The Old Soldier

Once there was a soldier in the king’s army, who lost his taste for fighting, He put down his weapons and would not fight any more, so he was dismissed with a week’s pay and the clothes he stood up in.

He walked away, and kept walking until he was too tired to walk any more. He had reached a country he didn’t know, and he said to himself, “I have nothing and no-one. I will lie down under a tree and prepare to die, for there is nothing left for me to live for.”

The soldier, whose name was Ralf, lay down in the shade of a tree and closed his eyes, waiting for death. But the noise of birds in the tree above him, and the sound of water kept him awake. He got up and searched for the source of the noise, and he discovered a spring of water bubbling up out of the ground nearby. He looked around and found a large flat rock, and he heaved it over the top of the spring. The water was silenced, and he lay down again and closed his eyes.

In a little while he was woken by the sound of someone climbing up the hill towards him. It was a young boy dressed in rags. The boy was using a strong stick to help him climb, because his left leg dragged uselessly behind him. Ralf called out to him, “What are you doing here?”

The boy turned his head from side to side, and Ralf could tell at once that the boy was blind. The boy said, “I have come to find out why the source of the stream has dried up. I have brought my sheep to pasture at the bottom of this hill, but without water, they will soon die.”

Ralf replied, “Do you mean to say that the spring just here is the source of a stream?”

“Yes, sir,” the shepherd boy answered. “The water makes its way down the hill and becomes a stream. A little further on, it joins another stream and together they gather strength and eventually become a river that waters all the fields and farms around this part of the country.”

When Ralf understood this, he lifted the heavy rock away, and the spring started to flow again, bubbling up cheerfully out of the ground. Ralf saw that the channel that the water flowed through was overgrown and choked with weeds. He pulled out the weeds and dug the channel deeper, so that the water flowed freely down the hill. When the boy heard it beginning to flow again, his face was covered with happiness. He said, “Thank you, sir. This water is life to the whole valley.”

Ralf walked with him down the hill, asking him, “How do you come to be a shepherd, when you are both blind and lame?”

“When I was a child there was an earthquake in the country where I lived,” the boy said. “My parents and all my family were killed, but I was pulled out alive, although my leg was injured and my eyes. Kind people looked after me, and brought me safely to this country. A farmer gave me a job as a shepherd, looking after just five sheep at first, but when he saw that I did the job well, he gave me more to take care of, and now I look after twenty sheep,” he said with pride.

They had reached the pasture at the bottom of the hill, where there was a flock of fine, healthy sheep. They left off eating the grass and came milling around the boy, nudging him and calling to him. He spoke to them, calling each one of them by name, and led them down to the freshly-flowing stream.

Ralf turned to leave, but the boy called after him, “Won’t you eat with me before you go?” So they sat down together, and ate bread and cheese that the shepherd boy pulled from his bag. “This is excellent cheese,” said Ralf.

The boy smiled happily. “I made it myself,” he said. “The farmer lets me have some of the sheep’s milk as part of my wages. And look,” he said, pulling out a wooden spindle, “I am learning to spin, so I can make my own wool. The farmer’s wife has promised to teach me to knit when I have enough of this yarn, so that I can make myself a new coat!”

Ralf marvelled at the boy’s happiness. He had so little, and yet he found so much contentment in it. Ralf looked at his own hands, and his feet, his strong arms and his straight back. He got to his feet, and prepared to set off, whistling. The shepherd boy said, “I suppose you must return to your own work now.”

“Yes,” said Ralf. “There is a great deal I have to do.” He thanked the boy for his meal, and set out. And for the rest of his life he used his strength, his health, his abilities and his kindness to do as much good as he could in the world. But that is a story for another day.

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