Read CHAPTER VI - THE STORY OF A PLANTING of The Biography of a Prairie Girl , free online book, by Eleanor Gates, on

THE little girl was making believe, as she planted the corn, that the field was a great city; the long rows, reaching up from the timothy meadow to the carnelian bluff, were the beautiful streets; and the hills, two steps apart, were the houses.  She had a seed-bag slung under her arm, and when she came to a hill she put her hand into it and took out four plump, yellow kernels.  And as she went along, dropping her gifts at each door, she played that she was visiting and said, “How do you do?” as politely as she could to the lady of the house, at the same time taking off her battered blue sailor-hat and bowing,-just as she had seen the lightning-rod agent do to her mother.

She had begun the game by naming every family she called upon.  But it was not long before she had used up all the names she could think of-those of the neighbors, the Indians, the story-book people, the horses, the cows, the oxen, the dogs, and even the vegetables in the garden.  So, after having planted a row or two, she contented herself with making believe she was among strangers and just offering a friendly greeting to every household.

She had come out to the field when the prairie-chickens were still playing their bagpipes on the river bank, their booming sounding through the morning air so clearly that the little girl had been sure they were not farther than the edge of the wheat-field, and had walked out of her way to try to see them, tramping along in her best shoes, which had shiny copper toes and store-made laces.  But when she had reached the wheat, the booming, like a will-o’-the-wisp, had been temptingly farther on; and she had turned back to the newly marked corn-land.

Her big brothers had sent her out to drop and cover eighty rows, the last corn-planting to be done that year on the big Dakota farm.  They had finished the rest of the field themselves and, intent on getting in the rutabaga crop, had turned over the remaining strip to the little girl, declaring that she could drop and cover forty rows in the morning and forty in the afternoon, and not half try.  To make sure that she would have time to finish the work, they had started her off immediately after a five-o’clock breakfast; and in order that she should not lose any time at noon, they had made her take her dinner with her in a tall tin pail.

Her first glimpse of the unplanted piece had greatly discouraged her, for it seemed dreadfully wide and long.  So, after deciding to plant the whole of it before doing any covering with the hoe, because the dropping of the corn was much easier and quicker to do than the hoeing, she went to work half-heartedly.  Now, to make her task seem short, she had further determined to play “city.”

It was such fun to pretend that, as she went bobbing and bowing up and down the rows, she forgot to stop her game and throw clods at the gray gophers.  They lived in the timothy meadow, and were so bold that, if they were not watched, they would come out of their burrows and follow the rows, stealing every kernel out of the hills as they went along and putting the booty in their cheek-pouches.

After she had dropped corn as much as a whole hour, the little girl’s back ached, and when she went to refill her seed-bag at the corn-barrel that stood on the border of the meadow near the row-marker, she sat down to rest a moment.  The marker resembled a sleigh, only it had five runners instead of two, and there were rocks piled on top of it to make it heavy.  So the minute the little girl’s eyes fell upon it and she saw the runners, she thought of winter.  Winter instantly reminded her of the muskrats in the slough below the bluff.  And with that thought she could not resist starting down to see if they were busy after the thaw.

She gathered many flowers on the way, and stopped to pull off her shoes and stockings.  At last she reached the slough and waded in to a muskrat house, where she used her hoe-handle as a poker to scare out some of the muskrats.  Failing in this, she picked up her shoes and stockings and went around the slough to find out if any green leaves were unfolding yet in the wild-plum thicket.  A little later she climbed the bluff to the corn-field, making a diligent search for Indian arrowheads all the way.

When she reached the seed-bag again, she threw the string over her head and started up a row determinedly.  For a rod or more she did not pause either to be polite or to scare away gophers, but hurried along very fast, with her eyes to the ground.  Suddenly she chanced to look just ahead of her, and stopped abruptly, standing erect.  Her shadow pointed straight for the bluff:  it was noon and high time to eat dinner.

She sat down on the marker and munched her sandwiches of salted lard and corn-meal bread with great appetite.  She was just finishing them when the call of a goose far overhead attracted her attention.  She got down and lay flat on her back, with her head on the seed-bag, to watch the flock, high above her, speeding northward to the lakes, their leader crying commands to the gray company that flew in V-shaped order behind him.  When the geese were but a dark thread across the north sky, she felt drowsy and, turning on her side with her hat over her face and her back to the gentle spring breeze, went fast asleep.

She lay there for hours, entirely unaware of the saucy stares of several gophers who paused in their hunt for kernels and stood straight as picket-pins to watch and wonder at the little heap of pink calico under the battered sailor-hat, or whisked about her, their short legs flashing, their tails wide and bushy, their cheek-pouches so full of kernels that they smiled fatly when they looked at her, and showed four long front teeth.  But the little girl was wrapped in a happy dream of a certain beautiful red wagon with a real seat that she had seen in a thick catalogue sent her mother by a store in a distant city.  So she never moved till late in the afternoon, when the gentle breeze strengthened to a sharp wind that, with a petulant gust, whirled her sailor across the rows and far away.

The flying hat caused a stampede among some curious gophers who were just then investigating a near-by unplanted row in the hope of finding more corn.  Clattering shrilly, they scudded back to the meadow, and the little girl rose.  After a long chase for the hat, she went stiffly to work again, not stopping to put on her shoes and stockings, though the wind was cold.

After that she planted faithfully, leaving off only to throw clods at the gophers, or to ease her back now and then.  And it was when she was resting a moment that she noticed something that made her begin working harder than ever.  Her shadow stretched out so far to the eastward that she could not touch its head with the end of her long hoe.  When she first came out that morning, it had fallen just as far the other way.  She looked anxiously up at the sun, which was shining slantingly upon the freshly harrowed land through a gray haze that hung about it.  Then she looked again at her shadow, distorted and grotesque, that moved when she moved and mimicked her when she bent to drop the corn.  Its length showed her that it was getting late, and that she would soon hear the summoning blast of the cow-horn that hung behind the kitchen door.

She dropped the seed-bag, walked across the strip still unplanted, and counted the rows.  She returned on the run.  The dropping was little more than half finished, and no covering had been done at all.  She knew she could not finish that day; yet if they asked her at the farm-house if she had completed the planting, she would not dare to tell them how little of it was done.  She sat down to pull on her shoes and stockings, thinking hard all the while.  But, just as she had one leg dressed, she sprang up with a happy thought, and stood on the shod foot like a heron while she dressed the other.  Then, without stopping to lace her shoes, she tossed her sailor aside, swung the seed-bag to the front, and began dropping corn as fast as she could.

The kernels were counted no longer, nor were they placed in the hills precisely.  Without a glance to right or left, she raced along the rows, her cheeks flaming and her hair flying out in the wind.  She had decided that she would plant all of the strip-but not cover the corn until next day.

The sun sank slowly toward the horizon as she worked.  But the unplanted rows were rapidly growing fewer and fewer now, and the descending disk gave her little worry.  Up and down she hurried, scattering rather than dropping the seed, until she was on her final trip.  When she reached the end of the last row, she joyfully put all the corn she had left into one hill, turned the seed-bag inside out, slipped her lunch-bucket into it, and, after hiding her hoe in the stone pile on the carnelian bluff, turned her face toward the house.  And at that very moment, with the winding of the cow-horn for its farewell salute, the last yellow rind of the sun went out of sight below the level line of the prairie.

EARLY the next day, while the little girl’s big brothers were busy with the chores, she mounted her pony and rode away southward from the farm-house.  At the reservation road, she faced toward the sun and struck her horse to a canter.  A mile out on the prairie to the east, she turned due north up a low ravine; and finally completed almost a perfect square by coming west, when on a line with the carnelian bluff, to the edge of the corn-field.  There she tied her pony to a large stone on the slope of the bluff and well out of sight of the house, and, after hunting up the hoe, started energetically to cover up the planting of the day before.

She began at the bluff on the first uncovered row, and swung down it rapidly, her hoe flashing brightly in the sun as she pulled the dirt over the kernels.  But when she had gone less than half the distance to the meadow she stopped at a hill and anxiously examined it a moment.  She went on to the next without using her hoe, then on to the next and the next; and, finally, putting it across her shoulder, walked slowly to the end.

Arrived at the edge of the meadow, she turned about and followed up another row.  Her hoe was still across her shoulder, and she did not stop to use it until she was near the bluff.  When she reached the meadow the second time, she sat down on the row-marker and looked out across the timothy.

“Goodness!” she said, addressing the half-dozen animated stakes that were eying her from a proper distance, “you’ve done it!”

The gophers stood straighter than ever when they heard her voice, and new ones came from their burrows and sat up to watch her, with their fore paws held primly in front of them, their tails lying out motionless behind, and their slender heads poised pertly-with no movement except the twinkle of sharp, black eyes and the quiver of long whiskers.

“And there ain’t ’nough seed left in that barrel,” went on the little girl, “to plant a single row over again.”

She sat on the marker a long time, a sorrowful little figure, in deep study.  And when she finally rose and resumed work at the upper end of the strip, she thought with dread of the disclosure that sprouting-time would bring.

An hour later, she untied her pony and climbed wearily upon his back.  As she rode across the meadow toward home, she shook her head solemnly at the mounds in the timothy.

“I s’pose,” she said, “you’ve got to have something to lay up for winter; but I think you might ‘a’ gone down to mother’s veg’table patch, ’cause, when the corn comes up, I’ll catch it!”

The corn-stalks were nodding in their first untasseled sturdiness before the little girl’s big brothers paid the field a visit to see when the crowding suckers should be pulled and the first loosening given to the dirt about the hills.  They went down one morning, their muskets over their shoulders, and the little girl went with them, hoping that so much time had passed since the planting that they would not punish her even if they found fault with her work on the last eighty rows.

Summer had come in on a carpet of spring green strewn with wild clover, asters, and blazing-star.  And as they went along, the verdant prairie rolled away before them for miles in the warm sunlight, unbroken save where their eyes passed to the richer emerald of wheat sprinkled with gay mustard, new flax on freshly turned sod, or a sea of waving maize.  Overhead, the geese no longer streaked the sky in changing lines, but swarms of blackbirds filled the air with crisp calls at their approach, and rose from the ground in black clouds.  Down along the slough where the wild-plum boughs waved their blossoms they could see the calves frolicking together; and up on the carnelian bluff, the young prairie-chickens scurried through the grass before a watchful mother.

The little girl trailed, barefooted, behind her big brothers, and was in no humor to enjoy any of the beauties of earth or sky.  With anxious face she followed them as they penetrated the lusty stand of corn, going from south to north on the western side of the field.  Then she tagged less willingly as they turned east toward the strip she had planted.  As they neared it they remarked a scarcity of stalks ahead; and when they at last stood on the first of the eighty rows, they gazed with astonishment at the narrow belt that showed bravely green at the upper end by the carnelian bluff, but dark and bare over the three fourths of its length that sloped down to the timothy meadow.

“I guess this won’t need no thinning,” said the biggest brother, ironically.

They set to work to examine the hills, that only here and there sent up a lonely shoot, the little girl standing by and silently watching them.  But they found few signs of the gopher burrowing they felt sure had devastated the ground.  All at once the eldest brother had a brilliant thought, and, with a glance at the little girl, who was nervously twisting her fingers, paced eastward and counted the rows that made up the barren strip.  There were just eighty!

He came back and joined his brothers; and the little girl, standing before him, dared not lift her eyes to his face.

“Did you plant that corn?” he demanded, ramming the butt of his musket into the ground.

“Yes,” answered the little girl, her voice husky with apprehension.  There was a pause.

“Did a lot of gophers come in while you’s a-planting?” asked the biggest brother, more kindly.

“Oh, a lot,” answered the little girl.

“Did you sling clods at ’em?” demanded the eldest brother, again pounding the musket into the dirt.

“Nearly slung my arm off,” answered the little girl.

The eldest brother grunted incredulously.

“It’s mighty funny,” he said, “that the gophers liked your planting better ’n anybody else’s.”

The little girl did not answer.  Her forehead was puckered painfully as, gripping her hat, she stood busily curling and uncurling her toes in the dirt.  Her lashes were fluttering as if she awaited a blow.

“I’ll just ask you one thing,” went on the eldest brother; “what’s to-morrow?”

The little girl started as if the blow had fallen, and stammered her answer.

“My-my-birfday,” she said.

“A-ha,” he replied suggestively.  Then he tramped to the timothy meadow, the others following.  And the little girl, walking very slowly, came on behind.

WHEN the big brothers had gone on to the farm-house, the little girl still tarried in the corn-field.  Her eldest brother’s hint concerning her birthday had suggested the cruel punishment she felt certain was to be hers, and she could not bear to face the family at the dinner-table.

For months she had longed for a little red wagon-a wagon with a long tongue, and “Express” on the side in black letters; and had planned how she would harness Bruno and Luffree to it and drive along the level prairie roads.  Evening after evening she had taken out the thick catalogue and pored over the prices, and had shown the kind she wanted again and again to all the big brothers in turn.

Then one day she had surprised her biggest brother while he was taking a bulky brown-paper package off the farm wagon on his return from Yankton.  He had sent her into the house; but she had found out later that the package was in the corn-crib, and had crept in there one afternoon, when the farm-house was deserted, and taken a good look at it as it hung from a rafter and well out of reach.  It was still unwrapped, but the brown paper was torn in one place, and through the hole the little girl had seen a smooth, round red stick.  It was a wheel-spoke.

Her sixth-and-a-half birthday was not far off, and she had waited for its coming as patiently as she could, in the meantime working secretly on harnesses for the dogs, who had resigned themselves good-naturedly to much measuring.  Now, on the very eve of her happiness, she was to be deprived of the yearned-for wagon.

Crouching in the corn-field, she grieved away the long day.  Dinner-time came, and all the corn-stalk shadows pointed significantly toward the carnelian bluff; then they slowly shifted around to the eastward and grew very long; and at last commingled and were blotted out by the descending gloom that infolded the little girl.

Lying upon her back, she looked up at the sky, that with the gathering darkness of the warm summer night disclosed its twinkling stars, and wished that she could suddenly die out there in the field in some mysterious way, so that there might be much self-condemning woe at the farm-house when they found her, cold and still.  And she could not refrain from weeping with sheer pity for herself.  After pondering for a while on the sad picture of her untimely death, she changed to one of great deeds and happiness, wealth and renown, in some far-off land toward which she was half determined to set out.  But this delightful dream was rudely broken into.

A long blast from the cow-horn sounded through the quiet night and echoed itself against the bluff.  The little girl sat up and looked toward the house through the dark aisles of the corn.

“I’m not coming,” she said, speaking out loud in a voice that broke as she ended, “I’m going to stay here and starve to death!”

Once more the cow-horn blew, and this time the call was more prolonged and commanding in tone.  It brought the little girl to her feet, and she hunted up her hat and put it on.  Then, as two short, peremptory blasts rang out, she started toward home.

NEXT morning she dressed hurriedly and got to the sitting-room as quickly as she could.  But there was no bright red wagon standing bravely in wait for her as she entered; there was nothing under her breakfast plate, even, when she turned it over.  She ate her grits and milk in silence, choking a little when she swallowed, and, as soon as she could, rushed away to the corn-crib to see if the brown-paper package were still there.

It was gone!

Then she knew that her big brothers had sent it away.

She crept back to the house and climbed the ladder to the attic, where she meant to hide and mourn alone.  But no sooner had she gained her feet beneath the peaked roof, than she saw what she had been seeking.

It hung by its scarlet tongue from a beam, flanked on one side by the paper of sage that was being saved to season the holiday turkeys, and on the other by the bag that held the trimmings of the Yule-tree.  And the little girl, sitting tearfully beneath it, tried to count on her fingers the days that must pass before Christmas.