By Victor Sullivan © 2015 Shoes for Ribbon
Ribbon had been very carefully trained and well looked after by her former owner, Molly O'Hanrahan. The only thing that Johnnie's newly acquired donkey needed was some hoof paring and a set of new shoes, requiring another visit to the whip-cracking, elderly blacksmith. Ever since that memorable occasion, ten years earlier, when Eureka had been recovered from the blackguards who had tried to steal it, Johnnie had often visited the smith's forge. Sometimes old Nancy needed a horseshoe replaced, or her young and skittish, successor, Bessy, but often Johnnie merely visited the aging blacksmith for a friendly chat and to learn and practice new and clever tricks with the long-lashed stock-whip.
It was early one bright June morning when Johnnie proudly drove up to the forge with Ribbon and her cart, but the cheery, jovial greeting he was about to utter didn't get beyond the first word. The feeble condition of his friend, the blacksmith was all too obvious as he emerged from the dark interior of the forge to lean against the door-frame. A racking cough and blood-streaked spitting confirmed his initial opinion that the old man was not going to shoe many more animals.
"You'll be my final customer, Johnnie. I'm letting the fire go out tonight. I'm not able for it any longer. You've just arrived in time. Is she gentle and quiet?"
"As gentle as an angel. She used to be Molly O'Hanrahan's donkey, Ribbon. You two met before, I suppose."
"We did indeed. Poor Molly, she was aghh…….." His words ended in a pitiful choking sound and a long coughing bout. After much spitting and panting he seemed to recover his strength and un-tackled Ribbon from her cart.
The hoof paring of the first leg took much longer than was usual. Ribbon may have had unusually tough hooves. Pretending that hoof trimming was a useful skill for Johnnie to acquire, the old smith suggested that Johnnie's powerful hands should perform the paring of the donkey's hooves. Fitting and nailing the shoes took a much longer than was usual but at last the job was done. Little was said. Johnnie paid for the shoes and the blacksmith tackled Ribbon to her cart and watched as Johnnie demonstrated its tipping floor and his mounting technique, with Eureka. He turned Ribbon towards home.
"Wait! I have something for you. It will either keep you out of trouble or get you into it!"
Johnnie stopped Ribbon and waited. The blacksmith went to the door of his forge, reached up, took down the stockwhip and presented it to Johnnie.
"Here. Take this and mind it for me. It has served me well. Be sure to rub it often with unwashed sheep's wool, fresh off the sheep. That's important to keep it supple. Good luck with it."
"I'll mind it like a baby … for you. Thanks."
Johnnie flicked the reins and Ribbon plodded awkwardly towards home in her new shoes. aware that he and the blacksmith would never meet again. His old friend would never be forgotten, the whip he was clutching in his left hand would see to that.
As he appoached the Gill's farmhouse, Johnnie's mother was walking towards him, stopping him in the lane before he reached Ribbon's stable. She had been anxiously waiting for his return and had seen his donkey-cart cross the river at the bottom of the valley.
"Johnnie! Johnnie, don't untackle Ribbon. I want you to turn around and take your sister to town. That toothache is killing her all day. She needs the dentist. You and Ribbon take her to town. She's in a lot of pain. The men are all too busy at the hay and need the horse. The two mile walk to town would be too much. Johnnie, could you take her….? "
Johnnie was aware of his 21 year-old sister's bouts of toothache. Her misery had been a dark cloud in the household for weeks. Now, unable to bear the pain any longer and with her swollen face wrapped in a thick scarf, Ada had, at last submitted to the inevitable and agreed to visit the dentist. The agony of tooth extraction was terrifying even when only being imagined or talked about. Now, in her desperation for relief from toothache, Ada prepared herself for the full reality of the anguish as she travelled towards the dreaded dentist on Johnnie's donkey-cart. They stopped outside the door of the dentist's house.
"I'll wait here with Ribbon for you. It mightn't be as bad as you think. It will be over quickly."
Ada hesitated to get out of the cart and Johnnie remembered his own dread of anticipated intense pain before it struck and he felt a deep pity for his miserable and terrified younger sister.
"GO! Go now and get it over with!" He encouraged. Ada went, leaving Johnnie to imagine the various stages of the procedure taking place inside the net curtained window, that would culminate with his sister's screams. He waited. There was no scream. He began to imagine possible reasons for the delay. Then the door opened and there she stood, the dentist beside her, holding one arm. He helped her down the two steps and into the donkey-cart. The young dentist grinned at Johnny's bemused expression and answered his unasked question:
"She didn't feel a thing! Latest fashion in painless dentistry. Anesthetics. She will tell you all about it later. She's a bit groggy right now but that will soon wear off. She might have a bit of a headache too but that will pass."
It was a greatly relieved Ada who walked, still a little unsteadily, into the kitchen and began to recount her surprising painless tooth extraction. Her joy did not last long. That night her face swelled and a fever followed that every effort by her mother to alleviate failed. Ada grew weaker as the days passed. The doctor was sent for. He diagnosed severe blood poisoning following a tooth extraction, shook his head solemnly, expressed sympathy and left on his horse. Within an hour, Ada was dead, aged only twenty one. It was 11th June, 1894. Johnnie would be 33 in just over one week later, not a happy birthday.