With apologies to the "real" Jack Tales of Appalachia...
Jack Learns a Lesson in Honesty
by Matthew Burns
Did you ever hear the one about Jack getting a lesson in honesty? No. Well then, it’s about time you hear it then don’t you think? You see, one time, I always heard it was up around Helvetia or thereabouts, there was a boy named Jack. Well, Jack wasn’t quite a boy but he still wasn’t no man either, he was at that age when he was caught somewhere in between the two. Jack was the oldest boy of the family, some would say the man of the house since his Daddy got kilt in a log jam back a few years before. As you might imagine, the family was pretty poor, as the old saying went, “they didn’t have a pot to go in, nor a window to through it out of.” The family still had a few acres of rocky ground, poor land though it was, almost too poor to even raise a fuss.
Well one day, Jack’s mama looked into the gaunt faces of her children and knew she had but one option. She was going to have to sell the family cow. She loved that cow, having raised it up from a calf, but them was better times in better days, and even though the family would be at a loss for milk, there just wasn’t no way around it. They needed flour and meal and salt and sugar and maybe even a little coffee if they were to get through the coming winter. So it was with a heavy heart and a troubled mind that she gave Jack instructions to take the cow down into a nearby town and try to get as much out of it as he could, and she give him a list of foodstuffs to buy while he was in town. She told Jack not to take less than fifteen dollars for the cow, for if he couldn’t fetch that price he might as well bring it back home and they would keep it and make due the best they could.
Well, ol’ Jack was about a sharp as a box sled, though he fancied himself an intelligent person. He reckoned he could fetch a big price for the cow if he could figure out a way to talk the cow up to prospective buyers. He studied on this as he began the long journey down to town.
On the way, he stopped in the creek at the foot of the mountain, and while holding the halter on the ol’ cow, he clenched handfuls of white sand off the bottom of the clear stream and scrubbed that cow down from head to hoof. He then fashioned a comb out of a hickory limb and combed the cow, freeing her hair of briers, sticks and mud. Jack stepped back to admire his handiwork and reckoned that it would at least double the value of the cow. Jack was stepping mighty high as he led the cow on down the path toward town.
They weren’t long on the path until they came upon a pine grove. Jack was happy to see it for the path under the pine grove was shaded and cool, and it had been a long trek off of the mountain. Jack noticed that several of the pine trees had great balls of sap welled up on their bark. He touched one of them as he passed, and found it to be very sticky. He rubbed his fingers together to free his hands of the sap, but the more he rubbed his hands, the more he spread the sap around. Soon though, the path came upon another creek and Jack was able to scrub the sticky sap from his hands.
After the few minutes it took for the cow to drink its fill, they were again on their way, and quickly passed out from under the shade of the pine patch. As he walked out into the bright sun, Jack gasped as he saw his hands and forearms where the sap had been, they were literally shining in the sunlight. So using his vast intellect, Jack quickly came upon another idea, he would mix some of the runny sap with water and he would rub the cow down with the mixture to make her extra shiny and appealing. She’d be the best looking cow in town after he shined her up. After much deliberate trouble, Jack soon had the cow shined and spiffied up, never had he saw a cow look so good as the old family milk cow.
It was nearing mid-afternoon when Jack led the clean, curried and shining cow into town. He was walking with his head heisted high like he was leading a fine stallion. He began announcing as he passed townspeople, “Cow for sale. Make me an offer. Ain’t she a beauty. Fattened on mountain pastures. She’s a fine milker. There ain’t another cow like this in all of town. Make me an offer.”
Jack saw a few men loading their wagon by one of the stores in town. He slowly passed them, making sure to give them his sales pitch. One of the men there asked him, “How old is that cow?” To which Jack answered, “Not a day over three years, sir. As you can see, she still has her youthful shine about her.” The man, as it turned out, was the store keeper in town and though not fooled by Jacks spit-and-polish antics, told Jack he could see that the cow had been well cared for, and since he was in the market for a good cow, offered Jack twenty dollars in cash or thirty dollars in credit at his store.
Jack looked quite indignant at the offer, “Sir, surely you can’t expect me to part with this fine animal for that paltry sum. Surely this cow is worth much more than you offer.” The storekeeper merely replied, “That’s what I can do on her,” to which Jack responded, “Then I shall bid you good day, sir.”
As Jack made another round through town, he remembered his mother had told him to take no less than Fifteen dollars for the cow, but he reckoned with all the improvements he had made to the cow, she was worth at least Fifty Dollars. And by the way the townspeople were looking at his fine cow, he was sure that his mother would agree.
It wasn’t too much longer that Jack came upon a man and wife, coming out of an attorney’s office. Jack started announcing his sales pitch again as he passed, “Cow for sale. Make me an offer. Ain’t she a beauty. Fattened on mountain pastures. She’s a fine milker. There ain’t another cow like this in all of town. Make me an offer.” Finally, the well-dressed man said to him, “Hold up there son, that’s a mighty fine looking animal that you are leading. I heard you say that she is for sale. How much, might I ask, would it take for me to take her off your hands?”
“Why sir, I can see that you have a good eye when it comes to livestock,” Jack said, “there’s not another cow such as this in all of the county. What would you offer for such a one of a kind animal?”
“Well young man, my wife and I are new in town. We hail from Old Virginia, and I haven’t seen a cow shine so since I left my home in Chesterfield County. I don’t know the going rate for cows in these parts, but I will make you an offer of Fifty Dollars and a fine meal in exchange for that cow.”
Pausing while he pondered this offer, Jack reckoned he’d better not take the first offer the man gave him, he reckoned he had heard a hundred times from countless people to never take the first offer someone makes you for anything. With this in mind, Jack politely said, “Sir, it is true that your offer is above what cows generally cost in this county, but surely you would agree that this isn’t just an ordinary cow. You said yourself that she shines like a low country cow. I’m afraid I just can’t let her go for a mere Fifty Dollars.”
“I understand your hesitation, young man,” said the man, but as I said, my wife and I are new in town. I have just opened up a law firm here, and I don’t feel comfortable investing more than that into a milk cow at this time. I’m sorry we couldn’t do business.”
“Well, thank you for your time, sir,” Jack responded, “have a good day, but I must bid you goodbye since I must find a buyer for this fine beast before nightfall.”
Jack made a few more rounds in town, but by that time it was beginning to get late in the afternoon and the town was starting to clear out. Though disappointed, Jack wasn’t too very concerned, after all he had already gotten two offers for the cow, and it was only the first day. He reckoned if worse came to worse, he could always come back tomorrow to make a deal. He reckoned after the storekeeper and the attorney slept on it, and had the idea of owning this fine animal fermenting in their minds, they’d gladly meet his price. It was clear after a few more minutes, it’d be best f he made his way back out to the creek that he had crossed over on the path into town earlier in the day so the cow could graze and drink her fill at the creek. After arriving at the creek, Jack began looking for a good place to make camp, and he settled on a quiet spot just off the main path, under a big pine tree with grass and a small stream nearby. He quickly make a crude camp, pulling dry grass for him a bed and building a small campfire to keep away any roving night critters and biting insects. As the evening gave way to night, Jack waited until the cow bedded down for the night before feasting on cornbread and sweet milk, which he had freshly milked a few minutes earlier. After he ate, he began to thinking again of his cow. He reckoned tomorrow he wouldn’t take a penny less than One Hundred Dollars for her, fine animal that she was.
The next morning, Jack was awakened by the gentle sounds of the cow grazing nearby. He looked over at her, and was shocked by what he saw. The dampness of the night had caused all of that pine resin he had rubbed her down with the previous day to form little balls and it was all matted and caked in her hair. He then noticed that her whole one side was coated with pine needles where she had bedded down under the pine tree. All of a sudden, anger washed over him and he started screaming at the cow, calling it stupid, and telling it how it was a worthless animal that didn’t have sense God gave a goose. He swarped for a good ten minutes at the beast who calmly continued to graze on the green grass.
After he calmed down, Jack knew the only thing he could do was try to clean the cow in the stream. He soon found the task to be nigh on to impossible. You see, the dried and matted pine resin just repelled the water, and the cow wouldn’t allow him to try and brush the hardened beads of it out of her hair. He did manage, however, to get most of the pine needles out of the mess.
The thoughts of all that lost money weighed heavy on his mind as he made his way back into town. This time, rather than parading through the streets trying to make a sale, Jack decided to approach the attorney to see if the Fifty Dollar offer that had made the day before was still good. As he walked into the office, the attorney quickly recognized him and bade him a good morning. He half-jokingly asked Jack, “So young man, are you here to settle up on a land deal that you have made with all the money you surely derived from the sale of that fine cow.”
“No sir,” replied Jack, “I came to see if your offer of Fifty dollars still stands.”
The attorney looked upon Jack, quite puzzled, “But young man, what has changed between yesterday and today? Surely the cow didn’t lose value overnight. Perhaps we should take a look at the beast to see if there is a problem.” Jack assured him that it was the same cow that he looked at yesterday, but told him they had spent the night camped out by yonder creek, so she might not look as fresh as she did yesterday, but indeed it was still the same animal. The attorney said he’d like to take another look if he was to pay fifty dollars for a milk cow. Jack reluctantly took him to the cow, which had been tied out back of the office.
“What is this!” exclaimed the attorney.
“Why it is my fine cow that you looked at yesterday,” Jack calmly replied.
“But what is this…” the attorney inquired, touching the gummy substance that was matted in the cow’s hair.
“Nothing more than some pine resin,” said Jack. “She bedded down under a pine tree last night and it must have dripped down on her as she slept.”
“But her shine, it is gone. What happened to your beautiful cow’s sheen?”
Jack didn’t have an answer, but the attorney quickly figured it out. “Young man,” he said, “it appears that you have tried to take me for a fool. This cow has no shine to her coat, it appears you were trying to make her appear more vigorous than she really is. Furthermore, it appears you are trying to take advantage of a stranger to this land. I’m sorry young man, but I will not be doing business with you, and I can only offer you some advice, never come to me asking me a favor for I will not be so kind at our next meeting. Good day to you.”
Jack was dumfounded. He still felt he had done nothing wrong, he was merely trying to make the cow look her best so she could fetch a better price. He thought the attorney was just overreacting so he decided to call upon the storekeeper to set about making a deal.
Jack made his way to the back of the store, and tied the cow in an out of the way area. He entered the store, whereupon he was immediately greeted by the storekeeper, “Good morning young man, did you ever pawn that played out milk cow off onto anybody?”
Incredulously, Jack responded, “What do you mean, sir, my cow is a vision of vim and vigor.”
“Young man, I’ve seen every trick in the book come through here, although I must admit, yesterday was the first time I have ever seen someone fool enough to rub pine resin into the coat of a milk cow. My guess is you never sold the cow yesterday and this morning you found all that resin balled up in little pellets? Am I close?”
“Well sir…,” Jack stammered, until deciding to come clean, “Yes sir, but I didn’t mean no harm by it, I was just trying to fetch a good price for our cow because mama told me to try and get as much out of it as I could.”
“So you’re mama put you up to doing it?”
“No sir. Mama don’t know nothing about what I did. That is all on me. She just meant for me to not get taken advantage of.”
“But it was alright for you to take advantage of others,” questioned the storekeeper.
“I didn’t mean nothing by it, I swear I didn’t.”
“Young man, I knew that you were trying to put one over on some unsuspecting victim yesterday when you turned down my offer of twenty dollars cash or thirty dollars in goods. Around here that is a fortune to get for a cow. I offered you that amount because I admired your initiative. I just never knew how greedy you were until you declined my offer,” the storekeeper chided him.
“I’m awful sorry about that, sir. I do apologize.” Having taken enough of this tongue-lashing, Jack decided it was best if he just left, “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I guess I’d better be heading back home.”
“Hold up, young man,” interrupted the storekeeper, “Did you come in here to try and sell me the cow, again.”
“I did, sir, and again, I apologize, but I can tell you are no longer interested in buying the cow.”
“Then let that be a lesson to you. Twice you tried to take advantage of me, and twice I forgave you.” The storekeeper continued, “Now young man, if you are through trying to take advantage of me, then I really am interested in buying that cow.”
“Really, sir,” Jack questioned, “For the thirty dollars in goods?”
“No boy, that was yesterday’s price. Let’s go have a look at the cow and we’ll try and settle upon a fair price.” As they were walking out to see the cow, the storekeeper asked Jack how many siblings he had.
“Four,” answered Jack, “but I’m the oldest.”
“Let’s see then. Five youngins and selling the family milk cow. Things must be pretty hard for your family,” the storekeeper commented.
“Yes sir, they have been since my paw died. Mama didn’t want to sell our cow but we need other things worse, I reckon,” Jack confessed.
“That’s mighty noble of her. I’ll tell you what, I’m not going to buy your cow, but I would like to accompany you back home to meet your mother.”
Jack didn’t know what to say except, “it’s a far piece, it’ll take the better part of the day.”
“Well then young man, just let me tell my assistant and we will be on our way.”
That evening when Jack arrived back home with the cow in hand, his mama looked very forlorn and defeated about his returning without any foodstuffs. He was only beginning to tell her about his trip when she saw the strange man coming through the yard gate.
“Jack, who is that?” his mama asked.
“Mama, this is the storekeeper for in town. He said he wanted to talk to you about something. He wouldn’t tell me even though I told him I was the man of the house.”
“Ma’am,” The storekeeper formally greeted her. “Might I have a word with you,” she nodded to the affirmative and invited him in to share the meager meal she had prepared for Jack.
Jack was just sure the storekeeper was going to tell mama about what he had done, and he knew she would be so ashamed of him and she’d probably wear him out with a cornstalk. It seemed like hours before the storekeeper came out of the house, when they did all Jack heard was the storekeeper telling his mother to send Jack down to the store tomorrow.
Jack also heard his mother tell the storekeeper that he was welcome to stay the night, but the storekeeper declined, saying he’d best on his way before more daylight was lost.
After the storekeeper left, Jack asked his mother what they had been talking about, and what was meant by the storekeeper telling her t send him to the store tomorrow.
“Well Jack. Never underestimate the kindness of strangers. That kind man just offered to buy all the butter, cheese and eggs we can supply him with, and he is offering us good prices for them, too. He said he knows how hard it must be for us, because his mama brought him up without a Daddy and he remembers how they went without food many a day. He’s offered to give us an advance that will cover our corn and salt and whatever else we need, and he said as long as we treat him fairly, he will treat us fairly.”
She didn’t mention anything about his deceitful plans in trying to sell the cow. Jack reckoned it was his punishment that he had to carry the guilt around inside of him. When he thought of it, he had to excuse himself for a few moments by saying he’d better go check on the cow. He didn’t know what to think about the opportunity that had just presented itself to his family, all Jack knew was he had certainly learned a valuable lesson over the past two days.
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