MAKE HAY WHILE THE SUN SHINES
The mowing machine’s whirring sounded cheer- fully from the old buffalo wallow south of the claim shanty, where bluestem grass stood thick and tall and Pa was cutting it for hay.
The sky was high and quivering with heat over the shimmering prairie. Half-way down to sunset,
the sun blazed as hotly as at noon. The wind was scorching hot. But Pa had hours of mowing yet to do before he could stop for the night.
Laura drew up a pailful of water from the well at the edge of the Big Slough. She rinsed the brown jug till it was cool to her hand. Then she filled it with the fresh, cool water, corked it tightly, and started with it to the hayfield.
Swarms of little white butterflies hovered over the path. A dragon-fly with gauzy wings swiftly chased a gnat. On the stubble of cut grass the striped gophers were scampering. All at once they ran for their lives and dived into their holes. Then Laura saw a swift shadow and looked up at the eyes and the claws of a hawk overhead. But all the little gophers were safe in their holes.
Pa was glad to see Laura with the water-jug. He got down from the mowing machine and drank a mouthful. “Ah! that hits the spot!” he said and tipped up the jug again. Then he corked it and setting it on the ground he covered it with cut grass.
“This sun almost makes a fellow want a bunch of sprouts to make a shade,” he joked. He was really glad there were no trees; he had grubbed so many sprouts from his clearing in the Big Woods, every summer. Here on the Dakota prairies there was not a single tree, not one sprout, not a bit of shade anywhere.
“A man works better when he’s warmed up, anyway!” Pa said cheerfully and chirruped to the horses. Sam and David plodded on, drawing the machine. The long, steel-toothed blade went steadily whirring against the tall grass and laid it down flat. Pa rode high on the open iron seat, watching it lie down, his hand on the lever.
Laura sat in the grass to watch him go once around. The heat there smelled as good as an oven when bread is baking. The little brown-and- yellow-striped gophers were hurrying again, all about her. Tiny birds fluttered and flew to cling to bending grass-stems, balancing lightly. A striped garter snake came flowing and curving through the forest of grass. Sitting hunched with her chin on her knees, Laura felt suddenly as big as a mountain when the snake curved up its head and stared at the high wall of her calico skirt.
Its round eyes were shining like beads, and its tongue was flickering so fast that it looked like a tiny jet of steam. The whole bright-striped snake had a gentle look. Laura knew that garter snakes will not harm anyone, and they are good to have on a farm because they eat the insects that spoil crops.
It stretched its neck low again and, making a perfectly square turn in itself because it could not climb over Laura, it went flowing around her and away in the grass.
Then the mowing machine whirred louder, and the horses came nodding their heads slowly in time with their feet. David jumped when Laura spoke almost under his nose.
“Whoa!” Pa said, startled. “Laura! I thought you’d gone. Why are you hiding in the grass like a prairie chicken?”
“Pa,” Laura said, “why can’t I help you make hay? Please let me, Pa. Please.”
Pa lifted his hat and ran his fingers through his sweat-damp hair, standing it all on end and letting the wind blow through it. “You’re not very big nor strong, little Half-Pint.”
“I’m going on fourteen,” Laura said. “I can help, Pa. I know I can.”
The mowing machine had cost so much that Pa had no money left to pay for help. He could not trade work, because there were only a few homesteaders in this new country, and they were busy on their own claims. But he needed help to stack the hay.
“Well,” Pa said, “maybe you can. We’ll try it. If you can, by George! we’ll get this haying done all by ourselves!”
Laura could see that the thought was a load off Pa’s mind, and she hurried to the shanty to tell Ma.
“Why, I guess you can,” Ma said doubtfully. She did not like to see women working in the fields. Only foreigners did that. Ma and her girls were Americans, above doing men’s work. But Laura’s helping with the hay would solve the problem. She decided, “Yes, Laura, you may.”
Carrie eagerly offered to help. “I’ll carry the drinking water out to you. I’m big enough to carry the jug!” Carrie was almost ten, but small for her age.
“And I’ll do your share of the housework, besides mine,” Mary offered happily. She was proud that she could wash dishes and make beds as well as Laura, though she was blind.
The sun and hot wind cured the cut grass so quickly that Pa raked it up next day. He raked it into long windrows, then he raked the windrows into big haycocks. And early the next morning, while the dawn was still cool and meadow-larks were singing, Laura rode to the field with Pa in the hayrack.
There Pa walked beside the wagon and drove the horses between the rows of haycocks. At every haycock he stopped the horses and pitched the hay up into the hayrack. It came tumbling loosely over the high edge and Laura trampled it down. Up and down and back and forth she trampled the loose hay with all the might of her legs, while the forkfuls kept coming over and falling, and she went on trampling while the wag- on jolted on to the next haycock. Then Pa pitched more hay in from the other side.
Under her feet the hay climbed higher, trampled down as solid as hay can be. Up and down, fast and hard, her legs kept going, the length of the hayrack and back, and across the middle. The sunshine was hotter, and the smell of the hay rose up sweet and strong. Under her feet it bounced and over the edges of the hayrack it kept coming.
All the time she was rising higher on the trampled-down hay. Her head rose above the edges of the rack and she could have looked at the prairie, if she could have stopped trampling. Then the rack was full of hay and still more came flying up from Pa’s pitchfork.
Laura was very high up now and the slippery hay was sloping downward around her. She went on trampling carefully. Her face and her neck were wet with sweat and sweat trickled down her back. Her sunbonnet hung by its strings and her braids had come undone. Her long brown hair blew loose in the wind.
Then Pa stepped up on the whiffletrees. He rested one foot on David’s broad hip and clambered up onto the load of hay.
“You’ve done a good job, Laura,” he said. “You tramped the hay down so well that we’ve got a big load on the wagon.”
Laura rested in the prickly warm hay while Pa drove near to the stable. Then she slid down and sat in the shade of the wagon. Pa pitched down some hay, then climbed down and spread it evenly to make the big, round bottom of a stack. He climbed onto the load and pitched more hay, then climbed down and leveled it on the stack and trampled it down.
“I could spread it, Pa,” Laura said, “so you wouldn’t have to keep climbing up and down.”
Pa pushed back his hat and leaned for a minute on the pitchfork. “Stacking’s a job for two, that’s a fact,” he said. “This way takes too much time. Being willing helps a lot, but you’re not very big, little Half-Pint.” She could only get him to say, “Well, we’ll see.” But when they came back with the next load, he gave her a pitch- fork and let her try. The long fork was taller than she was, and she did not know how to use it, so she handled it clumsily. But while Pa tossed the hay from the wagon, she spread it as well as she could, walking around and around on the stack to pack it tightly. In spite of the best she could do, Pa had to level the stack for the next load.
Now the sun and the wind were hotter and Laura’s legs quivered while she made them trample the hay. She was glad to rest for the little times between the field and the stack. She was thirsty, then she was thirstier, and then she was so thirsty that she could think of nothing else. It seemed forever till ten o’clock when Carrie came lugging the jug half-full.
Pa told Laura to drink first but not too much. Nothing was ever so good as that cool wetness going down her throat. At the taste of it she stopped in surprise and Carrie clapped her hands and cried out, laughing, “Don’t tell, Laura, don’t tell till Pa tastes it!”
Ma had sent them ginger-water. She had sweetened the cool well-water with sugar, flavored it with vinegar, and put in plenty of ginger to warm their stomachs so they could drink till they were not thirsty. Ginger-water would not make them sick, as plain cold water would when they were so hot. Such a treat made that ordinary day into a special day, the first day that Laura helped in the haying.
By noon, they had hauled all the hay and finished the stack. Pa topped it himself. It takes great skill to round the top of a haystack so that it will shed rain.
Dinner was ready when they went to the shanty. Ma looked sharply at Laura and asked, “Is the work too hard for her, Charles?”
“Oh, no! She’s as stout as a little French horse. She’s been a great help,” said Pa. “It would have taken me all day to stack that hay alone, and now I have the whole afternoon for mowing.”
Laura was proud. Her arms ached and her back ached and her legs ached, and that night in bed she ached all over so badly that tears swelled out of her eyes, but she did not tell anyone.
As soon as Pa had cut and raked enough hay for another stack, he and Laura made it. Laura’s arms and legs got used to the work and did not ache so badly. She liked to see the stacks that she helped to make. She helped Pa make a stack on each side of the stable door and a long stack over the whole top of the dugout stable. Besides these, they made three more big stacks.
“Now all our upland hay is cut, I want to put up a lot of slough hay,” Pa said. “It doesn’t cost anything and maybe there’ll be some sale for it when new settlers come in next spring.”
So, Pa mowed the coarse, tall grass in Big Slough and Laura helped him stack that. It was so much heavier than the bluestem grass that she could not handle it with the pitchfork, but she could trample it down.
One day when Pa came clambering up to the top of the load, she told him, “You’ve left a hay- cock, Pa.”
“I have!” said Pa, surprised. “Where?” “Over there, in the tall grass.”
Pa looked where she pointed. Then he said, “That isn’t a haycock, Half-Pint; that’s a muskrat house.” He looked at it a moment longer. “I’m going to have a closer look at that,” he said. “Want to come along? The horses will stand.”
He pushed a way through the harsh, tall grass and Laura followed close behind him. The ground underfoot was soft and marshy, and water lay in pools among the grass roots. Laura could see only Pa’s back and the grasses all around her, taller than she was. She stepped carefully for the ground was growing wetter. Suddenly water spread out before her in a shimmering pool.
At the edge of the pool stood the muskrats’ house. It was taller than Laura, and far larger than her arms could reach around. Its rounded sides and top were rough, hard gray. The muskrats had gnawed dry grass to bits and mixed the bits well with mud to make a good plaster for their house, and they had built it up solidly and smoothly and rounded the top carefully to shed rain.
The house had no door. No path led to it any- where. In the grass-stubble around it and along the muddy rim of the pool, there was not one paw-print. There was nothing to tell how the muskrats went in and out of their house.
Inside those thick, still walls, Pa said, the muskrats were sleeping now, each family curled in its own little room lined softly with grass. Each room had a small round doorway that opened onto a sloping hall. The hallway curved down through the house from top to bottom and ended in dark water. That was the muskrats’ front door. After the sun had gone, the muskrats woke and went pattering down the smooth mud-floor of their hallway. They plunged into the black water and came up through the pool to the wide, wild night under the sky. All night long, in the star- light or moonlight, they swam and played along the edges of the water, feeding on roots and stems and leaves of the water-plants and grasses. When dawn was coming ghostly gray, they swam home. They dived and came up through their water- door. Dripping, they went up the slope of their hallway, each to his own grass-lined room. There they curled comfortably to sleep.
Laura put her hand on the wall of their house. The coarse plaster was hot in the hot wind and sunshine, but inside the thick mud walls, in the dark, the air must be cool. She liked to think of the muskrats sleeping there.
Pa was shaking his head. “We’re going to have a hard winter,” he said, not liking the prospect.
“Why, how do you know?” Laura asked in surprise.
“The colder the winter will be, the thicker the muskrats build the walls of their houses,” Pa told her. “I never saw a heavier-built muskrats’ house than that one.”
Laura looked at it again. It was very solid and big. But the sun was blazing, burning on her shoulders through the faded, thin calico and the hot wind was blowing, and stronger than the damp-mud smell of the slough was the ripening smell of grasses parching in the heat. Laura could hardly think of ice and snow and cruel cold.
“Pa, how can the muskrats know?” she asked.
“I don’t know how they know,” Pa said. “But they do. God tells them, somehow, I suppose.”
“Then why doesn’t God tell us?” Laura wanted to know.
“Because,” said Pa, “we’re not animals. We’re humans, and, like it says in the Declaration of Independence, God created us free. That means we got to take care of ourselves.”
Laura said faintly, “I thought God takes care of us.”
“He does,” Pa said, “so far as we do what’s right. And He gives us a conscience and brains to know what’s right. But He leaves it to us to do as we please. That’s the difference between us and everything else in creation.”
“Can’t muskrats do what they please?” Laura asked, amazed.
“No,” said Pa. “I don’t know why they can’t but you can see they can’t. Look at that muskrat house. Muskrats have to build that kind of house. They always have and they always will. It’s plain they can’t build any other kind. But folks build all kinds of houses. A man can build any kind of house he can think of. So, if his house don’t keep out the weather, that’s his look-out; he’s free and independent.”
Pa stood thinking for a minute, then he jerked his head. “Come along, little Half-Pint. We better make hay while the sun shines.”
His eyes twinkled and Laura laughed, be- cause the sun was shining with all its might. But all the rest of that afternoon they were rather sober.
The muskrats had a warm, thick-walled house to keep out cold and snow, but the claim shanty was built of thin boards that had shrunk in the summer heat till the narrow battens hardly covered the wide cracks in the walls. Boards and tar-paper were not very snug shelter against a hard winter.[/sociallocker]