Visiting the monthly stock-fair was always a special treat. This is where farmers would bring their livestock for sale to other farmers and to merchants. It was located on a neighbouring farm in the Pearston district. Sadly, it was another one of those institutions that seemed to have been unnecessarily duplicated in the wake of Anglo-Boer discord, as there was a very adequate facility in Graaff-Reinet. Nonetheless, I enjoyed seeing the many kinds of animals on show including pigs, sheep, cattle, goats, and on occasion, my favourite, the horses. It was only years later that I realised that many of these creatures were destined for the local abattoirs.
I remember these occasions also for the buzz of anticipation that swamped the atmosphere whenever a stock-fair was due to be held. The run-up for my grandparents started several weeks before the day of the event. For many farmers, the outcome of the sale of their stock would determine the mood on the farm for the months ahead - if the sale of the stock made a profit, a more relaxed mood would prevail as opposed to when a loss was made. It was always critical to the cashflow that a positive outcome of the sale was realised.
At least ten days before the stock-fair, my grandfather would round up his best animals and bring them into the pen for special feeding and care. It was imperative that his stock reached the correct weight and condition by the time that they were loaded for transport to the auction. Each animal was carefully inspected and re-labelled to ensure that there was no doubt about its ownership and lest it might stray and find itself in the pen that belonged to another farmer. Many a heated exchange ensued when this happened, and it was not uncommon that longstanding friendships were destroyed in the aftermath.
Theft of animals and produce from farms remains an ongoing problem for farmers and I remember this being a regular point of discussion amongst the adult company I was privy to as a young lad. Needless to say, it was highly frowned upon and perpetrators, when caught, were dealt with in the most severe manner. The challenge for many of these rural farmers was the long distances from any law enforcement officials and/or the inability of these to make the trip to the scene of the crime. It was often left to the aggrieved farmer to deal with matters and dispense justice as he saw fit!
It was at one of these stock-fair gatherings that I remember a neighbouring farmer complaining to my grandfather that he was suffering at the hands of thieves who were cleaning out his peach orchards. He was one of the fortunate farmers who had sufficient water to cultivate fruit trees and made a tidy profit in an arid region where fruit was scarce. He was particularly concerned about the next harvest as the fruit looked to be in prime condition. What was he to do, as the thieves operated under the darkness of night and he had no means of catching them red-handed? He suspected also that some of his farmhands may be amongst the culprits.
Now my grandfather had been a Springbok Scout in his younger days and had represented his country at the World Jamboree in Helsinki, Norway as a teenager in 1922. Part of his training as a scout was to study the heavenly skies so as to be able to navigate by the stars alone. This love of celestial affairs continued into his adult years and he could point out more of the constellations than most. He was also very attuned to solar occurrences and knew when to expect events such as the eclipse of the sun and moon.
I listened intently as he dispensed his advice to his friend. He proceeded to hatch a plan that would see the neighbour gathering his farmhands and putting the most bizarre proposition to them. This plan encompassed telling the gathered workers that unless the culprits owned up to the stripping of the orchards, he would request God to block out the moon forever! But he should wait until a specific date, advised by my grandfather, before he did so. I do remember the incredulous retort and Grandfather’s assurances that he should just trust him in this matter.
I am not sure whether it was the tone of my grandfather’s voice during this exchange or just my youthful ignorance that prevented me from quizzing him on the plan he had just insisted the friend should implement. Nonetheless, I do recall waiting with much anticipation for the next time we would meet the neighbour to find out whether the plan had the desired outcome. The next stock-fair could not come soon enough!
Some months later we made the exciting journey to the next stock-fair. To my delight the neighbour whom Grandpa had advised was there and he wasted no time coming over to where we were seated on the small grandstand opposite the auctioneer’s stand. From his demeanour it was obvious that he was in a very joyful mood. Either he had just made a huge profit on the sale of stock, or he had other very good news to share. As it transpired, it was the latter!
It must be noted at this juncture that in the Karoo it is considered polite that, before delving into matters of a serious nature, one exchanges enquiries on how family and friends are doing, and when the next rainfall may be expected. Only once these are out of the way, may other matters of less importance be discussed. Soon the regular pleasantries had been dispensed with and he proceeded to share with us the outcome of the anti-thieving plan Grandpa had recommended.
The neighbour started to give account of the outcome of the plan, but not before chastising my grandfather for being such a “crafty old devil”! He explained how, on the given date, he had called all his staff together on the stoep (veranda of the homestead) and told them that unless the culprits owned up to the theft of fruit from the orchards, God would be so angry that he would blacken the moon forever! He gave them exactly two days for the offenders to present themselves outside his office.
What neither the farmer nor his employees knew was that two days later a full eclipse of the moon had been predicted. The deadline came and went without any persons owning up to the thievery. On the evening of the second day the eclipse occurred. It was one of those rare occasions when the moon disappeared completely behind the shadow of the Earth, something that left the farm in a complete blackout for several hours.
The farmer continued to explain how at dawn the next morning three of his labourers had shown up on his doorstep (he was informed that they had been camped out on his stoep since the early hours of the morning waiting for him to wake). They wasted no time making a full confession and pleading with their employer that he should intervene with the Almighty on their behalf, lest such a terrible event should ever happen again! They pleaded for mercy and promised on the lives of their mothers and sisters that they would never steal anything again.