By, Charles Ramos, Jr.
The dust of time is finer than flour and it settles slowly but surely down through the ages as they pass. In but a few places does this dust lie as thickly as it does upon the road that once meandered through a tiny Welsh hamlet called, Kilcairn.
Don’t bother trying to look it up on any map however. At least not any map that was drawn up in modern times. Do not even waste your time looking for Kilcairn on the maps of your great-great-grandfather either. Kilcairn ceased to exist longago. Today the area is nothing more than a large parcel of grazing land that belongs to somebody who lives somewhere else. Someone who likely would not care even if they did know the significance of this humble yet historical site.
If one were to start digging aound and mucking about here and there in the area between the old stone wall and the millstream that runs to the north of it one might be lucky enough to unearth a decayed remnant of the good people who once inhabited the village. But very little else save for pottery, or some other minor relics remain. Perhaps if you’re as lucky as leprechaun with a pocket full of four leaf clovers, and you brought along a metal detector, you might even find a coin. One that would likely be worth a king’s Ransom on today’s market.
You won’t see any archaeologists digging around on the site though, not where the hamlet of Kilcairn once stood. That is something that shall remain forever lost to the memory of time and buried deep beneath the thick dust of past ages. A time and place now forgotten by memories that are long since dead.
If you were to look right over there along the stream, back over towards that little hillock there, the one with the gnarled old tree growing on top of it. See it?
Well, you silly goose, if you were standing there you would see it, but for now just use your imagination.
Believe it or not that tree was planted by the most famous of all of Kilcairn’s humble residents. He planted it the same day that he defeated a murderous local dragon named, Morloch the Terrible after he all but wiped Kilcairn off the map . But we shall come back to that story on another day in another chapter of another volume. Many, mighty, and indeed magical were the deeds of the man who left Kilcairn a gangling teenaged sheep herder and returned a mighty wizard. The one whom you all know as Merlin The Magician.
Where the branches of that tree are now spread out there once sat a tiny cottage that was constructed mostly of sticks, and reeds, and the thatch that made up its roof. Which leaked something fierce whenever it rained. But the little house had a great stone fireplace and a wide, welcoming hearth in which a black iron kettle was never wanting for a leg of mutton or any savory vegetables to keep it company.
The lady of this house whose name was, Temperance St. Cloud, kept her home as neat as a pin and it was generally agreed by one and all that dust bunnies did not even dare to tread upon her floor from fear of her cleaning cloth. Temperance was a very kind and gentle woman with a heart as big as a Clydesdale and she absolutely doted upon her tiny family and they on her.
In front of the little cottage a riot of color burst forth from hundreds of blooming flowers and climbing rose vines. While in the backyard garden, squash, pumpkins, peas, beans, carrots, cabbages, corn, and turnips grew in neatly tended rows between which weeds feared to raise their heads. The low split-rail fence around it kept the sheep away from her garden and her faithful sheep dog kept the rabbits searching for greener pastures.
Her husband was a very large and sturdy Welsh gentleman by the name of Randal St. Cloud. Randal tended to his flocks, kept food on their table, a fire burning in the hearth, and the wolves away from their door and was very highly regarded in Kilcairn as a good egg.
The St. Cloud’s were not a family of means by any means if you know what I mean, but Randal St. Cloud made a fairly good living thanks to the wise husbandry of his grazing lands, keeping his sheep dogs healthy, and by being fortunate enough to have suffered only a few losses from predators. Something that could ruin a sheep rancher very quickly if left unchecked.
Just like his lovely wife, Randal was a very kind, honest, and gentle person whom it was said was given to good humor and cheer. Their home always rang with the sound of laughter and song. If not the braying of sheep or the barking of the sheep dogs chasing them around the house.
The third and final member of this little family affair was their one and only child, a young boy named, Shane.
Shane St. Cloud was a very bright young man who was quite adept at learning new things such as the latest games, dances, songs, and even more advanced skills like masonry, metal working, and leather craft, and hunting.
Shane was a deep thinker and a most unsual child for his time. Innovative and radical new ideas often crossed his mind whenever he gazed up at the stars and began to dream of the future.
He had inherited his parents looks so Shane was considered to be a very handsome young lad by the local ladies and lasses. He had, of course, their polite manners as well.
Shane was a favorite of every female, and a close friend to every child in the village. Everyone enjoyed his company far too much to be jealous over all the attention he got from the adults because they knew they could always depend upon Shane for a laugh.
Say what you will about “Saint” Shane as the grownups knew him but the children knew the real Shane St. Cloud. The boy that the grown-ups knew absolutely nothing about. Master Shane was, unbeknownst to anyone under the age of 16, a notorious prankster and an accomplished practical joker.
Shane’s exploits were legendary tales that even for many years after he left were told and retold in secret between the children of Kilcairn as their own part in the shenanigans. Like the time that he switched good wife Mary’s laundry with that of good wife Cheryl who lived just across the way from her. Both of whom were as much alike as an orange is to a watermelon.
Poor Mary, thought a sorcerer had put a spell on her clothing to make them grow 4 sizes too big for her. While good wife Cheryl on the other hand upon seeing how small her clothes were on her, fainted dead away in the belief that she had gained an extra 100 pounds overnight. It took a great deal of effort to revive her once again because she passed out again every time she woke up and saw the tiny clothing hanging on her line.
Her radical new crash diet plan lasted only long enough for her to figure out that she had her neighbors laundry and her neighbor had hers. Thus another mystery would go forever unsolved.
And then there was the time when a person or persons unknown somehow managed to get into the baker’s shop while he was out making his weekly deliveries and switch all of his sugar with sea salt. The hapless man was nearly flogged and run out of town before it was determined that he had been the latest innocent victim of the practical joker. The culprit was, despite rampant speculation as to their identity, never brought to Justice.
One fine day, when Shane was 16 years old, the practical jokes and the practical joker vanished from Kilcairn, never to be seen nor heard from again.
Out of all of Shane’s many pranks and practical jokes, none of them could ever top the infamous Black Sheep Gambit for sheer notoriety. The story has been widely told and retold in churches and pubs, and in villager’s homes until it became a local legend. Which was just as completely forgotten over the same amout of time.
Once upon a time, on the other side of Kilcairn there lived a very mean and miserly old grouch of a man who went by the name of, Charney Rothschild.
The old man had long since worn out his welcome as far as the residents of Kilcairn were concerned. He managed to do this by treating everyone he met with complete and utter contempt. The grocer even sent his goods out to Charney’s cottage with his blessings every week rather than have the old man darkening his doorstep.
Most people acted as though Charney were invisible and took great pains to ignore him completely whenever he would take his evening constitutional around the streets of the village. They also hoped and secretly prayed that one day the old skinflint might take a hint and move to some distant location. One which the villager’s thought might be better suited to his nasty disposition like perhaps the North Pole, or better yet, the Moon.
Many people suggested that Satan’s own apartment might be even more comfortable for old man Charney, and they offered him various suggestions strongly advising him to go there straightaway on numerous occasions. However, the old man was enjoying his role as the village thorn in the side far too much to ever want to give it up and move to another village. He was much too cheap to ever pay for the cost of moving there anyway and so he stayed put right where he was.
One way or another a rumor got started by a person or person’s unknown ( Surely you can guess by whom), that the Queen of England was in need of a large quantity of pure black wool with which to fashion herself a new all-black wardrobe.
The rumor also had it that since black sheep are very rare in her kingdom , the Queen was more than willing to pay very handsomely for any and all black rams, ewes, or lambs that anyone was offering for sale.
The rumor spread like a wildfire burns through a dry corn field. Soon enough it fell upon the greedy ears of old man Charney who immediately set about searching his neighbor’s flocks trying to buy up any and every black sheep which they could bring themselves to part with.
Most of the herdsman refused to even speak to Charney much less have any dealings with him. They slammed the door in his face upon hearing his request if they even bothered to listen to him at all.
In the end all the greedy old man had to show for his troubles were six black Merino sheep which he now kept in his holding pens. After wasting several months searching and scouring the surrounding countryside, Charney was beginning to realize that he had very little hopes of increasing that number. He was beginning to panic a little.
As it so happened, old man Charney was a man of very few vices. But the one vice in which he did indulge himself was playing ten pins with a group of old codgers very much like himself, who lived in the nearby township of Callister. A larger village approximately five leagues to the east of Kilcairn.
Once every month be it foul weather or fair, old Charney would hitch up his old gray mule to his rickety old buggy and head out for his monthly rendezvous with his old cronies for a lost weekend of bowling, betting, bickering, and beer.
They would bowl tenpins for three straight days and then old man Charney would return home again. Usually he was a few silver crowns heavier than when he left. Which of course was the very reason why he always went to Callister in the first place. That and the free beer.
As terrible as Charney Rothschild was at Ten Pins, his cronies were just a little bit worse. Only they seemed to be unaware of the fact and so they continued to donate money to Charney’s growing bank account. Which, of course, was an old rolled up sock that had been darned more times than memory alone could be trusted with.
It was on one such occasion while Charney was upon the road to Callister for his monthly meeting of what the locals had come to refer to as the “goat herd,” the old man fell into the waiting clutches of the phantom practical joker.
He happened upon a young man that day at a place where the road wound around the base of a hill approximately a league and a half from Kilcairn and well out of sight of the village. The lad whom old man Charney would later recount to anyone unwilling to hear the story again and again was an unremarkable boy of indeterminate years,who wore an odd manner of dress.
The lad was a stranger to Charney’s eyes and the old man prided himself on knowing everyone who lived in the five shires surrounding his own, on sight.
The codgity old skin-flint very likely would not have given the boy the time of day under any other circumstances because the young man looked like any of a dozen other dirt poor shepherd boys. Had it not been for the fact that the lad was holding the tether of a large jet black Merino ram it is quite likely that Charney would have driven past the boy. But the greedy old man saw nothing but pound notes, and sterling silver because the ram was obviously of exquisite breeding and it was wearing an incredibly fine coat of wool to boot.
Charney could not believe his eyes, he even shook his bony old bald head a few times to make sure he wasn’t seeing things. He was not. Charney told himself that he must have the animal to add to his own little flock and set his mind on acquiring it. As he drew abreast of the lad, old Charney could see the muddy tracks of tear streaks that were running down the young man’s dust coated cheeks and dripping down onto his shirt. Old man Charney pulled in on the gray mule’s reins and brought the buggy to a rattle-banging halt by standing on the buggy’s brake.
“Here now!” he said by way of greeting. “To what purpose do you stand astride the roadway leading a black ram around and crying yer eyes out so? Are you lost or have you taken leave of yer senses, lad? He asked, his greedy green eyes taking in every detail of the black ram.
The young man wiped tears and mud from his eyes with the dirty sleeve of his patchwork coat and sniffled loudly before replying, “Oh no good sir, not at all. I am from a large farm over towards Lower Aftoncamshire where I live with my Uncle Robert Eframbretonun.
Charney wanted to stop the lad right there and ask him where in God’s green countryside Lower Aftoncamshire was and what that uncle’s name was again (for he had never heard of either one of them) but as the boy went on with his story, the old man’s greedy nature was whispering loudly in his ear. The sound of clinking silver and gold coins was far too loud inside his head for him to hear the voice of reason so Charney let it slide.
“You see sir, my uncle has taken very sickly and alas I’m afraid the bankers are threatening to drag him before the Magistrate and foreclose on our farm. They say they are going to take everything that we have in order to repay the debt so I am selling off some of our sheep as best as I can in order to bring in some money and stop the foreclosure. This is the first one that I’ve tried to sell but alas I have stood here for most of the morning and not a soul, save for your worship of course, has happened along.”
“Did I hear you aright lad? ” Charney said, leaning down closer from the driver’s seat to have another look at the ram. “Did you just say yer selling this animal?” His greed was at high tide by then so he never even felt the sting of the hook as it bit deeply into his lip. The old man was good as landed and flopping about on the deck already and didn’t know it.
“Aye, surely you did, sir.” said the young lad. Then with a big sniffle and another swipe of his coat sleeve, he added, “The sheep are all that we have to sell. Accepting of course for the farm itself”
Charney thought that he had found a real life sucker and he thought that he was about to add one more black sheep to his collection for a song. But of course he didn’t reckon on himself being the mark in the scenario.
“I see. Well young man you are in luck as I also tend sheep. It just so happens I currently have need of a decent ram such as this one. So I’ll tell you what I will do. I will give you a silver crown and sixpence for your animal and then you may be on your way to your farm and return to your uncle’s sickbed and deliver the happy news to him.” Old man Charney said. Certain that the rube would jump right on the deal he jingled the coins in his purse. (the same old sock which held his bank account). Much to his surprise however the young man had other ideas of his own.
“That is a most generous offer kind sir,” the boy said, but I have been charged by my good uncle, who has the sole ownership of this animal, to accept no less than four crowns for this one and never a pence less. So I’m afraid I shall be resigned to my fate which is to stand here and pray for the good Lord to send me a deliverer who has four crowns and the desire to own this ram.” The boy sighed pitifully and hung his head low as he spoke. The tears were already flowing down his cheeks again and he made a half-hearted attempt to wipe them away with his sleeve, which was pretty wet already.
“Four crowns eh?” Charney asked.
The lad just sniffled loudly and nodded his head without looking up at him.
“Aye, sir. Four crowns I must bring back to my uncle on his sickbed or else the animal itself lest my uncle lash me with a thong and wear my hide to a frazzle.” the boy mumbled as he studied the dirt on his bare feet, shuffling the dirt around with them as he did so.
“well now I don’t know anything about that lad. But I do know that four silver crowns is a lot of money to be paying out for a ram in these parts,” Charney said. “How about if I give you two silver crowns and sixpence for the ram, and I’ll even throw in a ride home in my buggy?”
The young man looked up at Charney then, his face streaked with mud and said, “I would love to oblige you sir if it were it within my power to do so and this roadside pedaling be hanged. But your wish is not within my power to grant sir except at the high price of my own hide. No sir I cannot accept your offer.”
Charney thought about trying to bargain with the boy some more but clearly that was going to get him nowhere what so ever since the boy’s uncle had set the price on the animal. It was fair market value for a healthy Merino ram which this one clearly was, but it was actually a steal for a solid black one with no spots on it at all. Considering the big demand for black wool to fill the queen’s order He knew that he would be able to fetch at least 8 crowns at the palace. According to all the stories that he had heard around Kilcairn lately anyway. Maybe he could even fetch as many as 10 crowns for this particular specimen.
“I’ll tell you what young man. I will meet your price of four crowns silver and take this animal off of your hands. That way you shall be relieved of your suffering and perhaps your Uncle can save his farm.” old Charney said. The boy’s face turned into a huge smile that lit it up from ear to ear.
“Oh my! Really, sir?” he asked. “Oh, bless you your worship sir! Bless you! My uncle is truly going to be very happy to hear this wonderful news. The payment will satisfy the interest on his loan and keep the bankers from going to the magistrate for another month.” He said.
“Tell your uncle that I wish him a most speedy recovery lad and that my prayers are certainly with him.” Old Charney told the boy who returned with,
“That is very kind of you to say your worship and I know that you shall be in both of our prayers as well.”
Charney got down from his buggy seat and, with a lot of help from the boy, and no cooperation from the ram who was none too thrilled to be stuffed into the boot of Charney’s buggy, they finally got him in there and the lid secured once more. Old Charney gave the boy the 4 silver crowns that they had agreed upon, shook his hand dismissively then remounted his buggy. He had already released the parking brake and was about to set the mule on its way when he checked himself up short as a new thought had just occured to him.
“Say, lad” he began “I don’t suppose yer uncle would by any chance have any other sheep like this one would he?”
“You mean does he have any more black sheep your worship?” the boy asked. Innocently.
“Yes, boy black sheep. Does your uncle have any more of them in his flock?” Old Charney snapped at the boy. His patience had begun to wear thin with the rising heat of the day. He should have already been half way to Callister by now. The lads answer however put all thoughts of personal discomfort, ten pins, the old goats club, and Callister out of his mind completely.
“Oh, yes sir. Indeed he does! My Uncle is a well-regarded sheep breeder. He’s been breeding his sheep to make the ewes drop more black lambs than white,” the boy informed him. Meanwhile the hook sank in even deeper. “He believes al them fancy blokes in London are likely to start wearing more black clothing in the future. I think perhaps his illness has made him a bit barmy sir if you know what I mean.” he added.
“I see. “Old man Charney said as nonchalantly as he could so as not to appear too eager and possibly drive the price up.
” Yes sir.” The boy said “Will that be all that your worship requires of me then?” he asked
“Well, you know boy I really do feel deep compassion for the plight of you and yer uncle and I would truly like to help more if I can. Would you say that all of your uncles’ black sheep are of equal stature with the one which you just sold to me?”
“Oh, yes sir. It is for a certainty your worship.” The boy said “This ram in your boot here is one of the better ones but the rest are not very far behind him at all if you ask me. And I do know my sheep if I know anything at all sir.”
Greed was running at high tide in Old Charney’s brain now as he thought of all the profit that he would make off of all of his little flock, plus, that of this boy’s uncle. Whatever his name was.
“I am on my way to Callister township just now lad, but I’ll be back this way three days hence. Would it be all right with your uncle if I were to come by your farm and have a look at that flock on my way back home?”
Old man Charney’s heart nearly stopped beating when the young man told him in as grave a tone as possible “Oh no your worship I’m afraid that would not be possible, no sir.”
“Why, pray tell, not lad? Does he not want to sell off his flock? Come on boy I don’t have all bloody day to bandy words about with you in this cursed heat.” The old man snapped impatiently.
“Oh yes sir, for a certainty he does desire to sell off his flock your worship.” the lad assured Old Charney “And it’s the truth that we could both use the income sir, but you see the physicians think that he may have a severe case of the liturgy.”
“Yes sir, liturgy. And the Physician says that it is quite contagious too.”
“Aye, extremely contagious.”
It was common knowledge in and around Kilcairn that old man Charney was none too bright. So it should come as no surprise to anyone that in his vanity would pretend that he had any idea what the young man was talking about. “He has the liturgy ye say? If that be so then how, pray tell, is it that you have not come down with the liturgy as well?” He asked cocking a doubtful eye at Shane.
“Oh, yes, good question, sir but surely you must remember that liturgy does not affect young children such as myself. It only affects the feeble-minded, and elderly people like my poor beloved uncle who took me in at the ripe old age of 42,” the lad explained as matter-of-factly as you please.
“Oh yes, that’s right,” Old man Charney said quickly in order to hide his ignorance “I had forgotten about that. How bad off is he then lad?” he asked with mock concern.
“well, sir he coughs an awful lot and he is unable to keep his porridge down of a morning. Plus, he has severe accidents of a more personal nature with alarming frequency. Other than all of his hair falling out, Uncle is beginning to feel much better. His physicians think that he will be able to walk again in another month or two,” the lad said, optimistically.
“That long eh?”Charney said whisling appreciatively as he sat back in his seat
“Yes, your worship I’m afraid so”
“And his teeth and his hair are falling out ye say?”
“Aye they are sir. They fall like leaves from a tree in autumn they do.”
As it just so happened, Old Charney had inside information that there was a time limit on how long the queen would be buying black wool. Scuttlebutt had it that at the end of the following month, which began in only three more days, the deal was off the table.
Therefore, somehow, some way he had to get his hands on the flock of black sheep some other way because no way in Hell was he going to take a chance on catching liturgy and losing his teeth. The good Lord knew that he didn’t have enough of them to spare as it was. “Well then lad how do ye propose that I might purchase any of your uncles sheep without that I am able to inspect them with my own two eyes? For never would I buy any man’s fleece unless I had seen it for myself first.” He asserted.
“You are indeed sir, a man of the soundest judgment and my uncle would surely enjoy your company if he weren’t so stricken down by the liturgy. I can, if it pleases you sir, meet you here on this very same spot on the king’s road three days from now with all of my uncles flock and then you may choose from amongst them as you please.” The lad suggested.
“Hm. Perhaps that might be acceptable,” said the old miser “But I would only be interested in buying any of the black ones you might have. There’s no need for you to even bother to bring anything else to show me boy.”
“Only the black sheep then, sir?”
“Yes, only the black ones.”
“All of them good sir?” the lad asked
“Yes boy bring as many as ye have and perhaps I might consider buying all of them, and perhaps I won’t. How many black sheep would ye estimate that your uncle has in his flock boy?” Charney was eager to know the answer but he was determined not to let the boy see it.
“I would say that there are twenty-five black ones at the very least, sir.” The boy assured Old Charney.
“Very well then lad. I shall meet ye here about the fourth hour past noon three days hence to have a look at your uncles flock and I shall decide then whether or not I shall purchase them in part or in whole.” The old man said as he gathered up the reins of his old gray mule and prepared to be on his way.
“Oh, bless you, kind sir, thank you!” the young lad cried as his tears started rolling down his dirty cheeks once more. “I cannot wait to relate the good news to my poor uncle. He is going to be so very happy.”
“Yes, yes, wonderful. You just make certain that you are here Monday afternoon, and have your uncle’s sheep waiting for me to inspect. Let me warn you that I am not a man given to waiting around for man or beast.” Old Charney warned “So if you are not here waiting for me as promised then I’ll not wait for you but be on about my business and we shall forget about the whole thing.”
“Oh no, sir. You shall not have to wait a single moment I can assure you.” the young man assured him, I will be right here on this very spot no later than the second hour past noon so that I may await your convenience, sir”
“Very well then boy I will hold you to your word. But for the present I tire of this oppressive heat and this smelly old mule’s backside so good day to you.” Old Charney said abruptly and with a flick of old grays reins he and his rickety old buggy were gone. Leaving behind them a laughing little boy with four shiny new silver crowns jingling in his pocket.