"ALL WE LIKE SHEEP"

NELLIE L. McCLUNG Author of "in Times Like Those," "Next of Kin," etc. March 15 1920

"ALL WE LIKE SHEEP"

NELLIE L. McCLUNG Author of "in Times Like Those," "Next of Kin," etc. March 15 1920

PART II

THE rain came at last, full, free and abundant, feeding the sunbaked soil and filling the shrunken pools. It ran in tiny rivulets over the fields, and was swept down the tawny banks into the river. The dazed cattle stood in the fields and eagerly received it on their backs, never thinking of making for shelter in the trees. This was the thing they had dreamed of.

It rained and rained and rained. It came like a flood when a dam has burst, and the sad old, dry old earth was ready for it all.

The sun that had wrought such havoc went into permanent hiding now, as if ashamed of his summer’s work, and for many days the gray pall of heavy rain clouds was over all. And day and night, rain fell, pouring in floods down the window-panes in the gray farmhouses; dripping incessantly from the unpainted roofs; filling and overflowing the horse-troughs and rain-barrels, those that had not fallen into staves; and making a flowing stream of every garden path. It fell joyously and with a careless munificence, entirely unconscious of any error on its part in point of time.

But everyone knew it had come too late!

It had come too late to save the wheat!

Too late for the wheat, except the field where the sheep had pastured. It had come too late for the cabbage plants, which the hot winds had carried away; and it had come too late for the tired woman who had watered them at nightfall, for she gave up the struggle one hot Sunday morning, just as the sun rolled up again and began his deadly, daily march through the blue sky.... She just died.

It was not rebellion.... it was exhaustion.

When the rain poured down on the parched hills and fields, and there sprung up after it grass for the cattle and sheep, and enough of it, we hope, to put them through the winter; when late autumn flowers began to appear on the places that had been so desolate, I thought of the tired woman, whose soul had grown so gray and sere, and liked to think of how in the stream of God’s revivifying love, it would grow green again and blossom like the hillside. I like to think of her over there, feeding her tired, windblown eyes on the beauties of the Heavenly City, and indulging her love for growing things, in the flowers that never fade and the leaves that never wither.

She knows now.... I am sure she knows, that God is friendly.

Finding a New Home

THE rain which began in July and was plentiful through August, gave assurance of green feed but little else in the way of crop, and many of the farmers of the district, having lost two harvests in succession, decided to leave their farms for the winter and seek employment elsewhere. The farmer with whom the sheep had wintered was one of these, and so it became necessary for me to get another home for them.

The flock now numbered three hundred and twenty, with about seventy late lambs, fine little black-nosed Shropshires.

I did not know it would be so hard. There was plenty of green feed in the country; I was willing to give half the wool and half the lambs to pay for their board and keep, and this year the wool had sold well. But difficulties presented themselves.

One farmer agreed to take them if I would buy a quarter section adjoining his farm, which he knew we could get for seventeen dollars an acre, for the owner had offered it to him at that price. We motored thirty miles to meet the owner, but found that he wanted nineteen an acre now, which seemed too much for scrub land, in a neighborhood which was not particularly desirable.

We turned back and began our homeward journey, and though we were burdened with the cares of earth, with three hundred and twenty sheep, hungry and homeless, or about to be, staring us in the face, the glad old wine of the autumn sunshine, and the golden splendor of the woods, drove every anxious thought away.

The late rains had brought a vigorous growth to the trees, and there having been no frost, the leaves were in perfect autumn colors, gold and burnt orange, with a rare dash of red where the milk weed grew. Cattle and horses were feeding on the rich after grass of meadow and stubble, and except for the absence of stacks, there was nothing to declare the crop failure. The wild ducks sailed on the bosom of the lakes, riding gracefully over the ruffled waters. Every ravine and valley in its dress of autumn foliage, seemed to have a lining of stiff gold brocade.

It was a good day to renumber, and is one of the happiest memories I have of the sheep.

We heard of other men who had land to sell, and widows who would be glad to part with theirs; but I must have a poor manner for buying land, for in every case the price went up without notice, as soon as I intimated my desire to buy.

There was one quarter of scrub land, very conveniently placed for a sheep-run, whose owner lived in Ottawa. To him I sent a night letter, making him an offer, and asking him to reply by wire. Days passed, and no word came. After I got home, I received his reply. With true Homeric brevity, he told me to “Guess again.” The same day I got word from the sheep farm that the sheep had, without authority, broken into the neighbor’s crop of green feed and made themselves perfectly welcome to the extent of about twenty dollars’ worth of damage. Also, two more had died!

And the same day, a local society asked me to give an address at their regular meeting on “Sheep-Farming for Women.”

I declined.

I Decide to Sell the Sheep

THE search for a home for the sheep continued. I wrote letters, telephoned, telegraphed—(The Long Distance bill came in to-day)—for the fear of a storm was upon me. The muskrats had made big houses; the wild geese were going south; the Indians said we were in for an early winter. I believed it all. At last there seemed but one thing to do—I must sell the sheep. I could delay no longer!

From the stockyards, I learned that the British Columbia Government had sent out buyers for both cattle and sheep, and the hope sprang up within me that I might be able to do business with them. The Government representative very kindly promised to tell them about mine.

But days passed, and no word came.

On October the 9th came the first snow-storm, great soft blobs of snow that came staggering down as if uncertain of their way. The temperature was warm, and I kept telling myself that the sheep would take no harm. Besides, there was always the hope that the storm might not be so bad where the sheep were, for they were a hundred miles from the city. But the report I got next day showed that my hopes were vain.

Toward night the wind rose and it began to grow colder, and before morning it was a bitter, cold and howling storm that lashed and shrieked its way through the valley. The sheep were huddled together in the corral, and warm as their coats were, they suffered with the cold, for they bleated piteously all night. There had been four, which did not reach the place of safety, and these perished in the storm. They were found the next day, huddled together in a little hollow on the hillside, where they had lain down, trying to escape the lashing of the storm.

Then the whole matter of sheep became to me a tragic thing. Hitherto, I had been able to take my losses with some degree of equanimity. Even the inexplicable passion for death that so many had indulged in—while I realized that it was an expensive performance—did not worry me like this, for it was no fault of mine. But at the thought of poor helpless sheep, bleating in the storm—I grew panicky.

I phoned the stockyards, asking them what chances I would have of selling, if I shipped them in. The report was not encouraging. There were no buyers just then.

Then I thought of the sheep-dealer from whom I had bought them. Either the weeping widow had deceived him, or he had deceived me—for the heavy lamb crop had not arrived, and the death of so many was explained by experienced sheep-men as being caused by old age. It was evident that I had been badly taken in. But now, there was only one thing to do, and that was to sell, and I was prepared to sell to anyone.

The Market was Falling!

ONE of the men to whom I phoned at the stockyards, said to me; “Baatick (naming a dealer) is going to buy your sheep, I heard him say he was going down to bring them in.”

I wondered how he knew—but was glad to hear that someone wanted them.

That day I phoned him.

Mr. Baatick was sore on the sheep-business. The market was falling. He had lost two dollars a head on his last two shipments. He was tired of the whole thing. But he would try to find me a buyer—though he could promise nothing.

But in a few hours he came to see me with the Buyer. He came in with a sort of prideful swagger, and figuratively handed me over the buyer, much as a cat throws down a mouse at your feet, and seems to say: “Can you beat that?”

The Buyer was true to type. He was the Real Thing—in a sheep-man. Big, awkward, timid—and apparently foreign.

“Can’t speak much English,” Mr Baatick explained to me in a low tone, “but he has the money in his mitt.”

I liked this big fellow, who wanted to empty his mitt and take my sheep in lieu thereof.

Mr. Baatick told me all about him. “He lives ten miles out of the city. He knows nothing about sheep. I’ve promised to get him a good bunch, and am sure glad to be able to do a good turn for both of you. This man—he’s a Hollander, has plenty of feed, range and shelter, and wants five hundred good ones. He don’t know much—” the dealer’s voice fell confidentially—“innocent as a child—but his heart is all right. He’ll be good to them. Yes, he’ll take your dog too, and give her a good home. He’s real handy with dogs—and a great fellow to stay at home. Don’t enjoy himself out—for he knows he aint as bright as some. He gets nervous every once in a while, and gets scared someone will cheat him; but I told him you would not cheat no one.”

I Take the Offer

I LIKED the big fellow, who sat nervously on the edge of his chair and ran his eyes around the picture moulding in the room. He was so helpless and innocent, and so dumb.

His friend, the dealer, made all the arrangements. He talked faster and huskier than when I had bought the sheep from him. His voice was hurried, and worn and rasping, like a voice that knows it needs to shut down for repairs, but under stress of work cannot spare the time, and goes on to its own destruction. Punctured as it is, it drives onward full speed—on the rim!

The prices he offered seemed very low to me, and I said so.

Mr. Baatick gave me a piercing glance from behind his hand,

The Buyer’s gaze was riveted on the chandelier, and his mouth had been carelessly left open.

"Take it, Lady”—Mr. Baatick said, with his lips.

He crossed the room to look at a painting, and as he passed me, he whispered:

“This is more than the market price—take it.”

I hesitated, and decided to call the yards again. Surely the price was higher than this.

But when I called a firm of Commission buyers, I found the price they offered me for fat lambs was a quarter of a cent lower than the figure we were discussing.

The thought of another storm, and my poor sheep—without adequate shelter—made me disposed to accept any fair offer.

The dealer pressed home the advantage.

“Now it is like this,” he said impressively. “Here’s a man who wants to go into sheep—and he has the money to do it. He knows nothing about them—but he’ll learn—he’s smart enough—about some things. Here’s you—wantin’ to sell, and wantin’ to sell pretty bad. I bring you two together. Now there’s nothing in this for me—not a nickel”—here his voice took on a fine tone of passionate unselfishness—“Nothing! But what’s the good of livin’ if you can’t do a good turn to a friend once in a while, I say! Now I bring you two together—you can do the rest. Make any bargain you like. Get them as cheap as you can—sell them as high as you can.” He waved his arms impressively, first to the Buyer, then to me.

“But, Lady—don’t hold out for higher prices, because the bottom’s gone out of sheep—I lost two dollars on each sheep I sold last week, and I was hit hard. Never mind—Life aint all sunshine—I never expect to win every time—I take it, good or bad—with a smile—It’s the only way, Lady!”

I glanced at the Buyer, here, and if I had not known that he didn’t understand the language, I would have thought I detected something that resembled a wink in his pale blue eye.

But the moment passed—and when I looked again, he was the man with the hoe once more—looking helplessly at his friend.

“I not know nothin’!” he said—waving his arms—“I get scare—”

His friend re-assured him.

“Her sheep are good sheep!” he said, speaking very slowly, and as distinctly as his voice would allow, “Good sheep—big—young—She sell sheep—cheap—she not want sheep.”

The Buyer nodded, and was apparently comforted.

Just before closing the bargain, I thought of the British Columbia buyers, and went to the phone to see if I could get any information from the stockyards. Nobody seemed to know about them definitely. One man told me he thought they had bought all the sheep they wanted. I asked again about the market, and it was said to be going down.

Hearing me ’phone, Mr. Baatick told me he could have saved me the trouble. The British Columbia buyers had gone South to get theirs, and he had heard that they had bought all they wanted. He had just heard that—mind you, he didn’t wish me to take hearsay, because he knew it couldn’t be depended on. But he believed it likely, because the South was full of cheap sheep—

He glanced at the Buyer, to see if he were listening, or undergoing any sort of an intellectual moment. Satisfied that he was not—Mr. Baatick slurred his voice, and bent nearer to me.

“I could take him down to the South to-day and get him his choice of eight hundred good ewes at seven cents a pound. He could pick the best at that, but—”

He glanced again, to see if all was quiet along the home front—and it was.

“I wanted to dispose of yours—I know you’ve had heavy losses this summer, and I sure want to help you get out as well as possible.

I thanked him sincerely.

Then his voice came up to normal—“Yours are good ones—I know them, and I know they’ll suit. This man wants nothing but good ones, and I’ve promised to see that he gets them.”

Here the Buyer withdrew his gaze from the chandelier, and burst into broken speech, with much arm-waving, but a stern glance from his friend, cast fetters on his tongue again, and he subsided like a boiling kettle into which cold water had been suddenly thrown.

Settling the Price

THE point in dispute between us was the price to be paid for the ewes. We had agreed on the price for lambs and wethers.

Mr. Baatick impressed on me that only the best of the ewes would be taken by this man, but in order to get the deal through, he would take, at the same price, all other ewes, broken mouthed though they might be, if they were in good condition, and fit for mutton. Of course the very old ewes—if there were any, would have to go for three cents a pound—being valuable only for the hide.

I protested this. There were no old ones, except two. How could there be old ones, I asked him, when they had all been so young and vigorous ten months ago? I wondered how I happened to have even two old ones, in such a carefully picked bunch.

Mr. Baatick knew.

“I tell you, Lady,” he said, “it aint all a matter of age. Sheep sometimes get down thin and lose their teeth, just like people. Lots of young people aint healthy people—you know that—but I know you can’t have many poor ones, and he’ll leave it to me—he don’t know a thin sheep from a good one. I’ll promise you there won’t be more than five that have to be thrown out. You’re getting a good price, Lady—and he is getting good sheep—now every one should be satisfied. I know I am, tho’ I aint getting a cent out of this, as you both know.”

Grading the Sheep

THE sheep came into the city in four cars, late one night, with a bitter snowstorm raging. In the “Off-car” count, I was three short of the number I should have had, and the next morning, by mistake, a pen of other sheep was opened, and they mixed with mine. When separated and counted, the owner of the other sheep was one short, and as the mistake had not been of his making, one of my sheep had to put with his, to make his count correct.

Then the sheep were weighed and sold. All went well until we came to the ewes. The best ones were selected first, and weighed. Then the broken-mouthed ones were brought in, and Mr. Baatick, staff in hand, began to discard the thin ones.

He assured me that not more than five would be thrown out, and after he had examined the flock the first time, he phoned me that he only saw two thin sheep among them. But when the sheep were driven in to the scales, he threw them out like a vigorous badger digging a hole in the sand. His crook was upon the neck of every other sheep, and she was placed in the discard. These ewes, who had been the widow’s pride, and the object of her deep affection—the mothers of twin lambs, young and prolific—ten months before—were adjudged by him now to be worth only three cents a pound.

In his decisions, he had steady support from the “hands,” all of whom I recognized as the enthusiastic clackers who helped him to make the sale less than a year ago.

“There’s a poor one!” the red-faced one, still with the cotton batting in his ears, called. “I’d like to hear what Swift’s buyer would say to that one, if you was to fetch it over."

He was the one who had told me he knew by “instink” the ages of sheep.

“When sheep gets old, like them—you can’t expect to make money on them,” the old man, with a moustache like a sea-lion, said to me, in mild reproof.

Shrops Had Gone Out!

I NEVER realized before, how deadly is the blight of time, when in ten short months, in which, alas, I had spent many hundreds of dollars on their care and keep, a flock of sheep could change from bright, young ewes in the heyday of life, looking forward to many fruitful years, to faded, jaded, decrepit wrecks, sunken in years and general debility, with none so poor as to do them reverence.

“One thing goes hard against your sheep,” said the inside keeper of the gate, “and that is, that they are Shrops.”

“Why?”—I asked in surprise—I should have been ready for anything by this time, but this was a new one.

“Shrops aint considered good any more,” he said, mysteriously.

“What have they done?” I asked.

“It aint anything they’ve done, Lady,” he explained, “only there’s better kinds. No one’s buying Shrops any more. They favor Oxfords, Hampshires, Southdowns and Rambelais.”

“Why,” I said, “you told me last January, Shrops were the best, healthiest, hardiest, best for wool and mutton, earliest to mature, longest-lived, eat the least and weigh the most. You certainly said so. I thought Shrops were the real Plymouth Rocks among sheep.

“Well, Lady,” he said, “it’s just this way—it’s fashion. No one can help the fashion, now can they, Lady? You might have a fine hat this year, and next year it will look like thirty cents. Shrops have gone out, that’s all. No one can help it, Lady. It aint your fault you happened to get the wrong kind.”

Well, it was kind of him to exonerate me from blame in the matter, anyway.

Before I left the stockyards, I made an interesting discovery. The Buyer, as soon as the sheep were sold, came to, and perked up wonderfully. He lost the helpless and defenceless look, and when last seen, he was talking fairly good English, and lots of it.

I was also somewhat taken aback to find out that he had no intention of going into sheep-farming, at least, not at present. That was a bluff. He and the sheep-dealer, before they came to see me, had already arranged to sell my sheep to the dealers from British Columbia, at an advanced price; so, when the dealer told me he thought the British Columbia buyers had bought sheep, he really made a record for himself, for he told the truth.

I Am Sore on the Business

THE casual reader will infer by this time that I am sore on the sheep-business. I am. On everything but the sheep themselves. Sheep—as the Christian Scientists say, “uncontaminated by human hypothesis,” are fine; gentle, likeable, easily managed and profitable—We all like sheep; but the sheep business is not for the uninitiated. It is no venture for the amateur.

I wish to testify to the real, sincere and honest help which the Government gives to the sheep-farmer, in the free freight, the sheep bulletins, and, above all, in the service of the Live Stock Representative at the stockyards, part of whose business it is to look after the inexperienced and unwary. Unfortunately for me I did not know this when I bought or when I sold and I think the Live Stock Bulletins should make it plain to the intending purchaser that this service is theirs for the asking. The help of an experienced, practical, honest stockman (such as the Dominion Representatives are), freely and cheerfully given, would save the intending buyer from the wiles of unscrupulous dealers, and there are such in the live stock business as well as in any other, and as the purchasing of stock is largely a matter of faith between buyer and purchaser, the live stock industry furnishes an attractive field for crooked dealing.

I have no hope that this story of mine will ever be used as a livestock bulletin because it has such a heavy undertone of grief and lacks the bubbling optimism which gives livestock articles their charm, but as there are many inspirational articles already written showing the rosy prospects of the livestock industry, and many more likely to be written, a word of warning may not come amiss.

Livestock has an uncanny attraction for those of us who were brought up on farms and now live in the cities. Mingled with the pleasant memories of field and flower, and running streams, and new-mown hay is the picture of the old red cow with a star on her forehead, and the woolly lambs playing on the green grass and the black and white collie who never failed to spring to attention when the hens gave out the warning which means “hawks.” There is something so human and companionable about animals that when our ears are worn by city sounds and our throats are choked with dust, we just naturally want to own a few living things again, and we hope—(though this hope is vain)—that if we could get them back again—“Old Rhody” with the white star, and the black hen with her perennial following of black chickens and good old “Nap" to chase the hawks away—that our youths would come back with them.

But I must not let myself think about them, so I am going to stop right here and set down as my last word that the absentee owner of livestock will not find them a source of joy and gladness, but of heartbreak and loss, and I have written all this in the hope that it may catch the eyes of many other simple pilgrims just about to be misled who will stop—and look—and listen—and buy Victory bonds instead!

P. S.—The other day I got a card from a friend who did not know I had hastily retired from the sheep business. On the card was a flock of sheep feeding on the sloping banks of a river. In the foreground, was an old, old lady knitting. Beneath were the words:

In nineteen hundred and fifty-two,

These may be them; This may be you,

If they escape the wolves and ticks

And you keep out of politics.