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

Book Three: Sunrise on the Prairie


CAMP habits persisted. On his first morning at home Claude came downstairs before even Mahailey was stirring, and went out to have a look at the stock. The red sun came up just as he was going down the hill toward the cattle corral, and he had the pleasant feeling of being at home, on his father’s land. Why was it so gratifying to be able to say “our hill,” and “our creek down yonder”? to feel the crunch of this particular dried mud under his boots?

When he went into the barn to see the horses, the first creatures to meet his eye were the two big mules that had run away with him, standing in the stalls next the door. It flashed upon Claude that these muscular quadrupeds were the actual authors of his fate. If they had not bolted with him and thrown him into the wire fence that morning, Enid would not have felt sorry for him and come to see him every day, and his life might have turned out differently. Perhaps if older people were a little more honest, and a boy were not taught to idealize in women the very qualities which can make him utterly unhappy— But there, he had got away from those regrets. But wasn’t it just like him to be dragged into matrimony by a pair of mules!

He laughed as he looked at them. “You old devils, you’re strong enough to play such tricks on green fellows for years to come. You’re chock full of meanness!”

One of the animals wagged an ear and cleared his throat threateningly. Mules are capable of strong affections, but they hate snobs, are the enemies of caste, and this pair had always seemed to detect in Claude what his father used to call his “false pride.” When he was a young lad they had been a source of humiliation to him, braying and balking in public places, trying to show off at the lumber yard or in front of the post office.

At the end manger Claude found old Molly, the grey mare with the stiff leg, who had grown a second hoof on her off forefoot, an achievement not many horses could boast of. He was sure she recognized him; she nosed his hand and arm and turned back her upper lip, showing her worn, yellow teeth.

“Mustn’t do that, Molly,” he said as he stroked her. “A dog can laugh, but it makes a horse look foolish. Seems to me Dan might curry you about once a week!” He took a comb from its niche behind a joist and gave her old coat a rubbing. Her white hair was flecked all over with little rust-coloured dashes, like India ink put on with a fine brush, and her mane and tail had turned a greenish yellow. She must be eighteen years old, Claude reckoned, as he polished off her round, heavy haunches. He and Ralph used to ride her over to the Yoeders’ when they were barefoot youngsters, guiding her with a rope halter, and kicking at the leggy colt that was always running alongside.

When he entered the kitchen and asked Mahailey for warm water to wash his hands, she sniffed him disapprovingly.

“Why, Mr. Claude, you’ve been curryin’ that old mare, and you’ve got white hairs all over your soldier-clothes. You’re jist covered!”

If his uniform stirred feeling in people of sober judgment, over Mahailey it cast a spell. She was so dazzled by it that all the time Claude was at home she never once managed to examine it in detail. Before she got past his puttees, her powers of observation were befogged by excitement, and her wits began to jump about like monkeys in a cage. She had expected his uniform to be blue, like those she remembered, and when he walked into the kitchen last night she scarcely knew what to make of him. After Mrs. Wheeler explained to her that American soldiers didn’t wear blue now, Mahailey repeated to herself that these brown clothes didn’t show the dust, and that Claude would never look like the bedraggled men who used to stop to drink at her mother’s spring.

“Them leather leggins is to keep the briars from scratchin’ you, ain’t they? I ’spect there’s an awful lot of briars over there, like them long blackberry vines in the fields in Virginia. Your madder says the soldiers git lice now, like they done in our war. You jist carry a little bottle of coal-oil in your pocket an’ rub it on your head at night. It keeps the nits from hatchin’.”

Over the flour barrel in the corner Mahailey had tacked a Red Cross poster; a charcoal drawing of an old woman poking with a stick in a pile of plaster and twisted timbers that had once been her home. Claude went over to look at it while he dried his hands.

“Where did you get your picture?”

“She’s over there where you’re goin’, Mr. Claude. There she is, huntin’ for somethin’ to cook with; no stove nor no dishes nor nothin’—everything all broke up. I reckon she’ll be mighty glad to see you comin’.”

Heavy footsteps sounded on the stairs, and Mahailey whispered hastily, “Don’t forgit about the coal-oil, and don’t you be lousy if you can help it, honey.” She considered lice in the same class with smutty jokes,—things to be whispered about.

After breakfast Mr. Wheeler took Claude out to the fields, where Ralph was directing the harvesters. They watched the binder for a while, then went over to look at the haystacks and alfalfa, and walked along the edge of the cornfield, where they examined the young ears. Mr. Wheeler explained and exhibited the farm to Claude as if he were a stranger; the boy had a curious feeling of being now formally introduced to these acres on which he had worked every summer since he was big enough to carry water to the harvesters. His father told him how much land they owned, and how much it was worth, and that it was unencumbered except for a trifling mortgage he had given on one quarter when he took over the Colorado ranch.

“When you come back,” he said, “you and Ralph won’t have to hunt around to get into business. You’ll both be well fixed. Now you’d better go home by old man Dawson’s and drop in to see Susie. Everybody about here was astonished when Leonard went.” He walked with Claude to the corner where the Dawson land met his own. “By the way,” he said as he turned back, “don’t forget to go in to see the Yoeders sometime. Gus is pretty sore since they had him up in court. Ask for the old grandmother. You remember she never learned any English. And now they’ve told her it’s dangerous to talk German, she don’t talk at all and hides away from everybody. If I go by early in the morning, when she’s out weeding the garden, she runs and squats down in the gooseberry bushes till I’m out of sight.”

Claude decided he would go to the Yoeders’ today, and to the Dawsons’ tomorrow. He didn’t like to think there might be hard feeling toward him in a house where he had had so many good times, and where he had often found a refuge when things were dull at home. The Yoeder boys had a music-box long before the days of Victrolas, and a magic lantern, and the old grandmother made wonderful shadow-pictures on a sheet, and told stories about them. She used to turn the map of Europe upside down on the kitchen table and showed the children how, in this position, it looked like a Jungfrau; and recited a long German rhyme which told how Spain was the maiden’s head, the Pyrenees her lace ruff, Germany her heart and bosom, England and Italy were two arms, and Russia, though it looked so big, was only a hoopskirt. This rhyme would probably be condemned as dangerous propaganda now!

As he walked on alone, Claude was thinking how this country that had once seemed little and dull to him, now seemed large and rich in variety. During the months in camp he had been wholly absorbed in new work and new friendships, and now his own neighbourhood came to him with the freshness of things that have been forgotten for a long while,—came together before his eyes as a harmonious whole. He was going away, and he would carry the whole countryside in his mind, meaning more to him than it ever had before. There was Lovely Creek, gurgling on down there, where he and Ernest used to sit and lament that the book of History was finished; that the world had come to avaricious old age and noble enterprise was dead for ever. But he was going away.…

That afternoon Claude spent with his mother. It was the first time she had had him to herself. Ralph wanted terribly to stay and hear his brother talk, but understanding how his mother felt, he went back to the wheat field. There was no detail of Claude’s life in camp so trivial that Mrs. Wheeler did not want to hear about it. She asked about the mess, the cooks, the laundry, as well as about his own duties. She made him describe the bayonet drill and explain the operation of machine guns and automatic rifles.

“I hardly see how we can bear the anxiety when our transports begin to sail,” she said thoughtfully. “If they can once get you all over there, I am not afraid; I believe our boys are as good as any in the world. But with submarines reported off our own coast, I wonder how the Government can get our men across safely. The thought of transports going down with thousands of young men on board is something so terrible—” she put her hands quickly over her eyes.

Claude, sitting opposite his mother, wondered what it was about her hands that made them so different from any others he had ever seen. He had always known they were different, but now he must look closely and see why. They were slender, and always white, even when the nails were stained at preserving time. Her fingers arched back at the joints, as if they were shrinking from contacts. They were restless, and when she talked often brushed her hair or her dress lightly. When she was excited she sometimes put her hand to her throat, or felt about the neck of her gown, as if she were searching for a forgotten brooch. They were sensitive hands, and yet they seemed to have nothing to do with sense, to be almost like the groping fingers of a spirit.

“How do you boys feel about it?”

Claude started. “About what, Mother? Oh, the transportation! We don’t worry about that. It’s the Government’s job to get us across. A soldier mustn’t worry about anything except what he’s directly responsible for. If the Germans should sink a few troop ships, it would be unfortunate, certainly,—but it wouldn’t cut any figure in the long run. The British are perfecting an enormous dirigible, built to carry passengers. If our transports are sunk, it will only mean delay. In another year the Yankees will be flying over. They can’t stop us.”

Mrs. Wheeler bent forward. “That must be boys’ talk, Claude. Surely you don’t believe such a thing could be practicable?”

“Absolutely. The British are depending on their aircraft designers to do just that, if everything else fails. Of course, nobody knows yet how effective the submarines will be in our case.”

Mrs. Wheeler again shaded her eyes with her hand. “When I was young, back in Vermont, I used to wish that I had lived in the old times when the world went ahead by leaps and bounds. And now, I feel as if my sight couldn’t bear the glory that beats upon it. It seems as if we would have to be born with new faculties, to comprehend what is going on in the air and under the sea.”