Night was falling as we approached the mesa. In the failing light, six ragged figures stood out against the orange sky, scarecrowlike with painted faces. Their shredded black robes blew in the wind. Tin cans hung from them, clanging dully. They were eerie and alien in the gathering dusk.
“I think we’re in over our heads,” I said to my companion. Turning the pickup around, I drove off across the empty reaches of the Navajo Reservation. As missionaries in the Arizona Holbrook Mission, we wanted to share the gospel with everyone, but maybe that didn’t include the man who had set up these weird manlike scarecrows.
During the next week, however, we felt an urging that we should return to the hut of the old sheepherder on his remote mesa. We tracted on foot a lot that week so that we could drive out and see him without exceeding the mileage limit set by the mission.
We found him on his mesa. A wooden staff was in his hand, and he wore a long black coat. He stood by a gnarly old tree, as motionless as one of his scarecrow men. Silently, he watched us get out of our truck and approach. His hair was white. His eyes were calm. There was no expression on his wrinkled brown face.
My companion was new and couldn’t speak any Navajo. I wasn’t a lot better. I introduced us in Navajo with a phrase that means essentially, “Hi, who are you? We’re the missionaries.”
He looked at me. I think he was impressed that I knew enough Navajo to greet him. He answered me in English. “I’m Baptist. No hear you.”
His words were harsh, but we felt something else behind them—a kindness, a welcome that was louder than his words. We didn’t argue, but we went on talking with him and before long we had an appointment to come back and see him.
During the months that followed we visited the old shepherd often. He wandered far with his sheep and sometimes we had to drive atop a mesa and scan the country for miles to find him. Every visit was precious because we had to make sacrifices and do a lot of walking so we could save up the mileage to drive to see him.
We had no place to sit and talk with him because his shack was too small. At first we would just sit on the tailgate of our truck. When the weather was too cold, we would crowd inside the cab. We started out very slowly. I knew just a little Navajo, and he knew about the same amount of English. Sitting on the tailgate, I would point to a tree and say, “Tree.” He would point to the same tree and say the word in Navajo. I would point at a dog and say, “Dog.” He would point and tell me the Navajo word. We would both repeat the new word. Little by little I learned enough Navajo, and he learned enough English for us to communicate.
We gradually got to know him. We found out that his name was Peter Wolley. The name had been given to him when he served in the army during World War II. After a number of visits, we began to teach him the gospel. I felt the influence of the Spirit very strongly as we talked. My Navajo was not fluent, yet at times I felt inspired to use certain Navajo words that I didn’t think I knew. Even though I couldn’t communicate clearly, he seemed to know the truth of the things I was telling him.
He was a very traditional Navajo, and he taught us many of the Navajo ways. I learned not to be so inquisitive, because this is considered bad form in the Navajo culture. When I stopped asking questions, and when the mood suited him, he would tell us about his life. He took us out to the river and his other favorite places. He showed us foxholes and where the coyotes had been. He taught us to herd sheep. He showed us how he built the tall, black-robed figures that had ended our first visit. They were not designed to terrify sister missionaries but to frighten away coyotes that might harm his flock.
He loved his sheep and would take them miles each day in search of the best grass. He took the lambs inside with him when the nights were cold. He was a very caring man.
He knew his sheep. He knew their names and he knew each of their ways. One day when we were searching for him and his flock, we saw one of his sheep separated from the rest.
When we found the flock, I said, “Peter, one of your sheep is lost. We saw it over on the other side of the mesa.”
He seemed remarkably calm about the news and said, “Oh I know. That’s Box. He’s the old one. He doesn’t have any teeth. He’s all right.” I was amazed. He knew all about that one particular sheep even though it was out of sight. Peter saw my surprise and smiled. He didn’t have any more teeth than Box.
I knew that I had really earned his trust when he began calling me his “tall white friend.” For a Navajo to address you as “my friend,” instead of by your name is a big compliment. The “tall white” part reflected my five-foot-ten stature and light blonde hair.
One time we made him a placemat. It was a piece of paper with the four steps of prayer on it. We had it laminated, and he kept it on his little table. He loved that little placemat, and I think it was because he loved prayer. He had plenty of time to pray while he watched his sheep.
We taught Peter for seven months before I was transferred. Some Navajo elders then taught him in his own language. He asked them, “Where is my tall blonde friend?” He was receptive to their teachings and joined the Church. I am proud to have helped open the door for my good friend to receive the gospel.
Peter couldn’t go to church very often because there was no one to stay with the sheep. He lived 60 miles away from a church and had no truck. He couldn’t walk that far, and few could go the 120 miles round trip over rough country both to pick him up and to take him home. But I didn’t worry too much about him because Peter was a good man who lived a good life. I knew that his Heavenly Father knew where he was just as surely as Peter knew where to find old Box. Even alone on top of his distant mesa, he was within the fold.
I think of Peter as my teacher. He taught me most of the Navajo I know. He taught me about sheep and coyotes and patience and silence and pasture in barren places. Better still, he taught me about good shepherds who love and know each sheep, even the old one with no teeth who is seemingly lost and far from the rest of the flock.