Friday, August 28, 2015

Who was Johnnie Gill? 1

A Serial by Victor Sullivan  © 2015

Chapter 1        1872
Where's the Dog?

On a fine Sunday afternoon in August,1872, ten-year-old Johnnie Gill slipped away from the family's farm-house on the hillside that overlooked Berehaven Harbour and Bantry Bay in south-west Ireland.  He went in search of his two older brothers, Richard and Tommy, suspecting that they were doing something they didn't want him to know about. He was being excluded and that irked. Sundays were obligatory days of rest; his pious parents and sisters were quietly doing just that and Johnnie's departure went unobserved. Those two brothers were up to some activity that would be frowned upon by grown-ups no doubt. Captain, the dog was missing, so they might have gone rabbit hunting, which, on a Sunday was strictly forbidden by his devout mother. She also objected to Sunday fishing in the river but they wouldn't have taken the dog fishing. Another secret drinking of whatever they might be drinking? Perhaps……. He had caught them doing that once…. 

Johnnie went in search of answers. Passing the empty stable and the adjoining quiet hen-house, he followed the rough, rutted, water-torn lane that led uphill towards the steep, wind-swept area known as Eastern Rea where sheep maintained pathways between thorny gorse bushes. Four large boulders lay half-buried in the heather, each one bigger than a cow. Following a sheep-track, Johnnie made his way upward towards the bleak peat-bog that lay beyond. Aha! He had guessed correctly; as he reached the top of the steep incline, there was Captain, tail wagging furiously but the expected charge towards him never happened because the big, friendly sheep-dog had been tied to a strong gorse-bush stump with a length of rope.  So it wasn't rabbit hunting but something else. Something where the dog might be a nuisance… stalking snipe or other birds on the bleak moorland?

Johnnie looked up into the clear, blue sky, seeking birds, any birds. He kept  turning around slowly until the broad sweep of Berehaven Harbour was spread out before him. To his left the rugged Caha Mountains with Hungry Hill dominating the skyline while dotted about on the calm water of Bantry Bay were numerous ships of the Royal Navy lying at anchor, sheltered from the broad Atlantic Ocean by Bere Island. None of them looked particularly interesting though, unlike the great big ship that had entered the harbour a couple of years earlier, having laid the first successful telegraph cable all the way to America. His father had taken him half way to Adrigole, on horseback, just to get a closer look because it was the biggest ship in the world, the Great Eastern. Hundreds of people travelled miles and miles to see it.

The bleat of a sheep! Why did he even notice it? There it was again. It sounded wrong. That was why he had noticed it! It was a wrong kind of bleat. Sheep didn't bleat like that normally. That sheep might be stuck in a gorse-bush? … There was something going on just ahead. Johnnie dropped down into the heather and crawled cautiously along until he caught a glimpse of his eldest brother's head moving rapidly along on the far side of the ridge. Richard must be riding on something. Again a sheep bleated a complaint. As he peered stealthily through the heather, Johnnie saw his other brother's head pass by quickly in a similar fashion and realized what they were up to. Sheep-riding!
Johnnie lay in the heather watching, jealousy increasing, as Richard followed Thomas back again in the opposite direction on their complaining sheep. A sheep race! Their father would …. well, he would if he knew…. 
Then one of the sheep jockeys saw him spying on their afternoon's entertainment. 
"He'll tell!" hissed Thomas.
"He won't if he does it too." replied his brother, raising his voice to issue the tempting invitation: "Come on Johnnie! Your turn. Take my one, she's easier to handle."
There was a very brief riding lesson with no reins, steering was best left to the sheep's judgement, apparently. Riding a horse was a dull, daily routine but this was better, different. And it was wrong, which made it even more exciting. 

"No yelling out loud!" was the final warning from Tommy as Johnnie buried his hands in the animal's wool in a white-knuckle grip. Richard hissed "GO!" as he thumped the sheep's rump and off it went at a surprising speed!

If only Johnnie had fallen off at that moment….a few bruises, some scratches on hands and face from the coarse heather … all such injuries would have healed within a week… Instead:

The charging sheep seemed to enjoy its lighter than usual burden and headed rapidly towards the edge of the ridge where it raced along the top until suddenly turning sharply downhill through the steep gorse and boulders of Eastern Rea.  The animal began to loose its footing, gathered speed and finally tumbled over, crushing its ten-year-old rider against one of the large boulders. 
Johnnie's agonized screams set Captain barking furiously as Tommy and Richard rushed towards their injured brother. Johnnie shrieked repeatedly as the sheep struggled to get up. It eventually succeeded, stood unsteadily for a few moments and limped away to recover.
Every attempt to help Johnnie to his feet only produced piercing screams of increased pain and it was clear that the boy had been seriously injured. His two older brothers were aghast; one of them would have to bring the awful news home and explain how it happened. Being the one who had invited Johnnie to ride the sheep, Richard volunteered to face his parents and sisters. He released Captain as he passed the spot where the dog was tied, and the anxious animal ran directly to the screaming child. On the way downhill to the farmhouse, Richard rehearsed his account of what had happened. They'll want to know whose idea it was it to let Johnnie ride on a sheep. Who was to blame?  … That can wait; Get help … immediately …  to bring Johnnie down from the top of Rea. Someone must go the two miles to town on horseback to fetch the doctor. One of the girls … Susan could go. … And they must find something flat to carry Johnnie down on. A door … that stable door he was passing lifts off its hinges easily but it is wide and very heavy … must get his father to help to carry it up… his father…his FATHER!  A neighbor perhaps?…. 
Richard had reached the peaceful, unsuspecting farmhouse.

It was a lighter door, the one from the hen-house, that they used to carry Johnnie down from Rea. Although the three pairs of arms tried to be as gentle as possible, nevertheless the rough, steep, slippery track caused many lurch-induced piercing screams, until at last the injured child was delivered into the care of his tearful, angry and distraught mother. To carry Johnnie upstairs would have involved more needless agony so it was decided to put him in the small parlor that opened directly from the kitchen. A makeshift bed was prepared there and the screaming child was laid on it. Twelve-year old Susan undertook to keep her two younger sisters, Elizabeth, 7, and Jane, 5, out of the house while Tommy, glad of any opportunity to get away from the scene, yet wishing to help, had already galloped off on the horse to fetch Doctor Harrison from Castletown Bere.

Johnnie's mother tried unsuccessfully to comfort Johnnie and ease his suffering, then, aware of her own utter helplessness, she had resorted to prayer at the beside of her moaning child. After what had seemed like hours of waiting, two horses clattered into the yard in front of the house. Tommy took care of both animals while his father escorted the doctor into the farmhouse.  
"A sheep did THIS!?" was his first comment after a prolonged examination that had been punctuated by a succession of agonized screams, "The boy's thigh-bone is smashed and his pelvis is shattered. He probably has several other internal injuries also. Nothing I can do for him I'm afraid. He'll be dead by tomorrow morning. I'm sorry, but that's how it is!"
Doctor Harrison collected his call-out fee, retrieved his horse from Tommy and rode off, leaving the Gill family to deal with their stricken child as best they could.
(To be continued)

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