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

Book One: On Lovely Creek


CLAUDE’S bedroom faced the east. The next morning, when he looked out of his windows, only the tops of the cedars in the front yard were visible. Hurriedly putting on his clothes he ran to the west window at the end of the hall; Lovely Creek, and the deep ravine in which it flowed, had disappeared as if they had never been. The rough pasture was like a smooth field, except for humps and mounds like haycocks, where the snow had drifted over a post or a bush.

At the kitchen stairs Mahailey met him in gleeful excitement. “Lord ’a’ mercy, Mr. Claude, I can’t git the storm door open. We’re snowed in fas’.” She looked like a tramp woman, in a jacket patched with many colours, her head tied up in an old black “fascinator,” with ravelled yarn hanging down over her face like wild locks of hair. She kept this costume for calamitous occasions; appeared in it when the water-pipes were frozen and burst, or when spring storms flooded the coops and drowned her young chickens.

The storm door opened outward. Claude put his shoulder to it and pushed it a little way. Then, with Mahailey’s fireshovel he dislodged enough snow to enable him to force back the door. Dan came tramping in his stocking-feet across the kitchen to his boots, which were still drying behind the stove. “She’s sure a bad one, Claude,” he remarked, blinking.

“Yes. I guess we won’t try to go out till after breakfast. We’ll have to dig our way to the barn, and I never thought to bring the shovels up last night.”

“Th’ ole snow shovels is in the cellar. I’ll git ’em.”

“Not now, Mahailey. Give us our breakfast before you do anything else.”

Mrs. Wheeler came down, pinning on her little shawl, her shoulders more bent than usual. “Claude,” she said fearfully, “the cedars in the front yard are all but covered. Do you suppose our cattle could be buried?”

He laughed. “No, Mother. The cattle have been moving around all night, I expect.”

When the two men started out with the wooden snow shovels, Mrs. Wheeler and Mahailey stood in the doorway, watching them. For a short distance from the house the path they dug was like a tunnel, and the white walls on either side were higher than their heads. On the breast of the hill the snow was not so deep, and they made better headway. They had to fight through a second heavy drift before they reached the barn, where they went in and warmed themselves among the horses and cows. Dan was for getting next a warm cow and beginning to milk.

“Not yet,” said Claude. “I want to have a look at the hogs before we do anything here.”

The hog-house was built down in a draw behind the barn. When Claude reached the edge of the gully, blown almost bare, he could look about him. The draw was full of snow, smooth … except in the middle, where there was a rumpled depression, resembling a great heap of tumbled bed-linen.

Dan gasped. “God a’ mighty, Claude, the roof’s fell in! Them hogs’ll be smothered.”

“They will if we don’t get at them pretty quick. Run to the house and tell Mother Mahailey will have to milk this morning, and get back here as fast as you can.”

The roof was a flat thatch, and the weight of the snow had been too much for it. Claude wondered if he should have put on a new thatch that fall; but the old one wasn’t leaky, and had seemed strong enough.

When Dan got back they took turns, one going ahead and throwing out as much snow as he could, the other handling the snow that fell back. After an hour or so of this work, Dan leaned on his shovel.

“We’ll never do it, Claude. Two men couldn’t throw all that snow out in a week. I’m about all in.”

“Well, you can go back to the house and sit by the fire,” Claude called fiercely. He had taken off his coat and was working in his shirt and sweater. The sweat was rolling from his face, his back and arms ached, and his hands, which he couldn’t keep dry, were blistered. There were thirty-seven hogs in the hog-house.

Dan sat down in the hole. “Maybe if I could git a drink of water, I could hold on a-ways,” he said dejectedly.

It was past noon when they got into the shed; a cloud of steam rose, and they heard grunts. They found the pigs all lying in a heap at one end, and pulled the top ones off alive and squealing. Twelve hogs, at the bottom of the pile, had been suffocated. They lay there wet and black in the snow, their bodies warm and smoking, but they were dead; there was no mistaking that.

Mrs. Wheeler, in her husband’s rubber boots and an old overcoat, came down with Mahailey to view the scene of disaster.

“You ought to git right at them hawgs an’ butcher ’em today,” Mahailey called down to the men. She was standing on the edge of the draw, in her patched jacket and ravelled hood.

Claude, down in the hole, brushed the sleeve of his sweater across his streaming face. “Butcher them?” he cried indignantly. “I wouldn’t butcher them if I never saw meat again.”

“You ain’t a-goin’ to let all that good hawg-meat go to wase, air you, Mr. Claude?” Mahailey pleaded. “They didn’t have no sickness nor nuthin’. Only you’ll have to git right at ’em, or the meat won’t be healthy.”

“It wouldn’t be healthy for me, anyhow. I don’t know what I will do with them, but I’m mighty sure I won’t butcher them.”

“Don’t bother him, Mahailey,” Mrs. Wheeler cautioned her. “He’s tired, and he has to fix some place for the live hogs.”

“I know he is, mam, but I could easy cut up one of them hawgs myself. I butchered my own little pig onct, in Virginia. I could save the hams, anyways, and the spare-ribs. We ain’t had no spare-ribs for ever so long.”

What with the ache in his back and his chagrin at losing the pigs, Claude was feeling desperate. “Mother,” he shouted, “if you don’t take Mahailey into the house, I’ll go crazy!”

That evening Mrs. Wheeler asked him how much the twelve hogs would have been worth in money. He looked a little startled.

“Oh, I don’t know exactly; three hundred dollars, anyway.”

“Would it really be as much as that? I don’t see how we could have prevented it, do you?” Her face looked troubled.

Claude went to bed immediately after supper, but he had no sooner stretched his aching body between the sheets than he began to feel wakeful. He was humiliated at losing the pigs, because they had been left in his charge; but for the loss in money, about which even his mother was grieved, he didn’t seem to care. He wondered whether all that winter he hadn’t been working himself up into a childish contempt for money-values.

When Ralph was home at Christmas time, he wore on his little finger a heavy gold ring, with a diamond as big as a pea, surrounded by showy grooves in the metal. He admitted to Claude that he had won it in a poker game. Ralph’s hands were never free from automobile grease—they were the red, stumpy kind that couldn’t be kept clean. Claude remembered him milking in the barn by lantern light, his jewel throwing off jabbing sparkles of colour, and his fingers looking very much like the teats of the cow. That picture rose before him now, as a symbol of what successful farming led to.

The farmer raised and took to market things with an intrinsic value; wheat and corn as good as could be grown anywhere in the world, hogs and cattle that were the best of their kind. In return he got manufactured articles of poor quality; showy furniture that went to pieces, carpets and draperies that faded, clothes that made a handsome man look like a clown. Most of his money was paid out for machinery,—and that, too, went to pieces. A steam thrasher didn’t last long; a horse outlived three automobiles.

Claude felt sure that when he was a little boy and all the neighbours were poor, they and their houses and farms had more individuality. The farmers took time then to plant fine cottonwood groves on their places, and to set osage orange hedges along the borders of their fields. Now these trees were all being cut down and grubbed up. Just why, nobody knew; they impoverished the land … they made the snow drift … nobody had them any more. With prosperity came a kind of callousness; everybody wanted to destroy the old things they used to take pride in. The orchards, which had been nursed and tended so carefully twenty years ago, were now left to die of neglect. It was less trouble to run into town in an automobile and buy fruit than it was to raise it.

The people themselves had changed. He could remember when all the farmers in this community were friendly toward each other; now they were continually having lawsuits. Their sons were either stingy and grasping, or extravagant and lazy, and they were always stirring up trouble. Evidently, it took more intelligence to spend money than to make it.

When he pondered upon this conclusion, Claude thought of the Erlichs. Julius could go abroad and study for his doctor’s degree, and live on less than Ralph wasted every year. Ralph would never have a profession or a trade, would never do or make anything the world needed.

Nor did Claude find his own outlook much better. He was twenty-one years old, and he had no skill, no training,—no ability that would ever take him among the kind of people he admired. He was a clumsy, awkward farmer boy, and even Mrs. Erlich seemed to think the farm the best place for him. Probably it was; but all the same he didn’t find this kind of life worth the trouble of getting up every morning. He could not see the use of working for money, when money brought nothing one wanted. Mrs. Erlich said it brought security. Sometimes he thought this security was what was the matter with everybody; that only perfect safety was required to kill all the best qualities in people and develop the mean ones.

Ernest, too, said “it’s the best life in the world, Claude.” But if you went to bed defeated every night, and dreaded to wake in the morning, then clearly it was too good a life for you. To be assured, at his age, of three meals a day and plenty of sleep, was like being assured of a decent burial. Safety, security; if you followed that reasoning out, then the unborn, those who would never be born, were the safest of all; nothing could happen to them.

Claude knew, and everybody else knew, seemingly, that there was something wrong with him. He had been unable to conceal his discontent. Mr. Wheeler was afraid he was one of those visionary fellows who make unnecessary difficulties for themselves and other people. Mrs. Wheeler thought the trouble with her son was that he had not yet found his Saviour. Bayliss was convinced that his brother was a moral rebel, that behind his reticence and his guarded manner he concealed the most dangerous opinions. The neighbours liked Claude, but they laughed at him, and said it was a good thing his father was well fixed. Claude was aware that his energy, instead of accomplishing something, was spent in resisting unalterable conditions, and in unavailing efforts to subdue his own nature. When he thought he had at last got himself in hand, a moment would undo the work of days; in a flash he would be transformed from a wooden post into a living boy. He would spring to his feet, turn over quickly in bed, or stop short in his walk, because the old belief flashed up in him with an intense kind of hope, an intense kind of pain,—the conviction that there was something splendid about life, if he could but find it!