Sheep

Valerie Hobbs

Square Fish

Sheep
1
MY NAME IS JACK, but it wasn't always. I've had so many names I can't even remember them all. Some names were good, some were bad. Some I don't like to remember. But I like the name Jack just fine. It's the one Luke gave me, and he's my best friend.
Until I found Luke, life was a long, hard road. I'd traveled too many days on an empty stomach, slept too many nights in the rain, gone too long without a friend. I was giving up hope, which is about the worst thing you can do. Hope is everything.
When I was a youngster, I was filled with hope. But I was trouble, too. Trouble with a capital T, Mom said. Always poking my nose where it didn't belong, getting into mischief. Nobody thought I'd amount to much. But young as I was, I knew better. There was a job for me out there in the world, something big and important. All I had to do was find out what it was. Meanwhile, I had to stay out of trouble.
Hanging around the ranch all day with Mom was downright boring. There was only so much you couldthink up to do without getting into trouble. And if you were real bad, well then Mom made you take a nap. She sure didn't think I was ready for anything big and important. So I was counting on Bob.
Bob smelled like smoke and hay, that's what I remember. Cooked eggs, coffee, toast crumbs, applesauce, pig meat, soap. I loved him so much it hurt not to show it. As soon as I heard him coming, I'd want to race out and throw myself against his legs, bark and yip, run in circles like a fool. But I wouldn't let myself, not then. I had to show him that I could be counted on. That I was ready for the sheep. So while the others whined and jumped and tried to get his attention, I'd stand real still, cock my head just so, and give him my best sheep eye. That's the look you give the sheep to make them behave.
And then I'd just lose it, I'd get so excited I'd be all over him. Yapping, licking his big, rough hands. I just couldn't help myself.
Bob had dark things on his mind in those days, you could tell by the way his forehead bunched all up. There were lots of things to worry about on a California sheep ranch. He wasn't humming or talking real low to my dad and the fellas the way he did sometimes. He'd pat a nose stuck under his hand, but it was like he wasn't there. He'd forget things, too. Then Ellen would come running out of the house. "Bob? You forgot your gloves! Bob? You forgot your hat!" Ellen and Bob loved each other a whole lot, even a pup could tell. But things weren't righton the ranch. None of the fellas knew why, except maybe Old Dex, the lead dog, and he wasn't saying. There was talk of selling, but we pups didn't understand about that.
As far as I knew, every day was the same and that was how it would always be. Bob would come for the fellas, slapping his gloves together, blowing clouds through the cold, dark air. He'd fill their bowls with food and water and set them down where he knew the fellas wanted them. Then, while we pups swarmed around his ankles, he'd fill one big bowl for us. The second he set it down, we'd attack like a pack of ill-mannered bloodhounds. Even I would forget about making a good impression. I'd push and shove and keep my nose right in there. A day without a full belly wasn't a day I wanted to live.
Well, that's how you think when you're young, before you see the long road ahead. Full-belly days are all you know.
When breakfast was over, Bob would round up the fellas for the workday. Old Dex would lead the way to the truck, followed by Dad. They'd jump in first, then the others behind them. Bob would latch the tailgate and climb into the cab. I'd watch the rusty red truck drive away, hoping that, just once, it would stop. That Bob would remember he'd forgotten one last thing: me. But the truck always kept going to that place at the edge of the land where it disappeared.
The rest of the day I'd try to keep myself busy, chasinggophers, playing sticks with my brothers, taking long naps with Mom. But even in my sleep I'd listen for the truck, waiting for the fellas to return and talk about their day.
Oh, they never said much. Work was work, you know. When you're as good as they were, you don't need to brag. You simply go out and do what you were born to do. That's the way it is with Border collies, the way it's been for centuries. I thought I'd never be one of them, except in name. Never get to run with the sheep. I'd always be a mama's boy, a pesky pup, a reject.
And then it came, a day that started like all the others and changed my life forever. Bob said, "Come, boy." And he meant me.
Me? My ears went straight up, but the rest of me froze. Me?
"Come, boy," Bob said again, in that low voice, so kind. And then I was off like a shot, straight up into the back of the truck, my tail trying its best to wag my hind end clean off.
Old Dex just rolled his eyes at me, the way dogs do.
Well, you wouldn't know.
We rode out through heaven, grass so green and lush you felt like chewing on it. I raced from one side of the truck bed to the other, sticking my nose between the slats, while the land rolled on and on, not a house or barn anywhere. The air was clean and cold and filled with what I had no name for. Excitement is probablywhat you'd call it. But it was more than that, though I didn't know it then. I figured if all we did was ride out to where the world ended and back again, well, that would be enough for me.
That was before I saw the sheep. Sheep everywhere! The truck stopped, and they closed in all around us like a big gray woolly blanket, bawling and baaing, stinking like, well, like sheep. Bob hopped down out of the cab and pushed his way through them to the back of the truck. When he lowered the tailgate, the fellas jumped down, working the sheep the minute they hit the ground, rounding them up without even trying.
I hung back, a little soft in the belly, if you know what I mean. Nervous. They were bigger than I was, every last one, and so many I couldn't count them, more sheep than I thought there were in the whole wide world.
Well, you didn't have to count them, though I didn't know it then. You just sort of felt them, Dad said. That was how you knew when one went missing. You felt it somewhere inside you. Sounded crazy to me. The smell was bad enough. But feeling sheep? I didn't like the sound of that. I figured if worst came to worst, and the sheep wouldn't do what I wanted, well, I'd just bite them. But I learned soon enough that wasn't the way. Only as a last resort would a dog bite a sheep.
You should have seen Dad and Old Dex, how they got those woolly guys all moving in the same direction. You could tell the sheep didn't like it. They'd have torun a little, which they hated, so they grumbled the whole time. One old ewe really had her back up. She turned, frowned at the dogs, and tried to hold her ground. It came down to her and Old Dex then, him with his snout low, ready to leap left or right. And that eye he gave her! It made you shiver just to watch.
The old lady just couldn't hold out against that eye. She gave Old Dex one last haughty look, then turned away and trotted off after the others, her fat little tail between her legs.
I ran back and forth, trying to look like I knew what I was doing, practicing my sheep eye. The sheep ignored me, like I was a pesky fly. After a while Dad told me to calm down, but I couldn't. I'd gotten a taste of what life was all about, and I didn't want to miss a second of it.
"Keep your eye on Old Dex," Dad said. "You've got a chance to learn from a master." And so I did. Wherever Old Dex went, that was where I'd try to be. But it wasn't easy. One second he'd be racing full out alongside the flock, then he'd stop, ears up, and cut the other way. Bob would call an order from a long way off, telling you what he wanted, and you had to do it right then. It was tricky, but when you got the sheep going the way they were supposed to, like a big muddy gray river rolling across the land, you were happy inside. It was better than a good meal, better than a rubdown, even better than Mom saying you were her own best boy (well, she said it to my brothers, too, I know shedid). When the sheep were right, you had that deep down good feeling that you were making a difference. You were doing what you were meant to do, what you believed in, what you were really good at.
I'll tell you, nothing in the world is better than that.
The day came to an end too soon for me. We all bounded back up into the truck, and as the land took that last lick of the sun, we headed home. I'd learned more than my head could hold. I knew for certain my purpose in this life, and I was ready to do it, flat out, with all my heart.
But it was not to be. One day, when we'd gathered all the sheep and were driving them down to the barns, a storm rose up out of nowhere. The wind began to moan and cry. Lightning struck all around, and the dry grass caught fire. I saw Bob, riding his horse, Appie, look behind us to where the sky was turning orange. I heard him call an order. Then he pulled his bandanna up over his nose, gave Appie a slap, and raced ahead. We dogs went into top speed, pushing those sheep, even nipping their heels when they wouldn't run. Something was crackling behind us. I turned and saw the tongues of flame licking, racing to catch up with us.
"Don't look back!" Old Dex barked. "Run!"
I ran. Ran until I thought I couldn't run another step, until I couldn't see the sheep for the smoke, and then I ran some more.
SHEEP. Copyright © 2006 by Valerie Hobbs. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America by R. R. Donnelley & Sons Company, Harrisonburg, Virginia. For information, address Square Fish, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010.