The Eight-Cow Story

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n eight-cow woman deserves an eight-cow man. Many people immediately pick up on the obvious tie this statement has to the parable of Johnny Lingo. But if you have never heard the story of Johnny Lingo and his eight-cow bride, Sarita, then my title could be a little confusing. And considering that the ancient tradition of bartering for a wife is no longer a common practice in most countries, you may wonder about its relevance. And despite the misogynistic overtones reminiscent of the 1960’s, there is an important point here. Trust me, once you hear the story of Johnny Lingo, it will all start to make sense.

Johnny Lingo is the main character in a nineteenth-century tale set in the South Sea islands. It was written by Patricia McGerr in 1965 and first published in Woman’s Day Magazine. Though set in the past, the parable of Johnny Lingo was written to address modern issues observed by the author.

Over the years, the story has gained popularity and has been used as a great morality tale in lessons and sermons alike. It was reprinted in the February 1988 Reader’s Digest and adapted for two different movies. Multiple variations of the story can also be found on literally hundreds, perhaps thousands of websites and blogs on the internet. If you haven’t read it or if you have only seen the movies, it is definitely worth reading. For your convenience, I will retell the story in my own words to the best of my recollection.

The Eight-Cow Story

Based on the original story “Johnny Lingo and the Eight-Cow Wife”  by Patricia McGerr

Johnny Lingo was the sharpest trader in the islands. Nobody it seemed could make a deal like Johnny. He was also single, young, handsome, and the heartthrob of every eligible maiden. He had recently announced he was returning to his home island, the beautiful tropical paradise of Kiniwata, to bargain for a bride. The whole island was abuzz with excitement.

Johnny could have had any woman he wanted in the entire South Pacific. So when it was rumored he had chosen to bargain for Sarita, the plainest girl on the island, people were shocked. They assumed the only logical reason for such a choice was because Johnny would be able to negotiate the price of his bride with Sarita’s father, old Sam Karoo, down to the minimum price of only one cow . . . or less!

As long as most people could remember, it had been the custom on Kiniwata for a young man to offer cows as payment to his future father-in-law. Two cows were usually enough for an average wife. Three cows might acquire a reasonably pleasant looking woman while four cows could secure a spouse to be truly proud of. The most ever paid, was five cows—the price for a woman of exceptional beauty and charm. Each woman’s value, and to a certain extent her self-esteem, was forever afterward measured by the number of cows she fetched at the marriage negotiation.

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The statement, “I was a three-cow bride,” could easily be trumped by the proclamation, “Well my husband paid four cows for me!” And both women had to defer to the declaration, “My father demanded five cows from my husband.” In these social contests, however, the two-cow women usually stayed quiet.

The marriage negotiation was traditionally held in front of the father’s hut and was often as entertaining as an athletic event. Sometimes the whole village would gather around to eavesdrop as the father of the maiden and her suitor would sit face-to-face and haggle over the number of cows the father required for the hand of his daughter. Since it was considered a sacrifice for a father to give up his daughter, it was expected he would seek as many cows as he could get as compensation for his loss. The joke had circulated for quite some time that Sam could probably be convinced to let his daughter Sarita go for just the horns and a hoof.

Sarita was extremely shy and liked to cling to the shadows. But she worked hard for her widowed father. She was sensitive to his pain and loneliness even though he ignored hers. She tried to cook pleasant meals and keep their hut nice and comfortable. Her father was very disappointed, however, that she did little to make herself appealing to any of the young men in the village. And he felt a little bitter that she probably wouldn’t bring much of a price at any marriage negotiation, even if anyone did show an interest in her.

Consequently, Sam Karoo was stunned when he heard that the legendary Johnny Lingo had come to Kiniwata to bargain for his daughter, Sarita. He was as confused as everyone else in the village. Why would he want to bargain for Sarita? Particularly when coming up with five cows for a superior wife shouldn’t pose a problem for the great Johnny Lingo.

Sam wasn’t about to question the reasons. He started to plan his future with new hope. Let’s see . . . Johnny could easily pay five cows for a bride— but how much would he be willing to pay for Sarita? His brother had suggested that if he asked Johnny for three cows he might get at least one cow out of the deal. But the people of the village also might laugh him to scorn if he asked such a high price for such a homely daughter. Sam’s newfound hope was waning. How could he possibly out-negotiate Johnny Lingo? As the sun began to set on the day before the negotiation, Sam was even more nervous than before.

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The sun shone brightly on the morning of the bargaining ceremony.

On his way to meet with Sarita’s father, Johnny Lingo stopped in to see his friend Shenkin, a local shop owner and trader. Shenkin was originally from Chicago. He had come to Kiniwata just after the American Civil War and had been a successful trader on the island for nearly thirty years. He was the man responsible for Johnny’s Americanized name and had taught Johnny everything he knew about business and the art of trading.

But Johnny’s skill in business had long- since surpassed Shenkin’s. Shenkin, in a playful voice, spoke first, “So, Johnny, I hear you are bargaining with old Sam Karoo for Sarita today.”

“Yes. It will be the most important deal I will make in my life,” Johnny said in a more serious tone.

Sensing Johnny’s pensive mood, Shenkin became even more curious about Johnny’s intentions.

“Johnny, it is none of my business why you would want to bargain for the plainest girl in the islands, but it should be the easiest deal you’ll ever make. You don’t have competition for Sarita and Sam is pretty much willing to take anything you offer— just to have her off his hands.

What’s the problem?”

“I didn’t say it was going to be my most difficult deal,” Johnny chided, “I said it would be my most important. But I don’t have time to chat right now—here is an order for a gift I am buying for Sarita. I need to have it delivered to my home on the island of Nurabandi.”

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“This is a very expensive item,” Shenkin cautioned, “It could take quite some time to get it here.”

“That’s okay,” Johnny replied, “We will be honeymooning for quite awhile. You can even bring it yourself if you would like.”


Sam Karoo waited nervously in front of his hut. Johnny isn’t going to show up, he thought. This is nothing but a cruel joke. Why would anyone want Sarita? Johnny hasn’t seen her for quite some time now. Perhaps he has forgotten just how ugly she really is. Sarita hadn’t been seen all day long. Maybe that was a good thing. One look at her and the deal would definitely be off.

Sam heard a rustling in the undergrowth and soon Johnny emerged. It looked as though the whole island was following him. This was going to be embarrassing. Now everyone was going to witness his shame. Maybe he should just give her to Johnny for nothing and get the whole thing over with.

Johnny opened the bargaining ritual by calling out, “I seek the father of Sarita!” Sam responded in the traditional reply, “I am the father of Sarita.” As was the custom, Johnny and Sam sat on the ground in front of Sam’s hut and began the negotiation.

Johnny and Sam faced each other and began to recite several customary phrases that basically say, “I want to marry your daughter,” followed by, “Giving up my daughter will be such a burden— it’s going to be hard to say good- bye and she is such a comfort to me, blah, blah, blah . . .”

The longer the father rants about his sacrifice, the more cows he is bound to ask for his daughter. Sam didn’t rant much at all. He mumbled something about how she didn’t burn the fish that often and that she was pretty good at thatching a roof. He then waited for Johnny to recite the customary phrase, “I understand the love a father must have for his daughter. I promise to love her as well— I am willing to pay for your sacrifice. What is your price for Sarita?”

Sam sensed every eye upon him as the village waited in silent suspense for his response. No matter what happens, he thought, this will be the most embarrassing moment of my life. He could feel his face flush. He wanted to die right there. He was feeling faint . . .

Then Sam had an epiphany! He realized he was a man with nothing to lose. Acting impulsively for the first time in his life, Sam blurted out, “I seek FIVE COWS for my Sarita!”

People couldn’t believe their ears. Had they heard right? Five cows— the maximum price? A roar of laughter burst from the gathering of onlookers. Sam tried to ignore them and stared at Johnny, waiting for his counter- offer. He had already decided that no matter how low it was, he would accept it and end this spectacle.

Johnny motioned for the throng to be silent then said thoughtfully:

“Five cows is many, but . . .”

Johnny paused. Everyone waited. Sam dared not look around
and continued to stare ahead. Time stood still.

“ . . . but not enough for my Sarita. I offer you EIGHT COWS
and nothing less.”

The crowd went wild!

Johnny immediately stood and extended his hand to seal the deal. Sam rose, dazed and confused, and offered a limp handshake in return. The people who had gathered around laughed hysterically. They couldn’t make sense of it all. Sam Karoo had instantly become one of the richest men on the island, and plain old Sarita was betrothed to the most handsome, well- off bachelor ever—for the unprecedented price of eight cows! It was unbelievable.

Johnny knew this kind of attention would make Sarita very uncomfortable. He put his arm around his future father-in-law and spoke directly in his ear. He arranged for immediate delivery of the eight cows and demanded a private wedding ceremony within the hour. That was the last the people of Kiniwata would see of Johnny and Sarita for quite some time.

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Several months had passed when Johnny’s gift for Sarita arrived at Shenkin’s store. It was heavy for its size. Shenkin opened it for inspection.

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He examined it carefully—it was an ornate sterling silver hand mirror highlighted with gold and precious stones. “This must have cost Johnny half his fortune,” he thought. He contemplated the irony of the gift. A mirror—for Sarita. What was Johnny thinking? “Oh, well,” he mused. “Johnny always was very unconventional.”

Shenkin remembered that Johnny had invited him to deliver the gift in person. It had been a while since he had visited the island of Nurabandi. Maybe he could get to the bottom of his friend’s mysterious behavior. First, he pays eight cows for Sarita and then he buys the homeliest girl in the islands a mirror? He needed an explanation. He boxed the gift back up and then got
ready for the half- day boat trip.

When Shenkin was in sight of Johnny’s residence, Johnny immediately ran into the courtyard to greet him.

“I am so glad to see you, my old friend,” Johnny beamed.

Shenkin returned the greeting as they threw their arms around each other.

“I see you have brought Sarita’s gift. May I see it?” Johnny asked. Johnny examined the mirror. “I am so pleased. It is as beautiful as I imagined. Sarita will be very surprised.”

“Surprised indeed,” Shenkin shot back with an almost accusatory air.

Johnny raised an eyebrow, “I see you have brought with you something more than Sarita’s gift. You also come bearing questions. Come into my home and you may ask them.”

As they sat down in Johnny’s spacious dwelling, Johnny spoke first. “You want to know about the eight cows,” he stated.

Shenkin stammered, “Well, sure. Who doesn’t?”

“They still talk about it on Kiniwata?” Johnny asked.

“Yes. Practically every day.”

“They do here on Nurabandi, as well. Perhaps there isn’t an island anywhere that hasn’t heard at least one of several versions of the event. But think of it Shenkin—” Johnny’s chest expanded with satisfaction, “Always and forever when they speak of marriage settlements, it will be remembered that Johnny Lingo paid eight cows for Sarita.”

“That’s it,” Shenkin thought. “Vanity. Nothing but vanity.”

Then he saw her . . .

The most striking woman he had ever seen glided into the room and quietly placed two cool drinks on the table.

“Shenkin, you remember my wife Sarita from Kiniwata?” Johnny offered politely.

Shenkin mumbled something that resembled a greeting and continued to stare. Everything about this woman bespoke elegance and grace; the way she moved, the tilt of her chin, the way she walked. Shenkin was in a trance. Sarita then left the two men to continue their discussion.

Shenkin closed his gaping mouth. “That was Sarita?” he asked.

A smile came over Johnny’s lips, “Do you think eight cows were too many for such a woman?”

“No!” Shenkin replied. “She is magnificent. But I don’t understand; how can she be so different?”

“Do you ever think,” Johnny asked, “what it must mean to a woman to know that her husband bargained to obtain her for the fewest cows possible? And when the women talk, how does the two-cow bride feel when others brag of being purchased for four cows or five? This could not happen to my Sarita!”

“So you did this to make Sarita happy?”

“Yes. I wanted her to be happy. But I wanted more than that. Many things can change a woman, or any person for that matter—things that happen on the inside and things that happen on the outside.

But the thing that matters most is what you think of yourself.” “On Kiniwata, because of the way her father and others treated her, Sarita believed she was worth nothing. Just like this mirror, she began to reflect those beliefs. But I have always known Sarita was beautiful. I was honored to offer eight cows for her. And in this house, she now knows she is worth more than any other woman in the islands.”

“Then you wanted—”

“I wanted to marry Sarita. I have loved her since I was young and no other woman. But that wasn’t enough.”

Shenkin was finally beginning to understand.

“You see,” Johnny finished softly, “I wanted an eight-cow wife.”

“Solid character will
reflect itself in
consistent behavior,
while poor character
will seek to hide behind
deceptive words and
actions.”
- Myles Munroe