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

Book Two: Enid


CLAUDE was well enough to go into the fields before the harvest was over. The middle of July came, and the farmers were still cutting grain. The yield of wheat and oats was so heavy that there were not machines enough to thrash it within the usual time. Men had to await their turn, letting their grain stand in shock until a belching black engine lumbered into the field. Rains would have been disastrous; but this was one of those “good years” which farmers tell about, when everything goes well. At the time they needed rain, there was plenty of it; and now the days were miracles of dry, glittering heat.

Every morning the sun came up a red ball, quickly drank the dew, and started a quivering excitement in all living things. In great harvest seasons like that one, the heat, the intense light. and the important work in hand draw people together and make them friendly. Neighbours helped each other to cope with the burdensome abundance of man-nourishing grain; women and children and old men fell to and did what they could to save and house it. Even the horses had a more varied and sociable existence than usual, going about from one farm to another to help neighbour horses drag wagons and binders and headers. They nosed the colts of old friends, ate out of strange mangers, and drank, or refused to drink, out of strange water-troughs. Decrepit horses that lived on a pension, like the Wheelers’ stiff-legged Molly and Leonard Dawson’s Billy with the heaves—his asthmatic cough could be heard for a quarter of a mile—were pressed into service now. It was wonderful, too, how well these invalided beasts managed to keep up with the strong young mares and geldings; they bent their willing heads and pulled as if the chafing of the collar on their necks was sweet to them.

The sun was like a great visiting presence that stimulated and took its due from all animal energy. When it flung wide its cloak and stepped down over the edge of the fields at evening, it left behind it a spent and exhausted world. Horses and men and women grew thin, seethed all day in their own sweat. After supper they dropped over and slept anywhere at all, until the red dawn broke clear in the east again, like the fanfare of trumpets, and nerves and muscles began to quiver with the solar heat.

For several weeks Claude did not have time to read the newspapers; they lay about the house in bundles, unopened, for Nat Wheeler was in the field now, working like a giant. Almost every evening Claude ran down to the mill to see Enid for a few minutes; he did not get out of his car, and she sat on the old stile, left over from horse-back days, while she chatted with him. She said frankly that she didn’t like men who had just come out of the harvest field, and Claude did not blame her. He didn’t like himself very well after his clothes began to dry on him. But the hour or two between supper and bed was the only time he had to see anybody. He slept like the heroes of old; sank upon his bed as the thing he desired most on earth, and for a blissful moment felt the sweetness of sleep before it overpowered him. In the morning, he seemed to hear the shriek of his alarm clock for hours before he could come up from the deep places into which he had plunged. All sorts of incongruous adventures happened to him between the first buzz of the alarm and the moment when he was enough awake to put out his hand and stop it. He dreamed, for instance, that it was evening, and he had gone to see Enid as usual. While she was coming down the path from the house, he discovered that he had no clothes on at all! Then, with wonderful agility, he jumped over the picket fence into a clump of castor beans, and stood in the dusk, trying to cover himself with the leaves, like Adam in the garden, talking commonplaces to Enid through chattering teeth, afraid lest at any moment she might discover his plight.

Mrs. Wheeler and Mahailey always lost weight in thrashing-time, just as the horses did; this year Nat Wheeler had six hundred acres of winter wheat that would run close upon thirty bushels to the acre. Such a harvest was as hard on the women as it was on the men. Leonard Dawson’s wife, Susie, came over to help Mrs. Wheeler, but she was expecting a baby in the fall, and the heat proved too much for her. Then one of the Yoeder daughters came; but the methodical German girl was so distracted by Mahailey’s queer ways that Mrs. Wheeler said it was easier to do the work herself than to keep explaining Mahailey’s psychology. Day after day ten ravenous men sat down at the long dinner table in the kitchen. Mrs. Wheeler baked pies and cakes and bread loaves as fast as the oven would hold them, and from morning till night the range was stoked like the fire-box of a locomotive. Mahailey wrung the necks of chickens until her wrist swelled up, as she said, “like a puff-adder.”

By the end of July the excitement quieted down. The extra leaves were taken out of the dining table, the Wheeler horses had their barn to themselves again, and the reign of terror in the henhouse was over.

One evening Mr. Wheeler came down to supper with a bundle of newspapers under his arm. “Claude, I see this war scare in Europe has hit the market. Wheat’s taken a jump. They’re paying eighty-eight cents in Chicago. We might as well get rid of a few hundred bushel before it drops again. We’d better begin hauling tomorrow. You and I can make two trips a day over to Vicount, by changing teams,—there’s no grade to speak of.”

Mrs. Wheeler, arrested in the act of pouring coffee, sat holding the coffee-pot in the air, forgetting she had it. “If this is only a newspaper scare, as we think, I don’t see why it should affect the market,” she murmured mildly. “Surely those big bankers in New York and Boston have some way of knowing rumour from fact.”

“Give me some coffee, please,” said her husband testily. “I don’t have to explain the market, I’ve only got to take advantage of it.”

“But unless there’s some reason, why are we dragging our wheat over to Vicount? Do you suppose it’s some scheme the grain men are hiding under a war rumour? Have the financiers and the press ever deceived the public like this before?”

“I don’t know a thing in the world about it, Evangeline, and I don’t suppose. I telephoned the elevator at Vicount an hour ago, and they said they’d pay me seventy cents, subject to change in the morning quotations. Claude,” with a twinkle in his eye, “you’d better not go to mill tonight. Turn in early. If we are on the road by six tomorrow, we’ll be in town before the heat of the day.”

“All right, sir. I want to look at the papers after supper. I haven’t read anything but the headlines since before thrashing. Ernest was stirred up about the murder of that Grand Duke and said the Austrians would make trouble. But I never thought there was anything in it.”

“There’s seventy cents a bushel in it, anyway,” said his father, reaching for a hot biscuit.

“If there’s that much, I’m somehow afraid there will be more,” said Mrs. Wheeler thoughtfully. She had picked up the paper fly-brush and sat waving it irregularly, as if she were trying to brush away a swarm of confusing ideas.

“You might call up Ernest, and ask him what the Bohemian papers say about it,” Mr. Wheeler suggested.

Claude went to the telephone, but was unable to get any answer from the Havels. They had probably gone to a barn dance down in the Bohemian township. He event upstairs and sat down before an armchair full of newspapers; he could make nothing reasonable out of the smeary telegrams in big type on the front page of the Omaha World Herald. The German army was entering Luxembourg; he didn’t know where Luxembourg was, whether it was a city or a country; he seemed to have some vague idea that it was a palace! His mother had gone up to “Mahailey’s library,” the attic, to hunt for a map of Europe,—a thing for which Nebraska farmers had never had much need. But that night, on many prairie homesteads, the women, American and foreign-born, were hunting for a map.

Claude was so sleepy that he did not wait for his mother’s return. He stumbled upstairs and undressed in the dark. The night was sultry, with thunder clouds in the sky and an unceasing play of sheet-lightning all along the western horizon. Mosquitoes had got into his room during the day, and after he threw himself upon the bed they began sailing over him with their high, excruciating note. He turned from side to side and tried to muffle his ears with the pillow. The disquieting sound became merged, in his sleepy brain, with the big type on the front page of the paper; those black letters seemed to be flying about his head with a soft, high, sing-song whizz.