his face. Dorn tried to open his lips to say he did not understand, but his lips were mute. Then the corporal led Rogers away.

That moment alone, out in the open, with the strange, windy pall of night-all-enveloping, with the flares, like sheet-lightning, along the horizon, with a rumble here and a roar there, with whistling fiends riding the blackness above, with a series of popping, impelling reports seemingly close in front-that drove home to Kurt Dorn a cruel and present and unescapable reality.

At that instant, like bitter fate, shot up a rocket, or a star-flare of calcium light, bursting to expose all underneath in pitiless radiance. With a gasp that was a sob, Dorn shrank flat against the wall, staring into the fading circle, feeling a creep of paralysis. He must be seen. He expected the sharp, biting series of a machine-gun or the bursting of a bomb. But nothing happened, except that the flare died away. It had come from behind his own lines. Control of his muscles had almost returned when a heavy boom came from the German side. Miles away, perhaps, but close! That boom meant a great shell speeding on its hideous mission. It would pass over him. He listened. The wind came from that side. It was cold; it smelled of burned powder; it carried sounds he was beginning to appreciate-shots, rumbles, spats, and thuds, whistles of varying degree, all isolated sounds. Then he caught a strange, low moaning. It rose. It was coming fast. It became an o-o-o-O-O-O! Nearer and nearer! It took on a singing whistle. It was passing-no-falling!… A mighty blow was delivered to the earth-a jar-a splitting shock to windy darkness; a wave of heavy air was flung afar-and then came the soft, heavy thumping of falling earth.

That shell had exploded close to the place where Dorn stood. It terrified him. It reduced him to a palpitating, stricken wretch, utterly unable to cope with the terror. It was not what he had expected. What were words, anyhow? By words alone he had understood this shell thing. Death was only a word, too. But to be blown to atoms! It came every moment to some poor devil; it might come to him. But that was not fighting. Somewhere off in the blackness a huge iron monster belched this hell out upon defenseless men. Revolting and inconceivable truth!

It was Dorn's ordeal that his mentality robbed this hour of novelty and of adventure, that while his natural, physical fear incited panic and nausea and a horrible, convulsive internal retching, his highly organized, exquisitely sensitive mind, more like a woman's in its capacity for emotion, must suffer through imagining the infinite agonies that he might really escape. Every shell then must blow him to bits; every agony of every soldier must be his.

But he knew what his duty was, and as soon as he could move he began to edge along the short beat. Once at the end he drew a deep and shuddering breath, and, fighting all his involuntary instincts, he peered over the top. An invisible thing whipped close over his head. It did not whistle; it cut. Out in front of him was only thick, pale gloom, with spectral forms, leading away to the horizon, where flares, like sheet-lightning of a summer night's storm, ran along showing smoke and bold, ragged outlines. Then he went to the other end to peer over there. His eyes were keen, and through long years of habit at home, going about at night without light, he could see distinctly where ordinary sight would meet only a blank wall. The flat ground immediately before him was bare of living or moving objects. That was his duty as sentinel here-to make sure of no surprise patrol from the enemy lines. It helped Dorn to realize that he could accomplish this duty even though he was in a torment.

That space before him was empty, but it was charged with current. Wind, shadow, gloom, smoke, electricity, death, spirit-whatever that current was, Dorn felt it. He was more afraid of that than the occasional bullets which zipped across. Sometimes shots from his own squad rang out up and down the line. Off somewhat to the north a machine-gun on the Allies' side spoke now and then spitefully. Way back a big gun boomed. Dorn listened to the whine of shells from his own side with a far different sense than that with which he heard shells whine from the enemy. How natural and yet how unreasonable! Shells from the other side came over to destroy him; shells from his side went back to save him. But both were shot to kill! Was he, the unknown and shrinking novice of a soldier, any better than an unknown and shrinking soldier far across there in the darkness? What was equality? But these were Germans! That thing so often said-so beaten into his brain-did not convince out here in the face of death.

* * *

Four o'clock! With the gray light came a gradually increasing number of shells. Most of them struck far back. A few, to right and left, dropped near the front line. The dawn broke-such a dawn as he never dreamed of-smoky and raw, with thunder spreading to a circle all around the horizon.

He was relieved. On his way in he passed Purcell at the nearest post. The elegant New-Yorker bore himself with outward calm. But in the gray dawn he looked haggard and drawn. Older! That flashed through Dorn's mind. A single night had contained years, more than years. Others of the squad had subtly changed. Dixon gave him a penetrating look, as if he wore a mask, under which was a face of betrayal, of contrast to that soldier bearing, of youth that was gone forever.

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