Getting the drop on feline and fowl

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In the old-time down-Maine hay barn, the high mow over the rolling doors, up in the gable end, was called the ''scafflings.'' Deriving from scaffolding, the word was right because the scafflings were usually made with peeled spruce poles , set timber to timber about a foot apart. It was risky footing to climb the tall ladder onto the scafflings and pitch down hay, so that was always the last hay to be used, and sometimes it would stay there for years until it was fit only for bedding. Sometimes the scafflings became a catch-all for odds and ends, and ''to be put up on the scafflings'' meant to be retired. What happened to our Leghorn hen could happen only with scafflings.

In the days of the Downeasters, when Maine went to sea by families and by towns, poultry from all over the world came home. Not so much as oddities, but because fresh eggs were tasty on a voyage, and at every port of call the cook was meant to replenish the biddies. Maine was ever a brown egg state, and our hold-over White Leghorn was all the same an oddity on our farm. There was a smile each evening when I gathered a basket of brown egWs wivh just that one chiny-white egg conspicuous. We never put it in the crate for market. The Leghorn not only laid a white egg, but laid many of them - the continuity of her clutch was astounding. The Rocks and Reds and Dominiques, after a couple-dozen fine brown eggs, would rest a time before starting on a new cycle, but the little Leghorn went on and on. Then, too, the heftier birds didn't fly. We had cleated ramps so they could walk up to their roosts. But the Leghorn could fly like a pa'tridge, and that's why the scafflings were her undoing.

About the time the mad March days ease into the rigors of April, and then more or less all summer, the proper hen goes broody. She begins to cluck instead of cutt-cutt, and bristles up her foliage. She will seek a lonely place and steal a nest, coming and going by stealth and devious routes. A childhood duty was always to seek and find the broody hen before she had enough eggs to settle on them for keeps. She'd go into the broody coop until she got over it. We had an incubator if we wanted chicks. So our little White Leghorn went broody, and we couldn't find her nest. Every day we'd hear her cackle as traditional refrain to the oviposit, but I had no white egg ij my basket. It didn't occur to anybody to climb up and look the scafflings over - but that's where the nest was.

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Mephistopheles was the first to know. At that time we had two stubtailed barn cats - Mephistopheles and Mrs. Topheles. Mephistopheles reported to me each morning when I came to the barn and rolled open the big doors. He would rub against my ankles and protest abundant affection. He was a big cat, and my only defense against getting tripped up was to swing at him with a milkpail, at which he would dodge and then laugh at me. And one morning when I opened the door, Mephistopheles sat just inside, his head askew and his eyes riveted aloft. He was tense, and paid me no heed. I looked up to see what was holding his attention, and all I could see was the scaffling mow and its hay. In those days I was competent in cat, so I asked him what went on, and he still ignored me and stared. ''Aw, come on,'' I said.

Just then a beautiful little white egg dropped through the scaffling hay, descended, and arrived on the barn floor. It didn't bounce. Mephistopheles, plainly awaiting this catastasis, jumped to one side to escape spattering and then pounced and began to slurp and smack, soon reducing the hen-fresh egg to naught. Then he walked sedately to the tie-up door so I would open it and we could start chores. The Leghorn hen now flew to the barn floor, cackled festively, and lined up at the feeder. I could only guess at how many days she had flown up there to lay her egg in a nest that was too thin on the bottom. Enough so Mephistopheles had a magnificent and luxurious coat that shone with the sheen of an egg-a-day diet. That night I clipped the Leghorn's right wing, stuck her in the broody coop, and within the week I was getting a white egg every evening in my basket.

It was comical to find Mephistopheles sitting on the barn floor, looking up every time I opened the doors for the next two months. He gave up, but with much reluctance, and never indicated that he associated me with his lack of fresh eggs. We remained the best of friends for a long time.

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