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IMMERSING THE LAMBS
The sheep were inclosed at the barn that night, partly that they might not take cold, owing to the sudden loss of their winter coats, partly also that, being pent up close with the lambs, all the parasites ("ticks") would leave the bare skins of the sheep and take refuge within the partly grown fleeces of the lambs and thus the more readily fall victims to the bath which we had specially prepared for their extermination on the morrow.
Immersing one hundred lambs, one by one, in a tubful of mingled poke and tobacco juice is far from an agreeable task; it was a novelty to me then, however, and I entered into it with much zeal and curiosity. I wanted to see how the lambs would behave, and also how the parasites would enjoy it. A boy's mind is eager for all kinds of visual information.
We put on old clothes, and having set the tub containing the decoction near the lean-to door of the barn, caught and brought forth the lambs, one after another. Addison, by virtue of greater experience, undertook the business of immersion, while Halstead and I caught the lambs. They struggled vigorously, and the only practicable method of dipping them was to grasp all four of their legs, two in each hand, and then thrust them down into the tub, taking care that their noses did not go under the liquid. Each had then to be held in the bath for about a minute, giving time for the liquid to thoroughly saturate their wool. But this was not all, nor yet the most disagreeable part of the affair. On raising them from the tub, it was necessary to dry their fleeces to some extent, by squeezing and wringing them in our hands, lest, owing to the absorbent capacity of their wool, there should soon be nothing left of our decoction in the tub. Taken with the struggles of the lambs, this proved a repulsive task. Before half the lambs were dipped, our old jacket sleeves were soaked. Withal we were nauseated, either from having our hands in the decoction, or else from the odor which arose from the tub and the wet lambs. At length, Addison was obliged to go out behind the barn, where he remained for some minutes, and returned looking very pale. "Good gracious!" he exclaimed. "I think that I shall hate the odor of tobacco juice to the end of my life."
Not long after he made another trip; and immediately I was compelled to follow him, in haste. Halse, who was not much affected, derided us; but he had not held his hands in the tub as much as Addison; besides he was known to have smoked tobacco on several occasions, and this previous experience of the weed, perhaps, stood him in stead on this occasion.
Theodora, who had come out to see how we were progressing, was distressed at our woe-begone condition and ran in to report our sufferings; and as a result of this bulletin, the Old Squire soon made his appearance upon the scene and assumed the r๔le of immerser. Gram, too, came out with a dipperful of chamomile tea, of which she authoritatively exhorted us to imbibe a draught.
We judged from appearances that the lambs were also nauseated, for they were observed to stand with drooping heads; and the Old Squire told us that washing either lambs or calves in a strong solution of tobacco had been known to kill them.
Here I may add that the following year we purchased a device for burning tobacco and blowing the smoke into the wool of the sheep and lambs, called a "fumigator." It was said to be even more destructive to the parasites than the bath of poke and tobacco juices. In point of fact, we found it quite efficacious, also less sloppy and disagreeable to use; but it rendered us even more sick, so ill in fact, that we were fully a day in recovering from the effects. None save a well-seasoned old smoker of tobacco can use the fumigator with impunity.
There had been a "sea-turn" during the morning with the wind southerly, and toward noon it set in rainy. The sheep were turned out to feed for a little while, but at nightfall were driven indoors again. The Old Squire took scrupulous care of his flock during washing and shearing week. A few weeks later we drove the flock down to the barn and touched the nostrils of all the sheep and the older lambs with tar, to prevent a certain species of fly from depositing its eggs and larvae there, causing what was known, later in the year, as "grubs in the head," an affection that often causes many deaths in neglected flocks.
A rainy day is often a farm boy's only holiday. In the afternoon we talked of going down to the lake to fish for pickerel. It came on to rain too heavily, however. Halstead had gone up-stairs to our room, and was hammering at something or other, making a great noise. We heard Addison, who was trying to read in his room, which adjoined, repeatedly begging Halse to desist. Theodora and I played a few games at checkers in the sitting-room, then went up to see Addison. He was reading from Audubon's work on American birds (Ornithological Biography), of which he had three volumes that had been his father's; but he did not own the great volumes of engravings which should accompany them, the want of which he often lamented. I remember that he read to us a number of little anecdotes of wild geese, among others how a certain "mighty miller," with a great gun loaded with rifle balls, had shot geese clean across the Ohio River. He then turned to the description of the heron. "Herons build their nests down in the pines near the lake," said he. "I have asked the Old Squire about making a trip there. He says I can go Saturday afternoon. I would like to have you two and Ellen go with me, but I do not want Halstead. You know how he always cuts up."
"But he will feel hurt if we go without him," Theodora said.
"If he would go and behave himself, I wouldn't say a word against it," replied Addison.
"Perhaps he would this time," said Theodora.
"I don't believe it."
"But he is our cousin, you know."
"The more's the pity, I say."
"But do not say it."
"We shall all say it before long, I'm afraid. Do you know where he goes Sundays?"
"No," said Theodora, with a sigh.
"Well, I do not, but there is something wrong going on. I've thought so for some time. The Old Squire does not know of it."
"I thought he seemed to suspect something last Sunday," said Theodora.
"Yes, but he doesn't see as much as I do."
"Couldn't you find out more about it?" asked Theodora.
"Very likely; but then I do not like to go spying after Halse."
"But perhaps you ought."
"I don't know about that."
They both seemed perplexed. Addison was turning over leaves in the book; and Theodora sat looking at the birds, absently.
"Let's not make any secret about going to see the herons," she said at length. "Even if you don't want to ask Halstead to go, let him know we are going, and if he wants to go with us, do not say anything against it. We must not shun him, or have him think we do."
It was left like that.
The Old Squire spoke of our going at breakfast the next morning, and I heard Halstead asking Theodora about it afterwards. I knew from what he said that night after we had gone up to bed, that he meant to go.
Saturday was fair. After dinner Addison went up to his room a few minutes, then came down with the gun. Theodora had put on her hat and came out under the trees where I was standing. Seeing us, Addison came along and asked if we were ready. Ellen and little Wealthy also joined us. Halstead was sitting at the front door, and as we started off, he came along, saying, "I guess I'll go, too. Ad forgot to invite me, I suppose."
Addison did not reply, and we went on for some time without speaking.
Leaving the road at the turn by the school-house, we went through the pastures toward the valley of Foy Brook. The great pines in which the herons built stand a little up from the lake. There are several groves of them; many of the trees were gnarled, for which reason the lumbermen had rejected them; some of them were four and five feet in diameter and crooked into fantastic shapes.
Very agreeably and somewhat to our surprise, Halstead was on his good behavior. He was polite to the girls and helped them over the brush fences; and when, on coming nearer the pines, Addison asked us to go in as quietly as we could, he complied, not even allowing a twig to snap under his feet.
Addison wished to see the herons undisturbed; and the rest of us kept a little to the rear while he went on cautiously. Presently he stopped, then turned and whispered to us to come up quietly behind him and look over his shoulder. "Up there," said he, pointing into the top of one of the pines. In a fork, formed by the very highest branches, there was a great mass of sticks and reeds as large as a two-bushel basket.
"That's one of the nests," whispered Addison. "And see that head and long, pointed beak, just over the top of it! The old hen heron is brooding."
"But look there!" whispered Halstead, pointing into another tree.
On a high, dead limb stood a heron on one long leg, perfectly motionless. The other foot was drawn up so as to be hidden in the feathers of the under part of its body. Its neck was crooked back so far that its long bill rested on its breast. It was seemingly asleep, and looked so ungainly that Ellen laughed outright, despite Addison's injunctions to be quiet.
Several other nests were presently discovered, high up among the green boughs.
"If you want to shoot one, to stuff," whispered Halstead, "you will not get a better chance than that," pointing to the one asleep. "He is just in good easy range."
"It seems too bad to shoot him, while he is sleeping," said Theodora.
"Once let him wake up and see us, and he will make himself scarce in a hurry," said Halstead. "Better make sure of him, Ad."
Addison cocked the gun, and, raising it slowly, fired. The great bird uttered a hoarse squawk, straightened up, then toppled over and fell to the ground. Instantly there arose a deafening chorus of squawks. Herons flew up from the tree tops all about us. The tops of the pines fairly rocked. Great sticks, dirt and cones came rattling down. Upward they soared in a great flock, several hundred feet above the trees, then flew around and around overhead, uttering hoarse cries.
We ran to the place where the wounded heron had fallen. He lay extended on the ground; but a bright sinister eye was turned up, watching us with silent defiance.
"Don't go too near," said Addison. "He will strike with his beak. You know I read to you, from Audubon, how a gentleman came near losing an eye from the sudden stroke of a wounded heron. They always aim for the eye."
He put out the butt of the gun, extending it slowly toward the bird. The heron watched it till within a couple of feet, then struck quick as thought, darting its bill against the hard walnut of the gunstock.
Meanwhile the other herons had flown off to the side of the mountain, half a mile away. Now and then one would come back and circle about over the pines.
Addison desired to examine a nest. One of the pines had low knots on the trunk, within six feet of the ground, and a little higher up drooping branches. There was a nest near the top. Halstead offered to climb up to it. Addison and I lifted him up to the knots. He climbed up by these to the lowest limbs, and then went on from branch to branch toward the top.
"Two eggs!" he shouted, peeping over into the great nest.
"Don't break them!" cried Addison. "Bring them down if you can!"
Halstead took them out and put them into his loose frock, then, before we guessed what he was going to do, he had upset the nest from the branches in which it rested, and it came bumping down through the boughs to the ground. The fall shook it to pieces considerably, yet we could see what its shape had been. There were some sticks in it three and four feet long, as thick as a man's wrist. The inside was lined with dry grass. It was large enough to allow the old heron to double its long legs and sit in it comfortably. Halse now came down with the eggs. They were of a dirty white color, the shells rough and uneven. Theodora imagined that they would be as large as goose-eggs; they were not larger than those of a turkey, about two and a half inches in length by one and a half in width.
"I shall carry them home and hatch them under a hen," said Addison.
"I guess the old hen will cackle when she sees what she has hatched," exclaimed Ellen, laughing.
While we were looking at them, a noise in the brush startled us, and, turning hastily, we saw a young man wearing a glazed cap standing at the border of alders, near the brook. His appearance startled us somewhat. Presently we noticed that he was beckoning, evidently to Halstead, and that the latter seemed very uneasy; he bent over the eggs and pretended not to see any one. But the fellow continued loitering there; and at last Halse jumped up, saying, "I'll see what he wants, I guess," and went out to the alders. The man stepped back and they both disappeared among the bushes.
We stood waiting for some minutes, then started to go slowly out through the pines into the pasture and homeward with our trophies.
"Who could that have been?" Ellen exclaimed to Addison in a low voice; but Addison merely shook his head.
Somewhat to our surprise, we found Halstead at home in advance of us; he had already sat down to supper with Gramp and Gram.
That night, after milking was done and we had gone up-stairs to our room, Halstead said to me, "I suppose you saw that fellow that came to see me down at the pines this afternoon."
I said yes.
"That was a poor chap I promised to buy some seed-corn for," Halse went on, hastily. "He came around to get the money; and I'm going to try to make it up somehow, though I haven't got the money just now. Couldn't let me have seventy-five cents, could you?"
I said that I could, for I felt relieved to think that the mysterious person was merely a poor farmer.
Halstead regarded me for some moments. "I wish you would ask Doad and Nell if they won't lend me a quarter apiece," he said at length. "I can just make it up, if you would. I hate to ask them myself. But I will give it back to you in the course of a month.
"I wouldn't say anything to Ad about it," Halstead went on; "Ad don't like me and I don't want to feel beholden to him for anything."
I replied that I did not feel quite well enough acquainted with Theodora and Ellen yet, to ask such a favor; but as Halstead seemed to feel hurt that I hesitated about it, I finally promised to speak to them, although I disliked the errand.
Next day was Sunday, and after breakfast we all set off, except Ellen and Gram, to go to the old meeting-house, called the "chapel," three miles distant, on a road leading westward from the farm. It was a very hilly road, and we three boys walked; but Theodora and Wealthy rode with the Old Squire in the two-seated wagon.
I had been accustomed to go to church in a more handsomely furnished edifice, and the old chapel seemed, at first, very rude to me. It was a weather-beaten structure, having a high gallery across one end and an almost equally high pulpit at the other. The floor was bare, and the box-shaped pews were not many of them provided with cushions. There was a great clatter of feet when the people came in, and the roof gave back hollow echoes.
The Old Squire and Gram were nominally Congregationalists, and the old meeting-house had once belonged to that sect; but becoming reduced in numbers, and being unable to support a clergyman of that denomination during the entire year, they had allowed the Methodists, and finally the Second Adventists, to hold meetings there.
The Old Squire, indeed, was by no means a strict sectarian; he attended the Methodist service and sometimes, not often, the Adventist. Gram was more conservative and did not go, as a rule, except when there was a Congregationalist minister, although she always spoke well of the Methodists; and the Methodist Elder Witham (the same who took the Vermifuge) frequently visited at the farm.
"All Christians are good people," Gramp was accustomed to say.
"Well," Gram would reply, placidly, "I cannot help believing that we (meaning the Congregationalists) are in the right."
The Old Squire's chief objection to the Adventists was, that their preachers had come into the place uninvited, and, by their zealous efforts, had caused a considerable number to withdraw from the church, thus breaking up the Congregationalist Society in that town.
"I do not take it upon me to say who is right and who is wrong on these great religious questions," the old gentleman used to remark, when the subject came up. "But I disapprove of sowing the seeds of dissension in any church." However, he used sometimes to go to hear the Adventists' ministers.
It was Elder Witham's turn to preach that Sunday. He was a tall, spare man, and he preached in a long linen "duster." For one I became quite a good deal interested in the sermon, for the preacher began very pleasantly by telling us several short anecdotes. Toward the close of his discourse, he became very earnest and raised his voice quite near the shouting pitch.
During intermission, there was an attempt made to organize a Sunday school. The boys and girls were seated in classes in the pews, and teachers were appointed from the older members of the church.
There was a small Sunday-school library, consisting of quaint little books with marbled covers. Each of us was permitted to carry home one of these small volumes; and I recollect that my book that Sabbath was entitled Herman's Repentance.
The Elder rode home with our folks to tea, and Theodora walked with us boys. There were six or eight others walking with us, the sons and daughters of neighbors, to whom Theodora kindly introduced me: Georgie and Elsie Wilbur, very pretty girls of about Ellen's age, also their brother Edgar, near my own age, and a large, awkward but smiling youngster, whose name was Henry Sylvester, whom the others called "Bub." An older boy of rather swaggering manners overtook us on our way, and began talking patronizingly to me, without an introduction. His name was Alfred Batchelder. We also overtook a boy named Willis Murch, who had stopped to sit, waiting for us, on a large rock beside the road. The Murch family lived a mile beyond the Old Squire's to the northwest.
The quiet of the walk homeward was somewhat broken in upon, however, by a scuffle and some hard words betwixt Halstead and Alfred Batchelder.
As we came near the great gate opening into our lane, Theodora walked up to the house with me, a little behind the others, and told me, confidentially for my good, I suppose that Alfred Batchelder was deemed a reckless chap whose character was not above reproach. I, on my part, seized the opportunity to proffer Halstead's petition for the loan of twenty-five cents.
"I could lend it to him," she replied, "and so can Ellen, I think."
But she seemed thoughtful, and by and by asked me to tell her all that Halstead had said. I did so, and added that he did not wish Addison to know about it.
"I am sorry for that," she said, "for I should like to ask Ad's advice. But I suppose we had better not tell him, if Halse is unwilling."
Later that evening she gave me the money, along with twenty-five cents from Ellen. I handed it to Halstead that night, a dollar and a quarter in all. He appeared much pleased.
"Does Ad know it, or the old gent?" he asked me, and cried, "Good!" when I said they did not.
He sat on the side of the bed and tossed up the five quarter pieces, catching them as they fell.
"I know a way to get plenty of these fellers," he remarked to me at length.
"What makes you borrow of the girls, then?" I asked.
"O, you needn't be scared. I'll soon pay you all," he retorted.
But I had begun to doubt that the money was to pay for a poor farmer's seed-corn.