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OUR FIRST JERSEY COW
Theodora had brought home the mail from the post-office out at the Corners; and I remember that at the breakfast table next morning, the Old Squire, who was reading the news from the weekly papers, looked up and said in a tone of solemnity, that General Winfield Scott was dead; that he had died at West Point, May 29.
The announcement signified little to us young people, whose knowledge of generals and military events was confined mainly to the closing years of the Civil War, but meant much to those of the older generation, who remembered with still glowing enthusiasm the victor of Lundy's Lane in 1814 and the conqueror of Mexico in 1846.
"He was a good man and a patriot as well as an able general," the Old Squire remarked. "And, old as he had become in 1861, President Lincoln would have done better to trust more than he did to General Scott's judgment." At that time the Old Squire and nearly every one else in Maine feared that President Johnson was a treacherous and exceedingly dangerous man, whereas the verdict of history seems to be that he was merely a very egotistical and headstrong one. There was already much talk of impeaching him and removing him from office, although the Old Squire had doubts as to the wisdom of so radical a course.
He and Addison were debating the matter quite earnestly, when there came a knock at the door, which I answered, and saw standing there a strong, sturdy, well-favored boy of about my own age, one I was to know intimately all the rest of my life; for this, as I now learned, was Thomas Edwards, from the farmhouse of our nearest neighbors across the fields. He had come to fetch word to the Old Squire that another farmer, named Gurney — a relative of the Edwards — who lived at a distance of three or four miles, had concluded to sell us one of his new Jersey heifers.
That morning, too, I recollect that just as we were finishing breakfast, grandmother looked around on our enlarged family circle, over her spectacles, and said to the Old Squire, "Joseph, we really must have their pictures taken," — referring to us young folks.
"I want them all taken now, so that we may have them to keep, and know how they looked when they first came home here," the old lady continued. "I don't want it put off and not have any pictures of them, if anything should happen, as we did poor Ansel's and Coville's. (Two of my uncles who fell during the Civil War.)
"We must go down to the village some afternoon and have them taken," grandmother continued quite positively.
"Well, we will see about it," the Old Squire said over his paper.
"It must be done and done soon," Gram insisted.
"Yes, yes, Ruth, I suppose so," he assented.
"There must be no 'suppose so' about it," said Gram, very decidedly. "It is one of the things that mustn't be put off and off like your trip to Father Rasle's Monument."
We newcomers had yet to learn that for twenty years the Old Squire had been talking, every season, of making two wagon excursions, of several days' duration each, one to Lovewell's Pond, the scene of the historic fight of Captain Lovewell and his rangers with the Pequawket Indians in 1640, and the other to Norridgewock, where the devoted French missionary, Father Sebastian Rasle, lost his life in 1724.
Owing to the constant press of farm labors, opportunity for setting off had never yet fairly occurred. But the Old Squire always fully intended to go; he was genuinely interested in the early history of our State and, indeed, remarkably well posted as to it. Francis Parkman, the historian, had once come to the farm for a day or two, on purpose to inquire as to certain points connected with the massacre at Norridgewock.
Nothing more was said that morning about our pictures, however, for both the Old Squire and Addison were engrossed in the late disturbing news concerning President Johnson.
"And father says," continued Thomas, "that I may go over to uncle Gurney's with Addison and help him get the heifer home."
These, be it said, were the first Jersey cattle ever seen in that vicinity. Gurney had bought four of them from a stock farm somewheres in Massachusetts, and their arrival marked an era in Maine dairying. Farmers were very curious about them. Opinions differed widely as to their value.
The Jersey cow is now, to quote a certain witty Congressman, one of our national institutions. Asked to name the five most characteristic American "institutions," this waggish legislator replied, "The Constitution, Free Public Schools, Railroads, Newspapers and the Jersey cow!"
There is a spice of homely truth underlying the jest. For certainly the greatest delicacies of our tables are the cream, the butter and the milk that now come to us from our clean, well-managed dairies; and it is hardly too much to say that we owe the best of these products to the Jersey cow.
By careful breeding and feeding the Jersey has gained wonderfully in size, temper and good appearance, until few handsomer animals can now be found in the farmer's pasture or barn. But many of us can remember the first Jerseys, and what a reproach their wizened bodies and piebald hides were in any herd. It was admitted that their milk was yellow and wonderfully rich in butter fat; but they were so homely, so spindle-legged, so brindled along the withers, so pale-yellow down the sides, so foolishly white in the flanks, down the fore legs and about the jowls, yet so black-kneed and wildly touched about the eyes, that no one could admire them.
"That a cow!" cried an honest old Vermont farmer, the first time he ever saw one. "Why that looks like a cross between a deer and a 'Black Scotch'!"
As to the real origin of Jersey cattle, nothing very definite is known. They are said to have been brought to the Isle of Jersey from Normandy.
There is a theory, supported by tradition and legend, that thirty centuries ago, when the Druids first came into western Europe, they brought with them the Hindu sacred cattle, derived from the zebu, or Brahman ox, in order that their sacrificial rites might be supplied with the "cream-white heifers" which the altars of that strange, wild religion demanded.
It is thought that in after centuries the Druid sacred cattle were cross-bred with the urus or wild German buffalo, described by Cæsar, or else with native breeds of domestic cattle, owned by the Gauls; and that the Jersey of to-day is the far-descended progeny of this singular union of zebu and urus. In color the sacred cattle ranged from white, through mouse, fawn and brown to black.
But Addison could not go that day; so with a smile at thoughts of my recent experience leading Little Dagon, the Old Squire said that I might go; and immediately Thomas and I set off on foot with a rope nose-halter, a few nubbins of corn in our pockets as "coaxers," and many injunctions to be gentle. Grandfather supposed that two boys of our age would be able to get a small heifer home without difficulty, one leading, the other following after with a switch.
When we reached the farm, we found the odd-looking little white and brindled heifer tied up at a stanchion in the barn; and Gurney appeared to have doubts about our ability to take her home.
"She's a Jersey, boys," said he. "They're ticklish creatures. Awful skittish at everything they see, particularly women-folks. So you must look out sharp."
Thomas thought we could lead or hold a heifer as small as this one, even if she was frightened. With the assistance of the farmer and his son, we adjusted the halter, gave the heifer nubbins of corn, coaxed her out upon the highway, and set off.
It soon became evident, however, that she was very timid. At every unusual object along the road her head was raised high, and it was only by much coaxing that we made any progress. Moreover, her fears appeared to increase with every onward step. Presently we met a dog, and for five minutes the heifer careered wildly on both sides of the road. The dog behaved very well, however, and made a wide detour to pass us.
A horse and buggy and a loaded wagon each made trouble for us. The driver of the team said, "You've got one of those wild Jerseys there; I'd sooner try to lead a deer!"
Thomas and I had found already that, small as she was, both of us could hardly hold her; she had a manner of bounding high with such suddenness that we had no chance to brace our feet. By this time she was inspecting everything by the roadside and far ahead, and an hour was spent in going half a mile.
Suddenly her head went up higher than ever. She had discerned what we had not yet seen, two girls coming on foot a quarter of a mile away. Not another inch could we make her budge, either by pulling or switching. Her eyes were fixed on those girls, and it was plain there would be trouble when they came nearer. Thomas bethought himself to blind her, however, and, taking off his jacket, wrapped it about her head and horns, while I took the precaution to pass the end of the halter around a post of the wayside fence.
Thus prepared, we stood waiting the approach of the girls, and if they had gone by quietly, our precautions would have sufficed; but they were greatly amused by the spectacle of our hooded heifer, and one of them laughed outright. At the sound of her voice our Jersey went into the air, broke the halter rope, and leaping blindly against the rail fence beside which we were holding her, knocked down a length of it and ran off across the field on the other side, with Thomas's jacket and the head-stall of the halter still on her head. We gave chase, but the heifer shook off the jacket and ran for a cedar swamp seven or eight hundred yards distant.
We spent the remainder of the afternoon in that swamp, engaged in efforts to approach near enough to the animal to seize and secure her. By this time all her wilder instincts appeared to have revived. She fled from one end of the swamp to the other, seeking the densest thickets of cedar and alder, where she would lie up, still as a mouse, till we found her; then she would make a break and run to another quarter of the swamp.
Hungry and tired out, I now earnestly desired to go home; but my resolute new acquaintance declared that they would all laugh at us if we returned without the heifer.
At length, we went back to Gurney's farm, just at dusk, spent the night there and in the morning proceeded to the cedar swamp again and resumed the hunt, the farmer and his son Oscar accompanying us out of compassion for our ill success.
An hour's search convinced us that the heifer had left the cedar thickets; and she was at last discovered in a pasture half a mile away, in company with six other young cattle to which she had joined herself during the night in spite of three intervening fences.
On approaching them, however, it became apparent that the fugitive Jersey had in some manner infused her own wild fears into these new acquaintances. They all set off on the run with tails in the air; and after coursing round the pasture several times, they jumped the fence and made for a distant wood-lot, our Jersey leading the rout.
By this time I was wholly disheartened. But Thomas still said, "Come on. We've got to get her;" and I followed wearily after the others. Proceeding to the farmhouse of the owner of the young cattle, whose name was Robbins, we informed him what had occurred, and in company with his son, Luke, spent the forenoon searching for the runaways. Mr. Gurney returned home, but Oscar went with us. The cattle had made off to an extensive tract of forest, and after following their tracks hither and thither for some time longer, hunger impelled us to retrace our steps. Luke Robbins told us that the six young Durham cattle in their pasture had previously been docile, and that they had never before broken out. The Jersey heifer seemed to have demoralized them.
Quite discouraged and tired out, we now started for home, and were glad enough to meet the Old Squire and Addison driving over to look us up. Thomas's father, too, had come in quest of him. Night was at hand; we all went home; and that was the last of the Jersey for months. I may as well go on here, however, and relate the rest of the story.
Farmer Robbins and his son continued the search next day, but could not find their stock; and beyond making inquiries, we did nothing further for four or five months, until "housing time," in November. Then, shortly after the first snow came, Luke Robbins drove over to tell us that the fugitive cattle were reported to be in the woods, six miles to the northwestward of their farm. He thought that we might like to join in an effort to recover them and get them home before winter set in. Two deer-hunters had seen them, but they were very wild and ran away at speed. A party was now made up to attempt their capture, consisting of the Old Squire and Addison, with two of our hired men and Thomas's father. Farmer Gurney and his son also joined in the hunt, as also Luke Robbins and his father. Thomas and myself were allowed to accompany them, by virtue of our previous experience. Halters, axes and food were also taken along.
No success attended the search during the first day, and we passed the night at a newly cleared farm, five miles from home. But cattle-tracks were discovered in dense fir woods near a large brook during the following morning; and after following them for two hours we came upon the whole herd, snugly sheltered in the ox hovel of a deserted lumber-camp.
It was a low log structure, roofed with turf, and it had not been occupied for three years. Bushes and briers had sprung up about it; but the door was open, and the cattle were inside, lying down. We could see our Jersey's head as she lay near the door, facing out, as if doing sentinel duty. But she had not seen us, and was chewing her cud as peacefully as if in a barn at home.
The situation was carefully studied from the bushes, at a distance; and then Asa Doane, one of the hired men, crept quietly up from the rear and, crawling round the corner of the hovel, suddenly clapped the old door to and held it fast, before the cattle had time to jump up and rush out. The little herd was now penned up inside; but they made a great commotion, and we were at a loss how to proceed. After much talk Doane said that he would take a halter, slip in and secure the Jersey heifer, if the others would tend the door.
But he had no sooner entered than the heifer attacked him. He seized her by the horns, and they tumbled about in a lively manner for some moments. Immediately the other cattle began bawling, and evinced so unmistakable a disposition to gore Doane that he shouted for us to help him get out. This was not easily accomplished. At last he reached the door, and we hauled him forth and clapped it to again. But he had lost his hat, and his coat was torn in several places. He was also limping, for in the struggle the cattle had trodden on his feet.
"I wouldn't go in there again for fifty dollars!" he exclaimed. "They are wild cattle."
As none of the rest of the party had any wish to go in, and night was at hand, we made the door fast with props and went home.
This last trip ended my own part in the adventure. Our winter school began the next day, and the Old Squire deemed school of more importance to me than cattle-hunting.
But the plan finally adopted was to proceed to the place with two yokes of large, steady oxen, connected by a long draft-chain. A number of neighbors assisted; and seven or eight "tie-chains," such as are used to tie up cattle in the barn, were also taken along. After a series of violent struggles the wild young cattle were secured, one by one, and tied to the long draft-chain, on each side of it. Then with a yoke of heavy oxen in advance and another in the rear of the procession, to steady it, the rebellious creatures were constrained to walk home. For the first mile or so they bounded and struggled, and some of them even threw themselves down. But it was of no use; the procession moved steadily on; and by the time they reached home all were pretty well tamed.
We kept this wild-headed little Jersey at the farm for seven or eight years afterwards, and several of her calves made good cows; but to the end of her life she was always a skittish little creature, apt to take fright at any moment. A dog coming along the barn floor in front of her manger was always the signal for a struggle at her stanchion. But the object of her worst fears was the sight of a woman! She would leap in the air, wrench and tear, and even bawl aloud and cast herself flat on the floor. Neither Gram nor any of the girls ever went in front of "Little Jersey," if it could be avoided. This fear of women has always seemed to me rather singular, for I am told that in the Isle of Jersey, the women usually care for the cows.
But this digression has taken me a long way in advance of my narrative.