Jack Gets a Herd of Cattle

This is another of the many “Jack Tales” that have been collected from the hills and hollows of the southern Appalachians. First brought from the British highlands years ago, they have survived as oral tales passed from generation to generation. Jack has many an adventure, and usually comes out on top of the situation.

One time there was a boy named Jack who lived on the farm with his mother and his two brothers, Tom and Will. Jack’s daddy was off with the King’s army and wasn’t about much. Jack was a good worker, unlike his two older brothers, and he worked hard to make sure his mother had it about as good as could be back then. To make ends meet, he often hired himself out to other farmers, particularly around planting and harvest time.

Now as I said, Jack was a good worker, but he was just one of those kind of people who could really be annoying. Did you ever meet anyone like that? I’ll be you have. Well Jack just got to be such an annoying nuisance, that several of the farmers he worked for started talking about how they could get shet of old Jack.

Several of them had a lot of suggestions, but finally they decided they would just grab Jack and stuff him in an old barrel and take him off and throw him in the river. The barrel would either sink or it would float off downstream with the current. Either way they would be shet of that nuisance Jack.

It wasn’t all that hard to catch Jack. While he was working along a fencerow one day, one of the farmers came up and started talking to him. While he was distracted, two others snuck up behind him and threw a bag over him. Then one of them ran off quick to the barn and brought out a wagon with two horses and a big barrel in the back. In no time, they dumped Jack into that old whiskey barrel and pounded on the lid.

So with Jack in the barrel on the wagon, two of the men started off down the road to the river. Yes sir, they would get rid of Jack.

Well it was a lot farther to the river than they remembered, so awhile later when they came to a roadside inn, they stopped to get a bite to eat and to wet their whistles. Meanwhile Jack had got himself upright in that barrel and tried his hardest to pop off the lid, particularly when he heard the men talking about throwing the barrel in the river. But it was on tight. There was a hole in the barrel where a bung would have gone when it was full of liquor, so Jack was able to peek out and get a bit of an idea what was going on outside. When the wagon stopped he peered out of the hole to see what was happening. He saw the two drivers going up the steps to the inn, and so he tried again to get the lid off. But it wouldn’t budge.

Jack was thinking and thinking about what he could do when he heard a commotion outside. Looking out the hole again, he could hear “moooing” and soon saw a young drover herding a bunch of cows to market. Jack put his mouth instead of his eye to the bung hole and hollared out, “I won’t do it. No sir, they can’t make me do it!”

Well at first no one could hear him because of the noise the cows were making, mooing and clompping along. But Jack kept hollaring, “I just will not do it. I don’t care what they say. I won’t!” After a bit, as he got closer to the wagon, the drover thought he heard something. Jack hollared out again. “No sir, I just won’t do it.”

The young drover came closer as he heard the voice and climbed up into the wagon, just as Jack hollared again. “There’s someone in this barrel,” the young man finally figured out. Putting his own mouth down by the bung hole, he asked, “What are you doing in this barrel, and what is it you won’t do?”

“They’re taking me to make me marry the King’s daughter,” Jack replied, “and I don’t want to. In fact I won’t do it!”

“Why won’t you marry the King’s daughter?” he asked Jack.

“Because I don’t want to, and besides, she isn’t any beauty.”

Well the young drover thought for a moment. “Hmmmm,” he thought, “I’m only a poor boy driving cows down the road. Marrying a princess has got to be better than this, even if she isn’t beautiful.” He thought another moment, then told Jack, “Well I’ll marry the King’s daughter. How do I get to do that?”

“You got to get me out of this barrel, and get yourself in,” said Jack. But you’ve got to hurry before those drivers finish their dinner in the inn.”

The young fella hopped down off the wagon and found a piece of wood by the roadside. He climbed back up and used it to knock the top of the barrel. “Don’t hit it too hard,” said Jack, “or it won’t fit back on.” Quick as a flash Jack was out of the barrel and the young fella was in. Jack used the wood to pound the barrel top back on tight. “Now be quiet,” he told the drover, “or those men will figure out it’s not me in there.”

Jack hopped down and started running back up the road towards home when all of a sudden he stopped and went back. “That fella don’t need all these cows anymore,” he said to himself. “I might as well take them along with me.” He picked up the drover’s switch and started those cows off down the road ahead of him. “Moooooooo!”

In a short while the two farmers came out of the inn, checked to see if the lid was still on the barrel, and continued their way towards the river. When they got there and unloaded the barrel, the drover was a little concerned about what was going to happen, but he kept his mouth shut like Jack had told him. The men picked up the barrel and with a one-two-three heave, tossed it right out into the river, where it floated away on the current, settling lower as it went. By the time the fella inside started hollaring for help, he was too far away for the listeners to know it wasn’t Jack. “Well now, we are surely rid of that pestiferous boy,” they congratulated each other.

The men quickly turned their wagon around and headed home. Before they got to their own homes they had to go by the farm where Jack lived with his mother and brothers. Who should they see standing in the yard, but Jack. Instead of the two or three cows they owned, the pasture was full of cattle. “How in the world did you get back here?” they asked.”

“You fellas did me a great favor when you threw me in the river,” Jack told them. “You see the bottom of that river was just full of cows. I just rounded up a bunch, drove them up the bank, and brought them on home. Yes sir, these are fine cows.”

Quicker than they came back, the men turned their wagon around again and headed back for the river. They didn’t even stop at the inn this time. When they got there, they jumped right into the river, looking for cows. But of course there weren’t any cows down there – just a lot of rocks and mud. Just like the drover in the barrel, the two men went floating off with the current flapping for dear life. It was several days before they were able to drag themselves out of the river and find their way back home.

Well old Jack never got any less annoying, but nobody ever tried to get shet of him again. Yep, he and his mother are still living there and doing right well, or at least they were the last time I was down that way.

The tale above is just one of many about the “trickster-hero” named “Jack.” You probably remember the story of “Jack and the Beanstalk” from your younger days, a retelling of a tale called “Jack and the Beantree.” These are old old tales that originated in the highlands of Great Britain. Jack emigrated to the U.S. along with the other few but valued possession of the Scots-Irish settlers, and over time migrated along with them down the long Appalachian corridor, where he persisted in the oral tales passed down from one generation to the next. Fortunately for us, “Jack” was discovered by early folklorists such as Richard Chase and his many escapades are now documented in many volumes by several current “tellers”. One must keep in mind that Jack is best appreciated in the “Spoken” word. Even he loses something on the printed page.