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A Breath Of Prairie
by [?]

I

Dense darkness of early morning wrapped all things within and without a square, story-and-a-half prairie farm-house. Silence, all-pervading, dense as the darkness, its companion, needed but a human ear to become painfully noticeable.

Up-stairs in the half-story attic was Life. From one corner of the room deep, regular breathing marked the unvarying time of healthy physical life asleep. Nearby a clock beat loud automatic time, with a brassy resonance–healthy mechanical life awake. Man and machine, side by side, punctuated the passage of time.

Alone in the darkness the mechanical mind of the clock conceived a bit of fiendish pleasantry. With violent, shocking clamor, its deafening alarm suddenly shattered the stillness.

The two victims of the outrage sat up in bed and blinked sleepily at the dark. The younger, in a voice of wrath, relieved his feelings with a vigorously expressed opinion of the applied uses of things in general, and of alarm-clocks and milk pans in particular. He thereupon yawned prodigiously, and promptly began snoring away again, as though nothing had interrupted.

The other man made one final effort, and came down hard upon the middle of the floor. Rough it was, uncarpeted, cold with the damp chill of early morning. He groped for a match, and dressed rapidly in the dim light, his teeth chattering a diminishing accompaniment until the last piece was on.

Deep, regular breathing still came from the bed. The man listened a moment, irresolutely; then with a smile on his face he drew a feather from a pillow, and, rolling back the bed-clothes, he applied the feather’s tip to the sleeper’s bare soles, where experience had demonstrated it to be the most effective. Dodging the ensuing kick, he remarked simply, “I’ll leave the light, Jim. Better hurry–this is going to be a busy day.”

Outside, a reddish light in the sky marked east, but over all else there lay only starlight, as, lantern in hand, he swung down the frozen path. With the opening barn door there came a puff of warm animal breath. As the first rays of light entered, the stock stood up with many a sleepy groan, and bright eyes shining in the half-light swayed back and forth in the narrow stalls, while their owners waited patiently for the feed they knew was coming.

Jim, still sleepy, appeared presently; together the two went through the routine of chores, as they had done hundreds of times before. They worked mechanically, being still stiff and sore from the previous day’s work, but swiftly, in the way mechanical work is sometimes done.

Side by side, with singing milk pails between their knees, Jim stopped long enough to ask, “Made up your mind yet what you’ll do, Guy?”

The older brother answered without a break in the swish of milk through foam:

“No, I haven’t, Jim. If it wasn’t for you and father and mother and–” he diverted with a redoubled clatter of milk on tin.

“Be honest, Guy,” was the reproachful caution.

“–and Faith,” added the older brother simply.

The reddish glow in the east had spread and lit up the earth; so they put out the lantern, and, bending under the weight of steaming milk pails, walked single file toward the house and breakfast. Far in the distance a thin jet of steam spreading broadly in the frosty air marked the location of a threshing crew. The whistle,–thin, brassy,–spoke the one word “Come!” over miles of level prairie, to the scattered neighbors.

Four people, rough, homely, sat down to a breakfast of coarse, plain cookery, and talked of common, homely things.

“I see you didn’t get so much milk as usual this morning, Jim,” said the mother.

“No, the line-backed heifer kicked over a half-pailful.”

“Goin’ to finish shuckin’ that west field this week, Guy?” asked the father.

“Yes. We’ll cross over before night.”

Nothing more was said. They were all hungry, and in the following silence the jangle of iron on coarse queensware, and the aspiration of beverages steaming still though undergoing the cooling medium of saucers, filled in all lulls that might otherwise have seemed to require conversation.