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Antonia, by Willa Sibert Cather
Book I: The Shimerdas
AS I LIKED Antonia, I hated a superior tone that she sometimes took with
me. She was four years older
than I, to be sure, and had seen more of the world; but I was a boy and
she was a girl, and I resented her protecting manner. Before the autumn
was over, she began to treat me more like an equal and to defer to me in
other things than reading lessons. This change came about from an
adventure we had together.
day when I rode over to the Shimerdas' I found Antonia starting off on
foot for Russian Peter's house, to borrow a spade Ambrosch needed. I
offered to take her on the pony, and she got up behind me. There had been
another black frost the night before, and the air was clear and heady as
wine. Within a week all the
blooming roads had been despoiled, hundreds of miles of yellow sunflowers
had been transformed into brown, rattling, burry stalks.
found Russian Peter digging his potatoes.
We were glad to go in and get warm by his kitchen stove and to see
his squashes and Christmas melons, heaped in the storeroom for winter. As
we rode away with the spade, Antonia suggested that we stop at the
prairie-dog-town and dig into one of the holes. We could find out whether
they ran straight down, or were horizontal, like mole-holes; whether they
had underground connections; whether the owls had nests down there, lined
with feathers. We might get some puppies, or owl eggs, or snakeskins.
dog-town was spread out over perhaps ten acres. The grass had been nibbled
short and even, so this stretch was not shaggy and red like the surrounding
country, but grey and velvety. The
holes were several yards apart, and were disposed with a good deal of
regularity, almost as if the town had been laid out in streets and avenues.
One always felt that an orderly and very sociable kind of life was going on
there. I picketed Dude down in
a draw, and we went wandering about, looking for a hole that would be easy
to dig. The dogs were out, as usual, dozens of them, sitting up on their
hind legs over the doors of their houses.
As we approached, they barked, shook their tails at us, and scurried
underground. Before the mouths of the holes were little patches of sand and
gravel, scratched up, we supposed, from a long way below the surface. Here
and there, in the town, we came on larger gravel patches, several yards away
from any hole. If the dogs had
scratched the sand up in excavating, how had they carried it so far? It was
on one of these gravel beds that I met my adventure.
were examining a big hole with two entrances.
The burrow sloped into the ground at a gentle angle, so that we could
see where the two corridors united, and the floor was dusty from use, like a
little highway over which much travel went. I was walking backward, in a
crouching position, when I heard Antonia scream.
She was standing opposite me, pointing behind me and shouting
something in Bohemian. I
whirled round, and there, on one of those dry gravel beds, was the biggest
snake I had ever seen. He was
sunning himself, after the cold night, and he must have been asleep when
Antonia screamed. When I turned, he was lying in long loose waves, like a
letter `W.' He twitched and began to coil slowly.
He was not merely a big snake, I thought--he was a circus
monstrosity. His abominable muscularity, his loathsome, fluid motion,
somehow made me sick. He was as
thick as my leg, and looked as if millstones couldn't crush the disgusting
vitality out of him. He lifted
his hideous little head, and rattled. I didn't run because I didn't think of
it--if my back had been against a stone wall I couldn't have felt more
cornered. I saw his coils tighten--now he would spring, spring his length, I
remembered. I ran up and drove
at his head with my spade, struck him fairly across the neck, and in a
minute he was all about my feet in wavy loops.
I struck now from hate. Antonia, barefooted as she was, ran up behind
me. Even after I had pounded his ugly head flat, his body kept on coiling
and winding, doubling and falling back on itself. I walked away and turned
my back. I felt seasick.
came after me, crying, `O Jimmy, he not bite you?
You sure? Why you not run when I say?'
did you jabber Bohunk for? You might have told me there was a snake behind me!'
I said petulantly.
know I am just awful, Jim, I was so scared.'
She took my handkerchief from my pocket and tried to wipe my face
with it, but I snatched it away from her. I suppose I looked as sick as I
never know you was so brave, Jim,' she went on comfortingly.
`You is just like big mans; you wait for him lift his head and then
you go for him. Ain't you feel scared a bit?
Now we take that snake home and show everybody. Nobody ain't seen in
this kawntree so big snake like you kill.'
went on in this strain until I began to think that I had longed for this
opportunity, and had hailed it with joy. Cautiously we went back to the
snake; he was still groping with his tail, turning up his ugly belly in the
light. A faint, fetid smell came from him, and a thread of green liquid
oozed from his crushed head.
Tony, that's his poison,' I said.
took a long piece of string from my pocket, and she lifted his head with the
spade while I tied a noose around it. We pulled him out straight and
measured him by my riding-quirt; he was about five and a half feet long.
He had twelve rattles, but they were broken off before they began to
taper, so I insisted that he must once have had twenty-four. I explained to
Antonia how this meant that he was twenty-four years old, that he must have
been there when white men first came, left on from buffalo and Indian times.
As I turned him over, I began to feel proud of him, to have a kind of
respect for his age and size. He
seemed like the ancient, eldest Evil. Certainly his kind have left horrible
unconscious memories in all warm-blooded life.
When we dragged him down into the draw, Dude sprang off to the end of
his tether and shivered all over-- wouldn't let us come near him.
decided that Antonia should ride Dude home, and I would walk. As she rode
along slowly, her bare legs swinging against the pony's sides, she kept
shouting back to me about how astonished everybody would be. I followed with
the spade over my shoulder, dragging my snake. Her exultation was contagious.
The great land had never looked to me so big and free. If the red
grass were full of rattlers, I was equal to them all. Nevertheless, I stole
furtive glances behind me now and then to see that no avenging mate, older
and bigger than my quarry, was racing up from the rear.
sun had set when we reached our garden and went down the draw toward the
house. Otto Fuchs was the first
one we met. He was sitting on the edge of the cattle-pond, having a quiet
pipe before supper. Antonia
called him to come quick and look. He did not say anything for a minute, but
scratched his head and turned the snake over with his boot.
did you run onto that beauty, Jim?'
at the dog-town,' I answered laconically.
him yourself? How come you to
have a weepon?'
been up to Russian Peter's, to borrow a spade for Ambrosch.'
shook the ashes out of his pipe and squatted down to count the rattles.
`It was just luck you had a tool,' he said cautiously.
`Gosh! I wouldn't want to do any business with that fellow myself,
unless I had a fence-post along. Your grandmother's snake-cane wouldn't more
than tickle him. He could stand right up and talk to you, he could. Did he
broke in: `He fight something
awful! He is all over Jimmy's
boots. I scream for him to run, but he just hit and hit that snake like he
winked at me. After Antonia
rode on he said: `Got him in the head first crack, didn't you?
That was just as well.'
hung him up to the windmill, and when I went down to the kitchen, I found
Antonia standing in the middle of the floor, telling the story with a great
deal of colour.
experiences with rattlesnakes taught me that my first encounter was
fortunate in circumstance. My
big rattler was old, and had led too easy a life; there was not much fight
in him. He had probably lived there for years, with a fat prairie-dog for
breakfast whenever he felt like it, a sheltered home, even an owl-feather
bed, perhaps, and he had forgot that the world doesn't owe rattlers a
living. A snake of his size, in
fighting trim, would be more than any boy could handle. So in reality it was
a mock adventure; the game was fixed for me by chance, as it probably was
for many a dragon-slayer. I had been adequately armed by Russian Peter; the
snake was old and lazy; and I had Antonia beside me, to appreciate and
snake hung on our corral fence for several days; some of the neighbours came
to see it and agreed that it was the biggest rattler ever killed in those
parts. This was enough for Antonia. She liked me better from that time on, and she never took a
supercilious air with me again. I had killed a big snake--I was now a big
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