That yellow prairie sky
It was a roof for Tom and me and Julie and Kay. We hunted under it and we courted under it. Then came the summer’s day when the roof fell in
I WAS looking at the back of a new dollar bill, at that scene of somewhere on the prairies, and all of a sudden I was looking right through it and I wasn’t in Toronto at all any more— I was back out west. The clouds were moving overhead as if we were traveling and I pointed to that fence that’s down and I said, “Look’t there, Julie, that must be Tom’s place. He hasn’t fixed that piece of fence these thirty years.” And then I noticed the elevator wasn’t getting any closer.
It never does.
My brother Tom, he was quite a guy for women. I 11 bet he was the worst for twenty miles on either side of the Battle River. Or the best, whichever way you look at it. I guess I wasn’t far behind. Anyway, we spent the winter courting those two girls.
The way it happened, we met them in the fall while we were out hunting. I mean, we knew them all our lives. But you know how it is, eh? You look at some girl all your life, and then one day you stop all of a sudden and take another look, and you kind of let out a low whistle.
Well, Tom was twenty-three then, with me a year younger, and we’d grown up together. He taught me how to play hockey and how to snare rabbits and anything new that came along. Out on the prairies you don’t have neighbors over your head and in your back yard, and a brother really gets to be a brother.
When it rained that fall and the fields got too soft for threshing we decided to go out and take a crack at some of the ducks that were feeding on our crop. We built a big stook that would keep us out of view, facing the slough hole and the setting sun, and we crawled inside. I can still see it all in my mind . . .
A thousand and a thousand ducks were milling black against the yellow sky. Like autumn leaves from the tree of life they tumbled in the air; a new flock coming from the north, a flock circling down, a flock tremulous above the water, reluctant to wet a thousand feet. And silhouetted on the far horizon was a threshing machine with a blower pointed at a strawpile, and nearer was the glint of the sun on the slough, and then a rush of wings from behind, overhead, going into the
sun, and with a sudden jolt the autumn-sharp smell of a smoking gun.
I let go with both barrels at a flock that was too high up, and before I could reload there was a scream that left my jaw hanging as wide open as the breech of my old 12-gauge.
“I swear,” Tom said, “now ain’t that the prettiest pair of mallards that ever came close to losing their pinfeathers?”
I pushed my way out of the stook, and Tom was right.
I guess they didn’t see us. I mean, Kay and Julie.
They were standing back of our stook, looking scared, with their skirts tucked into—tucked up— and nobody thought of it in the excitement, or at least they didn’t.
“Are you trying to kill us?” Julie asked, pushing back a blond curl and pretending she was only mad and not scared at all.
“Can’t you see we’re shooting ducks?” Tom said.
“I can’t by the number that fell,” she said.
That’s when I spoke
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That Yellow Prairie Sky
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up. “They were too high and I was too anxious.”
Julie looked at me and my gun and she blushed. “I didn’t mean to insult your shooting. I’ve heard folks say you’re one of the best shots around.”
Funny thing. I was pretty good, but just about then I could’ve told a battalion of the Princess Pat’s to back up and drop their guns.
It was then that the redhead, Kay, spoke up. “Really, I’m glad you missed. I hate to see things get killed.”
Tom looked up at the distant ducks for a minute, and then he said, “As a matter of fact, I hate it myself.” It was the first time I ever heard Tom say a thing like that. Most of the time you couldn’t hold him.
There was a kind of a loss for words. Then Kay explained, “We’re making boxes for the box social in the church hall tonight, and we’re taking the short cut over to Rittner’s place to borrow four little wheels that the Rittners have left over from the little toy wagon that Halberg’s new automobile ran into.”
“We’re in a terrible hurry,” Julie said, “so instead of going around by the road we’re going to wade across Rittner’s slough—”
And then they noticed it too, and before Tom could say he figured as much, they were in the slough wading above their knees.
“A nice pair of shafts,” Tom commented.
“A dandy pair,” I said. But I soon found out I was talking about a different pair.
That night at the box social Tom paid three dollars and a half for the lunch box that looked like a pink Red River oxcart with toy wagon wheels on it. He figured it was Kay’s because she had red hair, and in a pinch we could make a switch.
Some religious fellow caught on to me and ran me up to five and a quarter on the yellow one. It was a great help to the church committee, and it looked like a fair enough investment otherwise. Sure enough, I got Kay’s and I wanted Julie’s, so Tom and T switched and the girls never caught on; or at least they never let on that they did.
Through the rest of the fall and during the winter Dad had to do the chores quite a few times by himself. Tom and I didn’t miss a dance or a hayride or a skating party within trotting range of the finest team of dapple greys in the country. We didn’t have all the fancy courting facilities that folks here in the east have, but we had lots of space and lots of sky. And we didn’t miss much on a frosty night, the old buffalo robe doing whatever was necessary to keep warm . . .
The northern lights in the winter sky were a silent symphony : flickering white, fading red and green, growing and bursting and dying in swirls and echoes of swirls, in wavering angel-shadows, in shimnwring music. And on one edge of the wide white prairie shone a solitary light, and toward it moved a sleigh with the jingle of harness, the clop of hoofs, the squeak of runners on the snow; and the jingling, clopping, squeaking of the happy sleigh rose up like the horses' frozen breath to the silent music in the sky.
I GUESS we did pretty well. I remember the night we were driving home from a bean supper and a dance, and Julie said, “You’re getting pretty free with your behavior.”
“Well, you’re going to be my wife soon enough,” I said.
“It can’t be soon enough,” she whispered, and she pushed my—my arm away. Women are always contrary that way.
Tom and Kay were curled up at the back of the sleigh and they couldn’t hear us.
“Let’s get out and run behind for a ways,” I said. “My feet are getting cold. And I can clap my hands.”
“My feet are warm,” she said.
“But mine aren’t.”
“You’re just making that up because you’re mad.”
“Why would I be mad?”
“You’re mad because I stopped you.” “Stopped me what?”
She didn’t want to say it. “Nothing,” she said.
“I think I’ll get out and run behind by myself,” I said. “Should I?”
She reached up and kissed me right on the mouth, cold and yet warm, and that was that as far as the running behind went.
“Let’s talk,” she said. “We’ve only been engaged since midnight, and here you want to act like we’re married already.”
“Who, me?” I said, trying to sound liie I didn’t know what she was talking about.
“Let’s talk,” she said.
“Talk,” I said. “I’m all ears.” “Don’t you want to talk?”
“Sure I want to talk. If I can get a word in edgewise.”
“I can’t get used to being engaged,” she said. “I want to talk.”
“What’ll we talk about?” I said. “It seems to me we’ve done nothing but talk since last fall.”
“Let’s plan,” she said.
That was the end of my plans. “We’re going to get married, remember?” she went on. “You asked me and I said yes before you had hardly asked the second time.”
“You weren’t so sure I’d ask a third time.”
She soon changed that subject. “Kay said that she and Tom are going to build a house this fall.”
“It’s a good idea. Living on the home place is no good for them and no good for Ma and Dad.”
“Why can’t we build a house?”
“We got a shack on our place.” “Shack is right. One room and a lean-to.”
“It’s a roof.”
“Kay and Tom are going to get a new bedroom suite and a new stove, and Kay is going to start making new curtains. I could start making new curtains too if we were going to have a new house with lots of windows.” “If we get a good crop, okay. But I got enough stashed away to get married on and put a crop in, and that’s it.”
“I want to make a nice home for you. We’ll have a family.”
“We might,” I said. “But tilings’ll have to pick up.”
“Promise,” she said.
“Sure enough,” 1 said.
“I mean, promise we’ll have a new house.”
“Don’t you think it would be better to wait and see?”
She didn’t answer.
“We might flood out or dry out or freeze out. How do I know?”
She still didn’t answer.
“What if it’s a grasshopper year? What about wireworms and wild oats and rust and buckwheat?”
“Promise me,” she said. “I don’t even think you love me.”
That was her final word.
I talked for another ten minutes about wireworms and rust, and after that things got quiet. We sat in that sleigh for an hour, our breath freezing in our scarves (twenty-seven below, it was), wrapped in a buffalo robe and
in each other’s arms and never once did she speak. To a young fellow twenty-two years old it didn’t make much sense. But I didn’t push her away. She was soft and warm and quiet, and I thought she had fallen asleep.
“Okay,” I said, finally. “Okay okay okay. I promise.”
She snuggled closer.
WE HAD a double wedding in the spring.
Tom’s father-in-law fixed up two granaries near the house and we held
the reception at his place. Everybody was there. My cousin had trouble with the pump, and while everybody was watching him trying to tap the keg, Tom came over to where I was watching the sky for a nice day and he shook my hand.
“We’re the luckiest pair of duck hunters this side of the fourth meridian,” he said. “We’ve each got a half section that’s almost paid for, we’ve got a big crop to put in that’ll put us on our feet, and we’ve each got the prettiest girl in the country. How do you like being a married man?”
“Yes sir,” I said. I had one eye on a couple of my old sidekicks who were kissing the bride for the second time. “This here love business is the clear McCoy.”
I remember that my cousin drew the first pitcherful just then, and it was all foam. But we were only just married . . .
The. sky toas the garment of love. It ivas a big sky, freckled with the stars of the universe; a happy sky, shrouding all the pain. It was the time of spring, and spring is love, and in the night sky arrow after arrow of honking geese winged across
the yellow moon, driving winter from the world.
Right after the wedding we moved into the shack and really went to work.
I was busy from morning till night putting in a big crop, while Julie helped with the chores and looked after her little chicks and put in a big garden. When the crop was in we started on the summer fallow, and before that was done it was haying time.
At noon she brought dinner out to me in the field, out in the sun and the wind, and we sat side by side and talked and laughed, and the dust from my face got on hers sometimes, and sometimes I didn’t get started quite on time. And the weather was good too . . .
In the evening a black cloud towered up in the west and tumbled over the land, bringing lightning and rain and hope. In the morning there was only a fragment of cloud; the dot worn on a woman's cheek beside a pair of beautiful eyes, and the beautiful sun in the fair blue sky sent warmth and growth into the earth, and the rain and the sun turned the black fields green, the green fields yellow.
I remember one Sunday we went over to Tom’s for a chicken supper. Tom and Dad and I talked about the way the crops were coming along and where to get binder repairs, and we made arrangements to help each other with the cutting and stooking.
The womenfolk talked about their gardens and their chickens until Julie mentioned the drapes she was sewing.
“I’m going to have one of those new parlors,” she said, “one of those living room parlors with lots of windows, like in the magazines, and I’m making drapes for that kind of windows.”
“I think I will too,” Kay said. “Tom cut some of the nicest plans out of last week’s Free Press. I hope the fall stays nice.”
“My husband is even getting enthusiastic,” Julie said, giving me a teasing smile. “I caught him holding up the drapes one day and looking at them.”
Ma said she was crocheting some new pillow covers for all the pillows and easy chairs that seemed to be coming up, and she thought they all better get together and do some extra canning. Entertaining takes food.
Kay said, “Ma,” meaning her mother-in-law, “you’ll soon have your house all to yourself again. And since Tom is afraid he’ll have to help with the washing, he’s going to get me a new washing machine.”
“We might pick up a secondhand car,” Julie said, “if the crop on our breaking doesn’t go down because it’s too heavy.”
I had mentioned it’d be something to tinker on during the winter.
It wasn’t long before Julie was talking about the washing machine and Kay was talking about a secondhand car. Wheat was a good price that year.
We menfolk laughed at the women and we found a few things in the Eaton’s catalogue that we could use ourselves. It seemed that somebody was always coming up with something new that we couldn’t possibly do without.
After supper we all walked out to have a look at Tom’s crop. Tom could even make a gumbo patch grow wheat.
1 GUESS it happened a week later.
I mean, the storm. Julie was working on her drapes. It was a hot day, too hot and too still, and in the afternoon the clouds began to pile up in the west . . .
The storm came like a cloud of white dust high in the sky : not black or grey
like a rain cloud, but white; and now it was rolling across the heavens with a brute unconcern for the mites below, and
after awhile came the first dull roar. The hot, dead air was suddenly cool, stirring to a breeze, and then a white wall of destruction bridged earth and sky and moved across the land and crashed across the fields of ripening grain.
Old man Rittner saw it coming west of us, and he went out and drove his axe in the middle of the yard, figuring to split her. But she didn’t split.
In fifteen minutes it was all over and the sun was shining as pretty as you please. Only there was no reason for the sun to shine. Our garden and our fields were flat, and the west window was broken, and half the shingles were gone from the shack. The leaves were half stripped from the trees, and the ground was more white than black and, 1 remember, the cat found a dead robin.
My wife didn’t say a word.
I hitched up old Mag to the buggy and Julie and I drove over to Tom’s place.
Tom was sitting on the porch steps with his head in his hands, and Kay was leaning on the fence, looking at
her garden. It looked like they hadn’t been talking much either.
I got out and walked over to Tom, and Julie stayed in the huggy.
“A hundred percent,” I said.
“The works,” he said. “And all I got is enough insurance to feed us this winter or to buy a ticket to hell out of here.”
“The same with me,” I said.
We couldn’t think of much to say.
All of a sudden Tom almost shouted at Kay: “Say it and get it over with. If you want we’ll go to the city and I’ll get a job. I can get on a construction gang. They’re paying good now. We’ll get a washing machine and a secondhand car.” He looked at his wheat fields, beaten fiat. “We’ll make a payment and get our own house.”
He kicked at a hailstone.
“A house with big windows for my new drapes,” Kay added.
Tom got up and he walked to the gate where Julie sat in the buggy. Kay and I, we stood there watching him, almost afraid of the storm in his eyes, and Kay looked at me as if I should stop him before he went and grabbed a pitchfork or something.
“Tom, I was joking,” Kay said. “I don’t need fancy curtains and a washing machine. And we never needed a car before. Did we, Tom? We got enough for us and Ma and Dad. Haven’t we, Tom? And we got next year.”
Tom snorted at that idea. He kicked open the gate and walked out toward the barn. There was so much helpless anger in him he couldn’t talk.
Kay called after him. “We still got this, Tom.” She was kind of crying. She scraped up a handful of black dirt and she held it out to him. “Look, Tom, we still got this.”
Tom, he stopped in the middle of the yard and he turned around. For a long time he was only looking at Kay’s hand.
All of a sudden he bent down like he was going to say a prayer or something. And he scooped up a handful of hailstones, and he flung them back at the sky.
Like I say, my wife; she didn’t say a word. ★