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Wilson's Border Tales
The Two Sheep-Stealers


They say there is honour amongst thieves—and, perhaps, there is; but we fear the following story will scarcely be held as a proof of the existence of this virtue amongst that celebrated and distinguished class. We should be sorry, extremely sorry, to traduce the characters of the chevaliers d’industrie needlessly; but we insist on our right to relate facts when we find them, even although they should be somewhat to the discredit of the well-known sentiment referred to at the opening of our tale.

Some forty or fifty years since, there lived, in a solitary spot in a certain muirland parish, in the west of Scotland, situated between the picturesque and antique villages of Strathaven and Kilbride, a couple of "Scots Worthies," of the names of Sandy Dinwoodie and Peter Spenser. A curious pair these two were. Nobody knew exactly how they made their living; for they rarely applied themselves to any regular employment, and yet they appeared to be as comfortable in every respect as their neighbours. It was rather a mysterious case, and people were sorely puzzled to account for it. They had, indeed, certain suspicions on the subject; but who, amongst them dare give utterance to these suspicions where there was not a shadow of proof to support them? No one. It is true that there was a constant missing of sheep by the proprietors of flocks in the neighbourhood of these two persons’ residences—two, three, and four disappearing every week from some drove or other, over a space of eight or ten miles—for so widely were these depredations extended; but who could attribute this defalcation to the secret operations of Sandy Dinwoodie and Peter Spenser? They would have acted very imprudently who should. But, good reader, there is no occasion for us observing this delicacy. There is nothing to hinder us from speaking out regarding a matter which proof has established, and time left at such a distance behind. We say it distinctly, then, that Sandy Dinwoodie and Peter Spenser were really and truly a pair of the most notorious sheep-stealers that this or any other country ever had the honour of producing; that it was no other than these two that de-sheeped the country in the way spoken of; and that this was the laudable occupation by which they lived; but they conducted their proceedings with such caution, such ingenuity, such masterly skill, that it was long before any one could openly charge them with anything like an inordinate love for mutton-chops or sheep-head broth; yet true, nevertheless, it is, and of verity, that such love they entertained, and in such love largely indulged.

The residences of these two mutton-fanciers were admirably situated, too, for the exercise of their calling. They stood in a hollow; two housee joined together, in the midst of a barren muir, or rather waste of bog—a wild, dreary, and solitary spot, with no neighbours within a couple of miles of them, and where intruders of any kind were rarely seen—none, in truth, save a stray herd or shepherd, now and then, and in the season, a wandering sportsman or two.

It is quite unnecessary for us to say that Sandy and Peter entertained all the regard for each other which the similarity of their pursuits, and the circumstances altogether in which they were placed, were so well calculated to produce. They had the utmost confidence in each other, and to each other disclosed every secret wish of their hearts. They were, in fact, a beautiful example, at least for many years, of that love and cordiality which should always subsist between gentlemen of the same profession. They would—as, indeed, they did every day—trust their lives to each other; and, in their confiding love, could lie down at night without the smallest dread of the halter—a subject on which, from the peculiar nature of their pursuits, they could not help sometimes reflecting. We have elsewhere said that the prudence with which Sandy and Peter conducted their proceedings, kept them clear of everything in relation to their peccadilloes, except suspicion; but that suspicion was very strong—so strong as to amount to conviction with many, and, moreover, to subject their houses to certain unseasonable domiciliary visits, occasionally, from shepherds and others, whom they had interested in their proceedings. These visits were not openly made under their real character, but were merely sly surveillances, to see if anything would present itself, bespeaking surreptitious mutton. Nothing of this kind, however, had ever been discovered in either of the houses; but of these visits Sandy and Peter stood in great dread, especially after any very bold stroke at the way of their calling, which was almost sure to be followed by one of them. On this they always counted, and exercised a discretion in that particular, accordingly.

For many years, the firm of Messrs Dinwoodie & Spenser, sheep-stealers, went on smoothly and without any very serious interruption. The partners were steady, intelligent, laborious men, and knew their business well—were true to each other, and bold, yet judicious, in their speculations; but, alas! by how frail a tenure is all human prosperity held!—and when self-preservation demands a sacrifice, who is there amongst us that would hesitate to offer it in the moment of peril, even to the destruction of our nearest and dearest? ‘Tis a painful view of human nature; but, alas! there are but too many instances of its truth upon record. We have now to add another.

It happened, on one occasion, that Sandy Dinwoodie made a foray on his own individual account—that is, without being accompanied, as usual, by his trusty coadjutor, Peter Spenser. How this had arisen in the present case—being a thing that had but rarely, if ever, happened before—we cannot explain; but so it was. Sandy, one night, started alone, to see what a little single-handed diligence could effect. He knew well where to go, and felt pretty confident of making sure of at least one good fat wedder, "to keep the weans chowin," as he said himself. Full of this confidence, inspired by a long course of successful practice, Sandy hastened away to a certain hillside, which he proposed to make the scene of his exploit on this particular night; and, having gained it, esconced himself in the cleft of a rock, that he might, from this safe place, scan at his leisure the merits of the different individuals of a large flock that was grazing hard by, and many of whom came, from time to time, within arm’s-length of him in his hiding-place. Sandy, be it observed, was none of your hurried, flurried practitioners, who, placed in circumstances similar to those in which we exhibit him, snatch at the first animal that comes in their way, without regard to its quality or condition. Sandy was none of these. He was a special good judge of sheep, and he made a deliberate and highly advantageous use of this knowledge, in his selections on such occasions as those we allude to. He examined leisurely and cautiously, and never failed to finish happily in the choice he eventually made, by securing the largest and fattest in the flock. Sandy’s practice on the night in question was not at variance with his usual proceeding in such cases. Lying perdu, in the concealment of which we have spoken, he surveyed the living specimens of fleecy hosiery about him, with the eye of a connoisseur.

"There now," he said to himself, as he lay extended at full length upon the ground, with his looks intently riveted on one of the sheep that were grazing before him; "there’s a bit fair beast, noo; five stane, sinkin offal, if it’s an unce; but there’s better than it there, I’m thinkin, guid as it is. Ay, eh, man, there’s a noble ane—that white-faced ane. What a wapper. It’s like a cow. That’s the ane for my siller!" And he drew himself a foot or so cautiously out of the hole in which he was concealed, in order to seize the animal, which, with inexpressible delight, he saw edging towards him. When it came within his reach, which it shortly did, Sandy made a sweeping gripe at its legs, and had it instantly over on its side. This done, he pulled a cord from his pocket, and, in a twinkling, secured the animal’s feet. A moment after he was on his own feet, and the sheep safely lodged on his shoulder, with its manacled legs round his neck. Thus happily burdened, he marched off, directing his steps towards a certain burn at a short distance; where, on his arriving, he threw down his load, held the head of the sheep over the stream, and, drawing a sharp knife from his pocket, "settled its hashy," as he himself elegantly expressed it. Having allowed the animal to bleed thoroughly into the water—choosing this receptacle for its life’s blood for a reason which is too obvious to need explanation—he again shouldered his burden, and, by pursuing an ingeniously-circuitous route, reached his own house in due time and in perfect safety. Having no fear whatever of the sheep being missed until the following day, at the very soonest, and, therefore, no dread of an immediate domiciliary visit from its late guardian or guardians, Sandy laid the carcass of the slaughtered sheep openly on his kitchen floor, and began, with great deliberation, the process of skinning it—at which he was an adept, as he literally killed and dressed all his own mutton.

"There’s some prime patsfu’ o kail in that brute, Jenny," he said, addressing his wife, as he turned the carcass of the animal from side to side, during the operation of flaying. "I’ll wad my lugs, you’ll see the fat on them an inch thick—juist like a lid, woman"—and Sandy licked his lips at the picture of fat kail, which his lively fancy had drawn.

"It’s guid meat, Sandy," replied his wife, briefly, too accustomed to such a scene to think anything of it, and, at the same time, cursorily glancing at the subject of her husband’s eulogium.

"Just prime, woman," replied Sandy, "it’s the pick o’ Dean-side—the flooer o’ the flock. Leave me for walin a guid sheep! But, what’s that?" he suddenly exclaimed, in great alarm, clapping his knife between his teeth, and raising his head from the work in which he was engaged, to catch the sounds that had struck him more distinctly. "Didna ye hear a whustle? It’s somebody comin up the road, and we’re dune for noo. It’s the twa herds, and they’ll be in upon us an’ see a’."

Saying this, Sandy jumped to his feet, threw the carcass of the sheep on his shoulder, took up the skin, which he had just detached, in one of his hands, and rushed out of a back door, which opened on a kail-yard that lay behind. But here there was no refuge, no concealment; and already the visitors, whoever they were, were thumping vehemently at the door—not Sandy’s, however, but his neighbour Peter’s, where they seemed disposed to begin their search—to gain admission. What was to be done? A thorough search of the premises would be made, and a discovery of the robbery would immediately follow; and that guilt which had so long baffled detection would, at length, be revealed. And, harder still, as Sandy thought, the clear proof of his and Peter’s depredations which was now about to fall into the hands of the enemy, would bear upon him alone, as with him alone it would be found in the present instance. Sandy was, in truth, in a miserable quandary. He did not know what on earth to do; but, at this moment, a happy thought struck him—a thought so wickedly ingenious, that it must have been suggested by the old boy himself. Running up to the further end of his own garden, which adjoined that of Peter Spenser’s, from which it was separated by a stone dyke of about four feet in height, he threw over the sheep into his neighbour’s garden, taking care to pitch it to such a distance, and that it should alight in such a situation as would make it appear that it had been attempted to be concealed there. Having done this, the cunning vagabond ran to a little back window of his neighbour’s. It was a single pane which opened on a hinge, and gave light to a small closet. This pane he thrust gently up, and, slipping the wet skin into the closet, drew it cautiously to again. All this accomplished—and it was but the work of a very few seconds—Dinwoodie returned to his own house, seated himself by the fire, and awaited, with all the composure he could command, the result of the search that was now going on in his neighbour’s house, and which he momentarily expected would extend to his own. That a search was going on there we need not more explicitly say. The abstracted sheep had, by mere accident, been missed in less than an hour after it had been taken away; and suspicion, as usual, had fallen on Spenser and Dinwoodie. The persons now endeavouring to trace out the guilt to them, were two shepherds and two friends, well armed with sticks, whom they had brought along with them, in case of resistance being made. To revert to the proceedings of the night:—We need not say how much Peter was surprised at the visit that was now made him, conscious, as he was, that he had been an innocent man, not only for that day, but had actually not touched live mutton for nearly a week before. His surprise, then, we say, was great, at this unexpected visit, but he was supported by the consciousness of freedom from very recent guilt, and a perfect assurance that nothing could be found in his house, of a character the least equivocal or suspicious. These feelings made Peter strong and bold as a lion. He faced the intruders like a hero, and demanded what they wanted.

"We want a bit sheep," said one of the men, "that has strayed frae us, and which, we thocht, micht hae wandered in here, as we’ve heard they sometimes do."

"It’s no unlikely," replied Peter, ironically; "no unlikely ava," he said, laughing heartily; "sae juist tak a bit look through the hoose, an’ satisfy yersels, lads. It’ll be amusement to ye for twa-three minutes."

"We’ll juist do as ye recommend, Peter," replied one of the men coolly; "an’ we’ll begin wi’ this bit closet here, an’ ye like. I’ve seen a sheep hide itsel in a waur place." Saying this, the speaker entered the closet, and, as it was dark, began groping about for anything suspicious which chance might throw in his way. He had not been long thus employed, when his hand came in contact with something soft and woolly. The man guessed at once what it was, drew it forth—and, behold! it was what he knew it to be—namely, a sheep-skin, and one recently detached from the carcass. "Juist the very thing," said the man, who had found this damning proof of Peter’s guilt, as he brought it forward to the light. "Hoo cam ye by this, Peter?"

Surprise, amazement, and every feeling that is confounding, prevented Peter from making any reply for a few seconds; a circumstance that was at once, and very naturally, set down as another proof of his guilt, by the by-standers. When Peter, at length, did speak, it was to deny, in the most solemn manner, all knowledge of how the sheepskin came there—a denial which was, of course, heard by all present with expressions of undisguised incredulity. The skin was next examined, and found to bear the mark of the flock from which it had been abstracted—leaving no longer the smallest shadow of doubt, that Peter was the thief of the missing animal. Elated by the success of their search, the men now proceeded to the house of Peter’s neighbour, in the hope that they might find something there too, that would involve the latter in the guilt of the former— something which should fix him as, at least, airt and pairt in the robbery. In this hope, then, they accordingly entered.

"Weel lads, what’s wanted?" said Sandy, with the utmost composure and innocency of countenance.

"An unco smell o’ singin sheep-heads here," replied one of the visitors, snuffing the air, and, affecting to feel the particular kind of effluvia he alluded to. "Hae ye ony gear o’ that kind aboot ye?"

"No," said Sandy; "but I ken whar there’s ane, though it’s no muckle worth."

"Whar is’t?" inquired the first speaker.

"Between yer ain twa shouthers, Archy," rejoined Sandy.

"Ay, ay, my man," said the subject of Sandy’s joke angrily, "but it’s heads wi’ horns on’t that we want."

"If a’ tales be true, yours doesna want thae either," replied Sandy, with a composed smile of sly meaning. He had made a hit, and the reddening face of the victim of his wit, and a burst of laughter from his associates, announced that he had done so.

The party now proceeded to search the house with the most careful scrutiny. They searched below beds, they rummaged presses and closets, (Sandy himself aiding them in their efforts, and, from time to time, expressing a virtuous indignation at the idea of his being supposed capable of dealing in unlawful mutton,) and, in short, left no place unexamined in which even a trotter might be concealed. But all their vigilance was vain. They could discover nothing to implicate Sandy in the present robbery. On finding this, they despatched one of their number to their master, who shortly after appeared, accompanied by a messenger, who instantly took the unfortunate sheep-stealer, Peter, into custody, and marched him off, that same night, to Hamilton jail, whence he was, in due time, removed to Glasgow, where he was brought to trial and sentenced to fourteen years’ transportation—his guilt, when coupled with his well-known character, appearing as clear to the judge and jury as it had done to those who first took him into custody.

It is said that Sandy, on finding the coast clear—that is, when his unfortunate neighbour and his cortege, or guard of honour, had marched off—regained possession of his mutton, and did not find it relish a bit the worse for the adventure to which it had been a party.


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