The Desert of Wheat: A Classic Portrait of America at the Time of World War I

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9780812578614: The Desert of Wheat: A Classic Portrait of America at the Time of World War I

Zane Grey is one of America's most popular and enduring authors, the man behind the classic Western Riders of the Purple Sage.

Desert of Wheat is a thrilling and romantic tale of sabotage in the wheat fields of the Pacific Northwest during World War I. A passionate novel of patriotic and anti-union propaganda, it portrays the anxieties of the young country threatened by a foreign war after the closing of the frontier. Grey captures the heart of a nation at the brink of a century of change.

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About the Author:

The father of the western novel, Zane Grey (1872 - 1939) was born in Zanesville, Ohio. He wrote 58 westerns and almost 30 other books. Over 130 films have been based on his work.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter I
Late in June the vast northwestern desert of wheat began to take on a tinge of gold, lending an austere beauty to that endless, rolling, smooth world of treeless hills, where miles of fallow ground and miles of waving grain sloped up to the far-separated homes of the heroic men who had conquered over sage and sand.
These simple homes of farmers seemed lost on an immensity of soft gray and golden billows of land, insignificant dots here and there on distant hills, so far apart that nature only seemed accountable for those broad squares of alternate gold and brown, extending on and on to the waving horizonline. A lonely, hard, heroic country, where flowers and fruit were not, nor birds and brooks, nor green pastures. Whirling strings of dust looped up over fallow ground, the short, dry wheat lay back from the wind, the haze in the distance was drab and smoky, heavy with substance.
A thousand hills lay bare to the sky, and half of every hill was wheat and half was fallow ground; and all of them, with the shallow valleys between, seemed big and strange and isolated. The beauty of them was austere, as if the hand of man had been held back from making green his home site, as if the immensity of the task had left no time for youth and freshness. Years, long years, were there in the round-hilled, many-furrowed gray old earth. And the wheat looked a century old. Here and there a straight, dusty road stretched from hill to hill, becoming a thin white line, to disappear in the distance. The sun shone hot, the wind blew hard; and over the boundless undulating expanse hovered a shadow that was neither hood of dust nor hue of gold. It was not physical, but lonely, waiting, prophetic, and weird. No wild desert of wastelands, once the home of other races of man, and now gone to decay and death, could have shown so barren an acreage. Half of this wandering patchwork of squares was earth, brown and gray, curried and disked, and rolled and combed and harrowed, with not a tiny leaf of green in all the miles. The other half had only a faint golden promise of mellow harvest; and at long distance it seemed to shimmer and retreat under the hot sun. A singularly beautiful effect of harmony lay in the long, slowly rising slopes, in the rounded hills, in the endless curving lines on all sides. The scene was heroic because of the labor of horny hands; it was sublime because not a hundred harvests, nor three generations of toiling men, could ever rob nature of its limitless space and scorching sun and sweeping dust, of its resistless age-long creep back toward the desert that it had been.
* * *
Here was grown the most bounteous, the richest and finest wheat in all the world. Strange and unfathomable that so much of the bread of man, the staff of life, the hope of civilization in this tragic year 1917, should come from a vast, treeless, waterless, dreary desert!
This wonderful place was an immense valley of considerable altitude called the Columbia Basin, surrounded by the Cascade Mountains on the west, the Cœur d’ Alene and Bitter Root Mountains on the east, the Okanozan range to the north, and the Blue Mountains to the south. The valley floor was basalt, from the lava flow of volcanoes in ages past. The rainfall was slight except in the foot-hills of the mountains. The Columbia River, making a prodigious and meandering curve, bordered on three sides what was known as the Bend country. South of this vast area, across the range, began the fertile, many-watered region that extended on down into verdant Oregon. Among the desert hills of this Bend country, near the center of the Basin, where the best wheat was raised, lay widely separated little towns, the names of which gave evidence of the mixed population. It was, of course, an exceedingly prosperous country, a fact manifest in the substantial little towns, if not in the crude and unpretentious homes of the farmers. The acreage of farms ran from a section, six hundred and forty acres, up into the thousands.
* * *
Upon a morning in early July, exactly three months after the United States had declared war upon Germany, a sturdy young farmer strode with darkly troubles face from the presence of his father. At the end of a stormy scene he had promised his father that he would abandon his desire to enlist in the army.
Kurt Dorn walked away from the gray old clapboard house, out to the fence, where he leaned on the gate. He could see for miles in every direction, and to the southward, away on a long yellow slope, rose a stream of dust from a motor-car.
“Must be Anderson--coming to dun father,“ muttered young Dorn.
This was the day, he remembered, when the wealthy rancher of Ruxton was to look over old Chris Dorn’s wheat-fields. Dorn owed thirty-thousand dollars and the interest for years, mostly to Anderson. Kurt hated the debt and resented the visit, but he could not help acknowledging that the rancher had been lenient and kind. Long since Kurt had sorrowfully realized that his father was illiterate, hard, grasping, and growing worse with the burden of years.
“If we had rain now--or soon--that section of Bluestem would square father,“ soliloquized young Dorn, as with keen eyes he surveyed a vast field of wheat, short, smooth, yellowing in the sun. But the cloudless sky, the haze of heat rather betokened a continued drought.
There were reasons, indeed, for Dorn to wear a dark and troubled face as he watched the motor-car speed along ahead of its stream of dust, pass out of sight under the hill, and soon reappear, to turn off the main road and come toward the house. It was a big, closed car, covered with dust. The driver stopped it at the gate and got out.
“Is this Chris Dorn’s farm?” he asked.
“Yes,“ replied Kurt.
Whereupon the door of the car opened and out stepped a short, broad man in a long linen coat.
“Come out, Lenore, an’ shake off the dust,“ he said, and he assisted a young woman to step out. She also wore a long linen coat, and a veil besides. The man removed his coat and threw it into the car. Then he took off his sombrero to beat the dust off of that.
“Phew! The Golden Valley never seen dust like this in a million years!...I’m chokin’ for water. An’ listen to the car. She’s boilin’!”
Then, as he stepped toward Kurt, the rancher showed himself to be a well-preserved man of perhaps fifty-five, of powerful form beginning to sag in the broad shoulders, his face bronzed by long exposure to wind and sun. He had keen gray eyes, and their look was that of a man used to dealing with his kind and well disposed toward them.
“Hello! Are you young Dorn?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,“ replied Kurt, stepping out.
“I’m Anderson, from Ruxton, come to see your dad. This is my girl Lenore.”
Kurt acknowledged the slight bow from the veiled young woman, and then, hesitating, he added, “Won’t you come in?”
“No, not yet. I’m chokin’ for air an’ water. Bring us a drink,“ replied Anderson.
Kurt hurried away to get a bucket and tin cup. As he drew water from the well he was thinking rather vaguely that it was somehow embarrassing--the fact of Mr. Anderson being accompanied by his daughter. Kurt was afraid of his father. But then, what did it matter? When he returned to the yard he found the rancher sitting in the shade of one of the few apple-trees, and the young lady was standing near, in the act of removing bonnet and veil. She had thrown the linen coat over the seat of an old wagon-bed that lay near.
“Good water is scarce here, but I’m glad we have some,“ said Kurt; then as he set down the bucket and offered a brimming cupful to the girl he saw her face, and his eyes met hers. He dropped the cup and stared. Then hurriedly, with flushing face, he bent over to recover and refill it.
“Ex-excuse me. I’m--clumsy,“ he managed to say, and as he handed the cup to her he averted his gaze. For more than a year the memory of this very girl had haunted him. He had seen her twice--the first time at the close of his one year of college at the University of California, and the second time on the street in Spokane. In a glance he had recognized the strong, lithe figure, the sunny hair, the rare golden tint of her complexion, the blue eyes, warm and direct. And he had sustained a shock which momentarily confused him.
“Good water, hey?” dissented Anderson, after drinking a second cup. “Boy that’s wet, but it ain’t water to drink. Come down in the foot-hills an’ I’ll show you. My ranch’s called ‘Many Waters,‘ an’ you can’t keep your feet dry.”
“I wish we had some of it here,“ replied Kurt, wistfully, and he waved a hand at the broad, swelling slopes. The warm breath that blew in from the wheatlands felt dry and smelled dry.
“You’re in for a dry spell?” inquired Anderson, with interest that was keen, and kindly as well.
“Father says so. And I fear it, too--for he never makes a mistake in weather or crops.”
“A hot, dry spell!...This summer?...Hum!...Boy, do you know that wheat is the most important thing in the world to-day?”
“You mean on account of the war,“ replied Kurt. “Yes, I know. But father doesn’t see that. All he sees is--if we have rain we’ll have bumper crops. That big field there would be a record--at war prices....And he wouldn’t be ruined!”
“Ruined?...Oh, he means I’d close on him...Hum!...Say, what do you see in a big wheat yield--if it rains?”
“Mr. Anderson, I’d like to see our debt paid, but I’m thinking most of wheat for starving peoples. I--I’ve studied this wheat question. It’s the biggest question in this war.”
Kurt had forgotten the girl and was unaware of he...

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