The wind roared through the tall fir-trees and swept the snow-flakes in masses against the window-panes. The rafters rattled and the casements clattered. But above the roaring and the clattering, sounded the howling of three black dogs at the cottage-door, for their master lay on a pallet within, near his end. No longer should he urge them on to the hunt.
One of the old man's hands rested on the dark locks of his only son, who was kneeling by his side. Suddenly raising his weary head from the pillow, he exclaimed, "Jössl, don't forget to pray for your father when he is no more." Jössl sobbed he would.
"Jössl," the old man went on, with some effort, "I would have left you rich enough, but it was not to be! Jössl, it was not to be!" and the old man sank back upon the bed and hid his face and wept.
"Father, you have taught me to work well, to be honest, to face danger and be pious!" said the youth. "That was a good inheritance to leave me."
"Well said," answered the father. "I have nothing to leave you but the three black dogs - they are howling outside. Let them in. They are all you have now in the world!"
Jössl went to let them in; and as he walked across the room to open the door, his old father died. The three black dogs stopped howling when they saw his grief and came and fawned upon him and licked his hands. For three days they remained mourning together. Then men came and buried the father. Other people came to live in the cottage and Jössl went out to wander in the wide world, the three black dogs following behind.
When there was a day's work to be done they fared well enough. Though he had a fair face and noble bearing, Jössl was always ready to work for hire. What he earned he shared with the three black dogs, who whined and fawned and seemed to say:
"We are going to earn you food sometime, later."
But when there was no work to be had, when the storm beat and the winter wind raged, Jössl saw no other way than to beg for food. Then his black dogs slunk away, as if ashamed that their new master should have to beg for himself and for them.
Better times came with the spring; and later again there was hay-cutting and harvesting and vintage work to be done.Jössl found plenty of work. But still he journeyed on, from place to place where he found work. At last he saw in the distance the towers of a town. He hasted on to it, for he had lived in the mountains and had never seen a town in his life.
But when he reached it, the large town was empty and desolate. Broad well-paved roads crossed it, and there were workshops and smithies and foundries and ovens, but all silent and empty and no sound was heard. When he looked up he saw that every house was draped with black and black banners hung from the towers and palaces.
No human beings appeared, either in the public squares or at the house-windows; so he wandered on through the town with his three black dogs. At last he came across a waggoner with his team on the road, and asked what this remarkable stillness meant.
The waggoner then told him that many years ago a great dragon had devastated the country, eating up all the inhabitants he found in the way, so that everyone shunned the streets. The people had started to give the dragon a victim every day to keep him away from others, and it worked until the next morning, when the people cast lots to get a new victim.
Just then a crier came into the street and proclaimed that the lot that day had fallen on the king's daughter; tomorrow morning she must be handed over to the dragon.
All who heard the sad news, were shocked to think that the lot had fallen on their lovely young princess, and came out into the streets and wailed alound over what would happen to her. The old king himself came into their middle, tearing his clothes and plucking out his white hair, while the tears ran fast down his beard.
When Jössl saw that, it reminded him of his own father.
Then the king sent the crier out again to proclaim that if anyone would fight the dragon and deliver his daughter, he should have her hand, together with all his kingdom. But the fear of the dragon was so great that no one would meet the dragon, even for such a great prize.
Every hour through the day the crier went out and renewed the proclamation, but no one came forward. All through the day and all through the night no one showed up to say they would try.
Daybreak came, and a mournful procession was now to take the princess to the outskirts of the city, weeping. The old king came down the steps of the palace to deliver up himself instead of his daughter; but the people would not let him give up himself in her place. "Who is wise enough to head us, then?" they said.
But the thought of losing his daughter in such a way was so dreadful that he could not bring himself to let her be taken away. He clasped her in his arms for a long time, so long that the people began to murmur, "When the lot fell on one of us, we gave up our wives and our fathers and our children. Now the same misfortune has come to you. You must do no less." As the time wore on they grew more and more angry and discontented.
The king raved with despair.
Jössl forgot his bashfulness and came forward through the middle of the crowd, and asked permission to go out to meet the dragon. "If I fail," he added, "the dragon will have food for one day anyway."
The princess took heart and looked up, while the old king threw himself on his neck and kissed him with delight and called him his son and promised him that all the crier had proclaimed would be fulfilled if he survived.
The people admired Jössl for the bravery he showed, and went with him to the city gates. They shouted to cheer him up as he and his black dogs went to meet the dragon. Jössl did not mind their shouts, for he was thinking only of the princess by now.
The dragon neared the city walls rapidly, roaring horribly and swinging his scaled tail. Jössl walked straight towards the dragon and called to his dog Lightning, "At him, good dog!" At once Lightning sprang to the attack.
"Fetch him down, Springer!" cried Jössl next; and the second dog, following close on Lightning's track, sprang upon the dragon's neck and held him to the ground.
"Finish him, Gulper!" shouted Jössl; and the third dog, panting for the order, was even with the others in a trice and fixing his great fangs in the dragon's flesh, snapped his spine like glass and bounded back with delight to his master's feet.
Jössl stopped to caress his dogs and thank them before he drew his knife and cut out the dragon's tongue. Then he returned to the city with his three black dogs behind him. They were met with hurrahs. The people, the king and his daughter came to greet and welcome him back.
"My daughter is now yours, and my kingdom with her, said the old king. "I owe all to you now and in return I give you all I have."
Jössl thanked him for the offer, but said, "I only want you to let me to approach the princess. That is all I ask. If she will one day think I am worthy of her hand, I would be glad indeed. But as for your kingdom, I am but a poor lad. How could I, then, order the affairs of a kingdom?"
The king, the people and the princess were pleased with his modesty and grace, and praised him and his three black dogs too and took them with him to the palace, where Jössl got a suit of good clothes, the title of duke and was seated next the princess.
The king determined to adopt him for his son; and had him instructed in everything becoming a prince, so that he might be fit to succeed him at his death. The three black dogs were given three kennels and brand new collars, and servants to feed them and exercise them. Whenever Jössl went on a hunting-party, his three black dogs were with him.
Little by little Jössl came to be known as a well-behaved courtier and valiant soldier. The princess had admired his looks and bearings from the first time they met, but now her esteem and her love for him grew so well that she said to her father than she wanted to marry Jössl. They were married with great pomp and rejoicing, with music and with bells and the three black dogs behind.
Often those who do not work have the easiest life. (Proverb from Trentino)