Ralph and his father moved to the new ranch the last of August, and Mr. Wheeler wrote back that late in the fall he meant to ship a carload of grass steers to the home farm to be fattened during the winter. This, Claude saw, would mean a need for fodder. There was a fifty-acre corn field west of the creek,--just on the sky-line when one looked out from the west windows of the house. Claude decided to put this field into winter wheat, and early in September he began to cut and bind the corn that stood upon it for fodder. As soon as the corn was gathered, he would plough up the ground, and drill in the wheat when he planted the other wheat fields.
This was Claude's first innovation, and it did not meet with approval. When Bayliss came out to spend Sunday with his mother, he asked her what Claude thought he was doing, anyhow. If he wanted to change the crop on that field, why didn't he plant oats in the spring, and then get into wheat next fall? Cutting fodder and preparing the ground now, would only hold him back in his work. When Mr. Wheeler came home for a short visit, he jocosely referred to that quarter as "Claude's wheat field."
Claude went ahead with what he had undertaken to do, but all through September he was nervous and apprehensive about the weather. Heavy rains, if they came, would make him late with his wheat-planting, and then there would certainly be criticism. In reality, nobody cared much whether the planting was late or not, but Claude thought they did, and sometimes in the morning he awoke in a state of panic because he wasn't getting ahead faster. He had Dan and one of August Yoeder's four sons to help him, and he worked early and late. The new field he ploughed and drilled himself. He put a great deal of young energy into it, and buried a great deal of discontent in its dark furrows. Day after day he flung himself upon the land and planted it with what was fermenting in him, glad to be so tired at night that he could not think.
Ralph came home for Leonard Dawson's wedding, on the first of October. All the Wheelers went to the wedding, even Mahailey, and there was a great gathering of the country folk and townsmen.
After Ralph left, Claude had the place to himself again, and the work went on as usual. The stock did well, and there were no vexatious interruptions. The fine weather held, and every morning when Claude got up, another gold day stretched before him like a glittering carpet, leading. . . ? When the question where the days were leading struck him on the edge of his bed, he hurried to dress and get down-stairs in time to fetch wood and coal for Mahailey. They often reached the kitchen at the same moment, and she would shake her finger at him and say, "You come down to help me, you nice boy, you!" At least he was of some use to Mahailey. His father could hire one of the Yoeder boys to look after the place, but Mahailey wouldn't let any one else save her old back.
Mrs. Wheeler, as well as Mahailey, enjoyed that fall. She slept late in the morning, and read and rested in the afternoon. She made herself some new house-dresses out of a grey material Claude chose. "It's almost like being a bride, keeping house for just you, Claude," she sometimes said.
Soon Claude had the satisfaction of seeing a blush of green come up over his brown wheat fields, visible first in the dimples and little hollows, then flickering over the knobs and levels like a fugitive smile. He watched the green blades coming every day, when he and Dan went afield with their wagons to gather corn. Claude sent Dan to shuck on the north quarter, and he worked on the south. He always brought in one more load a day than Dan did,--that was to be expected. Dan explained this very reasonably, Claude thought, one afternoon when they were hooking up their teams.
"It's all right for you to jump at that corn like you was a-beating carpets, Claude; it's your corn, or anyways it's your Paw's. Them fields will always lay betwixt you and trouble. But a hired man's got no property but his back, and he has to save it. I figure that I've only got about so many jumps left in me, and I ain't a-going to jump too hard at no man's corn."
"What's the matter? I haven't been hinting that you ought to jump any harder, have I ?"
"No, you ain't, but I just want you to know that there's reason in all things." With this Dan got into his wagon and drove off. He had probably been meditating upon this declaration for some time.
That afternoon Claude suddenly stopped flinging white ears into the wagon beside him. It was about five o'clock, the yellowest hour of the autumn day. He stood lost in a forest of light, dry, rustling corn leaves, quite hidden away from the world. Taking off his husking-gloves, he wiped the sweat from his face, climbed up to the wagon box, and lay down on the ivory-coloured corn. The horses cautiously advanced a step or two, and munched with great content at ears they tore from the stalks with their teeth.
Claude lay still, his arms under his head, looking up at the hard, polished blue sky, watching the flocks of crows go over from the fields where they fed on shattered grain, to their nests in the trees along Lovely Creek. He was thinking about what Dan had said while they were hitching up. There was a great deal of truth in it, certainly. Yet, as for him, he often felt that he would rather go out into the world and earn his bread among strangers than sweat under this half-responsibility for acres and crops that were not his own. He knew that his father was sometimes called a "land hog" by the country people, and he himself had begun to feel that it was not right they should have so much land,--to farm, or to rent, or to leave idle, as they chose. It was strange that in all the centuries the world had been going, the question of property had not been better adjusted. The people who had it were slaves to it, and the people who didn't have it were slaves to them.
He sprang down into the gold light to finish his load. Warm silence nestled over the cornfield. Sometimes a light breeze rose for a moment and rattled the stiff, dry leaves, and he himself made a great rustling and crackling as he tore the husks from the ears.
Greedy crows were still cawing about before they flapped homeward. When he drove out to the highway, the sun was going down, and from his seat on the load he could see far and near. Yonder was Dan's wagon, coming in from the north quarter; over there was the roof of Leonard Dawson's new house, and his windmill, standing up black in the declining day. Before him were the bluffs of the pasture, and the little trees, almost bare, huddled in violet shadow along the creek, and the Wheeler farm-house on the hill, its windows all aflame with the last red fire of the sun.