Max and the Midnight Haying

MAX was wide awake as the cool night air poured over his face. He and Mr. Rosiello hadn't taken a spin on the motor scooter since early spring.

Now, in the autumn moonlight, fallen leaves blew to the side of the road as the scooter whizzed by. Its lumpy shadow chugged up the hill by Vaughan's Woods and the Elm Hill Dairy Farm, floated over the pond bridge, and snaked along the winding road that led to Bill Bunting's hay field.

As they approached the barn, Bill was hefting a 100-pound yoke high over the shoulders of Star, one of his two red oxen. When Duke, the lead ox, lumbered over and slipped his head under the yoke's left bow, Bill chuckled.

``Won't take much to get these two haying tonight! It's the second cut - clover. Mmm-mmmm.''

Max breathed in the heady aroma. ``Wow, I bet it really smells good to Star and Duke.'' With two fingers, he gingerly patted Star's nose and then stared right into the huge, complicated nostrils.

``Yep. This is their favorite. Also happens to be more nutritious than the first cutting,'' Bill said as the oxen backed toward the wagon and he slipped a pin in the pole that attached the yoke.

Max looked up at the wagon and wondered how they'd ever fill it. Then Bill stepped next to Duke and said softly, ``Hish ... come up.''

At first, the oxen tugged against each other. Max studied their powerful shoulders as muscles heaved and then pulled in unison. Up close, the oxens' weight and size dwarfed grown men. Gosh, thought Max, they even make the wagon look small.

Soon, all three hay hands walked along in rhythm beside the two oxen: Bill on the left of the nigh ox, Duke; and Max and Mr. Rosiello on the right of the off ox, Star.

Soft and shimmering, the field stretched under the moonlight toward the verge of tall pines. Bales of hay were scattered in lazy rows.

Off in the distance, Max saw windrows of loose hay still drying, waiting for the next day's baling. Under the moon's steady glow, every natural thing and every man-made thing worked together - the oxen's soft breath, the rocking of the wagon, the shuffle of boots, the feathered sway of pines, the ringing pulse of crickets. Never before had Max noticed the layers of sound in the night.

``Haw,'' Bill said. The oxen turned slightly to the left. When the silent troupe arrived at the first bale, Bill heaved it up on the wagon. The team kept moving slowly and steadily. Their pale horns, tipped with brass, nodded in the moonlight.

``We nob the sharp ends of their horns so they don't jab each other or hurt themselves,'' Bill explained.

``Or us!'' blurted Mr. Rosiello.

The night dew softened the dry stubble under Max's boots. As he wrestled the bales on end to lift them, their undersides felt warm. The sweet clover air filled him with energy. With each bale that passed under his nose, he wanted another. Star and Duke felt the same way. Max watched astonished as Duke seized a dense bale in his mouth and shook it. It's just a bunch of feathers to him, Max thought.

The bales slowly mounded up in the wagon.

``Max, jump in. You can stack the hay as we hand it to you,'' said Bill. Bale by bale, Max built a pyramid that reached toward the stars. Every time the wheels rolled into a dip, the pyramid pitched like a sailboat in rough seas. Now the wagon was growing into a beast that dwarfed the oxen.

``Well, that's about enough for this load; must be nearly 50 bales,'' Bill said. ``Time to head for the barn.''

``Aw, can't we stack a little more?'' begged Max, who had visions of a sky-scraping tower.

``Si, Bill. Just a few more?'' chimed in Mr. Rosiello with unusual energy.

Bill hesitated. ``Well, you sure got Star and Duke on your side. Usually they're anxious to quit. But not tonight - they're in clover, after all!'' He pointed to a far field, saying, ``I should check out that low meadow - see if it's dry enough for the wagon yet. You'll be all right with Duke. He'll head for the next couple of bales without my help.''

And so, the wagon rolled on. High atop the hay, the clover's perfume settled gently on Max like his summer blanket when he shook it into the air and let it parachute down on him. But a small voice intruded on his quiet thoughts.

As he leaned over the edge of the bales, he could see Mr. Rosiello way down below. Must be talking to himself again, Max thought. As the old man walked, he threw his arms open to the sky. Max strained to eavesdrop.

``So LIGHTLY I walk!

behind brick-red oxen

brushed with stargleams -

their brass-tipped horns

bobbing in moonbeams.

So LIGHTLY I step!

amid cricket song -

settling sweet like dew,

as bales of clover

make my tired breath new.''

But suddenly - and startlingly - Mr. Rosiello's reverie was interrupted.

A bale of hay, flying silently through the night, grazed the old man's left side and knocked him off balance. Reeling a bit, he tripped and then plunged into cushioned comfort on the very bale that had ambushed him. Before he could think, he was pummeled by an avalanche of 11 more oncoming bales, followed by a boy.

On his landing, Max burst into laughter. He could see that Mr. Rosiello was too stunned to laugh. But the old man's dazed expression struck deep into Max's stomach, and he erupted into wild hooting. Finally, Mr. Rosiello managed, ``So what happened?''

Max tried to compose his thoughts. ``I think the right front wheel rolled into a big hole,'' he said breathlessly. ``When it got stuck, the oxen yanked the wagon. And that got us swaying pretty good. So when the back wheel hit the hole, the whole wagon nearly overturned. Next I knew, I was airborne.''

``Santo cielo!'' cried Mr. Rosiello. He pointed beyond Max where Star and Duke, undaunted, were continuing on down the row. ``You gotta stop them!''

Max scurried to his feet and ran toward the low meadow. But Bill had heard the commotion and was already high-stepping toward the team to intercept them.

``Hish, hish,'' soothed Bill. Soon, the group turned back toward Mr. Rosiello, who was still sitting in the chaos of bales.

As Max approached, he noticed something gleaming in one of the bales. ``Hey, Mr. Rosiello, what's that?''

``What?'' said Mr. Rosiello.

Max dug his fingers carefully around the object trapped in the bale and pulled it out. ``Wow!''

With the help of Bill and Mr. Rosiello, Max determined that he had found a very old axe head. Really old. Maybe 5,000 years old.

Bill said, ``It's not unusual to find arrowheads here. It used to be Abenaki Indian territory. But I've never seen anything quite like this!''

After polishing the stone relic on his pants, Max weighed the axe in his left palm. He wondered about the hands that held it 5,000 years ago. Did they belong to a boy his age?

He examined the axe's simple form. The blade, about two-and-a-half inches wide, narrowed toward a groove with two notches where a handle would have been tied. He looked up bright-eyed at Bill and Mr. Rosiello.

``You know, my uncle David always finds things,'' he said quietly. ``Once he noticed a piece of paper blowing down the street. He said it looked different somehow. When he finally caught it, it turned out to be a $20 bill. But I've never found anything I really wanted. Isn't it incredible how this axe was just waiting for me?''

Later that night, after the wagon had been pulled into the barn, after the unyoked oxen had returned to their stalls, after Max had fallen asleep with his fingers wrapped around the stone axe, Mr. Rosiello stood alone in his dimly lit bedroom. He was gazing at an old yellowed photograph he had taken from his dresser drawer.

He smiled at the familiar, long-ago boy in the picture. In his hands, the boy held something he had discovered only that morning.

He had noticed, in the rock wall along his grandfather's property, an odd ivory-colored stone. Its elegant shape beckoned him to pull it from the wall. As his fingers curled around a surface smoother than his own skin, he knew it was treasure. Treasure older than anything he had ever thought of.

It had been a gift that was meant for him, not because someone chose to give it, but because it came to him on its own. And now, nearly 70 years later, that was how Mr. Rosiello wanted Max to receive it.

Then the old man turned down his bed, climbed in, and whispered to himself words that slurred into sleep:

``So lightly we walk

by life's rolling wheel

when the treasures we tend

grow brighter still

in the hand of a friend.''

* Star and Duke were real oxen belonging to Bill Bunting, who works his farm in Maine. Bill has found extraordinary objects in hay bales. This is the 10th and final story in Susan Els's ``Midnight Naturalist'' series. `Max, jump in. You can stack the hay as we hand it to you,' said Bill. Bale by bale, Max built a pyramid that reached toward the stars. Every time the wagon rolled into a dip, the pyramid pitched like a sailboat in rough seas.

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