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DOG DAYS, GRAIN HARVEST, AND A TRULY LUCRETIAN TEMPEST
After haying came grain harvest. There were three acres of wheat, four of oats, an acre of barley, an acre of buckwheat and an acre and three-fourths of rye to get in. The rye, however, had been harvested during the last week of haying. It ripened early, for it was the Old Squire's custom to sow his rye very early in the spring. The first work which we did on the land, after the snow melted, was to plough and harrow for rye. With the rye we always sowed clover and herdsgrass seed for a hay crop the following year. This we termed "seeding down;" and the Old Squire liked rye the best of all grain crops for this purpose. "Grass seed 'catches' better with rye than oats, or barley, or even wheat," he was accustomed to say.
When we harvested the grain, he would be seen peering into the stubble with an observant eye, and would then be heard to say, "A pretty good 'catch' this year," or, "It hasn't 'caught' worth a cent."
It was not on more than half the years that we secured a fair wheat crop. Maine is not a State wholly favorable for wheat; yet the Old Squire persisted in sowing it, year by year, although Addison often demonstrated to him that oats were more profitable and could be exchanged for flour. "But a farmer ought to raise his bread-stuff," the old gentleman would rejoin stoutly. "How do we know, too, that some calamity may not cut off the Western wheat crop; then where should we be?"
It is a pity, perhaps, that Eastern farmers do not generally display the same independent spirit.
But the Old Squire himself finally gave up wheat raising. Gram and the girls found fault with our Maine grown wheat flour, because the bread from it was not very white and did not "rise" well. The neighbors had Western flour and their bread was white and light, while ours was darker colored and sometimes heavy, in spite of their best efforts.
No farmer can hold out long against such indoor repinings, but the Old Squire never came to look with favor on Western flour; he admitted that it made whiter bread, but he always declared that it was not as wholesome! The fact was that it seemed to him to be an unfarmerlike proceeding, to buy his flour. For the same reason he would never buy Western corn for his cattle.
"When I cannot raise fodder enough for my stock, I'll quit farming," he would exclaim, when his neighbors told him of the corn they were buying. As a matter of fact, the old gentleman lived to see a good many of his neighbors' farms under mortgage, and held a number of these papers himself. It was not a wholly propitious day for New England farmers when they began buying Western corn, on the theory that they could buy it cheaper than they could raise it themselves. The net result has been that their profits have often gone West, or into the pockets of the railway companies which draw the corn to them.
Another drawback to wheat raising in Maine is the uncertain weather at harvest time. Despite our shrewdest inspection of the weather signs, the wheat as well as the other grain would often get wet in the field, and sometimes it would lie wet so long as to sprout. Sprouted wheat flour makes a kind of bread which drives the housewife to despair.
"Oh, this dog-days weather!" the Old Squire would exclaim, as the grain lay wet in the field, day after day, or when an August shower came rumbling over the mountains just as we were raking it up into windrows and tumbles.
I had never heard of "dog days" before and was curious to know what sort of days they were. "They set in," the Old Squire informed me, "on the twenty-fifth of July and last till the fifth of September. Then is when the Dog-star rages, and it is apt to be 'catching' weather. Dogs are more liable to run mad at this time of year, and snakes are most venomous then." Such is the olden lore, and I gained an impression that those forty-two days were after a manner unhealthy for man and beast.
Near the middle of August that summer there came the most terrific thunder shower which I had ever witnessed. Halse, Addison and Asa Doane had mowed the acre of barley that morning, and after dinner we three boys went out into the field to turn the swaths, for the sun had been very hot all day. It was while thus employed that we saw the shower rising over the mountains to the westward and soon heard the thunder. It rose rapidly, and the clouds took on, as they rolled upward, a peculiar black, greenish tint.
It was such a tempest as Lucretius describes when he says, —
"So dire and terrible is the aspect of Heaven, that one might think all the Darkness had left Acheron, to be poured out across the sky, as the drear gloom of the storm collects and the Tempest, forging loud thunderbolts, bends down its black face of terror over the affrighted earth."
Gramp called us in, to carry a few cocks of late-made hay into the barn from the orchard, and then bade us shut all the barn doors and make things snug. "For there's a tremendous shower coming, boys," he said. "There's hail in those clouds."
We ran to do as he advised, and had no more than taken these precautions when the shower struck. Such awful thunder and such bright, vengeful lightning had, the people of the vicinity declared, never been observed in that town, previously. A bolt came down one of the large Balm o' Gilead trees near the house, and the thunder peal was absolutely deafening. Wealthy hid herself in the parlor clothes-closet, and Gram sat with her hands folded in the middle of the sitting-room. Just before the clouds burst, it was so dark in the house that we could scarcely see each others' faces. A moment later the lightning struck a large butternut tree near the calf-pasture wall, across the south field, shivering it so completely that nearly all the top fell; the trunk, too, was split open from the heart.
In fact, the terrific flashes and peals indicated that the lightning was descending to the earth all about us. Two barns were struck and burned in the school district adjoining ours. Rain then fell in sheets, and also hail, which cut the garden vegetables to strings and broke a number of windows. This tempest lasted for nearly an hour, and prostrated the corn and standing grain very badly. An apple tree was also up-rooted, for there was violent wind as well as lightning and thunder.
Next morning we were obliged to leave our farm work and repair the roads throughout that highway district, for the shower had gullied the hills almost beyond belief. Altogether it had done a great amount of damage on every hand.
At supper that night, after returning from work on the highway, the Old Squire suddenly asked whether any of us had seen the colts, in the pasture beyond the west field, that day.
No one remembered having seen them since the shower, though we generally noticed them running around the pasture every day. There were three of them, two bays and a black one. The two former were the property of men in the village, but Black Hawk, as we called him, belonged to us.
"After supper, you had better go see where they are," the Old Squire said to us.
Addison and I set off accordingly. The pasture was partly cleared, with here and there a pine stub left standing, and was of about twenty acres extent. We went up across it to the top of the hill, but could not find the colts. Then we walked around by the farther fence, but discovered no breach in it and no traces where truant hoofs had jumped over it. It was growing dark, and we at length went home to report our ill-success.
"Strange!" the Old Squire said. "We must look them up." But no further search was made that night.
"Is that a hawk?" Halstead said to me, while he and I were out milking a little before sunrise next morning. "Don't you see it? Sailing round over the colt pasture. Too big for a hawk, isn't it?"
A large bird was wheeling slowly above the pasture, moving in lofty circles, on motionless wings.
"I'll bet that's an eagle!" Halse cried. "Can't be a hawk. We couldn't see a hawk so far off."
Suddenly the bird seemed to pause on wing a moment, then descended through the air and disappeared just over the crest of the ridge. Perhaps it was fancy, but we thought we heard the roar of its wings.
"Came down by that high stub!" exclaimed Halstead. "Pounced upon something there! I'll run in and get the shotgun. The folks aren't up yet. We'll go over. Perhaps we can get a shot at it."
Addison had gone on an errand to the Corners that morning. Halstead got the gun, and setting down our milk pails, we ran across the field, and so onward to the pasture. "'Twas near that stub," whispered Halse, as we began to see the top of it over the crest of the ridge. We peeped over. Down in the hollow at the foot of the stub was the great bird, flapping and tugging at something — one, two, three animals, lying stretched out on the ground! The sight gave us a sudden shock.
"The colts!" exclaimed Halse, forgetting the eagle. "Dead!"
The big bird raised its head, then rose into the air with mighty flaps and sailed away. We watched it glide off along the ridge, and saw it alight in an oak, the branches of which bent and swayed beneath its weight.
"All dead!" cried Halstead, gazing around. "Isn't that hard!"
The eagle had been tearing at their tongues, which protruded as they lay on the ground. There was a strong odor from the carcasses.
"Been dead some time," Halse exclaimed. "What killed them?"
We examined them attentively. Not the slightest mark, nor wound, could be detected. But a lot of fresh splinters lay at the foot of the pine stub, close by them.
"Must have been lightning," I said, glancing up. "That's just what it was! They were struck during that big shower."
We went to the house with the unwelcome tidings. At first the folks would scarcely believe our account. Then there were rueful looks.
"Ah, those pine stubs ought to have been cut down," exclaimed the Old Squire. "Dangerous things to be left standing in pastures!"
Later in the day we took shovels and went to the pasture, with Asa Doane, to bury the dead animals. While this was going on, the eagle came back and sailed about, high overhead.
"Leave one carcass above ground," said Asa. "That old chap will light here again. You can shoot him then, or catch him in a trap."
So we left Black Hawk unburied, and bringing over an old fox-trap, fastened a large stick of wood to it and set it near. During the day we saw the eagle hovering about the spot, also a great flock of crows, cawing noisily, and next morning when we went over to see if any of them had got into the trap, both trap and stick were gone.
"Must have been the eagle," said Addison. "A crow could never have carried off that trap!" But as neither trap nor eagle was anywhere in sight, we concluded that we had lost the game.
Several days passed, when one morning we heard a pow-wow of crows down in the valley beyond the Little Sea. A flock of them were circling about a tree-top, charging into it.
"Owl, or else a raccoon, I guess," said Addison. "Crows are always hectoring owls and 'coons whenever they happen to spy one out by day."
Thinking that perhaps we might get a 'coon, we took the gun and went down there. But on coming near, instead of a raccoon, lo! there was our lost eagle, perched in the tree-top, with a hundred crows scolding and flapping him. He saw us, and started up as if to fly off, but fell back, and we heard a chain clank.
"Hard and fast in that trap!" exclaimed Addison. The stick and trap had caught among the branches. The big bird was a prisoner. We wished to take him alive, but to climb a tall basswood, and bring down an eagle strong enough to carry off a twelve-pound clog and trap, was not a feat to be rashly undertaken. Addison was obliged to shoot the bird before climbing after him. It was a fine, fierce-looking eagle, measuring nearly six feet from tip to tip of its wings. Its beak was hooked and very strong, and its claws an inch and a half long, curved and exceedingly sharp.
Addison deemed it a great prize, for it was not a common bald eagle, but a much darker bird. After reading his Audubon, he pronounced it a Golden Eagle and wrote a letter describing its capture, which was published in several New York papers. Gramp gave him all the following day to "mount" the eagle as a specimen. In point of fact, he was nearer three days preparing it. It looked very well when he had it done. I remember only that its legs were feathered down to the feet.