Haying Time by Hamlin Garland

Haying was the one season of farm work which the boys thoroughly enjoyed. It usually began on the tame meadows about the twenty-fifth of June, and lasted a week or so. It had always appealed to Lincoln, in a distinctly beautiful and poetic sense, which was not true of the main business of farming. Most of the duties through which he passed needed the lapse of years to seem beautiful in his eyes, but haying had a charm and significance quite out of the common.

At this time the summer was at its most exuberant stage of vitality, and it was not strange that even the faculties of toiling old men, dulled and deadened with never ending drudgery, caught something of exultation from the superabundant glow and throb of Nature's life.

The corn fields, dark green and sweet-smelling, rippled like a sea with a multitudinous stir and sheen and swirl. Waves of dusk and green and yellow circled across the level fields, while long leaves upthrust at intervals like spears or shook like guidons. The trees were in heavy leaf, insect life was at its height, and the air was filled with buzzing, dancing forms and with the sheen of innumerable gauzy wings.

The air was shaken by most ecstatic voices. The bobolinks sailed and sang in the sensuous air, now sinking, now rising, their exquisite notes ringing, filling the air like the chimes of tiny silver bells. The kingbird, ever alert and aggressive, cried out sharply as he launched from the top of a poplar tree upon some buzzing insect, and the plover made the prairie sad with his wailing call. Vast purple-and-white clouds moved like bellying sails before the lazy wind, dark with rain, which they dropped momentarily like trailing garments upon the earth, and so passed on in stately measure with a roll of thunder.

The grasshoppers moved in clouds with snap and buzz, and out of the luxurious stagnant marshes came the ever thickening chorus of the toads and the frogs, while above them the kildees and the snipe shuttled to and fro in sounding flight, and the blackbirds on the cattails and willows swayed with lifted throats, uttering their subtle liquid notes, made mad with delight of the sun and their own music. And over all and through all moved the slow, soft west wind, laden with the breath of the far-off prairie lands of the west, soothing and hushing and filling the world with a slumbrous haze.

The weather in haying time was glorious, with only occasional showers to accentuate the splendid sunlight. There were no old men and no women in these fields. The men were young and vigorous, and their action was swift and supple. Sometimes it was hot to the danger point, especially on the windless side of the stack (no one had haybarns in those days) and sometimes the pitcher complained of cold chills running up his back. Sometimes Jack flung a pail full of water over his head and shoulders before beginning to unload, and seemed the better for it. Mr. Stewart kept plenty of "switchel" (which is composed of ginger and water) for his hands to drink. He had a notion that it was less injurious than water or beer, and no sun strokes occurred among his men.

Once, one hot afternoon, the air took on an oppressive density, the wind died away almost to a calm, blowing fitfully from the south, while in the far west a vast dome of inky clouds, silent and portentous, uplifted, filling the horizon, swelling like a great bubble, yet seeming to have the weight of a mountain range in its mass. The birds, bees, and all insects, hitherto vocal, suddenly sank into silence, as if awed by the first deep mutter of the storm. The mercury is touching one hundred degrees in the shade.

All hands hasten to get the hay in order, that it may shed rain. They hurry without haste, as only adept workmen can. They roll up the windrows by getting fork and shoulder under one end, tumbling it over and over endwise, till it is large enough; then go back for the scatterings, which are placed, with a deft turn of the fork, on the top to cap the pile. The boys laugh and shout as they race across the field. Every man is wet to the skin with sweat; hats are flung aside; Lincoln, on the rake, puts his horse to the trot. The feeling of the struggle, of racing with the thunder, exalts him.

Nearer and nearer comes the storm, silent no longer. The clouds are breaking up. The boys stop to listen. Far away is heard the low, steady, crescendo, grim roar; intermixed with crashing thunderbolts, the rain streams aslant, but there is not yet a breath of air from the west; the storm wind is still far away; the toads in the marsh, and the fearless king-bird, alone cry out in the ominous gloom cast by the rolling clouds of the tempest.

"Look out! here it comes!" calls the boss. The black cloud melts to form the gray veil of the falling rain, which blots out the plain as it sweeps on. Now it strikes the corn-field, sending a tidal wave rushing across it. Now it reaches the wind-break, and the spire-like poplars bow humbly to it. Now it touches the hay-field, and the caps of the cocks go flying; the long grass streams in the wind like a woman's hair. In an instant the day's work is undone and the hay is opened to the drenching rain.

As all hands rush for the house, the roaring tempest rides upon them like a regiment of demon cavalry. The lightning breaks forth from the blinding gray clouds of rain. As Lincoln looks up he sees the streams of fire go rushing across the sky like the branching of great red trees. A moment more, and the solid sheets of water fall upon the landscape, shutting it from view, and the thunder crashes out, sharp and splitting, in the near distance, to go deepening and bellowing off down the illimitable spaces of the sky and plain, enlarging, as it goes, like the rumor of war.

In the east is still to be seen a faint crescent of the sunny sky, rapidly being closed in as the rain sweeps eastward; but as that diminishes to a gleam, a similar window, faint, watery, and gray, appears in the west, as the clouds break away. It widens, grows yellow, and then red; and at last blazes out into an inexpressible glory of purple and crimson and gold, as the storm moves swiftly over. The thunder grows deeper, dies to a retreating mutter, and is lost. The clouds' dark presence passes away. The trees flame with light, the robins take up their songs again, the air is deliciously cool. The corn stands bent, as if still acknowledging the majesty of the wind. Everything is new-washed, clean of dust, and a faint, moist odor of green things fills the air.

Lincoln seizes the opportunity to take Owen's place in bringing the cattle, and mounting his horse gallops away. The road is wet and muddy, but the prairie is firm, and the pony is full of power. In full flower, fragrant with green grass and radiant with wild roses, sweet-williams, lilies, pinks, and pea-vines, the sward lies new washed by the rain, while over it runs a strong, cool wind from the west. The boy's heart swells with unutterable joy of life. The world is exaltingly beautiful. It is good to be alone, good to be a boy, and to be mounted on a swift horse.