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