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

Book Three: Sunrise on the Prairie


FROM her upstairs window Mrs. Wheeler could see Claude moving back and forth in the west field, drilling wheat. She felt lonely for him. He didn’t come home as often as he might. She had begun to wonder whether he was one of those people who are always discontented; but whatever his disappointments were, he kept them locked in his own breast. One had to learn the lessons of life. Nevertheless, it made her a little sad to see him so settled and indifferent at twenty-three.

After watching from the window for a few moments, she turned to the telephone and called up Claude’s house, asking Enid whether she would mind if he came there for dinner. “Mahailey and I get lonesome with Mr. Wheeler away so much,” she added.

“Why, no, Mother Wheeler, of course not.” Enid spoke cheerfully, as she always did. “Have you any one there you can send over to tell him?”

“I thought I would walk over myself, Enid. It’s not far, if I take my time.”

Mrs. Wheeler left the house a little before noon and stopped at the creek to rest before she climbed the long hill. At the edge of the field she sat down against a grassy bank and waited until the horses came tramping up the long rows. Claude saw her and pulled them in.

“Anything wrong, Mother?” he called.

“Oh, no! I’m going to take you home for dinner with me, that’s all. I telephoned Enid.”

He unhooked his team, and he and his mother started down the hill together, walking behind the horses. Though they had not been alone like this for a long while, she felt it best to talk about impersonal things.

“Don’t let me forget to give you an article about the execution of that English nurse.”

“Edith Cavell? I’ve read about it,” he answered listlessly. “It’s nothing to be surprised at. If they could sink the Lusitania, they could shoot an English nurse, certainly.”

“Someway I feel as if this were different,” his mother murmured. “It’s like the hanging of John Brown. I wonder they could find soldiers to execute the sentence.”

“Oh, I guess they have plenty of such soldiers!”

Mrs. Wheeler looked up at him. “I don’t see how we can stay out of it much longer, do you? I suppose our army wouldn’t be a drop in the bucket, even if we could get it over. They tell us we can be more useful in our agriculture and manufactories than we could by going into the war. I only hope it isn’t campaign talk. I do distrust the Democrats.”

Claude laughed. “Why, Mother, I guess there’s no party politics in this.”

She shook her head. “I’ve never yet found a public question in which there wasn’t party politics. Well, we can only do our duty as it comes to us, and have faith. This field finishes your fall work?”

“Yes. I’ll have time to do some things about the place, now. I’m going to make a good ice-house and put up my own ice this winter.”

“Were you thinking of going up to Lincoln, for a little?”

“I guess not.”

Mrs. Wheeler sighed. His tone meant that he had turned his back on old pleasures and old friends.

“Have you and Enid taken tickets for the lecture course in Frankfort?”

“I think so, Mother,” he answered a little impatiently. “I told her she could attend to it when she was in town some day.”

“Of course,” his mother persevered, “some of the programs are not very good, but we ought to patronize them and make the best of what we have.”

He knew, and his mother knew, that he was not very good at that. His horses stopped at the water tank. “Don’t wait for me. I’ll be along in a minute.” Seeing her crestfallen face, he smiled. “Never mind, Mother, I can always catch you when you try to give me a pill in a raisin. One of us has to be pretty smart to fool the other.”

She blinked up at him with that smile in which her eyes almost disappeared. “I thought I was smart that time!”

It was a comfort, she reflected, as she hurried up the hill, to get hold of him again, to get his attention, even.

While Claude was washing for dinner, Mahailey came to him with a page of newspaper cartoons, illustrating German brutality. To her they were all photographs,—she knew no other way of making a picture.

“Mr. Claude,” she asked, “how comes it all them Germans is such ugly lookin’ people? The Yoeders and the German folks round here ain’t ugly lookin’.”

Claude put her off indulgently. “Maybe it’s the ugly ones that are doing the fighting, and the ones at home are nice, like our neighbours.”

“Then why don’t they make their soldiers stay home, an’ not go breakin’ other people’s things, an’ turnin’ ’em out of their houses,” she muttered indignantly. “They say little babies was born out in the snow last winter, an’ no fires for their mudders nor nothin’. ’Deed, Mr. Claude, it wasn’t like that in our war; the soldiers didn’t do nothin’ to the women an’ chillun. Many a time our house was full of Northern soldiers, an’ they never so much as broke a piece of my mudder’s chiney.”

“You’ll have to tell me about it again sometime, Mahailey. I must have my dinner and get back to work. If we don’t get our wheat in, those people over there won’t have anything to eat, you know.”

The picture papers meant a great deal to Mahailey, because she could faintly remember the Civil War. While she pored over photographs of camps and battlefields and devastated villages, things came back to her; the companies of dusty Union infantry that used to stop to drink at her mother’s cold mountain spring. She had seen them take off their boots and wash their bleeding feet in the run. Her mother had given one louse-bitten boy a clean shirt, and she had never forgotten the sight of his back, “as raw as beef where he’d scratched it.” Five of her brothers were in the Confederate army. When one was wounded in the second battle of Bull’s Run, her mother had borrowed a wagon and horses, gone a three days’ journey to the field hospital, and brought the boy home to the mountain. Mahailey could remember how her older sisters took turns pouring cold spring water on his gangrenous leg all day and all night. There were no doctors left in the neighbourhood, and as nobody could amputate the boy’s leg, he died by inches. Mahailey was the only person in the Wheeler household who had ever seen war with her own eyes, and she felt that this fact gave her a definite superiority.