As chance would have it, the county vet, a unique man of distinction and breeding who had studied medicine with vigour in his youth, then, to the general surprise of all, turned his medical knowledge to the care and repair of animals, had heard of the poor dog's plight, and though it was some weeks later, came as fast as his carriage would go without straining the horses. By this time, as the poor animal was pitied so by all and fed regularly by means of the pole-spoon contrivance, it was more securely lodged than ever. In fact, it greatly resembled a small bear that had squeezed into a rabbit hole, then eaten too much honey, and been unable to leave, though that was a rare occurrence indeed.
The arrival of so rare a character brought much attention, but he simply shooed his way past everyone who would not give him a direct answer until he came upon the garden wall blanketed hound. He did not even pause when told of the severely battered Percy and Sophie, who were receiving care in adjoining rooms and did nothing but bicker at high volume about who had taken the worst of the fall, though in actuality they had both struggled to ensure it would be the other at the time of the incident, with little success. The servants simply wished they had broken their jaws instead of their legs. Emily showed the vet her pole-spoon, which James had constructed for her, and detailed everything she could of the dog's plight, from the burial, to the second burial, to the present. The vet expressed how lucky it was that the dog, which turned out to be of unknown ownership, was already shielded by a layer of rubble when the balcony collapsed. He then arranged several instruments beside him, and, using the same pole the spoon was attached to, began to examine the cur through what holes he could find in the rock pile. He took no care of the dust and dirt that soiled his superfine trousers, and never noticed when he tore a hole in the seat of them after slipping from the top of the mound and sliding down.
He turned to Emily. "I'm afraid I have some terribly bad news. The collapse of the wall did some little damage to the poor beast, but the balcony furthered that damage, and as the animal could not be cleared, it has healed to the shape of it's confines, and I'm afraid cannot survive without them now. This is incidental however, for the true tragedy is that she is expecting a litter any day now, and I cannot possibly see how they may be delivered, for the area around her hindquarters is not only completely sealed with rubble, but has become ridiculously unsanitary. If someone would be so good as to pour several buckets of water here," he indicated with the pole, "it would do a good deal to relieve the dog of some of the mess, but I am afraid when she tries to have the litter, it will be the end of her and her brood to be."
Emily sniffled once, then broke into tears. "Is there nothing to be done?" she asked.
"I'm truly sorry, but this is beyond my skill. All we can do is endeavour to keep her as comfortable as possible while we can." He answered.
The buckets of water were immediately sent for, and James even took the foresight to have the water warmed, for the hound's sake. Emily scratched the dog's ears with the pole spoon, and fed it scraps of veal. Even Sophie's lap dog was discovered and brought out for companionship (everyone agreed it would be too cruel to return it to its owner just yet). The vigil held up all afternoon, and into the night. Lanterns were hung from posts, and a fire was lit near the rocks, to try to grant some warmth to the unhappy animal. Unfortunately, the moss which had covered the inside of the wall had dried out since the tumble, and some stray sparks caught in it. This started a blaze which took everyone by surprise. James threw the last bucket of water over it, but this helped little, so he ran to fetch the servants and more buckets. Emily cried out to the dog, who whimpered in fear, not to worry, but she could not hide the concern in her voice, and the beast sensed it. The vet tried to pull some rubble loose to expose the moss, and better deal with it, but in his haste only burned his hands.
Suddenly a man of solid, if not overly large, proportions leapt into the yard over a half tumbled corner of the wall, clad in a rumpled smock-frock, gaiters, and large boots, with a low-crown felt hat crammed tight over his head and a shepherd's crook in his weathered hand. His stature was such that it would have been intimidating, if not for his humble demeanour. He was breathing heavily, as if he had run at a great speed for some distance to be there.
"I thought this was a rick fire?" he looked puzzled. Emily quickly explained about the poor hound under the blaze, and the impending puppies.
"Puppies you say? Then there is no time." Using the metallic curve of his sheep crook, he began pulling apart the jumble of stones to make an opening. He had Emily and the vet hold up a large blanket like a curtain to stop the draught, then used his crook again to fling muddy soil over the flames. He continued in this vain, making a sort of tunnel towards the dog from the side, though he was careful not to clear the stone directly next to the beast, at the vet's warning. When James arrived with the buckets and servants, they were able to immediately cool the rocks in contact with the dog, and under the shepherd's direction, quickly quell the disaster. When all was done, the shepherd squatted on a large rock to catch his breath. In all the confusion he had been splashed repeatedly, and his smock-frock, which had burned though in patches and had the sleeves torn so they hung loose, clung to him diaphanously, revealing the hard, defined build of a man who knows and respects work. In the glow of the lamplight the lines of relief in his musculature were made highly apparent, and with every movement he inadvertently showed what a well-toned machine of a man his labours had caused him to be. It was not the comical bulk of a circus strong man, nor the shapeless mass of a large man, but the tight, clay smooth form of a man of reliable strength and fitness, tanned dark from his long days in the sun. James took the opportunity to thank him.
"That was downright heroic, good shepherd. Might you honour us with your name?"
"Gabrial Oak. Used to be Farmer Oak, but a short while back I had my own dog trouble, and my fortunes changed. As things be, I haven't even sheep to shepherd. I've just come from the fair, where I found no work. If I could just trouble you for a bit of water, I'd best be going. There's another fair in Upton in a few days, and I hope to reach it in time, as a man must be able to earn a living."
A servant was sent to fetch him some cider instead, and something to eat. Emily was about to offer to replace his smock-frock and crook, the former now being full of holes, and the latter being burned nearly a foot shorter and somewhat bent and misshapen, when James cut in.
"I have a better idea. Mister Oak, or Gabriel, if I may. It just so happens that I am steward here, and as I find myself obligated to leave, for reasons of my own, I am in need of a replacement. I have found new work near Casterbridge with a woman farmer by the name of Bathsheba Everdene..."
James would have gone on, but just then the hound started whimpering again. Gabriel leapt to his feet and pulled a roll of instruments of his own from one of his boots. "I believe the puppies are arriving!" he cried. In his excitement he missed the name of James' new employer, which was a fortunate occurrence indeed, as she was a vain, selfishly self-centred woman of great beauty who had spurned him in happier days, and was sure to ensnare him haplessly again and drag out his suffering until such a time as she had no other suitors and no other use for him but to marry him, if another meeting were to ensue.
He crawled into the hole he had made, despite the soot and mud, and though the vet told him it was no use, he insisted that an attempt must be made. After all, he had been forced to similarly deliver a lamb after a landslide once on his own farm, though he didn't mention it much, as he was a man of modesty. He asked for more light, and had the vet hand him various devices and surgical blades while he worked with his arms elbow deep in the rock. The old hound howled, and Emily spoke to it soothingly, while the servants began to arrive with the meal, and some extra blankets and clothes and such in a bundle they had prepared of their own accord out of appreciation for his selfless bravery and willingness to risk himself without thought of reward. Eventually a small dark, damp mass was extracted from the pile and wrapped in a blanket, then another, and another, until seven in all were being held carefully by the servants. Gabriel then took a needle and thread, and, though unable to see his work, completed the operation with as much deft skill as any could muster in the dark after having fought a fire with a stick and delivered puppies from under a pile of stones through a hole in a dog's side. It was rather unorthodox, but a good farmer makes do, whatever the situation. He then asked for a bottle, and, working it down to the depths of the pile, began some unseen operation, only to bring it up again some time later brimming with milk, which he handed to one of the servants.
"Pour some of this into a plate, then cut a short fine wick from some scraps of linen for each pup, putting one end in the plate and the other in his mouth. They will be hungry, so be sure to keep an eye on the plate and don't let it run dry."
Afterwards, he was so exhausted he could not argue with James' insistence that he stay, and allowed himself to be led off to a room where he could eat and pass the night, leaving the finalities of the arrangement to be taken care of the following day. As a final note before parting, James wanted to be sure Gabriel understood that there was a dangerous man in the area by the name of Adam who would sneak into the pastures and shag the sheep when no one was watching. Gabriel assured him he knew just how to handle such a ruffian, and with no more to say, bid his new friend good night and settled into his meal.
Oak helped a fawning Elizabeth onto Darcy's horse and led her back to Pemberley, the whole while trying tactfully to evade her attentions. Once at home and settled in on one of the great damask couches, however, she recalled what the bounty of that illustrious estate meant to her, and urged Oak to fetch her precious wealthy Darcy. This Oak had every intention of doing, with or without her bidding, but he managed an obedient, "As you wish, ma'am," and raced off with the second horse in tow.
At the well he slid down as he had done before, only to find Timmy sitting comfortably on the rise of Darcy's cushy and sufficiently amply posterior. Darcy himself was still stretched unconscious on the dirt floor; face down and emitting a sound like rolling thunder. Not even cattle could snore like that.
Timmy smiled up cheerfully through the half-light. "I fell down the well again." He seemed almost proud.
The living shadows that had earlier been vanquished had roused and fled, but had left their weapons in their haste to depart. Oak tucked a collection of rapiers into Darcy's belt and tied a rope around him. Checking the knot, he told Timmy to hold tight to the cord. Oak clambered back up the shaft into the light and, bracing against the well wall, hauled the child and the man up from the depths. It was an exhausting affair so, when Timmy got up on the lip of the well and began jumping back and forth across the opening, Oak pulled him down and sent him home. Darcy, still senseless, was lashed securely to the second horse and taken home to his more than appreciative wife. Oak left him in the care of his servants, warning them to check the well the following day for a small boy, then raced back to attend to his duties with all the rapiers tied to his saddle.
The next day, Gabriel Oak paid a visit to the farrier, an old Scott with shoulders like an ox and a beard that resembled a fire burning in the wrong direction.
"Morning, McTavish. How be the new horses?"
McTavish, a man of few words, smiled through the flames of his chin and rolled out a single word, "Grrreeeat," as if it had to tumble down along a ten-foot tin chute.
"I was hoping ye might do a favour for me." Oak pulled two of the rapiers from his saddle. "Do ye think ye might make a new sheep crook with a reinforced stave? I need it made from these."
McTavish examined one of the blades, and then with a sudden movement clove in two a hitching post. He looked at the rapier again. "Incrrrredible steel," he murmured.
Oak pulled forth a third rapier and handed it to him. "That's for payment."
The Scott's eyes lit up like those of some gargantuan owl. "Done. Two days."
They shook on the bargain and Oak went on his way. He checked in on Bertie to ask after the poor old hound still trapped beneath the tumbled wall. Since Emily had left to marry James, Bertie had taken the unfortunate cur on as if it were his ward. The puppies were also doing well; in fact, they were doing too well and leaving a trail of havoc wherever they went. It was time for the pups to leave the nest. The servants were sad to see them go but trusted Oak to find them comfortable new homes. He strung them together on a single lead, and then tangled them in a great basket in which they tussled and twisted until they were a hopeless mess. There was a fair in Greater Malvern and that is where he took them. They remained a yapping jumble the whole way.
The fair was a small country affair. Oak strode from tent to tent, knowing full well that puppies could sell themselves. He was led by the smell of baked goods to a large, humble tent run by several women of varying ages and ethnicity. Their tent housed an oven and a printing press and they were peddling pastries and something called fanfic. Oak was unsure about the books which were printed like pamphlets and to his mind appeared to be silly romantic tripe, but the pastries caught his attention and the puppies the attention of the women, especially once he had related the tale of their poor mother's misfortune. Before long a deal was struck and Oak walked away with a remaining puppy under his arm and his basket laden with meringue, strudel, marzipan, dumplings, a cupcake, and a sugar cookie. The strudel looked a little tough and dried out, but everything else looked wonderful.
Business concluded, Oak wandered the grounds for the sake of the sights and sounds, dipping constantly into his stock of goodies. He was passing by a tent full of exotic animals when he saw none other than Darcy emerge, leading on a chain an enormous cat with a cage around its head and its paws bound in sacking. It was difficult to ascertain the original colouring due to the fact that it had been shaved in great patches on the sides tattooed in thick Celtic patterns. It hissed and pulled against Darcy's lead. Oak was dumbstruck.
Darcy spoke first. "Thank you for helping me out with those shadow ruffians. I couldn't have managed so well on my own."
Oak simply stared at the cat.
"Terrifically frightening, is she not?" Darcy beamed. "I just obtained this beast from dome Irish sailors. They called it a jaguar. They had it coloured after their homeland and were sad to part with it, but I need something to protect my dearest, loveliest Elizabeth, besides does not this green jaguar suit me?" Just then it jerked him off balance and he stumbled a few feet. Oak bid him luck and cautioned him to be careful with it, then hurried off lest it should get loose near his lost puppy. He was about to leave when he noticed James rushing towards him.
"Oak, old boy, how's my old station treating you?"
Oak took his hand and they traded a firm grip. "Things are well. Better than well. Percy and Sophie finally stopped quarrelling and have left to be married. Both are still hopeless invalids so they are having beds set up in the church for the ceremony." The two men laughed a while at this. "Speaking of marriages, how is yours?"
"Oh, marvelous. The only trick was convincing her father I was worthy."
During this speech, Oak noticed something had changed. "You know, James, there's something in your smile I cannot quite place."
James laughed and took out the whalebone arch that had replaced most of his front teeth. "Aunt Letty made it out of an old whalebone stay. I needed it after asking the old man for Emily. Like I said, he took some convincing."
He laughed again and Oak, though confused, laughed too. James invited him back for dinner and as Oak had no pressing matters to attend to, he accepted. As they rode back to James' new office, James told him about his new employer and how she was being courted by an old gentleman farmer but how there was a young officer snooping about who seemed ready to stir things up. Just then, one of James' hired labourers ran up, all panting and out of breath.
"Sir, it's the flock. They're gone terrible ill, sir, all sickly and quiverin' and we don't know why."
Before James could register distress, Oak shouted, "Lead the way, man!"
They raced across fields and pastures to where the flock lay, clustered in spasms. Suddenly a sheep began twitching frantically, leapt high in the air, and was still. Oak threw himself from his horse and pulled out his tools. "Help me. There's no time!" he cried as he rushed over to the flock. The other two held the sheep down as he performed the quick surgery to relieve the pressures building in them. At the end, only two sheep were lost, and the men sat in the shadows of dusk, exhausted.
A maid came to check on their progress and James told of their success due to the providential presence of his visiting friend. The maid hurried back to tell her lady, them returned inviting James and his friend to dinner out of appreciation, and to bring Emily along. James led Oak to his cottage where Emily was greeted and told of the invitation. They hurriedly readied themselves and then went up to the big house. They were met at the door by the maid and led to the dining room where dinner awaited.
James was about to introduce Oak to his hostess, when Oak saw her for himself. Eyes like hazelnuts floating in milk in a black lacquered bowl. The same beautiful and yet vain girl he had once given a lamb to in an awkward attempt at courting, and had refused him, now sat before him -- a woman now, and no less beautiful, and surely no less vain.
Before James could finish, Oak mumbled, "We have met."
She looked at Oak for a moment before speaking. "Yes, I suppose we have, haven't we? I had almost forgot."
Oak made a stiff bow. "Miss Everdine."
After thanking him, she paid him little attention, less, almost, than the elderly man who seemed to be trying his best to be noticed. The gentleman farmer.
Over the course of the meal, Oak did more thinking than eating. He realised that in some deep recess of his heart, the tip of an arrow remained lodged. Even now she seemed so superficial and acted so superior, but he was certain there was more to her, hiding behind her upper class veneer. He had known it since the day he had seen her pass on her loaded wagon and had paid her toll when she had first come to live in his district. But how to realise it? Not that there was any use worrying himself about it. He had been refused as an independent farmer - what chance would he have as a bailiff?
After dinner, Oak excused himself as soon as politeness allowed and rode forlornly home. The next day he drifted listlessly about on his errands, the remaining pup unnoticed at his heels. On the day after, however, he shook himself loose. There were matters at hand that could not be left to themselves. He slipped out before dawn and retrieved his new crook from McTavish, then, in an unused remainder of a hay rick, he plunged a slender post and then bound the rick until it was solid, in a mound vaguely resembling a man, but much larger.
As the sun crept over the fields, he crouched before the figure, the post jutting out like a weapon. He simply sat on his heels and fingered his new crook, checking the weight and balance. The ash handle had a steel core and the crook shone like polished silver. Then in one motion he lowered a blindfold and stepped forward, stave alive in his hands. Meanwhile, in a distant part of Britain, deep in the earth, a giant figure, black against the darkness, vowed for revenge in Spanish and adjusted the bag of ice in his pants.
© 2003 Copyright held by the author.