Ploughing

Taken from: Next to the Ground Chronicles of a Countryside

By Martha McCulloch Williams© 1902

  Dawn broadened into daylight as the teams came out to the clover land at White Oaks. Neighboring fallowers had been at work since they could see a hand before them, but Major Baker, the master of White Oaks, was merciful to his beasts, especially his plough-beasts. He knew they got their best, sleep in the hour or two before dawn, as he knew also , that for fallowing they needed all the strength sleep and rest could give. He liked to think of them stretched at ease, sometimes even snoring as a tired man snores. Waking them to be fed about the second chicken-crow, was, to his way of looking at things, haste without speed.

  The clover lay upland, in broad undulant reaches, without a stump or a serious gall to break its expanse. Here or there sparse briers had sprung up in the two years since it was seeded. Occasionally too there were sassafras clumps, and at the sink-hole, some remnant wild growths - hazels, a hydrangea bush, and a rampant young sycamore rooted in a cleft three feet below the surface. The sink- hole had apparently no reason whatever for being where it was, in the middle of a broad plateau, between two rich swales, but the grass country of Middle Tennessee, in which White Oaks lay, is a limestone region, full of underground streams that play curious pranks with the over-lying earth.

  Venus, the morning star, had showed as a point of white flame in a rosy east when the ploughmen started out. She was pale, the wan ghost of a star, as they filed through the draw-bars. There were three of them, - black Dan, the plantation foreman; slow Pete, Dan's elder brother; and Joe Baker, the Major's eldest son. Each rode a mule, sitting sidewise, and balancing carefully on the backbone, and led two others. Dan had three blacks, matched to a hair, in height, color, weight, and motion. Joe had three creamy-duns, likewise matched. It is cruel, and a waste of strength in fallowing, to hitch a light beast beside a heavy one, or harness together a quick-stepper and a snail. Slow Pete had cross-matches - a gray, a sorrel, and a bay. Notwithstanding, they went very well together. They were slow like himself - slow that is, by comparison with the blacks and the creamy-duns. But they had weight, strength, and steadiness, if they were not so good to look at. The strength was about to be severely strained - they had a tougher job ahead than even clover fallowing. It was the breaking of old grass land, never very mellow, and now sour and lifeless through years of trampling.

  There were no better teams in the county, nor any in better condition. Each and several, the beasts were sightly, neither fat nor lean, active, light on their feet, with good mouths, and sound in wind and limb. Major Baker kept none but mare-mules, knowing them to be sounder, kinder, and hardier. For the most part, he bred them himself, to make sure they had an infusion of blood. Blood tells in a mule, quite as much as in a horse, or a man. Dan's blacks were out of handsome half-bred mares, and stood near sixteen hands at the withers, yet except in pulling through the depths of winter mud, they could not hold out with the creamy-duns, whose dams were thoroughbred.

  When it came to shearing mules Dan was an artist. He had spent two hours or more at it the day before. Manes were trimmed to half-inch upstanding fringes, tails banged to the pertest tasseled tip, even the ears had been shorn of their long inner hairs. Dan had a firm faith in witches. Now a witch, it is well known, cannot ride down a horse or mule unless there are hairs long enough to twist into a stirrup. Dan had not left a single long one - hence he was satisfied the teams would thrive and stand up to their work, not to name being ever so much more biddable, since witches, working unhindered, put the devil into even the best broken of them.

  The clover-shift was at the very back of the place, running out to the flat-woods and the crawfishy strip, which had been so long abandoned it was overgrown like a jungle with every sort of brier, persimmon trees, crabapples, blackthorn and scrub-oak. Birds sang riotously in the strip, after their fashion upon late midsummer mornings. Their clear reedy jangle filled all the silence of the fields. Wood-peckers flying in to plunder the early apple trees, made wavering lines of black and white against the pink sky. Under the strengthening light, corn began to rustle and cast down heavy drops, which beat like fairy drums upon the lower blades.

  Joe could have shut his eyes tight, yet named the fields as they passed them. Each had its own scent, subtly unlike all the rest. Tobacco gave out mainly the fragrance of newly-turned earth - the single ploughs were just laying it by. The corn-fields smelled of ripe tassels, a smell that is a sort of sublimation of new-mown hay. Still it was not quite so delicate as the scent of the wheat-stubble, where the young clover was just well in bloom. In a week the young clover would hide the stubble entirely. Already there was but the faintest suffusion of yellow underneath its grayish green.

  The new clover did not look or smell like that which grew in the fallow land. Its leaves were not only grayer, but more alive-looking than even those of the aftermath, in the end that had been fenced off for mowing. The aftermath stood mid-leg high, and was not gray at all, except when dew-beads shimmered around the edges of every leaf, or a low wind lifted them delicately to show their silvery undersides. The fence had been taken away, so the whole spread might be broken in one land, except across the other end where the clover winter-killed so badly it had been ploughed up, and sowed with peas in the spring.

  There would be a turn-row between the peas and the clover, that is to say, a strip of ground left unbroken, and unseeded. The draw-bars were at one end of it. At the other there was a gate leading into the old grass. Slow Pete kept on to the gate, droning a dismal hymn as he went. Dan and Joe struck across the clover almost as soon as they were inside the bars. Dan was to plough in the pea-ground - still he thought it the part of wisdom to see that Joe got started right. But Joe motioned him back: " I know what I 'm doin'," he said. " Besides, I shan't feel like I earn that new gun Marse Major 's goin' to buy me, if my work makes you lose time."

  "Aye, yi ! little boss ! But don't you go holler fer me, 'ceptin' you drives right slap in er yaller jacket's nes'," Dari said, grinning broadly as he turned back. He was munching a hunk of cold corn-bread. None of them had waited for breakfast. The cool of the morning was too precious. Each had a runlet full of water slung at his back. Dan and Joe had filled their hat-crowns with fresh dewy leaves, but Slow Pete had stuck to his everyday red head-rag. All of them wore boots. Ploughing is nothing like so tiresome to either man or beast barefoot, as when they go shod. Fresh sun-warm earth seems to give back electric strength to the foot that treads it naked. But fallowers seldom dare go barefoot. Snakes abound in the clover. So do stinging things – humble bees, yellow–jackets and their kind – still they are not to be named bpside the mysterious danger of "dew-poison," which takes off the skin with a touch, and leaves a deep, angry sore.

  Happily it is rare, but the fear of it had made the ploughmen go shod, and grease their mules well above the ankles, with neat's foot oil. The mules were all unshod, and harnessed to a nicety, with collars beaten smooth inside, back-bands exactly true, chin-straps easy, and harness firmly tied. On top of all came the leather nets - which were not properly nets at all, but fringes of long leather strings, swung from a stouter string, and falling down either side from the ears, to the roots of the tail. Swinging back and forth they kept off the blood-suckers, flies, gnats, and midges, that otherwise would have run the poor beasts wild.

  Dan had really started both ploughs the day before, first looking them over, and testing every nut, bolt, and bar, to make sure they were fully land-worthy. They were left-hand ploughs, with steel shares, and weed- coulters, and light iron guide-wheels supporting their heavy beams. He had run half a dozen furrows with each, then cleaned it carefully, and turned it upside down, so the dew might not fall upon the scoured share. Dew would not rust the shares in a single night, but it would roughen them - delicately, it is true, but enough to make the first morning rounds harder than they need be.

  A left-hand plough in fallowing, makes its own land. Land, it may be explained, is the technical name for the space of ground laid off to be ploughed to a finish. Sometimes a whole field is taken in a land. That depends a good deal upon the field's size and shape. A land needs to be much longer than it is wide. Square fields are cut in three to five lands, the number depending somewhat upon the lay of them. Good land-masters have their fields fallowed or winter-broken across the last breaking - thus if the breaking plough skips a spot going' one way, it will be likely to hit it next time.

  Lands are ploughed in or out, according as the breaking is done with a right-hand plough or a left. This applies to the practice of middle Tennessee only. Taking the world by little and by large, there are possibly as many sorts of ploughing as of religious beliefs. Ploughs are right-hand or left-hand through the placing of the share. If it is set upon the stock to throw the furrow-slice to the ploughman's right, then the plough is a right-hander. If it is so set as to turn the furrow to the ploughman's left, then it is a left-hander. The spread of broken ground is always on the side toward which the furrows fall. A left-hand plough thus puts the broken ground to the left. With a triple team drawing it, the leader - the left-hand horse - walks in the clean furrow, the other two animals upon firm un- broken ground. Another advantage of the left-hand plough is that it leaves no dead furrows for winter rains to turn into gulleys or miry spots, and a still greater one that in the ploughing there are no corners to be turned. At a corner the ploughman needs must lift out his plough and set the share afresh in earth - a heartbreaking and back-breaking job with a big Number 40, - the best size for heavy fallowing. At starting the left-hand plough runs back and forth in the middle of the land, throwing furrow to furrow, and stopping half the land's breadth from the ends. The plough is lifted out and reset at the beginning of each furrow, until there are half a dozen or so. Then the ploughman drives all around the broken strip, taking his plough out only when it needs must be unclogged. The land, first a long narrow oval, grows and spreads until it touches either the field-edges or the border of another land. There will be small triangles unbroken at the corners. These are finished with lighter ploughs, generally right- hand ones. After a land is well begun two ploughs or even three may run in it, each keeping out of the other's way. This is common practice where the land is very big, and the breaking ploughs of the same pattern.

  Very many more right-than left-hand ploughs do the world's work - the ratio is possibly seven to one. Right-hand breaking commonly begins at the land's edges - thus the first furrow is the longest. The broken ground lies to the ploughman's right. Lands are of almost any shape, but preferably a long square. The plough is driven clear out at each corner, and reset in the unbroken ground. Thus the team is forced to trample the freshly broken ground. When the land is finished, you can see a big trampled cross diagonally upon the breast of it, marking out the corners. In the middle there you will see be a dead furrow - that is to say a naked one, where the plough cut away the last bit of upper soil, and flung it apart from the furrow on the other side. But neither dead furrows nor trampling matter greatly with land that is to be cross-broken before planting in the spring. Good tilth also requires back-furrowing at the margins of the fields - that is to say throwing in several furrows at the outer edges before full breaking begins. This prevents a ridge at the edge.

  It is entirely possible to plough in with a right-hand plough, quite the same as with a lefthand one - but tremendously inconvenient.

  At least with teams broken to a haw-lead, harnessed without breeching, and governed by a single line, which runs to the leader's bit and is held in the ploughman's left hand. Middle Tennessee plough-teams are so harnessed and driven. Draught beasts working double, be it understood, are distinguished as "nigh" and "off" horses. The nigh horse works on the left, the off horse on the right, and either to plough or wagon the nigh horse always leads. When draught-beasts hear their driver shout: " Gee up there ! Gee ! Gee ! " they know it means pull to the right ; when the shout is: " Haw-aw ! Whoa-haw ! " they know they must pull to the left. In a three-horse team there is properly but one guiding mind - that of the leader. The off horse and the middle one follow his initiative - their bridle-reins, indeed, are linked to a ring in his harness. If they do not step with him, they are tied back - and if they try to run around him, a favorite trick with youngsters half-broken, the bearing-stick comes into play. This is a light stick swung a little below the recalcitrant's bit, and running on to the leader's harness.

  A team can be hawed around, that is turned to the left, by little more than a steady pull on the line. To gee it around takes five times as long, and ever so much more trouble. First the ploughman must by jerks and cries make the leader understand what is' wanted, then the leader has to crowd against his mates and almost force them into position. Ploughing in with a right-hand plough, team motion is reversed and the lead is against the furrow - hence the share is apt to be drawn out, especially on the rounds. Sometimes it leaves unbroken strips a full yard wide - especially if the ploughman is careless or not fairly strong enough for the work in hand. Ploughmen, like poets, are born, and need a deal of making afterwards. Given this special aptitude, supplemented with practice, there will be good work with almost any sort of plough and team.

  Dan was a born ploughman, a master of the craft. It was among Joe's dearest ambitions to prove himself also of the guild. Until to-day he had always resented the sink-hole, as a wholly needless blot on the fair field-face. Now he was glad it was there - the bushes gave just the shade he needed to keep his run- let cool and fresh. He slipped down, unslung it, and nestled it expertly amid the vagrant greenery, reminding himself as he did it to be sure and look for snakes when he came to drink. Snakes, for all they are so cold-blooded, love coolness in hot weather - he had known of more than one choosing to coil itself about a sheltered sweating water vessel. Then he stood up, drew a long breath and looked about him. The mists that had hung so low over the swales and in the creek valley had risen as high as the tree-tops. The sky was clear, except for the faintest silver mottle far down at the southwest. Overhead the blue brightened momently, but still the east was a soft trans- lucent pink. Joe hoped it would not deepen to angry red - he did not want hindering rain upon this first fallow day. He was weather-wise after the manner of country lads, but the omens were contradictory. Clouds and heat- lightning in the south meant fine weather, as a red sunrise foreboded rain. On top of that, the locusts, which he called "dry-flies," were shrilling merrily, yet there was the rain-crow, the clown of the woods, " calling rain," with all his might.

  Bob Whites, feeding in the stubble upon clover buds and scattered wheat, called in soft half-plaintive singsong to their fledgling broods. Grasshoppers hung, often head downward, upon tall weeds, and stout grass-culms, but were as yet too damp and chilly for hopping - indeed, almost too sluggish even for crawling. There were butterflies every- where, their wings too heavy for flight. Clouds of tiny white ones clung to the damp places, their motionless wings held flat together, straight above their tiny bodies. Bigger brown ones crawled painfully about the netted clover, too inert to think of homes for their eggs. As yet they were not very plenty. By mid-August there would be millions. Their cousins in golden-yellow, and the gorgeous tawny-orange gentry, spotted all over with black velvet, began to flutter languidly out of the hedgerows and the corn-field. Now and again a tobacco-fly, belated in his night-ranging, hovered irresolutely above the fresh white trumpets of a vagrant honeysuckle, or the honey-heart of a late wild rose. Humble bees drowsed upon the plumes of early goldenrod. They had slept there all night - perhaps to be ready for work in the morning.

  Possibly it is some dim comprehension of his work's worth which makes the humble bee not humble at all, but the most self-important among winged creatures. Clover is worth, you see, uncounted and unreckonable millions, not merely to the landward folk, but to the world which the landward folk feeds. Without the humble bee and his congeners, clover would never ripen seed. Since the plant is a biennial, no seed would mean its extinction, possibly in ten years : in twenty at the outside.

  The clover-heads, understand, are made up of little trumpet-shaped florets, so curiously lipped and throated that self-fertilization is impossible. Humble bees and their cousins gather honey by means of a long retractile proboscis. In plundering the clover-heads they gather more than honey. Pollen sticks in little lumps to forehead and eyes. It is cleared off, with strokes of the fore-legs, and in the clearing spread along the proboscis, which deposits it where it will do most good, - in the heart of the next clover-floret rifled.

  Hence clover seed. It is small - very small to mean so much, no bigger than a tiny grain of sand. Its vitality is wonderful - it will lie twenty years deep down in the ground, and germinate when brought to the quickening of sun and air and springtime. One might show statistically its value in hay and pastures, and their derivatives, beef and butter. But that would not by any means close the account. What clover is worth to the land itself, is a matter beyond all reckoning. Like all the pea family, scientifically the Leguminosa, clover has for ages been accepted as a plant of paradox. Other crops grew, and took away with them the strength of the soil. The more lavishly clover grew, the richer it left the place where it had grown - not merely lighter and looser, but in better heart. The wise men explained that clover was a sort of air-plant, drawing thence a store of nitrogen, the most valuable of all plant foods. It was a fine explanation - except for the fact that it did not in the least explain how the trick was done. Still, in one point the wise men blundered upon fact - the fact that clover fed the land through its roots rather than its stalks or leaves or branches. But the wise men took no sort of account of some queer little knobs and bunches, found upon clover roots, also upon those of its cousins, the peas. Latterly it has been discovered that the knobs and bunches do the work. They are made up of beneficent bacteria, which attack and dissolve the elements in the soil, thus rendering them fit for plant food.

  Clover is even more an aristocrat than a paradox. It will not grow save on land in fairish condition. Thin soil, or sour, or badly galled spots, it leaves to the peas, to rye, to the miscalled Japan clover, which is not a clover at all. Neither does it love a sandy soil, though it will grow on it something laggardly. Peas luxuriate in sand, and do not disdain the thinnest crawfishy stretches. Indeed they will flourish pretty well anywhere. To say land "won't sprout black-eyed peas without moving," is to express in the vernacular of Tennessee, the height and depth and extreme of sterility. At White Oaks they had made such riotous growth, Major Baker knew there was no such thing as turning the untouched vines under. So he had put hogs upon them to eat them down, leaf and pod and branch. Only the long, tough vines remained, and the wads of fibrous stuff the hogs had thrown out after chewing it and sucking the sweet juice. Still, even the vines made a nasty tangle. Joe was glad he did not have to deal with it. He smiled as across the sunlit distance he heard Dan shouting: " Whoa-haw-w dar you, Tige ! Git up, Nancy ! Tote yosef. Beck ! Tote yosefs ! - All you black gals, tote ! "

  His own team was ready. Against Dan's advice, he had Wicked Sal in the lead. She was not wicked to him - never wicked at all, as he saw it, only tricksy and full of mischief as a kitten. Her kicking even was prankish.

Altogether she was ever so much a better mule than Blarney, who stood next, not to name being quicker than Beauty, who worked on the off-side. He loved all three - had he not played with them ever since they were foaled, and helped to break them? He had taught them to start and stop at his whistle, a soft piping something like a partridge's feeding call. In the pasture they ran to him even if they were hungry, following him like dogs if he held out his hand. They had seemed that morning to know what was before them, standing like lambs to be hitched, without snatching at the green stuff so temptingly under their feet. No wonder he patted them, called them pretty girls, and stuck little leafy bushes in their head-stalls to frighten the flies from their ears.

  He whistled. Wicked Sal laid one ear back, one forward, shook herself the least bit, and flung her weight against the collar. Blarney and Beauty stepped with her as though the three were one. There was no lurching, nor lagging, nor darting. The share surged forward, with foam-light earth creaming away from it almost as water creams from the prow of a boat. It was set to cut a furrow-slice nine inches broad, and five inches thick. Thus if the slices kept shape, they would fall slant-wise, one on the other, and cover the field's face with six inches of light earth.

  Ploughing began just where the pasture adjoined the mown land. Down the tramped side the slices did keep shape. Over in the aftermath, the earth was so mellow they melted as they fell, leaving bare a netted intricacy of big yellow clover-roots. Joe knew the tramped land would be mellow enough by seedtime. It was only firm, not packed and caked as the path was. The path ran through the mowed stretch - it was a hungry man's path, straight, very narrow, and deeply trodden. Slow Pete had made it, walking at night and morning to and from his cabin in the edge of the flat-woods.

  The ploughshare tore up the path in a clod half a yard long. Joe looked at it, and wondered why it should take two ploughings and as many seedings to get the path-mark entirely out of the field. He wondered also why so many coarse, broad-leafed things, plantain, burdock and their kidney, should keep springing up in the ploughed land to mark the path's course. He speculated a little too as to whether the path proper would fetch wheat, or if the clean sound seed sown on it, would turn out cheat. He knew tramping wheat through the winter would turn it to cheat. At least his father said and thought so - and Joe never let himself doubt anything his father said.

  Sunshine had flooded the field as he stuck the share in earth. By time he had gone around the land his forehead was beaded all over. He wiped off the sweat, swung his hat high above his head, and yelled, loudly, happily. Dan answered with a whoop. Slow Pete, down in the grass-land, sent .back a quavering halloo. There was a drenching dew. Joe was wet to the knees. He looked doubtfully at his boots, then at the sweet-smelling earth: "Dew-poison or not, I'll risk it!" he said, kicking off the boots and tramping on.

  The fresh earth more and more fascinated him. It was a warm chocolate loam, except in the swales where it was richest. There it was black-brown with gold-lights of sand. There the clover roots were half as big as his wrists. The brown butterflies were plentiest there, and the grasshoppers rose before the share in clittering clouds. The strengthening sun drew up the dew in steamy vapors. Birds sang only in fitful snatches, but the crows were noisier than ever. They flew in from the flat-woods to hover impudently behind the ploughs. Joe picked up a handful of rounded pebbles. Rocks, he called them. They were just the things for throwing - and those black thieves deserved to be thrown at if ever anything did. But as he made to launch the first stone, he laughed and flung away the whole handful, saying to himself: "My young man, remember you're ploughin' to-day, not playin' ! Suppose Marse Major came and found you throwin' rocks ! You might be out of a job - besides, it ain't fair."

  He had let the mules make their own pace, sure that they knew enough to make it safely slow. As the sweat broke out on them in faint darkish lines around collars and back-bands, he smiled and drew a long breath then said, nodding his head: " You'll stand up to it, nice girls! " And then all at once, he was so hungry he thought almost enviously of Dan and his corn-cake. He was thirsty too - thirsty enough to make the image of the spring half a mile away very tantalizing. With a quick turn, he checked the mules, looped the line over the left plough-handle, and ran to the bushes where he had left his runlet.

  As he reached for it, something caught his hand, pinching hard, and somebody said sepulchrally: " Boo hoo ! the snappin' turtle got you that time." He parted the brush, and there was Patsy, his tomboy sister, balancing by her elbows upon the edges of the sink-hole, and kicking her feet against the sides of it. Joe was fond of her, but not nearly as fond as he would have been if she had not happened to be so very like himself. He had ideas about girls. They ought to mind about things - especially their frocks, he thought - and be afraid of things, particularly such things as snakes and freckles and guns. Patsy was not even afraid of fishing worms. She baited her own hook when they went fishing together. What was much worse - she usually caught bigger fish.

  "You're tryin' to get snake-bit," Joe said, as sternly as he could speak. Patsy scrambled up and out on all fours. " Snakes don't harbor this time o' day," she said. " They 're like you - too hungry ! Here is your breakfast ! Eat it, and be glad I didn't hide your runlet. I thought about it - but was 'fraid to put it in the sink-hole. I didn't know but it might roll down clean to the bottom."

  Joe had left his team with heads over the broken ground, but while he ate and drank the mules turned half about, and began to nibble clover. Patsy stepped in front of them, pretended to shake her fist at them, and said with a frown at the leader: " Sally-gal, I thought you. had more sense ! You ought to know that second-growth stuff will make you slobber yourself 'most to death."

  "No, it won't ! Not until August! But here's what's a heap better," Joe said, coming to them runlet in hand. He filled his palm generously with water, and held it to each mule's mouth. They drank eagerly, and Beauty rubbed her nose against his sleeve, making the while a little soft satisfied noise. Patsy nodded approval: " You '11 make a ploughboy yet," she said judicially, in her father's own tone. Joe pretended to throw a soft clod at her by way of answer, but as she walked off, he called to her over his shoulder, " Thanky, Patsy ! It 's too bad about you though. I do wish you were - the boy you ought to be."

  The dew dried fast - so fast the sun-heat took on a tonic quality. The mules went freer, and faster, breathing deep, yet not laboring in the least. The second sweat came out in a reeking smother all over them. When it dried in crusty white lines Joe drew a sigh of relief. Twice wet, twice dry, he knew his team was proof against the heat, for that day at least. It was fierce heat - still it was not the sun that would send them in at eleven or a little later, to stay in stall until three of the afternoon. It was the flies - the flies which in spite of the nets kept them kicking, biting, stamping, at times almost squealing. That was the worst part of breaking pastured clover laid. Cattle had drawn and left there such clouds of flies.

  The plough hardly ever choked in the aftermath; though the growth was so heavy it was not tall and tough like the early stalks in the pasture-ground. Going farther and farther into the swales the plough encountered the long stalks in mats. Grazing beasts are something finicky - they choose to crop short sweet herbage rather than that which is rank and coarse. Even in hay they know the difference. Many of the swale-stalks were over two yards long, and set throughout their length with blossoming branches. They did not stand upright, but curled and writhed themselves together, swelling as high as the knee. The plough could not begin to bury them, and though the weed-bar ripped through them savagely, Joe had to stop every little while, turn the share half on edge, and free it with his heel, from the mass of gathered stems.

  Once a humble bee stung the heel, but so slightly it smarted only a very little bit. Once too a green garter-snake made him shudder by wriggling out of the tangle across his bare foot. That made him think seriously of putting on his boots, but he decided to risk it until he took the mules to water. He would take them to the creek, and thus have a chance to see how Slow Pete was getting on. The creek-road ran through the grass land, cutting it into nearly equal halves. His father was there, watching the outlander, who had come around preaching the gospel of subsoiling, and ready to prove his faith by works. He had a plough of the pattern he wanted to sell, also an ox-team to pull it. The Major had struck a contingent bargain with him, to subsoil live acres, and lose his work, and his selling chances, unless the crop next year was heavier on the subsoiled plot than on the ground merely surface-broken.

  The sun began to blister. It shone so hot the tender aftermath wilted almost as the furrow was turned. Joe stopped the mules, let go the plough, and stretched himself long and hard. He had never known before how tired a boy could be. Still he had no thought of giving up. That was not the Baker way. If the Bakers made bad bargains, they stuck the closer to them. Joe wiped his face, loosed his shirt-collar, and comforted himself by the reflection that the first day was always the hardest.

  Just then he heard the watering-bell - the very welcomest sound in all his life. In a trice he had the gear stripped from his mules, and laid orderly back upon the singletrees, and was clipping away toward the gate. A big branchy red oak shaded it. The shade was like a cool green cave. The mules stopped short as they stepped within it, and Wicked Sal gave a little whimpering bray to Tiger, trotting in ten yards behind her.

  Slow Pete was breaking the old grass in ridge and furrow. That is to say, he was turning over a furrow slice to lie flat upon an equal breadth of sward. Tennessee ploughmen call such half-breaking of weed-land, whip-stitching. The use and reason of it is to prevent surface-washing upon slopes and ridges. Pete's plough left the field's face all in little hills and valleys. He was not ploughing, as the others were, for wheat. Rough old sward requires a year under plough to fit it for small grain, or if badly beset with broom-sedge, the pest of all south-country grassland, two years. The sedge stalks are so stiff and glassy, the roots so tussocky, they make the soil too thirsty for either wheat or mowing grass. Arable land has many caprices of condition. Earable land, old English law writes it, perhaps with regard' to eared crops, as wheat, rye, and barley, which grow only where ploughs have run.

  The subsoiler was well up, though his oxen could not step with the cross-matched team. The oxen were big red fellows with tapering horns, a yard in spread from tip to tip. They held their heads low, and went so slowly Dan said it made you tired to watch them. But the chain which drew the deep-running invisible ploughshare never slackened. The share turned nothing, threw up nothing. Lifted for unclogging after it had touched a water-vein, it showed as an uncanny long-shanked thing, well-scoured, and shining in the sun, with a clot of very bright red clay under the tip. The clay upon the long shank was of a warm chocolate yellow, very unlike the topsoil, which was almost black with unwholesome faint green scum at the surface between the grass roots.

  The outlander did not himself hold, the plough - he had another man to do that. As he scanned the plough-shank he said persuasively: "Well, Major, what do you say to that? We're letting in air and daylight at least twenty inches down for you. Soil that deep must be worth more than just a skim."

  "Maybe," Major Baker answered, with a cautious smile; "but I can tell you more about that when the crop is gathered next year. I know you can easily have light soil too deep for wheat."

  Notwithstanding, the Major did not undervalue the work of light and air. It was knowledge of their worth which had made him order ridge-and-furrow. Frost would creep through the ridges, sweetening, melting, mellowing them; air and sunlight would flood the furrows and finish what the frost had begun. Besides the old sward would die better - partly from exposing its roots, partly from smothering. So would the pestilential wild growths, sassafras, saw-brier, and dewberry. Every inch of turf was netted with them - they made it so tough, indeed, the mules had to rest and blow after every round. It was thus that the patient oxen, never hasting, never resting, kept up with them.

  The mules pacing down to water snorted skittishly at sight of the ox-team. "You know when there's strange work afoot - don't you, nice gal? " Joe asked, patting Wicked Sal on the shoulder. Blarney crowded close up to rub her neck against his hand, and Beauty gave a little complaining whicker. Gray Nell, Pete's leader, trotted out to them with Pete on her back. Grinning broadly, he said: " I cain't hep but laugh! I been laughin' all de mawnin' dest thinkin' 'bout whut dat dar ox-man would do, ef us wus ter run 'crost er bumblybee nest." " Mought be dat's er good thing," Dan said thoughtfully, motioning towards the subsoiling. " But - you hear me ! I don't wants none o' hit. I don't nebber wanter be ploughin' way down whar dem water-dawgs libs. No sir-ee bob! Dat I don't!"

  The mule began to gallop. They scented running water. When they came to the creek, they plunged in, turned their heads up- stream and began to drink thirstily. The ploughmen let them have one deep swallow, then snatched up their heads, and held them up a minute, before letting them drink their fill. After the drinking they stood in the stream splashing water all about while the ploughmen went to the spring, lay flat upon the brink of it, and drank and drank, almost as the beasts had drunk, with living water slipping past their lips. It took grit to go back from rest and shade and cool freshness to the ache and burning of the fallows, but Joe did not flinch. He had put his hand to the plough rather against his father's will; besides, though he had a decent enough gun, he wanted a new one very badly. Breech-loader, choke bore - he thought of it, over and over, between whistles and chirrups to his mules. It would cost a lot - more, no doubt, than a fallow-hand's wages. He was likely to get it whether he ploughed or not, but somehow he felt that he should care more for it, if he knew he had really earned it.

  Dan was singing in the unspoiled African voice, full of pure melody. He sang a bold air, and lively, one that had come down from the slave days, when every sort of work had its chant in time and tune. The singing broke welcomely across the sunlit hush. Clouds were boiling up in the south, but locust and rain-crow alike had fallen silent. There was not a breath of wind, but sound carried so as to forebode a thunder-shower. The words came distinct and clear across the unbroken ground. If more of it had been ploughed they would have blurred. Joe caught the rhythm of the singing. He had not much breath to spare, but as strongly as he might, he joined in the chorus. And so in the white-hot sunshine, bar answering bar, three hundred yards apart, they sang.

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