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The Troll Garden and Selected Stories

On the Divide
Near Rattlesnake Creek, on the side of a little draw stood Canute's shanty. North, east,
south, stretched the level Nebraska plain of long rust-red grass that undulated constantly
in the wind. To the west the ground was broken and rough, and a narrow strip of timber
wound along the turbid, muddy little stream that had scarcely ambition enough to crawl
over its black bottom. If it had not been for the few stunted cottonwoods and elms that
grew along its banks, Canute would have shot himself years ago. The Norwegians are a
timber-loving people, and if there is even a turtle pond with a few plum bushes around it
they seem irresistibly drawn toward it.
As to the shanty itself, Canute had built it without aid of any kind, for when he first
squatted along the banks of Rattlesnake Creek there was not a human being within twenty
miles. It was built of logs split in halves, the chinks stopped with mud and plaster. The
roof was covered with earth and was supported by one gigantic beam curved in the shape
of a round arch. It was almost impossible that any tree had ever grown in that shape. The
Norwegians used to say that Canute had taken the log across his knee and bent it into the
shape he wished. There were two rooms, or rather there was one room with a partition
made of ash saplings interwoven and bound together like big straw basket work. In one
corner there was a cook stove, rusted and broken. In the other a bed made of unplaned
planks and poles. it was fully eight feet long, and upon it was a heap of dark bed clothing.
There was a chair and a bench of colossal proportions. There was an ordinary kitchen
cupboard with a few cracked dirty dishes in it, and beside it on a tall box a tin washbasin.
Under the bed was a pile of pint flasks, some broken, some whole, all empty. On the
wood box lay a pair of shoes of almost incredible dimensions. On the wall hung a saddle,
a gun, and some ragged clothing, conspicuous among which was a suit of dark cloth,
apparently new, with a paper collar carefully wrapped in a red silk handkerchief and
pinned to the sleeve. Over the door hung a wolf and a badger skin, and on the door itself
a brace of thirty or forty snake skins whose noisy tails rattled ominously every time it
opened. The strangest things in the shanty were the wide windowsills. At first glance they
looked as though they had been ruthlessly hacked and mutilated with a hatchet, but on
closer inspection all the notches and holes in the wood took form and shape. There
seemed to be a series of pictures. They were, in a rough way, artistic, but the figures were
heavy and labored, as though they had been cut very slowly and with very awkward
instruments. There were men plowing with little horned imps sitting on their shoulders
and on their horses' heads. There were men praying with a skull hanging over their heads
and little demons behind them mocking their attitudes. There were men fighting with big
serpents, and skeletons dancing together. All about these pictures were blooming vines
and foliage such as never grew in this world, and coiled among the branches of the vines
there was always the scaly body of a serpent, and behind every flower there was a
serpent's head. It was a veritable Dance of Death by one who had felt its sting. In the
wood box lay some boards, and every inch of them was cut up in the same manner.
Sometimes the work was very rude and careless, and looked as though the hand of the
workman had trembled. It would sometimes have been hard to distinguish the men from