Two creatures laid claim to a pasture. One, a large white dog, sat in the swaying grass not too far from a plundering brood of hungry geese. The dog, oblivious to the bobbing black necks, kept his steady, attentive eyes on a corral nearby, from which strange but soothing sounds trickled out.
The other creature stood on two legs and remained so still that a few of the geese, unimpressed by what could have been a scarecrow, came much closer than they should have. He had glanced over when the geese arrived but his attention, like the white dog’s, was on something else. His head tilted back, he stared up at the sky, looking to the north, sniffing the air.
It was not cold enough yet for him to need a headband but he wore one anyway. On his right hand was a brilliantly coloured ski glove, on his left a dull-grey woollen mitten.
Suddenly his right arm swung freely until his left hand caught it and pulled it across his chest. His right foot dragged as he limped a few steps and stopped.
His erratic movement created a stir in the brood. The dominant female scampered forward and took flight, her long neck, sturdy as a steel pipe, motionless as her giant wings propelled her forward. The rest quickly followed. The sound of her honking brought many replies and for a moment the sky was filled with their sounds. These became but a distant, haunting echo as the geese slowly dissolved into a single dot on the horizon.
Except for a strong breeze blowing through the blades of grass, everything fell silent. The pasture was left to the large white dog who kept his eyes on the corral and the limping man who kept his on the sky, where a cold front, rolling aggressively south, pushed forward like a thick wall of mud. The battered autumn air escaped skyward, and crowned its retreat with a line of cotton-candy heads.two
The farm wasn’t much to look at from the gate. There were scattered piles of weather-ravaged equipment, an old tractor, two trucks that started when they wanted, and several raggedy buildings that tilted one way or the other.
A sheep farm was the only type of farm Jack Pickle had considered. Chickens were too noisy (although he kept a few for roasting) and cows were too big. Actually, cows scared the hell out of him. So he had Corriedale sheep. Exactly forty-nine head. He had started with twenty and was working toward a hundred.
Jack’s land stretched across one hundred and sixty acres, sixty-five of which were cultivated. Another forty were claimed by what other farmers called a wildlife section but Jack referred to as the Enchanted Forest. It was here that a large creek gurgled in summer, and trees, shrubs and flowers grew where they wanted.
Jack had two dogs. One herded. One protected.
The herder was black and white and Jack called her Pearl. Jack only needed her when he had to get the sheep out of the pastures and into the corral. But the two were joined at the hip. Wherever Jack went, Pearl followed.
Jack spent three years believing that Pearl was also good at protecting the sheep. Even after losing several chickens he refused to accept it was the result of Pearl’s negligence. Only after he witnessed a coyote nipping at the hamstrings of one of his rams and saw Pearl spinning in a circle and yelping did he figure he’d better get some muscle.
Another farmer returning from a sheep conference told Jack that llamas were the next big thing in livestock protection. They could spot a coyote and chase it off before a lamb had a chance to shake its tail. Jack bought two.
But being a retired cop, Jack knew he couldn’t have too much protection, so he also bought a white, heavy-coated livestock dog. Taillon was solitary. He didn’t come in the house. And he wouldn’t let Jack get closer than five metres before he’d lumber away. Which was quite a compliment because Taillon wouldn’t let strangers get closer than ten.
Taillon ate with the sheep, slept with the sheep, and made his own substantial contributions to the piles of manure. Jack never knew of any confrontations between Taillon and a coyote. But then again, he figured he wouldn’t find enough left of the coyote to be able to tell what it was anyway.
* * * * *
The front door on Jack’s two-bedroom house remained locked to prevent injury. A porch would have nullified the one-metre drop to the ground, but given a choice between tending to his sheep or his house Jack always chose the sheep. As a result, visitors had no choice but to wipe their boots on the welcome mat at the back door.
The sturdy house looked worse than it was on the outside because it hadn’t been moisturised with a paintbruch since Jack had bought it ten years ago. The original white paint looked a paler shade of grey and peeling strips fluttered in the wind.
The kitchen was small, the sink usually piled with dishes and the floor near the stove spotted with dime-sized splatters of grease. Jack cooked all his own meals and, no surprise, his specialty was lamb. Shoulder of lamb. Rack of lamb. Lamb ribs.
A wedge of soft butter always slumped in a bowl on the kitchen table, enticing visitors who liked a stroke of it across their muffins. Rural folks helped themselves to a thick cut but most of the city guests were on a diet or watching their cholesterol.
A simple living room wrapped around the kitchen, providing a long sofa, a reclining chair where Jack took his afternoon naps and a fireplace that waited impatiently at the end of the room. It had not been used since Jack had bought the farm and, instead of chopped wood, was home to everything light enough to be blown by a breeze.
In place of a roaring fire Jack kept the television on with the sound off. He preferred to have it tuned to a sports network because then there was always something moving across the screen.
Jack conducted his financial chores at a desk beside the kitchen. He accomplished these with an assortment of tools: a rust-stained steel desk rescued from a junkyard, a typewriter with a missing “y,” envelopes, a tape dispenser, a dusty stapler and two dented filing cabinets. He called this room his torture chamber.
Excerpted from The Horn of a Lamb by Robert Sedlack. Copyright © 2004 by Robert Sedlack. Excerpted by permission of Anchor Canada, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.