The Ancient People from Song of the Lark
By Willa Cather, 1915
the day of Fred's arrival, he and Thea were unceasingly active. They
took long rides into the Navajo pine forests, bought turquoises and
silver bracelets from the wandering Indian herdsmen, and rode twenty
miles to Flagstaff upon the slightest pretext. Thea had never felt this
pleasant excitement about any man before, and she found herself trying
very hard to please young Ottenburg. She was never tired, never dull.
There was a zest about waking up in the morning and dressing, about
walking, riding, even about sleep.
One morning when Thea came out from her room at seven o'clock, she found
Henry and Fred on the porch, looking up at the sky. The day was already
hot and there was no breeze. The sun was shining, but heavy brown clouds
were hanging in the west, like the smoke of a forest fire. She and Fred
had meant to ride to Flagstaff that morning, but Biltmer advised against
it, foretelling a storm. After breakfast they lingered about the house,
waiting for the weather to make up its mind. Fred had brought his guitar,
and as they had the dining-room to themselves, he made Thea go over
some songs with him. They got interested and kept it up until Mrs. Biltmer
came to set the table for dinner.
knew some of the Mexican things Spanish Johnny used to sing. Thea had
never before happened to tell him about Spanish Johnny, and he seemed
more interested in Johnny than in Dr. Archie or Wunsch.
After dinner they were too restless to endure the ranch house any longer,
and ran away to the canyon to practice with single-sticks. Fred carried
a slicker and a sweater, and he made Thea wear one of the rubber hats
that hung in Biltmer's gun-room. As they crossed the pasture land the
clumsy slicker kept catching in the lacings of his leggings.
"Why don't you drop that thing?" Thea asked. "I won't
mind a shower. I've been wet before."
"No use taking chances."
From the canyon they were unable to watch the sky, since only a strip
of the zenith was visible. The flat ledge about the watch-tower was
the only level spot large enough for single-stick exercise, and they
were still practicing there when, at about four o'clock, a tremendous
roll of thunder echoed between the cliffs and the atmosphere suddenly
Fred thrust the sticks in a cleft in the rock. "We're in for it,
Thea. Better make for your cave where there are blankets." He caught
her elbow and hurried her along the path before the cliff-houses. They
made the half-mile at a quick trot, and as they ran the rocks and the
sky and the air between the cliffs turned a turbid green, like the color
in a moss agate. When they reached the blanketed rock room, they looked
at each other and laughed. Their faces had taken on a greenish pallor.
Thea's hair, even, was green.
"Dark as pitch in here," Fred exclaimed as they hurried over
the old rock doorstep. "But it's warm. The rocks hold the heat.
It's going to be terribly cold outside, all right." He was interrupted
by a deafening peal of thunder. "Lord, what an echo! Lucky you
don't mind. It's worth watching out there. We needn't come in yet."
The green light grew murkier and murkier. The smaller vegetation was
blotted out. The yuccas, the cedars, and PINONS stood dark and rigid,
like bronze. The swallows flew up with sharp, terrified twitterings.
Even the quaking asps were still. While Fred and Thea watched from the
doorway, the light changed to purple. Clouds of dark vapor, like chlorine
gas, began to float down from the head of the canyon and hung between
them and the cliff-houses in the opposite wall. Before they knew it,
the wall itself had disappeared. The air was positively venomous-looking,
and grew colder every minute. The thunder seemed to crash against one
cliff, then against the other, and to go shrieking off into the inner
The moment the rain broke, it beat the vapors down. In the gulf before
them the water fell in spouts, and dashed from the high cliffs overhead.
It tore aspens and chokecherry bushes out of the ground and left the
yuccas hanging by their tough roots. Only the little cedars stood black
and unmoved in the torrents that fell from so far above. The rock chamber
was full of fine spray from the streams of water that shot over the
doorway. Thea crept to the back wall and rolled herself in a blanket,
and Fred threw the heavier blankets over her. The wool of the Navajo
sheep was soon kindled by the warmth of her body, and was impenetrable
to dampness. Her hair, where it hung below the rubber hat, gathered
the moisture like a sponge. Fred put on the slicker, tied the sweater
about his neck, and settled himself cross-legged beside her. The chamber
was so dark that, although he could see the outline of her head and
shoulders, he could not see her face. He struck a wax match to light
his pipe. As he sheltered it between his hands, it sizzled and sputtered,
throwing a yellow flicker over Thea and her blankets.
"You look like a gypsy," he said as he dropped the match.
"Any one you'd rather be shut up with than me? No? Sure about that?"
"I think I am. Aren't you cold?"
"Not especially." Fred smoked in silence, listening to the
roar of the water outside. "We may not get away from here right
away," he remarked.
"I shan't mind. Shall you?"
He laughed grimly and pulled on his pipe. "Do you know where you're
at, Miss Thea Kronborg?" he said at last. "You've got me going
pretty hard, I suppose you know. I've had a lot of sweethearts, but
I've never been so much--engrossed before. What are you going to do
about it?" He heard nothing from the blankets. "Are you going
to play fair, or is it about my cue to cut away?"
"I'll play fair. I don't see why you want to go."
"What do you want me around for?--to play with?"
Thea struggled up among the blankets. "I want you for everything.
I don't know whether I'm what people call in love with you or not. In
Moonstone that meant sitting in a hammock with somebody. I don't want
to sit in a hammock with you, but I want to do almost everything else.
Oh, hundreds of things!"
"If I run away, will you go with me?"
"I don't know. I'll have to think about that. Maybe I would."
She freed herself from her wrappings and stood up. "It's not raining
so hard now. Hadn't we better start this minute? It will be night before
we get to Biltmer's."
Fred struck another match. "It's seven. I don't know how much of
the path may be washed away. I don't even know whether I ought to let
you try it without a lantern."
Thea went to the doorway and looked out. "There's nothing else
to do. The sweater and the slicker will keep me dry, and this will be
my chance to find out whether these shoes are really water-tight. They
cost a week's salary." She retreated to the back of the cave. "It's
getting blacker every minute."
Ottenburg took a brandy flask from his coat pocket. "Better have
some of this before we start. Can you take it without water?"
Thea lifted it obediently to her lips. She put on the sweater and Fred
helped her to get the clumsy slicker on over it. He buttoned it and
fastened the high collar. She could feel that his hands were hurried
and clumsy. The coat was too big, and he took off his necktie and belted
it in at the waist. While she tucked her hair more securely under the
rubber hat he stood in front of her, between her and the gray doorway,
"Are you ready to go?" she asked carelessly.
"If you are," he spoke quietly, without moving, except to
bend his head forward a little.
Thea laughed and put her hands on his shoulders. "You know how
to handle me, don't you?" she whispered. For the first time, she
kissed him without constraint or embarrassment.
"Thea, Thea, Thea!" Fred whispered her name three times, shaking
her a little as if to waken her. It was too dark to see, but he could
feel that she was smiling.
When she kissed him she had not hidden her face on his shoulder,--she
had risen a little on her toes, and stood straight and free. In that
moment when he came close to her actual personality, he felt in her
the same expansion that he had noticed at Mrs. Nathanmeyer's. She became
freer and stronger under impulses. When she rose to meet him like that,
he felt her flash into everything that she had ever suggested to him,
as if she filled out her own shadow.
She pushed him away and shot past him out into the rain. "Now for
it, Fred," she called back exultantly. The rain was pouring steadily
down through the dying gray twilight, and muddy streams were spouting
and foaming over the cliff.
Fred caught her and held her back. "Keep behind me, Thea. I don't
know about the path. It may be gone altogether. Can't tell what there
is under this water."
But the path was older than the white man's Arizona. The rush of water
had washed away the dust and stones that lay on the surface, but the
rock skeleton of the Indian trail was there, ready for the foot. Where
the streams poured down through gullies, there was always a cedar or
a PINON to cling to. By wading and slipping and climbing, they got along.
As they neared the head of the canyon, where the path lifted and rose
in steep loops to the surface of the plateau, the climb was more difficult.
The earth above had broken away and washed down over the trail, bringing
rocks and bushes and even young trees with it. The last ghost of daylight
was dying and there was no time to lose. The canyon behind them was
"We've got to go right through the top of this pine tree, Thea.
No time to hunt a way around. Give me your hand." After they had
crashed through the mass of branches, Fred stopped abruptly. "Gosh,
what a hole! Can you jump it? Wait a minute."
He cleared the washout, slipped on the wet rock at the farther side,
and caught himself just in time to escape a tumble. "If I could
only find something to hold to, I could give you a hand. It's so cursed
dark, and there are no trees here where they're needed. Here's something;
it's a root. It will hold all right." He braced himself on the
rock, gripped the crooked root with one hand and swung himself across
toward Thea, holding out his arm. "Good jump! I must say you don't
lose your nerve in a tight place. Can you keep at it a little longer?
We're almost out. Have to make that next ledge. Put your foot on my
knee and catch something to pull by."
Thea went up over his shoulder. "It's hard ground up here,"
she panted. "Did I wrench your arm when I slipped then? It was
a cactus I grabbed, and it startled me."
"Now, one more pull and we're on the level."
They emerged gasping upon the black plateau. In the last five minutes
the darkness had solidified and it seemed as if the skies were pouring
black water. They could not see where the sky ended or the plain began.
The light at the ranch house burned a steady spark through the rain.
Fred drew Thea's arm through his and they struck off toward the light.
They could not see each other, and the rain at their backs seemed to
drive them along. They kept laughing as they stumbled over tufts of
grass or stepped into slippery pools. They were delighted with each
other and with the adventure which lay behind them.
"I can't even see the whites of your eyes, Thea. But I'd know who
was here stepping out with me, anywhere. Part coyote you are, by the
feel of you. When you make up your mind to jump, you jump! My gracious,
what's the matter with your hand?"
"Cactus spines. Didn't I tell you when I grabbed the cactus? I
thought it was a root. Are we going straight?"
"I don't know. Somewhere near it, I think. I'm very comfortable,
aren't you? You're warm, except your cheeks. How funny they are when
they're wet. Still, you always feel like you. I like this. I could walk
to Flagstaff. It's fun, not being able to see anything. I feel surer
of you when I can't see you. Will you run away with me?"
Thea laughed. "I won't run far to-night. I'll think about it. Look,
Fred, there's somebody coming."
"Henry, with his lantern. Good enough! Halloo! Hallo --o--o!"
The moving light bobbed toward them. In half an hour Thea was in her
big feather bed, drinking hot lentil soup, and almost before the soup
was swallowed she was asleep.