12.07.2016 Doc of the Day

Book One: On Lovely Creek
Farmer farm rural south agriculture
I.

Claude Wheeler opened his eyes before the sun was up and vigorously shook his younger brother, who lay in the other half of the same bed.

'Ralph, Ralph, get awake!  Come down and help me wash the car.'

'What for?'

'Why, aren't we going to the circus today?'

'Car's all right.  Let me alone.'  The boy turned over and pulled the sheet up to his face, to shut out the light which was beginning to come through the curtainless windows.

Claude rose and dressed,--a simple operation which took very little time. He crept down two flights of stairs, feeling his way in the dusk, his red hair standing up in peaks, like a cock's comb. He went through the kitchen into the adjoining washroom,
which held two porcelain stands with running water. Everybody had washed before going to bed, apparently, and the bowls were ringed with a dark sediment which the hard, alkaline water had not dissolved. Shutting the door on this disorder, he turned back to the kitchen, took Mahailey's tin basin, doused his face and head in cold water, and began to plaster down his wet hair.

Old Mahailey herself came in from the yard, with her apron full of corn-cobs to start a fire in the kitchen stove. She smiled at him in the foolish fond way she often had with him when they were alone.

"What air you gittin' up for a-ready, boy? You goin' to the circus before breakfast? Don't you make no noise, else you'll have 'em all down here before I git my fire a-goin'."

"All right, Mahailey." Claude caught up his cap and ran out of doors, down the hillside toward the barn. The sun popped up over the edge of the prairie like a broad, smiling face; the light poured across the close-cropped August pastures and the hilly,
timbered windings of Lovely Creek, a clear little stream with a sand bottom, that curled and twisted playfully about through the south section of the big Wheeler ranch. It was a fine day to go to the circus at Frankfort, a fine day to do anything; the sort
of day that must, somehow, turn out well.

Claude backed the little Ford car out of its shed, ran it up to the horse-tank, and began to throw water on the mud-crusted wheels and windshield. While he was at work the two hired men, Dan and Jerry, came shambling down the hill to feed the stock. Jerry was grumbling and swearing about something, but Claude wrung out his wet rags and, beyond a nod, paid no attention to
them. Somehow his father always managed to have the roughest and dirtiest hired men in the country working for him. Claude had a grievance against Jerry just now, because of his treatment of one
of the horses.

Molly was a faithful old mare, the mother of many colts; Claude and his younger brother had learned to ride on her. This man Jerry, taking her out to work one morning, let her step on a board with a nail sticking up in it. He pulled the nail out of
her foot, said nothing to anybody, and drove her to the cultivator all day. Now she had been standing in her stall for weeks, patiently suffering, her body wretchedly thin, and her leg swollen until it looked like an elephant's. She would have to stand there, the veterinary said, until her hoof came off and she
grew a new one, and she would always be stiff. Jerry had not been discharged, and he exhibited the poor animal as if she were a credit to him.

Mahailey came out on the hilltop and rang the breakfast bell. After the hired men went up to the house, Claude slipped into the barn to see that Molly had got her share of oats. She was eating quietly, her head hanging, and her scaly, dead-looking foot lifted just a little from the ground. When he stroked her neck and talked to her she stopped grinding and gazed at him mournfully. She knew him, and wrinkled her nose and drew her upper lip back from her worn teeth, to show that she liked being petted. She let him touch her foot and examine her leg.

When Claude reached the kitchen, his mother was sitting at one end of the breakfast table, pouring weak coffee, his brother and Dan and Jerry were in their chairs, and Mahailey was baking griddle cakes at the stove. A moment later Mr. Wheeler came down
the enclosed stairway and walked the length of the table to his own place. He was a very large man, taller and broader than any of his neighbours. He seldom wore a coat in summer, and his rumpled shirt bulged out carelessly over the belt of his trousers. His florid face was clean shaven, likely to be a trifle tobacco-stained about the mouth, and it was conspicuous both for good-nature and coarse humour, and for an imperturbable physical composure. Nobody in the county had ever seen Nat Wheeler flustered about anything, and nobody had ever heard him speak
with complete seriousness. He kept up his easy-going, jocular affability even with his own family.

As soon as he was seated, Mr. Wheeler reached for the two-pint sugar bowl and began to pour sugar into his coffee. Ralph asked him if he were going to the circus. Mr. Wheeler winked.

"I shouldn't wonder if I happened in town sometime before the elephants get away." He spoke very deliberately, with a State-of-Maine drawl, and his voice was smooth and agreeable. "You boys better start in early, though. You can take the wagon and the mules, and load in the cowhides. The butcher has agreed to take them."

Claude put down his knife. "Can't we have the car? I've washed it on purpose."

"And what about Dan and Jerry? They want to see the circus just as much as you do, and I want the hides should go in; they're bringing a good price now. I don't mind about your washing the car; mud preserves the paint, they say, but it'll be all right this time, Claude."

The hired men haw-hawed and Ralph giggled. Claude's freckled face got very red. The pancake grew stiff and heavy in his mouth and was hard to swallow. His father knew he hated to drive the mules to town, and knew how he hated to go anywhere with Dan and Jerry. As for the hides, they were the skins of four steers that had
perished in the blizzard last winter through the wanton carelessness of these same hired men, and the price they would bring would not half pay for the time his father had spent in stripping and curing them. They had lain in a shed loft all summer, and the wagon had been to town a dozen times. But today, when he wanted to go to Frankfort clean and care-free, he must
take these stinking hides and two coarse-mouthed men, and drive a pair of mules that always brayed and balked and behaved ridiculously in a crowd. Probably his father had looked out of the window and seen him washing the car, and had put this up on him while he dressed. It was like his father's idea of a joke.

Mrs. Wheeler looked at Claude sympathetically, feeling that he was disappointed. Perhaps she, too, suspected a joke. She had learned that humour might wear almost any guise.

When Claude started for the barn after breakfast, she came running down the path, calling to him faintly,--hurrying always made her short of breath. Overtaking him, she looked up with solicitude, shading her eyes with her delicately formed hand. "If you want I should do up your linen coat, Claude, I can iron it while you're hitching," she said wistfully.

Claude stood kicking at a bunch of mottled feathers that had once been a young chicken. His shoulders were drawn high, his mother saw, and his figure suggested energy and determined self-control.

"You needn't mind, mother." He spoke rapidly, muttering his words. "I'd better wear my old clothes if I have to take the hides. They're greasy, and in the sun they'll smell worse than fertilizer."

"The men can handle the hides, I should think. Wouldn't you feel better in town to be dressed?" She was still blinking up at him.

"Don't bother about it. Put me out a clean coloured shirt, if you want to. That's all right."

He turned toward the barn, and his mother went slowly back the path up to the house. She was so plucky and so stooped, his dear mother! He guessed if she could stand having these men about, could cook and wash for them, he could drive them to town!

Half an hour after the wagon left, Nat Wheeler put on an alpaca coat and went off in the rattling buckboard in which, though he kept two automobiles, he still drove about the country. He said nothing to his wife; it was her business to guess whether or not he would be home for dinner. She and Mahailey could have a good
time scrubbing and sweeping all day, with no men around to bother them.



There were few days in the year when Wheeler did not drive off somewhere; to an auction sale, or a political convention, or a meeting of the Farmers' Telephone directors;--to see how his neighbours were getting on with their work, if there was nothing else to look after. He preferred his buckboard to a car because it was light, went easily over heavy or rough roads, and was so rickety that he never felt he must suggest his wife's accompanying him. Besides he could see the country better when he didn't have to keep his mind on the road. He had come to this part of Nebraska when the Indians and the buffalo were still about, remembered the grasshopper year and the big cyclone, had watched the farms emerge one by one from the great rolling page where once only the wind wrote its story. He had encouraged new settlers to take up homesteads, urged on courtships, lent young fellows the money to marry on, seen families grow and prosper; until he felt a little as if all this were his own enterprise.
The changes, not only those the years made, but those the seasons made, were interesting to him.

People recognized Nat Wheeler and his cart a mile away. He sat massive and comfortable, weighing down one end of the slanting seat, his driving hand lying on his knee. Even his German neighbours, the Yoeders, who hated to stop work for a quarter of an hour on any account, were glad to see him coming. The merchants in the little towns about the county missed him if he
didn't drop in once a week or so. He was active in politics; never ran for an office himself, but often took up the cause of a friend and conducted his campaign for him.

The French saying, "Joy of the street, sorrow of the home," was exemplified in Mr. Wheeler, though not at all in the French way. His own affairs were of secondary importance to him. In the early days he had homesteaded and bought and leased enough land to make
him rich. Now he had only to rent it out to good farmers who liked to work--he didn't, and of that he made no secret. When he was at home, he usually sat upstairs in the living room, reading newspapers. He subscribed for a dozen or more--the list included
a weekly devoted to scandal--and he was well informed about what was going on in the world. He had magnificent health, and illness in himself or in other people struck him as humorous. To be sure, he never suffered from anything more perplexing than toothache or boils, or an occasional bilious attack.

Wheeler gave liberally to churches and charities, was always ready to lend money or machinery to a neighbour who was short of anything. He liked to tease and shock diffident people, and had an inexhaustible supply of funny stories. Everybody marveled that he got on so well with his oldest son, Bayliss Wheeler. Not that
Bayliss was exactly diffident, but he was a narrow gauge fellow, the sort of prudent young man one wouldn't expect Nat Wheeler to like.

Bayliss had a farm implement business in Frankfort, and though he was still under thirty he had made a very considerable financial success. Perhaps Wheeler was proud of his son's business acumen. At any rate, he drove to town to see Bayliss several times a
week, went to sales and stock exhibits with him, and sat about his store for hours at a stretch, joking with the farmers who came in. Wheeler had been a heavy drinker in his day, and was still a heavy feeder. Bayliss was thin and dyspeptic, and a virulent Prohibitionist; he would have liked to regulate
everybody's diet by his own feeble constitution. Even Mrs. Wheeler, who took the men God had apportioned her for granted, wondered how Bayliss and his father could go off to conventions together and have a good time, since their ideas of what made a good time were so different.

Once every few years, Mr. Wheeler bought a new suit and a dozen stiff shirts and went back to Maine to visit his brothers and sisters, who were very quiet, conventional people. But he was always glad to get home to his old clothes, his big farm, his buckboard, and Bayliss.

Mrs. Wheeler had come out from Vermont to be Principal of the High School, when Frankfort was a frontier town and Nat Wheeler
was a prosperous bachelor. He must have fancied her for the same
reason he liked his son Bayliss, because she was so different.
There was this to be said for Nat Wheeler, that he liked every
sort of human creature; he liked good people and honest people,
and he liked rascals and hypocrites almost to the point of loving
them. If he heard that a neighbour had played a sharp trick or
done something particularly mean, he was sure to drive over to
see the man at once, as if he hadn't hitherto appreciated him.

There was a large, loafing dignity about Claude's father. He
liked to provoke others to uncouth laughter, but he never laughed
immoderately himself. In telling stories about him, people often
tried to imitate his smooth, senatorial voice, robust but never
loud. Even when he was hilariously delighted by anything,--as
when poor Mahailey, undressing in the dark on a summer night, sat
down on the sticky fly-paper,--he was not boisterous. He was a
jolly, easy-going father, indeed, for a boy who was not
thin-skinned.



II

Claude and his mules rattled into Frankfort just as the calliope
went screaming down Main street at the head of the circus parade.
Getting rid of his disagreeable freight and his uncongenial
companions as soon as possible, he elbowed his way along the
crowded sidewalk, looking for some of the neighbour boys. Mr.
Wheeler was standing on the Farmer's Bank corner, towering a head
above the throng, chaffing with a little hunchback who was
setting up a shell-game. To avoid his father, Claude turned and
went in to his brother's store. The two big show windows were
full of country children, their mothers standing behind them to
watch the parade. Bayliss was seated in the little glass cage
where he did his writing and bookkeeping. He nodded at Claude
from his desk.

"Hello," said Claude, bustling in as if he were in a great hurry.
"Have you seen Ernest Havel? I thought I might find him in here."

Bayliss swung round in his swivel chair to return a plough
catalogue to the shelf. "What would he be in here for? Better
look for him in the saloon." Nobody could put meaner insinuations
into a slow, dry remark than Bayliss.

Claude's cheeks flamed with anger. As he turned away, he noticed
something unusual about his brother's face, but he wasn't going
to give him the satisfaction of asking him how he had got a black
eye. Ernest Havel was a Bohemian, and he usually drank a glass of
beer when he came to town; but he was sober and thoughtful beyond
the wont of young men. From Bayliss' drawl one might have
supposed that the boy was a drunken loafer.

At that very moment Claude saw his friend on the other side of
the street, following the wagon of trained dogs that brought up
the rear of the procession. He ran across, through a crowd of
shouting youngsters, and caught Ernest by the arm.

"Hello, where are you off to?"

"I'm going to eat my lunch before show-time. I left my wagon out
by the pumping station, on the creek. What about you?"

"I've got no program. Can I go along?"

Ernest smiled. "I expect. I've got enough lunch for two."

"Yes, I know. You always have. I'll join you later."

Claude would have liked to take Ernest to the hotel for dinner.
He had more than enough money in his pockets; and his father was
a rich farmer. In the Wheeler family a new thrasher or a new
automobile was ordered without a question, but it was considered
extravagant to go to a hotel for dinner. If his father or Bayliss
heard that he had been there-and Bayliss heard everything they
would say he was putting on airs, and would get back at him. He
tried to excuse his cowardice to himself by saying that he was
dirty and smelled of the hides; but in his heart he knew that he
did not ask Ernest to go to the hotel with him because he had
been so brought up that it would be difficult for him to do this
simple thing. He made some purchases at the fruit stand and the
cigar counter, and then hurried out along the dusty road toward
the pumping station. Ernest's wagon was standing under the shade
of some willow trees, on a little sandy bottom half enclosed by a
loop of the creek which curved like a horseshoe. Claude threw
himself on the sand beside the stream and wiped the dust from his
hot face. He felt he had now closed the door on his disagreeable
morning.

Ernest produced his lunch basket.

"I got a couple bottles of beer cooling in the creek," he said.
"I knew you wouldn't want to go in a saloon."

"Oh, forget it!" Claude muttered, ripping the cover off a jar of
pickles. He was nineteen years old, and he was afraid to go into
a saloon, and his friend knew he was afraid.

After lunch, Claude took out a handful of good cigars he had
bought at the drugstore. Ernest, who couldn't afford cigars, was
pleased. He lit one, and as he smoked he kept looking at it with
an air of pride and turning it around between his fingers.

The horses stood with their heads over the wagon-box, munching
their oats. The stream trickled by under the willow roots with a
cool, persuasive sound. Claude and Ernest lay in the shade, their
coats under their heads, talking very little. Occasionally a
motor dashed along the road toward town, and a cloud of dust and
a smell of gasoline blew in over the creek bottom; but for the
most part the silence of the warm, lazy summer noon was
undisturbed. Claude could usually forget his own vexations and
chagrins when he was with Ernest. The Bohemian boy was never
uncertain, was not pulled in two or three ways at once. He was
simple and direct. He had a number of impersonal preoccupations;
was interested in politics and history and in new inventions.
Claude felt that his friend lived in an atmosphere of mental
liberty to which he himself could never hope to attain. After he
had talked with Ernest for awhile, the things that did not go
right on the farm seemed less important. Claude's mother was
almost as fond of Ernest as he was himself. When the two boys
were going to high school, Ernest often came over in the evening
to study with Claude, and while they worked at the long kitchen
table Mrs. Wheeler brought her darning and sat near them, helping
them with their Latin and algebra. Even old Mahailey was
enlightened by their words of wisdom.

Mrs. Wheeler said she would never forget the night Ernest arrived
from the Old Country. His brother, Joe Havel, had gone to
Frankfort to meet him, and was to stop on the way home and leave
some groceries for the Wheelers. The train from the east was
late; it was ten o'clock that night when Mrs. Wheeler, waiting in
the kitchen, heard Havel's wagon rumble across the little bridge
over Lovely Creek. She opened the outside door, and presently Joe
came in with a bucket of salt fish in one hand and a sack of
flour on his shoulder. While he took the fish down to the cellar
for her, another figure appeared in the doorway; a young boy,
short, stooped, with a flat cap on his head and a great oilcloth
valise, such as pedlars carry, strapped to his back. He had
fallen asleep in the wagon, and on waking and finding his brother
gone, he had supposed they were at home and scrambled for his
pack. He stood in the doorway, blinking his eyes at the light,
looking astonished but eager to do whatever was required of him.
What if one of her own boys, Mrs. Wheeler thought.... She
went up to him and put her arm around him, laughing a little and
saying in her quiet voice, just as if he could understand her,
"Why, you're only a little boy after all, aren't you?"

Ernest said afterwards that it was his first welcome to this
country, though he had travelled so far, and had been pushed and
hauled and shouted at for so many days, he had lost count of
them. That night he and Claude only shook hands and looked at
each other suspiciously, but ever since they had been good
friends.

After their picnic the two boys went to the circus in a happy
frame of mind. In the animal tent they met big Leonard Dawson,
the oldest son of one of the Wheelers' near neighbours, and the
three sat together for the performance. Leonard said he had come
to town alone in his car; wouldn't Claude ride out with him?
Claude was glad enough to turn the mules over to Ralph, who
didn't mind the hired men as much as he did.

Leonard was a strapping brown fellow of twenty-five, with big
hands and big feet, white teeth, and flashing eyes full of
energy. He and his father and two brothers not only worked their
own big farm, but rented a quarter section from Nat Wheeler. They
were master farmers. If there was a dry summer and a failure,
Leonard only laughed and stretched his long arms, and put in a
bigger crop next year. Claude was always a little reserved with
Leonard; he felt that the young man was rather contemptuous of
the hap-hazard way in which things were done on the Wheeler
place, and thought his going to college a waste of money. Leonard
had not even gone through the Frankfort High School, and he was
already a more successful man than Claude was ever likely to be.
Leonard did think these things, but he was fond of Claude, all
the same.

At sunset the car was speeding over a fine stretch of smooth road
across the level country that lay between Frankfort and the
rougher land along Lovely Creek. Leonard's attention was largely
given up to admiring the faultless behaviour of his engine.
Presently he chuckled to himself and turned to Claude.

"I wonder if you'd take it all right if I told you a joke on
Bayliss?"

"I expect I would." Claude's tone was not at all eager.

"You saw Bayliss today? Notice anything queer about him, one eye
a little off colour? Did he tell you how he got it?"

"No. I didn't ask him."

"Just as well. A lot of people did ask him, though, and he said
he was hunting around his place for something in the dark and ran
into a reaper. Well, I'm the reaper!"

Claude looked interested. "You mean to say Bayliss was in a
fight?"

Leonard laughed. "Lord, no! Don't you know Bayliss? I went in
there to pay a bill yesterday, and Susie Gray and another girl
came in to sell tickets for the firemen's dinner. An advance man
for this circus was hanging around, and he began talking a little
smart,--nothing rough, but the way such fellows will. The girls
handed it back to him, and sold him three tickets and shut him
up. I couldn't see how Susie thought so quick what to say. The
minute the girls went out Bayliss started knocking them; said all
the country girls were getting too fresh and knew more than they
ought to about managing sporty men and right there I reached out
and handed him one. I hit harder than I meant to. I meant to slap
him, not to give him a black eye. But you can't always regulate
things, and I was hot all over. I waited for him to come back at
me. I'm bigger than he is, and I wanted to give him satisfaction.
Well, sir, he never moved a muscle! He stood there getting redder
and redder, and his eyes watered. I don't say he cried, but his
eyes watered. 'All right, Bayliss,' said I. 'Slow with your
fists, if that's your principle; but slow with your tongue,
too,--especially when the parties mentioned aren't present.'"

"Bayliss will never get over that," was Claude's only comment.

"He don't have to!" Leonard threw up his head. "I'm a good
customer; he can like it or lump it, till the price of binding
twine goes down!"

For the next few minutes the driver was occupied with trying to
get up a long, rough hill on high gear. Sometimes he could
make that hill, and sometimes he couldn't, and he was not able to
account for the difference. After he pulled the second lever with
some disgust and let the car amble on as she would, he noticed
that his companion was disconcerted.

"I'll tell you what, Leonard," Claude spoke in a strained voice,
"I think the fair thing for you to do is to get out here by the
road and give me a chance."

Leonard swung his steering wheel savagely to pass a wagon on the
down side of the hill. "What the devil are you talking about,
boy?"

"You think you've got our measure all right, but you ought to
give me a chance first."

Leonard looked down in amazement at his own big brown hands,
lying on the wheel. "You mortal fool kid, what would I be telling
you all this for, if I didn't know you were another breed of
cats? I never thought you got on too well with Bayliss yourself."

"I don't, but I won't have you thinking you can slap the men in
my family whenever you feel like it." Claude knew that his
explanation sounded foolish, and his voice, in spite of all he
could do, was weak and angry.

Young Leonard Dawson saw he had hurt the boy's feelings. "Lord,
Claude, I know you're a fighter. Bayliss never was. I went to
school with him."

The ride ended amicably, but Claude wouldn't let Leonard take him
home. He jumped out of the car with a curt goodnight, and ran
across the dusky fields toward the light that shone from the
house on the hill. At the little bridge over the creek, he
stopped to get his breath and to be sure that he was outwardly
composed before he went in to see his mother.

"Ran against a reaper in the dark!" he muttered aloud, clenching
his fist.

Listening to the deep singing of the frogs, and to the distant
barking of the dogs up at the house, he grew calmer.
Nevertheless, he wondered why it was that one had sometimes to
feel responsible for the behaviour of people whose natures were
wholly antipathetic to one's own.



III

The circus was on Saturday. The next morning Claude was standing
at his dresser, shaving. His beard was already strong, a shade
darker than his hair and not so red as his skin. His eyebrows and
long lashes were a pale corn-colour--made his blue eyes seem
lighter than they were, and, he thought, gave a look of shyness
and weakness to the upper part of his face. He was exactly the
sort of looking boy he didn't want to be. He especially hated his
head,--so big that he had trouble in buying his hats, and
uncompromisingly square in shape; a perfect block-head. His name
was another source of humiliation. Claude: it was a "chump" name,
like Elmer and Roy; a hayseed name trying to be fine. In country
schools there was always a red-headed, warty-handed, runny-nosed
little boy who was called Claude. His good physique he took for
granted; smooth, muscular arms and legs, and strong shoulders, a
farmer boy might be supposed to have. Unfortunately he had none
of his father's physical repose, and his strength often asserted
itself inharmoniously. The storms that went on in his mind
sometimes made him rise, or sit down, or lift something, more
violently than there was any apparent reason for his doing.

The household slept late on Sunday morning; even Mahailey did not
get up until seven. The general signal for breakfast was the
smell of doughnuts frying. This morning Ralph rolled out of bed
at the last minute and callously put on his clean underwear
without taking a bath. This cost him not one regret, though he
took time to polish his new ox-blood shoes tenderly with a pocket
handkerchief. He reached the table when all the others were half
through breakfast, and made his peace by genially asking his
mother if she didn't want him to drive her to church in the car.

"I'd like to go if I can get the work done in time," she said,
doubtfully glancing at the clock.

"Can't Mahailey tend to things for you this morning?"

Mrs. Wheeler hesitated. "Everything but the separator, she can.
But she can't fit all the parts together. It's a good deal of
work, you know."

"Now, Mother," said Ralph good-humouredly, as he emptied the
syrup pitcher over his cakes, "you're prejudiced. Nobody ever
thinks of skimming milk now-a-days. Every up-to-date farmer uses
a separator."

Mrs. Wheeler's pale eyes twinkled. "Mahailey and I will never be
quite up-to-date, Ralph. We're old-fashioned, and I don't know but
you'd better let us be. I could see the advantage of a separator
if we milked half-a-dozen cows. It's a very ingenious machine.
But it's a great deal more work to scald it and fit it together
than it was to take care of the milk in the old way."

"It won't be when you get used to it," Ralph assured her. He was
the chief mechanic of the Wheeler farm, and when the farm
implements and the automobiles did not give him enough to do, he
went to town and bought machines for the house. As soon as
Mahailey got used to a washing-machine or a churn, Ralph, to keep
up with the bristling march of invention, brought home a still
newer one. The mechanical dish-washer she had never been able to
use, and patent flat-irons and oil-stoves drove her wild.

Claude told his mother to go upstairs and dress; he would scald
the separator while Ralph got the car ready. He was still working
at it when his brother came in from the garage to wash his hands.

"You really oughtn't to load mother up with things like this,
Ralph," he exclaimed fretfully. "Did you ever try washing this
damned thing yourself?"

"Of course I have. If Mrs. Dawson can manage it, I should think
mother could."

"Mrs. Dawson is a younger woman. Anyhow, there's no point in
trying to make machinists of Mahailey and mother."

Ralph lifted his eyebrows to excuse Claude's bluntness. "See
here," he said persuasively, "don't you go encouraging her into
thinking she can't change her ways. Mother's entitled to all the
labour-saving devices we can get her."

Claude rattled the thirty-odd graduated metal funnels which he
was trying to fit together in their proper sequence. "Well, if
this is labour-saving"

The younger boy giggled and ran upstairs for his panama hat. He
never quarrelled. Mrs. Wheeler sometimes said it was wonderful,
how much Ralph would take from Claude.

After Ralph and his mother had gone off in the car, Mr. Wheeler
drove to see his German neighbour, Gus Yoeder, who had just
bought a blooded bull. Dan and Jerry were pitching horseshoes
down behind the barn. Claude told Mahailey he was going to the
cellar to put up the swinging shelf she had been wanting, so that
the rats couldn't get at her vegetables.

"Thank you, Mr. Claude. I don't know what does make the rats so
bad. The cats catches one most every day, too."

"I guess they come up from the barn. I've got a nice wide board
down at the garage for your shelf." The cellar was cemented, cool
and dry, with deep closets for canned fruit and flour and
groceries, bins for coal and cobs, and a dark-room full of
photographer's apparatus. Claude took his place at the
carpenter's bench under one of the square windows. Mysterious
objects stood about him in the grey twilight; electric batteries,
old bicycles and typewriters, a machine for making cement
fence-posts, a vulcanizer, a stereopticon with a broken lens. The
mechanical toys Ralph could not operate successfully, as well as
those he had got tired of, were stored away here. If they were
left in the barn, Mr. Wheeler saw them too often, and sometimes,
when they happened to be in his way, he made sarcastic comments.
Claude had begged his mother to let him pile this lumber into a
wagon and dump it into some washout hole along the creek; but
Mrs. Wheeler said he must not think of such a thing; it would
hurt Ralph's feelings. Nearly every time Claude went into the
cellar, he made a desperate resolve to clear the place out some
day, reflecting bitterly that the money this wreckage cost would
have put a boy through college decently.

While Claude was planing off the board he meant to suspend from
the joists, Mahailey left her work and came down to watch him.
She made some pretence of hunting for pickled onions, then seated
herself upon a cracker box; close at hand there was a plush
"spring-rocker" with one arm gone, but it wouldn't have been her
idea of good manners to sit there. Her eyes had a kind of sleepy
contentment in them as she followed Claude's motions. She watched
him as if he were a baby playing. Her hands lay comfortably in
her lap.

"Mr. Ernest ain't been over for a long time. He ain't mad about
nothin', is he?"

"Oh, no! He's awful busy this summer. I saw him in town
yesterday. We went to the circus together."

Mahailey smiled and nodded. "That's nice. I'm glad for you two
boys to have a good time. Mr. Ernest's a nice boy; I always liked
him first rate. He's a little feller, though. He ain't big like
you, is he? I guess he ain't as tall as Mr. Ralph, even."

"Not quite," said Claude between strokes. "He's strong, though,
and gets through a lot of work."

"Oh, I know! I know he is. I know he works hard. All them
foreigners works hard, don't they, Mr. Claude? I reckon he liked
the circus. Maybe they don't have circuses like our'n, over where
he come from."

Claude began to tell her about the clown elephant and the trained
dogs, and she sat listening to him with her pleased, foolish
smile; there was something wise and far-seeing about her smile,
too.

Mahailey had come to them long ago, when Claude was only a few
months old. She had been brought West by a shiftless Virginia
family which went to pieces and scattered under the rigours of
pioneer farm-life. When the mother of the family died, there was
nowhere for Mahailey to go, and Mrs. Wheeler took her in.
Mahailey had no one to take care of her, and Mrs. Wheeler had no
one to help her with the work; it had turned out very well.

Mahailey had had a hard life in her young days, married to a savage mountaineer who often abused her and never provided for her. She could remember times when she sat in the cabin, beside an empty meal-barrel and a cold iron pot, waiting for "him" to bring home a squirrel he had shot or a chicken he had stolen. Too often he brought nothing but a jug of mountain whiskey and a pair of brutal fists. She thought herself well off now, ever to have to beg for food or go off into the woods to gather firing, to be sure of a warm bed and shoes and decent clothes. Mahailey was one of eighteen children; most of them grew up lawless or half-witted, and two of her brothers, like her usbahnd, ended their lives in jail. She had never been sent to school, and could not read or write. Claude, when he was a little boy, tried to teach her to read, but what she learned one night she had forgotten by the next. She could count, and tell the time of day by the clock, and she was very proud of knowing the alphabet and of being able to spell out letters on the flour sacks and coffee packages. "That's a big A." she would murmur, "and that there's a little a."

Mahailey was shrewd in her estimate of people, and Claude thought her judgment sound in a good many things. He knew she sensed all the shades of personal feeling, the accords and antipathies in the household, as keenly as he did, and he would have hated to lose her good opinion. She consulted him in all her little difficulties. If the leg of the kitchen table got wobbly, she knew he would put in new screws for her. When she broke a handle off her rolling pin, he put on another, and he fitted a haft to her favourite butcher-knife after every one else said it must be thrown away. These objects, after they had been mended, acquired a new value in her eyes, and she liked to work with them. When Claude helped her lift or carry anything, he never avoided touching her, this she felt deeply. She suspected that Ralph was a little ashamed of her, and would prefer to have some brisk young thing about the kitchen.

On days like this, when other people were not about, Mahailey liked to talk to Claude about the things they did together when he was little; the Sundays when they used to wander along the creek, hunting for wild grapes and watching the red squirrels; or trailed across the high pastures to a wild-plum thicket at the north end of the Wheeler farm.  Claude could remember warm spring days when the plum bushes were all in blossom and Mahailey used to lie down under them and sing to herself, as if the honey-heavy sweetness made her drowsy; songs without words, for the most part, though he recalled one mountain dirge which said over and over, 'And they laid Jesse James in his grave.'"   Willa Cather, One of Ours; Book One, Chapters 1-4