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THE REMEDY AND THE DISEASE
I LEARNED how to caponize fowls, at least in theory, and when I sent for a price-list of caponizing instruments, I was deluged for weeks with pamphlets and appeals, and men with beards and without neckties called and tried to sell me expensive sets of instruments.
I read a particularly fine and smoothly written article claiming that, if the moulting period could be brought on in June by any method of feeding, fall and winter eggs would be plentiful, and that a fortune awaited a successful solution of this vexed problem. Indeed, I had been so interested in this matter that I hazarded another twenty-five cents as an investment in one advertiser who claimed to possess the secret, and to be willing to impart it at that reasonable figure to all comers. I was not particularly disappointed when I received the following instructions: "Pick the fowls thoroughly without killing, about the 20th of May in each year, then let their feathers grow."
I had purchased two game-hens to make confinement less irksome to my gamecock, and sent for a new Hamburg cock; the hens were laying well, and I began to lay plans for spring planting.
Although spring was far away, catalogues were to be had for the asking; and daily, in high rubber boots, I walked over my land, making plans to have a vegetable garden here, some pear trees here, a pie-plant patch here, a row of sunflowers by the fence, and a grape arbor by the side of the barn.
I desired to add a Jersey cow to my personal possessions, but could not quite see my way clear to spare the time necessary to milk and care for her without neglecting the duties of my profession.
I was brought somewhat abruptly from my theorizing by an unexpected development in the hen industry. One morning, on going to feed them, I found one hen dead in a corner, headless and badly gnawed, — evidently the work of rats, as a hole in a corner of the pen showed only too plainly.
This was a calamity second only to roup. I had read of whole communities of fowls ravaged by rats, and the remedy was obvious; not traps or cats or terriers, but ferrets, the one animal that could pursue rats into their subterranean fastnesses and there conquer and destroy them.
I removed the deceased pullet, buried it in the compost heap, plugged up the rat-hole with broken glass and tin, and sought the latest poultry magazine. There it was: "Five Hundred Ferrets for Sale." Here again: "Ferrets for sale, the only means of effectually ridding your premises of rats." And here: "Ferrets, the friend of poultry," and "Ferrets, the preserver of fowls."
I did not want five hundred of them, but thought a pair of healthy specimens would be a mighty good investment. The main winter industry of my farm was threatened with extinction, and it behooved me to act, and act with promptness.
So I went to Boston the next day, although it is my principle never to travel unnecessarily, except in the transaction of business for a client, and at his expense. I went directly to a bird store on Portland Street, and inquired for ferrets. I was shown some beauties, — that is, the proprietor spoke of them as beauties, although to me they seemed snaky, red-eyed varmints of a most unattractive and unprepossessing appearance.
They had, however, some astonishing accomplishments, which amazed me greatly. The dealer put five of them into a cigar-box, in the cover of which was a small round hole, out of which one promptly poked its head, and seizing a piece of raw meat the dealer held out to it, hung to it with a grip of steel, while the box with its entire weight swung to and fro. Then, opening the box and allowing two to fasten their jaws to a piece of meat, he took one by the tail and swung them both over his head without loosening their grip. He handled them like kittens without any danger, and assured me they were well trained and harmless, but cautioned me against handling them when they were fastened to their natural prey, the rat.
I was convinced, and bought a pair. I was doubtful whether or not I should choose a sort of sorrel and a black, but finally decided on a roan with gray mane and tail, and a buckskin with red eyes, had them safely wired in a box, and took the next train back.
I could scarcely wait for the train to arrive at my station, so anxious was I to try the skill of my new purchase; and as soon as I removed my overcoat, I put for the henhouse, opened the box, and turned the ferrets down the rat-hole, which, in my absence, had been widened materially, and in they went.
No sooner had they disappeared than a sharp squealing was heard far down in the bowels of the earth, and in a moment the hole appeared to boil over with rats. One gray-whiskered old fellow started to climb over me, and gave me a horrible fright, but I shook him off and killed him with a shovel. The rest darted out of the half-open door, and went leaping away over the snow.
While I was awaiting the reappearance of my ferrets, and after the excited hens had calmed down, a sudden commotion in the other coop attracted my attention, and hastily stepping in I found a fine pullet struggling and flapping in her death-agonies, with my buckskin ferret hanging to her windpipe. Seizing it by the body with one hand and the moribund pullet with the other, I tore it from its quarry, when it turned upon me and sunk its teeth in my forefinger, nor would it let go although I danced and swore and shook my wounded hand violently. It was only when I choked it nearly to death with the other hand that I loosed its grip, slammed it in its box, and fastened the cover.
After bandaging my hand I waited for the roan to come forth. What to do to entice it from its safe retreat I did not know. For a while I whistled. I did not know whether or not that was the proper salutation, but I tried it for what it was worth. It was probably not good form in musteline circles, for the roan paid no attention to it.
Then I tried the bleeding form of the freshly killed hen; but the wary animal evidently had seen my rude treatment of the buckskin, and was resolved not to give me an opportunity to maltreat it, and came not forth.
Finally, I had recourse to water poured down the hole. I was bound to have that animal now dead or alive, and for half an hour poured pail after pail of water down the hole without the slightest impression. The faster I poured, the faster the water disappeared and the drier the hole seemed. It was evident that the hole was connected with some great subterranean lake or cave, and I couldn't have filled it by any method short of turning the river through it.
And so, at my wits' end, I devised the following scheme. I sawed a hole in a box, arranged an entrance of wire that, like a trap for homing pigeons, allowed a visitor to enter, but prevented a tenant from jumping his board-bill, poked the buckskin into the box, — I did not dare to handle that savage biter, — placed the box near the hole, and then, after stopping up the other hole, left them for the night.
The next morning I repaired at an unusually early hour to the coop, and, to my unbounded amazement, found that the buckskin had escaped and with its mate had been on a reign of terror, and that three of my best birds lay foully murdered.
My indignation knew no bounds. I thought of poison, of shot-guns, of boiling water, and of other cruel and drastic measures, but as a last resort, and after a practically accurate repetition of the scene of the chase of the gamecock, caught and removed all the living hens from the coop, procured two steel traps, baited them with raw meat, and before noon caught both marauders, which were so badly hurt that I had to kill them.
Thus did I learn another valuable but expensive lesson. I afterwards was told by a veteran of experience that the whole difficulty could have been avoided by using muzzles on my ferrets, which would then drive the rats away permanently without endangering my fowls.
I mended the broken windows, replaced my depleted flock with others of like species, and for a time my farm life was uneventful. Daily I fed and watered, bedded and groomed my horses, and cared for my hens. Snow-storms came, and the drifts piled high round my buildings. Yet it was a pleasure to wield the broad snow-shovel and drive Lady M. to plough through the drifts. It was also a pleasure, of a sunny afternoon, to saddle Polly and the pony and ride out into the country. The world of white is very beautiful, the air is crisp and tingling, the snow, hard-beaten in the roadway, is soft, dry, and feathery at the sides.
But perhaps the pleasure that leaves the keener and more complete sense of satisfaction in one's mind is this. A cold biting wind from the north east has brought a fierce drifting snow-storm in its wake. All day long it has snowed and drifted, and with increasing cold. The storm has driven pedestrians indoors, scarcely a sleigh-bell is heard, while the sifting snow whirls and eddies and dashes against the window-panes, and the wind wails and shrieks and sobs around the building.
It is three o'clock, there are no clients, and I start for home. The blast stings as I strike the open, and I have to pause to get my breath, then with lowered head plunge through the drifts, beaten, lashed, and staggering in the cutting wind, while the fine, dry snow stings my face like needles.
Arrived at the farm, out of breath and half-frozen, I put on my stable clothes, a heavy sweater, lumbermen's felt boots and a woolen toque, incase my hands in heavy woolen gloves, mix up a mess of hot mash with enough hard grain in it to last, and a dash of cayenne pepper, and stagger through the drifts to the hencoop.
The hens are already on the roost, as the afternoon is growing dark in the storm, but they readily come down and fill themselves to repletion on the steaming mess. I see that all windows are fast and all water-cans emptied, and when the last morsel is eaten and the satisfied birds are beginning to fly back to their roosts and settle themselves comfortably, with little clucks and chirps of satisfaction, I leave them, shut and lock the outer door, and go to the stable.
Here I find the snow so drifted that I have to kick it away from the door before I can open it. I lead the horses out of their stalls into the floor, stagger to the house and back with pails of water, then shake down their hay, fill their grain-box and bed them ankle-deep with clean, dry straw.
I then readjust their blankets, tighten their girths, and close the door of the stall-room, leaving them comfortably bedded and fed, as warm and comfortable as dry beds and tight quarters and good food can make them.
As I close and lock the barn-door, it is dusk and the storm is increasing. In the sheltered places under the eaves and under the roofs of the open sheds colonies of English sparrows are gathering; and as I reach the house, change my clothes, and take a cushioned rocker by the library fire, I feel a deep satisfaction that the stock is safe and comfortable.
And while the wind howls round the house that night, and the snow dashes against the windows and rattles on the clapboards, I sleep the better for that thought.