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Lucretia Burns
by [?]

I

Lucretia Burns had never been handsome, even in her days of early girlhood, and now she was middle-aged, distorted with work and child-bearing, and looking faded and worn as one of the boulders that lay beside the pasture fence near where she sat milking a large white cow.

She had no shawl or hat and no shoes, for it was still muddy in the little yard, where the cattle stood patiently fighting the flies and mosquitoes swarming into their skins, already wet with blood. The evening was oppressive with its heat, and a ring of just-seen thunderheads gave premonitions of an approaching storm.

She rose from the cow’s side at last, and, taking her pails of foaming milk, staggered toward the gate. The two pails hung from her lean arms, her bare feet slipped on the filthy ground, her greasy and faded calico dress showed her tired and swollen ankles, and the mosquitoes swarmed mercilessly on her neck and bedded themselves in her colorless hair.

The children were quarrelling at the well, and the sound of blows could be heard. Calves were querulously calling for their milk, and little turkeys, lost in a tangle of grass, were piping plaintively.

The sun just setting struck through a long, low rift, like a boy peeping beneath the eaves of a huge roof. Its light brought out Lucretia’s face as she leaned her sallow forehead on the top bar of the gate and looked toward the west.

It was a pitifully worn, almost tragic face–long, thin, sallow, hollow-eyed. The mouth had long since lost the power to shape itself into a kiss, and had a droop at the corners which seemed to announce a breaking-down at any moment into a despairing wail. The collarless neck and sharp shoulders showed painfully.

She felt vaguely that the night was beautiful. The setting sun, the noise of frogs, the nocturnal insects beginning to pipe–all in some way called her girlhood back to her, though there was little in her girlhood to give her pleasure. Her large gray eyes grew round, deep, and wistful as she saw the illimitable craggy clouds grow crimson, roll slowly up, and fire at the top. A childish scream recalled her.

“Oh, my soul!” she half groaned, half swore, as she lifted her milk and hurried to the well. Arriving there, she cuffed the children right and left with all her remaining strength, saying in justification:–

“My soul! can’t you–you young’uns, give me a minute’s peace? Land knows, I’m almost gone up; washin’, an’ milkin’ six cows, and tendin’ you, and cookin’ f’r him, ought ‘o be enough f’r one day! Sadie, you let him drink now ‘r I’ll slap your head off, you hateful thing! Why can’t you behave, when you know I’m jest about dead?” She was weeping now, with nervous weakness. “Where’s y’r pa?” she asked after a moment, wiping her eyes with her apron.

One of the group, the one cuffed last, sniffed out, in rage and grief:–

“He’s in the corn-field; where’d ye s’pose he was?”

“Good land! why don’t the man work all night? Sile, you put that dipper in that milk agin, an’ I’ll whack you till your head’ll swim! Sadie, le’ go Pet, an’ go ‘n get them turkeys out of the grass ‘fore it gits dark! Bob, you go tell y’r dad if he wants the rest o’ them cows milked he’s got ‘o do it himself. I jest can’t, and what’s more, I won’t,” she ended, rebelliously.

Having strained the milk and fed the children, she took some skimmed milk from the cans and started to feed the calves bawling strenuously behind the barn. The eager and unruly brutes pushed and struggled to get into the pails all at once, and in consequence spilt nearly all of the milk on the ground. This was the last trial; the woman fell down on the damp grass and moaned and sobbed like a crazed thing. The children came to seek her and stood around like little partridges, looking at her in scared silence, till at last the little one began to wail. Then the mother rose wearily to her feet, and walked slowly back toward the house.