Todd parted the barbed wire carefully and climbed through the fence. Then he held it up for his dog King. The collie leaped through carefully and bounded into the field. The April sun glinted on the dog’s golden coat, thick and deep from the cold winter.
“Come here, King!” Todd called. He put his hand on King’s sun-warmed head. King was Todd’s best friend—his only nearby friend, except for Mr. Phillips. There were no boys Todd’s age in the small mountain town where he lived, and he had to ride the school bus 16 kilometers to attend school.
Todd climbed through another fence into Mr. Phillips’ sheep enclosure. He could hear the old man moving around in the lambing shed. “Hi!” he called as he walked into the dimness of the shed. Then he saw Mr. Phillips watching an ewe lick her newborn lamb. Todd watched the lamb, smiling. He wanted to pick it up, to feel its woolly little body.
“You can hold it later,” the rancher said, picking up two shovels. “We have a less pleasant job to do now. Come with me.”
Todd followed his friend into the bright sunlight where King waited patiently by the door. He spent most of his Saturdays with Mr. Phillips, helping him with the sheep. Todd liked being there, for Mr. Phillips was like a grandfather to him.
“What are we going to do?” Todd asked, running a little to catch up.
“Well, Todd, I’d just as soon you didn’t see this, but I guess it’s part of our job.”
As they approached the corner of the fields, several black and white magpies flapped noisily into the air. Todd saw two dead sheep on the ground. “What happened?” His stomach tightened as he looked at the sheep’s torn bodies.
Mr. Phillips started to dig in the moist ground, piling the muddy shovelfuls onto the grass. “Dogs killed them,” he said, not looking up.
Todd couldn’t understand how this could happen. “When do the dogs come? Have you seen them?”
“I’ve seen four or five dogs running together ever since work started on the new dam and the men moved their trailers in up there. Everybody has a fierce watchdog because they keep so much equipment outside their trailers.
“I’ve lost ten or twelve sheep this way,” said Mr. Phillips.
The boy felt a terrible anger and frustration inside him. “Can’t you go to the owners and tell them?”
“I’ve tried that. But each one claims his dog is tied at night or for some other reason could not be the killer. And since I do not actually see who does the killing, I do not really know who is responsible.”
“Why don’t you get your gun and sit out here all night and watch. If you see a dog coming in here, just shoot it.”
“I’ve thought of something like that, and I’m within my legal right to shoot if a strange dog is on my property.”
Todd helped Mr. Phillips drag the sheep into the hole and cover them. Then they walked silently across the field to the sheds, King following sedately behind them.
Sunday morning Todd dressed quickly and quietly, wanting to see Mr. Phillips before Sunday School started and find out if anything had happened during the night.
Todd closed the back screen door quietly behind him and gave a low whistle for King. He was surprised when the animal didn’t bound out of his doghouse, but without waiting he walked quickly through the fields to Mr. Phillips’ sheds. As he crawled through the last fence, he saw Mr. Phillips leaning over something on the ground. He’s shot a dog, Todd thought. He ran forward quickly, but before he reached Mr. Phillips he stopped, fear and grief gripping his body. He walked forward slowly, his eyes fixed on the golden coat of the dog, now soggy with rain. Mr. Phillips looked up. He came toward Todd and put his hands on his shoulders.
“Todd,” he said, “it’s King. I’m so sorry.” Todd looked into Mr. Phillips’ face and saw tears mixed with raindrops, running into the deep wrinkles of his face. His dark eyes were full of suffering.
Todd felt numb. “How did it happen?” he asked.
“The night was so dark with the clouds and all—I’d fallen asleep waiting. When I woke up, I saw the dark form of a dog moving across the pastures, so I shot. I didn’t even look at the body until this morning. When I saw it was King I couldn’t believe it. He was probably going to the house to see if we’d put out any food scraps for him.” Mr. Phillips moved to put his arms around the boy.
Todd stiffened and pulled away. “How could you shoot King? You know him. You see him every day.” His voice rose with anger.
Mr. Phillips went for a cart as Todd struggled to lift the large wet dog. It was impossible. Together they lifted the dog into the cart and the old man pulled it down the road toward Todd’s house. The boy walked a short distance behind, grieving in silence.
Mr. Phillips wanted to dig the hole, but Todd dug it himself in the soft earth and lowered the dog into the hole, as Mr. Phillips stood silently watching him.
On Monday night Mr. Phillips came to the door with a little lamb for Todd. Todd wouldn’t see him. He told his mother to tell Mr. Phillips he didn’t want the lamb. All week Todd stayed in his room after school, mostly just lying on his bed. After dinner and when he had finished his chores he went back to his room. On Friday night, Todd’s father followed him into his room. He sat down on the side of the bed, not saying anything.
Finally Todd spoke. “Dad, do you honestly believe in dog heaven, or is it just a story to make little kids feel better?”
“I don’t know about dog heaven, but I do believe firmly that all life is eternal, because everything was created spiritually before it was created physically.”
“What does that mean?”
“It’s hard to understand, but to you it means that King still lives.”
“Will I see him again after I die?”
“I do not know that for sure, but it may be possible.” Todd’s father looked at him closely and said, “One thing bothers me, you had two great friends in this rather lonely place. You lost one by accident, something that could not be helped. I do not know why you chose to lose the second one. Have you thought any about how Mr. Phillips has been feeling this week?”
Todd had tried not to think of it. But he kept seeing Mr. Phillips’ face with tears and rain running down it. His conscience had also reminded him that shooting the prowling dogs was his idea. “Well, I do not want that little lamb. How could he think a lamb would ever replace King?”
“I am sure he does not think that, but he needs to do something to show how sorry he is. You are hurting him far more than he hurt you, because you are doing it intentionally.”
Todd had not thought of it quite like that. He still did not look at his father, who suddenly leaned over and kissed his cheek.
Saturday morning, Todd woke up early, the same knot of pain forming in his stomach as it did every morning since King died. Sunshine streamed in the window. Todd dressed, went out quietly, and walked through the fields, the morning dew drenching his sneakers. As the sun warmed his face, Todd slowly began to feel a little more alive again. His heart still ached for King, but he felt some comfort, a feeling of his heart softening just as he had prayed it would.
He saw Mr. Phillips in the shed gathering his shearing tools. “I guess I need that lamb if I’m ever going to have my own flock,” Todd called from the doorway. Mr. Phillips turned and came through the door into the sunlight, his eyes warm and shining.
“I’m sure glad to see you, Todd,” he said. “I’m going to need help with this shearing.”
And together they went into the shed.