The Old Ewe


An unusually warm March sun felt good on ten-year-old Jamie’s back as he sat astride the board fence and watched a large herd of sheep moving up the dirt road toward him. Men on horseback rode on each side of the herd and behind it. Dogs circled silently around the sheep, their bushy tails waving happily. The sheep bleated and pushed against each other, bells clanking merrily on some of their necks. Jamie loved seeing them come by and watched their approach eagerly. Two of the riders waved to him as they rode by, nudging the animals. Some of the sheep came so close to the fence that Jamie could almost touch their woolly backs with his shoe.

After the herd had moved far up the road, almost out of sight, Jamie jumped down from the fence. But he could still hear a soft bleating from somewhere close-by. As he walked slowly up the road, the sounds seemed nearer. Suddenly in the dry ditch by the roadside, he spotted the gray white wool of an old sheep. He ran quickly and slid down the bank into the ditch. The ewe lifted her head, and patient yellow eyes looked into his.

“What are you doing here, sheep?” he asked. The ewe bleated again and tried to get to her feet. Jamie saw that one back leg was twisted and dangling. “You poor thing! I’ll go get Grandpa.” Jamie scrambled out of the ditch and ran down the road and through the gate. His grandfather was coming around the side of the house and almost collided with him.

“Grandpa!” Jamie shouted. “There’s a sheep in the ditch, and its leg’s hurt. Come see!”

Grandpa followed Jamie silently to the ditch and looked down at the sheep. “Whose herd was it that just came by?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Jamie answered. “Some riders waved to me, but I didn’t recognize any of them.”

“Probably from over in Lansdale, bringing their sheep down for shearing.” Grandpa stooped down, put one arm around the ewe’s chest and the other around her hips, and picked her up. The animal bleated with pain and fright as he staggered up the ditch bank with her. Jamie followed his grandfather through the gate and around to the sheds where their own sheep were brought for lambing and shearing.

Grandpa lowered the ewe gently onto the straw and examined her leg. “Go ask Grandma for part of an old sheet,” he directed.

When Jamie returned with the sheet, Grandpa had straightened the ewe’s leg. He tore the sheet into strips and made a splint on the leg with a small flat stick.

“Can we keep her?” Jamie asked.

“She doesn’t belong to us,” Grandpa answered.

“The man riding on that side must have seen her in the ditch,” Jamie argued.

“Maybe and maybe not. And even if he did, she still doesn’t belong to us.” Grandpa tied the strips firmly and stood the ewe up. He looked into its mouth at her ragged yellow teeth. “This is a very old sheep, Jamie. Could be they didn’t want her. Not good for much any longer and hurt to boot.” Grandpa felt the sheep’s stomach carefully. “But she’s going to lamb any day now. That’s worth something.”

“Grandpa, could the lamb be mine since I found its mother?” Jamie asked eagerly.

“Jamie, this is not our sheep.” He looked at Jamie’s sad brown eyes. “We’ll put her in the pasture with the others. If her leg heals and if she lambs and if no one comes for her, you can have the lamb.” Jamie looked up hopefully. “We’ll have to ask around, though, and see if we can find the owner,” Grandpa concluded. Jamie smiled at his grandfather and knelt to pet the old woolly sheep.

The ewe lambed two weeks later. Grandpa had awakened Jamie before the sun was up and had taken him out to the lambing shed. The tiny white lamb stood in the dim light, wet and wobbly, bleating very softly, almost mewing. Jamie loved it instantly and named him Joshua after a white cat he once had.

Every day after school Jamie jumped off the bus and hurried to the pasture to find the lamb, to pet him, and to pick tender young weeds and grass for Joshua to nibble from his hand.

It was a very warm day in the middle of April when Jamie found Joshua and the old ewe missing from the pasture. He ran into the house where his grandmother was kneading bread in the sunny kitchen.

“Where are they?” he demanded.

Grandma glanced at Jamie, then punched the bread and smacked it onto the floured table. “Mr. Goodman came and got them.”

Jamie was stunned. “Mr. Goodman! Why? When?”

“He drove up with his wagon, loaded them in, and was driving away when I went out and asked what he was doing. He said the ewe was lost from his cousin’s herd when they came through here. His cousin said he could have it, so he was taking it. Then he just climbed onto the wagon and left. I didn’t know what to say.” Grandma rolled the dough and smacked it angrily onto the table again.

“Where was Grandpa?” Jamie asked.

“Over to Dayton getting feed. But he’s out in the granary now.”

Jamie ran out the back door and found his grandfather unloading sacks of grain from the wagon. He lowered a sack to the ground and looked at Jamie. “It wasn’t our ewe, Jamie,” he said, before the boy even spoke to him.

“It wasn’t Mr. Goodman’s either!” Jamie’s heart was pounding, and his stomach felt cold.

“It was given to him by the rightful owner, son, so it is really his,” Grandpa said, dragging the sack into the granary.

Jamie followed. “It’s not right!” he shouted, feeling tears starting up behind his eyes. “That was my lamb. You said I could have it.”

“I said you could have it if no one came for it. Someone came.”

“It’s been a month!” Jamie pursued. “When it was just a wounded old ewe, no one cared about it. Those men knew they’d left it in the ditch, and they told Mr. Goodman. But he didn’t want it then. Now when she’s well and has a nice little lamb, he comes for her. It’s not right, Grandpa, and you know it.” Tears were stinging Jamie’s eyes, and his cheeks burned.

Grandpa settled the sack of grain with the others and turned to Jamie. “Well, Jamie, if you really think that’s your lamb, why don’t you go tell Mr. Goodman.”

Jamie’s tears stopped abruptly, and his stomach lurched with fear at the very thought. Mr. Goodman was the watermaster and also the richest man in the county. He rode the ditches on a big gray horse, a forbidding figure with a shovel and a shotgun sticking up behind him. Jamie believed that the big man would shoot anyone who took more than his rightful share of water. He had thick black hair, a black mustache, and fierce, dark eyes. None of the kids took apples from his orchards, no matter how red and tempting they looked from the road. Jamie could not imagine arguing with the watermaster. “Why don’t you talk to him, Grandpa?” he suggested hopefully.

“Because, Jamie, I never considered that ewe to be mine. I don’t figure I have any claim on her or her lamb. If you’re of a different mind, then you talk to him. He’s a fair man.”

Jamie thought about it for three days. He thought of little else. In school he sat in a daze, making up conversations with Mr. Goodman, thinking of good arguments. At night he lay awake picturing himself facing the tall, stern man, the man who took what he wanted without asking or apologizing. Sometimes he saw himself angry and indignant, sometimes mild and reasonable. The more he thought about it, though, the more wrong it seemed to him. He longed for Joshua, for the feel of his soft wool and the sight of him bouncing around the pasture. By the middle of the week Jamie knew for certain that he would have no peace within himself until he talked to Mr. Goodman.

Thursday night as he lay in his bed, a plan began to form in his mind. He thought about what Grandpa had said—that Mr. Goodman was a fair man. He tried to think what might seem right to Mr. Goodman about the lamb. When Jamie awoke the next morning he knew what he would do. All day at school he pondered the idea. When he got off the bus that afternoon he went straight to his grandfather, who was cleaning out the lambing sheds.

“Grandpa, would you excuse me from my chores this afternoon?” he asked.

“Why?” Grandpa questioned.

“I’m going to see Mr. Goodman.”

“Thought you might. But why just at choring time?”

“I want to catch him at his chores so I don’t have to knock on his door and maybe go into his house or something.”

Grandpa looked at him and nodded. “All right. Take the pony. And watch what you say.” Grandpa looked at him closely again. “Are you scared?”

“Yes,” Jamie answered. He turned away and went to saddle the pony.

Jamie found Mr. Goodman cleaning his shearing shed. Great mounds of wool were stacked on one side. Jamie stood in the doorway of the shed, holding a piece of paper in one hand and waiting for Mr. Goodman to notice him. Finally, the man looked up and stopped sweeping. “Well,” he growled. “What do you want?”

“I’m James Nielsen. My grandfather—“

“I know who you are. What do you want?” The afternoon sunlight from the doorway fell across Mr. Goodman’s face, and it seemed to blaze.

“It’s about the old ewe and her lamb.” Jamie swallowed hard.

“You think they’re yours, I suppose.” Mr. Goodman walked toward Jamie. Jamie wanted to turn and run, but he didn’t.

“No, sir, but I think you owe me some money for taking care of them. I have it written down right here.” Jamie handed Mr. Goodman a piece of paper.

Mr. Goodman took off his hat and looked at Jamie for several seconds before he examined the paper. He studied it for a long time. When the man finally looked up his eyes were very black, and he frowned with his whole face. Jamie wondered why he had ever thought his idea would work.

“Three dollars is too much for feed this time of year when sheep can graze,” Mr. Goodman said.

“Grandpa gives them a supplement.”

“Ten dollars for veterinary care? You’re not a vet. Neither is your grandpa.”

“The ewe got well though. And that includes helping her with her lamb.”

Suddenly Mr. Goodman smiled. “Did your grandpa put you up to this?”

“No, sir. He said it wasn’t his ewe, and you had a right to take her and her lamb. But I think it’s wrong.” Jamie hadn’t meant to say that, and Mr. Goodman wasn’t smiling now, but the boy went on anyway. “We took care of the ewe and got her well, and her lamb was born on our place. I wondered if instead of giving me the money, you’d give me the lamb.” Jamie stopped, his heart pounding in his throat.

Mr. Goodman sat down on a box and looked at the paper again. “This list of expenses is fair enough, I guess, but the lamb’s worth more than what I owe you.” Jamie’s heart sank. “However, if you’ll come over here and help me clean up from shearing for the next three nights, the lamb’s yours.” He stood up and smiled at Jamie. His eyes were not fierce at all, but quite warm and friendly. Mr. Goodman held out his hand to Jamie. “Is it a deal?”

“Yes, sir!” Jamie smiled and shook the man’s big hand. Then he turned and ran to his pony and climbed on. As he rode away, he glanced over his shoulder and saw Mr. Goodman still standing in the doorway watching him.

When he rode into the yard, Grandpa was waiting by the gate. Jamie jumped down quickly. “You were right, Grandpa. He’s a fair man.”

Grandpa put his arm around Jamie’s shoulders and pulled him close. “And you’re a brave man, Jamie. Tell me what happened.”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Dick Brown