BOOK I: The Wild Land
One Sunday afternoon in July, six months after John Bergson's death,
Carl was sitting in the doorway of the Linstrum kitchen, dreaming
over an illustrated paper, when he heard the rattle of a wagon along
the hill road. Looking up he recognized the Bergsons' team, with
two seats in the wagon, which meant they were off for a pleasure
excursion. Oscar and Lou, on the front seat, wore their cloth hats
and coats, never worn except on Sundays, and Emil, on the second
seat with Alexandra, sat proudly in his new trousers, made from a
pair of his father's, and a pink-striped shirt, with a wide ruffled
collar. Oscar stopped the horses and waved to Carl, who caught up
his hat and ran through the melon patch to join them.
"Want to go with us?" Lou called. "We're going to Crazy Ivar's to
buy a hammock."
"Sure." Carl ran up panting, and clambering over the wheel sat
down beside Emil. "I've always wanted to see Ivar's pond. They
say it's the biggest in all the country. Aren't you afraid to go
to Ivar's in that new shirt, Emil? He might want it and take it
right off your back."
Emil grinned. "I'd be awful scared to go," he admitted, "if you
big boys weren't along to take care of me. Did you ever hear him
howl, Carl? People say sometimes he runs about the country howling
at night because he is afraid the Lord will destroy him. Mother
thinks he must have done something awful wicked."
Lou looked back and winked at Carl. "What would you do, Emil, if
you was out on the prairie by yourself and seen him coming?"
Emil stared. "Maybe I could hide in a badger-hole," he suggested
"But suppose there wasn't any badger-hole," Lou persisted. "Would
"No, I'd be too scared to run," Emil admitted mournfully, twisting
his fingers. "I guess I'd sit right down on the ground and say my
The big boys laughed, and Oscar brandished his whip over the broad
backs of the horses.
"He wouldn't hurt you, Emil," said Carl persuasively. "He came
to doctor our mare when she ate green corn and swelled up most as
big as the water-tank. He petted her just like you do your cats.
I couldn't understand much he said, for he don't talk any English,
but he kept patting her and groaning as if he had the pain himself,
and saying, 'There now, sister, that's easier, that's better!'"
Lou and Oscar laughed, and Emil giggled delightedly and looked up
at his sister.
"I don't think he knows anything at all about doctoring," said
Oscar scornfully. "They say when horses have distemper he takes
the medicine himself, and then prays over the horses."
Alexandra spoke up. "That's what the Crows said, but he cured
their horses, all the same. Some days his mind is cloudy, like.
But if you can get him on a clear day, you can learn a great deal
from him. He understands animals. Didn't I see him take the horn
off the Berquist's cow when she had torn it loose and went crazy?
She was tearing all over the place, knocking herself against things.
And at last she ran out on the roof of the old dugout and her legs
went through and there she stuck, bellowing. Ivar came running
with his white bag, and the moment he got to her she was quiet and
let him saw her horn off and daub the place with tar."
Emil had been watching his sister, his face reflecting the sufferings
of the cow. "And then didn't it hurt her any more?" he asked.
Alexandra patted him. "No, not any more. And in two days they
could use her milk again."
The road to Ivar's homestead was a very poor one. He had settled
in the rough country across the county line, where no one lived but
some Russians,--half a dozen families who dwelt together in one long
house, divided off like barracks. Ivar had explained his choice
by saying that the fewer neighbors he had, the fewer temptations.
Nevertheless, when one considered that his chief business was
horsedoctoring, it seemed rather short-sighted of him to live in the
most inaccessible place he could find. The Bergson wagon lurched
along over the rough hummocks and grass banks, followed the bottom
of winding draws, or skirted the margin of wide lagoons, where the
golden coreopsis grew up out of the clear water and the wild ducks
rose with a whirr of wings.
Lou looked after them helplessly. "I wish I'd brought my gun,
anyway, Alexandra," he said fretfully. "I could have hidden it
under the straw in the bottom of the wagon."
"Then we'd have had to lie to Ivar. Besides, they say he can smell
dead birds. And if he knew, we wouldn't get anything out of him,
not even a hammock. I want to talk to him, and he won't talk sense
if he's angry. It makes him foolish."
Lou sniffed. "Whoever heard of him talking sense, anyhow! I'd
rather have ducks for supper than Crazy Ivar's tongue."
Emil was alarmed. "Oh, but, Lou, you don't want to make him mad!
He might howl!"
They all laughed again, and Oscar urged the horses up the crumbling
side of a clay bank. They had left the lagoons and the red grass
behind them. In Crazy Ivar's country the grass was short and gray,
the draws deeper than they were in the Bergsons' neighborhood,
and the land was all broken up into hillocks and clay ridges. The
wild flowers disappeared, and only in the bottom of the draws and
gullies grew a few of the very toughest and hardiest: shoestring,
and ironweed, and snow-on-the-mountain.
"Look, look, Emil, there's Ivar's big pond!" Alexandra pointed to
a shining sheet of water that lay at the bottom of a shallow draw.
At one end of the pond was an earthen dam, planted with green willow
bushes, and above it a door and a single window were set into the
hillside. You would not have seen them at all but for the reflection
of the sunlight upon the four panes of window-glass. And that was
all you saw. Not a shed, not a corral, not a well, not even a path
broken in the curly grass. But for the piece of rusty stovepipe
sticking up through the sod, you could have walked over the roof
of Ivar's dwelling without dreaming that you were near a human
habitation. Ivar had lived for three years in the clay bank,
without defiling the face of nature any more than the coyote that
had lived there before him had done.
When the Bergsons drove over the hill, Ivar was sitting in the
doorway of his house, reading the Norwegian Bible. He was a queerly
shaped old man, with a thick, powerful body set on short bow-legs.
His shaggy white hair, falling in a thick mane about his ruddy
cheeks, made him look older than he was. He was barefoot, but
he wore a clean shirt of unbleached cotton, open at the neck. He
always put on a clean shirt when Sunday morning came round, though
he never went to church. He had a peculiar religion of his own
and could not get on with any of the denominations. Often he did
not see anybody from one week's end to another. He kept a calendar,
and every morning he checked off a day, so that he was never in
any doubt as to which day of the week it was. Ivar hired himself
out in threshing and corn-husking time, and he doctored sick animals
when he was sent for. When he was at home, he made hammocks out
of twine and committed chapters of the Bible to memory.
Ivar found contentment in the solitude he had sought out for himself.
He disliked the litter of human dwellings: the broken food, the
bits of broken china, the old wash-boilers and tea-kettles thrown
into the sunflower patch. He preferred the cleanness and tidiness of
the wild sod. He always said that the badgers had cleaner houses
than people, and that when he took a housekeeper her name would
be Mrs. Badger. He best expressed his preference for his wild
homestead by saying that his Bible seemed truer to him there. If
one stood in the doorway of his cave, and looked off at the rough
land, the smiling sky, the curly grass white in the hot sunlight;
if one listened to the rapturous song of the lark, the drumming of
the quail, the burr of the locust against that vast silence, one
understood what Ivar meant.
On this Sunday afternoon his face shone with happiness. He closed
the book on his knee, keeping the place with his horny finger, and
He sendeth the springs into the valleys, which run among the hills;
They give drink to every beast of the field; the wild asses quench
The trees of the Lord are full of sap; the cedars of Lebanon which
he hath planted;
Where the birds make their nests: as for the stork, the fir trees
are her house.
The high hills are a refuge for the wild goats; and the rocks for
Before he opened his Bible again, Ivar heard the Bergsons' wagon
approaching, and he sprang up and ran toward it.
"No guns, no guns!" he shouted, waving his arms distractedly.
"No, Ivar, no guns," Alexandra called reassuringly.
He dropped his arms and went up to the wagon, smiling amiably and
looking at them out of his pale blue eyes.
"We want to buy a hammock, if you have one," Alexandra explained,
"and my little brother, here, wants to see your big pond, where so
many birds come."
Ivar smiled foolishly, and began rubbing the horses' noses and
feeling about their mouths behind the bits. "Not many birds just
now. A few ducks this morning; and some snipe come to drink. But
there was a crane last week. She spent one night and came back the
next evening. I don't know why. It is not her season, of course.
Many of them go over in the fall. Then the pond is full of strange
voices every night."
Alexandra translated for Carl, who looked thoughtful. "Ask him,
Alexandra, if it is true that a sea gull came here once. I have
She had some difficulty in making the old man understand.
He looked puzzled at first, then smote his hands together as he
remembered. "Oh, yes, yes! A big white bird with long wings and
pink feet. My! what a voice she had! She came in the afternoon
and kept flying about the pond and screaming until dark. She was
in trouble of some sort, but I could not understand her. She was
going over to the other ocean, maybe, and did not know how far it
was. She was afraid of never getting there. She was more mournful
than our birds here; she cried in the night. She saw the light
from my window and darted up to it. Maybe she thought my house
was a boat, she was such a wild thing. Next morning, when the sun
rose, I went out to take her food, but she flew up into the sky
and went on her way." Ivar ran his fingers through his thick hair.
"I have many strange birds stop with me here. They come from very
far away and are great company. I hope you boys never shoot wild
Lou and Oscar grinned, and Ivar shook his bushy head. "Yes, I know
boys are thoughtless. But these wild things are God's birds. He
watches over them and counts them, as we do our cattle; Christ says
so in the New Testament."
"Now, Ivar," Lou asked, "may we water our horses at your pond and
give them some feed? It's a bad road to your place."
"Yes, yes, it is." The old man scrambled about and began to loose
the tugs. "A bad road, eh, girls? And the bay with a colt at
Oscar brushed the old man aside. "We'll take care of the horses,
Ivar. You'll be finding some disease on them. Alexandra wants to
see your hammocks."
Ivar led Alexandra and Emil to his little cave house. He had but
one room, neatly plastered and whitewashed, and there was a wooden
floor. There was a kitchen stove, a table covered with oilcloth,
two chairs, a clock, a calendar, a few books on the window-shelf;
nothing more. But the place was as clean as a cupboard.
"But where do you sleep, Ivar?" Emil asked, looking about.
Ivar unslung a hammock from a hook on the wall; in it was rolled
a buffalo robe. "There, my son. A hammock is a good bed, and in
winter I wrap up in this skin. Where I go to work, the beds are
not half so easy as this."
By this time Emil had lost all his timidity. He thought a cave a
very superior kind of house. There was something pleasantly unusual
about it and about Ivar. "Do the birds know you will be kind to
them, Ivar? Is that why so many come?" he asked.
Ivar sat down on the floor and tucked his feet under him. "See,
little brother, they have come from a long way, and they are very
tired. From up there where they are flying, our country looks dark
and flat. They must have water to drink and to bathe in before
they can go on with their journey. They look this way and that,
and far below them they see something shining, like a piece of glass
set in the dark earth. That is my pond. They come to it and are
not disturbed. Maybe I sprinkle a little corn. They tell the other
birds, and next year more come this way. They have their roads up
there, as we have down here."
Emil rubbed his knees thoughtfully. "And is that true, Ivar, about
the head ducks falling back when they are tired, and the hind ones
taking their place?"
"Yes. The point of the wedge gets the worst of it; they cut the
wind. They can only stand it there a little while--half an hour,
maybe. Then they fall back and the wedge splits a little, while
the rear ones come up the middle to the front. Then it closes up
and they fly on, with a new edge. They are always changing like
that, up in the air. Never any confusion; just like soldiers who
have been drilled."
Alexandra had selected her hammock by the time the boys came up
from the pond. They would not come in, but sat in the shade of
the bank outside while Alexandra and Ivar talked about the birds
and about his housekeeping, and why he never ate meat, fresh or
Alexandra was sitting on one of the wooden chairs, her arms resting
on the table. Ivar was sitting on the floor at her feet. "Ivar,"
she said suddenly, beginning to trace the pattern on the oilcloth
with her forefinger, "I came to-day more because I wanted to talk
to you than because I wanted to buy a hammock."
"Yes?" The old man scraped his bare feet on the plank floor.
"We have a big bunch of hogs, Ivar. I wouldn't sell in the spring,
when everybody advised me to, and now so many people are losing
their hogs that I am frightened. What can be done?"
Ivar's little eyes began to shine. They lost their vagueness.
"You feed them swill and such stuff? Of course! And sour milk?
Oh, yes! And keep them in a stinking pen? I tell you, sister,
the hogs of this country are put upon! They become unclean, like
the hogs in the Bible. If you kept your chickens like that, what
would happen? You have a little sorghum patch, maybe? Put a fence
around it, and turn the hogs in. Build a shed to give them shade,
a thatch on poles. Let the boys haul water to them in barrels,
clean water, and plenty. Get them off the old stinking ground, and
do not let them go back there until winter. Give them only grain
and clean feed, such as you would give horses or cattle. Hogs do
not like to be filthy."
The boys outside the door had been listening. Lou nudged his
brother. "Come, the horses are done eating. Let's hitch up and
get out of here. He'll fill her full of notions. She'll be for
having the pigs sleep with us, next."
Oscar grunted and got up. Carl, who could not understand what Ivar
said, saw that the two boys were displeased. They did not mind
hard work, but they hated experiments and could never see the use
of taking pains. Even Lou, who was more elastic than his older
brother, disliked to do anything different from their neighbors.
He felt that it made them conspicuous and gave people a chance to
talk about them.
Once they were on the homeward road, the boys forgot their ill-humor
and joked about Ivar and his birds. Alexandra did not propose any
reforms in the care of the pigs, and they hoped she had forgotten
Ivar's talk. They agreed that he was crazier than ever, and would
never be able to prove up on his land because he worked it so little.
Alexandra privately resolved that she would have a talk with Ivar
about this and stir him up. The boys persuaded Carl to stay for
supper and go swimming in the pasture pond after dark.
That evening, after she had washed the supper dishes, Alexandra
sat down on the kitchen doorstep, while her mother was mixing the
bread. It was a still, deep-breathing summer night, full of the
smell of the hay fields. Sounds of laughter and splashing came
up from the pasture, and when the moon rose rapidly above the bare
rim of the prairie, the pond glittered like polished metal, and
she could see the flash of white bodies as the boys ran about the
edge, or jumped into the water. Alexandra watched the shimmering
pool dreamily, but eventually her eyes went back to the sorghum
patch south of the barn, where she was planning to make her new