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   Chapter 29 No.29

The Desert of Wheat By Zane Grey Characters: 22102

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


"Many Waters" shone white and green under the bright May sunshine. Seen from the height of slope, the winding brooks looked like silver bands across a vast belt of rainy green and purple that bordered the broad river in the bottom-lands. A summer haze filled the air, and hints of gold on the waving wheat slopes presaged an early and bountiful harvest.

It was warm up there on the slope where Lenore Anderson watched and brooded. The breeze brought fragrant smell of fresh-cut alfalfa and the rustling song of the wheat. The stately house gleamed white down on the terraced green knoll; horses and cattle grazed in the pasture; workmen moved like snails in the brown gardens; a motor-car crept along the road far below, with its trail of rising dust.

Two miles of soft green wheat-slope lay between Lenore and her home. She had needed the loneliness and silence and memory of a place she had not visited for many months. Winter had passed. Summer had come with its birds and flowers. The wheat-fields were again waving, beautiful, luxuriant. But life was not as it had been for Lenore Anderson.

Kurt Dorn, private, mortally wounded!-So had read the brief and terrible line in a Spokane newspaper, publishing an Associated Press despatch of Pershing's casualty-list. No more! That had been the only news of Kurt Dorn for a long time. A month had dragged by, of doubt, of hope, of slow despairing.

Up to the time of that fatal announcement Lenore had scarcely noted the fleeting of the days. With all her spirit and energy she had thrown herself into the organizing of the women of the valley to work for the interests of the war. She had made herself a leader who spared no effort, no sacrifice, no expense in what she considered her duty. Conservation of food, intensive farm production, knitting for soldiers, Liberty Loans and Red Cross-these she had studied and mastered, to the end that the women of the great valley had accomplished work which won national honor. It had been excitement, joy, and a strange fulfilment for her. But after the shock caused by the fatal news about Dorn she had lost interest, though she had worked on harder than ever.

Just a night ago her father had gazed at her and then told her to come to his office. She did so. And there he said: "You're workin' too hard. You've got to quit."

"Oh no, dad. I'm only tired to-night," she had replied. "Let me go on. I've planned so-"

"No!" he said, banging his desk. "You'll run yourself down."

"But, father, these are war-times. Could I do less-could I think of-"

"You've done wonders. You've been the life of this work. Some one else can carry it on now. You'd kill yourself. An' this war has cost the Andersons enough."

"Should we count the cost?" she asked.

Anderson had sworn. "No, we shouldn't. But I'm not goin' to lose my girl. Do you get that hunch?… I've bought bonds by the bushel. I've given thousands to your relief societies. I gave up my son Jim-an' that cost us mother.… I'm raisin' a million bushels of wheat this year that the government can have. An' I'm starvin' to death because I don't get what I used to eat.… Then this last blow-Dorn!-that fine young wheat-man, the best-Aw! Lenore…"

"But, dad, is-isn't there any-any hope?"

Anderson was silent.

"Dad," she had pleaded, "if he were really dead-buried-oh! wouldn't I feel it?"

"You've overworked yourself. Now you've got to rest," her father had replied, huskily.

"But, dad …"

"I said no.… I've a heap of pride in what you've done. An' I sure think you're the best Anderson of the lot. That's all. Now kiss me an' go to bed."

That explained how Lenore came to be alone, high up' on the vast wheat-slope, watching and feeling, with no more work to do. The slow climb there had proved to her how much she needed rest. But work even under strain or pain would have been preferable to endless hours to think, to remember, to fight despair.

Mortally wounded! She whispered the tragic phrase. When? Where? How had her lover been mortally wounded? That meant death. But no other word had come and no spiritual realization of death abided in her soul. It seemed impossible for Lenore to accept things as her father and friends did. Nevertheless, equally impossible was it not to be influenced by their practical minds. Because of her nervousness, of her overstrain, she had lost a good deal of her mental poise; and she divined that the only help for that was certainty of Dorn's fate. She could bear the shock if only she could know positively. And leaning her face in her hands, with the warm wind blowing her hair and bringing the rustle of the wheat, she prayed for divination.

No answer! Absolutely no mystic consciousness of death-of an end to her love here on earth! Instead of that breathed a strong physical presence of life all about her, in the swelling, waving slopes of wheat, in the beautiful butterflies, in the singing birds low down and the soaring eagles high above-life beating and surging in her heart, her veins, unquenchable and indomitable. It gave the lie to her morbidness. But it seemed only a physical state. How could she find any tangible hold on realities?

She lifted her face to the lonely sky, and her hands pressed to her breast where the deep ache throbbed heavily.

"It's not that I can't give him up," she whispered, as if impelled to speak. "I can. I have given him up. It's this torture of suspense. Oh, not to know!… But if that newspaper had claimed him one of the killed, I'd not believe."

So Lenore trusted more to the mystic whisper of her woman's soul than to all the unproven outward things. Still trust as she might, the voice of the world dinned in her ears, and between the two she was on the rack. Loss of Jim-loss of her mother-what unfilled gulfs in her heart! She was one who loved only few, but these deeply. To-day when they were gone was different from yesterday when they were here-different because memory recalled actual words, deeds, kisses of loved ones whose life was ended. Utterly futile was it for Lenore to try to think of Dorn in that way. She saw his stalwart form down through the summer haze, coming with his springy stride through the wheat. Yet-the words-mortally wounded! They had burned into her thought so that when she closed her eyes she saw them, darkly red, against the blindness of sight. Pain was a sluggish stream with source high in her breast, and it moved with her unquickened blood. If Dorn were really dead, what would become of her? Selfish question for a girl whose lover had died for his country! She would work, she would be worthy of him, she would never pine, she would live to remember. But, ah! the difference to her! Never for her who had so loved the open, the silken rustle of the wheat and the waving shadows, the green-and-gold slopes, the birds of the air and the beasts of the field, the voice of child and the sweetness of life-never again would these be the same to her, if Dorn were gone forever.

That ache in her heart had communicated itself to all her being. It filled her mind and her body. Tears stung her eyes, and again they were dry when tears would have soothed. Just as any other girl she wept, and then she burned with fever. A longing she had only faintly known, a physical thing which she had resisted, had become real, insistent, beating. Through love and loss she was to be denied a heritage common to all women. A weariness dragged at her. Noble spirit was not a natural thing. It must be intelligence seeing the higher. But to be human was to love life, to hate death, to faint under loss, to throb and pant with heavy sighs, to lie sleepless in the long dark night, to shrink with unutterable sadness at the wan light of dawn, to follow duty with a laggard sense, to feel the slow ebb of vitality and not to care, to suffer with a breaking heart.

* * *

Sunset hour reminded Lenore that she must not linger there on the slope. So, following the grass-grown lane between the sections of wheat, she wended a reluctant way homeward. Twilight was falling when she reached the yard. The cooling air was full of a fragrance of flowers freshly watered. Kathleen appeared on the path, evidently waiting for her. The girl was growing tall. Lenore remembered with a pang that her full mind had left little time for her to be a mother to this sister. Kathleen came running, excited and wide-eyed.

"Lenore, I thought you'd never come," she said. "I know something. Only dad told me not to tell you."

"Then don't," replied Lenore, with a little start.

"But I'd never keep it," burst out Kathleen, breathlessly. "Dad's going to New York."

Lenore's heart contracted. She did not know how she felt. Somehow it was momentous news.

"New York! What for?" she asked.

"He says it's about wheat. But he can't fool me. He told me not to mention it to you."

The girl was keen. She wanted to prepare Lenore, yet did not mean to confide her own suppositions. Lenore checked a rush of curiosity. They went into the house. Lenore hurried to change her outing clothes and boots and then went down to supper. Rose sat at table, but her father had not yet come in. Lenore called him. He answered, and presently came tramping into the dining-room, blustering and cheerful. Not for many months had Lenore given her father such close scrutiny as she did then. He was not natural, and he baffled her. A fleeting, vague hope that she had denied lodgment in her mind seemed to have indeed been wild and unfounded. But the very fact that her father was for once unfathomable made this situation remarkable. All through the meal Lenore trembled, and she had to force herself to eat.

"Lenore, I'd like to see you," said her father, at last, as he laid down his napkin and rose. Almost he convinced her then that nothing was amiss or different, and he would have done so if he had not been too clever, too natural. She rose to follow, catching Kathleen's whisper:

"Don't let him put it over on you, now!"

Anderson lighted a big cigar, as always after supper, but to Lenore's delicate sensitiveness he seemed to be too long about it.

"Lenore, I'm takin' a run to New York-leave to-night at eight-an' I want you to sort of manage while I'm gone. Here's some jobs I want the men to do-all noted down here-an' you'll answer letters, 'phone calls, an' all that. Not much work, you know, but you'll have to hang around. Somethin' important might turn up."

"Yes, dad. I'll be glad to," she replied. "Why-why this sudden trip?"

Anderson turned away a little and ran his hand over the papers on his desk. Did she only imagine that his hand shook a little?

"Wheat deals, I reckon-mostly," he said. "An' mebbe I'll run over to Washington."

He turned then, puffing at his cigar, and calmly met her direct gaze. If there were really more than he claimed in his going, he certainly did not intend to tell her. Lenore tried to still her mounting emotion. These days she seemed all imagination. Then she turned away her face.

"Will you try to find out if Kurt Dorn died of his wound-and all about him?" she asked, steadily, but very low.

"Lenore, I sure will!" he exclaimed, with explosive emphasis. No doubt the sincerity of that reply was an immense relief to Anderson. "Once in New York, I can pull wires, if need be. I absolutely promise you I'll find out-what-all you want to know."

Lenore bade him good-by and went to her room, where calmness deserted her for a while. Upon recovering, she found that the time set for her father's departure had passed. Strangely, then the oppression that had weighed upon her so heavily eased and lifted. The moment seemed one beyond her understanding. She attributed her relief, however, to the fact that her father would soon end her suspense in regard to Kurt Dorn.

In the succeeding days Lenore regained her old strength and buoyancy, and something of a control over the despondency which at times had made life misery.

A golden day of sunlight and azure blue of sky ushered in the month of June. "Many Waters" was a world of verdant green. Lenore had all she could do to keep from flying to the slopes. But as every day now brought nearer the possibility of word from her father, she stayed at home. The next morning about nine o'clock, while she was at her father's desk, the telephone-bell rang. It did that many times every morning, but this ring seemed to electrify Lenore. She answered the call hurriedly.

"Hello, Lenore, my girl! How are you?" came rolling on the wire.

"Dad! Dad! Is it-you?" cried Lenore, wildly.

"Sure is. Just got here. Are you an' the girls O.K.?"

"We're well-fine. Oh, dad …"

"You needn't send the car. I'll hire one."

"Yes-yes-but, dad-Oh, tell me …"

"Wait! I'll be there in five minutes."

She heard him slam up the receiver, and she leaned there, palpitating, with the queer, vacant sounds of the telephone filling her ear.

"Five minutes!" Lenore whispered. In five more minutes she would know. They seemed an eternity. Suddenly a flood of emotion and thought threatened to overwhelm her. Leaving the office, she hurried forth to find her sisters, and not until she had looked everywhere did she remember that they were visiting a girl friend. After this her motions seemed ceaseless; she could not stand or sit still, and she was continually going to the porch to look down the shady lane. At last a car appeared, coming fast. Then she ran indoors quite aimlessly and out again. But when she recognized her father all her outward fears and tremblings vanished. The broad, brown flash of his face was reality. He got out of the car lightly for so heavy a man, and, taking his valise, he dismissed the chauffeur. His smile was one of gladness, and his greeting a hearty roar.

Lenore met him at the porch steps, seeing in him, feeling as she embraced him, that he radiated a strange triumph and finality.

"Say, girl, you look somethin' like your old self," he said, holding her by the shoulders. "Fine! But you're a woman now.… Where are the kids?"

"They're away," replied Lenore.

"How you stare!" laughed Anderson, as with arm round her he led her in. "Anythin' queer about your dad's handsome mug?"

His jocular tone did not hide his deep earnestness. Never had Lenore felt him so forceful. His ruggedness seemed to steady her nerves that again began to fly. Anderson took her into his office, closed the door, threw down his valise.

"Great to be home!" he exploded, with heavy breath.

Lenore felt her face blanch; and that intense quiver within her suddenly stilled.

"Tell me-quick!" she whispered.

He faced her with flashing eyes, and all about him changed. "You're an Anderson! You can stand shock?"

"Any-any shock but suspense."

"I lied about the wheat deal-about my trip to New York. I got news of Dorn. I was afraid to tell you."

"Yes?"

"Dorn is alive," went on Anderson.

Lenore's hands went out in mute eloquence.

"He was all shot up. He can't live," hurried Anderson, hoarsely. "But he's alive-he'll live to see you."

"Oh! I knew, I knew!" whispered Lenore clasping her hands. "Oh, thank God!"

"Lenore, steady now. You're gettin' shaky. Brace there, my girl!… Dorn's alive. I've brought him home. He's here."

"Here!" screamed Lenore.

"Yes. They'll have him here in half an hour."

Lenore fell into her father's arms, blind and deaf to all outward things. The light of day failed. But her consciousness did not fade. Before it seemed a glorious radiance that was the truth lost for the moment, blindly groping, in whirling darkness. When she did feel herself again it was as a weak, dizzy, palpitating child, unable to stand. Her father, in alarm, and probable anger with himself, was coaxing and swearing in one breath. Then suddenly the joy that had shocked Lenore almost into collapse forced out the weakness with amazing strength. She blazed. She radiated. She burst into utterance too swift to understand.

"Hold on there, girl!" interrupted Anderson. "You've got the bit in your teeth.… Listen, will you? Let me talk. Well-well, there now.… Sure, it's all right, Lenore. You made me break it sudden-like.… Listen. There's all summer to talk. Just now you want to get a few details. Get 'em straight.… Dorn is on the way here. They put his stretcher-we've been packin' him on one-into a motor-truck. There's a nurse come with me-a man nurse. We'd better put Dorn in mother's room. That's the biggest an' airiest. You hurry an' open up the windows an' fix the bed.… An' don't go out of your head with joy. It's sure more 'n we ever hoped for to see him alive, to get him home. But he's done for, poor boy! He can't live.… An' he's in such shape that I don't want you to see him when they fetch him in. Savvy, girl! You'll stay in your room till we call you. An' now rustle."

* * *

Lenore paced and crouched and lay in her room, waiting, listening with an intensity that hurt. When a slow procession of men, low-voiced and soft-footed, carried Kurt Dorn into the house and up-stairs Lenore trembled with a storm of emotion. All her former agitation, love, agony, and suspense, compared to what she felt then, was as nothing. Not the joy of his being alive, not the terror of his expected death, had so charged her heart as did this awful curiosity to see him, to realize him.

At last a step-a knock-her father's voice: "Lenore-come!"

Her ordeal of waiting was over. All else she could withstand. That moment ended her weakness. Her blood leaped with the irresistable, revivifying current of her spirit. Unlocking the door, Lenore stepped out. Her father stood there with traces of extreme worry fading from his tired face. At sight of her they totally vanished.

"Good! You've got nerve. You can see him now alone. He's unconscious. But he's not been greatly weakened by the trip. His vitality is wonderful. He comes to once in a while. Sometimes he's rational. Mostly, though, he's out of his head. An' his left arm is gone."

Anderson said all this rapidly and low while they walked down the hall toward the end room which had not been used since Mrs. Anderson's death. The door was ajar. Lenore smelled strong, pungent odors of antiseptics.

Anderson knocked softly.

"Come out, you men, an' let my girl see him," he called.

Doctor Lowell, the village practitioner Lenore had known for years, tiptoed out, important and excited.

"Lenore, it's to bad," he said, kindly, and he shook his head.

Another man glided out with the movements of a woman. He was not young. His aspect was pale, serious.

"Lenore, this is Mr. Jarvis, the nurse.… Now-go in, an' don't forget what I said."

She closed the door and leaned back against it, conscious of the supreme moment of her life. Dorn's face, strange yet easily recognizable, appeared against the white background of the bed. That moment was supreme because it showed him there alive, justifying the spiritual faith which had persisted in her soul. If she had ever, in moments of distraction, doubted God, she could never doubt again.

The large room had been bright, with white curtains softly blowing inward from the open windows. As she crept forward, not sure on her feet, all seemed to blur, so that when she leaned over the still face to kiss it she could not see clearly. Her lips quivered with that kiss and with her sob of thankfulness.

"My soldier!"

She prayed then, with her head beside his on the pillow, and through that prayer and the strange stillness of her lover she received a subtle shock. Sweet it was to touch him as she bent with eyes hidden. Terrible it would be to look-to see how the war had wrecked him. She tried to linger there, all tremulous, all gratitude, all woman and mother. But an incalculable force lifted her up from her knees.

"Ah!" she gasped, as she saw him with cleared sight. A knife-blade was at her heart. Kurt Dorn lay before her gaze-a man, and not the boy she had sacrificed to war-a man by a larger frame, and by older features, and by a change difficult to grasp.

These features seemed a mask, transparent, unable to hide a beautiful, sad, stern, and ruthless face beneath, which in turn slowly gave to her startled gaze sloping lines of pain and shades of gloom, and the pale, set muscles of forced manhood, and the faint hectic flush of fever and disorder and derangement. A livid, angry scar, smooth, yet scarcely healed, ran from his left temple back as far as she could see. That established his identity as a wounded soldier brought home from the war. Otherwise to Lenore his face might have been that of an immortal suddenly doomed with the curse of humanity, dying in agony. She had expected to see Dorn bronzed, haggard, gaunt, starved, bearded and rough-skinned, bruised and battered, blinded and mutilated, with gray in his fair hair. But she found none of these. Her throbbing heart sickened and froze at the nameless history recorded in his face. Was it beyond her to understand what had been his bitter experience? Would she never suffer his ordeal? Never! That was certain. An insupportable sadness pervaded her soul. It was not his life she thought of, but the youth, the nobility, the splendor of him that war had destroyed. No intuition, no divination, no power so penetrating as a woman's love! By that piercing light she saw the transformed man. He knew. He had found out all of physical life. His hate had gone with his blood. Deeds-deeds of terror had left their imprint upon his brow, in the shadows under his eyes, that resembled blank walls potent with invisible meaning. Lenore shuddered through all her soul as she read the merciless record of the murder he had dealt, of the strong and passionate duty that had driven him, of the eternal remorse. But she did not see or feel that he had found God; and, stricken as he seemed, she could not believe he was near to death.

This last confounding thought held her transfixed and thrilling, gazing down at Dorn, until her father entered to break the spell and lead her away.

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