By John Thomas Tuft

He liked walking the fence line. It gave him time to think about things. The rifle on his shoulder was in case he encountered any coyotes coming after the new lambs. He was extra alert where the fence dipped down into the ravine, toward the creekbed. The four-legged hunters liked to follow the creeks at dawn, sneaking up on their prey as the sky turned pink and gray on the horizon. The shepherd could see his breath crystallizing in the cold, clear air. It can be a lonely life and a man has to decide what hurts to carry around with him and which ones to drop at the side of the path. Usually much easier said than done. Maybe she was right, he just wasn’t good relationship material. He stopped at the treeline and studied the woods for a long moment. Nothing moved. He held his breath. Nope, nothing. Move on.

Downhill he slipped and slid, stopping at the track worn in the grass by countless trips by the flock to and from a cold drink. He knelt, took off one glove and dipped his hand in the stream. He brought it back to his lips, his eyes scanning the surroundings as he drank. The sheep were in the far, high pasture and he still had a lot of fence to check. The shepherd dried his hand on his heavy coat, picked up the rifle and continued on, easily stepping over the creek. Up ahead he spied a heavy branch that had fallen across the wire fencing. He leaned the gun against a post and struggled to lift the burden off the sagging heavy gauge mesh. “You don’t know how I’ve been hurt,” she’d said. When all he wanted was to cherish her. But it was not enough. His words failed him. He held his breath. Nope, nothing. Move on.

With a final heave, he worked the branch off and threw it aside. A stray branch knocked against the mesh, disturbing the whole line. The post shuddered and the rifle teetered, then fell to the ground and went off. As the shot echoed in the ravine, he felt a sharp stinging in his right thigh. He looked down at his jeans. They were getting dark with his blood. It hurt worse than it really was, he knew. He pulled the heavy scarf from around his neck and wrapped it tight around his thigh. What mattered right now were the sheep. He picked up the rifle, silently scolding himself for leaving the safety off. He thumbed it on then limped toward the steep path to the upper pasture. What’s a bit more pain? This was only a flesh wound. He held his breath. Nope, nothing. Move on.

His face was covered with cold sweat by the time he cleared the crest. He stopped and leaned hard on the rifle. He wiped at his face and studied the scene before him. A group of three ewes stood in a cluster, apart from the flock, in the middle of the field. His heart skipped a beat. Not a good sign. Ignoring the fierce pain, he made for them. Just as he suspected, a small pile of pure white lay on the ground in the center. A newborn lamb too weak to get up. Something made him look up. He cursed. The  buzzards were already circling. As he watched them, he started unbuttoning the coat, muttering to the carrion seekers, “Not this time!” He held his breath. “Nope, nothing. Move on.”

The shepherd knelt and gently picked up the struggling lamb. He tucked the white wool into the coat, up against his own warmth. He buttoned it up again, picked up the rifle and fired at the birds, who didn’t easily lose interest. As he headed back in the direction of the house he felt the pain biting down again. He tried to think of something else but all he could picture was her climbing into the car. He watched her go, down the long driveway, between the well-kept fencing, the two horses watching with studied indifference. How do you fight for someone who doesn’t want to be there with you? Not this time. He held his breath. Nope, nothing. Move on.

Gray clouds scuttled in, blocking the sun, threatening snow. The shepherd struggled in his journey, determined not to surrender what he had left. The dogs sensed him approaching and set to barking as he entered the lane. He came into the great room, unbuttoned his coat and carefully laid the lamb in front of the fire. One of the dogs immediately took charge, licking the white wool from head to toe to stimulate the small creature. One by one the three took turns, challenging the forces of nature to a duel. As if to say, not this time. The lamb lies in stillness. Nope, nothing. Move on.

The shepherd took out the first aid kit. It was a nasty flesh wound. He bandaged it up and grunted as he pulled on clean jeans. He got a cup of coffee and slumped down in his favorite chair to try and forget pain. When the lambs reached forty pounds they were shipped to market. It’s all dollars and cents. When he went to set the mug down he noticed the letter waiting there. Still unopened. Her name in the corner. He hesitates. What can she say, “remember me there?” He holds his breath…

Words are magic and writers are wizards.