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Chapter 29 Beautiful Joe by Marshall Saunders

Miss Laura was very much interested in the sheep on Dingley Farm. There was a flock in the orchard near the house that she often went to see. She always carried roots and vegetables to them, turnips particularly, for they were very fond of them; but they would not come to her to get them, for they did not know her voice. They only lifted their heads and stared at her when she called them. But when they heard Mr. Wood's voice, they ran to the fence, bleating with pleasure, and trying to push their noses through to get the carrot or turnip, or whatever he was handing to them. He called them his little Southdowns, and he said he loved his sheep, for they were the most gentle and inoffensive creature that he had on his farm.

One day when he came into the kitchen inquiring for salt, Miss Laura said: “Is it for the sheep?”

“Yes,” he replied; “I am going up to the woods pasture to examine my Shropshires.”

“You would like to go too, Laura,” said Mrs. Wood. “Take your hands right away from that cake. I'll finish frosting it for you. Run along and get your broad-brimmed hat. It's very hot.”

Miss Laura danced out into the hall and back again, and soon we were walking up, back of the house, along a path that led us through the fields to the pasture. “What are you going to do, uncle?” she said; “and what are those funny things in your hands?”

“Toe-clippers,” he replied; “and I am going to examine the sheeps' hoofs. You know we've had warm, moist weather all through July, and I'm afraid of foot-rot. Then they're sometimes troubled with overgrown hoofs.”

“What do you do if they get foot-rot?” asked Miss Laura.

“I've various cures,” he said. “Paring and clipping, and dipping the hoof in blue vitriol and vinegar, or rubbing it on, as the English shepherds do. It destroys the diseased part, but doesn't affect the sound.”

“Do sheep have many diseases?” asked Miss Laura. “I know one of them myself that is the scab.”

“A nasty thing that,” said Mr. Wood, vigorously; “and a man that builds up a flock from a stockyard often finds it out to his cost.”

“What is it like?” asked Miss Laura.

“The sheep get scabby from a microbe under the skin, which causes them to itch fearfully, and they lose their wool.”

“And can't it be cured?”

“Oh, yes! with time and attention. There are different remedies. I believe petroleum is the best.”

By this time we had got to a wide gate that opened into the pasture. As Mr. Wood let Miss Laura go through and then closed it behind her, he said, “You are looking at that gate. You want to know why it is so long, don't you?”

“Yes, uncle,” she said; “but I can't bear to ask so many questions.”

“Ask as many as you like,” he said, good-naturedly. “I don't mind answering them. Have you ever seen sheep pass through a gate or door?”

“Oh, yes, often.”

“And how do they act?”

“Oh, so silly, uncle. They hang back, and one waits for another, and, finally, they all try to go at once.”

“Precisely; when one goes they all want to go, if it was to jump into a bottomless pit. Many sheep are injured by overcrowding, so I have my gates and doors very wide. Now, let us call them up.” There wasn't one in sight, but when Mr. Wood lifted up his voice and cried: “Ca nan, nan, nan!” black faces began to peer out from among the bushes; and little black legs, carrying white bodies, came hurrying up the stony paths from the cooler parts of the pasture. Oh, how glad they were to get the salt! Mr. Wood let Miss Laura spread it on some flat rocks, then they sat down on a log under a tree and watched them eating it and licking the rocks when it was all gone. Miss Laura sat; fanning herself with her hat and smiling at them. “You funny, woolly things,” she said “You're not so stupid as some people think you are. Lie still, Joe. If you show yourself, they may run away.”

I crouched behind the log, and only lifted my head occasionally to see what the sheep were doing. Some of them went back into the woods, for it was very hot in this bare part of the pasture, but the most of them would not leave Mr. Wood, and stood staring at him. “That's a fine sheep, isn't it?” said Miss Laura, pointing to one with the blackest face, and the blackest legs, and largest body of those near us.

“Yes; that's old Jessica. Do you notice how she's holding her head close to the ground?”

“Yes; is there any reason for it?”

“There is. She's afraid of the grub fly. You often see sheep holding their noses in that way in the summer time. It is to prevent the fly from going into their nostrils, and depositing an egg which will turn into a grub and annoy and worry them. When the fly comes near, they give a sniff and run as if they were crazy, still holding their noses close to the ground. When I was a boy, and the sheep did that, we thought that they had colds in their heads, and used to rub tar on their noses. We knew nothing about the fly then, but the tar cured them, and is just what I use now. Two or three times a month during hot weather, we put a few drops of it on the nose of every sheep in the flock.”

“I suppose farmers are like other people, and are always finding out better ways of doing their work, aren't they, uncle?” said Miss Laura.

“Yes, my child. The older I grow, the more I find out, and the better care I take of my stock. My grandfather would open his eyes in amazement, and ask me if I was an old women petting her cats if he were alive, and could know the care I give my sheep. He used to let his flock run till the fields were covered with snow, and bite as close as they liked, till there wasn't a scrap of feed left. Then he would give them an open shed to run under, and throw down their hay outside. Grain they scarcely knew the taste of. That they would fall off in flesh, and half of them lose their lambs in the spring, was an expected thing. He would say I had them kennelled, if he could see my big, closed sheds, with the sunny windows that my flock spend the winter in. I even house them during the bad fall storms. They can run out again. Indeed, I like to get them in, and have a snack of dry food, to break them in to it. They are in and out of those sheds all winter. You must go in, Laura, and see the self-feeding racks. On bright, winter days they get a run in the cornfields. Cold doesn't hurt sheep. It's the heavy rain that soaks their fleeces.

“With my way I seldom lose a sheep, and they're the most profitable stock I have. If I could not keep them, I think I'd give up farming. Last year my lambs netted me eight dollars each. The fleeces of the ewes average eight pounds, and sell for two dollars each. That's something to brag of in these days, when so many are giving up the sheep industry.”

“How many sheep have you, uncle?” asked Miss Laura.

“Only fifty, now. Twenty-five here and twenty-five down below in the orchard. I've been selling a good many this spring.”

“These sheep are larger than those in the orchard, aren't they?” said Miss Laura.

“Yes; I keep those few Southdowns for their fine quality. I don't make as much on them as I do on these Shropshires. For an all-around sheep I like the Shropshire. It's good for mutton, for wool, and for rearing lambs. There's a great demand for mutton nowadays, all through our eastern cities. People want more and more of it. And it has to be tender, and juicy, and finely flavored, so a person has to be particular about the feed the sheep get.”

“Don't you hate to have these creatures killed that you have raised and tended so carefully?” said Miss Laura with a little shudder.

“I do,” said her uncle; “but never an animal goes off my place that I don't know just how it's going to be put to death. None of your sending sheep to market with their legs tied together and jammed in a cart, and sweating and suffering for me. They've got to go standing comfortably on their legs, or go not at all. And I'm going to know the butcher that kills my animals, that have been petted like children. I said to Davidson, over there in Hoytville, 'If I thought you would herd my sheep and lambs and calves together, and take them one by one in sight of the rest, and stick your knife into them, or stun them, and have the others lowing, and bleating, and crying in their misery, this is the last consignment you would ever get from me.'

“He said, 'Wood, I don't like my business, but on the word of an honest man, my butchering is done as well as it can be. Come and see for yourself.'

“He took me to his slaughter-house, and though I didn't stay long, I saw enough to convince me that he spoke the truth. He has different pens and sheds, and the killing is done as quietly as possible; the animals are taken in one by one, and though the others suspect what is going on, they can't see it.”

“These sheep are a long way from the house,” said Miss Laura; “don't the dogs that you were telling me about attack them?”

“No; for since I had that brush with Windham's dog, I've trained them to go and come with the cows. It's a queer thing, but cows that will run from a dog when they are alone will fight him if he meddles with their calves or the sheep. There's not a dog around that would dare to come into this pasture, for he knows the cows would be after him with lowered horns, and a business look in their eyes. The sheep in the orchard are safe enough, for they're near the house, and if a strange dog came around, Joe would settle him, wouldn't you, Joe?” and Mr. Wood looked behind the log at me.

I got up and put my head on his arm, and he went on: “By and by, the Southdowns will be changed up here, and the Shropshires will go down to the orchard. I like to keep one flock under my fruit trees. You know there is an old proverb 'The sheep has a golden hoof.' They save me the trouble of ploughing. I haven't ploughed my orchard for ten years, and don't expect to plough it for ten years more. Then your Aunt Hattie's hens are so obliging that they keep me from the worry of finding ticks at shearing time. All the year round, I let them run among the sheep, and they nab every tick they see.”

“How closely sheep bite,” exclaimed Miss Laura, pointing to one that was nibbling almost at his master's feet.

“Very close, and they eat a good many things that cows don't relish bitter weeds, and briars and shrubs, and the young ferns that come up in the spring.”

“I wish I could get hold of one of those dear little lambs,” said Miss Laura. “See that sweet little blackie back in the alders. Could you not coax him up?”

“He wouldn't come here,” said her uncle kindly; “but I'll try end get him for you.”

He rose, and after several efforts succeeded in capturing the black-faced creature, and bringing him up to the log. He was very shy of Miss Laura, but Mr. Wood held him firmly, and let her stroke his head as much as she liked. “You call him little,” said Mr. Wood; “if you put your arm around him, you'll find he's a pretty: substantial lamb. He was born in March. This is the last of July; he'll be shorn the middle of next month, and think he's quite grown up. Poor little animal! he had quite a struggle for life. The sheep were turned out to pasture in April. They can't bear confinement as well as the cows, and as they bite closer they can be turned out earlier, and get on well by having good rations of corn in addition to the grass, which is thin and poor so early in the spring. This young creature was running by his mother's side, rather a weak-legged, poor specimen of a lamb. Every night the flock was put under shelter, for the ground was cold, and though the sheep might not suffer from lying out-doors, the lambs would get chilled. One night this fellow's mother got astray, and as Ben neglected to make the count, she wasn't missed. I'm always anxious about my lambs in the spring and often get up in the night to look after them. That night I went out about two o'clock. I took it into my head, for some reason or other, to count them. I found a sheep and lamb missing, took my lantern and Bruno, who was some good at tracking sheep, and started out. Bruno barked and I called, and the foolish creature came to me, the little lamb staggering after her. I wrapped the lamb in my coat, took it to the house, made a fire, and heated some milk. Your Aunt Hattie heard me and got up. She won't let me give brandy even to a dumb beast, so I put some ground sugar, which is just as good, in the milk, and forced it down the lamb's throat. Then we wrapped an old blanket round him, and put him near the stove, and the next evening he was ready to go back to his mother. I petted him all through April, and gave him extras different kinds of meal, till I found what suited him best; now he does me credit.”

“Dear little lamb,” said Miss Laura, patting him, “How can you tell him from the others, uncle?”

“I know all their faces, Laura. A flock of sheep is just like a crowd of people. They all have different expressions, and have different dispositions.”

“They all look alike to me,” said Miss Laura.

“I dare say. You are not accustomed to them. Do you know how to tell a sheep's age?”

“No, uncle.”

“Here, open your mouth, Cosset,” he said to the lamb that he still held. “At one year they have two teeth in the centre of the jaw. They get two teeth more every year up to five years. Then we say they have 'a full mouth.' After that you can't tell their age exactly by the teeth. Now, run back to your mother,” and he let the lamb go.

“Do they always know their own mothers?” asked Miss Laura.

“Usually. Sometimes a ewe will not own her lamb. In that case we tie them up in a separate stall till she recognizes it. Do you see that sheep over there by the blueberry bushes the one with the very pointed ears?”

“Yes, uncle,” said Miss Laura.

“That lamb by her side is not her own. Hers died and we took its fleece and wrapped it around a twin lamb that we took from another ewe, and gave to her. She soon adopted it. Now, come this way, and I'll show you our movable feeding troughs.”

He got up from the log, and Miss Laura followed him to the fence. “These big troughs are for the sheep,” said Mr. Wood, “and these shallow ones in the enclosure are for the lambs. See, there is just room enough for them to get under the fence. You should see the small creatures rush to them whenever we appear with their oats, and wheat, or bran, or whatever we are going to give them. If they are going to the butcher, they get corn meal and oil meal. Whatever it is, they eat it up clean. I don't believe in cramming animals. I feed them as much as is good for them, and not any more. Now, you go sit down over there behind those bushes with Joe, and I'll attend to business.”

Miss Laura found a shady place, and I curled myself up beside her. We sat there a long time, but we did not get tired, for it was amusing to watch the sheep and lambs. After a while, Mr. Wood came and sat down beside us. He talked some more about sheep-raising; then he said, “You may stay here longer if you like, but I must get down to the house. The work must be done, if the weather is hot.”

“What are you going to do now?” asked Miss Laura, jumping up.

“Oh! more sheep business. I've set out some young trees in the orchard, and unless I get chicken wire around them, my sheep will be barking them for me.”

“I've seen them,” said Miss Laura, “standing up on their hind legs and nibbling at the trees, taking off every shoot they can reach.”

“They don't hurt the old trees,” said Mr. Wood; “but the young ones have to be protected. It pays me to take care of my fruit trees, for I get a splendid crop from them, thanks to the sheep.”

“Good-bye, little lambs and dear old sheep,” said Miss Laura, as her uncle opened the gate for her to leave the pasture. “I'll come and see you again some time. Now, you had better go down to the brook in the dingle and have a drink. You look hot in your warm coats.”

“You've mastered one detail of sheep-keeping,” said Mr. Wood, as he slowly walked along beside his niece. “To raise healthy sheep one must have pure water where they can get to it whenever they like. Give them good water, good food, and a variety of it, good quarters cool in summer, comfortable in winter, and keep them quiet, and you'll make them happy and make money on them.”

“I think I'd like sheep-raising,” said Miss Laura; “won't you have me for your flock mistress, uncle?”

He laughed, and said he thought not, for she would cry every time any of her charge were sent to the butcher.

After this Miss Laura and I often went up to the pasture to see the sheep and the lambs. We used to get into a shady place where they could not see us, and watch them. One day I got a great surprise about the sheep. I had heard so much about their meekness that I never dreamed that they would fight; but it turned out that they did, and they went about it in such a business-like way, that I could not help smiling at them. I suppose that like most other animals they had a spice of wickedness in them. On this day a quarrel arose between two sheep; but instead of running at each other like two dogs they went a long distance apart, and then came rushing at each other with lowered heads. Their object seemed to be to break each other's skull; but Miss Laura soon stopped them by calling out and frightening them apart. I thought that the lambs were more interesting than the sheep. Sometimes they fed quietly by their mothers' sides, and at other times they all huddled together on the top of some flat rock or in a bare place, and seemed to be talking to each other with their heads close together. Suddenly one would jump down, and start for the bushes or the other side of the pasture. They would all follow pell-mell; then in a few minutes they would come rushing back again. It was pretty to see them playing together and having a good time before the sorrowful day of their death came.

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