University of Minnesota
minnesota writing project
center for writing

Minnesota Writing Project.Center for Writing's home page.

Gloria Webber


Chapter Onegloria webber

Three o’clock was Vicky’s favorite time of day.  She’d run home from school, change out of her dress into the grubbiest pair of jeans she could find, and run to meet Jen by the bridge. Sometimes they walked the mile and a half along the river, but often they’d get lucky and hitch a ride on one of the dirty pick-ups that frequented the road between school and Trestle Ranch.  Today they weren’t so lucky. It was April, and the Montana sky still held a touch of winter, but the cold didn’t seem to bother the two teenagers. Jen couldn’t stop talking about the orphaned lamb Joseph had told her she could raise for 4H.

“She’s so cute! I love that she has a dark spot on her face. It makes her different from the other lambs. I got to bottle feed her yesterday, and she wouldn’t stop wagging her tail…I really hate they way they cut their tails off by putting those tight little rubber bands around them. Do you think Mary would be a good name for her? I’m going to try calling her that today and see what she does.  Vicky, are you even listening to me?”

“Um, yeah, sure. Mary’s a great name.” Vicky was used to Jen’s excited ramblings. This time though, she had to suppress a giggle as she thought about how Jen would get teased for naming a lamb Mary. Both girls had obnoxious little brothers who never passed up an opportunity to make their lives miserable. But, honestly, sometimes Jen made it too easy.

As Jen continued to ramble on, Vicky’s mind wandered ahead to their destination. Trestle was her favorite place, a remnant from an earlier time. The old, white ranch house with its peeling paint smelled like coffee and dirty boots, and Ben, the black and white border collie, could usually be found sleeping by the front door if he wasn’t in the field with Joseph. The red barn was a perfect stereotype, and the half dozen or so other dilapidated wooden out buildings completed Vicky’s picture of paradise. During the summer when the sheep and cows were in the high country, Trestle had a deserted, ghostly feel, but during lambing season it held the promise of new life. 

This was the third year the girls had helped out during lambing season. Jen was nuts about anything young and cute. Helping with the lambs seemed to feed into her overdeveloped maternal instincts, and Vicky figured Jen would end up with at least ten kids of her own. Vicky loved working with the lambs too, but what she really loved was the sense of accomplishment she felt every time she mucked out a stall, fed the sheep, or moved a new lamb and its mother into the barn. There was a sense of peace that came with doing physical work. It was so different from school. She still had to write that history paper for her ninth grade teacher and was relieved to not have to think about it for a few hours. Vicky was a good student, but the straightforward nature of physical work with its sense of purpose was much more appealing than schoolwork whose applications seemed dubious at best.

When Vicky saw the weathered logs of the corral appear around the bend, she knew they were almost there.  Jen hardly noticed when Vicky sped up the pace. “I wonder what its like for a lamb growing up without a mother. Do you think they know they’re orphans?” Vicky considered Jen’s question as they crossed the creek. Usually she enjoyed these kinds of philosophical musings, but the muffled sounds of the ewes and the high-pitched bleating of the lambs distracted her, and the conversation dropped off. The breeze carried the scent of wool and hay, smells both girls loved. They cut through the pen on the south side of the ranch house and climbed the fence.

They landed in the yard in a cloud of dust. As the girls brushed off their jeans, Vicky looked around “That’s weird,” she said. “I don’t see any of the shepherds’ trucks. Wasn’t Joseph going to meet us by the house this afternoon?” At first Vicky hadn’t been sure what to think about Joseph. He was tall with broad shoulders that come with years of physical labor. His hair was white and long, just brushing his shoulders. Most of the time he wore a floppy, brimmed hat that shaded his eyes, his most interesting feature. Hidden behind thick glasses, they looked slightly opaque. Though he often had to squint to see, Vicky always felt he was looking right through her. At times it seemed that he was seeing into another world. At one point Vicky had asked her mother why his eyes were so funny. “He’s albino,” she’d said. “He’s actually legally blind.”

“So, how does he get around?” Vicky had asked.

“He can see, but not well enough to drive. It’s a bit like seeing the world through a veil. Everything is clouded and blurry,” her mother responded.

Vicky had accepted the explanation, but still felt there was something else. Later that week at school she’d seen a painted portrait of Walt Whitman. Except for the bushy, white beard, it looked just like Joseph. There was an otherworldly, mystical feel about the portrait, a sensation similar to what she felt around the old shepherd. However, she couldn’t imagine him singing about himself out in the woods.

Around the animals, Joseph was different from the other shepherds. He exuded an aura of strength and peace and could calm a frightened animal by looking into its eyes. Ben, the sheepdog Joseph had trained as a puppy, followed him everywhere, and the two seemed to be able to speak to each other. There were several other sheepdogs on the ranch, but Ben was special. He never excited the sheep, and they seemed to accept his authority without question. Ben also loved people and often ambled over to greet the girls when they arrived.

“Let’s go check out the barn and see if anyone’s around,” Vicky suggested. Jen glanced at her with the tacit understanding that had evolved from thirteen years of friendship, and the two ran towards the lambing barn. Vicky had to suppress the urge to yell out for Joseph; she was more bothered by his apparent absence than she wanted to admit. As they rounded the barn, she noticed the trough in the north pen was overflowing. “That’s odd,” she thought. “Someone forgot to turn off the hose.” She reached down and turned the nozzle. The barn door was ajar, and the girls cautiously stepped inside.

It was not a typical barn. The roof was low and the sides were made of unfinished wood that had grayed over the years. Inside were four rows of small pens, each no more than five feet square. They were movable like office cubicles, a similarity the girls found amusing. One day they had spent the better part of an hour giggling over the notion of bespectacled sheep doing office work. Today, however, there was nothing to laugh at. About half the pens held ewes and their new lambs, several of which the girls had brought in the previous day. One of their main jobs was to patrol the large pen, which held the flock. As soon as a ewe gave birth, they would pick up the lamb, usually still a little slimy, and carry it into the barn. The mother always followed closely, loudly expressing her displeasure. Many of the ewes still seemed to be echoing those sentiments, and as the girls entered, the noise reached a crescendo.

Immediately, Vicky sensed something was wrong. She glanced over at Jen and saw her eyes focused on the far corner of the barn—the corner where the orphaned lambs were kept in a special pen. As she adjusted her gaze in the dim light, Vicky saw a shape slinking through the shadows. Just then, Jen inhaled sharply, and Vicky saw a set of jaws clamp down on a woolly leg. She screamed, an echo of the lamb’s plaintive cry. The noise must have frightened the predator, because it let go of the lamb and darted into a pool of light streaming in through a crack in the side of the barn.

“Is that a wolf?” Jen asked incredulously. Vicky, never having seen a wolf in real life, wasn’t sure, but it seemed plausible. The creature was almost twice as big as the sheepdogs, and its mangy fur looked like a coat that had been hanging in a moth-infested closet. The girls had been slowly creeping closer to the pen when, suddenly, the wolf sensed them and lowered its head snarling. They froze, unwilling to move any closer to that intimidating set of fangs. Then the wounded lamb, bleating loudly, limped closer to them, and Vicky saw the dark spot on its face. Jen’s fear was immediately overcome by fury. Her face was a mask of rage as she raised her arms and ran screaming towards the wolf, which darted off through the doorway on the far side of the barn.       

Vicky was still rooted to the floor when a black and white ball of fur almost bowled her over and raced through the door where the wolf had disappeared. She snapped out of her fear induced trance and realized it was Ben. She knew he would chase the wolf until the sheep were safe. Jen immediately ran toward the pen crying “Mary!” in a soft voice. All at once Vicky understood. 4H—the orphaned lamb—Jen the mother. She was ashamed that she hadn’t done anything to help. Glancing over, she saw Jen crouching over a wriggling lamb, clutching it to her chest. Vicky quickly ran to help inspect the injured leg which fortunately had only been nicked. As she stood up, the lamb’s head brushed against her, and the dark spot rubbed off on her jeans. She noticed another lamb with a dark spot walk up tentatively behind Jen. “Um, Jen? The lamb is going to be fine. By the way, Mary’s behind you looking for attention.” Jen took another look at the wriggling bundle of wool in her arms and let it go with a sheepish grin. “Remind me never to piss you off,” Vicky said.

The girls were busy checking over the rest of the lambs for signs of injury when Joseph walked into the barn with a shotgun cradled in one arm. Vicky was surprised—she had never seen him with a gun before.  Her curiosity was quickly replaced by anger. “Where were you?” she demanded indignantly.

“What happened, Victoria?” he asked. Joseph was the only one who ever used their full names. The girls excitedly related the story as Joseph stood listening impassively. “There must be a reason you girls arrived when you did,” he said when they had finished. Vicky glanced at him with raised eyebrows, and he turned and looked directly into her eyes. “Nothing happens without a reason,” he said and walked back out of the barn, whistling for Ben.

The girls had become accustomed to Joseph’s enigmatic pronouncements, but both were surprised at his reaction, or lack thereof. Why wasn’t he more upset that a wolf had been in the barn! It bothered Vicky for the rest of the afternoon as she and Jen tried to revert to the comfort of their normal routines. Even so, as Vicky carried a new lamb into the barn and went through the familiar procedure of numbering the lamb and the ewe, then dousing the umbilical cord in iodine, she felt unsettled. Usually she enjoyed the work, but today she couldn’t shake the feeling of uneasiness. She found herself thinking about Joseph and his apparent lack of concern, and it made her angry.

What was with that look he gave her? What was he trying to tell her? Had he seen her standing like a frightened little girl while Jen came to the rescue? She could not bear the thought of losing his respect. But honestly, how could he have allowed a wolf to get into the barn! Her emotions kept wavering between anger and embarrassment, and for once, Vicky wasn’t sad when it was time to go home. She had not seen Joseph for the rest of the afternoon, but as she and Jen walked past the ranch house toward the main gate, she saw a glimpse of him in the field stacking hay bales on the back of a pick-up. Everything seemed perfectly normal. If Jen hadn’t kept irritatingly rehashing every detail, Vicky might have thought it had all happened in her head.

At the bridge Jen yelled, “See you tomorrow!” and ran off towards home. Vicky stood for a few moments staring at the mucky water. It was the perfect expression of her mood. The day’s events had churned her up inside, like the river’s current chewing at the muddy banks. Why did she care so much what Joseph thought? Why had she been so frozen with fear? Why was Jen so annoying sometimes? She trudged up the hill, wishing she didn’t have to see or talk to anyone else that evening.

Vicky climbed the steps to her front door, but as she turned the knob, it was yanked out of her hand as her mother flung it open. Vicky tried to walk past her, but her mother responded with an “Ah, ah, ah…don’t even think about coming in here like that. Go around to the back and strip those nasty clothes off and put them directly into the washer.”

“Whatever, Mom.” She was not in the mood to argue. At dinner she didn’t say much and was too distracted to be annoyed by her brother kicking her under the table. Her mother looked at her quizzically a few times, but sensed that she did not want to talk. It was when her father mentioned that a local rancher had been posting flyers in town warning people about a pair of wolves seen in the area that Vicky perked up. “There was a wolf at Trestle this afternoon,” she said, but didn’t elaborate.

“That’s a little too close for comfort,” her mother said. “What did Joseph do?”
“Nothing,” Vicky responded, shoved back her chair, and stomped off to her room.
Later that evening Vicky had resigned herself to working on her history paper. She had actually managed to set aside the frustrations of the day and was absorbed in her analysis of the American and Russian revolutions, when there was a soft knock on her bedroom door. “Vicky?” her mother’s voice was soft but insistent. “Can your father and I come in?”

Great—now what, Vicky thought. “Yeah, sure.” She turned as her parents entered the room. They both sat down on the edge of the bed, and her mother held out an envelope.

“This came for you today,” she said. “Go ahead, read it.” The return address said it was from Berkshire, a boarding school in Massachusetts. Vicky glanced up at her parents who were both smiling, and the knot of anxiety that had formed in her gut eased a bit. They had already read the letter. They wouldn’t be smiling if it were bad news. Vicky had decided a year ago that she really wanted to go away to boarding school. Berkshire was her top choice, and she had been waiting for this letter for weeks. She slid the single sheet out of the envelope and scanned the first few lines.

“We’re so happy for you, sweetie,” her mother said, unable to wait for her to finish reading, enfolding her in a congratulatory hug.

“We’ll let you get back to your school work now,” her father said with a wink, and they left the room.

Vicky sat in a daze. She had been hoping for this for so long, and now that it had happened, she didn’t know what to feel. She lay awake in bed that night, unable to sleep. All she could think about was that this was the last spring she would work at Trestle. The day’s frustrations were compounded by the pain and fear of leaving behind everyone she knew and loved for a strange place on the other side of the country. She got out of bed, stuck the letter in a drawer where she couldn’t see it, and tried her best to fall asleep.