My Antonia by Willa Cather
Book I. The Shimerdas
After I began to go to the country school, I saw less of the Bohemians. We were sixteen pupils at the sod schoolhouse, and we all came on horseback and brought our dinner. My schoolmates were none of them very interesting, but I somehow felt that, by Taking comrades of them, I was getting even with Antonia for her indifference. Since the father's death, Ambrosch was more than ever the head of the house, and he seemed to direct the feelings as well as the fortunes of his womenfolk. Antonia often quoted his opinions to me, and she let me see that she admired him, while she thought of me only as a little boy. Before the spring was over, there was a distinct coldness between us and the Shimerdas. It came about in this way.
One Sunday I rode over there with Jake to get a horse-collar which Ambrosch had borrowed from him and had not returned. It was a beautiful blue morning. The buffalo-peas were blooming in pink and purple masses along the roadside, and the larks, perched on last year's dried sunflower stalks, were singing straight at the sun, their heads thrown back and their yellow breasts a-quiver. The wind blew about us in warm, sweet gusts. We rode slowly, with a pleasant sense of Sunday indolence.
We found the Shimerdas working just as if it were a week-day. Marek was cleaning out the stable, and Antonia and her mother were making garden, off across the pond in the draw-head. Ambrosch was up on the windmill tower, oiling the wheel. He came down, not very cordially. When Jake asked for the collar, he grunted and scratched his head. The collar belonged to grandfather, of course, and Jake, feeling responsible for it, flared up. `Now, don't you say you haven't got it, Ambrosch, because I know you have, and if you ain't a-going to look for it, I will.'
Ambrosch shrugged his shoulders and sauntered down the hill toward the stable. I could see that it was one of his mean days. Presently he returned, carrying a collar that had been badly used-- trampled in the dirt and gnawed by rats until the hair was sticking out of it.
`This what you want?' he asked surlily.
Jake jumped off his horse. I saw a wave of red come up under the rough stubble on his face. `That ain't the piece of harness I loaned you, Ambrosch; or, if it is, you've used it shameful. I ain't a-going to carry such a looking thing back to Mr. Burden.'
Ambrosch dropped the collar on the ground. `All right,' he said coolly, took up his oil-can, and began to climb the mill. Jake caught him by the belt of his trousers and yanked him back. Ambrosch's feet had scarcely touched the ground when he lunged out with a vicious kick at Jake's stomach. Fortunately, Jake was in such a position that he could dodge it. This was not the sort of thing country boys did when they played at fisticuffs, and Jake was furious. He landed Ambrosch a blow on the head--it sounded like the crack of an axe on a cow-pumpkin. Ambrosch dropped over, stunned.
We heard squeals, and looking up saw Antonia and her mother coming on the run. They did not take the path around the pond, but plunged through the muddy water, without even lifting their skirts. They came on, screaming and clawing the air. By this time Ambrosch had come to his senses and was sputtering with nosebleed.
Jake sprang into his saddle. `Let's get out of this, Jim,' he called.
Mrs. Shimerda threw her hands over her head and clutched as if she were going to pull down lightning. `Law, law!' she shrieked after us. `Law for knock my Ambrosch down!'
`I never like you no more, Jake and Jim Burden,' Antonia panted. `No friends any more!'
Jake stopped and turned his horse for a second. `Well, you're a damned ungrateful lot, the whole pack of you,' he shouted back. `I guess the Burdens can get along without you. You've been a sight of trouble to them, anyhow!'
We rode away, feeling so outraged that the fine morning was spoiled for us. I hadn't a word to say, and poor Jake was white as paper and trembling all over. It made him sick to get so angry.
`They ain't the same, Jimmy,' he kept saying in a hurt tone. `These foreigners ain't the same. You can't trust 'em to be fair. It's dirty to kick a feller. You heard how the women turned on you-- and after all we went through on account of 'em last winter! They ain't to be trusted. I don't want to see you get too thick with any of 'em.'
`I'll never be friends with them again, Jake,' I declared hotly. `I believe they are all like Krajiek and Ambrosch underneath.'
Grandfather heard our story with a twinkle in his eye. He advised Jake to ride to town tomorrow, go to a justice of the peace, tell him he had knocked young Shimerda down, and pay his fine. Then if Mrs. Shimerda was inclined to make trouble-- her son was still under age--she would be forestalled. Jake said he might as well take the wagon and haul to market the pig he had been fattening. On Monday, about an hour after Jake had started, we saw Mrs. Shimerda and her Ambrosch proudly driving by, looking neither to the right nor left. As they rattled out of sight down the Black Hawk road, grandfather chuckled, saying he had rather expected she would follow the matter up.
Jake paid his fine with a ten-dollar bill grandfather had given him for that purpose. But when the Shimerdas found that Jake sold his pig in town that day, Ambrosch worked it out in his shrewd head that Jake had to sell his pig to pay his fine. This theory afforded the Shimerdas great satisfaction, apparently. For weeks afterward, whenever Jake and I met Antonia on her way to the post-office, or going along the road with her work-team, she would clap her hands and call to us in a spiteful, crowing voice:
`Jake-y, Jake-y, sell the pig and pay the slap!'
Otto pretended not to be surprised at Antonia's behaviour. He only lifted his brows and said, `You can't tell me anything new about a Czech; I'm an Austrian.'
Grandfather was never a party to what Jake called our feud with the Shimerdas. Ambrosch and Antonia always greeted him respectfully, and he asked them about their affairs and gave them advice as usual. He thought the future looked hopeful for them. Ambrosch was a far-seeing fellow; he soon realized that his oxen were too heavy for any work except breaking sod, and he succeeded in selling them to a newly arrived German. With the money he bought another team of horses, which grandfather selected for him. Marek was strong, and Ambrosch worked him hard; but he could never teach him to cultivate corn, I remember. The one idea that had ever got through poor Marek's thick head was that all exertion was meritorious. He always bore down on the handles of the cultivator and drove the blades so deep into the earth that the horses were soon exhausted.
In June, Ambrosch went to work at Mr. Bushy's for a week, and took Marek with him at full wages. Mrs. Shimerda then drove the second cultivator; she and Antonia worked in the fields all day and did the chores at night. While the two women were running the place alone, one of the new horses got colic and gave them a terrible fright.
Antonia had gone down to the barn one night to see that all was well before she went to bed, and she noticed that one of the roans was swollen about the middle and stood with its head hanging. She mounted another horse, without waiting to saddle him, and hammered on our door just as we were going to bed. Grandfather answered her knock. He did not send one of his men, but rode back with her himself, taking a syringe and an old piece of carpet he kept for hot applications when our horses were sick. He found Mrs. Shimerda sitting by the horse with her lantern, groaning and wringing her hands. It took but a few moments to release the gases pent up in the poor beast, and the two women heard the rush of wind and saw the roan visibly diminish in girth.
`If I lose that horse, Mr. Burden,' Antonia exclaimed, `I never stay here till Ambrosch come home! I go drown myself in the pond before morning.'
When Ambrosch came back from Mr. Bushy's, we learned that he had given Marek's wages to the priest at Black Hawk, for Masses for their father's soul. Grandmother thought Antonia needed shoes more than Mr. Shimerda needed prayers, but grandfather said tolerantly, `If he can spare six dollars, pinched as he is, it shows he believes what he professes.'
It was grandfather who brought about a reconciliation with the Shimerdas. One morning he told us that the small grain was coming on so well, he thought he would begin to cut his wheat on the first of July. He would need more men, and if it were agreeable to everyone he would engage Ambrosch for the reaping and threshing, as the Shimerdas had no small grain of their own.
`I think, Emmaline,' he concluded, `I will ask Antonia to come over and help you in the kitchen. She will be glad to earn something, and it will be a good time to end misunderstandings. I may as well ride over this morning and make arrangements. Do you want to go with me, Jim?' His tone told me that he had already decided for me.
After breakfast we set off together. When Mrs. Shimerda saw us coming, she ran from her door down into the draw behind the stable, as if she did not want to meet us. Grandfather smiled to himself while he tied his horse, and we followed her.
Behind the barn we came upon a funny sight. The cow had evidently been grazing somewhere in the draw. Mrs. Shimerda had run to the animal, pulled up the lariat pin, and, when we came upon her, she was trying to hide the cow in an old cave in the bank. As the hole was narrow and dark, the cow held back, and the old woman was slapping and pushing at her hind quarters, trying to spank her into the drawside.
Grandfather ignored her singular occupation and greeted her politely. `Good morning, Mrs. Shimerda. Can you tell me where I will find Ambrosch? Which field?'
`He with the sod corn.' She pointed toward the north, still standing in front of the cow as if she hoped to conceal it.
`His sod corn will be good for fodder this winter,' said grandfather encouragingly. `And where is Antonia?'
`She go with.' Mrs. Shimerda kept wiggling her bare feet about nervously in the dust.
`Very well. I will ride up there. I want them to come over and help me cut my oats and wheat next month. I will pay them wages. Good morning. By the way, Mrs. Shimerda,' he said as he turned up the path, `I think we may as well call it square about the cow.'
She started and clutched the rope tighter. Seeing that she did not understand, grandfather turned back. `You need not pay me anything more; no more money. The cow is yours.'
`Pay no more, keep cow?' she asked in a bewildered tone, her narrow eyes snapping at us in the sunlight.
`Exactly. Pay no more, keep cow.' He nodded.
Mrs. Shimerda dropped the rope, ran after us, and, crouching down beside grandfather, she took his hand and kissed it. I doubt if he had ever been so much embarrassed before. I was a little startled, too. Somehow, that seemed to bring the Old World very close.
We rode away laughing, and grandfather said: `I expect she thought we had come to take the cow away for certain, Jim. I wonder if she wouldn't have scratched a little if we'd laid hold of that lariat rope!'
Our neighbours seemed glad to make peace with us. The next Sunday Mrs. Shimerda came over and brought Jake a pair of socks she had knitted. She presented them with an air of great magnanimity, saying, `Now you not come any more for knock my Ambrosch down?'
Jake laughed sheepishly. `I don't want to have no trouble with Ambrosch. If he'll let me alone, I'll let him alone.'
`If he slap you, we ain't got no pig for pay the fine,' she said insinuatingly.
Jake was not at all disconcerted. `Have the last word ma'm,' he said cheerfully. `It's a lady's privilege.'