Northern Exposure Meets James Herriot – Episode 9
by Christina Carson
WE SHALL FEAR NO EVIL
In yet another chapter from Northern Exposure Meets James Herriot, I will once again stand my ground that sheep are not stupid. I have always felt it to be a strange admonition anyway coming from a species that finds itself in so many pickles of its own making. So even though I refer to the fellow who stars in this story as “little daft lamb,” trust me, he knew something about how the world works that I have yet to sort out for myself.
He arrived in April with the spring lamb crop. His daddy was a black faced sheep and his mum was white, coloring him somewhere between a pinto pony and an imaginative stuffed toy. At maturity these cross bred lambs miraculously become white bodied but retain their brockle face with splotches of color uniquely placed for each individual animal. Like snowflakes, no two faces are the same, and this particular little guy had a uniqueness extending even beyond his marks of facial color.
Immediately after he arrived in this world, we noticed that he was a tad unusual. His head tended to tilt in a position reminiscent of the RCA dog on their record label. Being cocked to the left side, it gave him a perpetually quizzical look as if he found the entire world a strange curiosity. Rather than pensive, it spoke more of benign delight. No demons had their haunts in his sweet thoughts. And it worked to his advantage for he affected you in the way a tiny confused child might, making it impossible to pass him without cuddling him.
But this was not the only distinction separating him from normalcy. There was a bit more. As if he had aboriginal connections, he would suddenly get the urge to go on a walk about and would not stop until he ran into something solid. This was not all. When he would finally run into something solid, he would only stop moving forward, not stop moving. Like a soldier marking time, he would continue walking, little legs pumping away as if he pushed on long enough, this barrier would move. We would find the little fellow; head tucked down like a linebacker, up against the lambing pen panel walking away going nowhere. It didn’t do any good to pick him up and turn him about as he would just take off in the opposite direction and hit the other side of the pen. It was as if he were a fuzzy stuffed wind-up toy whose key
someone had thoughtlessly wound too tight. There was no stopping him until he had completely run down.
As you might suspect, this presented some problems for his young mother. He was her first lamb and nothing in the mother’s manual had mentioned anything like this. She could be seen following him here and there as he didn’t answer her when he was in walk mode. When he would meet a barrier, she would just lie down at that spot and wait for him to quit walking. He became known as the Little Daft Lamb. Our bias was to see it as a handicap. For after all, if you’re going to be in this world you’d better be in this world. Farming is a bastion for pragmatists.
But Little Daft Lamb never threw in with any world we ever knew, living instead in one of his own making. Sometimes the lambs around him would bunt him and try to tease him into playing. They would stare into his face and jump from side to side the way dogs do when they want to engage one another in a romp. But Little Daft Lamb was usually too busy walking. He made you feel he was on a very special mission and if it weren’t for these darn barn walls and fences and bushes and bales and whatever else we found him hung up on, he would surely get there.
When weaning time rolled around, we knew it would be impossible to put him out with the rest of the lambs. Who knows in what province he may have ended up. Instead, we packed him along with us like a pet dog. When we were out in the yard or up working at the barn, we would turn him loose in the grass. But having him along was like minding a toddler because you couldn’t afford to let him out of your sight for more than a few seconds in case the hiking urge seized him.
It was on one of these outings, as he rooted around in the grass, that he stumbled into the dogs’ food dish. It was a large low sided rubber tub, big enough for two lambs his size to bed down in. This large dish serviced five working Komondors, huge Hungarian sheep dogs that protected our flock. Since they were always on call, their odd shifts made it easier on everyone if they just ate when it suited them. Having been raised that way since birth, they had never acquired a feast or famine mentality, so it worked well until Little Daft Lamb came along.
When Little Daft Lamb stumbled onto the dish, he stopped dead in his tracks. The ground under his feet had changed and with that, a look of puzzlement came over him. He waited for the message to come down from his brain to tell him what to do next. He was never excitable and waited patiently for a system that didn’t appear to have a rush option. His next move was to put his head down and see what was under his feet. He stuck his nose into the doggy kibble and rather quickly recognized the scent of soy. Dog food often contains soy meal, and our lambs would kill for soy. The next thing I knew, Little Daft Lamb was munching away on the dog kibble drifting off toward addiction like a junkie on his first hit. His initial meeting with this food dish was as powerful as love at first sight. Dog food actually gave a purpose to his walking. He now didn’t wonder aimlessly. Dog food became his holy grail.
Dog food can make excellent lamb food. Lambs can grow fat and fast on such stuff. However, when they choose to eat it directly out of a 120 pound guard dog’s food dish, they can also cease living altogether. The first day this little character stumbled onto this treasure, the dogs were elsewhere on the farm so there were no repercussions from his actions. The next day when I took him out to play and he made a bee line for the food dish, it was now ringed by 5 adult, aggressive, territorial dogs. As he crossed the invisible line of ownership surrounding the dish, 5 canines tightened up like wire ropes. When he dove joyously into the kibble, kissing it delightedly like meeting an old friend, 5 massive Komondors started pulling growls up from their bowels. These dogs growl while inhaling as well as exhaling so this ominous sound never ceases when they’ve been aroused. And the rules of the farm were nobody, I mean nobody, messed with their food. But since those were the rules for this world, naturally Little Daft Lamb paid them no heed. He gave no indication that he heard anything and kept nibbling rapturously like a chef at a banquet.
Not getting an acceptable response from this lamb, the two male Koms rose fully from their half crouched position and stood menacingly over top Little Daft Lamb. Frothy saliva dripped off their vibrating lips and teeth clicked as their jaws opened and snapped shut around his body. They knew they weren’t permitted to bite him so they did everything else but. It looked like the little urchin was in a forest of furry legs as he easily fit beneath them. But every now and then his fist sized head would poke out between those legs and snaffle another kibble, munching contentedly. Eventually he got full and wandered off. The dogs took it as a win, but there was an unsettled attitude about them as if they didn’t quite believe it themselves. I stayed out of it. It wasn’t my battle. I did, however, remind the dogs that it would become my battle if they dared to lay a tooth on that lamb. Outside of that rule, they were going to have to figure out daftness for themselves.
The next day the dogs were waiting for him. They’d obviously decided not to let the situation get too far out of hand, but they’d severely underestimated the challenge. As they rose and circled the bowl menacingly, Little Daft Lamb just tucked his chin, hunched his shoulders and like a tiny David starting walking into those goliaths. You remember about the walking, right? When he ran into the first dog’s legs, it stopped his forward motion but not his leg motion. As soon as the dog moved a bit, Little Daft Lamb charged forward again. The pitch of the growls made me nervous, but Little Daft Lamb shouldered on, ricocheting from one set of legs to another. Finally he hit the side of the bowl and settled in for lunch. The dogs were incredulous. They had faced down coyotes, bears and timber wolves, but Little Daft Lamb couldn’t feel their force.
At this point, the younger dogs sounded like whining teenagers. They looked at me with an adolescent outrage that expressed their sense of terrible injustice. Old Dali, their mum, was savvy enough to know that this battle was forever lost. Her ego didn’t require coddling, but her sons were not so easily salved. They tried to draw me into it by placing a large, taloned paw on the lamb, pushing him to the ground. That didn’t frighten him in the slightest as he was an expert at going with the flow. He now simply chewed his dog kibble from the supine position. Without looking in their direction, I suggested that if they continued that route they were liable to become bear bait. They backed off resentfully and I ignored their pouting.
It took several more days of this single lamb onslaught before the dogs finally reconciled to the reality. It was as if they ultimately shrugged their shoulders, swallowed their frustration, and lay off to the side in resignation. Power is only an intellectual concept if others don’t concede to it, and in the face of howling fury and the valley of the shadow of death, Little Daft Lamb feared no evil and just tucked his head and kept on walking.
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