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The horse thieves of Ballysaggert.

Sorrow, is it? I tell you, if a man were wanting to make a list of the Chief Sorrows of Erin, I'd advise him to give great consideration to the Sorrow of Ballysaggert, ever since the day Sergeant Raftery found Uncle Jamesy's still up in the Fairy Fort. The best poteen that ever a man could wish to drink this side of heaven was distilled up there by Uncle Jamesy and my father, while now--now you wouldn't wet your whistle with a drop that hadn't paid excise duty in the four corners of Ballysaggert parish. And all over a horse. A sway-backed vagrant of a four-legged monstrosity that ought to have been sent to a glue factory when it was born. But let me tell you in proper order.

The real beginning of the whole miserable business was the coming of Sergeant Raftery to replace old Sergeant Kieron, whor retired. A new police sergeant is always a hard business for a parish, the way he'll be bursting out all over with enthusiasm and ambition. But this feller. Like a maniac. A huge, ugly man with red hair growing out of his ears, and hands like bats of lumpy wood, and a savagery for work that would have killed an Eskimo. There was hardly an hour of the day or night you wouldn't find him ravaging and stravaging the roads,looking for mischief to make. Impounding donkeys that knew their way home better than he did, or looking for dog licenses, or rounding up truants until the schoolhouse was a bedlam with imprisoned children that the teacher hardly knew by sight and didn't want to.

Stars in heaven, there wasn't any ruffianism that sergeant wasn't up to. And, of course, he wasn't ten days in the place before he heard about the still. Not where it was, of course, or who owned it. Just that it existed. But that was enough. From that out, high days and holidays, he'd be quartering the mountains like a 16-stone greyhound, looking for a wisp of smoke to tell him where the still was.

And then, after about a month of all this torment and turmoil, when half the lads in the parish, including myself, were thinking of emigrating, didn't I see a girl I'd never seen before in all my life? A girl? A living vision. My heart turned over and my mouth fell open with the beauty of her and I had to lean against the nearest house wall to stop myself from falling down flat while she walked toward me, with the sunlight sprinkling gold dust on her curling black hair and her little red hat. Walked, did I say? Danced. Floated. Her foot no more than kissed the ground as she went by me, and I fetched a sigh out of me that nearly brought my heart along with it.

She just nodded to me and smiled, and said, "Good morning," and was gone down the street, like a feather dancing on a puff of breeze, while I lay against the whitewashed wall of Matt Fogarty's cottage and wondered if I was alive or dead.

I just wandered up to the still as lost and dazzled in my mind as if I was coming away from it instead of going toward it. Indeed, I was hit so bad that I spent five minutes trying to get into the wrong Fairy Fort.

Maybe I should explain that up beyond the head of the valley, where the mountaintop flattens out, there's half a dozen biggish green mounds built by the good people in the old times. You're hear all kinds of stories about them being graves of kings and such, but that's all just foolish talk. They're Fairy Forts, and the only human thing eve buried in any of them was our still.

A long while ago, when Uncle Jamesy and father were about my age, some professors came down from Dublin and started digging the forts to pieces. Looking for old posts and bones.

They left behind them a powerful big hole in the side of one of the forts, and down under it weren't there two great rooms all lined with stone, like a pair of cellars, hidden there under the green roof of the mound?

Uncle Jamesy and father said it was plain to see that whoever had built the rooms had been making no use of them for a power of years, and it'd be a sin to waste them. You wouldn't find as good a place as that to hide a poteen still if you searched all the provinces of Ireland.

And so they brought in their gear and set it up, and what with old Sergeant Kieron and Father Sweeney liking a drop of the poteen themselves an odd time, the still never had to be moved in 30 years. All the customers needed to do to come in was to grasp a particular dead furze stump sticking out of the side of the mound and lift it. Up it would come with a trap door covered in green turf attached to it, and down he'd step into what you might call the Saloon Bar of the Fairy Fort; a big, shadowy cave of a place with benches along three sides of it, and a barrel and a row of mugs on a shelf at the far end. Behind the barrel was a small, narrow passage leading to the second stone room, the stillroom itself.

Above both rooms, of course, was a stone roof, made of big overlapping slabs of rock. And over that again was the green turf of the mound, half covered in furze and bracken, with the smoke of the still curling out of a small chimney hidden in a gorse bush and losing itself in the gray, watery sky. I can tell you the heart nearly breaks in me for thinking of the homeliness of it all. Not having a mother since before I can remember, I more or less grew up in the still instread of down in father's cottage.

As I say, after seeing the girl below in Ballysaggert village, I was so bad I near dislocated my shoulder trying to pull up a furze stump on the wrong mound. And when I got into the still at last, it didn't take Uncle Jamesy long to see that something was up with me. He's a little, sharp-eyed man, the twin of my father, with tufts of white hair sprouting out over his ears and not another screed of it on his brown, shiny skull. And what with the way he and father sit crosslegged, from the long years of squatting under the copper condensing tube of the still-filling jugs, and with near living in the Fairy Fort, it's not much wonder that everyone calls the pair of them the leprechauns. Indeed, they're known as the leprechauns far and wide beyond Ballysaggert.

"Michael boy," my uncle said, before I could so much as settle myself on the bench. "What have you been doing?"

"Nothing," I said dreamily.

"You've been after girls," said my uncle, the end of his nose twitching. He'd always been powerfully against women and said they were the ruin of a man's drinking habits. "I know it. I know it. I can see it in your eye. Oh, Michael child, if you only knew the depths of the pit that's opening at your innocent feet. Girls is the calamity of mankind."

He filled himself a mug and took a sup of it as if he needed strengthening. Meanwhile, I must confess, I didn't pray much heed to him beyond blushing a bit. I could still see her in my mind's eye. The little dancing foot of her, as neat as a new leaf fluttering on a tree. The print of it was on my heart.

"It's your father's fault," Uncle Jamesy said. "He's never taught you the facts of life. Girls is innocent enough, I'll grant you that, for dallying and dandling. Like kittens. But girls become women the way kittens become cats, and then where are you? There isn't the like of a woman for devilment in the world wide." He drained the mug and gave his hands a little wring together. "I was telling your father only the other day that it was time one of us did be warning you...."

A shaft of sunlight fell between us then, and it was my father himself coming in with a sack of potatoes for the still.

"By the Lord," he said, "I've just heard the worst news I ever heard."

"Then you've heard the same thing that I have," said Uncle Jamesy. "The boy there has started tricksying after girls----"

"Arrah go on with you and your girls," said my father. "This is serious. The sergeant has got himself a horse."

"What of it?" said Uncle Jamesy. "If he took to fox hunting now, wouldn't it be the good thing for us, although heaven have mercy on the poor horse that man puts his leg across."

"You don't understand," said father. "It isn't foxes he's going to be hunting. It's us. And whereas he wouldn't catch so much as old Mary O'Mahony on his two great feet, with them sinking into the bog 12 inches deep at every step, on horseback he'll have the legs of every man of us."

"You have something there," said my uncle, beginning to look very grave.

"I wish I hadn't," said my father. "But how many times has he nearly caught one or other of the lads as it is, and him with maybe a bottle of poteen in his coat pocket and a breath on him strong enough to light your pipe at? And once he has one of them caught and murdered with questions it won't be long before we have to give this place back to them we borrowed it from." And he jerked his thumb at the saucer in the corner, where there was always a sup of poteen laid out for the landlords. I never actually saw one of them drinking it, of course, and I don't believe in that kind of thing any more than you do, but it's certainly astonishing how every morning that saucer used to be dry. Dry as a cat would lick it, although we had no cat.

"Ruin," said my father, "that's what this means. It'll be like the Tans again."

"The Tans?" said my uncle. "I doubt teven the Tans wouldn't have thought of a thing like this."

Just on that, two of the lads came in for a drop of support after the day's work, and it was one of them, Peter Lowry, that brought the whole ruin down on us with his cleverality, once he heard what was up.

"Gob," says he. "Is that all that's troubling you? A horse?"

"Aye," says my father. "Isn't it enough? The talk is he's gone and bought it out of his own money, the policemen up in Dublin not thinking it necessary to put a horse on the establishment. But he reckons that once he has the still found and a dozen or so arrests made they'll buy him a motorcar, let alone a horse."

"Better'n' betterer," said Peter Lowry, twisting his long, red nose in his fingers and squinting very cunning at us under the peak of his cap. "He won't be in the mood to buy a second horse out of his money, hardly."

"What are you getting at?" said my uncle.

"Stealing the horse, of course," shouted Peter. "Down to his house one dark night, pocket full of sugar. Tsk, tsk, and out comes the horse, ready to follow you to Kingdom Come for the sugar lumps. And I know a lad over Killnoggin way would buy anything on four legs and no questions asked." He laid his finger alongside of his nose and winked the way you'd think he had something in his eye.

As maybe you can tell, I've never forgiven Peter Lowry for any of this, and neither has anyone else in the parish. But, of course, we hadn't the means of telling futur woe from present stupidity, and the plan certainly sounded reasonable enough. Except that it turned out that what with being a mountainy man and not used to horses, Peter Lowry wouldn't be able for stealing the horse himself. For a moment or two it looked like the plan being dropped, when didn't it come into my uncle's head to mention about me looking moony over a girl?

"A girl, is it?" said Peter. "It wouldn't be a girl you saw today for the first time? A little dark-haired bit of a thing tittuping along the street just now?"

I gawed at him with my mouth open, and a blush coming up from my shirt collar to my cap, wondering how he knew. Although for the matter of that, I shouldn't have been surprised. There was never anything concerning other people in Ballysaggert that Peter Lowry didn't have his nose stuck into sooner or later, and usually sooner.

"The sergeant's daughter," he said, slapping his knee again. "No other in the world wide. Philomena, her name is. Working over in Killnoggin in a grand draper's shop till me bold sergeant sent for her to mind house for him. Did you speak to her, Michael?"

I shook my head. The sergean't daughter! If he'd said the devil's daughter I couldn't have been more amazed. But "Philomena." Did you ever hear a more beautiful name than that?

"You didn't speak to her yet?" Peter was saying. "Then don't be wasting any more time, boy. Court her, and flatter her. Whisper to her in the moonlight. And if you don't have the key of the sergeant's stable door out of her inside a week you're not the lad I take you for." He turned to my uncle and my father. "There's your man for you. There's the lad will steal the horse."

"But I don't know anything about horses either," I said.

"Ah," said Peter. "But a lad like you will know about girls, and that's what's important here."

"Don't be listening to him, Michael," said my uncle. "Don't be tempting the child, Peter Lowry. Nothing but ill and harm could come of it."

"Wait now," said my father, beginning to look thoughtful. "Maybe something might come of it, at that. Don't be so hasty, Jamesy, telling the lad what he'll do and not do. It might be no harm if the lad sounded out the grounds, so to speak."

"Ruin," said Uncle Jamesy, wringing his hands. "There was never a plan yet with a woman in it that didn't end in ruin. I'm warning you, Paudeen O'Shaughnessy," Paudeen being my father's name.

"You and your warnings," said Peter. "Sure, aren't we facing ruin as it is?"

"Peter's right," said my father. "Let you see what you can do, Michael child. Although, anything you do, keep your mind on the horse. Remember, the girl is only ways and means."

"There's the man," said Peter, refilling his mug without so much as a by-your-leave. "The thing is as good as done."

Even so, there was none of us except Peter Lowry that wasn't more than doubtful about the whole plan. And if I entered into it at all it wasn't for the sake of the horse, I can tell you that. But before a week had pased we had the doubts driven out of us. The Tans? Mounted on his brute of a horse, the sergeant was more like Cromwell and his cavalry destroying the countryside. You could hardly move on the mountain without the terror of the hoofs thundering behind you.

The one salvation of us in that week was that the sergeant wasn't much of a first at riding. And time and again when he near had one of us ridden down with the poteen turning our legs to water and a bottle of the darling stuff maybe clutched to our chests to keep out the night chill, wouldn't he fall off with a tremendous splash into a bog hole? But as the days passed, either he got better at riding, or the horse at being ridden, and on Saturday night didn't my father himself have the nearest squeak of his life, trotting over to Father Sweeney's presbytery with a half-gallon jar.

"Things can't go on like this much longer," he said to me in a voice that was still trembling the next morning. "You're the one hope we have left, Michael child. How is the plan progressing?"

To tell you the truth the horse side of it hadn't progressed very far. But the other side of it was fair rampaging along. We'd got to the stage where we met every night under the big oak tree beyond the crossroads, and I was repairing the gaps in my education left by my being brought up by my uncle and my father, with no female influence about the place. I was staggered at how much there was to learn. And, of course, in the midst of it all I couldn't help learning a little bit about the horse. The sergeant kept it locked in a shed at the bottom of his garden when he wasn't scouring the countryside on its back, and he kept the key hanging in his kitchen. Moreover, after dark, either he or his daughter was always in the house. She could only meet me when he was taking a nap after his supper, with the key hanging a bare two feet from his big, ugly ear. It didn't seem possible to get near it.

And then, that very morning, didn't the whole thing fall into my lap?

"Michael," whispered Philomena as I was passing her at the corner of the chapel wall. "I can't be meeting you tonight, after all. Father'll be over in Killnoggin till late this evening, and I have to mind the house. I wouldn't dare leave it empty in case he found out." And as she spoke I saw like a flash of lightning what I had to do. I took her littler white hand and squeezed it.

"I'd die, passing a whole night without seeing you," I said, and true enough for me I would have too. "Why shouldn't I come and see you in the house itself?"

"Oh, you'd never," she gasped, blushing like a rose in the snow. But something in her eyes didn't look as shocked as her voice sounded, and I just gave her a wink and her little warm hand another squeeze, and went off up the road, whistling. And not all because of the horse, either.

I think that Sunday was the longest day of my life. But it ended at last, and the shadows were hardly falling before I was down to the sergeant's back door. At the end of the garden I could hear the horse shuffling and scuffling in its shed, and inside the house Philomena singing like a black-bird about the kitchen.

"Ah," says I, "I'll have you both where I want you before the evening's out." And I tilted my cap and tapped on the door. "It's me, Michael," I whispered. "Open up to me, my darling."

And there was her little rosy lips at the crack of the door, begging to be kissed by a lad sensible enough not to listen to her saying "no." In I squeezed, and if you want to know about the next half hour it isn't me that'll be telling you. But everything good has an end, as they say, and after one last little kiss I made pretend I heard her father coming. By this time, of course, the key of the beknownst to Philomena.

"I'll just slip out and look," I said. So out with me long enough to unlock the shed, then back into the kitchen again. "All clear as yet," I said, clasping her in my arms and hanging the key on its hook again behind her back, while her mind was otherwise occupied. "But I'd better be going, even so."

It was as easy as that, misfortune to me. Half an hour and a pound of lump sugar later I was leading the horse up to the trap door of the fort.

"Psst," I said. "I have him." Father and Uncle Jamesy came out to look.

"Why in the name of heaven didn't you tell us you were going to do it tonight, you stupid gawn?" said my father. "What are we going to do with it till Peter Lowry comes?" And even then he has to fetch his friend. Where are we going to hide a thing that size and the sergeant tearing down the mountains to look for it?"

I hadn't thought of any of that, but I was inspired that night. There was the horse blowing down my neck, looking for more sugar. And there was the black mouth of the open trap door into the side of the Fairy Fort.

"In there," I said. "Five minutes work with a spade round the sides of the trap door will make a hole big enough for him, and then we've eased him inside the fort and put the sods of turf back again, the head of all the police in Ireland wouldn't guess there was a horse hidden in there."

And after a bit of argument with Uncle Jamesy, that's what we did. Inside of an hour we had the horse as snug inside the still as if it was in its own stable. Snugger indeed, for I'll guarantee the sergeant never gave it mashed potatoes to eat, nor a bucket of second-run poteen to drink, to keep it quiet and happy while it was waiting for Peter Lowry's friend.

But there was no rest for me. I had to be down to the village again to look for Peter Lowry, who was courting a girl there on his own account. And that was how I ran into trouble. I hadn't set foot in the village street before I saw the sergeant rampaging along, practically carrying poor Philomena by the scruff of her neck.

"Where is it then?" he was roaring. "Where is the blasted horse if you never left eyes off of it? Out, you've been, that's what. Skylarking and gallivanting and courting in the lanes like a strumpet." And he lifted her till her feet swung off the ground, and shook her like a dog shaking a little, warm, we rabbit. My blood near boiled in my heart and if I'd been a foot taller and 50 pounds heavier I'd have up and struck him, Philomena's father or no. But that moment, just as I was melting back into the darkness, didn't Philomena see me?

"Michael," she wailed. "There's Michael O'Shaughnessy, father. He'll tell you. Did i ever leave the house this whole night, Michael?"

And before I knew where I was, my feet were off the ground and I was being shaken liek a rabbit. One of us in either hand. He's a terribly big man is the sergeant. "What do you know about my horse, Michael O'Shaughnessy?" he said in a police-court voice.

"Nothing," I said "I never laid eyes on it. Did you lose it?"

"I did," he said, sounding very grim. "But I won't be long in finding it, nor the blaggards that did it. Get home with you, girl," he said, putting Philomena down on one side of him and me on the other, and producing a bull's-eye lantern. I made to follow Philomena, but he grabbed me again.

"You come with me," he said. "I've an idea you know something more of this business than appears."

So I went with him, while he shone the torch on the road and along the verge till he saw a place where the horse had left fresh hoofprints in the mud and wet grass, just where I'd led the horse off the road an hour or so before. Which wa another thing I hadn't thought of. From then on, it was like following a path.

Straight to the trap door like a line of broad arrows went the horse's hoofprints, and the sergeant after then with me trailing alongside him.

"I think they go up that-a-way," I suggested, pointing away from the fort.

"Do you?" said the sergeant. "Well, I don't then. I think they go this-a-way." And he came to the green, sloping side of the fort itself, and lifted his foot to climb up and over it, thinking, of course, that the trail he was following must go over it too.

And that very second, hearing my voice, and thinking the second voice must be Peter Lowry's, didn't father open the trap door? Heavens above, it was like a thing you'd see in the films. The black hole appearing suddenly in the side of the Fairy Fort, father's head popping up out of it like a bald rabbit, and the sergeant bringing his size-14 boot down on top of it as if he was using it for a stepping-stone. I never saw two men look more startled in my mortal life. Down went father as if he'd been shot in the skull. Down went the sergeant plunging on top of him through the open trap door. And up from the still came the most catastrophic crashing and whinnying you'd hear outside of a collapsing stable. Because, of course, the horse was underneath.

Holding my breath, I went to the edge of the trap to look. And there, looking like the devils roasting in hell in the bit of lamplight, was father lying in one corner of the still, Uncle Jamesy in another and right in the middle the sergeant draped over the horse's rump, and the horse staggering to and fro and shaking its ugly head as it it couldn't believe what was goign on, which I suppose it couldn't. One more sway and the sergeant slid to the ground, and just in the same second the horse let a lash out of his back foot that would have broken another man's skull. Even with the sergeant it laid him as cold as a daisy under the poteen barrel. Finally, the horse itself buckled at the knees, gave a kind of small groan of bewilderment and despair, laid its head on the sergeant's stomach and went to sleep.

"Gob," said father, sitting up and feeling himself. "Are we dead?" Then he felt Uncle Jamesy and sat him up. "Are you all right there, Jamesy?"

"It's the girl," said Uncle Jamesy, feeling round for the mug he'd been drinking out of when he go knocked into the corner. "I said no good would come of anything with a girl involved in it. Didn't I say that, Paudeen? But none of you would listen to me. And now the still is ruined on us."

"Oh, come up out of that," I whispered. "It won't be only the still that'll be ruined if you stay there arguing the toss. The sergeant'll have the life out of all of us. Put your hand on his heart and see is he breathing."

"Breathing?" said Uncle Jamesy. "He's snoring like a traction engine. Come down here out of that and give us a hand shifting the still."

Because, of course, with the sergeant lying there in the middle of the Fairy Fort there wasn't much point in leaving things for him to find when he came to himself again. And so for the next hour and a half we hefted and humped and shifted every blessed bit of the still up out of the fort and away down to Peter Lowry's shed. Finally we took away the trap door and dug the hole bigger and ragged all round to make it look as if the horse had fallen into the fort of his own accord. By the time we'd finished, you could have gone over the place with a currycomb and not found so much as the peeling of a potato to hint that there'd ever been a spoonful of poteen concocted inside it. And still the sergeant and the horse lay draped across each other in the middle of the floor, like two big, ugly logs. Only the horse had the most queer expression on its face, sort of smiling dreamily in its sleep. And it suddenly struck me to wonder why the horse was asleep at all.

"Because it's drunk, of course," said Uncle Jamesy bitterly, when I asked him. "Blind drunk. And why wouldn't it be after two buckets of poteen, and near kicking in the barrel to get the second one? It was the only thing would keep the brute quiet. Oh, this is a sad, bad day for Ballysaggert."

It must have been a pretty sad day for the sergeant, too, when he woke up and found his evidence gone from around him. And sadder still for him when he got the three of us into court over in Killnoggin a week later. He'd hardly begun about his horse when things started to look bad for him.

"You went to look for your horse in a Fairy Fort?" said the justice, beginning to sound rather grim.

"No, justice," the sergeant said, "it was only when the fort opened under my foot and I fell in on top of one of the leprechauns that I found the horse was there-- --"

"One of the lep--one of the leprechauns?" said the justice very slowly. There was a big yell of laughter from some of the lads at the back of the courtroom, and I saw the sweat starting on the sergeant's forehead like marbles.

"I mean one of the defendants, your honor," he said miserably, as if he knew that he was a lost man from then on. "The people about call them the leprechauns because of the way they look."

The justice peered at us over his spectacles, where we were lined up, and we all tried to look as unleprechaunlike as three innocent men could.

"Go on," said the justice, but you could tell that he wasn't feeling very well-disposed to the sergeant.

"Then the horse kicked me in the head, your honor, and when I woke up wasn't the whole place dismantled and gone, and me lying there in the middle of the floor of the fort with the roof of it gaping to the sky above my head-- --"

"And you suggest that the leprechauns had taken everything away during the night?" asked the justice in a very silky kind of a voice.

"Yes, justice," roared the sergeant like a bull with dogs round him; and at that the yell of laughter from the lads near lifted the roof.

"Case dismissed," said the justice, pounding on the desk in front of him with his little wooden hammer.

For father and Uncle Jamesy it was as total a victory as a pair of honest men could wish. They even had a new place for the still; a little, disused quarry far back in the mountains where the sergeant could be looking a year without finding it. But for myself, I was more concerned about how I could face Philomena after what we'd just done to her father. And there she was, right in the middle of the path outside the courthouse, wringing her darling hands.

"There, there," I said, patting her head and steering her out of the High Street into the peace and quiet of a little lane that led down beside the river. "There, there." And somehow we avoided the subject of her father altogether, which was just as well. Because the things we got to talking about needed a lot less explaining on my part.

But up at the quarry, father and Uncle Jamesy couldn't have enough of it, laughing their heads off.

But the evening of the third day they stopped laughing pretty abruptly when the horse came stepping down into the quarry and pushed his big ugly head right inside the shaft where they had the still, snuffling with delight at the smell of the poteen. He'd got a taste for the stuff up in the Fairy Fort, and the second he'd got within half a mile of the quarry, down had gone his head and snuff, snuff, snuff, like a blessed dog rather than a horse, hadn't he smelled them out? They got out of jail barely in time for the wedding between me and Philomena.

And I can tell you, there wasn't much poteen drunk to celebrate that event, nor hasn't been since. Because once the sergeant realized that that horse of his could smell out a still, what did he do but turn the creature into a kind of flying column, laying waste the countryside on all sides. There isn't a still left hardly, between Killnoggin and the sea. There's even talk now of him being promoted to inspector, on the Poteen Squad. My own father-in-law, and me the descendant of untold generations of poteen makers! I don't know how I'll ever live down the shame.
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Title Annotation:short story
Author:Cleeve, Brian
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jul 1, 1985
Words:5557
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