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O Pioneers!

Willa Cather

  Produced by Martin Robb


  by Willa Cather

  PART I. The Wild Land


  One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover,anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blownaway. A mist of fine snowflakes was curling and eddying about thecluster of low drab buildings huddled on the gray prairie, undera gray sky. The dwelling-houses were set about haphazard on thetough prairie sod; some of them looked as if they had been moved inovernight, and others as if they were straying off by themselves,headed straight for the open plain. None of them had any appearanceof permanence, and the howling wind blew under them as well as overthem. The main street was a deeply rutted road, now frozen hard,which ran from the squat red railway station and the grain "elevator"at the north end of the town to the lumber yard and the horse pondat the south end. On either side of this road straggled two unevenrows of wooden buildings; the general merchandise stores, the twobanks, the drug store, the feed store, the saloon, the post-office.The board sidewalks were gray with trampled snow, but at two o'clockin the afternoon the shopkeepers, having come back from dinner,were keeping well behind their frosty windows. The children wereall in school, and there was nobody abroad in the streets but afew rough-looking countrymen in coarse overcoats, with their longcaps pulled down to their noses. Some of them had brought theirwives to town, and now and then a red or a plaid shawl flashed outof one store into the shelter of another. At the hitch-bars alongthe street a few heavy work-horses, harnessed to farm wagons,shivered under their blankets. About the station everything wasquiet, for there would not be another train in until night.

  On the sidewalk in front of one of the stores sat a little Swedeboy, crying bitterly. He was about five years old. His black clothcoat was much too big for him and made him look like a little oldman. His shrunken brown flannel dress had been washed many timesand left a long stretch of stocking between the hem of his skirtand the tops of his clumsy, copper-toed shoes. His cap was pulleddown over his ears; his nose and his chubby cheeks were chapped andred with cold. He cried quietly, and the few people who hurriedby did not notice him. He was afraid to stop any one, afraid togo into the store and ask for help, so he sat wringing his longsleeves and looking up a telegraph pole beside him, whimpering, "Mykitten, oh, my kitten! Her will fweeze!" At the top of the polecrouched a shivering gray kitten, mewing faintly and clingingdesperately to the wood with her claws. The boy had been leftat the store while his sister went to the doctor's office, and inher absence a dog had chased his kitten up the pole. The littlecreature had never been so high before, and she was too frightenedto move. Her master was sunk in despair. He was a little countryboy, and this village was to him a very strange and perplexingplace, where people wore fine clothes and had hard hearts. Healways felt shy and awkward here, and wanted to hide behind thingsfor fear some one might laugh at him. Just now, he was too unhappyto care who laughed. At last he seemed to see a ray of hope: hissister was coming, and he got up and ran toward her in his heavyshoes.

  His sister was a tall, strong girl, and she walked rapidly andresolutely, as if she knew exactly where she was going and what shewas going to do next. She wore a man's long ulster (not as if itwere an affliction, but as if it were very comfortable and belongedto her; carried it like a young soldier), and a round plush cap,tied down with a thick veil. She had a serious, thoughtful face,and her clear, deep blue eyes were fixed intently on the distance,without seeming to see anything, as if she were in trouble. Shedid not notice the little boy until he pulled her by the coat.Then she stopped short and stooped down to wipe his wet face.

  "Why, Emil! I told you to stay in the store and not to come out.What is the matter with you?"

  "My kitten, sister, my kitten! A man put her out, and a dog chasedher up there." His forefinger, projecting from the sleeve of hiscoat, pointed up to the wretched little creature on the pole.

  "Oh, Emil! Didn't I tell you she'd get us into trouble of somekind, if you brought her? What made you tease me so? But there,I ought to have known better myself." She went to the foot of thepole and held out her arms, crying, "Kitty, kitty, kitty," but thekitten only mewed and faintly waved its tail. Alexandra turnedaway decidedly. "No, she won't come down. Somebody will have togo up after her. I saw the Linstrums' wagon in town. I'll go andsee if I can find Carl. Maybe he can do something. Only you muststop crying, or I won't go a step. Where's your comforter? Didyou leave it in the store? Never mind. Hold still, till I putthis on you."

  She unwound the brown veil from her head and tied it about histhroat. A shabby little traveling man, who was just then coming outof the store on his way to the saloon, stopped and gazed stupidlyat the shining mass of hair she bared when she took off her veil;two thick braids, pinned about her head in the German way, with afringe of reddish-yellow curls blowing out from under her cap. Hetook his cigar out of his mouth and held the wet end between thefingers of his woolen glove. "My God, girl, what a head of hair!"he exclaimed, quite innocently and foolishly. She stabbed him witha glance of Amazonian fierceness and drew in her lower lip--mostunnecessary severity. It gave the little clothing drummer such astart that he actually let his cigar fall to the sidewalk and wentoff weakly in the teeth of the wind to the saloon. His hand wasstill unsteady when he took his glass from the bartender. Hisfeeble flirtatious instincts had been crushed before, but neverso mercilessly. He felt cheap and ill-used, as if some one hadtaken advantage of him. When a drummer had been knocking about inlittle drab towns and crawling across the wintry country in dirtysmoking-cars, was he to be blamed if, when he chanced upon a finehuman creature, he suddenly wished himself more of a man?

  While the little drummer was drinking to recover his nerve, Alexandrahurried to the drug store as the most likely place to find CarlLinstrum. There he was, turning over a portfolio of chromo "studies"which the druggist sold to the Hanover women who did china-painting.Alexandra explained her predicament, and the boy followed her tothe corner, where Emil still sat by the pole.

  "I'll have to go up after her, Alexandra. I think at the depotthey have some spikes I can strap on my feet. Wait a minute." Carlthrust his hands into his pockets, lowered his head, and darted upthe street against the north wind. He was a tall boy of fifteen,slight and narrow-chested. When he came back with the spikes,Alexandra asked him what he had done with his overcoat.

  "I left it in the drug store. I couldn't climb in it, anyhow.Catch me if I fall, Emil," he called back as he began his ascent.Alexandra watched him anxiously; the cold was bitter enough on theground. The kitten would not budge an inch. Carl had to go tothe very top of the pole, and then had some difficulty in tearingher from her hold. When he reached the ground, he handed the catto her tearful little master. "Now go into the store with her,Emil, and get warm." He opened the door for the child. "Wait aminute, Alexandra. Why can't I drive for you as far as our place?It's getting colder every minute. Have you seen the doctor?"

  "Yes. He is coming over to-morrow. But he says father can'tget better; can't get well." The girl's lip trembled. She lookedfixedly up the bleak street as if she were gathering her strengthto face something, as if she were trying with all her might tograsp a situation which, no matter how painful, must be met anddealt with somehow. The wind flapped the skirts of her heavy coatabout her.

  Carl did not say anything, but she felt his sympathy. He, too, waslonely. He was a thin, frail boy, with brooding dark eyes, veryquiet in all his movements. There was a delicate pallor in his thinface, and his mouth was too sensitive for a boy's. The lips hadalready a little curl of bitterness and skepticism. The two friendsstood for a few moments on the windy street corner, not speakinga word, as two travelers, who have lost their way, sometimes standand admit their perplexity in silence. When C
arl turned away hesaid, "I'll see to your team." Alexandra went into the store tohave her purchases packed in the egg-boxes, and to get warm beforeshe set out on her long cold drive.

  When she looked for Emil, she found him sitting on a step of thestaircase that led up to the clothing and carpet department. Hewas playing with a little Bohemian girl, Marie Tovesky, who wastying her handkerchief over the kitten's head for a bonnet. Mariewas a stranger in the country, having come from Omaha with her motherto visit her uncle, Joe Tovesky. She was a dark child, with browncurly hair, like a brunette doll's, a coaxing little red mouth, andround, yellow-brown eyes. Every one noticed her eyes; the browniris had golden glints that made them look like gold-stone, or, insofter lights, like that Colorado mineral called tiger-eye.

  The country children thereabouts wore their dresses to theirshoe-tops, but this city child was dressed in what was then calledthe "Kate Greenaway" manner, and her red cashmere frock, gatheredfull from the yoke, came almost to the floor. This, with herpoke bonnet, gave her the look of a quaint little woman. She hada white fur tippet about her neck and made no fussy objections whenEmil fingered it admiringly. Alexandra had not the heart to takehim away from so pretty a playfellow, and she let them tease thekitten together until Joe Tovesky came in noisily and picked uphis little niece, setting her on his shoulder for every one to see.His children were all boys, and he adored this little creature.His cronies formed a circle about him, admiring and teasing thelittle girl, who took their jokes with great good nature. Theywere all delighted with her, for they seldom saw so pretty andcarefully nurtured a child. They told her that she must chooseone of them for a sweetheart, and each began pressing his suit andoffering her bribes; candy, and little pigs, and spotted calves.She looked archly into the big, brown, mustached faces, smellingof spirits and tobacco, then she ran her tiny forefinger delicatelyover Joe's bristly chin and said, "Here is my sweetheart."

  The Bohemians roared with laughter, and Marie's uncle hugged heruntil she cried, "Please don't, Uncle Joe! You hurt me." Eachof Joe's friends gave her a bag of candy, and she kissed them allaround, though she did not like country candy very well. Perhapsthat was why she bethought herself of Emil. "Let me down, UncleJoe," she said, "I want to give some of my candy to that nice littleboy I found." She walked graciously over to Emil, followed by herlusty admirers, who formed a new circle and teased the little boyuntil he hid his face in his sister's skirts, and she had to scoldhim for being such a baby.

  The farm people were making preparations to start for home. Thewomen were checking over their groceries and pinning their big redshawls about their heads. The men were buying tobacco and candywith what money they had left, were showing each other new boots andgloves and blue flannel shirts. Three big Bohemians were drinkingraw alcohol, tinctured with oil of cinnamon. This was said tofortify one effectually against the cold, and they smacked theirlips after each pull at the flask. Their volubility drowned everyother noise in the place, and the overheated store sounded oftheir spirited language as it reeked of pipe smoke, damp woolens,and kerosene.

  Carl came in, wearing his overcoat and carrying a wooden box witha brass handle. "Come," he said, "I've fed and watered your team,and the wagon is ready." He carried Emil out and tucked him downin the straw in the wagonbox. The heat had made the little boysleepy, but he still clung to his kitten.

  "You were awful good to climb so high and get my kitten, Carl.When I get big I'll climb and get little boys' kittens for them,"he murmured drowsily. Before the horses were over the first hill,Emil and his cat were both fast asleep.

  Although it was only four o'clock, the winter day was fading. Theroad led southwest, toward the streak of pale, watery light thatglimmered in the leaden sky. The light fell upon the two sad youngfaces that were turned mutely toward it: upon the eyes of the girl,who seemed to be looking with such anguished perplexity into thefuture; upon the sombre eyes of the boy, who seemed already to belooking into the past. The little town behind them had vanished asif it had never been, had fallen behind the swell of the prairie,and the stern frozen country received them into its bosom. Thehomesteads were few and far apart; here and there a windmill gauntagainst the sky, a sod house crouching in a hollow. But the greatfact was the land itself, which seemed to overwhelm the littlebeginnings of human society that struggled in its sombre wastes.It was from facing this vast hardness that the boy's mouth hadbecome so bitter; because he felt that men were too weak to makeany mark here, that the land wanted to be let alone, to preserveits own fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty, itsuninterrupted mournfulness.

  The wagon jolted along over the frozen road. The two friends hadless to say to each other than usual, as if the cold had somehowpenetrated to their hearts.

  "Did Lou and Oscar go to the Blue to cut wood to-day?" Carl asked.

  "Yes. I'm almost sorry I let them go, it's turned so cold. Butmother frets if the wood gets low." She stopped and put her handto her forehead, brushing back her hair. "I don't know what is tobecome of us, Carl, if father has to die. I don't dare to thinkabout it. I wish we could all go with him and let the grass growback over everything."

  Carl made no reply. Just ahead of them was the Norwegian graveyard,where the grass had, indeed, grown back over everything, shaggy andred, hiding even the wire fence. Carl realized that he was not avery helpful companion, but there was nothing he could say.

  "Of course," Alexandra went on, steadying her voice a little, "theboys are strong and work hard, but we've always depended so onfather that I don't see how we can go ahead. I almost feel as ifthere were nothing to go ahead for."

  "Does your father know?"

  "Yes, I think he does. He lies and counts on his fingers all day.I think he is trying to count up what he is leaving for us. It'sa comfort to him that my chickens are laying right on through thecold weather and bringing in a little money. I wish we could keephis mind off such things, but I don't have much time to be withhim now."

  "I wonder if he'd like to have me bring my magic lantern over someevening?"

  Alexandra turned her face toward him. "Oh, Carl! Have you gotit?"

  "Yes. It's back there in the straw. Didn't you notice the boxI was carrying? I tried it all morning in the drug-store cellar,and it worked ever so well, makes fine big pictures."

  "What are they about?"

  "Oh, hunting pictures in Germany, and Robinson Crusoe and funnypictures about cannibals. I'm going to paint some slides for iton glass, out of the Hans Andersen book."

  Alexandra seemed actually cheered. There is often a good deal ofthe child left in people who have had to grow up too soon. "Dobring it over, Carl. I can hardly wait to see it, and I'm sure itwill please father. Are the pictures colored? Then I know he'lllike them. He likes the calendars I get him in town. I wish Icould get more. You must leave me here, mustn't you? It's beennice to have company."

  Carl stopped the horses and looked dubiously up at the black sky."It's pretty dark. Of course the horses will take you home, butI think I'd better light your lantern, in case you should need it."

  He gave her the reins and climbed back into the wagon-box, wherehe crouched down and made a tent of his overcoat. After a dozentrials he succeeded in lighting the lantern, which he placed infront of Alexandra, half covering it with a blanket so that thelight would not shine in her eyes. "Now, wait until I find my box.Yes, here it is. Good-night, Alexandra. Try not to worry." Carlsprang to the ground and ran off across the fields toward the Linstrumhomestead. "Hoo, hoo-o-o-o!" he called back as he disappeared overa ridge and dropped into a sand gully. The wind answered him likean echo, "Hoo, hoo-o-o-o-o-o!" Alexandra drove off alone. Therattle of her wagon was lost in the howling of the wind, but herlantern, held firmly between her feet, made a moving point of lightalong the highway, going deeper and deeper into the dark country.