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Rolf in the Woods(Chapter55)

2006-09-08 19:50

  CHAPTER LV The Sick Ox pic

  The Thunder Moon passed quickly by; the hay was in; the barley partly so. Day by day the whitefaced oxen toiled at the creaking yoke, as the loads of hay and grain were jounced cumbrously over roots and stumps of the virgin fields. Everything was promising well, when, as usual, there came a thunderbolt out of the clear sky. Buck, the off ox, fell sick.

  Those who know little about cattle have written much of the meek and patient ox. Those who know them well tell us that the ox is the "most cussedest of all cussed" animals; a sneak, a bully, a coward, a thief, a shirk, a schemer; and when he is not in mischief he is thinking about it. The wickedest pack mule that ever bucked his burden is a pinfeathered turtle-dove compared with an average ox. There are some gentle oxen, but they are rare; most are treacherous, some are dangerous, and these are best got rid of, as they mislead their yoke mates and mislay their drivers. Van's two oxen, Buck and Bright, manifested the usual variety and contrariety of disposition. They were all right when well handled, and this Rolf could do better than Van, for he was "raised on oxen," and Van's over voluble, sputtering, Dutch- English seemed ill comprehended of the massive yoke beasts. The simpler whip-waving and fewer orders of the Yankee were so obviously successful that Van had resigned the whip of authority and Rolf was driver.

  Ordinarily, an ox driver walks on the hew (nigh or left) side, near the head of his team, shouting "gee" (right), "haw" (left), "get up," "steady," or "whoa" (stop), accompanying the order with a waving of the whip. Foolish drivers lash the oxen on the haw side when they wish them to gee —— and vice versa; but it is notorious that all good drivers do little lashing. Spare the lash or spoil your team. So it was not long before Rolf could guide them from the top of the load, as they travelled from shook to shook in the field. This voice of command saved his life, or at least his limb, one morning, for he made a misstep that tumbled him down between the oxen and the wagon. At once the team started, but his ringing "Whoa!" brought them to a dead stop, and saved him; whereas, had it been Van's "Whoa!" it would have set them off at a run, for every shout from him meant a whip lick to follow.

  Thus Rolf won the respect, if not the love, of the huge beasts; more and more they were his charge, and when, on that sad morning, in the last of the barley, Van came in, "Ach, vot shall I do! Vot shall I do! Dot Buck ox be nigh dead."

  Alas! there he lay on the ground, his head sometimes raised, sometimes stretched out flat, while the huge creature uttered short moans at times.

  Only four years before, Rolf had seen that same thing at Redding. The rolling eye, the working of the belly muscles, the straining and moaning. "It's colic; have you any ginger?"

  "No, I hat only dot soft soap."

  What soft soap had to do with ginger was not clear, and Rolf wondered if it had some rare occult medical power that had escaped his mother.

  "Do you know where there's any slippery elm?"

  "Yah."

  "Then bring a big boiling of the bark, while I get some peppermint."

  The elm bark was boiled till it made a kettleful of brown slime. The peppermint was dried above the stove till it could be powdered, and mixed with the slippery slush. Some sulphur and some soda were discovered and stirred in, on general principles, and they hastened to the huge, helpless creature in the field.

  Poor Buck seemed worse than ever. He was flat on his side, with his spine humped up, moaning and straining at intervals. But now relief was in sight —— so thought the men. With a tin dipper they tried to pour some relief into the open mouth of the sufferer, who had so little appreciation that he simply taxed his remaining strength to blow it out in their faces. Several attempts ended the same way. Then the brute, in what looked like temper, swung his muzzle and dashed the whole dipper away. Next they tried the usual method, mixing it with a bran mash, considered a delicacy in the bovine world, but Buck again took notice, under pressure only, to dash it away and waste it all.

  It occurred to them they might force it down his throat if they could raise his head. So they used a hand lever and a prop to elevate the muzzle, and were about to try another inpour, when Buck leaped to his feet, and behaving like one who has been shamming, made at full gallop for the stable, nor stopped till safely in his stall, where at once he dropped in all the evident agony of a new spasm.

  It is a common thing for oxen to sham sick, but this was the real thing, and it seemed they were going to lose the ox, which meant also lose a large part of the harvest.

  In the stable, now, they had a better chance; they tied him, then raised his head with a lever till his snout was high above his shoulders. Now it seemed easy to pour the medicine down that long, sloping passage. But his mouth was tightly closed, any that entered his nostrils was blown afar, and the suffering beast strained at the rope till he seemed likely to strangle.

  Both men and ox were worn out with the struggle; the brute was no better, but rather worse.

  "Wall," said Rolf, "I've seen a good many ornery steers, but that's the orneriest I ever did handle, an' I reckon we'll lose him if he don't get that poison into him pretty soon."

  Oxen never were studied as much as horses, for they were considered a temporary shift, and every farmer looked forward to replacing them with the latter. Oxen were enormously strong, and they could flourish without grain when the grass was good; they never lost their head in a swamp hole, and ploughed steadily among all kinds of roots and stumps; but they were exasperatingly slow and eternally tricky. Bright, being the trickier of the two, was made the nigh ox, to be more under control. Ordinarily Rolf could manage Buck easily, but the present situation seemed hopeless. In his memory he harked back to Redding days, and he recalled old Eli Gooch, the ox expert, and wondered what he would have done. Then, as he sat, he caught sight of the sick ox reaching out its head and deftly licking up a few drops of bran mash that had fallen from his yoke fellow's portion. A smile spread over Rolf's face. "Just like you; you think nothing's good except it's stolen. All right; we'll see." He mixed a big dose of medicine, with bran, as before. Then he tied Bright's head so that he could not reach the ground, and set the bucket of mash half way between the two oxen. "Here ye are, Bright," he said, as a matter of form, and walked out of the stable; but, from a crack, he watched. Buck saw a chance to steal Bright's bran; he looked around; Oh, joy! his driver was away. He reached out cautiously; sniffed; his long tongue shot forth for a first taste, when Rolf gave a shout and ran in. "Hi, you old robber! Let that alone; that's for Bright."

  The sick ox was very much in his own stall now, and stayed there for some time after Rolf went to resume his place at the peephole. But encouraged by a few minutes of silence, he again reached out, and hastily gulped down a mouthful of the mixture before Rolf shouted and rushed in armed with a switch to punish the thief. Poor Bright, by his efforts to reach the tempting mash, was unwittingly playing the game, for this was proof positive of its desirableness.

  After giving Buck a few cuts with the switch, Rolf retired, as before. Again the sick ox waited for silence, and reaching out with greedy haste, he gulped down the rest and emptied the bucket; seeing which, Rolf ran in and gave the rogue a final trouncing for the sake of consistency.

  Any one who knows what slippery elm, peppermint, soda, sulphur, colic, and ox do when thoroughly interincorporated will not be surprised to learn that in the morning the stable needed special treatment, and of all the mixture the ox was the only ingredient left on the active list. He was all right again, very thirsty, and not quite up to his usual standard, but, as Van said, after a careful look, "Ah, tell you vot, dot you vas a veil ox again, an' I t'ink I know not vot if you all tricky vas like Bright."

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