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Tom Hickathrift And The Old Giant

2006-07-14 00:28

  Tom Hickathrift was a little too strong for his own good. There was nothing you would think was odd about him, not to look at him, that is, except that he was broad as a bull and rather taller than you might expect.

  He read books a lot, about old times. At least, he looked at pictures in the books. He could not read, not very well. He loafed around at home and had this strange idea that one day he would be hero.

  'Get out and go to work!' his father cried.

  'Do heroes work?' asked Tom.

  'You, my lad, are not a hero yet and never will be,' said his father. 'Now, get out and work!'

  Tom went to see a local farmer.

  'My father says I have to work,' he said. 'Nothing too hard, please. I'm saving up my strength to be hero.

  The farmer looked him up and down.

  'Let's get the measure of you, first,' he said. 'There's the haystack, over in the field. There's the barn where I want it stored. You take the straw, a bundle at a time, and come and tell me when it is done.'

  'That's the trouble nowadays,' sighted Tom. 'Heroes are no more than men of straw!'

  He took a rope and tied it round the haystack, which held the straw from the entire field. He heaved it on his back and humped it to the barn. He pushed and shoved until it fitted in.

  'Is that good enough for you?' asked Tom.

  The farmer goggled in amazement.

  'That's good enough for me,' he said.

  'Is that all?' asked Tom.

  'Not quite,' said the farmer. 'That's only the beginning.'

  'Something a little more heroic, please,' said Tom.

  'Oh, yes,' smiled the farmer, 'a great deal more heroic.'

  He told Tom to take a load of beer across the high moor to market on the other side.

  'There's the cart and there's the team of bullocks,' said the farmer. 'There are the barrels. Set them on the cart and don't stray off the road.'

  'Why should I?' asked Tom.

  'There's a giant on the moor, that's all!' said the farmer. 'Not a barrel has passed across it for years. They are getting mighty thirsty over yonder.'

  Tom picked up the barrels of beer, big barrels, each one fit to quench the thirst of at least a hundred men. He tossed them on the cart. He hitched the team of bullocks, big beasts, each straining at the yoke. He cracked his whip and off they set.

  The moor was bleak and bare. The track was overgrown and hard to follow. Down they slid and up they staggered, down past bogs and up through mist. The bullocks grunted with the effort, the cart-wheels creaked and groaned. But young Tom Hickathrift, he just whistled and walked on.

  They came to a drystone wall, right across the track.

  'That's a bit of bother,' said Tom. 'I'll have to knock it down. I'm sorry for the bloke that owns it.'

  He put his shoulder to the wall and showed it down. Rocks, boulders, lumps of granite, all came tumbling to the ground. Tom cracked his whip and whistled, and the cart went rolling through the gap that he had made.

  Pretty soon, they passed the entrance to a cave, a rather large cave, larger than the overage hill. Out came a giant, a rather strange giant, old and tired and walking with a stick. All the same, he was a giant of considerable size and ugliness. He hobbled to the track where Tom was passing.

  'I see you have brought my beer,' growled the giant.

  'It's not for you,' said Tom.

  'That's is what you think!' growled the giant.

  Tom sized him up and was not afraid. Why should he be? The giant's hair was wild as gorse and quite as prickly but in places he was going bald. The giant's teeth looked cruel as crazy-paving stones on edge but there were several missing. His eyes were bloodshot, with great bags beneath them, heavy as hammocks and dark with dirt.

  'I'm not afraid of you,' said Tom.

  'You should be,' growled the giant. 'My name is Giant Denbras and I own this piece of moor and all that passes through it. I like my beer and I want your barrels.'

  'Then come and get them, if you can!' cried Tom.

  He rolled the barrels off the cart. He put his back beneath the frame and heaved it up. He slipped off wheel and axle both together and faced the giant, the wheel his shield, the axle his staff.

  'Come on, old man!' he cried. 'If you want your beer, then come and fight for it!'

  The giant stood there, leaning on his stick, a stick as big as a tree trunk, looking just a little fat and foolish and rather past his prime.

  Tom Hickathrift was full of confidence. He rushed at Giant Denbras and struck out at his legs.

  And then, before Tom really knew what happened, the giant had straightened up, puffed himself out, set his legs astride and swung his stick with a roar like a roll of thunder.

  'Aha! You whippersnapper!' roared the giant, looking fierce and full of strength. 'Thought you would get me easy, did you, eh? My stick's a trick, you see, my lad! There is life in the old giant yet!'

  They battled then, for quite a while, round and round the moor. Tom tried to dodge the giant's club or to take the blows on his cart-wheel shield. He twirled his axle-staff about his head and beat it against the giant's shins and ankles. Most of the time, club and staff clashed together and neither giant nor hero did the other too much harm.

  Giant Denbras got a little puffed. He started wheezing in a sickly way, and coughed and spluttered and paused for rest.

  'Had enough?' asked Tom.

  'Not likely!' growled the giant.

  They fought on but slower than before. The giant tripped and stumbled several times and Tom, being a kind lad at heart, did not press too hard.

  'He seems a sad old fellow,' Tom thought. 'I'll tire him out enough to led me go in peace, that's all.'

  Tom poked Giant Denbras in the paunch, just to tickle him. But Tom was a bit too strong. His axle-staff went clean through the giant's body and came out the other side. Giant Denbras groaned and fell. Tom ran to him, pulled out the staff and tried to bind the wound.

  'It's no good, lad,' the giant moaned. 'I'm done for.'

  'I did not mean to hurt you, poor old thing,' said Tom.

  'Good clean fun, that's all,' the giant sighed. 'My stick's not quite the trick it used to be, you know. I need it for support a little more these days. Giants and heroes, both the same, they never know when to retire. What sort of hero will you be, my lad, when the times comes?'

  'I'm not sure now,' said Tom. 'It's not the same as in the picture books. I can't say I like to knock down nice old chaps like you. Perhaps I'll give up trying to be a hero.'

  'It was wrong of you to knock down my wall,' said the giant.

  'I'm sorry,' said Tom. 'I'll mend it soon, I promise.'

  'I'm thirsty,' sighed the giant, laying back against a stone. 'Give me a barrel of beer for old time's sake.'

  Tom opened a barrel and the giant swigged it down.

  'That's the stuff,' he said. 'I was strong once, you know, strong and fit and fierce. Folks have been afraid of me for years, for years and years,' the giant wept.

  'I know,' said Tom. 'I know.'

  'Bury me decently, won't you?' asked the giant. 'It's always heroes who get the good graves, never giants. We need them too, you know.'

  'I will,' said Tom. 'Don't worry.'

  'There's no treasure, I'm afraid,' the giant said. 'Most giants have a hidden treasure but I never did. There's not even a secret I can give you. You won't mind, will you?'

  'Of course not,' Tom said. 'Go to sleep now, quietly.'

  Giant Denbras died, his head in Tom's arms, and Tom set a ring of stones around him and placed a roof-stone over him, to keep out the weather and the wolves. The stones are there to this day, standing lonely on the moor.

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