The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Writer Bumbles Way Through A Near Catastrophe

By Charles B. Martin, Sr. © 1985

Issue: April, 1985

Mr. John pulled the horse drawn rake to a stop just opposite the wind-row of fragrant clover hay I was shocking. He carefully hung the smooth leather lines, used for guiding the horses, over the tilt lever of the rake and, leaning back in the spring cushioned seat, called to me.

"Hey Charlie," he said, "come over here a minute. I've got something I bet you'll be interested in."

I jammed the sharp tines of the pitch fork into the soft, dark soil and hurried over to join him. Though it was the last thing on my mind at the moment, I was about to play a leading role in one of his favorite pranks. A prank, incidentally, that usually took place in a hay field. And that's exactly where we happened to be.

About a dozen of us were busy harvesting one of Mr. John's lush meadows. We were doing this chore in the time honored manner that had prevailed here in these hills for many and many a generation. The first step in this process, once the hay had been thoroughly cured in the sun, was to rake it into long wind-rows that undulated across the fields like giant snakes. The wind-rows, in turn were gathered up with pitch forks and heaped in gumdrop shaped mounds, called shocks.

These were then pulled to the main stacks on "skid-poles." With the exception of the raking and skidding, which were accomplished with the use of horses, the whole project was one of hard, backbreaking hand labor.

Naturally, when compared with today's modern hay balers and rollers, this old time method appears to be terrible slow and inefficient, and yet - it was uniquely picturesque. The freshly shorn face of the fields contrasted sharply with the long meandering wind-rows and giant hand fashioned stacks. The dozens of shocks looked for all the world like an Eskimo village of brown igloos. Then, overshadowing all this visual splendor, the unforgettable fragrance that left its indelible mark on a person's senses.

At this time in my life these things alone were almost enough reward to entice me to spend a day or two "putting up hay" and now Mr. John had located something else exciting to show me. Like any country lad, I was itching to find out what it was.

"Charlie", he continued, "if you'll walk back up this row I'm raking you can catch yourself a bunch of baby quail. I spotted them just a minute ago. They're in a little round nest, 'bout the size of a softball. If you'll do like I say you can catch them all and they'll make you some mighty fine pets. Thing to do is slip up on that little grass nest real easy like and grab it before they know what's happening. Being still is the secret, now - in fact, it'd be better if you took off your shoes."

Then, almost as an afterthought, he added, "Soon as you pick it up, put one hand over that little round hole on the side so they can't escape."

I could almost picture myself the owner of a cage full of quail as I leaned against the side of a hay shock and started untying my worn out shoes. It never occurred to me that everything about this deal might not be on the up and up. My enthusiasm had completely blinded my normal sense of caution - even though I knew as well as anybody that Mr. Johnson was one of the world's best practical jokers. He had spent a lifetime perfecting this rare talent and would go to any length to catch a sucker. And he sure had one nibbling at the bait right now.

Anyway, in only a matter of minutes I was creeping towards the spot he had pointed out. As I drew near the "quail nest" I noticed all the fellows had stopped working and were watching me with quiet expectance. Naturally, their attention spurred me on to show off my ability as a stalker and trapper. As far as I was concerned, this was my show and I intended to exploit it to the fullest. By the time I finished, they'd all know how it was supposed to be done. If I could have had the faintest inkling of what the next few minutes held in store for me, I wouldn't have felt so smug.

A moment later my eye caught the little round object Mr. John had been telling me about. Once I located it, I got so involved in what I was doing the earth seemed to stop moving. I could almost sense the blazing sun pausing in its orbit through the heavens. Except for the soft chirping of the crickets around my stockinged feet and the melodious note of a mockingbird, resounding from a distant hedgerow, the world had grown totally silent. Now my hand was inching toward the nest.

Lifting it gingerly with my right hand, I placed my left palm over the small hole on the side. Then I started tip-toeing back to where I had left my shoes. I was holding the nest so lightly and walking so softly that for all practical purposes, it was as still as it had been while lying on the ground.

When I got within twenty yards of Mr. John, I noticed a sudden look of alarm spreading over his face. About the same time he made a grab for the lines he had hooked on the rake lever. I could have sworn he was getting ready to sail out of there.

"Hey, Charlie," he yelled at me, "Why don't you check and see if those quail are still in there? Shake the nest a little bit and hold it up to your ear - you 'oughta be able to hear them chirping."

I gave the nest a jerk or two and heard the awesome truth. Instead of the chirp of baby quail, the nest started vibrating with the angry buzzing of dozens of bumble bees. Until this moment I had assumed they always nested in burrows in the ground. Now I held the contradiction to this belief in my trembling hands and hadn't the faintest idea of what to do about it.

Like the legendary fellow who mounted his horse and rode frantically in all directions, I started running around the hay stacks with even less rhyme or reason. I didn't want to hold onto that nest and still knew better than to let it go. Bumble bees, especially the small fuzzy strain, are masters of pursuit and once they set their minds on vengeance, somebody is bound to pay. In this instance I knew it was going to be me.

I can still remember the loud laughter, echoing from every direction as I ran aimlessly about, holding that ominous sounding nest at arm's length.

There's an old saying, though, that nothing lasts forever and this stalemate was nearing its end. One of the bees suddenly popped his stinger into the palm that was blocking their exit. This brought a loud screech from me and caused me to hurriedly withdraw my hand from over the hold. From that moment on the bees were in charge of the situation.

Strategy, if I had any at the time, was instantly abandoned. Escape was the only logical move and obeying the inborn instinct of all youngsters, I made a mad dash toward the nearest adult. In this case it happened to be Mr. John.

Seeing me barreling in his direction, with a half a dozen bumble bees drilling on my close cropped skull and with dozens more in pursuit, sent him and the rake on a wild careening dash toward the opposite end of the field. All the fellows who were there said they had never seen a team of horses moving any faster. They also swore that if I hadn't tripped over a blackberry briar, I would have passed those horses with ease.