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The Ancient People from Song of the Lark
By Willa Cather, 1915

Section V

One Sunday afternoon late in July old Henry Biltmer was rheumatically descending into the head of the canyon. The Sunday before had been one of those cloudy days--fortunately rare--when the life goes out of that country and it becomes a gray ghost, an empty, shivering uncertainty. Henry had spent the day in the barn; his canyon was a reality only when it was flooded with the light of its great lamp, when the yellow rocks cast purple shadows, and the resin was fairly cooking in the corkscrew cedars. The yuccas were in blossom now. Out of each clump of sharp bayonet leaves rose a tall stalk hung with greenish-white bells with thick, fleshy petals. The [sic] cactus was thrusting its crimson blooms up out of every crevice in the rocks.


Henry had come out on the pretext of hunting a spade and pick-axe that young Ottenburg had borrowed, but he was keeping his eyes open. He was really very curious about the new occupants of the canyon, and what they found to do there all day long. He let his eye travel along the gulf for a mile or so to the first turning, where the fissure zigzagged out and then receded behind a stone promontory on which stood the yellowish, crumbling ruin of the old watch-tower.


From the base of this tower, which now threw its shadow forward, bits of rock kept flying out into the open gulf--skating upon the air until they lost their momentum, then falling like chips until they rang upon the ledges at the bottom of the gorge or splashed into the stream. Biltmer shaded his eyes with his hand. There on the promontory, against the cream-colored cliff, were two figures nimbly moving in the light, both slender and agile, entirely absorbed in their game. They looked like two boys. Both were hatless and both wore white shirts.


Henry forgot his pick-axe and followed the trail before the cliff-houses toward the tower. Behind the tower, as he well knew, were heaps of stones, large and small, piled against the face of the cliff. He had always believed that the Indian watchmen piled them there for ammunition. Thea and Fred had come upon these missiles and were throwing them for distance. As Biltmer approached he could hear them laughing, and he caught Thea's voice, high and excited, with a ring of vexation in it. Fred was teaching her to throw a heavy stone like a discus. When it was Fred's turn, he sent a triangular-shaped stone out into the air with considerable skill. Thea watched it enviously, standing in a half-defiant posture, her sleeves rolled above her elbows and her face flushed with heat and excitement. After Fred's third missile had rung upon the rocks below, she snatched up a stone and stepped impatiently out on the ledge in front of him. He caught her by the elbows and pulled her back.


"Not so close, you silly! You'll spin yourself off in a minute."


"You went that close. There's your heel-mark," she retorted.


"Well, I know how. That makes a difference." He drew a mark in the dust with his toe. "There, that's right. Don't step over that. Pivot yourself on your spine, and make a half turn. When you've swung your length, let it go."


Thea settled the flat piece of rock between her wrist and fingers, faced the cliff wall, stretched her arm in position, whirled round on her left foot to the full stretch of her body, and let the missile spin out over the gulf. She hung expectantly in the air, forgetting to draw back her arm, her eyes following the stone as if it carried her fortunes with it. Her comrade watched her; there weren't many girls who could show a line like that from the toe to the thigh, from the shoulder to the tip of the outstretched hand. The stone spent itself and began to fall. Thea drew back and struck her knee furiously with her palm.


"There it goes again! Not nearly so far as yours. What IS the matter with me? Give me another." She faced the cliff and whirled again. The stone spun out, not quite so far as before.


Ottenburg laughed. "Why do you keep on working AFTER you've thrown it? You can't help it along then."


Without replying, Thea stooped and selected another stone, took a deep breath and made another turn. Fred watched the disk, exclaiming, "Good girl! You got past the pine that time. That's a good throw."


She took out her handkerchief and wiped her glowing face and throat, pausing to feel her right shoulder with her left hand.


"Ah--ha, you've made yourself sore, haven't you? What did I tell you? You go at things too hard. I'll tell you what I'm going to do, Thea," Fred dusted his hands and began tucking in the blouse of his shirt, "I'm going to make some single-sticks and teach you to fence. You'd be all right there. You're light and quick and you've got lots of drive in you. I'd like to have you come at me with foils; you'd look so fierce," he chuckled.


She turned away from him and stubbornly sent out another stone, hanging in the air after its flight. Her fury amused Fred, who took all games lightly and played them well. She was breathing hard, and little beads of moisture had gathered on her upper lip. He slipped his arm about her. "If you will look as pretty as that--" he bent his head and kissed her. Thea was startled, gave him an angry push, drove at him with her free hand in a manner quite hostile. Fred was on his mettle in an instant. He pinned both her arms down and kissed her resolutely.


When he released her, she turned away and spoke over her shoulder. "That was mean of you, but I suppose I deserved what I got."


"I should say you did deserve it," Fred panted, "turning savage on me like that! I should say you did deserve it!"


He saw her shoulders harden. "Well, I just said I deserved it, didn't I? What more do you want?"


"I want you to tell me why you flew at me like that! You weren't playing; you looked as if you'd like to murder me."


She brushed back her hair impatiently. "I didn't mean anything, really. You interrupted me when I was watching the stone. I can't jump from one thing to another. I pushed you without thinking."


Fred thought her back expressed contrition. He went up to her, stood behind her with his chin above her shoulder, and said something in her ear. Thea laughed and turned toward him. They left the stone-pile carelessly, as if they had never been interested in it, rounded the yellow tower, and disappeared into the second turn of the canyon, where the dead city, interrupted by the jutting promontory, began again.


Old Biltmer had been somewhat embarrassed by the turn the game had taken. He had not heard their conversation, but the pantomime against the rocks was clear enough. When the two young people disappeared, their host retreated rapidly toward the head of the canyon.


"I guess that young lady can take care of herself," he chuckled. "Young Fred, though, he has quite a way with them."

The Ancient People VI