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GRANDMOTHER RUTH'S LAST LOAD OF HAY
HAYING time at the old farm generally began on the Monday after the Fourth of July and lasted from four to six weeks, according to the weather, which is often fitful in Maine. We usually harvested from seventy to seventy-five tons, and in the days of scythes and hand rakes that meant that we had to do a good deal of hard, hot, sweaty work.
Besides Addison, Halstead and me, the old Squire had the two hired men, Jim and Asa Doane, to help him; and sometimes Elder Witham, who was quite as good with a scythe as with a sermon, worked for us a few days.
First we would cut the grass in the upland fields nearest the farm buildings, then the grass in the "Aunt Hannah lot" out beyond the sugar-maple orchard and last the grass in the south field, which, since it was on low, wet ground where there were several long swales, was the slowest to ripen. Often there were jolly times when we cut the south field. Our enjoyment was owing partly to the fact that we were getting toward the end of the hard work, and partly to the bumblebees' nests we found in the swales. Moreover, when we reached that field grandmother Ruth was wont to come out to lay the last load of hay and ride to the barn on it.
In former days when she and the old Squire were young she had helped him a great deal with the haying. Nearly every day she finished her own work early — the cooking, the butter making, the cheese making — and came out to the field to help rake and load the hay. The old Squire has often told me that, except at scythe work, grandmother Ruth was the best helper he had ever had, for at that time she was quick, lithe and strong and understood the work as well as any man. Later when they were in prosperous circumstances she gave up doing so much work out of doors; but still she enjoyed going to the hayfield, and even after we young folks had gone home to live she made it her custom to lay the last load of hay and ride to the barn on it just to show that she could do it still. She was now sixty-four years old, however, and had grown stout, so stout indeed that to us youngsters she looked rather venturesome on a load of hay. On the day of my narrative, we had the last of the grass in the south field "mown and making" on the ground. There were four or five tons of it, all of which we wanted to put into the barn before night, for, though the forenoon was bright and clear, we could hear distant rumblings; and there were other signs that foul weather was coming. The old Squire sent Ellen over to summon Elder Witham to help us; if the rain held off until nightfall, we hoped to have the hay inside the barn.
At noon, while we were having luncheon, grandmother Ruth asked at what time we expected to have the last load ready to go in.
"Not before five o'clock," Asa replied. "It has all to be raked yet."
"Well, I shall be down there by that time," she said in a very matter-of-fact tone. "I'll bring the girls with me."
"Don't you think, Ruth, that perhaps you had better give it up this year?" the old Squire said persuasively.
"But why?" grandmother Ruth exclaimed, not at all pleased.
"Well, you know, Ruth, that neither of us is quite so young as we once were —" the old Squire began apologetically.
"Speak for yourself, Joseph, not for me!" she interrupted. "I'm young enough to lay a load of hay yet!"
"Yes, yes," the old Squire said soothingly, "I know you are, but the loads are rather high, and you know that you are getting quite heavy — "
"Then I can tread down hay all the better!" grandmother Ruth cried, turning visibly pink with vexation.
"All right, all right, Ruth!" the old Squire said with a smile, prudently abandoning the argument.
Then Elder Witham put in his word. "The Lord has appointed to each of us our three-score years and ten, and it behooves us to be mindful that the end of all things is drawing nigh," he remarked soberly.
"Look here, Elder Witham," the old lady exclaimed with growing impatience, "you are here haying today, not preaching! I'm going to lay that load of hay if there are men enough here to pitch it on the cart to me."
Jim and Asa snorted; Theodora's efforts to keep a grave face were amusing; and with queer little wrinkles gathering round the corners of his mouth the old Squire, who had finished his luncheon, rose hastily to go out.
We went back to the south field and plied our seven rakes vigorously for an hour and a half. Then Asa went to get the horses and the long rack cart. That day, I remember, Jim laid the loads. Halstead helped him to tread down the hay, and Elder Witham and Asa pitched it on the cart. The old Squire had mounted the driver's seat and taken the reins; and Addison and I raked up the scatterings from the "tumbles."
In the course of two hours four loads of the hay had gone into the barn, and we thought that the thirty-three tumbles that remained could be drawn at the fifth and last load. It was then that grandmother Ruth appeared. She had been watching proceedings from the house and followed the cart down from the barn to the south field, resolutely bent on laying the last load. Theodora and Ellen came with her to help tread down the hay on the cart.
"Here I am!" she cried cheerily. She tossed her hayfork into the empty rack and climbed in after it. Her sun hat was tied under her chin, and she had donned a white waist and a blue denim skirt. "Come on now with your hay!"
Elder Witham moistened his hands, but made no comment. Jim was grinning. The old Squire drove the cart between two tumbles, and the work of pitching on and laying the load began. No one knew better than grandmother Ruth how a load should be laid. She first filled the opposite ends of the rack and kept the middle low; then when the load was high as the rails of the rack she began prudently to lay the hay out on and over them, so as to have room to build a large, wide load.
But in this instance there was a hindrance to good loading that even grandmother's skill could not wholly overcome. Much of the hay for that last load was from the swales at the lower side of the field, where the grass was wild and short and sedgy, a kind that when dry is difficult to pitch with forks and that, since the forkfuls have little cohesion and tend to drop apart, does not lie well on the rails of the rack. Such hay farmers sometimes call "podgum."
Fully aware of the fact, the old Squire now said in an undertone to the elder and to Jim that they had better make two loads of the thirty-three tumbles. But grandmother Ruth overheard the remark and mistook it to mean that the old Squire did not believe she could lay the load. It mortified her.
"No, sir-ee!" she shouted down to the old Squire. "I hear your talk about two loads, and it's because I'm on the cart! I won't have it so! You give me that hay! I'll load it; see if I don't!"
"Bully for you, Gram!" shouted Halstead.
It was no use to try to dissuade her now, as the old Squire well knew from long experience. When her pride was touched no arguments would move her.
With the elder heaving up great forkfuls and grandmother Ruth valiantly laying them at the front and at the back of the rack, they continued loading the hay. Jim tried to place his forkfuls where they need not be moved and where the girls could tread them down.
The load grew higher, for now that we were in the swales the hay could not be laid out widely. It would be a big load, or at least a lofty one. Grandmother Ruth began to fear lest the girls should fall off, and, calling on Elder Witham to catch them, she bade them slide down cautiously to the ground at the rear end of the cart. She then went on laying the load alone. As a consequence it was not so firmly trodden and became higher and higher until Jim and the elder could hardly heave their forkfuls high enough for her to take them. But they got the last tumble up to her and shouted, "All on!" to the old Squire, who now was nearly invisible on his seat in front. Grandmother Ruth settled herself midway on the load to ride it to the barn, thrusting her fork deep into the hay so as to have something to hold on by. We could just see her sun hat and her face over the hay; she looked very pink and triumphant.
Carefully avoiding stones and all the inequalities in the field, the old Squire drove at a slow walk. I surmise that he had his fears. It was certainly the highest load we had hauled to the barn that summer.
The rest of us followed after, glad indeed that the long task of haying was now done, and that the last load would soon be in the barn. Halfway to the farm buildings the cart road led through a gap in the stone wall where two posts with bars separated the south field from the middle field. There was scanty space for the load to pass through, and in his anxiety not to foul either of the posts the old Squire, who could not see well because of the overhanging hay, drove a few inches too close to one of them, and a wheel passed over a small stone beside the wheel track. The jolt was slight, but it proved sufficient to loosen the unstable "podgum." The load had barely cleared the posts when the entire side of it came sliding down — and grandmother Ruth with it! We heard her cry out as she fell, and then all of us who were behind scaled the wall and rushed to her rescue. The old Squire stopped the horses, jumped from his seat over the off horse's back and was ahead of us all, crying, "Ruth, Ruth!"
There was a huge heap of loose hay on the ground, fully ten feet high, but she was nowhere to be seen in it. Nor did she speak or stir.
"Great Lord, I'm afraid it's killed her!" Elder Witham exclaimed. Jim and Asa stood horrified, and the girls burst out crying.
The old Squire had turned white. "Ruth! Ruth!" he cried. "Are you badly hurt? Do you hear? Can't you answer?" Not a sound came from the hay, not a movement; and, falling on his knees, he began digging it away with his hands. None of us dared use our hay-forks, and now, following his example, we began tearing away armfuls of hay. A moment later, Addison, who was burrowing nearly out of sight, got hold of one of her hands. It frightened him, and he cried out; but he pulled at it. Instantly there was a laugh from somewhere underneath, then a scramble that continued until at last grandmother Ruth emerged without aid of any sort and stood up, a good deal rumpled and covered with hay but laughing.
"It didn't hurt me a mite!" she protested. "I came down light as a feather!"
"But why didn't you answer when we called to you?" the elder exclaimed reprovingly. "You kept so still we were scared half to death about you!"
"Oh, I just wanted to see what you would all do,"
she replied airily and still laughing. "I was a little afraid you would stick your forks into the hay, but I was watching for that."
The old Squire was so relieved, so overjoyed, to see her on her feet unhurt that he had not a word of reproach for her. All he said was, "Ruth Ann, I'm afraid you are growing too young for your age!"
The truth is that grandmother Ruth was dreadfully chagrined that the load she had laid had not held together as far as the barn; and it was partly mortification, I think, that led her to lie so still under the hay.
She wanted to remount the cart and have the hay pitched up to her; but as it was getting late in the afternoon, and as there was no ladder at hand, Jim and Asa hoisted Addison up, and he succeeded in rebuilding the load so that we were able to take it into the barn without further incident.
We could hardly believe that the fall had not injured grandmother Ruth, and as a matter of fact Theodora afterwards told us that she had several large black-and-blue spots as a result of her adventure. The old lady herself, however, scouted the idea that she had been in the least injured and did not like to have us show any solicitude about her.
The following year, as haying drew to a close, we young folks waited curiously to see whether she would speak of going out to lay the last load. Not a word came from her; but I think it was less because she felt unable to go than it was that she feared we would refer to her mishap of the previous summer.