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The Desert of Wheat By Zane Grey Characters: 24729

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

It was night. Lenore should have been asleep, but she sat up in the dark by the window. Underneath on the porch, her father, with his men as audience, talked like a torrent. And Lenore, hearing what otherwise would never have gotten to her ears, found listening irresistible. Slow, dragging footsteps and the clinking of spurs attested to the approach of cowboys.

"Howdy, boys! Sit down an' be partic'lar quiet. Here's some smokes. I'm wound up an' gotta go off or bust," Anderson said, "Well, as I was sayin', we folks don't know there's a war, from all outward sign here in the Northwest. But in that New York town I just come from-God Almighty! what goin's-on! Boys, I never knew before how grand it was to be American. New York's got the people, the money, an' it's the outgoin' an' incomin' place of all pertainin' to this war. The Liberty Loan drive was on. The streets were crowded. Bands an' parades, grand-opera stars singin' on the corners, famous actors sellin' bonds, flags an' ribbons an' banners everywhere, an' every third man you bumped into wearin' some kind of uniform! An' the women were runnin' wild, like a stampede of two-year-olds.… I rode down Fifth Avenue on one of them high-topped buses with seats on. Talk about your old stage-coach-why, these 'buses had 'em beat a mile! I've rode some in my day, but this was the ride of my life. I couldn't hear myself think. Music at full blast, roar of traffic, voices like whisperin' without end, flash of red an' white an' blue, shine of a thousand automobiles down that wonderful street that's like a canon! An' up overhead a huge cigar-shaped balloon, an' then an airplane sailin' swift an' buzzin' like a bee. Them was the first air-ships I ever seen. No wonder-Jim wanted to-"

Anderson's voice broke a little at this juncture and he paused. All was still except the murmur of the running water and the song of the insects. Presently Anderson cleared his throat and resumed:

"I saw five hundred Australian soldiers just arrived in New York by way of Panama. Lean, wiry boys like Arizona cowboys. Looked good to me! You ought to have heard the cheerin'. Roar an' roar, everywhere they marched along. I saw United States sailors, marines, soldiers, airmen, English officers, an' Scotch soldiers. Them last sure got my eye. Funny plaid skirts they wore-an' they had bare legs. Three I saw walked lame. An' all had medals. Some one said the Germans called these Scotch 'Ladies from hell.' … When I heard that I had to ask questions, an' I learned these queer-lookin' half-women-dressed fellows were simply hell with cold steel. An' after I heard that I looked again an' wondered why I hadn't seen it. I ought to know men!… Then I saw the outfit of Blue Devil Frenchmen that was sent over to help stimulate the Liberty Loan. An' when I seen them I took off my hat. I've knowed a heap of tough men an' bad men an' handy men an' fightin' men in my day, but I reckoned I never seen the like of the Blue Devils. I can't tell you why, boys. Blue Devils is another German name for a regiment of French soldiers. They had it on the Scotch-men. Any Western man, just to look at them, would think of Wild Bill an' Billy the Kid an' Geronimo an' Custer, an' see that mebbe the whole four mixed in one might have made a Blue Devil.

"My young friend Dorn, that's dyin' up-stairs, now-he had a name given him. 'Pears that this war-time is like the old days when we used to hit on right pert names for everybody.… Demon Dorn they called him, an' he got that handle before he ever reached France. The boys of his outfit gave it to him because of the way he run wild with a bayonet. I don't want my girl Lenore ever to know that.

"A soldier named Owens told me a lot. He was the corporal of Dorn's outfit, a sort of foreman, I reckon. Anyway, he saw Dorn every day of the months they were in the service, an' the shell that done Dorn made a cripple of Owens. This fellow Owens said Dorn had not got so close to his bunk-mates until they reached France. Then he begun to have influence over them. Owens didn't know how he did it-in fact, never knew it at all until the outfit got to the front, somewhere in northern France, in the first line. They were days in the first line, close up to the Germans, watchin' an' sneakin' all the time, shootin' an' dodgin', but they never had but one real fight.

"That was when one mornin' the Germans came pilin' over on a charge, far outnumberin' our boys. Then it happened. Lord! I wish I could remember how Owens told that scrap! Boys, you never heard about a real scrap. It takes war like this to make men fighters.… Listen, now, an' I'll tell you some of the things that come off durin' this German charge. I'll tell them just as they come to mind. There was a boy named Griggs who ran the German barrage-an' that's a gantlet-seven times to fetch ammunition to his pards. Another boy, on the same errand, was twice blown off the road by explodin' shells, an' then went back. Owens told of two of his company who rushed a bunch of Germans, killed eight of them, an' captured their machine-gun. Before that German charge a big shell came over an' kicked up a hill of mud. Next day the Americans found their sentinel buried in mud, dead at his post, with his bayonet presented.

"Owens was shot just as he jumped up with his pards to meet the chargin' Germans. He fell an' dragged himself against a wall of bags, where he lay watchin' the fight. An' it so happened that he faced Dorn's squad, which was attacked by three times their number. He saw Dorn shot-go down, an' thought he was done-but no! Dorn came up with one side of his face all blood. Dixon, a college football man, rushed a German who was about to throw a bomb. Dixon got him, an' got the bomb, too, when it went off. Little Rogers, an Irish boy, mixed it with three Germans, an' killed one before he was bayoneted in the back. Then Dorn, like the demon they'd named him, went on the stampede. He had a different way with a bayonet, so Owens claimed. An' Dorn was heavy, powerful, an' fast. He lifted an' slung those two Germans, one after another, quick as that!-like you'd toss a couple of wheat sheafs with your pitchfork, an' he sent them rollin', with blood squirtin' all over. An' then four more Germans were shootin' at him. Right into their teeth Dorn run-laughin' wild an' terrible, Owens said, an' the Germans couldn't stop that flashin' bayonet. Dorn ripped them all open, an' before they'd stopped floppin' he was on the bunch that'd killed Brewer an' were makin' it hard for his other pards.… Whew!-Owens told it all as if it'd took lots of time, but that fight was like lightnin' an' I can't remember how it was. Only Demon Dorn laid out nine Germans before they retreated. Nine! Owens seen him do it, like a mad bull loose. Then the shell came over that put Dorn out, an' Owens, too.

"Well, Dorn had a mangled arm, an' many wounds. They amputated his arm in France, patched him up, an' sent him back to New York with a lot of other wounded soldiers. They expected him to die long ago. But he hangs on. He's full of lead now. What a hell of a lot of killin' some men take!… My boy Jim would have been like that!

"So there, boys, you have a little bit of American fightin' come home to you, straight an' true. I say that's what the Germans have roused. Well, it was a bad day for them when they figgered everythin' on paper, had it all cut an' dried, but failed to see the spirit of men!"

Lenore tore herself away from the window so that she could not hear any more, and in the darkness of her room she began to pace to and fro, beginning to undress for bed, shaking in some kind of a frenzy, scarcely knowing what she was about, until sundry knocks from furniture and the falling over a chair awakened her to the fact that she was in a tumult.

"What-am I-doing!" she panted, in bewilderment, reaching out in the dark to turn on the light.

Like awakening from a nightmare, she saw the bright light flash up. It changed her feeling. Who was this person whose image stood reflected in the mirror? Lenore's recognition of herself almost stunned her. What had happened? She saw that her hair fell wildly over her bare shoulders; her face shone white, with red spots in her cheeks; her eyes seemed balls of fire; her lips had a passionate, savage curl; her breast, bare and heaving, showed a throbbing, tumultuous heart. And as she realized how she looked, it struck her that she felt an inexplicable passion. She felt intense as steel, hot as fire, quivering with the pulsation of rapid blood, a victim to irrepressible thrills that rushed over her from the very soles of her feet to the roots of her hair. Something glorious, terrible, and furious possessed her. When she understood what it was she turned out the light and fell upon the bed, where, as the storm slowly subsided, she thought and wondered and sorrowed, and whispered to herself.

The tale of Dorn's tragedy had stirred to the depths the primitive, hidden, and unplumbed in the unknown nature of her. Just now she had looked at herself, at her two selves-the white-skinned and fair-haired girl that civilization had produced-and the blazing, panting, savage woman of the bygone ages. She could not escape from either. The story of Demon Dorn's terrible fight had retrograded her, for the moment, to the female of the species, more savage and dangerous than the male. No use to lie! She had gloried in his prowess. He was her man, gone out with club, to beat down the brutes that would steal her from him.

"Alas! What are we? What am I?" she whispered. "Do I know myself? What could I not have done a moment ago?"

She had that primitive thing in her, and, though she shuddered to realize it, she had no regret. Life was life. That Dorn had laid low so many enemies was grand to her, and righteous, since these enemies were as cavemen come for prey. Even now the terrible thrills chased over her. Demon Dorn! What a man! She had known just what he would do-and how his spiritual life would go under. The woman of her gloried in his fight and the soul of her sickened at its significance. No hope for any man or any woman except in God!

These men, these boys, like her father and Jake, like Dorn and his comrades-how simple, natural, inevitable, elemental they were! They loved a fight. They might hate it, too, but they loved it most. Life of men was all strife, and the greatness in them came out in war. War searched out the best and the worst in men. What were wounds, blood, mangled flesh, agony, and death to men-to those who went out for liberation of something unproven in themselves? Life was only a breath. The secret must lie in the beyond, for men could not act that way for nothing. Some hidden purpose through the ages!

* * *

Anderson had summoned a great physician, a specialist of world renown. Lenore, of course, had not been present when the learned doctor examined Kurt Dorn, but she was in her father's study when the report was made. To Lenore this little man seemed all intellect, all science, all electric current.

He stated that Dorn had upward of twenty-five wounds, some of them serious, most trivial, and all of them combined not necessarily fatal. Many soldiers with worse wounds had totally recovered. Dorn's vitality and strength had been so remarkable that great loss of blood and almost complete lack of nourishment had not brought about the present grave condition.

"He will die, and that is best for him," said the specialist. "His case is not extraordinary. I saw many like it in France during the first year of war when I was there. But I will say that he must have been both physically and mentally above the average before he went to fight. My examination extended through periods of his unconsciousness and aberration. Once, for a little time, he came to, apparently sane. The nurse said he had noticed several periods of this rationality during the last forty-eight hours. But these, and the prolonged vitality, do not offer any hope.

"An emotion of exceeding intensity and duration has produced lesions in the kinetic organs. Some passion has immeasurably activated his brain, destroying brain cells which might not be replaced. If he happened to live he might be permanently impaired. He might be neurasthenic, melancholic, insane at ti

mes, or even grow permanently so.… It is very sad. He appears to have been a fine young man. But he will die, and that really is best for him."

Thus the man of science summed up the biological case of Kurt Dorn. When he had gone Anderson wore the distressed look of one who must abandon his last hope. He did not understand, though he was forced to believe. He swore characteristically at the luck, and then at the great specialist.

"I've known Indian medicine-men who could give that doctor cards an' spades," he exploded, with gruff finality.

Lenore understood her father perfectly and imagined she understood the celebrated scientist. The former was just human and the latter was simply knowledge. Neither had that which caused her to go out alone into the dark night and look up beyond the slow-rising slope to the stars. These men, particularly the scientist, lacked something. He possessed all the wonderful knowledge of body and brain, of the metabolism and chemistry of the organs, but he knew nothing of the source of life. Lenore accorded science its place in progress, but she hated its elimination of the soul. Stronger than ever, strength to endure and to trust pervaded her spirit. The dark night encompassing her, the vast, lonely heave of wheat-slope, the dim sky with its steady stars-these were voices as well as tangible things of the universe, and she was in mysterious harmony with them. "Lift thine eyes to the hills from whence cometh thy help!"

* * *

The day following the specialist's visit Dorn surprised the family doctor, the nurse, Anderson, and all except Lenore by awakening to a spell of consciousness which seemed to lift, for the time at least, the shadow of death.

Kathleen was the first to burst in upon Lenore with the wonderful news. Lenore could only gasp her intense eagerness and sit trembling, hands over her heart, while the child babbled.

"I listened, and I peeped in," was Kathleen's reiterated statement. "Kurt was awake. He spoke, too, but very soft. Say, he knows he's at 'Many Waters.' I heard him say, 'Lenore'.… Oh, I'm so happy, Lenore-that before he dies he'll know you-talk to you."

"Hush, child!" whispered Lenore. "Kurt's not going to die."

"But they all say so. That funny little doctor yesterday-he made me tired-but he said so. I heard him as dad put him into the car."

"Yes, Kathie, I heard him, too, but I do not believe," replied Lenore, dreamily.

"Kurt doesn't look so-so sick," went on Kathleen. "Only-only I don't know what-different, I guess. I'm crazy to go in-to see him. Lenore, will they ever let me?"

Their father's abrupt entrance interrupted the conversation. He was pale, forceful, as when issues were at stake but were undecided.

"Kathie, go out," he said.

Lenore rose to face him.

"My girl-Dorn's come to-an' he's asked for you. I was for lettin' him see you. But Lowell an' Jarvis say no-not yet.… Now he might die any minute. Seems to me he ought to see you. It's right. An' if you say so-"

"Yes," replied Lenore.

"By Heaven! He shall see you, then," said Anderson, breathing hard. "I'm justified even-even if it…" He did not finish his significant speech, but left her abruptly.

Presently Lenore was summoned. When she left her room she was in the throes of uncontrolled agitation, and all down the long hallway she fought herself. At the half-open door she paused to lean against the wall. There she had the will to still her nerves, to acquire serenity; and she prayed for wisdom to make her presence and her words of infinite good to Dorn in this crisis.

* * *

She was not aware of when she moved-how she ever got to Dorn's bedside. But seemingly detached from her real self, serene, with emotions locked, she was there looking down upon him.

"Lenore!" he said, with far-off voice that just reached her. Gladness shone from his shadowy eyes.

"Welcome home-my soldier boy!" she replied. Then she bent to kiss his cheek and to lay hers beside it.

"I never-hoped-to see you-again," he went on.

"Oh, but I knew!" murmured Lenore, lifting her head. His right hand, brown, bare, and rough, lay outside the coverlet upon his breast. It was weakly reaching for her. Lenore took it in both hers, while she gazed steadily down into his eyes. She seemed to see then how he was comparing the image he had limned upon his memory with her face.

"Changed-you're older-more beautiful-yet the same," he said. "It seems-long ago."

"Yes, long ago. Indeed I am older. But-all's well that ends well. You are back."

"Lenore, haven't you-been told-I can't live?"

"Yes, but it's untrue," she replied, and felt that she might have been life itself speaking.

"Dear, something's gone-from me. Something vital gone-with the shell that-took my arm."

"No!" she smiled down upon him. All the conviction of her soul and faith she projected into that single word and serene smile-all that was love and woman in her opposing death. A subtle, indefinable change came over Dorn.

"Lenore-I paid-for my father," he whispered. "I killed Huns!… I spilled the-blood in me-I hated!… But all was wrong-wrong!"

"Yes, but you could not help that," she said, piercingly. "Blame can never rest upon you. You were only an-American soldier.… Oh, I know! You were magnificent.… But your duty that way is done. A higher duty awaits you."

His eyes questioned sadly and wonderingly.

"You must be the great sower of wheat."

"Sower of wheat?" he whispered, and a light quickened in that questioning gaze.

"There will be starving millions after this war. Wheat is the staff of life. You must get well.… Listen!"

She hesitated, and sank to her knees beside the bed. "Kurt, the day you're able to sit up I'll marry you. Then I'll take you home-to your wheat-hills."

For a second Lenore saw him transformed with her spirit, her faith, her love, and it was that for which she had prayed. She had carried him beyond the hopelessness, beyond incredulity. Some guidance had divinely prompted her. And when his mute rapture suddenly vanished, when he lost consciousness and a pale gloom and shade fell upon his face, she had no fear.

In her own room she unleashed the strange bonds on her feelings and suffered their recurrent surge and strife, until relief and calmness returned to her. Then came a flashing uplift of soul, a great and beautiful exaltation. Lenore felt that she had been gifted with incalculable power. She had pierced Dorn's fatalistic consciousness with the truth and glory of possible life, as opposed to the dark and evil morbidity of war. She saw for herself the wonderful and terrible stairs of sand which women had been climbing all the ages, and must climb on to the heights of solid rock, of equality, of salvation for the human race. She saw woman, the primitive, the female of the species, but she saw her also as the mother of the species, made to save as well as perpetuate, learning from the agony of child-birth and child-care the meaning of Him who said, "Thou shalt not kill!" Tremendous would be the final resistance of woman to the brutality of man. Women were to be the saviors of humanity. It seemed so simple and natural that it could not be otherwise. Lenore realized, with a singular conception of the splendor of its truth, that when most women had found themselves, their mission in life, as she had found hers, then would come an end to violence, to greed, to hate, to war, to the black and hideous imperfection of mankind.

With all her intellect and passion Lenore opposed the theory of the scientist and biologists. If they proved that strife and fight were necessary to the development of man, that without violence and bloodshed and endless contention the race would deteriorate, then she would say that it would be better to deteriorate and to die. Women all would declare against that, and in fact would never believe. She would never believe with her heart, but if her intellect was forced to recognize certain theories, then she must find a way to reconcile life to the inscrutable designs of nature. The theory that continual strife was the very life of plants, birds, beasts, and men seemed verified by every reaction of the present; but if these things were fixed materialistic rules of the existence of animated forms upon the earth, what then was God, what was the driving force in Kurt Dorn that made war-duty some kind of murder which overthrew his mind, what was the love in her heart of all living things, and the nameless sublime faith in her soul?

"If we poor creatures must fight," said Lenore, and she meant this for a prayer, "let the women fight eternally against violence, and let the men forever fight their destructive instincts!"

* * *

From that hour the condition of Kurt Dorn changed for the better. Doctor Lowell admitted that Lenore had been the one medicine which might defeat the death that all except she had believed inevitable.

Lenore was permitted to see him a few minutes every day, for which fleeting interval she must endure the endless hours. But she discovered that only when he was rational and free from pain would they let her go in. What Dorn's condition was all the rest of the time she could not guess. But she began to get inklings that it was very bad.

"Dad, I'm going to insist on staying with Kurt as-as long as I want," asserted Lenore, when she had made up her mind.

This worried Anderson, and he appeared at a loss for words.

"I told Kurt I'd marry him the very day he could sit up," continued Lenore.

"By George! that accounts," exclaimed her father. "He's been tryin' to sit up, an' we've had hell with him."

"Dad, he will get well. And all the sooner if I can be with him more. He loves me. I feel I'm the only thing that counteracts-the-the madness in his mind-the death in his soul."

Anderson made one of his violent gestures. "I believe you. That hits me with a bang. It takes a woman!… Lenore, what's your idea?"

"I want to-to marry him," murmured Lenore. "To nurse him-to take him home to his wheat-fields."

"You shall have your way," replied Anderson, beginning to pace the floor. "It can't do any harm. It might save him. An' anyway, you'll be his wife-if only for … By George! we'll do it. You never gave me a wrong hunch in your life … but, girl, it'll be hard for you to see him when-when he has the spells."

"Spells!" echoed Lenore.

"Yes. You've been told that he raves. But you didn't know how. Why, it gets even my nerve! It fascinated me, but once was enough. I couldn't stand to see his face when his Huns come back to him."

"His Huns!" ejaculated Lenore, shuddering. "What do you mean?"

"Those Huns he killed come back to him. He fights them. You see him go through strange motions, an' it's as if his left arm wasn't gone. He used his right arm-an' the motions he makes are the ones he made when he killed the Huns with his bayonet. It's terrible to watch him-the look on his face!.… I heard at the hospital in New York that in France they photographed him when he had one of the spells.… I'd hate to have you see him then. But maybe after Doctor Lowell explains it, you'll understand."

"Poor boy! How terrible for him to live it all over! But when he gets well-when he has his wheat-hills and me to fill his mind-those spells will fade."

"Maybe-maybe. I hope so. Lord knows it's all beyond me. But you're goin' to have your way."

Doctor Lowell explained to Lenore that Dorn, like all mentally deranged soldiers, dreamed when he was asleep, and raved when he was out of his mind, of only one thing-the foe. In his nightmares Dorn had to be held forcibly. The doctor said that the remarkable and hopeful indication about Dorn's condition was a gradual daily gain in strength and a decline in the duration and violence of his bad spells.

This assurance made Lenore happy. She began to relieve the worn-out nurse during the day, and she prepared herself for the first ordeal of actual experience of Dorn's peculiar madness. But Dorn watched her many hours and would not or could not sleep while she was there; and the tenth day of his stay at "Many Waters" passed without her seeing what she dreaded. Meanwhile he grew perceptibly better.

The afternoon came when Anderson brought a minister. Then a few moments sufficed to make Lenore Dorn's wife.

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