Cobwebs from an Empty Skull, by Ambrose Bierce

Four Jacks and a Knave.

In the “backwoods” of Pennsylvania stood a little mill. The miller appertaining unto this mill was a Pennsylvania Dutchman — a species of animal in which for some centuries sauerkraut has been usurping the place of sense. In Hans Donnerspiel the usurpation was not complete; he still knew enough to go in when it rained, but he did not know enough to stay there after the storm had blown over. Hans was known to a large circle of friends and admirers as about the worst miller in those parts; but as he was the only one, people who quarrelled with an exclusively meat diet continued to patronize him. He was honest, as all stupid people are; but he was careless. So absent-minded was he, that sometimes when grinding somebody’s wheat he would thoughtlessly turn into the “hopper” a bag of rye, a lot of old beer-bottles, or a basket of fish. This made the flour so peculiar, that the people about there never knew what it was to be well a day in all their lives. There were so many local diseases in that vicinity, that a doctor from twenty miles away could not have killed a patient in a week.

Hans meant well; but he had a hobby — a hobby that he did not ride: that does not express it: it rode him. It spurred him so hard, that the poor wretch could not pause a minute to see what he was putting into his mill. This hobby was the purchase of jackasses. He expended all his income in this diversion, and his mill was fairly sinking under its weight of mortgages. He had more jackasses than he had hairs on his head, and, as a rule, they were thinner. He was no mere amateur collector either, but a sharp discriminating connoisseur. He would buy a fat globular donkey if he could not do better; but a lank shabby one was the apple of his eye. He rolled such a one, as it were, like a sweet morsel under his tongue.

Hans’s nearest neighbour was a worthless young scamp named Jo Garvey, who lived mainly by hunting and fishing. Jo was a sharp-witted rascal, without a single scruple between, himself and fortune. With a tithe of Hans’s industry he might have been almost anything; but his dense laziness always rose up like a stone wall about him, shutting him in like a toad in a rock. The exact opposite of Hans in almost every respect, he was notably similar in one: he had a hobby. Jo’s hobby was the selling of jackasses.

One day, while Hans’s upper and nether mill-stones were making it lively for a mingled grist of corn, potatoes, and young chickens, he heard Joseph calling outside. Stepping to the door, he saw him holding three halters to which were appended three donkeys.

“I say, Hans,” said he, “here are three fine animals for your stud. I have brought ’em up from the egg, and I know ’em to be first-class. But they ’re not so big as I expected, and you may have ’em for a sack of oats each.”

Hans was delighted. He had not the least doubt in the world that Joe had stolen them; but it was a fixed principle with him never to let a donkey go away and say he was a hard man to deal with. He at once brought out and delivered the oats. Jo gravely examined the quality, and placing a sack across each animal, calmly led them away.

Hans, Joseph and Three Asses

When he had gone, it occurred to Hans that he had less oats and no more asses than he had before.

“Tuyfel!” he exclaimed, scratching his pow; “I puy dot yackasses, und I don’t vos god ’im so mooch as I didn’t haf ’im before — ain’t it?”

Very much to his comfort it was, therefore, to see Jo come by next day leading the same animals.

“Hi!” he shrieked; “you prings me to my yackasses. You gif me to my broberdy back!”

“Oh, very well, Hans. If you want to crawfish out of a fair bargain, all right. I’ll give you back your donkeys, and you give me back my oats.”

“Yaw, yaw,” assented the mollified miller; “you his von honest shentlemans as I vos efer vent anyvhere. But I don’t god ony more oats, und you moost dake vheat, eh?”

And fetching out three sacks of wheat, he handed them over. Jo was proceeding to lay these upon the backs of the animals; but this was too thin for even Hans.

“Ach! you tief-veller! you leabs dis yackasses in me, und go right avay off; odther I bust your het mid a gloob, don’t it?”

So Joseph was reluctantly constrained to hang the donkeys to a fence. While he did this, Hans was making a desperate attempt to think. Presently he brightened up:

“Yo, how you coom by dot vheat all de dime?”

“Why, old mudhead, you gave it to me for the jacks.”

“Und how you coom by dot oats pooty soon avhile ago?”

“Why, I gave that to you for them,” said Joseph, pressed very hard for a reply.

“Vell, den, you goes vetch me back to dot oats so gwicker as a lamb gedwinkle his dail — hay?”

“All right, Hans. Lend me the donkeys to carry off my wheat, and I ’ll bring back your oats on ’em.”

Joseph was beginning to despair; but no objection being made, he loaded up the grain, and made off with his docile caravan. In a half-hour he returned with the donkeys, but of course without anything else.

“I zay, Yo, where is dis oats I hear zo mooch dalk aboud still?”

“Oh, curse you and your oats!” growled Jo, with simulated anger. “You make such a fuss about a bargain, I have decided not to trade. Take your old donkeys, and call it square!”

“Den vhere mine vheat is?”

“Now look here, Hans; that wheat is yours, is it?”

“Yaw, yaw.”

“And the donkeys are yours, eh?”

“Yaw, yaw.”

“And the wheat’s been yours all the time, has it?”

“Yaw, yaw.”

“Well, so have the donkeys. I took ’em out of your pasture in the first place. Now what have you got to complain of?”

The Dutchman reflected all over his head with’ his forefinger-nail.

“Gomblain? I no gomblain ven it is all right. I zee now I vos made a mistaken. Coom, dake a drinks.”

Jo left the animals standing, and went inside, where they pledged one another in brimming mugs of beer. Then taking Hans by the hand,

“I am sorry,” said he, “we can’t trade. Perhaps some other day you will be more reasonable. Good bye!”

And Joseph departed leading away the donkeys!

Hans stood for some moments gazing after him with a complacent smile making his fat face ridiculous. Then turning to his mill-stones, he shook his head with an air of intense self-satisfaction:

“Py donner! Dot Yo Garfey bees a geen, shmard yockey, but he gonnot spiel me svoppin’ yackasses!”

Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05