Bread

By Ellis Parker Butler

They came to Iowa in a prairie schooner with a rounded canvas top and where the canvas was brought together at the rear of the wagon it left a little window above the tailboard. On the floor of the wagon was a heap of hay and an old quilt out of which the matted cotton protruded, and on this Martha and Eben used to sit, looking out of the window. Martha was a little over two years old and Eben was four.

They crossed the Mississippi at Muscatine on the ferry. It was about noon and old Hodges, the crew of the ferry, who was as crooked as the branches of an English oak because the huge branch of an English oak had fallen on him when he was young, took his dinner from his tin pail. He looked up and saw the two eager little faces.

"Want a bite to eat?" he asked, and he peeled apart two thick slices of bread, thickly buttered, and handed them up to the two youngsters. This, a slice of Mrs. Hodges' good wheat bread, was Martha's welcome to Iowa. The butter was as fragrant as a flower and the bread was moist and succulent, delicious to the touch and the taste. Martha ate it all, even to the last crumb of crust, and, although she did not know it, the gift, the acceptance and the eating was a sacrament—the welcome of bountiful Iowa.

As the prairie schooner rolled its slow way inward into the state there were more slices of bread. The father stopped the weary horses at many houses, shacks and dugouts; and always there was a woman to come to the wagon with a slice of bread for Martha, and one for Eben, for that was the Iowa way. Sometimes the bread was buttered, sometimes it was spread with jelly, sometimes it was bread alone. It was all good bread.

There were days at a time, after they reached the new home, when there was nothing to eat but bread, but there was always that. The neighbors did not wait to be asked to lend; they brought flour unasked and Martha's mother kneaded it and set it to rise and baked it. Then the harvests began to come in uninterrupted succession of wealth, and the dugout became a house, and barns arose, and a school was built, and Martha and Eben went along the dusty, unfenced road, barefooted, happy, well fed, or in winter leaped through the snowdrifts. In their well-filled lunch pail there was always plenty and always bread.

In time Martha taught school, now in one district and now in another; and everywhere, wherever she boarded, there was good wheat bread and plenty of it. She remembered the boarding places by their bread. Some had bread as good as her mother's; some had bread not as good. During her first vacation her mother taught her to make bread. Her very first baking was a success. John Cartwright, coming to the kitchen door just as she was drawing the black bread-pan from the oven on that hot July day, saw her eyes sparkle with triumph as she saw the rich brown loaves.

"Isn't it beautiful? It is my first bread, John," she said, as she stood, flushed and triumphant.

"It smells like mother's," he said, "but she don't seem to get her'n so nice and brown."

"I guess Martha is a natural bread-maker," said her mother proudly. "Some is and some ain't."

Always good bread and plenty of it! That was Iowa. And it was of Martha's bread they partook around the kitchen table the next year—Eben and John, Martha and her father and mother—just before the two young men drove to the county seat to enlist.

"I guess we won't get bread like this in the army," John said, and he was right.

"When I'm chawing this sow-belly and hard tack," Eben wrote, "I wish I had some of that bread of yours, Marth. I guess this war won't last long and the minute it is over you'll see me skedaddling home for some of your bread. Tell ma I'm well and——"

They brought his body home because he was not killed outright but lived almost two weeks in the hospital at St. Louis after he was wounded. Martha scraped the dough from her fingers to go to the door when her father drove up with the precious, lifeless form. That day her bread was not as good as usual.

Martha and John were married the month he came back from the war, and the bread that was eaten at the wedding dinner was Martha's own baking. The bread that was eaten by those who came to prepare her mother for the grave and by those who came, a year later, to lay away her father, was Martha's. Once, twice, three times, four times Martha did a double baking, to "last over," so that there might be bread in the house while the babies were being born. Every week, except those four weeks, she baked bread.

In succession the small boys and girls of her own began coming to the kitchen door pleading, "Ma, may I have a piece of bread an' butter?" Always they might. There was always plenty of bread; it was Iowa.

In time Martha became something of a fanatic about flour. One kind was the best flour in the world; she would have no other. Once, when John brought back another brand, she sent him back to town with it. Her bread was so well known that the flour dealer in town was wont to say, "This is the kind Mis' Cartwright uses; I guess I can't say no more'n that." Eight times in twenty years she won the blue ribbon at the county fair for her loaves; the twelve other times John swore the judges were prejudiced. "It ain't the flour; that I do know!" Martha would answer.

Presently there were children of her children coming on Sunday to spend the day with the "old folks," and there was always enough bread for all. Sometime in the afternoon the big loaf would be taken out of the discarded tin boiler that served as a bread-box and the children would have a "piece"—huge slices of bread, limber in the hand, spread with brown sugar, or jelly, or honey, or dripping with jam. Then, one Sunday, young John's wife brought a loaf of her own bread to show Martha. They battled pleasantly for two hours over the merits of two brands of flour, comparing the bread, but Martha would no more have given up her own brand than she would have deserted the Methodist Church to become a Mahometan!

Then came a time when John had difficulty in holding his pipe in his mouth because his "pipe tooth" was gone. He no longer ate the crusts of Martha's bread except when he dipped them in his coffee. There was a strong, young girl to do the housework but Martha still made the bread, just such beautiful, richly browned, fragrant bread as she had made in her younger days. There had never been a week without the good bread, for this was Iowa.

One day, as she was kneading the dough, she stopped suddenly and put her hand to her side, under her heart. She had to wait several minutes before she could go on with the kneading. Then she shaped the bread into loaves and put it in the pan and put the pan in the oven. She went out on the porch, where John was sitting, and talked about the weather, and then of a grandson, Horace, who was the first to enlist for the great war that was wracking the world. She mentioned the poor Belgians.

"And us so comfortable here, and all!" she said. "When I think of them not having bread enough to eat——"

"I warrant they never did have bread like yours to eat, ma," said John.

She rocked slowly, happy and proud that her man thought that, and then she went in to take the fresh loaves from the oven. They were crisp and golden brown as always, great, plump, nourishing loaves of good wheat bread. She carried the pan to the table.

"Bertha," she said, "I'll let you put the bread away. I guess I'll go up and lie down awhile; I don't feel right well."

She stopped at the foot of the stairs to tell John she was going up; that she did not feel very well.

"If I don't come down to supper," she said, "you can have Bertha cut a loaf of the fresh bread, but you'd better not eat too much of it, John; it don't always agree with you. There's plenty of the other loaf left."

She did not come down again, not Martha herself. She did not mourn because she could not come down again. She had lived her life and it had been a good life, happy, well-nourished, satisfying as her own bread had been. And so, when they came back from leaving Martha beside the brother who had died so many years before, the last loaf of her last baking was cut and eaten around the kitchen table—the youngsters biting eagerly into the thick slices, the elders tasting with thoughts not on the bread at all, and old John crumbling the bread in his fingers and thinking of long past years.