Sunday, October 25, 2015

Who was Johnnie Gill? Chapter 8

By Victor Sullivan  © 2015     Horse-shoes and Whips

It was one thing to get a tow to the peat bog from his brother or his father. It would be more challenging to get a tow to the town of Castletown Bere, all of two miles away, without his father noticing the stowaway beneath the cart. It is highly unlikely that Johnnie Gill's father failed to hear the unusual rumble coming from beneath his horse-cart as he set out to keep Nancy's appointment with the blacksmith. Every cart had its own individual, rhythmic 'wheel-crack' and familiar creaks and rattles that its owner would instantly investigate if any deviation from the normal sounds were detected. 

The horse-cart journey to Castletown Bere was routine and uneventful but for Johnnie, on tow behind it, the journey was a major historical event, like the maiden voyage of a great ship. Apart from a few cows grazing 'the long acre' (the grassy strip by the roadside), they neither met or overtook any other living creature. As they passed the entrance to Dunboy castle, Johnnie's eye caught the warning signal of Nancy's rising tail. He watched, paid out some of Belle, and, to his satisfaction, his estimate of a safe position for Eureka was proved to be 100% correct. Johnnie held his breath as Nancy missed both Eureka and its passenger and what she dropped passed between the front wheels, while the single castor wheel at the back easily ran over the lumps of soft, steaming horse-dung.

Arriving at the blacksmith's forge at the outskirts of the town, Johnnie released himself from the cart before it came to a stop. Johnnie watched as his father began to un-tackle Nancy in readiness for her shoeing job. A large, heavy boot landed on one wheel of Eureka and Johnnie looked up to see the grimy, sweat-streaked face of the elderly blacksmith gaping down at him.
"Well glory be to God! You must be young Johnnie Gill… the fella that fixed the sewing machine for Dan-the-Tailor. He keeps on telling everyone about you until we're sick of hearing the story. That's a great wagon you have there. Who made it for ya?"
"I made it myself."
"Good pair of hands you've got. Dan-the-Tailor must be right. Hello there Thomas."
Johnnie's father came up to them, leading Nancy by the head. He showed no surprise on finding Johnnie chatting to the blacksmith.
"That castor wheel at the back end, that's the one I got from you when I called in here a couple of weeks ago. Johnnie cleaned it up and fitted it. It's great ease for him."
"How the divil did you get those brass bands onto the two front wheels so neatly?" the blacksmith asked Johnnie. 
His father answered quickly with a wink to the blacksmith, "That's a question best avoided. Here's my horse for her set of shoes." 
"Mmmmmm!  Those brass bands look good but they won't last very long. Brass is too soft for these stony roads. Come back to me when the brass wears thin and I'll put iron bands on those wheels for ya."

As his father and the blacksmith set about preparing Nancy for her new shoes, Johnnie, using his two spiked Horses with a rhythmic, overarm action, propelled Eureka around the open area in front of the forge before returning to watch Nancy being shod. He had seen the job being done before, but this time he hadn't such a good view from Eureka level. Disappointed, he moved away to explore the area around the back of the forge, watched by three curious boys, aged around fourteen or fifteen years.

Thomas Gill held Nancy by the head, just inside the doorway of the forge, stroking her nose gently as the smith raised one hind leg and ripped off what remained of the old worn shoe. After a close examination and some careful hoof-paring with his knife. The smith took a red-hot shoe from the fire.
The yell and cursing from outside stopped him. It was a yell of pain followed by furious and abusive jeering and swearing. Street noises he usually ignored but this sounded like someone in trouble, someone had been hurt. Glowing hot horseshoe in tongs, the blacksmith got to the doorway in time to see three jeering boys running past, towing Johnnie's trolley at the end of a rope. His bellowed order didn't stop them. He dropped the tongs and shoe, reached  above the door and took down a whip, a very long-lashed whip. Thomas Gill stared in surprise as the whip hissed through the air leaving a faint trail of soot, before the sharp crack like a rifle-shot rang out and startled Nancy.
"Drop it!" bellowed the blacksmith, "Drop that rope or I'll whip the ear off your head. Go back to your own end of this town, while you are still able. NOW!"
The whip cracked again, ominously close to the boy pulling the rope but, as if daring the blacksmith to carry out his threat, he did not drop the rope. The other two had run some way ahead.
The whip-lash streaked backwards, then forwards and the sharp crack was partly drowned by the scream as the tip of the lash ripped a jagged hole in the boy's shirt-sleeve near his elbow. Dropping the rope instantly and with one hand holding his stinging arm, he ran to catch up with his two colleagues. The blacksmith picked up Belle and towed Eureka back to Johnnie, who had dragged himself around from the back of the forge in time to witness the coup de gras.
"What did those lads do to you? Good God! How did you get that face?"
"A kick. Then they turned me over and ran off with Eureka. Thanks for getting it back."
"Thanks for baiting the rat-trap for me. Those three are from the other end of the town. Pure trouble they are. They've been around here looking for some mischief lately. They won't tangle with me again, that's for sure." 
The blacksmith began to coil up his unusually long whip. Johnnie dragged himself onto Eureka and watched the whip being coiled up with growing interest, while rubbing his bruised face. A very long whip like that had possibilities.
"Could I make it work?"
"Find out for yourself. I have a horse to shoe for your old man. Catch!"

The four shoes had been securely nailed and clinched and once more the blacksmith raised Nancy's foreleg, placing the hoof on his knee for a final trim with the rasp. The sudden shot startled the horse, sending the rasp flying and almost knocking the blacksmith off his feet. 
"Who the bloody hell did that?" he yelled, striding towards the door while Johnnie's father calmed the now very nervous Nancy.
"Sorry! I got the knack sooner than I expected." explained Johnnie, appearing at the forge doorway, the whip trailing behind Eureka. 
"Well go away somewhere else and practice with it." growled the blacksmith, resisting the temptation to reclaim his whip and prevent further loud cracks, "Try clipping leaves off that tree away over there. That sycamore could do with a trimming!"
Johnnie needed no further encouragement. His father completed the transaction with the blacksmith and they chatted for a long time. Meantime, his son developed his whip skills on the sycamore, encouraged by a curious and growing audience, until his arm ached and he returned to the forge to hand back the magnificent whip.
"Thanks for letting me try it out. It's a great whip but why is its lash so long? What is it really for?" Johnnie asked.
"Aha! I was wondering when I'd be asked that question. Years ago, I used to be in charge of big teams of horses for heavy hauling at the Allihies mines. Eight or twelve horses pulling together was no bother to me. I used to train them specially for moving very heavy machinery. Some parts for the mine engines weighed several tons and had to be dragged from wherever they were landed off the ship all the way up to the mine workings on the hillside. That took some pulling! You were working at the building of that Man-engine at the Mountain mine in the 1850s, weren't you, Thomas?"
"How could I forget it! We watched you bringing up the beam and then the boiler for the Man-Engine with all the horses. Some of the men had bets on the number of horses it would take to pull it up the final incline. I don't bet, but I nearly gave in to the temptation that day.  I also watched you do the same thing with a big team of horses at the Urhin Mine, on the northern side of the mountain." Johnnie's father added, "You had over a dozen horses pulling the boiler up from the beach at Travara to the new crushing mill we were building on the hillside above Urhin. The 'mill on the hill' the locals called it. Not that it ever did much work. It was closed down a year or two after opening."

When Nancy was re-tackled to the cart, Johnnie's father posed the question,
"Well Johnnie, on it or under it?"
Johnnie wrestled with his emotions, rubbed his over-used and aching whip-arm and the arm's aches won.
"On it, this time, please."
His father picked him up and landed him on the flat floor of the cart. The blacksmith picked up Eureka and placed it beside Johnnie.
"Next time you're here, Johnnie, I'll show you how to do some fancy tricks with that whip. You seem to have a flair for it. Safe home."

They left the old blacksmith coughing and spitting into his fire and headed off along the quiet road, Nancy lifting her legs high in an un-natural gait until she gradually became accustomed to the extra weight and strange feel of the new shoes.  

"Where did you find him?" demanded Johnnie's mother as the cart stopped in front of the Gill farmhouse, "We've all been out searching for him everywhere."
"He was with me, watching Nancy being shod."
"WHAT?! Are you telling me he has been to Castletown Bere. Did anyone see him?"
"Well there was the blacksmith and three troublesome young scoundrels. Then there were several others watching Johnnie trimming a sycamore tree."
"WHAT!!! And YOU took him to town on the horse-cart?!"
"Oh no. I only brought him home on the cart," replied her husband truthfully, "He got to town on that thing he calls Eureka."

Mrs. Gill threw her apron up over her face in utter frustration. Johnnie was simply beyond controlling. First it was Dan-the-tailor, then the Dunboy estate manager, now the blacksmith and some unknown young lads from the town. Soon everyone would know about Johnnie and they'd be telling each other about his ailments and what things he couldn't do and they'd be trying to describe him and his dirty condition and, and, and everyone would find out that the cripple was her son. 

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