The sun was setting when Mikel and his little sister, Ainhoa, drove the cows home from the mountain pasture. The days were shorter now with a nip of fall in the air. It would get colder in the Pyrenees Mountains as winter approached.
“There’s our house!” shouted Ainhoa, waving her stick.
Although other Basque homes were built similarly, Mikel thought their house was the most beautiful one in the village. The house was of whitewashed concrete, two stories tall, with a red roof and green shutters at the windows. The sign written in Basque above the door said, “May Peace Be in This House.”
Their dog Eguzki barked at the heels of the cows until they were all in the pen and the gate shut behind them.
“Patxi said he might take me to market tomorrow!” Ainhoa said excitedly as they reached their house. “He was gone so long in the mountains with the sheep, I almost forgot what he looked like!”
Mikel walked slowly to the door. He wanted to go to market tomorrow, too, but someone had to stay and watch the cows. He wondered if anyone would remember his birthday. No one had said anything about it for the past week. Everyone had been too excited about seeing Patxi, Mikel’s older brother, who had been with the sheep for four months in the high mountain pastures.
Inside the house the family was gathering for dinner. Patxi, with his broad smile and white teeth, his sunbrowned face and twinkling brown eyes, was sitting in the dining room talking to his father. His mother and sister Garbiñe brought in platters of bread, cheese, and roasted lamb from the kitchen.
After dinner Ainhoa put her arms around Patxi’s neck. “Will you take me to market tomorrow, Patxi? You said I might go with you to sell our fat pig and some cheeses. You will take me, won’t you?”
“Of course,” Patxi said. “I never forget a promise.” Garbiñe put a plate of butter on the table and sat down near her big brother. “My friend Mirentxu has been waiting to see you since you left last May, Patxi,” she said. “She will be at the market tomorrow too. Don’t forget to say hello to her.”
“I won’t,” Patxi promised.
Mikel pulled off his jacket and beret. He sat on the hearth of the fireplace next to Amama, his old grandmother, who was mending a torn pair of pants. She nodded at him and smiled.
Amama always understood what Mikel was thinking. She said, “Tomorrow we will have three men in our family. Your father and Patxi and Mikel, who will be twelve years old.”
Mikel looked up at his grandmother and smiled.
In the morning when it was time to take the cows up to the pasture, Ainhoa watched Mikel put on his jacket and beret. She gave him the lunch his mother had packed. “I will get you some lemon drops while I am at the market,” she promised.
“If you want to,” Mikel said unhappily. Although he stumped out the door, his rope-soled abarcus (shoes) did not make much noise.
As he opened the cow pen, his father appeared with the two mules, ready to go to town. “I know you would like to go to market with Patxi, Son, but I hope you understand that you are needed here.”
“I understand,” said Mikel. He waved his stick, and Eguzki barked at the cows. They started, one by one, up the mountainside.
When Mikel reached the high pasture, he could see the roofs of the village far below. How he wished he could have gone to market with his big brother, Patxi.
From the cow pasture, Mikel could look up and see the shepherds’ huts high on the mountainside where Patxi had lived while he watched the sheep. It was lonely up there except when someone from the village brought food and supplies to the shepherds once a week.
Mikel patted Eguzki’s head. “Patxi is a brave man,” he said to his dog, “to live up in that hut through summer storms and heat. There are wild animals there too!”
Mikel didn’t mind spending time alone with the cows. He loved them and had a name for each one. They trusted him and followed him readily, so he rarely had to use his stick. He liked to sit in the shade of a beech tree or put his feet in the stream on hot days. But looking up into the high mountains now, he thought he might get a little lonesome if he couldn’t come home for dinner every night.
During the summer Mikel helped his father on the farm, and a man from the village watched the cows. However, these few weeks, Mikel and Ainhoa had to watch them until the men had stored enough fodder to feed the animals through the winter.
At midday Mikel ate his lunch—a ham sandwich, cheese, and some artichokes. Then, knowing that Eguzki was nearby to watch the cows, he lay down and took a nap. When he woke up, Mikel felt lonely on the mountainside and wished Ainhoa were with him. To occupy his time, Mikel sang a song Patxi had taught him about a captive bird.
In the evening as the cows walked slowly home, one by one, Mikel saw his entire family waiting by the cow pen. When they saw him coming, they shouted and began to sing a birthday song. Ainhoa handed him a bag of lemon drops when he met them, and Patxi gave him a heavy package. “I bought it for you in the market,” Patxi explained. “It is for you when you are in the high pastures and feel lonely.”
When Mikel was inside the house, he opened the package. There were three books—a Bible, a book by a man named Shakespeare, and Robinson Crusoe. “These will be good companions on the mountainside,” he said, holding them out.
Mikel’s father looked proudly at his son. “We have another man in our family now. Mikel is twelve years old today.”
“We need another man in our family,” Patxi said, “because I’m going to America. It will be your job to watch the sheep, Mikel.”
“When did you decide this?” Mikel asked. He knew that men sometimes went to America because they were better paid and that some of them had sent money back home. But few of them ever returned.
“We talked to a man in the market today,” Mikel’s mother said sadly. “America is still a land of opportunity. A young Basque sheepherder can make good wages there. Patxi will work for a man who lives in Idaho and who owns many more sheep than we do. Patxi will send money home to help us.”
“Then I will take care of our sheep,” Mikel promised.
“I wondered if you were old enough to do it,” Patxi said. “Then today when I saw how you stayed with the cows without complaining, I knew you were almost grown up.”
“Thank you,” Mikel said as he carefully placed the books in his knapsack. He looked over and saw Amama sitting by the fire, nodding and smiling at him.