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A Story

by Frank on August 7th, 2012

 

 

 

                                 The Law Is My Shepherd

The boy clambered up on the pig pen fence, his heart beating hard, and watched the gray horse grow larger and larger as it cantered up the valley towards him.  The horse was sweating.  He could see the sun glint off its flanks, and he could see the rider was no ordinary man.  He was a soldier, like his father, wearing a breastplate and leg shields.

He jumped off the fence and ran in the cottage to fetch his mother.  But when the horse thundered to a stop front of the door, he saw the man was not his father.  The man’s red hair flowed out from under his helmet and his breastplate was sprinkled with rust.  When he spoke his voice was as rough as tree bark.

“You are the wife of Caspar of Limonges?” said the man to his mother.

After a moment she nodded yes.  Then the soldier handed her a thin leather purse and told her that Caspar would not be coming home from the Duke’s war.  The boy, who was the oldest of six, listened silently.  The soldier rode away and his mother wept.

The purse of coins fed them through the winter, but as the snow began melting and the creeks swelled with brown water rushing off the mountains, their supper table grew as barren as the trees along the river.

One day his mother came home from visiting the chief sheep owner in the village and told the boy she had discovered a way to keep them alive.  She would hire herself out to sweep hearths, and the boy she would hire out as a shepherd.  Next morning the boy, who had just turned thirteen, was taken from the home of his birth and sent to live alone in a stone shed high up the hillside where even during the nights of spring the wind blew cold.  For company he had only the large herd which was owned together by many of the townsmen.

The days and nights crept by, each like the other.  Once a week, a lackey from the owners would ride by and leave a sack containing hard bread, salted meat, some carrots and two turnips.  Sometimes there would be a message from his mother.  The boy longed to be home again, and for the first few weeks he often cried as he walked among the bleating animals, tapping their backs with a willow stick.

Now it so happened that an object leaning against the wall inside the shed came to draw much of his attention.  It was a horn, a long, thin trumpet made of tin, that stood half as tall as the boy and was dark with age.  Only in the event of an attack to the herd– either by wolves or bandits–was the boy to blow into it.

But an urge to make noise with the trumpet sometimes hit the boy so hard he would lift it to his lips and, puffing ever so gently, make a strange and delicious squeak.  The nearby sheep would stop chewing and stare.  Over a number of days, the squeaks he made became louder and more musical.  In this way he discovered he could play several quite different tones and he experimented putting them together in various ways.  The sheep grew accustomed to his practice and no longer paid attention.  Once in a while he would place the trumpet’s bell directly upon the ear of an unsuspecting ewe and blow with enough force to send the animal cart wheeling into its neighbors.

The lad began to wonder how loud a sound he could make.  He had yet to give it the full power of his lungs for fear of the consequences.  But it occurred to him that never would he know how effective a signal it made unless it were tested.  And, so it was that late one lonely afternoon he climbed upon a boulder and aimed his horn at the cluster of cottages far below.

The shriek was clear and wonderful, bouncing back and forth across the valley, rolling down the steep hillside like a waterfall.  And, sure enough, in fifteen minutes dozen of men and boys, some on horses, some on donkeys, some running as fast as they could, swarmed up the hillside, bows and pitchforks in hand.

For two hours they scoured the land around the huge herd, searching for signs of the wolf described by the breathless boy.  As the sun began setting they gradually wandered back down the hillside.

“It’s odd that the sheep didn’t seem restless,” said the chief sheep owner, rubbing his chin and gazing hard at the boy.

But, finally he shrugged and admonished the boy to keep a close watch during the night.  The boy lay awake that evening, looking at the stars, sighing with pleasure.

The next time he blew the horn, a few days later, the search for wolf signs lasted but half an hour.  A group of surlies had gathered near his shed, muttering.  They circled the boy and began cuffing him.  The chief sheep owner–on foot now because his horse had fractured a leg while climbing the hill–broke through the crowd and grabbed the boy by his jacket collar, lifting him off his feet.

“If there’s no wolf next time lad, fatherless or not, I’ll cut your head off.”

The rest is history.  Not a week later, the boy awoke to the sound of terrified bleating.  He stumbled out into the moonlight and saw a dog-like creature the color of quicksilver shaking a lamb in its jaws.  He dashed inside, grabbed the trumpet, and was blowing his lungs out even as he ran to the boulder.  But the only response he got was the attention of the nearest member of the wolf pack, who broke away from the pursuit of a large lamb and came for him.  He ran like the ground were on fire but the wolf was faster.  It clamped its huge jaws onto the boy’s right buttocks and, with a vicious twisting jerk, tore away a mass of meat and flesh.  Just as the bloody mouthed creature was about to pounce again, the boy reached a small gnarled oak and scrambled up far enough to reach safety.

For a horrible and incalculable time, he watched, dizzy from pain and loss of blood, as eight or ten wolves wheeled through the herd, slaughtering mainly the lambs, gorging themselves until the eastern sky turned pink.

Late in the morning, the sheep owner’s lackey found the boy.  He was unconscious and still wedged in a crotch of the tree, blood stains running down the trunk almost to the dirt.

By the time the barber-surgeon had cauterized and greased the boy’s gaping wound, the news of what happened had spread through the village.  And when the boy limped to his mother’s cottage, he was followed by a mob of children.  Sticks and pebbles showered down on his head.  His mother was waiting at the door.  Her face was red and very tight.  She grabbed him by the hair and thrust his head in the cottage to demonstrate how the chief sheep owner had already carted away every stick of furniture in the place, had even taken their hens and their goat, leaving them only a single pig, the one that coughed and wouldn’t gain weight.

“This is what you have brought down upon our heads,” she said.  “I could not feed you now even if I were able forgive the shame you’ve brought us.”

Her eyes were terribly wide and dry.  She thrust a loaf of stale barley bread into his trembling hands and slammed the door.

Nightfall found the boy a couple of miles down the valley, lying feverish under a pile of corn husks by a large barn.  And so it went for many days.  With no destination and barely the will to live, he wandered farther from his village and the mountains, begging a little food here and there, sleeping wherever dusk happened to find him, bathing his awful wound in cold creeks when the fever grew up in it or when the itching caused by infesting maggots became unbearable.

Shortly after the first snowfall, the boy made his way into a large city, and joining with other beggars, survived and healed.  There were many meager and despairing days, but eventually he found a job that suited him.

Three years later he was full-grown and strapping young man of sixteen, employed by a traveling carnival of exotics.  He had taken on the name Jacob, and his act was billed as Monsieur Jacob–L’homme Incroyable Sans Derriere.” In a small wooden booth he would light a candle, turn his back to the person who had paid to enter, and lift his robe.  The damage that had been wrecked by the wolf’s dagger-like teeth had left him, as far as his posterior was concerned, half a man.  The sight of it seldom failed to elicit a gasp.  His was one of the more popular booths, out-grossing the bearded female dwarf, and second only to a new act, his friends the beautiful Siamese twins.  Though far from rich, he dressed and ate adequately, and every Saint’s day sent his mother a purse.

Now, as fate would have it, at a tavern where the erstwhile shepherd boy was supping with friends one night, there sat at a nearby table a well-robed man, late of the University, a practitioner of the learned sciences most notably that of legal and fiduciary matters, along with philosophy, religion and literature, and a man who held a deep sympathy for the sufferings of those less fortunate than himself, having been born himself of humble yeomen.  He couldn’t help but overhear Jacob telling his sad tale.

Jacob finished his story and lapsed into silence, his friends glancing at each other, sighing and shaking their heads with pity.  The man of law pondered for a while, then rose and presented himself at Jacob’s table bearing the mutilated young man a fresh cup of ale, inviting him to a table on the far side of the hearth.  Jacob had spent his last coin and was still thirsty.  He shrugged and a bit unsteadily, followed the well-dressed stranger.

“I’m off duty tonight,” he said, as they sat.  “I am not showing my arse to anyone, if that’s what you want.”

“It’s not your body parts I’m interested in seeing, lad,” said the man of law.  “How long ago did all this happen to you?”

“Three years,” replied Jacob, swallowing down a belch and beginning to feel sick.

Now it so happened that across the land the statue of limitations for cases involving personal injury due to negligence—torts as they were called—was four years, meaning a suit could still be brought on the boy’s behalf.

“Has it ever occurred to you, my young friend,” said the man of law, “to seek legal redress against the sheep owners for letting you suffer like this?”

Jacob tried a sip of the ale and lowered the glass to the table.  He wiped his mouth on his sleeve.

“I have no money to pay for such a thing,” he said, rising to leave.

The man of law put a hand on his shoulder and pressed him back onto the bench.

“Even the poor should have a right to their day in court,” said the man of law.  “Be the case won, you will render unto me a third part of it.  That will compensate me for the time, effort, and expense of bringing forth your claim.  Be it lost, we part as friends, with no debt between us.  It is a risk I gladly accept in order to help you.  This is a standard arrangement.”

Jacob thought for a while.  The man of law seemed honorable and wise, and the idea of not having to drop his breeches day in and day out made no small appeal to his conscience.

 

The man of law lost no time in filing the suit.  He named as co-tortfeasors, for such were wrong doers called in that time, every man, woman, and child in Jacob’s village, including Jacob’s mother.  During the taking of depositions prior to the trial, Jacob expressed reservations about suing the person who had given him birth.

“I can understand your feelings,” said the man of law.  “But this is not meant to tarnish the character of your mother.  It’s merely standard procedure.  To catch a big fish the fisherman must cast a wide net.  And besides, naming the entire village in our action will force the jury to be selected from members of the next village, where, I have on good word, there has never been much affection for the folk in your hometown.  To win a battle, the soldier must use all the tactics at his disposal.”

And so the trial came to pass.  For a week the parties argued bitterly.  Right off, the man of law invoked the principle of res ipsa loquitur – “the thing speaks for itself” – that the implied contract betwixt the sheep owners and the plaintiff insured protection from predatory animals, and therefore the very fact that Jacob suffered loss of a buttock bespoke gross negligence, and he need summon no expert witness to corroborate so plain a fact.  Thus, through this simple legal maneuver, it became not the burden of the man of law to prove that negligence had occurred, but the burden of the townspeople to prove that it hadn’t.

And a right onerous burden this proved to be.

“But the boy had tricked us twice before! Why should we have believed him?” shouted the chief landowner, a choleric man, who’d unwisely chosen to act as the town’s chief defense counsel.  His ever boiling temper, his frequent outflows of semi-articulate rage, succeeded only in making him appear an unsympathetic twit in the eyes of all dispassionate observers.  In one fit of anger, he drew a dagger and lunged at the man of law, calling him a toad and a parasite.

The primary witness for the plaintiff, of course, was Jacob himself.  For an entire day the man of law had him on the stand, asking him, for example, to describe the loneliness as a shepherd, and how he had lost his father in the war, and how he had gone out there to live in a stone shed, cut off from his loved ones, in order to help his family survive, and how it had felt to cling to the tree branch, bleeding and watching the wolves decimate the herd he had vowed to protect.  Oh, yes, he may have pulled a childish prank, but one, after all, in the interest of testing the horn, it must be said.  But that, said the man of law, was not the issue on trial.  The issue was did the boy try and warn of a wolf attack, and did anyone respond? Maggots? Yes, maggots had crawled over his wound.

“Please stand up,” the man of law finally said to Jacob at the end of questioning.  “If it pleases the court, kindly show the jury the horrible injury that he has set you apart from the rest of mankind.”

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” said the man of law, clearing his throat, “I ask you humbly, do you believe there is any chance that in the future this man will find a normal, healthy women to marry? Do you believe he will ever comfort his soul in the arms of a maiden, a maiden who would have borne him the children that could have eased his old age and added to the fruits of this earth? Do you believe, as the defendants insist, that this boy, this fatherless, homeless, lonely young lad – who is now, unfortunately, reduced to the state of a freak – deserved this?”

“Look at it! I propose to you that not even Job himself was dealt with more brutally…  But at least Job, in the end, was cared for by the almighty maker of all.  Thank you.”

At last the various testimonies were over, and the members of the jury filed out the back door.  They peregrinated into the forest where they ate a lunch provided by a sister of one of the jurors.

“Ach,” said the foreman.  “It’s no use, I can’t eat.  I keep seeing that poor lad’s mutilated behind.  I keep seeing him up in that tree.  All night, for Gott’s sake.”

“Same here,” said another, setting a hunk of mutton back into the wooden bowl.  “They’re cruel bastards.  And they don’t look very contrite now, do they.”

“But life is cruel,” said yet another.  “Would you have done any different if you were in their shoes?”

“Of course I would have!”

“Bah.”

“Listen friends,” said the foreman, “we’ve got to make up our minds.  We’ve got the chance here to help a lad who clearly needs some help.  And we’ve also got the chance to put the message out to sheep owners all across the land that they’ve got responsibilities to their underdogs.  We’re all Christians, aren’t we? I’m for being generous.”

The arguments persisted till the sun finally set.  When they returned that evening, the jury handed down an award which, even minus a ten percent reduction for contributory negligence by the plaintiff, was far more than expected and made Jacob and the man of law wealthy unto princes.

The matter of collection was handed over to the King’s soldiers, who rode into Jacob’s village and confiscated nearly everything (and, some say, stole the rest).

The fame of Jacob’s case sizzled and spread like lard on a baking stone, triggering a virtual renaissance of litigation.  Servants sued masters.  Merchants sued the nobility.  The nobility sued each other.  The man of law awoke every morning to a queue of potential clients at his door: seamstresses gone arthritic in the fingers; chimneysweeps with lung disease; victims of black magic.  And he even successfully sued the manufacturer of a chastity belt which had given one lady an infection while her husband was off fighting Moors in Spain.

As for Jacob, released from his own shame, he freed the Siamese twins from their bondage to exhibition by marrying them not long after the trial.  Eventually, however, the Roman Church, not satisfied with simply excommunicating him for polygamy, dragged Jacob before an ecclesiastical court where they litigated against him for encouraging unnatural practices, winning a landmark verdict—the award against him gilding an antechamber in the Sistine Chapel.

But, fortunately, by then Jacob had liability insurance against such actions—obtained from an underwriting firm he founded with a Florentine banker.  Their company mainly wrote general liability policies for sheep owners to cover injuries sustained by their peasant shepherds, and not many a sheep owner failed to buy this coverage, given the publicity attendant upon Jacob’s case.

But the premiums eventually became so expensive that many sheep owners simply stopped employing shepherds—finding it cheaper instead to buy wolf-loss coverage, and write off the premiums and deductibles against their taxes to the King.

Needless to say, the predators didn’t argue with this arrangement.  They grew fat and multiplied.

 

 

 

 

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