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    Chapter 228 - Returning the Favor

    In the four years Sang Luo had been here, snow always graced the beginning of winter in December. However, during the third year of Wu Ding, the snow fell unusually late, only starting to drift down on the twenty-seventh day of the twelfth lunar month, after nightfall.

    Shen Lie and his companions braved the freshly fallen snow as they made their way back to Daxing Village.

    When a thin layer of white blanketed the ground, it illuminated the sky, brightening even the late arrival. Though they returned late, they didn't need to use torches.

    With over ten people returning, accompanied by more than twenty sheep, and coming back to their own village, it was clear that it wouldn't be a quiet entrance.

    Sang Luo had been concerned about Shen Lie's group for days. Every evening, she would wait until late, and today was no exception. She had been copying books with Shen Ning until the end of the eighth hour of the evening, but still, they hadn't returned. As it was too cold, she had just soaked her feet in warm water, preparing to go to bed when she heard the commotion outside, particularly the faint bleating of sheep. Sleep was now out of the question. She quickly put on her shoes and socks and dashed out.

    In the distance, carrying items and leading six sheep, were none other than Shen Lie, Shen An, and Shen Jin. Further away, she could make out Old Man Chen, Chen Youtian, and Chen Ershan.

    The village was abuzz with a lively, festive atmosphere. Every household was busy herding sheep and transporting grain.

    At the Shen residence, the trees at the mountain sheep pasture had already been transplanted, but only two of the sheds had been constructed. Two more were still needed, which meant another ten days of work. The original five sheep had yet to be moved in, but the recently returned six had caught up with them.

    Shen Lie carried several yams, fearful that they might be damaged by the snow. He hurriedly greeted Sang Luo before rushing to store them in the shed. Shen An and Shen Jin, who had also been carrying grains, didn't dare rest either. Their priority was to lead the six sheep, which had traveled for many days, into the shed.

    San Luo noticed the two brothers rushing towards the old sheep pen and hurriedly called them back. She arranged for Shen Ning to heat water and prepare some food while she lit a torch, then led Shen An and Shen Jin up the mountain.

    They had frequented that hilltop often enough that a path had been worn down; they were familiar with the way. Shen An and Shen Jin, hearing about the new sheep shed, were filled with curiosity. Only six sheep bleated, either from the cold or due to the uneasiness of being in a new place.

    Shen Jin, seeing the two sheds illuminated by the snow's reflection, asked in awe, "Big Sister-in-law, is this where the sheep live?"

    His reaction mirrored Shen Yin and Shen Tie's. Recalling how Shen Tie had rushed into the shed, circling around as if searching for a place to put a bed, San Luo chuckled. "You're not jealous too, are you?"

    Shen Jin admitted, "It's newer than the house we're living in now."

    Their current residence was an old rammed-earth house that had housed Wang family tenants for many years. In terms of cleanliness and appearance, it couldn't compare to these brand-new wooden sheep pens.

    Shen An was also quite intrigued. He had raised sheep in the mountains for several years. With San Luo leading the way with her torch, he was instructed to guide the ewes inside. He held three of them and, upon entering, immediately saw the benefits. "This design is excellent. It'll be warm in winter, dry on rainy days, and the sheep manure will be easy to clean, keeping it much cleaner."

    "Still, these two sheds can accommodate over twenty sheep, right?"

    It was indeed a big sister-in-law's work, no wonder she said the mountain land was a treasure.

    San Luo replied, "There are four in total, but two aren't finished yet. Those will be for lambing and isolating sick sheep. We have plenty of ewes, and they multiply quickly. By next year, it won't seem so empty."

    Fascinated by the intricacies, Shen Jin's eyes sparkled with curiosity. As someone who only kept two sheep at home, he couldn't grasp the need for such meticulous separation. He bombarded Sang Luo with questions, and she didn't hold back. If Shen Jin was interested, she was more than willing to share her understanding.

    After settling the six sheep according to their gender, they fetched some dried grass from the hay storage in the shed to provide warmth on their bedding. They also replenished the feeding trough with fresh grass. Satisfied that the sheep seemed to be eating well, they closed the shed door, as it was cold during winter, before leaving the mountain.

    Back home, they were not idle. Shen Ning was busy preparing food in the kitchen, while Sang Luo cooked a special concentrate feed on another stove for the sheep.

    The concentrate feed, as it was called, consisted of the leftover soybean dregs from the daily tofu-making process, mixed with bran and chaff, cooked into a porridge. Once it cooled to a comfortable temperature, they would serve it to the sheep, who adored this warm meal.

    This supplementary diet not only boosted their immunity but was usually reserved for pregnant ewes and lambs. Since these six sheep had endured the harsh cold in the mountains for several days, they deserved an extra nutritious meal tonight, more nourishing than just drinking warm water.

    Yin and Tie also dressed quickly upon hearing the commotion and came over. The children were still excited about the sheepfold, especially now that they were living in it. Hence, after the concentrate was cooked and cooled down, the four brothers carried the bucket together and headed up the mountain.

    The Shen family truly had an abundance of yam, nearly 800 pounds. With Shen Lie's strength, he carried quite a bit himself, while the other families also helped to carry some. It took several trips to bring everything back. Those who had helped carried their shares to the eaves outside the Xu family's house. Shen Lie made three trips to carry everything back. On his last trip, he brought back half a wild boar.

    Watching the four youngsters joyfully carry half a bucket of concentrate up the mountain, he asked Sang Luo, "Is the sheepfold in the mountains ready?"

    "Two sheds are already set up. Xiao Jin and the others are still excited about it," Sang Luo replied, but her gaze was fixed on the meat Shen Lie had brought back. She stepped forward for a closer look and asked, "Did you encounter a wild boar on the way?"

    Shen Lie nodded. "A herd of them, around twenty. There were too many sheep, so the noise was huge. Luckily, there were many people on this trip; otherwise, it would have been uncertain if we could have protected all the sheep. However, with so much to carry, we couldn't bring back the entire wild boar. So, we only hunted two aggressive ones, letting the rest escape. Our family received half a share."

    Half a bundle is substantial, Sang Luo estimates it weighs at least seventy or eighty pounds.

    "It's fortuitous that we can settle the wages for Uncle Zhao and Uncle Zhao Si tomorrow. The fresh wild boar meat will fetch a better price when traded in the city for food. With the snowfall, work won't be easy these few days anyway. I might as well grant a seven-day break. They can resume work after the third day of the New Year."

    Work began on the third day of the twelfth lunar month, though not quite at full term. However, with a few more days until the New Year, it was timely to provide the fresh meat, allowing the Zhao family to enjoy a bountiful celebration.

    As a professional novel translator, I will provide you with an elegant and contextually coherent English translation for each line. Please provide the lines you would like me to translate.

    The yam tubers were stacked and covered with straw mats. Shen Ning cooked a few bowls of vegetable rice soup and boiled two large cauldrons of water. She also called out to Shen Yin, who had just returned from tending the sheep, to do the same. After the three of them enjoyed a warm meal and cleansed themselves of the day's dust, it was already midnight. Each retired to their own quarters, preparing for rest.

    Shen Lie returned with the locks he had left at Village Outskirts and in the valley; he brought them into his room, intending to store them away in a cabinet. However, upon entering his chamber, before he could properly put the locks away, he noticed an abundance of bamboo scrolls scattered about.

    The few scrolls he frequently read were easily recognizable without much effort. He casually picked up a new one and examined it under the oil lamp. Upon closer inspection, he was taken aback.

    "Where did these come from?"

    Sang Luo carefully presented a wooden box, saying, "Not long after you all left, the Censorate sent this box of silk books. I was concerned about their preservation, so I had Ah Ning copy each one over the past few days."

    She then briefly recounted the encounter with the Taiyuan Zeng family to Shen Lie.

    Shen Lie was taken aback, recalling the scene when the governor had visited Daxing Village. He held San Luo's hand and said, "I owe this to your influence."

    The high yield of yams cultivated by humans had caught the governor's attention, but more likely, it was because San Luo had openly shared her method of cultivating yams several years ago.

    After being apart for over ten days, the couple naturally indulged in tender affection. Despite the biting cold on this snowy night, Shen Lie's return ensured that San Luo slept warmly.

    With a heavy snowfall outside, the children were thrilled, and early in the morning, laughter and playful noises filled the village, indicating a snowball fight. The joyful sounds roused San Luo from bed, and she got up as well.

    First on the agenda was for Shen Lie to weigh out ten pounds of fresh meat. Borrowing a scale from the Zhou family, they found an extra half pound. They then weighed out ten pounds of cured meat and counted out the soybeans and silver coins. The soybeans were placed in a bag, while the money was strung together, ready for Zhao Da and Zhao Si's arrival to start work. San Luo instructed Shen Lie to deliver the wages, provisions, and twenty pounds of meat to the Zhao brothers.

    Carrying their full loads, Zhao Da and Zhao Si were still somewhat dazed. "A week off?"

    Upon realization, they dared not accept. They had only worked for 25 days and yet were receiving a month's wages.

    Shen Lie chuckled. "No need. Snow makes work difficult, but we'll call on you again for assistance. It's not just for this month. This is also San Luo's idea. We have a busy year-round schedule, and this year, we've finally settled down properly. Take a few peaceful days off at home."

    Hearing that they were being considered for long-term employment, the Zhao brothers felt a mix of joy and gratitude. With it being the end of the year, the kind-hearted Shen couple made them feel appreciated. The brothers didn't hesitate to express their good wishes and personally thanked San Luo at the Shen residence before braving the snowstorm to return home, thus rounding off the year on a positive note.

    San Luo gazed at the half hog, which surely weighed over sixty or seventy pounds. There was no way her family could consume that much.

    Though it was cold in winter, this wasn't the north, and fresh meat could only be stored for a few snowy days. As for turning it into cured meats, her family had no shortage of those.

    San Luo looked at Shen Lie. "Why don't we keep twenty pounds for ourselves and send the rest to the governor's residence?"

    Originally, taking it to the eastern market to sell for money would have been best. With the high meat prices, saving more for next year's shop opening was a sound strategy.

    But they had just received a gift of books from Official Zeng. Since Shen Lie wasn't home, San Luo didn't know if there were any ladies in the governor's residence, and if there were, she didn't know them. It wouldn't be appropriate for her to visit, except to express her gratitude. She hadn't shown any other sign of appreciation since receiving the books.

    A few dozen pounds of wild boar meat wasn't a grand gesture, but it was something. Otherwise, accepting such a generous gift without any follow-up would be impolite.

    "Is wild boar meat not suitable?" Hearing San Luo mention the governor's background, Shen Lie hesitated, as people of status usually didn't enjoy pork.

    San Luo, who hadn't dared to consider this yesterday, now felt at ease after voicing her idea. "No matter how noble his background, look around Xizhou City—where can you buy meat these days? Even Official Chu looks thin. Whether he eats it or gives it away is up to him, but at least we'll have shown our intentions."

    Actually, there were more refined gifts they could offer, like lamb.

    But considering the current situation, with danger lurking for several years, let alone livestock, who could afford to keep chickens, ducks, cows, or sheep? Even the provincial government office provided seeds and farming tools but never mentioned oxen.

    A live sheep held a different significance in this context; it was not like trapping a hare, which was far more challenging. One would have to venture deep into the mountains and spend at least half a month on a single search mission, leaving Shen Lie with no time for such endeavors.

    Therefore, Sang Luo truly hesitated to part with the sheep as a culinary gift. Even to repay a favor, she wouldn't slaughter it for herself.

    Upon hearing Sang Luo's words, Shen Lie also saw the logic: "Indeed, compared to the value of that book, our family couldn't possibly offer an equivalent token of gratitude."

    What mattered most was the sincerity behind the gesture.

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