Sophie had hurried back to the woodland pasture to look for the cow she had somehow left behind. There is so much to learn about farming and animals in this new country, she thought, sighing. Sophie and her brother and their parents had emigrated from Germany to a farm near the base of the Ozark Mountains and everything here seemed difficult and strange.
Searching frantically for the lost animal, Sophie finally sighted it lying in the tall grass. When she got closer, she saw a gash in the cow’s flank. It didn’t look too serious, but the cow still refused to get up. She lay there rolling her eyes and mooing plaintively. Papa had once said that fear sometimes made animals and people stop trying to help themselves, and Sophie guessed this was the trouble with the cow. Still, she pleaded and patted and shoved, but the animal wouldn’t budge.
Every day in good weather, it was Sophie’s job to drive the cows here to graze, to watch and tend them, and to drive them back home again in the late afternoon. Although the animals usually stayed with the bell cow, this one must have strayed while Sophie ate her lunch or while she waded in the brook. Papa will punish me and I deserve it, thought Sophie. But oh, how I wish we were safe at home.
Safe at home! The words bounced in her head, and her heart began to thump. She had often heard the cry of a panther in the distance when she drove the herd homeward. Papa had told her that panthers sometimes lure people to them with a cry like that of a lost child. Sophie shivered. It was frightening to be out here all alone.
The girl knew that even if the cow were willing, it would be unwise to drive it home through the darkness. She called to Shep and jogged out onto the dirt wagon lane. Inside the thick tunnel of overhanging branches and hazel brush, it was already growing gloomy, and she had more than a mile to run before she would be home to ask Papa what to do.
Sophie’s golden braids flopped wildly as her bare feet kicked up puffs of dust on the road. “Oh, dear!” she exclaimed suddenly, remembering that it was market day and Papa and Willie would stay in town overnight. They were counting on her to be safely at home with Mama, who was expecting a baby.
Sophie knew she had to let Mama know what had happened. Reaching home at last, she burst into the kitchen. Mama was at the wood stove stirring something in the kettle. Breathlessly, Sophie began to tell her mother about the hurt cow. Mama’s usually bright expression changed to a look of concern. For a long moment she concentrated without speaking.
At last Mama said in a calm voice, “We must do what we must do. It will be for you and Shep to watch out for our cow and I will be fine here alone. But we must make a good plan.” She rested her arm on Sophie’s shoulder, thinking. After a while Mama raised her head and spoke with assurance. “Now, this is what you should do. First fetch a rope and make a leash for Shep so he will stay close to you. Then take a torch with you and watch over the cow until morning.”
Sophie’s heart leaped. Allnight? Alone with only Shep? But Mama was pushing her into action with more words. “Come to the shed. I will light the torch. There is no time to lose.”
Sophie was soon loping along the lane with a lighted torch in one hand, Shep’s rope in the other, a blanket roll on her back, and a bottle of turpentine for the cow’s wound in her apron pocket. There was no time to be afraid. She must be brave and Mama said she would be praying for her safety.
In the torchlight, Sophie could see the cow, quiet now in her fear. She wedged the torch in a hole of a tree stump and tied up Shep. Moving as fast as she could, she gathered wood to make four bonfires around them.
Finally, Sophie knelt beside the cow and carefully poured turpentine into the wound. The animal rolled her eyes and bawled loudly as the medicine burned into her flesh. Once or twice she tried to get up, but Sophie held her head down, patting and talking soothingly to her. At last, the cow seemed to sense that the girl was trying to help and she grew quiet. Only the involuntary flinching of her side told of her pain.
Sophie lit two of the bonfires when it was dark and then beat out the torch. Mama had said to keep it ready to relight if some animal dared come too close. The plan was to keep two fires burning all night.
Sophie spread her blanket near the cow and then petted her until the animal’s eyes closed in sleep. The hours seemed to drag, and the silence was vast and deep. Now and then, a twig snapped. Once when Shep heard a faraway lonely cry, he opened his eyes and growled deeply. Sophie felt her scalp tingle. An opossum hanging by its tail overhead startled her before it moved away. More than once she felt like crying.
When Sophie lighted the last two fires, she prayed they would burn until dawn. What if they don’t? she wondered, then pushed the thought away. She dared not think about it.
At last it began to grow light! Sophie let out a sigh of relief. The long nightwatch was over and all would be well. Now she could kick dirt over the dying embers and untie Shep. She looked toward the cow and was surprised to see the animal struggling to her feet! The wound was beginning to heal already. The cow put out her big, rough tongue and licked Sophie’s hand.
Sophie breathed a prayer of thanks, then gave the cow a hug and said, “Come on, love. It’s home at last for you and me!”