Can’t You See the Ox is in the Ditch?
from Old McDonald Had A Farm, by Angus McDonald, 1942
The long winter finally ended and our hill became green again. This time the old man had got a head start on his farming. Although he and the hands had hauled many loads of rocks and had built dams about thirty feet apart all the way up the slope, he had found time to do other things.
In the fall he had cleaned out all the stables and scattered the manure over the garden spot and the land he intended to put in corn. Then he had turned it under, saying that it would rot and become a part of the soil so that it wouldn’t burn the crop if a drought came.
This year he planted his corn early. “I’ll get the jump on the drought this time,” he said. He set out more fruit trees, getting new plants from Fort Smith. He improved the place in other ways, built a new tool shed and some new fences, and made gates between the fields, lots, and pastures.
Mr. Cassidy, the neighbor who owned the place to the north of us, said he never saw so many gates in his life. There were a hog pasture, a cow pasture, and several small fields, each fenced off.
That spring the old man put in a field of peanuts, another of cowpeas, and another of artichokes. “I’ll let the hogs gather their own feed,” he said. “When the crop matures, I’ll just turn the shotes in.”
When we first moved out, Mr. Irwin had given the old man a young sow. The first time the sow got in heat we loaded her into the wagon and took her over and bred her to Woodrow Wilson. Woodrow Wilson was Uncle Green’s male. His boys had named him that because they thought President Wilson was the greatest man in the world.
Matilda, the sow, gave birth to ten pigs in the spring. She wasn’t a big sow, but she sure could hold a lot of pigs. “They’re fine healthy Pole and China (Poland China) stock too,” said the old man.
Buttercup, the cow, came fresh that spring. It was a fine heifer calf, and soon she was giving four gallons a day. She never did give under three, even just before her calf came. We tried to turn her dry because the milk is not supposed to be good just before a cow comes fresh, but she just kept pouring out the milk.
“It was a lucky day when I bought that heifer,” the old man said. He gave her the best food and took care of her as he would a newborn colt. On cold nights he put a blanket over her and made a nice bed of straw in her stall. Buttercup was the old man’s pride and joy. She was a fine cow – one of the finest red Jerseys I ever saw.
Other animals were giving birth too. Both the mares had been bred to the best blood in the country. Star had a colt shortly after we had moved out. Only one service was necessary. She took the Agent stud without any trouble and in a few months her belly began to swell. But Nell wouldn’t stick. She would get in heat, and by the time we’d get her to the stallion she’d be out of the notion and fight the stud like a hyena, or else if he covered her, it wouldn’t do any good.
The result was that Nell’s colt was almost a year later than Star’s. I was the oldest boy, so the old man said I could have my choice of the colts. Star’s colt was a slick, pretty little fellow, with a very high temper. He’d lay back his ears and kick you without warning. I wanted Selim, but the old man bragged on Nell so much that I thought I’d wait and see what her colt looked like before I finally decided.
One morning I went down to the lot and saw a little scrawny thing standing by Nell. It wasn’t quite day and I couldn’t see well, but I knew Nell’s colt had come at last. As it got lighter I got a good look at it.
That colt was the ugliest thing I ever saw in my life. He wasn’t smooth and well proportioned like Selim. His hocks were so big they looked like satchels tied on his jaybird legs. His little body was poor and his flanks were hollow and his legs were so long that he seemed to be standing on stilts. He had lack-lustre eyes, a gaunt head, and long neck.
The old man came out of the barn and looked the colt over. “Well, which one are you going to take, Son?”
“Why, Selim, of course.”
“Very well, but Brother is getting the best horse.”
“I’m not sure that ugly thing is a horse. It looks like you bred Nell to a giraffe.”
“That colt will make one of the finest saddle animals in the country.”
I didn’t believe it. My brother took charge of his colt, which he named Don, but couldn’t do much with him. He was wilder and more nervous than his mother. I had got Selim so he would follow me around and I trained him to shake hands and nod his head.
At six months Don was just as wild and almost as ugly as ever. When we put him in the stable or lot to separate him from his mother, he butted his head and skinned his knees on the stable door, and he jumped into a barbed-wire fence two or three times and got cut nearly all over. It was a wonder he didn’t kill himself. He was so high-strung and excitable nobody could do anything with him.
Charley said, “I doubt if anybody will ever even ride that horse, much less work him.”
The old man had been intending to break Nell to the buggy for a long time, but some reason or other had put it off. But one day he decided to get it over with. She was still pretty wild and had to be watched all the time. Only the day before, Charley dropped the lines while she was hitched to the wagon and she had run away, dragging Star along with her. The team ran from the manure pile to the back of the barn where the fence was.
Well, the old man got Nell hitched up and got into the buggy. Nell had a very long, strong tail, and when the old man gathered up the lines she threw her tail over one of them. This frightened her and pulled her head over to one side. She jerked out of Charley’s hand – he’d been holding her head – and cut the front wheels of the buggy sharp, and back so much she tilted it on two wheels. Then she lunged forward and sideways so fast that over the buggy went. As it upset, with the old man caught under it, Nell changed her tactics and started running. I thought the old man would be killed. He was dragged a little way under the buggy; then it dropped him. We ran over to see how bad he was hurt. Nell was running toward the lot as hard as she could go.
The old man was getting to his feet when we reached him. “Stop that mare!” he yelled. Nell stopped when she got to the lot gate and stood there trembling.
The old man started after us, but soon stopped with his hand on his abdomen. “Help me to the house,” he said. “That mare,” his breath coming in great gasps, “don’t take her out. It will ruin her.”
My mother called the doctor after we had got the old man to bed. It was lucky that our rural telephone was working that day, because he seemed to be hurt pretty bad.
The doctor finally came and went into the room and shut the door. The old man didn’t want any of us to see him examined. He never would let any of us see him naked. When he took a bath he bathed the upper part of his body first and then dressed before he bathed the other half. He never let cold interfere with his bath. Sometimes he had to break the ice in the pitcher, but that didn’t bother him. The colder the water the better.
After a while the doctor came out. My mother asked, “Is it serious?” and the doctor said, “He’ll be all right in a few days. But after all, he is getting up in years and though he’s got a wonderful constitution, he’ll just have to take care of himself. Try and get him to quit breaking in wild horses.”
The doctor had told the old man not to get out of bed for two weeks. But he was up in a few days, working as hard as ever.
The second year the crops looked fine. The land was already showing a little improvement. The young fields of carefully weeded corn looked neat as a pin. The old man had turned under considerable cowpeas the fall before, and no doubt that had some effect. He turned under all the green and dry vegetation that he could get hold of. Other farmers burned their corn stalks and even the dead grass, but not the old man.
That summer we lost the services of Uncle Cleany. “ ‘Pears like I ain’t been pert lately,” he said. Old man Cleany (to this good day I don’t remember his name) was getting pretty feeble.
The old man said, “Well I guess you’re too old to work. Maybe you’d better take out. Didn’t you say you had a sister over across Brushy Mountain?”
“That’s right, Brother Mac.”
“There’s one thing I want to ask you, Cleany,” said the old man. “Why is it you won’t ever take a bath? Are you afraid of the water?”
“Now, Brother Mac, baths is onhealthy. A body couldn’t never stand a bath except in the hot summer. A bath at my age would kill me.”
“You old fool, it would do you good,” snapped the old man. “I take a cold bath every morning.”
“When a body ain’t used to it, he can’t stand it, though. Did I ever tell you about what happened to my cousin, Affro Brigant? He taken down with the measles and went into a heavy rainstorm and the next day he was dead. Cousin Affro always told me to keep away from water. He never taken a bath, but look what water did for him.”
The old man paid Uncle Cleany off and we never saw him again, but we heard he died soon after. Uncle Josh Choate, who stopped by and talked to the old man, told us about it.
“You know, there’s something strange about the way Cleany died,” he said.
“What’s that?” said the old man impatiently. He was always irritated by Uncle Josh’s way of talking.
“Yes, mighty strange. Taken down sick with pneumony. Was caught in a heavy shower and died a few days after that.”
“Funny,” mused the old man, “his dying that way, the way he hated water. If he’d taken a bath occasionally, it wouldn’t have been such a shock to his system.
“I sure need another hand, Uncle Josh,” said the old man. “There’s more work than Charley and I can do. You don’t know where I could get one, do you?”
“How about Dee Daggles?” asked Uncle Josh.
“He’s busy helping chop cotton. I’ve got to get somebody pretty soon so my crop won’t be lost. The weeds are beginning to get ahead of us, and the way it’s been raining, we’ll never be out of the grass.”
“Well, if I hear of a hand, I’ll send him around.”
In the late summer, after the corn had come in, it took us a long time to feed. We had to go out into the field and cut the stalks of green corn and take an axe and cut them up, so the stock would eat them. The old man always planted half an acre of early corn in the garden for the table and for the stock. After we got the horses and cattle fed, we had to milk and draw water.
One afternoon a big strapping fellow came up and asked for the old man. “Well what can I do for you?” he asked.
“I wanted to see about work. I heered you had work for a man,” the young fellow said.
“Well, yes, I might be able to use you. I might give you a day or so’s work. I’ll give you a dollar a day.”
“All right,” said the young fellow, and left.
The next morning a slim gangling fellow showed up about eight o’clock.
“What do you want?” asked the old man, who was picking up cobs in the horse lot.
“My brother said you needed a hand. He saw you last night.”
“I thought he wanted to work.”
“No, reckon not. He wanted a job for me.”
“What’s your name?
“Reckon they call me Will.”
“Will what?” asked the old man.
“Well, Will, you can start to work. Get a hoe and file out of the shed there and start cutting pea vines. Angus, you show him.”
Will shuffled into the shed and shuffled out with a hoe. He moved like he had a fifty-pound weight in each shoe.
“Low it might rain,” he said, as he walked down to the field. I set him to cutting pea vines where Charley was already working.
Will was the slowest hand I ever saw. He dragged around like he was half-dead. But the old man kept him on because he worked such long hours.
We had a big dining-room, and when we had company the hands ate at the same table. One day some visiting preachers were having dinner with us and poor old Will, who wasn’t used to city folks, looked as though he wanted to go through a knothole.
During the meal the old man got exasperated by Will’s table manners. We had a butter knife but Will paid no attention to it. He always ate with his knife, and would shovel off a quarter of a pound of butter with it after it had been in his mouth. That hand could eat more butter than anybody I ever saw. This time he reached over to take about half the butter as usual. The old man grabbed Will’s knife and laid it back on his plate; then he snatched up the butter knife and said, “Will, use this,” and he handed it to him.
Will was so surprised and embarrassed that he dropped the knife on the plate and didn’t take any butter. We ate on for a few minutes, nobody saying anything and Will red as a beet.
Then he turned in his chair away from the window and craned his neck around the back of it, until by straining he could see out of the window.
“Looks like it might rain,” he said. But he had strained so much that he lost his balance and fell out of his chair and rolled on the floor.
We had been tickled at Will before, but now we couldn’t hold ourselves. This threw the whole bunch into stitches. We laughed and laughed. Poor Will shuffled out of the room.
He wasn’t a bad hand, though, after the old man trained him how to work. What he liked about Will was that he never watched the clock. He’d work from daylight to dark without complaining. And he’d keep on in the rain too; that is, until the old man took out.
That year it seemed to us that it rained every day. The crops were good, except that they were a little foul. The old man had sowed oats in the west field where the gully was, and he got a good crop considering how thin the land was. Of course, he had turned under a crop of cowpeas the year before, which enriched it some, but the soil was still thin.
Finally in late June, the sky cleared after it had been raining almost every day for six weeks. The oats were rank and green, but after a few days of hot sunshine the grain was in the milk and the old man decided to cut it.
“You ought to wait until the oats are in the dough, Brother Mac,” said Charley.
“I’m anxious to get that field cut, cured, and in the barn before it rains again. This seems to be a wet season. You know in Oklahoma one extreme follows another.”
“That’s right, Brother Mac. You know one time a man was plowing in Oklahoma and it got so hot one of his horses fell down from the heat. But do you know, Brother Mac, before he could get the poor animal out of the traces there came a blizzard and it froze to death.”
“Yes, I’ve heard that story before. Only I thought it was Texas. Well, boys, it’s burning daylight. Let’s get out to the field.”
The old man set about getting ready to cradle the oats. He could have used a mower but there wasn’t any this side of Dave Scott’s, which was six miles away, and he figured he could save time by using the cradle. He liked it anyway. He had bought two of them when we first moved out.
“My dad,” he said, “was a little man, but one of the best cradlers in Mississippi. I’m not bad myself. Well, Charley, you take one of them and I’ll take the other. We’ll start on opposite sides of the field.”
“Cradling is shore heavy work, Brother Mac,” said Charley.
The old man laughed. He knew how to get Charley. It never failed. “Maybe you’re too light for it. Maybe I should get some hand that’s stouter to do the heavy work. You could help around the house,” he said.
Charley roared, “I never did see a man that could work me down! Didn’t I sling a sledgehammer with you all winter? Didn’t Dee Daggles and Uncle Cagey and Uncle Cleany have to take out because they couldn’t stand it?”
“Oh, you are a fair hand for light jobs, Charley,” said the old man, trying to keep a straight face.
Charley snorted and stomped off toward the oat field, a whet rock in one hand and the cradle over his shoulder.
The old man and Charley cut that field of oats in record time. Charley wouldn’t stop to rest at all. I think he was trying to work the old man down, but he was sure foolish to try that. No one in the country was as strong as the old man.
Finally the field was all cut, and after a day or two of sunshine, the old man and Charley went out and tied the oats in hands and then bundles. They shocked the bundles in windrows across the field. The oats were still a little green, but the old man was anxious to get them shocked up before it began raining again. The skies were overcast and the air was heavy and sultry, so that it looked threatening most of the time.
Sure enough one Sunday morning, the day after the oats were tied and shocked up, it started sprinkling a little. The old man was out in the lot hooking up the team when I came down to feed about six or six-thirty.
“What are you hooking up the team for?” I asked.
“Never mind the questions. Don’t you see the oats are going to be ruined? Go to the house. Get your mother. Get your sister, get your brother. And if you see any neighbor passing along tell him to come and help us. Hurry, hurry, hurry. We’re going to lose our oats.”
“But it’s Sunday,” I protested. “Are you going to work on Sunday?”
“Can’t you see, boy, the ox is in the ditch!” yelled the old man. “We’ll have to hump it if we’re to save those oats.”
I got the family out and we all pitched in loading the oats onto the wagon. Charley, of course, was not there. He lived at the foot of Badger and since it was Sunday he had gone home.
The old man used the pitchfork to toss the oats up on the wagon to me. After we got the bed full and tramped down, I laid the bundles so that they would extend over the edge. Each layer laid longways of the wagon pinned the ends of the first layer down.
The oats were so green that they were easy to handle and didn’t slide off. That was the reason the old man was so anxious to get them into the barn. He knew that if one of those long Oklahoma rainy spells ever got started the oats would be blacked on the outside of the shock, while on the inside they would mold and rot.
When we got them stacked up a few feet above the bed the old man crawled up on top. “Now,” he said, “you and your mother and sister hand me oats.”
We kept handing bundles up to him until finally the load grew so high that we had to hand them up on the end of a pitchfork. He stacked the hay higher and higher.
“Don’t you think that is enough?” asked my mother, who wasn’t used to this kind of work.
“No, we haven’t got a load on yet,” replied the old man. “I’m afraid it is going to rain.”
The sky in the meantime had become more overcast. The clouds grew bigger and closer and blacker, and to the west lean streaks of lightning flashed across the sky.
We kept stacking the oats higher and higher until the old man stood ten or twelve feet above us. The great load approached a point at the top. It didn’t look as though any more bundles would stay in place but still he kept calling for them.
Finally, just as the first few big drops of rain fell, he said, “Just a few more bundles and we will go. I certainly hate to lose these fine oats.”
And we kept on. The rain increased until in a minute there was a hard downpour, while the lightning flashed in long angry streaks clear across the darkened sky.
“That will be enough!” yelled the old man. “Hand me the lines.” And I took the knotted lines from my brother who had been holding the horses all this time and hooked them over a prong of the pitchfork and handed them up to him.
The team was growing excited because of the coming rain. When the thunder rumbled and there were terrific claps, they pranced and chomped their bits. The old man clucked to them and they started to the house, the rest of the family following the wagon in the now heavy storm.
Often when it rains in Oklahoma, there is a strong wind which seems to bring the water in almost solid waves. The heaviness of the rain together with the darkened sky makes it impossible to see more than a few feet in front of you.
We pulled our hats down over our eyes to shield them from the gusts of water and quickened our pace. The team was almost in a trot. I was just behind the wagon when between the rumbling of the thunder, the clanking of the wheels, and the sound of the driving rain, I heard the wagon strike some rocks and jerk the tongue first one way and then the other. Now, you know that loose hay piled high is very easily upset. If it is jarred, the whole load may slide off. The wheels had run into one of the old man’s rock dams. He had not seen it on account of the rainstorm.
I looked at the high load of hay with the old man poised on top. Usually we tied a rope from the front of the wagon over the hay to the back gate, but today we had not had time.
The great load trembled and slipped a little. The old man evidently felt it going and shifted his weight to hold it down. The whole gigantic mass tiled over to one side and then quickly slid off the wagon, carrying the old man with it. He was carried twenty feet through the air in a semicircle and deposited on the ground all mixed up with the hay. On the way down, the lines had been jerked from his hands.
The team, nervous because of the storm and suddenly relieved of a major part of the load they were pulling, broke into a gallop, and when they realized that there was no one holding them back, they went even faster. In a few seconds they were in a dead run headed for the house, jumping gullies and rock dams and jerking the wagon this way and that.
We helped the sputtering old man out of the hay. He was not hurt, only wet and angry. He pushed us aside roughly. “Stop that team. Those mares will be ruined,” and he started running toward the house after the wagon, which was almost out of sight.
The rest of us trailed along behind, bedraggled and unhappy. We knew that the crop was ruined and that all our labor of the morning was lost. Even the oats we had loaded onto the wagon would be spoiled.
The team ran as hard as they could up to the lot fence and were standing there chomping their bits when we caught up with them. The old man took them out, fuming all the time. “The oats are ruined. They will rot in the field, and those mares are ruined too. They’ll run away now every chance they’ll get.”