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It was the custom at the Old Squire's to begin "haying" on Monday after the Fourth of July. What hot and sweaty memories are linked with that word, haying!
But haying in and of itself is a clean and pleasant kind of farm work, if only the farmers would not rush it so relentlessly. As soon as haying begins, a demon of haste to finish in a given number of days seems, or once seemed, to take possession of the American farmer. Thunder showers goad him on; the fact that he has to pay two or even three dollars per day for his hired help stimulates him to even greater exertions; and the net result is, that haying time every year is a fiery ordeal from which the husbandman and his boys emerge sunburnt, brown as bacon scraps and lean as the camels of Sahara, often with blood perniciously altered from excessive perspiration and too copious water drinking. An erroneous idea has prevailed that "sweating" is good for a man. Sometimes it is good, in case of colds or fevers. While unduly exerting himself beneath a scorching sun, the farmer would no doubt perish if he did not perspire. None the less, such copious sudation is an evil that wastefully saps vitality. Few farmers go through twenty haying seasons without practically breaking down.
The hired man, too, has come to know that haying is the hardest work of the year and demands nearly double the wages that he expected to receive for hoeing potatoes — far more disagreeable work — the week before.
As a result of many inquiries, I learn that farmers' boys dread haying most of all farm work, chiefly on account of the long hours, the hurry beneath the fervid July sun, and the heat of the close lofts and mows where they have to stow away the hay. How many a lad, half-suffocated by hay in these same hot mows and lofts, has made the resolve then and there never to be a farmer — and kept it!
Is it not a serious mistake to harvest the hay crop on the hurry-and-rush principle? Why not take a little more time for it? It is better to let a load of hay get wet than drive one's self and one's helpers to the brink of sunstroke. It is better to begin a week earlier than try to do two weeks' work in one. A day's work in haying should and can be so planned as to give two hours' nooning in the hottest part of the day.
Gramp was an old-fashioned farmer, but he had seen the folly of undue haste exemplified too many times not to have changed his earlier methods of work considerably; so much so, that he now enjoyed the reputation of being an "easy man to work for." For several years he had employed the same help.
On this bright Monday morning of July, the hay-fields smiled, luxuriant, blooming with clover, herdsgrass, buttercup, daisy and timothy. There was the house field, the west field, the south field, the middle field and the east field, besides the young orchard, the old orchard, the Aunt Hannah lot and the Aunt Hannah meadow, which was left till the last, sixty-five acres or more, altogether. What an expanse it looked to me! It was my first experience, but Addison and Halse had forewarned me that we would have it hot in haying. I had already grown a little inured to the sun during June, however; and in point of fact, I never afterwards suffered so much from the sun rays as during those first attempts to hoe corn at the old farm in June.
One of the hired men was no less a personage than Elder Witham, who preached at the Chapel every second week, and who, like the great apostle of the Gentiles, was not above working with his hands, to piece out his small salary. He came Sunday evening, and I did not suppose that he had come to work with us till the next morning, when, after prayers, he quietly fetched his scythe and snath down from the wagon-house chamber, and called on Halstead to turn the grindstone for him. I then learned that he had worked at haying for us three summers. The Elder was fifty years old or more, and, though well-tanned, had yet a semi-clerical appearance. He was austere in religious matters, and the hired men were very careful what they said before him.
The other two men, who came after breakfast, were brothers, named James and Asa Doane, or Jim and Ase, as they were familiarly addressed.
I was reckoned too young to mow with a scythe, though Halse and Addison mowed for an hour or two in the forenoon. I had plenty to do, however, raking, spreading, and stowing the hay in the barn.
In haying time we boys were called at half-past four o'clock every morning, with the hired men. It was our business to milk and do the barn chores before breakfast. Often, too, there would be a load of hay, drawn in the previous evening, to stow away, in addition to the chores.
Mowing machines and horse-rakes had not then come into general use. All the mowing was done with scythes, and the raking with hand rakes and "loafer" rakes. Generally, all hands would be busy for three hours every bright afternoon, raking the grass which had been cut down in the forenoon. The Old Squire and the Elder commonly raked side by side, and often fell into argument on the subject of man's free moral agency, on which they held somewhat diverse views. Upon the second afternoon, Asa Doane maneuvered to get them both into a yellow-backed bumble-bees' nest, which was under an old stump in the hay.
The Elder was just saying, "I tell you, Squire, man was designed for —" when a yellow-back stung him on his neck, and he finished his sentence with a rather funny exclamation! Another insect punched Gramp at almost the same moment, and they had a lively time of it, brandishing their rakes, and throwing the hay about. The others raked on, laughing inwardly without seeming to notice their trouble.
But that night after supper, while we were grinding scythes, the Elder called Gramp out behind the barn, and I overheard him very gravely ask, in an undertone, "Squire, when we were amongst those bumble-bees, this afternoon, I hope I didn't say anything unbecoming a minister. I was a reckless young man once, Squire; and even now, when anything comes acrost me sudden, like those bumble-bees, the old words are a-dancing at my tongue's end before I know they are there.
"Because, if I did make a mistake," he continued, "I want to make public confession of it before these young men."
But the Squire had been too busy with his own bumble-bees to remember. So the matter passed, by default of evidence; but the Elder felt uneasy about it, and watched our faces pretty sharply for a day or two.
The heat troubled me not a little, and I then knew no better than to drink inordinately of cold water. I would drink every five minutes when I could get where there was water, even after the Old Squire had pointed out to me the ill effects that follow such indulgence. But it seemed to me that I must drink, and the more I drank the more I wanted, till by Friday of that first week I was taken ill. Sharp pain is a severe yet often useful teacher. I was obliged to desist from frequent potations, and Gram gave me some bits of snake-root to hold in my mouth and chew.
Both the Doanes were great jokers. There was something in the way of fun going on, nearly all the time; either there was racing, while mowing, or raking the heels of the boys ahead of them. They were brimming over with hay-makers' tricks, and I well remember what a prank they played on me during the second week.
It befell while we were getting the south field, which was mostly in clover that summer. We drew in the hay with both oxen and horses. When the former were employed, they were yoked to a "rack," set midway on the axle of two large wheels. The rack would carry a ton or more of hay. During the first week, they had several times set me to tread down the hay in the rack, but I made a very bad job of loading it; for I did not know how to "lay the corners" of the load.
At length one afternoon, the Old Squire, observing my faults, climbed on the cart, and taking the fork, showed me patiently how to begin at first, and how to lay the hay out at the sides and ends of the rack, keeping the ends higher than the middle all the way up. He made it so plain to me that I took a liking to that part of the work. I could not of course handle the hay as well as a man, but I contrived to stow it quite well, for I had grasped the principle of loading and managed to lay a fairly presentable load. As a result I grew a little over-confident, and was inclined to boast of my skill and make somewhat rash statements as to the size of loads which I could lay. The others probably saw that I needed discipline. I must have been dull, or I should have been on my guard for set-backs from Halse, Addison, or the mischievous Doanes. When a boy's head begins to grow large and his self-conceit to sprout, he is sometimes singularly blind to consequences.
But to proceed, we had thirty-one "tumbles" of dry clover to get in after supper that day, from the south field. The Elder and the Old Squire did not go out with us.
"You will have to make two loads of it," the latter remarked as we set off. "Put it in the 'west barn.' You need not hurry. The Elder and I will grind the scythes to-night."
I climbed into the rack and rode out to the field, Asa driving and Addison coming on behind, to rake after the cart. Jim and Halstead had gone on ahead, to rick up the hay.
"Two loads, wal, they won't be very large ones," Asa remarked.
"What's the use to go twice?" I said. "I can load that hay all on at once."
Asa looked round at me, as I afterwards remembered, in a somewhat peculiar manner, and I now imagine that both he and Addison at once began plotting my abasement, and passed the "wink" to the others.
"You couldn't do it," said Asa.
I studied the amount of hay on the ground carefully for a moment or two, reflected on the number of "tumbles" I had previously loaded, and then foolishly offered to bet that, if they would pitch it slowly, I could stow every straw of it on the rack at one load and ride the load into the barn. I had forgotten that our orders were to put the hay in the west barn, and that the great doors of that barn were not as large as those of the south barn, the top-piece over them being but twelve feet high. I did not once think of that!
The others saw the trap which I was setting for myself, but kept quiet and laid wagers against me. The more they wagered, the more eager I became to try it, if they would not hurry me.
Asa began slowly pitching on the hay to me. I laid the load broad and long, and without any very great difficulty stowed the thirty-one "tumbles." It was a large load but a shapely one. I was not a little elated, and chaffed the Doanes considerably. They kept ominously quiet.
We started for the barn, I riding in triumph on the load, and I did not see the danger before me till we were close to the great doors. Asa did not stop.
"Haw, Buck! Huh, Line, up there!" he shouted, and drove fast. The top-piece over the doors struck the load fully three feet down from the top, scraping off about half a ton of hay and myself along with it. I landed on the ground behind the cart outside of the doors, with all that hay over me! The rest of the load went in, amidst shouts of laughter from the others.
I lay still under the hay, to hear what they would say. Then they all came around and began to call to me. I kept quiet. Finding that I did not move nor answer, they grew alarmed. The Old Squire and Elder were seen coming. "Boys," says Asa, "I dunno but it's broke his neck!" With that he and Jim seized their forks and began to dig for me so vigorously that I was glad to shout, to keep from being impaled on the fork-tines.
I crept out and rose to my feet a good deal rumpled, bareheaded and shamefaced.
The Doanes, Addison and Halse had been so frightened that they did not now laugh much. The Elder looked at me with a curious expression; and the Old Squire, who had begun to say something pretty sharp to Asa and James (who certainly deserved a reprimand), regarded me at first with some anxiety, which, however, rapidly gave place to a grim smile. "Well, well, my son," said he, "you must live and learn."
One afternoon later in the month, while we were getting the hay in the Aunt Hannah meadow, a somewhat exciting incident occurred. Asa was pitching on a load of the meadow hay and I loading, for I still kept my liking for that part of the work and was allowed to do it, although it was in reality too hard for me. The Old Squire was raking after the cart, and the others were raking hay into windrows a little way off. As we were putting on the last "tumble," or the last but one, a peculiar kind of large fly, or bee, of which cattle are strangely afraid, came buzzing about old Line, the off ox. The instant the ox heard that bee, he snorted, uttered a bellow and started to run. The very sound of the bee's hum seemed to render the oxen quite frantic. Almost at the outset they ran the offwheel over a rick of logs, nearly throwing me headlong from the load. I thrust my fork down deep and held to that, and away went the load down the meadow, both oxen going at full speed, with Asa vainly endeavoring to outrun them, and Gramp shouting, "Whoa-hish!" at the top of his voice. We went on over stumps and through water-holes, while the rest ran across lots, to head off the runaways. At one time I was tumbling in the hay, then jounced high above it; and such a whooping and shouting as rose on all sides had never before disturbed that peaceful meadow, at least within historic times.
Coming to a place where the brook made a broad bend partly across the meadow, the oxen rushed blindly off the turfy bank, and landed, load and all, in two or three feet of water and mud. When the load struck in the brook, I went off, heels over head, and fell on the nigh ox's back. The oxen were mired, and so was the load. We were obliged to get the horses to haul the cattle out, and both the oxen and horses were required to haul out the cart. Altogether, it was a very muddy episode; and though rather startling while it lasted, we yet laughed a great deal over it afterwards.