The back door flies open. Husband’s head pokes in, eyes wide. “They’re gone!”
“What’s gone?” I ask.
“The sheep! I called and they didn’t come.” He’s panting. “I walked out to get them, and they weren’t there! And the outside gate is standing open!”
I gawk a moment, then hustle into hat, coat, snow boots, gloves; Husband calls to Son upstairs, home from college, to grab wraps and join us, then off we huff and puff (at least I do, asthmatic) to middle pasture for sheep-tracking clues.
We suspect sabotage… sheep-napping… diabolical meanness. But investigation rules all that out. In the snow around the open gate, no human prints. No tire marks. Husband jiggles the gate to pull it wider, and we see the problem. Frost has heaved the fencepost and popped the gate latch.
We study the ground. Hoof-print confusion mills through the gate and beyond. And the whole way up and down the hill, no sight of sheep.
My first thought: the road out front! I picture three fluff-heads placidly nibbling edge weeds—and a roaring truck sweeping an S curve and plowing them down!
So I look there first. No, all hoof-prints lead up the state preserve’s rough trail.
Maybe tracking them will be easy. Their prints cut distinctly into the white. But soon the trail displays too many hoof prints (deer?), too many pathways.
And other tracks—doglike! Wild dogs? Coyotes? Images flood my mind: of winter-hungry predator pack, teeth bared, snarling, circling three terrified sheep.
I press forward with everything in me, yet, asthma-gasping, lag further behind.
Up the hill (mountain?) the land drops at left, a dizzying cliff. I envision three sheep slipping over, plummeting down. (For when one does something stupid, the others follow.) I keep peering over the edge as I climb, looking for tracks, skid marks, or (“Please, no!”) fleecy bundles lying at bottom.
Now snow starts sprinkling. Now it comes faster, heavier, threatening to hide all tracks. And daylight’s fading. Husband up ahead picks up his pace. So do I, urgency pushing me, making me sweat, even in ice air. I wheeze, hold my chest, finally pause for oxygen.
“Enough!” I think. I must stop.
Standing here panting, I contemplate the Good Shepherd willing to give His life for His sheep – because I’m not!
I love these foolish woolies, fear for them with near panic, even now am praying silently, fervently, for their safe return, but honestly I have no willingness to collapse out here in the wilds, night coming on!
I resume hiking, dragging, watch Husband disappear over the rise, now hear Son’s easy stride approaching from below. Relentless, my climb, but slower and slower.
A shout from the hilltop! “I found them! They’re here!”
Heartened, I speed up, Son now near at hand.
We see her emerging from among trees, step-step, step-step: lead sheep Susie! The rest lope behind. Choosing to cooperate? Tired of scrubby woods? Homesick?
But, either spooked or deciding to play, with a twist and a gallop, she bounces away, back into woods from which Husband just coaxed her. And, of course, the other two follow.
Time for the sheep dogs! But we have none. So we are the sheepdogs! (And Border collie stamina I hardly possess today!) Husband (head sheep dog) barks out a plan: he and I will make a two-pronged drive, urging sheep out of the woods, back downhill, before snow-night closes in, while Son stands guard near the trail’s base, to block that means of escape.
I climb feebly, helping chase. They skitter, here, there, till finally our herding works, sort of… The flock heads off-path toward the now-visible barn… plunging through our most burr-infested field!
“Oh, their wool,” I moan, trailing behind them, almost feeling those stickers piercing my hands at my spinning wheel.
Oh well, they are heading home—and happily enough, bouncing blithely ahead!
So, did they ever intend to go straying?
I doubt it. So easy to step, unknowing, past boundaries, focusing earthward on what’s ahead…
This just reminds me of… me. Open gates. Earthbound focus… till suddenly I awake to how far and away over the hill, off the path, and into the woods I’ve strayed! Amazed I wonder, “How’d I get here?” and more importantly, “How do I get back where I belong?”
I need no howling coyote pack or slip-and-plummet down deep, dark ravine to wake me. Coldness, darkness, replaces the love and joy and peace I left somewhere behind.
I bleat, and there He is, to rescue me—tireless, patient, loving. Even then, too often, I still act ovine: skitter off in fear of judgment, shamed by unworthiness—plow through thorny pastures, ruining further what I still have to offer—when I only needed to follow Him home.
Will I ever get so I don’t go off wandering? I wish! And pray. But, as shepherds can testify, sheep are stupid, and God’s word says I’m one of His sheep.
I’m learning, however, if I stay near my Good Shepherd, keep him always in view, I won’t likely drift.
Even so, if I do look up and find to my horror I’ve done it again, He will come again to my rescue—I need only bleat out to Him, till I catch sight of His presence (which was there all along), then race back to the shelter of His love.
[Edited, from archives]