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

Book One: On Lovely Creek


ON the Sunday after Christmas Claude and Ernest were walking along the banks of Lovely Creek. They had been as far as Mr. Wheeler’s timber claim and back. It was like an autumn afternoon, so warm that they left their overcoats on the limb of a crooked elm by the pasture fence. The fields and the bare tree-tops seemed to be swimming in light. A few brown leaves still clung to the bushy trees along the creek. In the upper pasture, more than a mile from the house, the boys found a bittersweet vine that wound about a little dogwood and covered it with scarlet berries. It was like finding a Christmas tree growing wild out of doors. They had just been talking about some of the books Claude had brought home, and his history course. He was not able to tell Ernest as much about the lectures as he had meant to, and he felt that this was more Ernest’s fault than his own; Ernest was such a literal-minded fellow. When they came upon the bittersweet, they forgot their discussion and scrambled down the bank to admire the red clusters on the woody, smoke-coloured vine, and its pale gold leaves, ready to fall at a touch. The vine and the little tree it honoured, hidden away in the cleft of a ravine, had escaped the stripping winds, and the eyes of schoolchildren who sometimes took a short cut home through the pasture. At its roots, the creek trickled thinly along, black between two jagged crusts of melting ice.

When they left the spot and climbed back to the level, Claude again felt an itching to prod Ernest out of his mild and reasonable mood.

“What are you going to do after a while, Ernest? Do you mean to farm all your life?”

“Naturally. If I were going to learn a trade, I’d be at it before now. What makes you ask that?”

“Oh, I don’t know! I suppose people must think about the future sometime. And you’re so practical.”

“The future, eh?” Ernest shut one eye and smiled. “That’s a big word. After I get a place of my own and have a good start, I’m going home to see my old folks some winter. Maybe I’ll marry a nice girl and bring her back.”

“Is that all?”

“That’s enough, if it turns out right, isn’t it?”

“Perhaps. It wouldn’t be for me. I don’t believe I can ever settle down to anything. Don’t you feel that at this rate there isn’t much in it?”

“In what?”

“In living at all, going on as we do. What do we get out of it? Take a day like this: you waken up in the morning and you’re glad to be alive; it’s a good enough day for anything, and you feel sure something will happen. Well, whether it’s a workday or a holiday, it’s all the same in the end. At night you go to bed—nothing has happened.”

“But what do you expect? What can happen to you, except in your own mind? If I get through my work, and get an afternoon off to see my friends like this, it’s enough for me.”

“Is it? Well, if we’ve only got once to live, it seems like there ought to be something—well, something splendid about life, sometimes.”

Ernest was sympathetic now. He drew nearer to Claude as they walked along and looked at him sidewise with concern. “You Americans are always looking for something outside yourselves to warm you up, and it is no way to do. In old countries, where not very much can happen to us, we know that,—and we learn to make the most of little things.”

“The martyrs must have found something outside themselves. Otherwise they could have made themselves comfortable with little things.”

“Why, I should say they were the ones who had nothing but their idea! It would be ridiculous to get burned at the stake for the sensation. Sometimes I think the martyrs had a good deal of vanity to help them along, too.”

Claude thought Ernest had never been so tiresome. He squinted at a bright object across the fields and said cuttingly, “The fact is, Ernest, you think a man ought to be satisfied with his board and clothes and Sundays off, don’t you?”

Ernest laughed rather mournfully. “It doesn’t matter much what I think about it; things are as they are. Nothing is going to reach down from the sky and pick a man up, I guess.”

Claude muttered something to himself, twisting his chin about over his collar as if he had a bridle-bit in his mouth.

The sun had dropped low, and the two boys, as Mrs. Wheeler watched them from the kitchen window, seemed to be walking beside a prairie fire. She smiled as she saw their black figures moving along on the crest of the hill against the golden sky; even at that distance the one looked so adaptable, and the other so unyielding. They were arguing, probably, and probably Claude was on the wrong side.