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

Book One: On Lovely Creek


THE NEXT few weeks were busy ones on the farm. Before the wheat harvest was over, Nat Wheeler packed his leather trunk, put on his “store clothes,” and set off to take Tom Welted back to Maine. During his absence Ralph began to outfit for life in Yucca county. Ralph liked being a great man with the Frankfort merchants, and he had never before had such an opportunity as this. He bought a new shot gun, saddles, bridles, boots, long and short storm coats, a set of furniture for his own room, a fireless cooker, another music machine, and had them shipped to Colorado. His mother, who did not like phonograph music, and detested phonograph monologues, begged him to take the machine at home, but he assured her that she would be dull without it on winter evenings. He wanted one of the latest make, put out under the name of a great American inventor.

Some of the ranches near Wested’s were owned by New York men who brought their families out there in the summer Ralph had heard about the dances they gave, and he way counting on being one of the guests. He asked Claude to give him his dress suit, since Claude wouldn’t be needing it any more.

“You can have it if you want it,” said Claude indifferently “But it won’t fit you.”

“I’ll take it in to Fritz and have the pants cut off a little and the shoulders taken in,” his brother replied lightly.

Claude was impassive. “Go ahead. But if that old Dutch man takes a whack at it, it will look like the devil.”

“I think I’ll let him try. Father won’t say anything about what I’ve ordered for the house, but he isn’t much for glad rags, you know.” Without more ado he threw Claude’s black clothes into the back seat of the Ford and ran into town to enlist the services of the German tailor.

Mr. Wheeler, when he returned, thought Ralph had been rather free in expenditures, but Ralph told him it wouldn’t do to take over the new place too modestly. “The ranchers out there are all high-fliers. If we go to squeezing nickels, they won’t think we mean business.”

The country neighbours, who were always amused at the Wheelers’ doings, got almost as much pleasure out of Ralph’s lavishness as he did himself. One said Ralph had shipped a new piano out to Yucca county, another heard he had ordered a billiard table. August Yoeder, their prosperous German neighbour, asked grimly whether he could, maybe, get a place as hired man with Ralph. Leonard Dawson, who was to be married in October, hailed Claude in town one day and shouted;

“My God, Claude, there’s nothing left in the furniture store for me and Susie! Ralph’s bought everything but the coffins. He must be going to live like a prince out there.”

“I don’t know anything about it,” Claude answered coolly. “It’s not my enterprise.”

“No, you’ve got to stay on the old place and make it pay the debts, I understand.” Leonard jumped into his car, so that Claude wouldn’t have a chance to reply.

Mrs. Wheeler, too, when she observed the magnitude of these preparations, began to feel that the new arrangement was not fair to Claude, since he was the older boy and much the steadier. Claude had always worked hard when he was at home, and made a good field hand, while Ralph had never done much but tinker with machinery and run errands in his car. She couldn’t understand why he was selected to manage an undertaking in which so much money was invested.

“Why, Claude,” she said dreamily one day, “if your father were an older man, I would almost think his judgment had begun to fail. Won’t we get dreadfully into debt at this rate?”

“Don’t say anything, Mother. It’s Father’s money. He shan’t think I want any of it.”

“I wish I could talk to Bayliss. Has he said anything?”

“Not to me, he hasn’t.”

Ralph and Mr. Wheeler took another flying trip to Colorado, and when they came back Ralph began coaxing his mother to give him bedding and table linen. He said he wasn’t going to live like a savage, even in the sand hills. Mahailey was outraged to see the linen she had washed and ironed and taken care of for so many years packed into boxes. She was out of temper most of the time now, and went about muttering to herself.

The only possessions Mahailey brought with her when she came to live with the Wheelers, were a feather bed and three patchwork quilts, interlined with wool off the backs of Virginia sheep, washed and carded by hand. The quilts had been made by her old mother, and given to her for a marriage portion. The patchwork on each was done in a different design; one was the popular “log-cabin” pattern, another the “laurel-leaf,” the third the “blazing star.” This quilt Mahailey thought too good for use, and she had told Mrs. Wheeler that she was saving it “to give Mr. Claude when he got married.”

She slept on her feather bed in winter, and in summer she put it away in the attic. The attic was reached by a ladder. which, because of her weak back, Mrs. Wheeler very seldom climbed. Up there Mahailey had things her own way, and thither she often retired to air the bedding stored away there, or to look at the pictures in the piles of old magazines. Ralph facetiously called the attic “Mahailey’s library.”

One day, while things were being packed for the western ranch, Mrs. Wheeler, going to the foot of the ladder to call Mahailey, narrowly escaped being knocked down by a large feather bed which came plumping through the trap door. A moment later Mahailey herself descended backwards, holding to the rungs with one hand, and in the other arm carrying her quilts.

“Why, Mahailey,” gasped Mrs. Wheeler. “It’s not winter yet; whatever are you getting your bed for?”

“I’m just a-goin’ to lay on my fedder bed,” she broke out, “or direc’ly I won’t have none. I ain’t a-goin’ to have Mr. Ralph carryin’ off my quilts my mudder pieced fur me.”

Mrs. Wheeler tried to reason with her, but the old woman took up her bed in her arms and staggered down the hall with it, muttering and tossing her head like a horse in fly-time.

That afternoon Ralph brought a barrel and a bundle of straw into the kitchen and told Mahailey to carry up preserves and canned fruit, and he would pack them. She went obediently to the cellar, and Ralph took off his coat and began to line the barrel with straw. He was some time in doing this, but still Mahailey had not returned. He went to the head of the stairs and whistled.

“I’m a-comin’, Mr. Ralph, I’m a-comin’! Don’t hurry me, I don’t want to break nothin’.”

Ralph waited a few minutes. “What are you doing down there, Mahailey?” he fumed. “I could have emptied the whole cellar by this time. I suppose I’ll have to do it myself.”

“I’m a-comin’. You’d git yourself all dusty down here.” She came breathlessly up the stairs, carrying a hamper basket full of jars, her hands and face streaked with black.

“Well, I should say it is dusty!” Ralph snorted. “You might clean your fruit closet once in awhile, you know, Mahailey. You ought to see how Mrs. Dawson keeps hers. Now, let’s see.” He sorted the jars on the table. “Take back the grape jelly. If there’s anything I hate, it’s grape jelly. I know you have lots of it, but you can’t work it off on me. And when you come up, don’t forget the pickled peaches. I told you particularly, the pickled peaches!”

“We ain’t got no pickled peaches.” Mahailey stood by the cellar door, holding a corner of her apron up to her chin, with a queer, animal look of stubbornness in her face.

“No pickled peaches? What nonsense, Mahailey! I saw you making them here, only a few weeks ago.”

“I know you did, Mr. Ralph, but they ain’t none now. I didn’t have no luck with my peaches this year. I must ’a’ let the air git at ’em. They all worked on me, an’ I had to throw ’em out.”

Ralph was thoroughly annoyed. “I never heard of such a thing, Mahailey! You get more careless every year. Think of wasting all that fruit and sugar! Does mother know?”

Mahailey’s low brow clouded. “I reckon she does. I don’t wase your mudder’s sugar. I never did wase nothin’,” she muttered. Her speech became queerer than ever when she was angry.

Ralph dashed down the cellar stairs, lit a lantern, and searched the fruit closet. Sure enough, there were no pickled peaches. When he came back and began packing his fruit, Mahailey stood watching him with a furtive expression, very much like the look that is in a chained coyote’s eyes when a boy is showing him off to visitors and saying he wouldn’t run away if he could.

“Go on with your work,” Ralph snapped. “Don’t stand there watching me!”

That evening Claude was sitting on the windmill platform, down by the barn, after a hard day’s work ploughing for winter wheat. He was solacing himself with his pipe. No matter how much she loved him, or how sorry she felt for him, his mother could never bring herself to tell him he might smoke in the house. Lights were shining from the upstairs rooms on the hill, and through the open windows sounded the singing snarl of a phonograph. A figure came stealing down the path. He knew by her low, padding step that it was Mahailey, with her apron thrown over her head. She came up to him and touched him on the shoulder in a way which meant that what she had to say was confidential.

“Mr. Claude, Mr. Ralph’s done packed up a barr’l of your mudder’s jelly an’ pickles to take out there.”

“That’s all right, Mahailey. Mr. Wested was a widower, and I guess there wasn’t anything of that sort put up at his place.”

She hesitated and bent lower. “He asked me fur them pickled peaches I made fur you, but I didn’t give him none. I hid ’em all in my old cook-stove we done put down cellar when Mr. Ralph bought the new one. I didn’t give him your mudder’s new preserves, nudder. I give him the old last year’s stuff we had left over, and now you an’ your mudder’ll have plenty.”

Claude laughed. “Oh, I don’t care if Ralph takes all the fruit on the place, Mahailey!”

She shrank back a little, saying confusedly, “No, I know you don’t, Mr. Claude. I know you don’t.”

“I surely ought not to take it out on her,” Claude thought, when he saw her disappointment. He rose and patted her on the back. “That’s all right, Mahailey. Thank you for saving the peaches, anyhow.”

She shook her finger at him. “Don’t you let on!”

He promised, and watched her slipping back over the zigzag path up the hill.