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Donkey John of the Toy Valley by  Margaret Warner Morley


 

 

[Illustration]

HERDING THE GOATS

[30] NEXT morning John was up with the sun. He washed his face and hands out of doors at the trough where the water ran swiftly from a wooden pipe. It was icy cold and made his cheeks as red as fire.

As soon as breakfast was over, he got the wooden collar with the new bell hanging to it and he and his father went to where the sheep were penned.

Father Hofer walked of course, but John could do nothing so tame as that at [31] such a moment. He hopped and jumped in a stiff-legged manner like a young spring lamb, his round eyes shone, and his wide mouth was one broad grin as his father caught the big black sheep, and in spite of his struggles held him while John fastened the collar about his woolly neck.

"There!" shouted John, as the sheep shook his head until the bell tinkled loudly, "he does not like it. He wants to shake it off—but that you cannot do, you rascal!"

"John! John!" called Mother Hofer, "here is your dinner; it is time you were off."

John hung a little faded green knapsack, which held his dinner, over one shoulder, took a long Alpen stock from behind the door, let the four sheep and the two goats out of the pen and drove [32] them over a winding path along the high mountain side. It was yet early, but the sun was shining on John's side of the mountain, for it came in through an opening between the high peaks opposite. The highest of these was of bare gray rock and stood straight up into the sky. It was all rosy red in the early light and the sky was blue as sapphire behind it, but John was not looking at the mountain. He was thinking of Anton and wondering whether he had his flock standing together at the turn in the path, ready to go off to the mountains for the day.

Yes, there around the curve was Anton all ready. John shouted, but Anton did not turn around; instead he put his hands to his mouth and blew such a shrill whistle that the mountains echoed.

[33] Anton was sitting on a bench outside a little stone house with a broad, overhanging roof, narrow porches, and all around quite enclosed in lattice work. Near it was a wooden post from which the icy water spouted night and day into a big stone basin. The open space in front of the house was quite full of sheep and goats that Anton had collected as he came along from his home lower down the mountain, and if you had looked you would have seen little groups of goats and children coming along all the mountain paths. From behind the house appeared old Mother Anna leading her one goat by the horn, down from the level above came pretty Giannina running after their three large goats, from another direction two little boys chased some sheep into the square. From all sides came the children, boys and girls, [34] running after the sheep and goats, most of which wore broad, wooden collars.

Now the sheep and goats have all been driven in, and John and Anton start the willing flock off along the high path that leads towards the mountain pastures. Anton, who is twelve, goes first, then come the sheep and goats, and last of all comes John with lame Tito's two white lambs following close at his heels, for these lambs are great pets and will not stay with the flock but always walk behind with John.

They have first to go through a narrow lane with high walls on either hand where the flock presses through in a long line of woolly backs and tossing horns, and where there is no room for the goats to caper. You hear a patter of many little hoofs on the stony path, the tinkle here and there of a little bell, [35] and the dull thud of butting horns where two goats manage to come together despite the narrow and crooked way. Anton, far ahead, whistles gaily, and John coming on behind with the two lambs at his heels, also whistles.

Soon they come out from between the walls, and about them swell the green fields and grassy meadows shining with dew and all spangled with bright Alpine flowers. Quite out of sight, way down below, where it is yet dark, lies the Toy Valley; but on these breezy heights the sunbeams are slanting in between the peaks that rise serenely against the sky. Birds are singing everywhere. Anton stops whistling and begins to sing too, while John in the rear, now and then, adds a belated and discordant note. Everything seems so happy in the fresh, gay morning.

[36] The sheep go along quietly enough, but the goats!—how they do jump about! There is old Anna's demure-looking old goat walking on top of the stone wall, and presently three or four others jump up too and walk along in a line behind her. Goats always prefer the top of a stone wall to a good road, and the narrower and higher the wall the better they seem to like it. It is their nature to be outlandish, I suppose. No doubt you know they always shake hands with their heads. No sooner, for instance, would John's goats reach the meeting-place, than they would begin to say "Good-morning" to all the other goats, and the way they did it was to rear up on their hind legs and come down in a beautiful sideways motion head first upon the head of the other goat. Of course the other goat was ready and the two [37] hard heads would clash together like I don't know what, with a loud thud. Fighting? Not at all, merely saying "Good-morning" in polite goat fashion. I do not say that goats never fight, but I do say that those that John and Anton herded did not. They pushed each other a little hard sometimes, but they always played fair. One day, two of them were having a trial of strength on a steep hill-side, when the smaller one slipped and came sliding down upon the horns of the other in such a way that it would have been the easiest thing in the world for the other to rip it open. But what happened? The fallen goat gave a little whimpering cry, as much as to say, "Don't hurt me," and the other goat carefully lowered its horns until it was almost standing on its head and very gently pulled them out from under its [38] comrade, like the little lady that it was. No, goats are good folks in spite of appearances. And they are very knowing and the pupils of their eyes are mere slits, which is what gives them such a sly expression, as if they were saying, "You don't know what I am going to do next," which of course you don't.

But meantime there is the flock away on ahead and we shall have to run to catch up. Let's see, where were we? Oh, yes, old Anna's goat and the others were on the stone wall. Well, they are past the wall now, but the goats are not behaving well for all that, and will not keep to the path. Now one spies a tempting bush and darts down the slope to taste it. Two bit brindled ones are having a butting match on a rock. What hard heads they have! John calls now to one goat and now to another, [39] "Hi, Wawa! On, Nana!" for he knows the names of all, and sometimes he flings a stone, but his stones do not hit the goats, though they often strike a rock and bound back causing John to skip in a lively manner so as not to get hit by his own stone.

After following the mountain paths for over an hour in this way, they come to a gorge on the side of which the goats are to browse. Here Anton stops the flock,—lets the sheep go by but not the goats,—and when they are separated he goes with the sheep into a ravine at the opening of the gorge, leaving John to take the goats onto the slope above.

The boys are not so far apart but that they can call to each other, and when at last the sheep huddle together under the shadow of the bushes, Anton runs across the gorge to John and they hunt about [40] for berries and make mill wheels in the little brook until dinner time. Then they sit down on a sweet-smelling bank under a beech tree near the brook whose water runs icy cold from the snow beds high above. It is very still with only a bird call now and then. John takes a large piece of bread and another of goat's-milk cheese out of his knapsack and lays them on the stone. Anton does the same and dinner is ready.

The two lambs that have stuck close to John, declining to leave him when the flock was separated, lie down near, and as the boys eat, Anton, who has admired the new sheep bell as much as John could wish, suddenly breaks out:

"Oh, but you ought to see the cows come home from the Big Alp! It is far away so that the men must stay there all summer with the cows. They go up [41] when the snow is quite melted, and the path there is so steep that you must be careful not to fall over backwards. Sometimes it is so narrow and so close on the edge of the rocks that you have to put one foot before the other and not look down or else you might fall. The wonder is that cows will go in such a place."

"Goats can go where people can't," says John.

"Yes, and cows can go wherever a man can go without climbing with his hands. So Big Peter says. Big Peter stays all summer with the cows and makes wooden collars for them."

"He doesn't stay all alone, though," says John.

"Oh, no, indeed, there is Heinrich and Fernandino, besides two boys to help drive the cows and milk. They had [42] more than a hundred cows last summer and they all had to be milked in the morning and at night,—and they made butter and cheese from the milk every day."

"They have to work then—here, you, Beppo!" and John runs to chase mischievous Beppo back with the other goats.

"Yes, but they like it."

"There must be lots of good grass on the Big Alp," says John, throwing himself on the ground again.

"I should think so!" is Anton's eager reply. "Why, it is grass about as far as any one can see, and nothing else up there but sky, and far around on all sides the tops of the mountains. When I grow up I am going to the Big Alp to herd and make collars for the cows."

John shakes his head, "I shouldn't [43] like to stay like that all summer, but I'd like to see the Big Alp."

"Ah, but when the summer is over and they all come down! Then you ought to see the collars they put on the cows!—and the bells!" and Anton rolls over twice at the thought of it, then goes on with his narrative. "The bells are as big as a water bucket and the collars are not made of wood. No, indeed, they are of leather and sewed three times around the edge with red and yellow and blue, and bright birds and flowers are on them. They are three times as wide as wooden collars. They put them on the finest cows when they get to the foot of the mountain, and they tie green vines on the horns and around the necks and a great many bright ribbons. The old cows are proud and stand still, but the young one tossed her head and [44] ran into the bushes so they had to fix her up three times. Then they go into the village and all the people come out to see."

"But it is far to go to see that," says John, tucking his knees up under his chin ready for a long talk, for he likes to hear Anton tell about the Big Alp.

"Far!" exclaims Anton; "if you started at daybreak and walked well you would not get there before night."

"Well," says John, "some time I am going up there to see it all. But I am not going to stay, am I, Tito?" and he hugs a little black kid that has left its mother to nestle against him.

When the sun just touches the peaks of the highest mountain, the boys collect their flock and start homeward, Anton ahead as they went out in the morning and John bringing up the rear [45] with the two white lambs. As they near their homes, the goats separate of their own accord from the flock, each one going up its own path to its stall, and finally John, too, turns off and with only his own little flock goes on along the high, winding path to his home.


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