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   Chapter 28 No.28

The Desert of Wheat By Zane Grey Characters: 21370

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The squad of men to which Dorn belonged had to be on the lookout continually for an attack that was inevitable. The Germans were feeling out the line, probably to verify spy news of the United States troops taking over a sector. They had not, however, made sure of this fact.

The gas-shells came over regularly, making life for the men a kind of suffocation most of the time. And the great shells that blew enormous holes in front and in back of their position never allowed a relaxation from strain. Drawn and haggard grew the faces that had been so clean-cut and brown and fresh.

* * *

One evening at mess, when the sector appeared quiet enough to permit of rest, Rogers was talking to some comrades before the door of the dugout.

"It sure got my goat, that little promenade of ours last night over into No Man's Land," he said. "We had orders to slip out and halt a German patrol that was supposed to be stealing over to our line. We crawled on our bellies, looking and listening every minute. If that isn't the limit! My heart was in my mouth. I couldn't breathe. And for the first moments, if I'd run into a Hun, I'd had no more strength than a rabbit. But all seemed clear. It was not a bright night-sort of opaque and gloomy-shadows everywhere. There wasn't any patrol coming. But Corporal Owens thought he heard men farther on working with wire. We crawled some more. And we must have got pretty close to the enemy lines-in fact, we had-when up shot one of those damned calcium flares. We all burrowed into the ground. I was paralyzed. It got as light as noon-strange greenish-white flare. It magnified. Flat as I lay, I saw the German embankments not fifty yards away. I made sure we were goners. Slowly the light burned out. Then that machine-gun you all heard began to rattle. Something queer about the way every shot of a machine-gun bites the air. We heard the bullets, low down, right over us. Say, boys, I'd almost rather be hit and have it done with!… We began to crawl back. I wanted to run. We all wanted to. But Owens is a nervy guy and he kept whispering. Another machine-gun cut loose, and bullets rained over us. Like hail they hit somewhere ahead, scattering the gravel. We'd almost reached our line when Smith jumped up and ran. He said afterward that he just couldn't help himself. The suspense was awful. I know. I've been a clerk in a bank! Get that? And there I was under a hail of Hun lead, without being able to understand why, or feel that any time had passed since giving up my job to go to war. Queer how I saw my old desk!… Well, that's how Smith got his. I heard the bullets spat him, sort of thick and soft.… Ugh!… Owens and I dragged him along, and finally into the trench. He had a bullet through his shoulder and leg. Guess he'll live, all right.… Boys, take this from me. Nobody can tell you what a machine-gun is like. A rifle, now, is not so much. You get shot at, and you know the man must reload and aim. That takes time. But a machine-gun! Whew! It's a comb-a fine-toothed comb-and you're the louse it's after! You hear that steady rattle, and then you hear bullets everywhere. Think of a man against a machine-gun! It's not a square deal."

Dixon was one of the listeners. He laughed.

"Rogers, I'd like to have been with you. Next time I'll volunteer. You had action-a run for your money. That's what I enlisted for. Standing still-doing nothing but wait-that drives me half mad. My years of football have made action necessary. Otherwise I go stale in mind and body.… Last night, before you went on that scouting trip, I had been on duty two hours. Near midnight. The shelling had died down. All became quiet. No flares-no flashes anywhere. There was a luminous kind of glow in the sky-moonlight through thin clouds. I had to listen and watch. But I couldn't keep back my thoughts. There I was, a soldier, facing No Man's Land, across whose dark space were the Huns we have come to regard as devils in brutality, yet less than men.… And I thought of home. No man knows what home really is until he stands that lonely midnight guard. A shipwrecked sailor appreciates the comforts he once had; a desert wanderer, lost and starving, remembers the food he once wasted; a volunteer soldier, facing death in the darkness, thinks of his home! It is a hell of a feeling!… And, thinking of home, I remembered my girl. I've been gone four months-have been at the front seven days (or is it seven years?) and last night in the darkness she came to me. Oh yes! she was there! She seemed reproachful, as she was when she coaxed me not to enlist. My girl was not one of the kind who sends her lover to war and swears she will die an old maid unless he returns. Mine begged me to stay home, or at least wait for the draft. But I wasn't built that way. I enlisted. And last night I felt the bitterness of a soldier's fate. All this beautiful stuff is bunk!… My girl is a peach. She had many admirers, two in particular that made me run my best down the stretch. One is club-footed. He couldn't fight. The other is all yellow. Him she liked best. He had her fooled, the damned slacker.… I wish I could believe I'd get safe back home, with a few Huns to my credit-the Croix de Guerre-and an officer's uniform. That would be great. How I could show up those fellows!… But I'll get killed-as sure as God made little apples I'll get killed-and she will marry one of the men who would not fight!"

It was about the middle of a clear morning, still cold, but the sun was shining. Guns were speaking intermittently. Those soldiers who were off duty had their gas-masks in their hands. All were gazing intently upward.

Dorn sat a little apart from them. He, too, looked skyward, and he was so absorbed that he did not hear the occasional rumble of a distant gun. He was watching the airmen at work-the most wonderful and famous feature of the war. It absolutely enthralled Dorn. As a boy he had loved to watch the soaring of the golden eagles, and once he had seen a great wide-winged condor, swooping along a mountain-crest. How he had envied them the freedom of the heights-the loneliness of the unscalable crags-the companionship of the clouds! Here he gazed and marveled at the man-eagles of the air.

German planes had ventured over the lines, flying high, and English planes had swept up to intercept them. One was rising then not far away, climbing fast, like a fish-hawk with prey in its claws. Its color, its framework, its propeller, and its aviator showed distinctly against the sky. The buzzing, high-pitched drone of its motor floated down.

The other aeroplanes, far above, had lost their semblance to mechanical man-driven machines. They were now the eagles of the air. They were rising, circling, diving in maneuvers that Dorn knew meant pursuit. But he could not understand these movements. To him the air-battle looked as it must have looked to an Indian. Birds of prey in combat! Dorn recalled verses he had learned as a boy, written by a poet who sang of future wars in the air. What he prophesied had come true. Was there not a sage now who could pierce the veil of the future and sing of such a thing as sacred human life? Dorn had his doubts. Poets and dreamers appeared not to be the men who could halt materialism. Strangely then, as Dorn gazed bitterly up at these fierce fliers who fought in the heavens, he remembered the story of the three wise men and of Bethlehem. Was it only a story? Where on this sunny spring morning was Christ, and the love of man for man?

At that moment one of the forward aeroplanes, which was drifting back over the enemy lines, lost its singular grace of slow, sweeping movement. It poised in the air. It changed shape. It pitched as if from wave to wave of wind. A faint puff of smoke showed. Tiny specks, visible to Dorn's powerful eyes, seemed to detach themselves and fall, to be followed by the plane itself in sheer downward descent.

Dorn leaped to his feet. What a thrilling and terrible sight! His comrades stood bareheaded, red faces uplifted, open-mouthed and wild with excitement, not daring to disobey orders and yell at the top of their lungs. Dorn felt, strong above the softened wonder and thought of a moment back, a tingling, pulsating wave of gushing blood go over him. Like his comrades, he began to wave his arms and stamp and bite his tongue.

Swiftly the doomed plane swept down out of sight. Gone! At that instant something which had seemed like a bird must have become a broken mass. The other planes drifted eastward.

Dorn gasped, and broke the spell on him. He was hot and wet with sweat, quivering with a frenzy. How many thousand soldiers of the Allies had seen that downward flight of the boche? Dorn pitied the destroyed airman, hated himself, and had all the fury of savage joy that had been in his comrades.

* * *

Dorn, relieved from guard and firing-post, rushed back to the dugout. He needed the dark of that dungeon. He crawled in and, searching out the remotest, blackest corner, hidden from all human eyes, and especially his own, he lay there clammy and wet all over, with an icy, sickening rend, like a wound, in the pit of his stomach. He shut his eyes, but that did not shut out what he saw. "So help me God!" he whispered to himself.… Six endless months had gone to the preparation of a deed that had taken one second! That transformed him! His life on earth, his spirit in the beyond, could never be now what they might have been. And he sobbed through grinding teeth as he felt the disintegrating, agonizing, irremediable forces at work on body, mind, and soul.

He had blown out the brains of his first German.

Fires of hell, in two long lines, bordering a barren, ghastly, hazy strip of land, burst forth from the earth. From holes where men hid poured thunder of guns and stream of smoke and screeching of iron. That worthless strip of land, barring deadly foes, shook as with repeated earthquakes. Huge spouts of black and yellow earth lifted, fountain-like, to the dull, heavy bursts of shells. Pound and jar, whistle and whine, long, broken rumble, and the rattling concatenation of quick shots like metallic cries, exploding hail-storm of iron in the air, a desert over which thousands of puffs of smoke shot up and swelled and drifted, the sliding crash far away, the sibilant hiss swift overhead. Boom! Weeeee-eeeeooooo! from the east. Boom! Weeeee-eeeeooooo! from the west.

At sunset there was no let-up. The night was all the more hideous. Along the horizon flashed up the hot sheets of lightning that were not of a summer storm. Angry, lurid, red, these upflung blazes and flames illumined the murky

sky, showing in the fitful and flickering intervals wagons driving toward the front, and patrols of soldiers running toward some point, and great upheavals of earth spread high.

This heavy cannonading died away in the middle of the night until an hour before dawn, when it began again with redoubled fury and lasted until daybreak.

Dawn came reluctantly, Dorn thought. He was glad. It meant a charge. Another night of that hellish shrieking and bursting of shells would kill his mind, if not his body. He stood on guard at a fighting-post. Corporal Owens lay at his feet, wounded slightly. He would not retire. As the cannons ceased he went to sleep. Rogers stood close on one side, Dixon on the other. The squad had lived through that awful night. Soldiers were bringing food and drink to them. All appeared grimly gay.

Dorn was not gay. But he knew this was the day he would laugh in the teeth of death. A slumbrous, slow heat burned deep in him, like a covered fire, fierce and hot at heart, awaiting the wind. Watching there, he did not voluntarily move a muscle, yet all his body twitched like that of the trained athlete, strained to leap into the great race of his life.

An officer came hurrying through. The talking hushed. Men on guard, backs to the trench, never moved their eyes from the forbidden land in front. The officer spoke. Look for a charge! Reserves were close behind. He gave his orders and passed on.

Then an Allied gun opened up with a boom. The shell moaned on over. Dorn saw where it burst, sending smoke and earth aloft. That must have been a signal for a bombardment of the enemy all along this sector, for big and little guns began to thunder and crack.

The spectacle before Dorn's hard, keen eyes was one that he thought wonderful. Far across No Man's Land, which sloped somewhat at that point in the plain, he saw movement of troops and guns. His eyes were telescopic. Over there the ground appeared grassy in places, with green ridges rising, and patches of brush and straggling trees standing out clearly. Faint, gray-colored squads of soldiers passed in sight with helmets flashing in the sun; guns were being hauled forward; mounted horsemen dashed here and there, vanishing and reappearing; and all through that wide area of color and action shot up live black spouts of earth crowned in white smoke that hung in the air after the earth fell back. They were beautiful, these shell-bursts. Round balls of white smoke magically appeared in the air, to spread and drift; long, yellow columns or streaks rose here, and there leaped up a fan-shaped, dirty cloud, savage and sinister; sometimes several shells burst close together, dashing the upflung sheets of earth together and blending their smoke; at intervals a huge, creamy-yellow explosion, like a geyser, rose aloft to spread and mushroom, then to detach itself from the heavier body it had upheaved, and float away, white and graceful, on the wind.

Sinister beauty! Dorn soon lost sight of that. There came a gnawing at his vitals. The far scene of action could not hold his gaze. That dark, uneven, hummocky break in the earth, which was a goodly number of rods distant, yet now seemed close, drew a startling attention. Dorn felt his eyes widen and pop. Spots and dots, shiny, illusive, bobbed along that break, behind the mounds, beyond the farther banks. A yell as from one lusty throat ran along the line of which Dorn's squad held the center. Dorn's sight had a piercing intensity. All was hard under his grip-his rifle, the boards and bags against which he leaned. Corporal Owens rose beside him, bareheaded, to call low and fiercely to his men.

The gray dots and shiny spots leaped up magically and appallingly into men. German soldiers! Boches! Huns on a charge! They were many, but wide apart. They charged, running low.

Machine-gun rattle, rifle-fire, and strangled shouts blended along the line. From the charging Huns seemed to come a sound that was neither battle-cry nor yell nor chant, yet all of them together. The gray advancing line thinned at points opposite the machine-guns, but it was coming fast.

Dorn cursed his hard, fumbling hands, which seemed so eager and fierce that they stiffened. They burned, too, from their grip on the hot rifle. Shot after shot he fired, missing. He could not hit a field full of Huns. He dropped shells, fumbled with them at the breech, loaded wildly, aimed at random, pulled convulsively. His brain was on fire. He had no anger, no fear, only a great and futile eagerness. Yell and crack filled his ears. The gray, stolid, unalterable Huns must be driven back. Dorn loaded, crushed his rifle steady, pointed low at a great gray bulk, and fired. That Hun pitched down out of the gray advancing line. The sight almost overcame Dorn. Dizzy, with blurred eyes, he leaned over his gun. His abdomen and breast heaved, and he strangled over his gorge. Almost he fainted. But violence beside him somehow, great heaps of dust and gravel flung over him, hoarse, wild yells in his ears, roused him. The boches were on the line! He leaped up. Through the dust he saw charging gray forms, thick and heavy. They plunged, as if actuated by one will. Bulky blond men, ashen of face, with eyes of blue fire and brutal mouths set grim-Huns!

Up out of the shallow trench sprang comrades on each side of Dorn. No rats to be cornered in a hole! Dorn seemed drawn by powerful hauling chains. He did not need to climb! Four big Germans appeared simultaneously upon the embankment of bags. They were shooting. One swung aloft an arm and closed fist. He yelled like a demon. He was a bomb-thrower. On the instant a bullet hit Dorn, tearing at the side of his head, stinging excruciatingly, knocking him down, flooding his face with blood. The shock, like a weight, held him down, but he was not dazed. A body, khaki-clad, rolled down beside him, convulsively flopped against him. He bounded erect, his ears filled with a hoarse and clicking din, his heart strangely lifting in his breast.

Only one German now stood upon the embankment of bags and he was the threatening bomb-thrower. The others were down-gray forms wrestling with brown. Dixon was lunging at the bomb-thrower, and, reaching him with the bayonet, ran him through the belly. He toppled over with an awful cry and fell hard on the other side of the wall of loaded bags. The bomb exploded. In the streaky burst Dixon seemed to charge in bulk-to be flung aside like a leaf by a gale.

Little Rogers had engaged an enemy who towered over him. They feinted, swung, and cracked their guns together, then locked bayonets. Another German striding from behind stabbed Rogers in the back. He writhed off the bloody bayonet, falling toward Dorn, showing a white face that changed as he fell, with quiver of torture and dying eyes.

That dormant inhibited self of Dorn suddenly was no more. Fast as a flash he was upon the murdering Hun. Bayonet and rifle-barrel lunged through him, and so terrible was the thrust that the German was thrown back as if at a blow from a battering-ram. Dorn whirled the bloody bayonet, and it crashed to the ground the rifle of the other German. Dorn saw not the visage of the foe-only the thick-set body, and this he ripped open in one mighty slash. The German's life spilled out horribly.

Dorn leaped over the bloody mass. Owens lay next, wide-eyed, alive, but stricken. Purcell fought with clubbed rifle, backing away from several foes. Brewer was being beaten down. Gray forms closing in! Dorn saw leveled small guns,, flashes of red, the impact of lead striking him. But he heard no shots. The roar in his ears was the filling of a gulf. Out of that gulf pierced his laugh. Gray forms-guns-bullets-bayonets-death-he laughed at them. His moment had come. Here he would pay. His immense and terrible joy bridged the ages between the past and this moment when he leaped light and swift, like a huge cat, upon them. They fired and they hit, but Dorn sprang on, tigerishly, with his loud and nameless laugh. Bayonets thrust at him were straws. These enemies gave way, appalled. With sweep and lunge he killed one and split a second's skull before the first had fallen. A third he lifted and upset and gored, like a bull, in one single stroke. The fourth and last of that group, screaming his terror and fury, ran in close to get beyond that sweeping blade. He fired as he ran. Dorn tripped him heavily, and he had scarcely struck the ground when that steel transfixed his bulging throat.

Brewer was down, but Purcell had been reinforced. Soldiers in brown came on the run, shooting, yelling, brandishing. They closed in on the Germans, and Dorn ran into that mêlée to make one thrust at each gray form he encountered.

Shriller yells along the line-American yells-the enemy there had given ground! Dorn heard. He saw the gray line waver. He saw reserves running to aid his squad. The Germans would be beaten back. There was whirling blackness in his head through which he seemed to see. The laugh broke hoarse and harsh from his throat. Dust and blood choked him.

Another gray form blocked his leaping way. Dorn saw only low down, the gray arms reaching with bright, unstained blade. His own bloody bayonet clashed against it, locked, and felt the helplessness of the arms that wielded it. An instant of pause-a heaving, breathless instinct of impending exhaustion-a moment when the petrific mace of primitive man stayed at the return of the human-then with bloody foam on his lips Dorn spent his madness.

A supple twist-the French trick-and Dorn's powerful lunge, with all his ponderous weight, drove his bayonet through the enemy's lungs.

"Ka-ma-rod!" came the strange, strangling cry.

A weight sagged down on Dorn's rifle. He did not pull out the bayonet, but as it lowered with the burden of the body his eyes, fixed at one height, suddenly had brought into their range the face of his foe.

A boy-dying on his bayonet! Then came a resurrection of Kurt Dorn's soul. He looked at what must be his last deed as a soldier. His mind halted. He saw only the ghastly face, the eyes in which he expected to see hate, but saw only love of life, suddenly reborn, suddenly surprised at death.

"God save you, German! I'd give my life for yours!"

Too late! Dorn watched the youth's last clutching of empty fingers, the last look of consciousness at his conqueror, the last quiver. The youth died and slid back off the rigid bayonet. War of men!

A heavy thud sounded to the left of Dorn. A bursting flash hid the face of his German victim. A terrific wind, sharp and hard as nails, lifted Dorn into roaring blackness.…

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