Part I: The Wild Land - Chapter V
ALEXANDRA AND EMIL spent five days down among the river farms, driving up and down the valley. Alexandra talked to the men about their crops and to the women about their poultry. She spent a whole day with one young farmer who had been away at school, and who was experimenting with a new kind of clover hay. She learned a great deal. As they drove along, she and Emil talked and planned. At last, on the sixth day, Alexandra turned Brigham's head northward and left the river behind.
“There's nothing in it for us down there, Emil. There are a few fine farms, but they are owned by the rich men in town, and couldn't be bought. Most of the land is rough and hilly. They can always scrape along down there, but they can never do anything big. Down there they have a little certainty, but up with us there is a big chance. We must have faith in the high land, Emil. I want to hold on harder than ever, and when you're a man you'll thank me.” She urged Brigham forward.
When the road began to climb the first long swells of the Divide, Alexandra hummed an old Swedish hymn, and Emil wondered why his sister looked so happy. Her face was so radiant that he felt shy about asking her. For the first time, perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning. It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious. Her eyes drank in the breadth of it, until her tears blinded her. Then the Genius of the Divide, the great, free spirit which breathes across it, must have bent lower than it ever bent to a human will before. The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.
Alexandra reached home in the afternoon. That evening she held a family council and told her brothers all that she had seen and heard.
“I want you boys to go down yourselves and look it over. Nothing will convince you like seeing with your own eyes. The river land was settled before this, and so they are a few years ahead of us, and have learned more about farming. The land sells for three times as much as this, but in five years we will double it. The rich men down there own all the best land, and they are buying all they can get. The thing to do is to sell our cattle and what little old corn we have, and buy the Linstrum place. Then the next thing to do is to take out two loans on our half-sections, and buy Peter Crow's place; raise every dollar we can, and buy every acre we can.”
“Mortgage the homestead again?” Lou cried. He sprang up and began to wind the clock furiously. “I won't slave to pay off another mortgage. I'll never do it. You'd just as soon kill us all, Alexandra, to carry out some scheme!”
Oscar rubbed his high, pale forehead. “How do you propose to pay off your mortgages?”
Alexandra looked from one to the other and bit her lip. They had never seen her so nervous. “See here,” she brought out at last. “We borrow the money for six years. Well, with the money we buy a half-section from Linstrum and a half from Crow, and a quarter from Struble, maybe. That will give us upwards of fourteen hundred acres, won't it? You won't have to pay off your mortgages for six years. By that time, any of this land will be worth thirty dollars an acre—it will be worth fifty, but we'll say thirty; then you can sell a garden patch anywhere, and pay off a debt of sixteen hundred dollars. It's not the principal I'm worried about, it's the interest and taxes. We'll have to strain to meet the payments. But as sure as we are sitting here to-night, we can sit down here ten years from now independent landowners, not struggling farmers any longer. The chance that father was always looking for has come.”
Lou was pacing the floor. “But how do you know that land is going to go up enough to pay the mortgages and—”
“And make us rich besides?” Alexandra put in firmly. “I can't explain that, Lou. You'll have to take my word for it. I know, that's all. When you drive about over the country you can feel it coming.”
Oscar had been sitting with his head lowered, his hands hanging between his knees. “But we can't work so much land,” he said dully, as if he were talking to himself. “We can't even try. It would just lie there and we'd work ourselves to death.” He sighed, and laid his calloused fist on the table.
Alexandra's eyes filled with tears. She put her hand on his shoulder. “You poor boy, you won't have to work it. The men in town who are buying up other people's land don't try to farm it. They are the men to watch, in a new country. Let's try to do like the shrewd ones, and not like these stupid fellows. I don't want you boys always to have to work like this. I want you to be independent, and Emil to go to school.”
Lou held his head as if it were splitting. “Everybody will say we are crazy. It must be crazy, or everybody would be doing it.”
“If they were, we wouldn't have much chance. No, Lou, I was talking about that with the smart young man who is raising the new kind of clover. He says the right thing is usually just what everybody don't do. Why are we better fixed than any of our neighbors? Because father had more brains. Our people were better people than these in the old country. We ought to do more than they do, and see further ahead. Yes, mother, I'm going to clear the table now.”
Alexandra rose. The boys went to the stable to see to the stock, and they were gone a long while. When they came back Lou played on his dragharmonika and Oscar sat figuring at his father's secretary all evening. They said nothing more about Alexandra's project, but she felt sure now that they would consent to it. Just before bedtime Oscar went out for a pail of water. When he did not come back, Alexandra threw a shawl over her head and ran down the path to the windmill. She found him sitting there with his head in his hands, and she sat down beside him.
“Don't do anything you don't want to do, Oscar,” she whispered. She waited a moment, but he did not stir. “I won't say any more about it, if you'd rather not. What makes you so discouraged?”
“I dread signing my name to them pieces of paper,” he said slowly. “All the time I was a boy we had a mortgage hanging over us.”
“Then don't sign one. I don't want you to, if you feel that way.”
Oscar shook his head. “No, I can see there's a chance that way. I've thought a good while there might be. We're in so deep now, we might as well go deeper. But it's hard work pulling out of debt. Like pulling a threshing-machine out of the mud; breaks your back.
Me and Lou's worked hard, and I can't see it's got us ahead much.”
“Nobody knows about that as well as I do, Oscar. That's why I want to try an easier way. I don't want you to have to grub for every dollar.”
“Yes, I know what you mean. Maybe it'll come out right. But signing papers is signing papers. There ain't no maybe about that.” He took his pail and trudged up the path to the house.
Alexandra drew her shawl closer about her and stood leaning against the frame of the mill, looking at the stars which glittered so keenly through the frosty autumn air. She always loved to watch them, to think of their vastness and distance, and of their ordered march. It fortified her to reflect upon the great operations of nature, and when she thought of the law that lay behind them, she felt a sense of personal security. That night she had a new consciousness of the country, felt almost a new relation to it. Even her talk with the boys had not taken away the feeling that had overwhelmed her when she drove back to the Divide that afternoon. She had never known before how much the country meant to her. The chirping of the insects down in the long grass had been like the sweetest music. She had felt as if her heart were hiding down there, somewhere, with the quail and the plover and all the little wild things that crooned or buzzed in the sun. Under the long shaggy ridges, she felt the future stirring.