By Bruce Meredith
Joshua thought about his father as he walked up the hill to tend to his flock. He’d helped his father watch over the family’s small herd of sheep since he was seven. Joshua loved his sheep and had given each a name.
As he walked, Joshua hummed the songs that family and friends had sung on his twelfth birthday just after the harvest. He could still smell the chocolate cake the mayor, a family friend, had baked for him. As he approached his sheep, he gripped the oak staff his father had given as a present and rubbed his fingers over the “J” his father had carved into the wood, hoping his touch would give him his father’s courage.
Before the next full moon, an illness had passed through the village and his father died, along with several of Joshua’s friends. After that, everything changed. Joshua’s mother told him that now he would need to take care of the sheep. Otherwise, his younger sister and brother would not have enough food or warm clothes. Now he alone would need to protect his sheep from the wolves that howled in the forest.
Joshua’s father had told him not to worry about the wolves because Joshua’s eyes were so keen that he could spot a wolf far away, even if the wolf was hiding behind a tree. His mother would tell him his ears were so sharp that no wolf could sneak up on him, even if the wolf could walk like a cat. His brother had told Joshua that his voice was as loud as the church bell. Everyone would hear him if he cried “wolf.” His friend, Jenny, who took care of her family’s sheep in the next pasture, said Joshua had so many friends that, if he called for help, many would come.
Joshua wanted to believe his family and Jenny, but he knew sometimes people said things that weren’t true. His mother told his sister that she had a beautiful voice, even though Joshua thought she sounded like a screeching magpie. And Joshua worried what would happen if the villagers came and there was no wolf. He remembered how badly Jenny had been teased when she warned the village about a bear. When the bear couldn’t be found, everyone started calling her “Chicken Little.”
One foggy morning, Joshua thought he saw a wolf dashing between the trees far into the woods. He was ready to cry wolf, but he worried that he might startle his sheep. Besides, the animal in the woods might only be a lost dog with big, pointy ears.
That evening, Joshua heard a faint growling noise in the woods. He and his father had heard a similar noise. Later they’d seen a wolf. Joshua was just about to scream “wolf,” but stopped. The villagers were having supper and they would be very mad if the sounds were just angry racoons or distant thunder. Later, as clouds raced by the moon, he heard a distant howl and clutched his staff. He decided to spend the night next to his sheep to keep them safe.
Just before the sun was about to rise, Joshua smelled something unusual. It wasn’t the smell of a racoon or skunk. The smell grew stronger. Joshua started to scream “wolf,” but his warning ended up sounding like a baby squirrel chirping. Why awaken the villagers when soon he would know for sure whether a wolf was near.
Joshua saw a faint glow in the eastern sky. He raised his arms to welcome the sun. His sheep were safe. Joshua began to walk down the hill. He was tired and hungry. He had only taken a few steps when Joshua heard one of his sheep cry out in pain. On his quick legs, the shepherd boy raced to the edge of the woods. As he got to the wood’s edge, he saw a wolf carry a crying sheep into his cave. The boy thought about calling out, but what good would it do now. If he said nothing, maybe no one would notice the missing sheep.
When Joshua returned to his flock, all the sheep were huddled together. Joshua’s sharp eyes could see their terror. His keen ears could hear the fear in their bleats. His sensitive nose smelled death in the woods.
As Joshua pet and comforted his sheep, he saw the mayor of the city coming up the hill. She sometimes visited Joshua, often bringing bread and cheese. Even though he was hungry, Joshua didn’t want to see her. She might learn about the wolf and think he wasn’t brave.
“How is your flock?” asked the mayor. Then she saw the sheep all huddled together and began to count them.
Joshua wanted to tell the mayor about the lost sheep, wanted to explain all the reasons he didn’t shout “wolf” in his loudest voice. Instead, Joshua began to cry.
“Did a wolf take one of your sheep?” the mayor demanded. Joshua covered his face and nodded.
“Joshua, why didn’t you cry ‘wolf?’” she asked, grabbing his arm. “Your family and the villagers would have come.”
Joshua wanted to explain, but instead looked towards the ground and said nothing. No one would believe the boy who hadn’t cried “wolf.”