From the January/February 1990 issue
When I Was Herding Sheep
see the illustrations for this story
One hot summer morning I was out herding my grandmother’s herd of one hundred and three sheep. I live in the Gamerco community. It is about five miles north from Gallup, New Mexico. I live there with my grandma. I was herding sheep close to my grandma’s house. It was desert-like and I saw blooming cactus that were bright pink. I was worried about the sheep getting close to the spines of the cactus and getting them in their feet and wool. After they get them on themselves they start crying and limping around, then I have to pull them out. The spines are hard to pull out and sometimes I get them stuck in my fingers. It feels like I get stuck by a real sharp-pointed needle.
My little sister, Lola, was with me. She is seven years old and she is in the third grade. She is little and her head goes only up to my shoulder. She has small black eyes that look brown in the bright sunlight. She has shiny glossy short black hair. She is also shy and very quiet. She was dressed up like a crazy clown. She was wearing a blue baggy skirt and a red baggy shirt. We were standing under a piñon tree watching the sheep grazing. It was about noon and we could see the heat rays rising from the hard ground. There were lots of rocks lying on the ground. The sheep were chewing the desert grass and the sagebrush. Some young lambs were running around bleating at each other. Suddenly something ran by us.
Lola shouted, “What ran past us?”
I answered in a scared voice, “It was a big black wolf.”
She said, “A wolf!”
I said, “Yes, a wolf.” It was a big black skinny wolf. We were scared of the wolf. We tried to chase the sheep back home but the wolf kept on getting in the way. He kept getting between me and the sheep. I was mad and frustrated because we couldn’t chase the sheep home. Then Lola and I ran quickly to tell my grandma. It was not far to Grandmother’s house.
My grandma went back with us. She said, “I will help you.” We walked quickly to the herd of sheep. She was wearing well-worn clothes. She had her long black hair tied up in a bundle on the back of her head with white yarn. She carried a long brown rifle. She saw the skinny wolf chasing the little lamb from the herd. She shot at him and missed him. He was scared of the loud sound and he ran away so fast. Then we herded the sheep back home and put them back in the corral. The corral was close to the house. Grandma said, “Let’s go inside and eat. It’s getting late.” So we did. I like Grandma’s house because it is warm inside and I always feel happy when I am in Grandma’s house. We ate pork chops, frybread, and vegetables.
The next day Lola and I took the herd of one hundred and three sheep out again. We talked about when our mom would come back from Albuquerque. She went there to sell turquoise and silver jewelry she had made. The wind was blowing gently and I thought of the sandstorm when it really blows the stinging sand. It really hurts your skin and the sheep. Tiny grains of sand get in my eyes, hair and clothes. The grains of sand get in my hair and it starts itching and I have to start scratching my head. Sometimes the sand gets in the sheep’s eyes and I have to clean it out so they can see. Sometimes I see sand tunnels of blowing sand in the air. It makes me think of a baby tornado. Grandmother says it’s supposed to be a Navajo mother-in-law and it brings bad luck.
Lola and I sometimes play hide-and-go-seek. It is fun hiding behind the bushes, huge rocks, and the piñon trees. We are always sure to keep an eye on the sheep as we play. I learned how to run around and keep an eye on the sheep at the same time. That day we kept watching for the wolf but he never came back.
Later that afternoon it was real hot so my little sister and I lay down to take a nap. We were tired and sleepy so we went and took a nap under the piñon tree. It was already dark when we woke up. I looked up in the sky and saw the twinkling stars and I thought of the wishing star in the movie about Pinocchio. I looked in the dark sky and I was concerned because it was as quiet as still water and I could hear the wolf howling in the background. Lola woke up half asleep like a baby. She looked at me like, “What are we going to do next?” I was scared because it was my responsibility to take care of my little sister and the sheep. Then I was thinking that someday I might have my own sheep to take care of.
We didn’t know the way home because it was so dark. I knew Lola was scared and I told her, “We are going to be safe here.”
My little sister said, “Let’s just sleep here.”
Then I said, “OK,” because I did not know what else to do. She curled up ready to go to sleep. Before we drifted off to sleep we heard the wolf howling out loud. He sounded like he was a little bit closer.
Lola said, “I am scared.” She was shaking like a leaf when the wind blows.
I said, “Don’t be scared. Go to sleep. I’ll watch for a while.”
Later I jerked awake and it was daylight. I looked up and saw the gray light of dawn. It was cold and I shivered. I wished that I had my coat with me. On the desert it is hot during the day and cold at night. I quickly looked at my watch. It was six AM. I looked at Lola lying beside me and said, “Get up, it is six o’clock in the morning.”
We looked all around. All of the one hundred and three sheep were missing. I was frightened and I felt bad inside. I knew that Grandmother was going to be mad about the sheep. We looked off into the distance, then Lola said, “Probably the wolf ate the sheep.”
I said, “One wolf can’t eat all of the one hundred and three sheep. Let’s go look for them.” We went over the hill and we saw a whole bunch of sheep grazing safely. I was happy and relieved. I told my little sister to count the sheep and I helped her count the sheep. Lola finished and I said, “There are three sheep missing. Let’s go look for them.” We set off soon. We found a bunch of rocks scattered all over. Then we saw a sheep dead. It was lying stiff on the ground. It looked like the wolf had gotten it. The sheep had been bitten on the neck and its stomach was torn open. The sheep’s insides were hanging out on the ground. It made me feel awful inside. Lola was just staring at it. This sheep was going to have a baby. I think the wolf dragged the unborn baby off to his cave and ate it inside. I said to Lola, “See the trail of blood going off into the hills.”
We went on and found one more sheep. He was grazing behind a big group of rocks and we scared him back to the big group of sheep. We looked and looked but we couldn’t find the other missing lamb.
We went back and herded the huge flock of sheep back home. When I saw Grandmother’s house I was happy. Grandma was happy to see us. She hugged us and said, “Where have you been?”
I said, “We were looking for the missing sheep.” I told her all about falling asleep and we couldn’t come home because we didn’t know the way because it was too dark. Then I told her about the wolf killing the sheep and about finding the lost sheep. Then I said, “We couldn’t find one.”
Grandma counted the sheep and she said, “There are one hundred and two sheep.””
I said, “You might have miscounted one.”
She said in a mean voice, “I can’t miscount them. There are one hundred and two sheep here. They are all here except for the one the wolf got.”
I knew that Grandmother was wrong but I didn’t say anything. I just let her have her way. I felt really sad about the other dead sheep, but I was glad the other sheep were safe in the corral by Grandmother’s house.