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Willa Cather (1873–1947). One of Ours. 1922.

Book Three: Sunrise on the Prairie


CLAUDE was to continue farming with his father, and after he returned from his wedding journey, he fell at once to work. The harvest was almost as abundant as that of the summer before, and he was busy in the fields six days a week.

One afternoon in August he came home with his team, watered and fed the horses in a leisurely way, and then entered his house by the back door. Enid, he knew, would not be there. She had gone to Frankfort to a meeting of the Anti-Saloon League. The Prohibition party was bestirring itself in Nebraska that summer, confident of voting the State dry the following year, which purpose it triumphantly accomplished.

Enid’s kitchen, full of the afternoon sun, glittered with new paint, spotless linoleum, and blue-and-white cooking vessels. In the dining-room the cloth was laid, and the table was neatly set for one. Claude opened the icebox, where his supper was arranged for him; a dish of canned salmon with a white sauce; hard-boiled eggs, peeled and lying in a nest of lettuce leaves; a bowl of ripe tomatoes, a bit of cold rice pudding; cream and butter. He placed these things on the table, cut some bread, and after carelessly washing his face and hands, sat down to eat in his working shirt. He propped the newspaper against a red glass water pitcher and read the war news while he had his supper. He was annoyed when he heard heavy footsteps coming around the house. Leonard Dawson stuck his head in at the kitchen door, and Claude rose quickly and reached for his hat; but Leonard came in, uninvited, and sat down. His brown shirt was wet where his suspenders gripped his shoulders, and his face, under a wide straw hat which he did not remove, was unshaven and streaked with dust.

“Go ahead and finish your supper,” he cried. “Having a wife with a car of her own is next thing to having no wife at all. How they do like to roll around! I’ve been mighty blamed careful to see that Susie never learned to drive a car. See here, Claude, how soon do you figure you’ll be able to let me have the thrasher? My wheat will begin to sprout in the shock pretty soon. Do you reckon your father would be willing to work on Sunday, if I helped you, to let the machine off a day earlier?”

“I’m afraid not. Mother wouldn’t like it. We never have done that, even when we were crowded.”

“Well, I think I’ll go over and have a talk with your mother. If she could look inside my wheat shocks, maybe I could convince her it’s pretty near a case of your neighbour’s ox falling into a pit on the Sabbath day.”

“That’s a good idea. She’s always reasonable.”

Leonard rose. “What’s the news?”

“The Germans have torpedoed an English passenger ship, the Arabic; coming this way, too.”

“That’s all right,” Leonard declared. “Maybe Americans will stay at home now, and mind their own business. I don’t care how they chew each other up over there, not a bit! I’d as soon one got wiped off the map as another.”

“Your grandparents were English people, weren’t they?”

“That’s a long while ago. Yes, my grandmother wore a cap and little white curls, and I tell Susie I wouldn’t mind if the baby turned out to have my grandmother’s skin. She had the finest complexion I ever saw.”

As they stepped out of the back door, a troop of white chickens with red combs ran squawking toward them. It was the hour at which the poultry was usually fed. Leonard stopped to admire them. “You’ve got a fine lot of hens. I always did like white leghorns. Where are all your roosters?”

“We’ve only got one. He’s shut up in the coop. The brood hens are setting. Enid is going to try raising winter frys.”

“Only one rooster? And may I ask what these hens do?”

Claude laughed. “They lay eggs, just the same,—better. it’s the fertile eggs that spoil in warm weather.”

This information seemed to make Leonard angry. “I never heard of such damned nonsense,” he blustered. “I raise chickens on a natural basis, or I don’t raise ’em at all.” He jumped into his car for fear he would say more.

When he got home his wife was lifting supper, and the baby sat near her in its buggy, playing with a rattle. Dirty and sweaty as he was, Leonard picked up the clean baby and began to kiss it and smell it, rubbing his stubbly chin in the soft creases of its neck. The little girl was beside herself with delight.

“Go and wash up for supper, Len,” Susie called from the stove. He put down the baby and began splashing in the tin basin, talking with his eyes shut.

“Susie, I’m in an awful temper. I can’t stand that damned wife of Claude’s!”

She was spearing roasting ears out of a big iron pot and looked up through the steam. “Why, have you seen her? I was listening on the telephone this morning and heard her tell Bayliss she would be in town until late.”

“Oh, yes! She went to town all right, and he’s over there eating a cold supper by himself. That woman’s a fanatic. She ain’t content with practising prohibition on humankind; she’s begun now on the hens.” While he placed the chairs and wheeled the baby up to the table, he explained Enid’s method of raising poultry to his wife. She said she really didn’t see any harm in it.

“Now be honest, Susie; did you ever know hens would keep on laying without a rooster?”

“No, I didn’t, but I was brought up the old-fashioned way. Enid has poultry books and garden books, and all such things. I don’t doubt she gets good ideas from them. But anyhow, you be careful. She’s our nearest neighbour, and I don’t want to have trouble with her.”

“I’ll have to keep out of her way, then. If she tries to do any missionary work among my chickens, I’ll tell her a few home truths her husband’s too bashful to tell her. It’s my opinion she’s got that boy cowed already.”

“Now, Len, you know she won’t bother your chickens. You keep quiet. But Claude does seem to sort of avoid people,” Susie admitted, filling her husband’s plate again. “Mrs. Joe Havel says Ernest don’t go to Claude’s any more. It seems Enid went over there and wanted Ernest to paste some Prohibition posters about fifteen million drunkards on their barn, for an example to the Bohemians. Ernest wouldn’t do it, and told her he was going to vote for saloons, and Enid was quite spiteful, Mrs. Havel said. It’s too bad, when those boys were such chums. I used to like to see them together.” Susie spoke so kindly that her husband shot her a quick glance of shy affection.

“Do you suppose Claude relished having that preacher visiting them, when they hadn’t been married two months? Sitting on the front porch in a white necktie every day, while Claude was out cutting wheat?”

“Well, anyhow, I guess Claude had more to eat when Brother Weldon was staying there. Preachers won’t be fed on calories, or whatever it is Enid calls ’em,” said Susie, who was given to looking on the bright side of things. “Claude’s wife keeps a wonderful kitchen; but so could I, if I never cooked any more than she does.”

Leonard gave her a meaning look. “I don’t believe you would live with the sort of man you could feed out of a tin can.”

“No, I don’t believe I would.” She pushed the buggy toward him. “Take her up, Daddy. She wants to play with you.”

Leonard set the baby on his shoulder and carried her off to show her the pigs. Susie kept laughing to herself as she cleared the table and washed the dishes; she was much amused by what her husband had told her.

Late that evening, when Leonard was starting for the barn to see that all was well before he went to bed, he observed a discreet black object rolling along the highroad in the moonlight, a red spark winking in the rear. He called Susie to the door.

“See, there she goes; going home to report the success of the meeting to Claude. Wouldn’t that be a nice way to have your wife coming in?”

“Now, Leonard, if Claude likes it—”

“Likes it?” Big Leonard drew himself up. “What can he do, poor kid? He’s stung!”