It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
George heard of a farmer who was selling off his sheep about fifty miles off near the coast. George put money in his purse, rose at three, and walked the fifty miles with Carlo that day. The next he chaffered with the farmer, but they did not quite agree. George was vexed, but he knew it would not do to show it, so he strolled away carelessly toward the water. In this place the sea comes several miles inland, not in one sheet, but in a series of salt-water lakes very pretty.
George stood and admired the water and the native blacks paddling along in boats of bark no bigger than a cocked hat. These strips of bark are good for carriage and bad for carriage; I mean they are very easily carried on a man's back ashore, but they won't carry a man on the water so well, and sitting in them is like balancing on a straw. These absurd vehicles have come down to these blockheads from their fathers, so they won't burn them and build according to reason. They commonly paddle in companies of three; so then whenever one is purled the other two come on each side of him, each takes a hand and with amazing skill and delicacy they reseat him in his cocked hat, which never sinks--only purls. Several of these triads passed in the middle of the lake, looking to George like inverted capital "T's." They went a tremendous pace--with occasional stoppages when a purl occurred.
Presently a single savage appeared nearer the land and George could see his lithe, sinewy form and the grace and rapidity with which he urged his gossamer bark along. It was like a hawk--half a dozen rapid strokes of his wings and then a smooth glide for ever so far.
"Our savages would sit on the blade of a knife, I do think," was George's observation.
Now as George looked and admired blackee, it unfortunately happened that a mosquito flew into blackee's nostrils, which were much larger and more inviting--to a gnat--than ours. The aboriginal sneezed, and over went the ancestral boat.
The next moment he was seen swimming and pushing his boat before him. He was scarce a hundred yards from the shore when all of a sudden down he went. George was frightened and took off his coat, and was unlacing his boots--when the black came up again. "Oh, he was only larking," thought George. "But he has left his boat--and why, there he goes down again!" The savage made a dive and came up ten yards nearer the shore, but he kept his face parallel to it, and he was scarce a moment in sight before he dived again. Then a horrible suspicion flashed across George--"There is something after him!"
This soon became a fearful certainty. Just before he dived next time, a dark object was plainly visible on the water close behind him. George was wild with fear for poor blackee. He shouted at the monster, he shouted and beckoned to the swimmer; and last, snatching up a stone, he darted up a little bed of rock elevated about a yard above the shore. The next dive the black came up within thirty yards of this very place, but the shark came at him the next moment. He dived again, but before the fish followed him George threw a stone with great precision and force at him. It struck the water close by him as he turned to follow his prey; George jumped down and got several more stones, and held one foot advanced and his arm high in air. Up came the savage panting for breath. The fish made a dart, George threw a stone; it struck him with such fury on the shoulders that it span off into the air and fell into the sea forty yards off. Down went the man, and the fish after him. The next time they came up, to George's dismay, the sea-tiger showed no signs of being hurt and the man was greatly distressed. The moment he was above water George heard him sob, and saw the whites of his eyes, as he rolled them despairingly; and he could not dive again for want of breath. Seeing this, the shark turned on his back, and came at him with his white belly visible and his treble row of teeth glistening in a mouth like a red grave.
Rage as well as fear seized George Fielding, the muscles started on his brawny arm as he held it aloft with a heavy stone in it. The black was so hard pressed the last time, and so dead beat, that he could make but a short duck under the fish's back and come out at his tail. The shark did not follow him this time, but cunning as well as ferocious slipped a yard or two inshore, and waited to grab him; not seeing him, he gave a slap with his tail-fin, and reared his huge head out of water a moment to look forth. Then George Fielding, grinding his teeth with fury, flung his heavy stone with tremendous force at the creature's cruel eye. The heavy stone missed the eye by an inch or two, but it struck the fish on the nose and teeth with a force that would have felled a bullock.
"Creesh!" went the sea-tiger's flesh and teeth, and the blood squirted in a circle. Down went the shark like a lump of lead, literally felled by the crashing stroke.
"I've hit him! I've hit him!" roared George, seizing another stone. "Come here, quick! quick! before he gets the better of it."
The black swam like a mad thing to George. George splashed into the water up to his knee, and taking blackee under the arm-pits, tore him out of the water and set him down high and dry.
"Give us your hand over it, old fellow," cried George, panting and trembling. "Oh dear, my heart is in my mouth, it is!"
The black's eye seemed to kindle a little at George's fire, but all the rest of him was as cool as a cucumber. He let George shake his hand and said quietly, "Thank you, sar! Jacky thank you a good deal!" he added in the same breath; "suppose you lend me a knife, then we eat a good deal."
George lent him his knife, and to his surprise the savage slipped into the water again. His object was soon revealed; the shark had come up to the surface and was floating motionless. It was with no small trepidation George saw this cool hand swim gently behind him and suddenly disappear; in a moment, however, the water was red all round, and the shark turned round on his belly. Jacky swam behind, and pushed him ashore. It proved to be a young fish about six feet long; but it was as much as the men could do to lift it. The creature's nose was battered, and Jacky showed this to George, and let him know that a blow on that part was deadly to them. "You make him dead for a little while," said he, "so then I make him dead enough to eat;" and he showed where he had driven the knife into him in three places.
Jacky's next proceeding was to get some dry sticks and wood, and prepare a fire, which to George's astonishment he lighted thus. He got a block of wood, in the middle of which he made a little hole; then he cut and pointed a long stick, and inserting the point into the block, worked it round between his palms for some time and with increasing rapidity. Presently there came a smell of burning wood, and soon after it burst into a flame at the point of contact. Jacky cut slices of shark and toasted them. "Black fellow stupid fellow--eat 'em raw; but I eat 'em burn't, like white man."
He then told George he had often been at Sydney, and could "speak the white man's language a good deal," and must on no account be confounded with common black fellows. He illustrated his civilization by eating the shark as it cooked; that is to say, as soon as the surface was brown he gnawed it off, and put the rest down to brown again, and so ate a series of laminae instead of a steak; that it would be cooked to the center if he let it alone was a fact this gentleman had never discovered; probably had never had the patience to discover.
George, finding the shark's flesh detestable, declined it, and watched the other. Presently he vented his reflections. "Well you are a cool one! half an hour ago I didn't expect to see you eating him--quite the contrary." Jacky grinned good-humoredly in reply.
When George returned to the farmer, the latter, who had begun to fear the loss of a customer, came at once to terms with him. The next day he started for home with three hundred sheep. Jacky announced that he should accompany him, and help him a good deal. George's consent was not given, simply because it was not asked. However, having saved the man's life, he was not sorry to see a little more of him.
It is usual in works of this kind to give minute descriptions of people's dress. I fear I have often violated this rule. However I will not in this case.
Jacky's dress consisted of, in front, a sort of purse made of rat-skin; behind, a bran new tomahawk and two spears.
George fancied this costume might be improved upon; he therefore bought from the farmer a second-hand coat and trousers and his new friend donned them with grinning satisfaction. The farmer's wife pitied George living by himself out there, and she gave him several little luxuries; a bacon-ham, some tea, and some orange-marmalade, and a little lump-sugar and some potatoes.
He gave the potatoes to Jacky to carry. They weighed but a few pounds. George himself carried about a quarter of a hundredweight. For all that the potatoes worried Jacky more than George's burden him. At last he loitered behind so long that George sat down and lighted his pipe. Presently up comes Niger with the sleeves of his coat hanging on each side of his neck and the potatoes in them. My lord had taken his tomahawk and chopped off the sleeves at the arm-pit; then he had sewed up their bottoms and made bags of them, uniting them at the other end by a string which rested on the back of his neck like a milkmaid's balance. Being asked what he had done with the rest of the coat, he told George he had thrown it away because it was a good deal hot.
"But it won't be hot at night, and then you will wish you hadn't been such a fool," said George, irate.
No, he couldn't make Jacky see this; being hot at the time Jacky could not feel the cold to come. Jacky became a hanger-on of George, and if he did little he cost little; and if a beast strayed he was invaluable, he could follow the creature for miles by a chain of physical evidence no single link of which a civilized man would have seen.
A quantity of rain having fallen and filled all the pools, George thought he would close with an offer that had been made him and swap one hundred and fifty sheep for cows and bullocks. He mentioned this intention to McLaughlan one Sunday evening. McLaughlan warmly approved his intention. George then went on to name the customer who was disposed to make the exchange in question. At this the worthy McLaughlan showed some little uneasiness and told George he might do better than deal with that person.
George said he should be glad to do better, but did not see how.
"Humph!" said McLaughlan, and fidgeted.
McLaughlan then invited George to a glass of grog, and while they were sipping he gave an order to his man.
McLaughlan inquired when the proposed negotiation was likely to take place. "To-morrow morning," said George. "He asked me to go over about it this afternoon, but I remembered the lesson you gave me about making bargains on this day, and I said 'To-morrow, farmer.'"
"Y're a guid lad," said the Scot demurely; "y're just as decent a body as ever I forgathered wi'--and I'm thinking it's a sin to let ye gang twa miles for mairchandeeze whan ye can hae it a hantle cheaper at your ain door."
"Can I? I don't know what you mean."
"Ye dinna ken what I mean? Maybe no."
Mr. McLaughlan fell into thought a while, and the grog being finished he proposed a stroll. He took George out into the yard, and there the first thing they saw was a score and a half of bullocks that had just been driven into a circle and were maintained there by two men and two dogs.
George's eye brightened at the sight and his host watched it. "Aweel," said he, "has Tamson a bonnier lot than yon to gie ye?"
"I don't know," said George dryly. "I have not seen his."
"But I hae--and he hasna a lot to even wi' them."
"I shall know to-morrow," said George. But he eyed McLaughlan's cattle with an expression there was no mistaking.
"Aweel," said the worthy Scot, "ye're a neebor and a decent lad ye are, sae I'll just speer ye ane question. Noo, mon," continued he in a most mellifluous tone and pausing at every word, "gien it were Monday--as it is the Sabba day--hoo mony sheep wud ye gie for yon bonnie beasties?"
George, finding his friend in this mind, pretended to hang back and to consider himself bound to treat with Thomson first. The result of all which was that McLaughlan came over to him at daybreak and George made a very profitable exchange with him.
At the end of six months more George found himself twice as rich in substance as at first starting; but instead of one hundred pounds cash he had but eighty. Still if sold up he would have fetched five hundred pounds. But more than a year was gone since he began on his own account. "Well," said George, "I must be patient and still keep doubling on, and if I do as well next year as last I shall be worth eight hundred pounds."
A month's dry hot weather came and George had arduous work to take water to his bullocks and to drive them in from long distances to his homestead, where, by digging enormous tanks, he had secured a constant supply. No man ever worked for a master as this rustic Hercules worked for Susan Merton. Prudent George sold twenty bullocks and cows to the first bidder. "I can buy again at a better time," argued he.
He had now one hundred and twenty-five pounds in hand. The drought continued and he wished he had sold more.
One morning Abner came hastily in and told him that nearly all the beasts and cows were missing. George flung himself on his horse and galloped to the end of his run. No signs of them--returning disconsolate he took Jacky on his crupper and went over the ground with him. Jacky's eyes were playing and sparkling all the time in search of signs. Nothing clear was discovered. Then at Jacky's request they rode off George's feeding-ground altogether and made for a little wood about two miles distant. "Suppose you stop here, I go in the bush," said Jacky.
George sat down and waited. In about two hours Jacky came back. "I've found 'em," said Jacky coolly.
George rose in great excitement and followed Jacky through the stiff bush, often scratching his hands and face. At last Jacky stopped and pointed to the ground, "There!"
"There? ye foolish creature," cried George; "that's ashes where somebody has lighted a fire; that and a bone or two is all I see."
"Beef bone," replied Jacky coolly. George started with horror. "Black fellow burn beef here and eat him. Black fellow a great thief. Black fellow take all your beef. Now we catch black fellow and shoot him suppose he not tell us where the other beef gone."
"But how am I to catch him? How am I even to find him?"
"You wait till the sun so; then black fellow burn more beef. Then I see the smoke; then I catch him. You go fetch the make-thunder with two mouths. When he see him that make him honest a good deal."
Off galloped George and returned with his double-barreled gun in about an hour and a half. He found Jacky where he had left him at the foot of a gumtree tall and smooth as an admiral's main-mast.
Jacky, who was coiled up in happy repose like a dog in warm weather, rose and with a slight yawn said, "Now I go up and look."
He made two sharp cuts on the tree with his tomahawk, and putting his great toe in the nick, rose on it, made another nick higher up, and holding the smooth stem put his other great toe in it, and so on till in an incredibly short time he had reached the top and left a staircase of his own making behind him. He had hardly reached the top when he slid down to the bottom again and announced that he had discovered what they were in search of.
George haltered the pony to the tree and followed Jacky, who struck farther into the wood. After a most disagreeable scramble at the other side of the wood Jacky stopped and put his finger to his lips. They both went cautiously out of the wood, and mounting a bank that lay under its shelter they came plump upon a little party of blacks, four male and three female. The women were seated round a fire burning beef and gnawing the outside laminae, then putting it down to the fire again. The men, who always serve themselves first, were lying gorged--but at sight of George and Jacky they were on their feet in a moment and their spears poised in their hands.
Jacky walked down the bank and poured a volley of abuse into them. Between two of his native sentences he uttered a quiet aside to George, "Suppose black fellow lift spear you shoot him dead," and then abused them like pickpockets again and pointed to the make-thunder with two mouths in George's hand.
After a severe cackle on both sides the voices began to calm down like water going off the boil, and presently soft low gutturals passed in pleasant modulation. Then the eldest male savage made a courteous signal to Jacky that he should sit down and gnaw. Jacky on this administered three kicks among the gins and sent them flying, then down he sat and had a gnaw at their beef--George's beef, I mean. The rage of hunger appeased, he rose, and with the male savages took the open country. On the way he let George know that these black fellows were of his tribe, that they had driven off the cattle and that he had insisted on restitution--which was about to be made; and sure enough, before they had gone a mile they saw some beasts grazing in a narrow valley. George gave a shout of joy, but counting them he found fifteen short. When Jacky inquired after the others the blacks shrugged their shoulders. They knew nothing more than this, that wanting a dinner they had driven off forty bullocks; but finding they could only eat one that day they had killed one and left the others, of whom some were in the place they had left them; the rest were somewhere, they didn't know where--far less care. They had dined, that was enough for them.
When this characteristic answer reached George he clinched his teeth and for a moment felt an impulse to make a little thunder on their slippery black carcasses, but he groaned instead and said, "They were never taught any better."
Then Jacky and he set to work to drive the cattle together. With infinite difficulty they got them all home by about eleven o'clock at night. The next day up with the sun to find the rest. Two o'clock--and only one had they fallen in with, and the sun broiled so that lazy Jacky gave in and crept in under the beast for shade, and George was fain to sit on his shady side with moody brow and sorrowful heart.
Presently Jacky got up. "I find one," said he.
"Where? where?" cried George, looking all round. Jacky pointed to a rising ground at least six miles off.
George groaned, "Are you making a fool of me? I can see nothing but a barren hill with a few great bushes here and there. You are never taking those bushes for beasts?"
Jacky smiled with utter scorn. "White fellow stupid fellow; he see nothing."
"Well and what does black fellow see?" snapped George.
"Black fellow see a crow coming from the sun, and when he came over there he turned and went down and not get up again a good while. Then black fellow say, 'I tink.' Presently come flying one more crow from that other side where the sun is not. Black fellow watch him, and when he come over there he turn round and go down, too, and not get up a good while. Then black fellow say, 'I know.'"
"Oh, come along!" cried George.
They hurried on; but when they came to the rising ground and bushes Jacky put his finger to his lips. "Suppose we catch the black fellows that have got wings; you make thunder for them?"
He read the answer in George's eye. Then he took George round the back of the hill and they mounted the crest from the reverse side. They came over it and there at their very feet lay one of George's best bullocks, with tongue protruded, breathing his last gasp. A crow of the country was perched on his ribs, digging his thick beak into a hole he had made in his ribs, and another was picking out one of his eyes. The birds rose heavily, clogged and swelling with gore. George's eyes flashed, his gun went up to his shoulder, and Jacky saw the brown barrel rise slowly for a moment as it followed the nearest bird wobbling off with broad back invitingly displayed to the marksman. Bang! the whole charge shivered the ill-omened glutton, who instantly dropped riddled with shot like a sieve, while a cloud of dusky feathers rose from him into the air. The other, hearing the earthly thunder and Jacky's exulting whoop, gave a sudden whirl with his long wing and shot up into the air at an angle and made off with great velocity; but the second barrel followed him as he turned and followed him as he flew down the wind. Bang! out flew two handfuls of dusky feathers, and glutton No. 2 died in the air, and its carcass and expanded wings went whirling like a sheet of paper and fell on the top of a bush at the foot of the hill.
All this delighted the devil-may-care Jacky, but it may be supposed it was small consolation to George. He went up to the poor beast, who died even as he looked down on him.
"Drought, Jacky! drought!" said he--"it is Moses, the best of the herd. Oh, Moses, why couldn't you stay beside me? I'm sure I never let you want for water, and never would--you left me to find worse friends!" and so the poor simple fellow moaned over the unfortunate creature, and gently reproached him for his want of confidence in him that it was pitiful. Then suddenly turning on Jacky he said gravely, "Moses won't be the only one, I doubt."
The words were hardly out of his mouth before a loud moo proclaimed the vicinity of cattle. They ran toward the sound, and in a rocky hollow they found nine bullocks; and alas! at some little distance another lay dead. Those that were alive were panting with lolling tongues in the broiling sun. How to save them; how to get them home a distance of eight miles. "Oh! for a drop of water." The poor fools had strayed into the most arid region for miles round.
Instinct makes blunders as well as reason.--Bestiale est errare.
"We must drive them from this, Jacky, though half of them die by the way."
The languid brutes made no active resistance. Being goaded and beaten they got on their legs and moved feebly away.
Three miles the men drove them, and then one who had been already staggering more than the rest gave in and lay down, and no power could get him up again. Jacky advised to leave him. George made a few steps onward with the other cattle, but then he stopped and came back to the sufferer and sat down beside him disconsolate.
"I can't bear to desert a poor dumb creature. He can't speak, Jacky, but look at his poor frightened eye; it seems to say have you got the heart to go on and leave me to die for the want of a drop of water. Oh! Jacky, you that is so clever in reading the signs of Nature, have pity on the poor thing and do pray try and find us a drop of water. I'd run five miles and fetch it in my hat if you would but find it. Do help us, Jacky." And the white man looked helplessly up to the black savage, who had learned to read the small type of Nature's book and he had not.
Jacky hung his head. "White fellow's eyes always shut; black fellow's always open. We pass here before and Jacky look for water--look for everything. No water here. But," said he languidly, "Jacky will go up high tree and look a good deal." Selecting the highest tree near he chopped a staircase and went up it almost as quickly as a bricklayer mounts a ladder with a hod. At the top he crossed his thighs over the stem, and there he sat full half an hour; his glittering eye reading the confused page, and his subtle mind picking out the minutest syllables of meaning. Several times he shook his head. At last all of a sudden he gave a little start, and then a chuckle, and the next moment he was on the ground.
"What is it?"
"Black fellow stupid fellow--look too far off," and be laughed again for all the world like a jackdaw.
"What is it?"
"A little water; not much."
"Where is it? Where is it? Why don't you tell me where it is?"
"Come," was the answer.
Not forty yards from where they stood Jacky stopped and thrusting his hand into a tuft of long grass pulled out a short blue flower with a very thick stem. "Saw him spark from the top of the tree," said Jacky with a grin. "This fellow stand with him head in the air but him foot in the water. Suppose no water he die a good deal quick." Then taking George's hand he made him press the grass hard, and George felt moisture ooze through the herb.
"Yes, my hand is wet, but, Jacky, this drop won't save a beast's life without it is a frog's."
Jacky smiled and rose. "Where that wet came from more stay behind."
He pointed to other patches of grass close by, and following them showed George that they got larger and larger in a certain direction. At last he came to a hidden nook, where was a great patch of grass quite a different color, green as an emerald. "Water," cried Jacky, "a good deal of water." He took a jump and came down flat on his back on the grass, and sure enough, though not a drop of surface water was visible, the cool liquid squirted up in a shower round Jacky.
Nature is extremely fond of producing the same things in very different sizes. Here was a miniature copy of those large Australian lakes which show nothing to the eye but rank grass. You ride upon them a little way, merely wetting your horse's feet, but after a while the sponge gets fuller and fuller, and the grass shows symptoms of giving way, and letting you down to "bottomless perdition."
They squeezed out of this grass sponge a calabash full of water, and George ran with it to the panting beast. Oh! how he sucked it up, and his wild eye calmed, and the liquid life ran through all his frame!
It was hardly in his stomach before he got up of his own accord, and gave a most sonorous moo, intended no doubt to express the sentiment of "never say die."
George drove them all to the grassy sponge, and kept them there till sunset. He was three hours squeezing out water and giving it them before they were satisfied. Then in the cool of the evening he drove them safe home.
The next day one more of his strayed cattle found his way home. The rest he never saw again. This was his first dead loss of any importance; unfortunately, it was not the last.
The brutes were demoralized by their excursion, and being active as deer they would jump over anything and stray.
Sometimes the vagrant was recovered--often he was found dead; and sometimes he went twenty miles and mingled with the huge herds of some Croesus, and was absorbed like a drop of water and lost to George Fielding. This was a bitter blow. This was not the way to make the thousand pounds.
"Better sell them all to the first comer, and then I shall see the end of my loss. I am not one of your lucky ones. I must not venture."
A settler passed George's way driving a large herd of sheep and ten cows. George gave him a dinner and looked over his stock. "You have but few beasts for so many sheep," said he.
The other assented.
"I could part with a few of mine to you if you were so minded."
The other said he should be very glad, but he had no money to spare. Would George take sheep in exchange?
"Well," drawled George, "I would rather it had been cash, but such as you and I must not make the road hard to one another. Sheep I'll take, but full value."
The other was delighted, and nearly all George's bullocks became his for one hundred and fifty sheep.
George was proud of his bargain, and said, "That is a good thing for you and me, Susan, please God."
Now the next morning Abner came in and said to George, "I don't like some of your new lot--the last that are marked with a red V."
"Why, what is wrong about them?"
"Come and see."
He found more than one of the new sheep rubbing themselves angrily against the pen, and sometimes among one another.
"Oh dear!" said George, "I have prayed against this on my knees every night of my life, and it is come upon me at last. Sharpen your knife, Abner."
"What! must they all--"
"All the new lot. Call Jacky, he will help you; he likes to see blood. I can't abide it. One hundred and fifty sheep; eighteen-pennorth of wool, and eighteen-pennorth of fat when we fling 'em into the pot--that is all that is left to me of yesterday's deal."
Jacky was called.
"Now, Jacky," said George, "these sheep have got the scab of the country; if they get to my flock and taint it I am a beggar from that moment. These sheep are sure to die, so Abner and you are to kill them. He will show you how. I can't look on and see their blood and my means spilled like water. Susan, this is a black day for us!"
He went away and sat down upon a stone a good way off, and turned his back upon his house and his little homestead. This was not the way to make the thousand pounds.
The next day the dead sheep were skinned and their bodies chopped up and flung into the copper. The grease was skimmed as it rose, and set aside, and when cool was put into rough barrels with some salt and kept up until such time as a merchant should pass that way and buy it.
"Well!" said George, with a sigh, "I know my loss. But if the red scab had got into the large herd, there would have been no end to the mischief."
Soon after this a small feeder at some distance offered to change with McLaughlan. That worthy liked his own ground best, but willing to do his friend George a good turn he turned the man over to him. George examined the new place, found that it was smaller but richer and better watered, and very wisely closed with the proposal.
When he told Jacky that worthy's eyes sparkled.
"Black fellow likes another place. Not every day the same."
And in fact he let out that if this change had not occurred his intention had been to go a-hunting for a month or two, so weary had he become of always the same place.
The new ground was excellent, and George's hopes, lately clouded, brightened again. He set to work and made huge tanks to catch the next rain, and as heretofore did the work of two.
It was a sad thing to have to write to Susan and tell her that after twenty months' hard work he was just where he had been at first starting. One day, as George was eating his homely dinner on his knee by the side of his principal flock, he suddenly heard a tremendous scrimmage mixed with loud, abusive epithets from Abner. He started up, and there was Carlo pitching into a sheep who was trying to jam herself into the crowd to escape him. Up runs one of the sheep-dogs growling, but instead of seizing Carlo, as George thought he would, what does he do but fall upon another sheep, and spite of all their evasions the two dogs drove the two sheep out of the flock and sent them pelting down the hill. In one moment George was alongside Abner.
"Abner," said he, "how came you to let strange sheep in among mine?"
"Never saw them till the dog pinned them."
"You never saw them," said George reproachfully. "No, nor your dog either till my Carlo opened your eyes. A pretty thing for a shepherd and his dog to be taught by a pointer. Well," said George, "you had eyes enough to see whose sheep they were. Tell me that, if you please?"
Abner looked down.
"I'd as lieve bite off my tongue as tell you.
George looked uneasy and his face fell.
"A 'V.' Don't ye take on," said Abner. "They couldn't have been ten minutes among ours, and there were but two. And don't you blow me up, for such a thing might happen to the carefulest shepherd that ever was."
"I won't blow ye up, Will Abner," said George. "It is my luck not yours that has done this. It was always so. From a game of cricket upward I never had my neighbor's luck. If the flock are not tainted I'll give you five pounds, and my purse is not so deep as some. If they are, take your knife and drive it into my heart. I'll forgive you that as I do this. Carlo! let me look at you. See here, he is all over some stinking ointment. It is off those sheep. I knew it. 'Twasn't likely a pointer dog would be down on strange sheep like a shepherd's dog by the sight. 'Twas this stuff offended him. Heaven's will be done."
"Let us hope the best, and not meet trouble half way."
"Yes" said George feebly. "Let us hope the best."
"Don't I hear that Thompson has an ointment that cures the red scab?"
"So they say."
George whistled to his pony. The pony came to him. George did not treat him as we are apt to treat a horse--like a riding machine. He used to speak to him and caress him when he fed him and when he made his bed, and the horse followed him about like a dog.
In half an hour's sharp riding they were at Thompson's, an invaluable man that sold and bought animals, doctored animals, and kept a huge boiler in which bullocks were reduced to a few pounds of grease in a very few hours.
"You have an ointment that is good for the scab, sir?"
"That I have, farmer. Sold some to a neighbor of yours day before yesterday."
"Who was that?"
"A newcomer. Vesey is his name."
George groaned. "How do you use it, if you please?"
"Shear 'em close, rub the ointment well in, wash 'em every two days, and rub in again."
"Give me a stone of it."
"A stone of my ointment! Well! you are the wisest man I have come across this year or two. You shall have it, sir."
George rode home with his purchase.
Abner turned up his nose at it, and was inclined to laugh at George's fears. But George said to himself, "I have Susan to think of as well as myself. Besides," said he a little bitterly, "I haven't a grain of luck. If I am to do any good I must be twice as prudent and thrice as industrious as my neighbors or I shall fall behind them. Now, Abner, we'll shear them close."
"Shear them! Why it is not two months since they were all sheared."
"And then we will rub a little of this ointment into them."
"What! before we see any sign of the scab among them? I wouldn't do that if they were mine."
"No more would I if they were yours," replied George almost fiercely. "But they are not yours, Will Abner. They are unlucky George's."
During the next three days four hundred sheep were clipped and anointed. Jacky helped clip, but he would not wear gloves, and George would not let him handle the ointment without them, suspecting mercury.
At last George yielded to Abner's remonstrances, and left off shearing and anointing.
Abner altered his opinion when one day he found a sheep rubbing like mad against a tree, and before noon half a dozen at the same game. Those two wretched sheep had tainted the flock.
Abner hung his head when he came to George with this ill-omened news. He expected a storm of reproaches. But George was too deeply distressed for any petulances of anger. "It is my fault," said he, "I was the master, and I let my servant direct me. My own heart told me what to do, yet I must listen to a fool and a hireling that cared not for the sheep. How should he? they weren't his, they were mine to lose and mine to save. I had my choice, I took it, I lost them. Call Jacky and let's to work and save here and there one, if so be God shall be kinder to them than I have been."
From that hour there was but little rest morning, noon or night. It was nothing but an endless routine of anointing and washing, washing and anointing sheep. To the credit of Mr. Thompson it must be told that of the four hundred who had been taken in time no single sheep died; but of the others a good many. There are incompetent shepherds as well as incompetent statesmen and doctors, though not so many. Abner was one of these. An acute Australian shepherd would have seen the more subtle signs of this terrible disease a day or two before the patient sheep began to rub themselves with fury against the trees and against each other; but Abner did not; and George did not profess to have a minute knowledge of the animal, or why pay a shepherd? When this Herculean labor and battle had gone on for about a week, Abner came to George, and with a hang-dog look begged him to look out for another shepherd.
"Why, Will! surely you won't think to leave me in this strait? Why three of us are hardly able for the work, and how can I make head against this plague with only the poor sav--with only Jacky, that is first-rate at light work till he gets to find it dull--but can't lift a sheep and fling her into the water, as the like of us can?"
"Well, ye see," said Abner, doggedly, "I have got the offer of a place with Mr. Meredith, and he won't wait for me more than a week."
"He is a rich man, Will, and I am a poor one," said George in a faint, expostulating tone. Abner said nothing, but his face showed he had already considered this fact from his own point of view.
"He could spare you better than I can; but you are right to leave a falling house that you have helped to pull down."
"I don't want to go all in a moment. I can stay a week till you get another."
"A week! how can I get a shepherd in this wilderness at a week's notice? You talk like a fool."
"Well, I can't stay any longer. You know there is no agreement at all between us, but I'll stay a week to oblige you."
"You'll oblige me, will you?" said George, with a burst of indignation; "then oblige me by packing up your traps and taking your ugly face out of my sight before dinner-time this day. Stay, my man, here are your wages up to twelve o'clock to-day, take 'em and out of my sight, you dirty rascal. Let me meet misfortune with none but friends by my side. Away with you, or I shall forget myself and dirty my hands with your mean carcass."
The hireling slunk off, and as he slunk George stormed and thundered after him, "And wherever you may go, may sorrow and sickness--no!"
George turned to Jacky, who sat coolly by, his eyes sparkling at the prospect of a row. "Jacky!" said he, and then he seemed to choke, and could not say another word.
"Suppose I get the make-thunder, then you shoot him."
"Shoot him! what for?"
"Too much bungality,* shoot him dead. He let the sheep come that have my two fingers so on their backs;" here Jacky made a V with his middle and forefinger, "so he kill the other sheep--yet still you not shoot him--that so stupid I call."
"Oh Jacky, hush! don't you know me better than to think I would kill a man for killing my sheep. Oh fie! oh fie! No, Jacky, Heaven forbid I should do the man any harm; but when I think of what he has brought on my head, and then to skulk and leave me in my sore strait and trouble, me that never gave him ill language as most masters would; and then, Jacky, do you remember when he was sick how kind you and I were to him--and now to leave us. There, I must go into the house, and you come and call me out when that man is off the premises--not before."
At twelve o'clock selfish Abner started to walk thirty miles to Mr. Meredith's. Smarting under the sense of his contemptibleness and of the injury he was doing his kind, poor master, he shook his fist at the house and told Jacky he hoped the scab would rot the flock, and that done fall upon the bipeds, on his own black hide in particular. Jacky only answered with his eye. When the man was gone he called George.
George's anger had soon died. Jacky found him reading a little book in search of comfort, and when they were out in the air Jacky saw that his eyes were rather red.
"Why you cry?" said Jacky. "I very angry because you cry."
"It is very foolish of me," said George, apologetically, "but three is a small company, and we in such trouble; I thought I had made a friend of him. Often I saw he was not worth his wages, but out of pity I wouldn't part with him when I could better have spared him than he me, and now--there--no more about it. Work is best for a sore heart, and mine is sore and heavy, too, this day."
Jacky put his finger to his head, and looked wise. "First you listen me--this one time I speak a good many words. Dat stupid fellow know nothing, and so because you not shoot him a good way* behind--you very stupid. One," counted Jacky, touching his thumb, "he know nothing with these (pointing to his eyes). Jacky know possum,** Jacky know kangaroo, know turkey, know snake, know a good many, some with legs like dis (four fingers), some with legs like dis (two flngers)--dat stupid fellow know nothing but sheep, and not know sheep, let him die too much. Know nothing with 'um eyes. One more (touching his forefinger). Know nothing with dis (touching his tongue). Jacky speak him good words, he speak Jacky bad words. Dat so stupid--he know nothing with dis.
* Long ago.
"One more. You do him good things--he do you bad things; he know nothing with these (indicating his arms and legs as the seat of moral action), so den because you not shoot him long ago now you cry; den because you cry Jacky angry. Yes, Jacky very good. Jacky a little good before he live with you. Since den very good--but when dat fellow know nothing, and now you cry at the bottom* part Jacky a little angry, and Jacky go hunting a little not much direckly."
With these words the savage caught up his tomahawk and two spears, and was going across country without another word, but George cried out in dismay, "Oh, stop a moment! What! to-day, Jacky? Jacky, Jacky, now don't ye go to-day. I know it is very dull for the likes of you, and you will soon leave me, but don't ye go to-day; don't set me against flesh and blood altogether."
"I come back when the sun there," pointing to the east, "but must hunt a little, not much. Jacky uncomfortable," continued he, jumping at a word which from its size he thought must be of weight in any argument, "a good deal uncomfortable suppose I not hunt a little dis day."
"I say no more, I have no right--goodby, take my hand, I shall never see you any more.
"I shall come back when the sun there."
"Ah! well I daresay you think you will. Good-by, Jacky; don't you stay to please me."
Jacky glided away across country. He looked back once and saw George watching him. George was sitting sorrowful upon a stone, and as this last bit of humanity fell away from him and melted away in the distance his heart died within him. "He thinks he will come back to me, but when he gets in the open and finds the track of animals to hunt he will follow them wherever they go, and his poor shallow head won't remember this place nor me; I shall never see poor Jacky any more!"
The black continued his course for about four miles until a deep hollow hid him from George. Arrived here he instantly took a line nearly opposite to his first, and when he had gone about three miles on this tack he began to examine the ground attentively and to run about like a hound. After near half an hour of this he fell upon some tracks and followed them at an easy trot across the country for miles and miles, his eye keenly bent upon the ground.