Old Joe Leaman lived in a small cott down by Dartmeet and was a moorlander of the old kind. All his life he had lived and worked on Dartmoor and was now enjoying his retirement. His little cott provided him with a comfortable home and its garden fed him through the cold winter months. Throughout his years he had seen and heard many strange things and was a great believer in the old beliefs of the moor. One piece of advice his mother had given had stuck in his mind, “never mind what ee daws, don’t ee upset the piskies, naught gud u’ll come on it.” Joe had always done his best never to upset the piskies because he knew they were still living on the moor – he’d never seen one but he knew they were there.
One crisp January day old Joe looked at his stick pile and realised it was getting low, he also looked at the sky and could see a ‘cold snap’ was on its way. There was nothing for it but to go up to the Brimpts Plantation and cut some faggots before it was too late. The Brimpts Plantation was on private land but Joe had lived there before the trees were planted in 1862 and so considered he every right to collect some stick for his fire. The foresters always turned a blind eye when they saw the old man shuffling through the woods as they knew they would never convince him of the private land argument. And so under a grey laden sky the old man traipsed off up to Brimpts.
He soon found a nice stand of ash and before long the wood echoed to the rhythmic thud of his billhook. Above in a tall conifer tree the ‘warbler of winter’ sang merrily, Joe loved to hear the song of the robin, somehow it seemed to warm the bitter January air. It did not take long to cut enough wood for a large faggot and having bound it the old boy slowly heaved it onto his shoulders and made his way to the edge of the wood. As his ‘siatics’ weren’t playing up, old Joe decided he would cut a few more faggots and hide them on the edge of the wood where he could collect them as and when he wanted. The brash was quite thick around the edges of the wood as these were the areas most exposed to the force of the moorland winds and so it would not be difficult to stash a few bundles of wood. As a precaution he stuck his old rowan stick into the ground to mark the spot of his hoard of wooden treasure and returned into the wood to cut more faggots.
What the old moorman did not know was that he was being watched by some young local lads. As soon as he disappeared into the overgrowth the boys decided to have a bit of sport and so dashed over to where his first faggot lay and picked it up and carried it away. Back inside the wood Old Joe began hacking with his billhook and soon had a second faggot bundled and bound. This he hauled over to where he could see his rowan stick standing sentinel and marking his hiding place. When he got to the stick he looked at the faggotless ground and scratched his head. Joe checked the stick to see if it was his, he then rubbed his eyes and pushed his cap back onto his head. The old man knew he eyesight was failing but it hadn’t failed enough for him not to be able to spot a “gert faggot.” With a sigh he dumped the second faggot down but this time he drove his stick through it and pinioned it to the ground. “Now,” he grunted, “shift that beggar if ee can!” With that the old man lumbered back into the undergrowth. As soon as the boys were happy he was out of sight there crept over to the second faggot, drew out the stick, lifted the bundle and replaced the stick into the forest floor. Then as quietly as they came they stole away with the second faggot.
The Woodcutter – Jean Vincent Millet.
Back in the depths of the wood Old Joe was busy at work chopping more ‘stick’, his tuneful little companion was still whistling its merry tune in the tree above him. But this time Joe was not paying much attention, his ears were straining to detect any untoward noise that might be heard in the undergrowth. Thirty minutes later a new faggot had been bundled and was making its slow journey on Joe’s back to join the second faggot. When the old boy got to his stick he could see that some mischief had occurred and that the second faggot had gone the same way as the first. This time he did not stop to ponder and puzzled he just dumped the third faggot on the ground and shuffled off as fast as his old legs could carry him.
Later that day the young lads decided to wander past Old Joe’s cott to see the results of their prank and hopefully to wind him up a bit more. When they got to his gate they could see the old man was sat on an old wooden bench outside the small kitchen window. They also noticed a large glass of ‘medicinals’ in his hand which he was sipping with some urgency.
“Hey up Joe,” the oldest one called out, “how be?”
The old man looked up, “I bain’t at all well,” he grizzled.
“Why, what’s ailin’ ee Joe?” the lad enquired.
“Naught,” Old Joe replied, “jest bain’t well, now sling yer ‘ooks.’
The lads walked off sniggering and tittering to themselves perfectly happy in the knowledge that they had given the old boy something to think about. Much later that night the mischievous gang decided to further add to Old Joe’s predicament and once they were sure he had gone to bed they stole up his garden path and left the three faggots on his doorstep. Ironically what they did not realise that was despite giving the old moorman a scare they had in fact saved him a lot of time and effort by bringing down the heavy faggots to his cott – or maybe they did?
The following morning the boys were up bright and early and had found a hiding place where they could clearly see Old Joe’s front door. They did not have to wait long for the old door to creak open and the old man to come shuffling out, he nearly went scat over the faggots and only just managed to keep his balance. He looked at the faggots, peered around the garden, scratched his head and gazed up towards the Brimpts Plantation. For some unknown reason the old boy tentatively kicked at the faggots, lord knows what he was expecting to fly out of them. The boys were desperately trying to smother their giggles when they heard Joe muttering to himself.
“Ah,” he said, “they piskies must be vriends wi’ I agin, t’would nivver do vur I not to be on gude tarms wi’ they piskies. I be as right as a trivet now and wi’ they vaggots I u’ll be as warm as a vole in a hayrick.”