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The Shepherd and the Wolf

The shepherd had tended his flock in these fields for fifty years. In his time he had seen more lambings than he could count, more deaths than he cared to, and had endured several battles with predators looking for an easy meal.

This particular year had been harder than most. The winter had been long, and food had grown scarce. The shepherd struggled on, carrying fodder for his sheep, bent almost double beneath bales of hay while his dog, Meg, trotted obediently at his side.

Moving the sheep on each day, he managed to keep them from starvation, though when the snow lay thick on what pasture remained, it was all he could do to keep from despair. His 'ladies' were due to lamb in weeks, and he fretted constantly, worrying what toll the winter would take.

But worse, it was not only his sheep that were hungry. These hills were home to a wolf, too young to form a new pack, too old to remain with the old. And he was starving. The shepherd did what he could to protect the flock, but the wolf was learning fast. Five times in recent weeks the shepherd had counted one less in his flock.

Angry, bitter, grief-stricken, he set about laying traps for the beast, determined to be rid of it by whatever means. He was a proud man, and a good shepherd, and he was determined to see his flock through to the spring lambing.

But the wolf was sharp, intelligent, and every bit as determined. Driven by hunger, he returned again and again. Sometimes the shepherd, alerted by Meg, was able to get to his sheep in time to scare the wolf away. Sometimes he arrived in time to see the beast carrying another away in his jaws.

Life as a shepherd was always tough, but this winter, coupled with the raids by the wolf, was pushing him to the limits. One night a storm struck and he and Meg leapt into action, urging the sheep down the hill to the lea side pasture, where they huddled in the corner in the flimsy shelter of the bare trees and the crumbling stone wall.

The snow fell thick and swift, smothering, freezing. The shepherd, knowing he had done all in his power, retreated to the relative comfort and safety of the old shepherd's hut, not far from his flock.

The top half of the stable door was swinging in the wind when he approached. Sighing, he reached up and caught it, clipping the two halves together, then pulled them closed behind him. Meg seemed reluctant to enter, but the shepherd was preoccupied with securing the hut and getting the log burner blazing. Only when the fire was burning well and the kettle was on to boil did he realise something was amiss.

'What's with thee?'

Meg flicked a glance at him, then returned to staring at the cot on the far wall. She growled, her hackles standing on point. The shepherd grunted and picked up his stick, squinting in the dim light.

'Come on out, then! Let's see thee.'

For a moment nothing happened, then, to the shepherd's astonishment, there was a scuffling beneath the cot and, backing out awkwardly, came the very same wolf that had been terrorising his flock. The shepherd's knuckles turned white as he gripped the stick and the anger and frustration of the last few weeks welled up. And then the wolf dragged itself to its feet and turned, slowly, painfully, to look up at him.

The shepherd's grip loosened. It was a pathetic sight indeed. Emaciated, its fur matted, one paw turning inwards, a deep gash on its left side, the wolf was clearly in trouble. The shepherd, a compassionate man as all shepherds are, was overwhelmed with pity.

His troubles temporarily forgotten, he snatched a blanket from the cot and made a crude bed for the beast before the log burner. To Meg's disgust, he gave it water from her bowl, and cleaned its wound. He shared the dry biscuit and broth he had brought for himself and Meg with the wolf, feeding it gently, tenderly.

Throughout two long nights the storm raged outside the hut. The shepherd worried for his flock, though he knew well the toughness of sheep. He tended his patient and tried to placate Meg. He kept the log burner alight, hurrying outside for more wood from the pile.

The wolf slept, fitfully, whimpering, shivering. What it dreamed of the shepherd could not know, though he could imagine the horrors and the pleasures such a creature might encounter in its life. He remained awake, caring for the wolf, trying to placate Meg, worrying about the sheep.

With the break in the storm a certain clarity dawned. The wolf woke, his eyes bright, his breathing even and strong. He stared at Meg and the shepherd and rumbled low in his chest. The shepherd was suddenly furious with himself. How could he have nursed a creature who meant to eat his sheep?

He opened the door and picked up his stick, shaking it at the wolf. 'G'on! Get out! And I'll thank ye to take none of my ladies!'

The wolf needed no second bidding. It slunk from its bed by the fire and shot out of the hut, leaping the stone wall and disappearing into the woods in seconds. The shepherd shook his head, clenching his fists.

Meg was curled in an indignant ball by the door, watching her master. 'Come Meg,' he said gruffly, as he tramped out. Meg perked up. This was how things should be, her and her master, going out to check the sheep. She leapt to her feet and hurried after him, tail wagging.

The wolf took one more sheep that winter. The snow had returned and the temperature had dropped to well below freezing. The shepherd, though angry and sad at the loss of another sheep, understood. A wolf is a wolf and a sheep is a sheep, and sometimes a shepherd is a fool. If he were angry with a wolf for being a wolf then he may as well be angry with the wind or the snow. But he would be damned if he would ever welcome a wolf into his hut again.


© 2013 Kay Lawrence.


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