AMONG THE CORN ROWS
"But the road sometimes passes a rich meadow, where the songs of larks and bobolinks and blackbirds are tangled."
ROB held up his hands, from which the dough depended in ragged strings.
"Biscuits," he said with an elaborate working of his jaws, intended to convey the idea that they were going to be specially delicious.
Seagraves laughed, but did not enter the shanty door. "How do you like baching it?"
"Oh, don't mention it!" entreated Rob, mauling the dough again. " Come in an' sit down. Why in thunder y' standin' out there for?"
"Oh, I'd rather be where I can see the prairie. Great weather!"
"How goes breaking?"
"Tip-top! A leetle dry now; but the bulls pull the plow through two acres a day. How's things in Boomtown?"
"Oh, same old grind."
"Judge still lyin'?"
"Still at it."
"Major Mullens still swearin' to it?"
"You hit it like a mallet. Railroad schemes are thicker'n prairie chickens. You've got grit, Rob. I don't have anything but crackers and sardines over to my shanty, and here you are making soda biscuit."
"I have t' do it. Couldn't break if I didn't. You editors c'n take things easy, lay around on the prairie, and watch the plovers and medderlarks; but we settlers have got to work."
Leaving Rob to sputter over his cooking, Seagraves took his slow way off down toward the oxen grazing in a little hollow. The scene was characteristically, wonderfully beautiful. It was about five o'clock in a day in late June, and the level plain was green and yellow, and infinite in reach as a sea; the lowering sun was casting over its distant swells a faint impalpable mist, through which the breaking teams on the neighboring claims plowed noiselessly, as figures in a dream. The whistle of gophers, the faint, wailing, fluttering cry of the falling plover, the whir of the swift-winged prairie pigeon, or the quack of a lonely duck, came through the shimmering air. The lark's infrequent whistle, piercingly sweet, broke from the longer grass m the swales nearby. No other climate, sky, plain, could produce the same unnamable weird charm. No tree to wave, no grass to rustle; scarcely a sound of domestic life; only the faint melancholy soughing of the wind in the short grass, and the voices of the wild things of the prairie.
Seagraves, an impressionable young man (junior editor of the Boomtown Spike), threw himself down on the sod, pulled his hat rim down over his eyes, and looked away over the plain. It was the second year of Boomtown's existence, and Seagraves had not yet grown restless under its monotony. Around him the gophers played saucily. Teams were moving here and there across the sod, with a peculiar noiseless, effortless motion that made them seem as calm, lazy, and unsubstantial as the mist through which they made their way; even the sound of passing wagons was a sort of low, well-fed, self-satisfied chuckle.
Seagraves, "holding down a claim" near Rob, had come to see his neighboring "bach" because of feeling the need of company; but now that he was near enough to hear him prancing about getting supper, he was content to lie alone on a slope of the green sod.
The silence of the prairie at night was well-nigh terrible. Many a night, as Seagraves lay in his bunk against the side of his cabin, he would strain his ear to hear the slightest sound, and he listening thus sometimes for minutes before the squeak of a mouse or the step of a passing fox came as a relief to the aching sense. In the daytime, however, and especially on a morning, the prairie was another thing. The pigeons, the larks; the cranes, the multitudinous voices of the ground birds and snipes and insects, made the air pulsate with sound--a chorus that died away into an infinite murmur of music.
"Hello, Seagraves!" yelled Rob from the door. "The biscuit are 'most done."
Seagraves did not speak, only nodded his head and slowly rose. The faint clouds in the west were getting a superb flame color above and a misty purple below, and the sun had shot them with lances of yellow light. As the air grew denser with moisture, the sounds of neighboring life began to reach the ear. Children screamed and laughed, and afar off a woman was singing a lullaby. The rattle of wagons and voices of men speaking to their teams multiplied. Ducks in a neighboring lowland were quacking. The whole scene took hold upon Seagraves with irresistible power.
"It is American," he exclaimed. 'No other land or time can match this mellow air, this wealth of color, much less the strange social conditions of life on this sunlit Dakota prairie."
Rob, though visibly affected by the scene also, couldn't let his biscuit spoil or go without proper attention.
"Say, ain't y' comin' t' grub?" he asked impatiently.
"Th a minute," replied his friend, taking a last wistful look at the scene. "I want one more look at the landscape."
"Landscape be blessed! If you'd been breakin' all day--Come, take that stool an' draw up."
"No; I'll take the candle box."
"Not much. I know what manners are, if I am a bull driver."
Seagraves took the three-legged and rather precarious-looking stool and drew up to the table, which was a flat broad box nailed up against the side of the wall, with two strips of board nailed at the outer corners for legs.
"How's that f'r a layout?" Rob inquired proudly.
"Well, you have spread yourself! Biscuit and canned peaches and sardines and cheese. Why, this is--is--prodigal."
"It ain't nothin' else."
Rob was from one of the finest counties of Wisconsin, over toward Milwaukee. He was of German parentage, a middle-sized, cheery, wide-awake, good-looking young fellow--a typical claimholder. He was always confident, jovial, and full of plans for the future. He had dug his own well, built his own shanty, washed and mended his own clothing. He could do anything, and do it well. He had a fine field of wheat, and was finishing the plowing of his entire quarter section.
"This is what I call settin' under a feller's own vine an' fig tree"--after Seagraves's compliments--"an' I like it. I'm my own boss. No man can say 'come here' 'n' 'go there' to me. I get up when I'm a min' to, an' go t' bed when I'm a min' t'."
"Some drawbacks, I s'pose?"
"Yes. Mice, f'r instance, give me a devilish lot o' trouble. They get into my flour barrel, eat up my cheese, an' fall into my well. But it ain't no use t' swear."
"The rats and the mlce they made such a strife He had to go to London to buy him a wife,"
quoted Seagraves. "Don't blush. I've probed your secret thought."
"Well, to tell the honest truth," said Rob a little sheepishly, leaning across the table, "I ain't satisfied with my style o' cookin'. It's good, but a little too plain, y' know. I'd like a change. It ain't much fun to break all day and then go to work an' cook y'r own supper."
"No, I should say not."
"This fall I'm going back to Wisconsin. Girls are thick as huckleberries back there, and I'm goin' t' bring one back, now you hear me."
"Good! That's the plan," laughed Seagraves, amused at a certain timid and apprehensive look in his companion's eye. "Just think what a woman 'd do to put this shanty in shape; and think how nice it would be to take her arm and saunter out after supper, and look at the farm, and plan and lay out gardens and paths, and tend the chickens!"
Rob's manly and self-reliant nature had the settler's typical buoyancy and hopefulness, as well as a certain power of analysis, which enabled him now to say: "The fact is, we fellers holdin' down claims out here ain't fools clear to the rine. We know a couple o' things. Now I didn't leave Waupac County f'r fun. Did y' ever see Wanpac? Well, it's one o' the handsomest counties the sun ever shone on, full o' lakes and rivers and groves of timber. I miss 'em all out here, and I miss the boys an' girls; but they wa'n't no chance there f'r a feller. Land that was good was so blamed high you couldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole from a balloon. Rent was high, if you wanted t' rent, an' so a feller like me had t' get out, an' now I'm out here, I'm goin' f make the most of it. Another thing," he went on, after a pause--"we fellers workin' out back there got more 'n' more like hands, an' less like human beings. Y'know, Waupac is a kind of a summer resort, and the people that use' t' come in summers looked down on us cusses in the fields an' shops. I couldn't stand it. By God!" he said with a sudden im pulse of rage quite unlike him, "I'd rather live on an ice-berg and claw crabs f'r a livin' than have some feller passin' me on the road an' callin' me fellah!'"
Seagraves knew what he meant and listened in astonishment at this outburst.
"I consider myself a sight better 'n any man who lives on somebody else's hard work. I've never had a cent I didn't earn with them hands." He held them up and broke into a grin. "Beauties, ain't they? But they never wore gloves that some other poor cuss earned."
Seagraves thought them grand hands, worthy to grasp the hand of any man or woman living.
"Well, so I come West, just like a thousand other fellers, to get a start where the cussed European aristocracy hadn't got a holt on the people. I like it here--course I'd like the lakes an' meadows of Waupac better--but I'm my own boss, as I say, an' I'm goin' to stay my own boss if I haf to live on crackers an' wheat coffee to do it; that's the kind of a hairpin I am."
In the pause which followed, Seagraves, plunged deep into thought by Rob's words, leaned his head on his hand. This working farmer had voiced the modem idea. It was an absolute overturn of all the ideas of nobility and special privilege born of the feudal past. Rob had spoken upon impulse, but that impulse appeared to Seagraves to be right.
"I'd like to use your idea for an editorial, Rob," he said.
"My ideas!" exclaimed the astounded host, pausing in the act of filling his pipe. "My ideas! why, I didn't know I had any."
"Well, you've given me some, anyhow."
Seagraves felt that it was a wild, grand upstirring of the modern democrat against the aristocratic, against the idea of caste and the privilege of living on the labor of others. This atom of humanity (how infinitesimal this drop in the ocean of humanity!) was feeling the nameless longing of expanding personality, and had already pierced the conventions of society and declared as nil the laws of the land--laws that were survivals of hate and prejudice. He had exposed also the native spring of the emigrant by uttering the feeling that it is better to be an equal among peasants than a servant before nobles.
"So I have good reasons f'r liking the country," Rob resumed in a quiet way. "The soil is rich, the climate good so far, an' if I have a couple o' decent crops you'll see a neat upright goin' up here, with a porch and a bay winder."
"And you'll still be livin' here alone, frying leathery slapjacks an' choppin' taters and bacon."
"I think I see myself," drawled Rob, "goin' around all summer wearin' the same shirt without washin', an' wipin' on the same towel four straight weeks, an' wearin' holes in my socks, an' eatin' musty gingersnaps, moldy bacon, an' canned Boston beans f'r the rest o' my endurin' days! Oh, yes; I guess not! Well, see y' later. Must go water my bulls."
As he went off down the slope, Seagraves smiled to hear him sing:
"I wish that some kindhearted girl Would pity on me take, And extricate me from the mess I'm in. The angel--how I'd bless her, li this her home she'd make, In my little old sod shanty on the plain!"
The boys nearly fell off their chairs in the Western House dining room, a few days later, at seeing Rob come into supper with a collar and necktie as the finishing touch of a remarkable outfit.
"Hit him, somebody!"
"It's a clean collar!"
"He's started f'r Congress!"
"He's going to get married," put in Seagraves in a tone that brought conviction.
"What!" screamed Jack Adams, O'Neill, and Wilson in one breath. " That man?"
"That man," replied Seagraves, amazed at Rob, who coolly took his seat, squared his elbows, pressed his collar down at the back, and called for the bacon and eggs.
The crowd stared at him in a dead silence.
"Where's he going to do it?" asked Jack Adarns. "where's he going to find a girl?"
"Ask him," said Seagraves.
"I ain't tellin'," put in Rob, with his mouth full of potato.
"You're afraid of our competition."
"That's right; our competition, Jack; not your competition. Come, now, Rob, tell us where you found her."
"I ain't found her."
"What! And yet you're goin' away t' get married!"
"I'm goin' t' bring a wife back with me ten days fr'm date."
"I see his scheme," put in Jim Rivers. "He's goin' back East somewhere, an' he's goin' to propose to every girl he meets."
"Hold on!" interrupted Rob, holding up his fork. "Ain't quite right. Every good-lookin' girl I meet."
"Well, I'll be blanked!" exclaimed Jack impatientiy; "that simply lets me out. Any man with such a cheek ought to--"
"Succeed," interrupted Seagraves.
"That's what I say," bawled Hank whiting, the proprietor of the house. "You fellers ain't got any enterprise to yeh. Why don't you go to work an' help settle the country like men? 'Cause y' ain't got no sand. Girls are thicker'n huckleberries back East. I say it's a dum shame!"
"Easy, Henry," said the elegant bank clerk, Wilson, looking gravely about through his spectacles. "I commend the courage and the resolution of Mr. Rodemaker. I pray the lady may not
"Mislike him for his complexion, The shadowed livery of the burning sun."
"Shakespeare," said Adams at a venture.
"Brother in adversity, when do you embark? Another season on an untried sea?"
"Hay!" said Rob, winking at Seagraves. "Oh, I go tonight--night train."
"Ten days from date."
"I'll wager a wedding supper he brings a blonde," said Wilson in his clean-cut, languid speech.
"Oh, come now, Wilson; that's too thin! We all know that rule about dark marryin' light."
"I'll wager she'll be tall," continued Wilson. "I'll wager you, friend Rodemaker, she'll be blonde and tall."
The rest roared at Rob's astonishment and contusion. The absurdity of it grew, and they went into spasms of laughter. But Wilson remained impassive, not the twitching of a muscle betraying that he saw anything to laugh at in the proposition.
Mrs. Whiting and the kitchen girls came in, wondering at the merriment. Rob began to get uneasy.
"What is it? What is it?" said Mrs. Whiting, a jolly little matron.
Rivers put the case. "Rob's on his way back to Wisconsin t' get married, and Wilson has offered to bet him that his wife will be a blonde and tall, and Rob dassent bet!" And they roared again.
"Why, the idea! The man's crazy!" said Mrs. Whiting. The crowd looked at each other. This was hint enough; they sobered, nodding at each other.
"Aha! I see; I understand."
"It's the heat."
"And the Boston beans."
"Let up on him, Wilson. Don't badger a poor irresponsible fellow. I thought something was wrong when I saw the collar."
"Oh, keep it up!" said Rob, a little nettled by their evident intention to "have fun" with him.
"Soothe him--soo-o-o-o-the him!" said Wilson. "Don't be harsh."
Rob rose from the table. "Go to thunder! You make me tired."
"The fit is on him again!"
He rose disgustedly and went out. They followed him in singie file. The rest of the town "caught on." Frank Graham heaved an apple at him and joined the procession. Rob went into the store to buy some tobacco. They followed and perched like crows on the counters till he went out; then they followed him, as before. They watched him check his trunk; they witnessed the purchase of the ticket. The town had turned out by this time.
"Waupac!" announced the one nearest the victim.
"Waupac!" said the next man, and the word was passed along the street up town.
"Make a note of it," said Wilson: "Waupa--a county where a man's proposal for marriage is honored upon presentation. Sight drafts."
Rivers struck up a song, while Rob stood around, patientiy bearing the jokes of the crowd:
"We're lookin' rather seedy now, While holdin' down our claims, And our vittles are not always of the best, And the mice play slyly round us As we lay down to sleep In our little old tarred shanties on the claim.
"Yet we rather like the novelty Of livin' in this way, Though the bill of fare is often rather tame; An' we're happy as a clam On the land of Uncle Sam In our little old tarred shanty on the claim."
The train drew up at length, to the immense relief of Rob, whose stoical resiguation was beginning to weaken.
"Don't y' wish y' had sand?" he yelled to the crowd as he plunged into the car, thinking he was rid of them.
But no; their last stroke was to follow him into the car, nodding, pointing to their heads, and whispering, managing in the half-minute the train stood at the platform to set every person in the car staring at the crazy man. Rob groaned and pulled his hat down over his eyes--an action which confirmed his tormentors' words and made several ladies click their tongues in sympathy--"Tick! tick! poor fellow!"
"All abo-o-o-a-rd!' said the conductor, grinning his appreciation at the crowd, and the train was off.
"Oh, won't we make him groan when he gets back!" said Barney, the young lawyer who sang the shouting tenor.
"We'll meet him with the timbrel and the harp. Anybody want to wager? I've got two to one on a short brunette," said Wilson.
"Follow it far enough and it may pass the bend in the river where the water laughs eternally over its shallows."
A CORNFIELD in July is a hot place. The soil is hot and dry; the wind comes across the lazily murmuring leaves laden with a warm sickening smell drawn from the rapidly growing, broad-flung banners of the corn. The sun, nearly vertical, drops a flood of dazzing light and heat upon the field over which the cool shadows run, only to make the heat seem the more intense.
Julia Peterson, faint with fatigue, was tolling back and forth between the corn rows, holding the handles of the double-shovel corn plow while her little brother Otto rode the steaming horse. Her heart was full of bitterness, and her face flushed with heat, and her muscles aching with fatigue. The heat grew terrible. The corn came to her shoulders, and not a breath seemed to reach her, while the sun, nearing the noon mark, lay pitilessly upon her shoulders, protected only by a calico dress. The dust rose under her feet, and as she was wet with perspiration it soiled her till, with a woman's instinctive cleanliness, she shuddered. Her head throbbed dangerously. what matter to her that the king bird pitched jovially from the maples to catch a wandering bluebottle fly, that the robin was feeding its young, that the bobolink was singing? All these things, if she saw them, only threw her bondage to labor into greater relief.
Across the field, in another patch of corn, she could see her father--a big, gruff-voiced, wide-bearded Norwegian--at work also with a plow. The corn must be plowed, and so she toiled on, the tears dropping from the shadow of the ugly sunbonnet she wore. Her shoes, coarse and square-toed, chafed her feet; her hands, large and strong, were browned, or more properly burned, on the backs by the sun. The horse's harness "creak-cracked" as he swung steadily and patientiy forward, the moisture pouring from his sides, his nostrils distended.
The field ran down to a road, and on the other side of the road ran a river--a broad, clear, shallow expanse at that point, and the eyes of the boy gazed longingly at the pond and the cool shadow each time that he turned at the fence.
"Say, Jule, I'm goin' in! Come, can't I? Come--say!" he pleaded as they stopped at the fence to let the horse breathe.
"I've let you go wade twice."
"But that don't do any good. My legs is all smarty, 'cause ol' Jack sweats so." The boy turned around on the horse's back and slid back to his rump. "I can't stand it!" he burst out, sliding off and darting under the fence. "Father can't see."
The girl put her elbows on the fence and watched her little brother as be sped away to the pool, throwing off his clothes as he ran, whooping with uncontrollable delight. Soon she could hear him splashing about in the water a short distance up the stream, and caught glimpses of his little shiny body and happy face. How cool that water looked! And the shadows there by the big basswood! How that water would cool her blistered feet! An impulse seized her, and she squeezed between the rails of the fence and stood in the road looking up and down to see that the way was clear. It was not a main-travelled road; no one was likely to come; why not?
She hurriedly took off her shoes and stockings--how delicious the cool, soft velvet of the grass!--and sitting down on the bank under the great basswood, whose roots formed an abrupt bank, she slid her poor blistered, chafed feet into the water, her bare head leaned against the huge tree trunk.
And now as she rested, the beauty of the scene came to her. Over her the wind moved the leaves. A jay screamed far off, as if answering the cries of the boy. A kingfisher crossed and recrossed the stream with dipping sweep of his wings. The river sang with its lips to the pebbles. The vast clouds went by majestically, far above the treetops, and the snap and buzzing and ringing whir of July insects made a ceaseless, slumberous undertone of song solvent of all else. The tired girl forgot her work. She began to dream. This would not last always. Some one would come to release her from such drudgery. This was her constant, tenderest, and most secret dream. He would be a Yankee, not a Norwegian; the Yankees didn't ask their wives to work in the field. He would have a home. Perhaps he'd live in town--perhaps a merchant! And then she thought of the drug clerk in Rock River who had looked at her-- A voice broke in on her dream, a fresh, manly voice.
"Well, by jinks! if it ain't Julia! Just the one I wanted to see!"
The girl turned, saw a pleasant-faced young fellow in a derby hat and a fifteen-dollar suit of diagonals.
"Rod Rodemaker! How come--"
She remembered her situation, and flushed, looked down at the water, and remained perfectly still.
"Ain't ye goin' to shake hands? Y' don't seem very glad t' see me."
She began to grow angry. "If you had any eyes you'd see!"
Rob looked over the edge of the bank, whistled, turned away. "Oh, I see! Excuse me! Don't blame yeh a bit, though. Good weather f'r corn," he went on' looking up at the trees. 'Corn seems to be pretty well forward," he continued in a louder voice as he walked away, still gazing into the air. "Crops is looking first-class in Boomtown. Hello! This Otto? H'yare y' little scamp! Get onto that horse agin. Quick, 'r I'll take y'r skin off an, hang it on the fence. what y' been doing?"
"Ben in swimmm'. Jimminy, ain't it fun! when 'd y' get back?" said the boy, grinning.
"Never you mind," replied Rob, leaping the fence by laying his left hand on the top rail. "Get onto that horse." He tossed the boy up on the horse, hung his coat on the fence. "I s'pose the ol' man makes her plow same as usual?"
"Yup," said Otto.
"Dod ding a man that'll do that! I don't mind if it's necessary, but it ain't necessary m his case." He continued to mutter in this way as he went across to the other side of the field. As they turned to come back, Rob went up and looked at the horse's mouth. "Gettin' purty near of age. Say, who's sparkin' Julia now--anybody?"
"Nobody 'cept some ol' Norwegians. She won't have them. Por wants her to, but she won't."
"Good f'r her. Nobody comes t' see her Sunday nights, eh?"
"Nope, only 'Tias Anderson an' Ole Hoover; but she goes off an' leaves 'em."
"Chk!" said Rob, starting old Jack across the field.
It was almost noon, and Jack moved reluctantly. He knew the time of day as well as the boy. He made this round after distinct protest.
In the meantime Julia, putting on her shoes and stockings, went to the fence and watched the man's shining white shirt as he moved across the cornfield. There had never been any special tenderness between them, but she had always liked him. They had been at school together. She wondered why he had come back at this time of the year, and wondered how long he would stay. How long had he stood looking at her? She flushed again at the thought of it. But he wasn't to blame; it was a public road. She might have known better.
She stood under a little popple tree, whose leaves shook musically at every zephyr, and her eyes through half-shut lids roved over the sea of deep-green glossy leaves, dappled here and there by cloud-shadows, stirred here and there like water by the wind, and out of it all a longing to be free from such toil rose like a breath, filling her throat, and quickening the motion of her heart. Must this go on forever, this life of heat and dust and labor? what did it all mean?
The girl laid her chin on her strong red wrists, and looked up into the blue spaces between the vast clouds--aerial mountains dissolving in a shoreless azure sea. How cool and sweet and restful they looked! li she might only lie out on the billowy, snow-white, sunlit edge! The voices of the driver and the plowman recalled her, and she fixed her eyes again upon the slowly nodding head of the patient horse, on the boy turned half about on the horse, talking to the white-sleeved man, whose derby hat bobbed up and down quite curiously, like the horse's head. Would she ask him to dinner? what would her people say?
"Phew! it's hot!" was the greeting the young fellow gave as he came up. He smiled in a frank, boyish way as he hung his hat on the top of a stake and looked up at her. "D' y' know, I kind o' enjoy getting at it again. Fact. It ain't no work for a girl, though," he added.
"When 'd you get back?" she asked, the flush not yet out of her face. Rob was looking at her thick, fine hair and full Scandinavian face, rich as a rose in color, and did not reply for a few seconds. She stood with her hideous sun bonnet pushed back on her shoulders. A kingbird was chattering overhead.
"Oh' a few days ago."
"How long y' goin' t' stay?"
"Oh, I d' know. A week, mebbe."
A far-off halloo came pulsing across the shimmering air. The boy screamed "Dinner!" and waved his hat with an answering whoop, then flopped off the horse like a turtle off a stone into water. He had the horse unhooked in an instant, and had flung his toes up over the horse's back, in act to climb on, when Rob said:
"H'yare, young feller! wa!t a minute. Tired?" he asked the girl with a tone that was more than kindly; it was almost tender.
"Yes," she replied in a low voice. "My shoes hurt me."
"Well, here y' go," he replied, taking his stand by the horse and holding out his hand like a step. She colored and smiled a little as she lifted her foot into his huge, hard, sunburned hand.
"Oop-a-daisy!" he called. She gave a spring and sat the horse like one at home there.
Rob had a deliciously unconscious, abstracted, businesslike air. He really left her nothing to do but enjoy his company, while he went ahead and did precisely as he pleased.
"We don't raise much corn out there, an' so I kind o' like to see it once more."
"I wish I didn't have to see another hill of corn as long as I live!" replied the girl bitterly.
"Don't know as I blame yeh a bit. But, all the same, I'm glad you was working in it today," he thought to hiniseif as he walked beside her horse toward the house.
"Will you stop to dinner?" she inquired bluntly, almost surmy. It was evident that there were reasons why she didn't mean to press. hirn to'. do so.
"You bet I will," he replied; "that is, if you want I should."
"You know how we live," she replied evasively. "I' you c'n stand it, why--" She broke off abruptly.
Yes, he remembered how they lived in that big, square, dirty, white frame house. It had been three or four years since he had been in it, but the smell of the cabbage and onions, the penetrating, peculiar mixture of odors, assailed his memory as something unforgettable.
"I guess I'll stop," he said as she hesitated. She said no more, but tried to act as if she were not in any way responsible for what came afterward.
"I guess I c'n stand fr one meal what you stand all the while," he added.
As she left them at the well and went to the house, he saw her limp painfully, and the memory of her face so close to his lips as he helped her down from the horse gave him pleasure, at the same time that he was touched by its tired and gloomy look. Mrs. Peterson came to the door of the kitchen, looking just the same as ever. Broadfaced, unwieldly, flabby, apparently wearing the same dress he remembered to have seen her in years before--a dirty drab-colored thing--she looked as shapeless as a sack of wool. Her English was limited to "How de do, Rob?"
He washed at the pump, while the girl, in the attempt to be hospitable, held the clean towel for him.
"You're purty well used up, eh?" he said to her.
"Yes; it's awful hot out there."
"Can't you lay off this afternoon? It ain't right."
"No. He won't listen to that."
"Well, let me take your place."
"No; there ain't any use o' that."
Peterson, a brawny wide-bearded Norwegian, came up at this moment and spoke to Rob in a sullen, gruff way
"He ain't very glad to see me," said Rob, winking at Julia. "He ain't b'ilin' over with enthusiasm; but I c'n stand it, for your sake," he added with amazing assurance; but the girl had turned away, and it was wasted.
At the table he ate heartily of the "bean swaagen," which filled a large wooden bowl in the center of the table, and which was ladled into smaller wooden bowls at each plate. Julia had tried hard to convert her mother to Yankee ways, and had at last given it up in despair. Rob kept on safe subjects, mainly asking questions about the it comes t' workin' outdoors in the dirt an' hot sun, gettin' all sunburned and chapped up, it's another thing. An' then it seems as if he gets stingier 'n' stingier every year. I ain't had a new dress in--I d'-know-how-long. He says it's all nonsense, an' Mother's just about as bad. She don't want a new dress, an' so she thinks I don't." The girl was feeling the influence of a sympathetic listener and was making up for her long silence. "I've tried t' go out t' work, but they won't let me. They'd have t' pay a hand twenty dollars a month f'r the work I do, an' they like cheap help; but I'm not goin' t' stand it much longer, I can tell you that."
Rob thought she was yery handsome as she sat there with her eyes fixed on the horizon, while these rebellious thoughts found utterance in her quivering, passionate voice.
"Yulie! Kom heat!" roared the old man from the well. A frown of anger and pain came into her face. She looked at Rob. "That means more work."
"Say! let me go out in your place. Come, now; what's the use?"
"No; it wouldn't do no good. It ain't t'day s' much; it's every day, and--"
"Yulie!" called Peterson again with a string of impatient Norwegian.
"Well, all right, only I'd like to"
"Well, goodbye," she said, with a little touch of feeling. "When d'ye go back?"
"I don't know. I'll see y' again before I go. Goodbye." He stood watching her slow, painful pace till she reached the well, where Otto was standing with the horse. He stood watching them as they moved out into the road and turned down toward the field. He felt that she had sent him away; but still there was a look in her eyes which was not altogether--
He gave it up in despair at last. He was not good at analyses of this nature; he was used to plain, blunt expressions. There was a woman's subtlety here quite beyond his reach.
He sauntered slowly off up the road after his talk with Julia. His head was low on his breast; he was thinking as one who is about to take a decided and important step.
He stopped at length, and turning, watched the girl moving along in the deeps of the corn. Hardly a leaf was stirring; the untempered sunlight fell in a burning flood upon the field; the grasshoppers rose, snapped, buzzed, and fell; the locust uttered its dry, heat-intensifving cry. The man lifted his head.
"It's a d-n shame!" he said, beginning rapidly to retrace his steps. He stood leaning on the fence, awaiting the girl's coming very much as she had waited his on the round he had made before dinner. He grew impatient at the slow gait of the horse and drummed on their rail while he whistled. Then he took off his hat and dusted it nervously. As the horse got a little nearer he wiped his face carefully, pushed his hat back on his head, and climbed over the fence, where he stood with elbows on the middle rail as the girl and boy and horse came to the end of the furrow.
"Hot, ain't it?" he said as she looked up.
"Jimminy Peters, it's awful!" puffed the boy. The girl did not reply. Then she swung the plow about after the horse, and set it upright into the next row. Her powerful body had a superb swaying motion at the waist as she did this--a motion which affected Rob vaguely but massively.
"I thought you'd gone," she said gravely, pushing hack her bonnet trn he could see her face dewed with sweat and pink as a rose. She had the high cheekbones of her race, but she had also their exquisite fairness of color.
"Say, Otto," asked Rob alluringiy, "wan' to go swimming?"
"You bet!" replied Otto.
"Well, I'll go a round if--"
The boy dropped off the horse, not waiting to hear any more. Rob grinned; but the girl dropped her eyes, then looked away.
"Got rid o' him mighty quick. Say, Julyie, I hate like thunder t' see you out here; it ain't right. I wish you'd--I wish--"
She could not look at him now, and her bosom rose and fell with a motion that was not due to fatigue. Her moist hair matted around her forehead gave her a boyish look.
Rob nervously tried again, tearing splinters from the fence. "Say, now, I'll tell yeh what I came back here fer--t' git married; and if you're willin', I'll do it tonight. Come, now, whaddy y' say?"
"What 've I got t' do 'bout it?" she finally asked, the color flooding her face and a faint smile coming to her lips. "Go ahead. I ain't got anything--"
Rob put a splinter in his mouth and faced her. "Oh, looky here, now, Julyie! you know what I mean. I've got a good claim out near Boomtown--a rattlin' good claim; a shanty on it fourteen by sixteen--no tarred paper about it; and a suller to keep butter in; and a hundred acres wheat just about ready to turn now. I need a wife."
Here he straightened up, threw away the splinter, and took off his hat. He was a very pleasant figure as the girl stole a look at him. His black laughing eyes were especially earnest just now. His voice had a touch of pleading. The popple tree over their heads murmured applause at his eloquence, then hushed to listen. A cloud dropped a silent shadow down upon them, and it sent a little thrill of fear through Rob, as if it were an omen of failure. As the girl remained silent, looking away, he began, man-fashion, to desire her more and more as he feared to lose her. He put his hat on the post again and took out his jackknife. Her calico dress draped her supple and powerful figure simply but naturally. The stoop in her shoulders, given by labor, disappeared as she partly leaned upon the fence. The curves of her muscular arms showed through her sleeve.
"It's all-fired lonesome fr me out there on that claim, and it ain't no picnic f'r you here. Now, if you'll come out there with me, you needn't do anything but cook f'r me, and after harvest we can git a good layout o' furniture, an' I'll lath and plaster the house, an' put a little hell [ell] in the rear." He smiled, and so did she. He felt encouraged to say: "An' there we be, as snug as y' please. We're close t' Boomtown, an' we can go down there to church sociables an' things, and they're a jolly lot there."
The girl was still silent, but the man's simple enthusiasm came to her charged with passion and a sort of romance such as her hard life had known little of. There was something enticing about this trip to the West.
"What 'li my folks say?" she said at last.
A virtual surrender, but Rob was not acute enough to see it. He pressed on eagerly:
"I don't care. Do you? They'll jest keep y' plowin' corn and milkin' cows till the day of judgment. Come, Julyie, I ain't got no time to fool away. I've got t' get back t' that grain. It's a whoopin' old crop, sure's y'r born, an' that means som'pin' purty scrumptious in furniture this fall. Come, now." He approached her and laid his hand on her shoulder very much as he would have touched Albert Seagraves or any other comrade. "Whady y' say?"
She neither started, nor shrunk, nor looked at him. She simply moved a step away. "They'd never let me ge," she replied bitterly. " I'm too cheap a hand. I do a man's work an' get no pay at all."
"You'll have half o' all I c'n make," he put in.
"How long c'n you wait?" she asked, looking down at her dress.
"Just two minutes," he said, pulling out his watch. "It ain't no use t' wait. The old man 'li be jest as mad a week from now as he is today. why not go now?"
"I'm of age day after tomorrow," she mused, wavering, calculating.
"You c'n be of age tonight if you'll jest call on old Square Hatfield with me."
"All right, Rob," the girl said, turning and holding out her hand.
"That's the talk!" he exclaimed, seizing it. "An' now a kiss, to bind the bargain, as the fellah says."
"I guess we c'n get along without that."
"No, we can't. It won't seem like an engagement without it."
"It ain't goin' to seem much like one anyway," she answered with a sudden realization of how far from her dreams of courtship this reality was.
"Say, now, Julyie, that ain't fair; it ain't treatin' me right. You don't seem to understand that I like you, but I do."
Rob was carried quite out of himself by the time, the place, and the girl. He had said a very moving thing.
The tears sprang involuntarily to the girl's eyes. "Do you mean it? If y' do, you may."
She was trembling with emotion for the first time. The sincerity of the man's voice had gone deep.
He put his arm around her almost timidly and kissed her on the cheek, a great love for her springing up in his heart. "That settles it," he said. "Don't cry, Julyie. You'll never be sorry for it. Don't cry. It kind o' hurts me to see it."
He didn't understand her feelings. He was only aware that she was crying, and tried in a bungling way to soothe her. But now that she had given way, she sat down in the grass and wept bitterly.
"Yulyie!" yelled the old Norwegian, like a distant fog-horn.
The girl sprang up; the habit of obedience was strong.
"No; you set right there, and I'll go round," he said. "Otto!"
The boy came scrambling out of the wood half dressed. Rob tossed him upon the horse, snatched Julia's sun-bonnet, put his own hat on her head, and moved off down the corn rows, leaving the girl smiling throgh her tears as he whistled and chirped to the horse. Farmer Peterson, seeing the familiar sunbonnet above the corn rows, went back to his work, with a sentence of Norwegian trailing after him like the tail of a kite--something about lazy girls who didn't earn the crust of their bread, etc.
Rob was wild with delight. "Git up there Jack! Hay, you old corncrib! Say, Otto, can you keep your mouth shet if it puts money in your pocket?"
"Jest try me 'n' see," said the keen-eyed little scamp. "Well, you keep quiet about my being here this afternoon, and I'll put a dollar on y'r tongue--hay?--what?--understand?"
"Show me y'r dollar," said the boy, turning about and showing his tongue.
"All right. Begin to practice now by not talkin' to me."
Rob went over the whole situation on his way back, and when he got in sight of the girl his plan was made. She stood waiting for him with a new look on her face. Her sullenness had given way to a peculiar eagerness and anxiety to believe in him. She was already living that free life in a far-off wonderful country. No more would her stern father and sullen mother force her to tasks which she hated. She'd be a member of a new firm. She'd work, of course, but it would be because she wanted to, and not because she was forced to. The independence and the love promised grew more and more attractive. She laughed back with a softer light in her eyes when she saw the smiling face of Rob looking at her from her sun-bonnet
"Now you mustn't do any more o' this," he said. "You go back to the house an' tell y'r mother you're too lame to plow any more today, and it's too late, anyhow. Tonight!" he whispered quickiy. " Eleven! Here!"
The girl's heart leaped with fear. "I'm afraid."
"Not of me, are yeh?"
"No, I'm not afraid of you, Rob."
"I'm glad o' that. I--I want you to--to like me, Julyie; won't you?"
"I'll try," she answered with a smile.
"Tonight, then," he said as she moved away.
He stood and watched her till her tall figure was lost among the drooping corn leaves. There was a singular choking feeling in his throat. The girl's voice and face had brought up so many memories of parties and picnics and excursions on far-off holidays, and at the same time such suggestions of the future. He already felt that it was going to be an unconscionably long time before eleven o'clock.
He saw her go to the house, and then he turned and walked slowly up the dusty road. Out of the May weed the grasshoppers sprang, buzzing and snapping their dull red wings. Butterflies, yellow and white, fluttered around moist places in the ditch, and slender striped water snakes glided across the stagnant pools at sound of footsteps.
But the mind of the man was far away on his claim, building a new house, with a woman's advice and presence.
* * * * * *
It was a windless night. The katydids and an occasional cricket were the only sounds Rob could hear as he stood beside his team and strained his ear to listen. At long intervals a little breeze ran through the corn like a swift serpent, bringing to the nostrils the sappy smell of the growing corn. The horses stamped uneasily as the mosquitoes settled on their shining limbs. The sky was full of stars, but there was no moon.
"What if she don't come?" he thought. "Or can't come? I can't stand that. I'll go to the old man an' say, 'Looky here--' Sh!"
He listened again. There was a rustling in the corn. It was not like the fitful movement of the wind; it was steady, slower, and approaching. It ceased. He whistled the wailing, sweet cry of the prairie chicken. Then a figure came out into the road--a woman-- Julia!
He took her in his arms as she came panting up to him.
* * * * * *
A few words, the dull tread of swift horses, the rising of a silent train of dust, and then the wind wandered in the growing corn. The dust fell, a dog barked down the road and the katydids sang to the liquid contralto of the river in its shallows.