A light breeze swept across the valley, rustling the leaves and pine needles as the dusk sky darkened, slivers of pink and orange tinting the remaining clouds. The rancher maneuvered his horse back and forth, gathering the ewes, many with lambs, into a flock, taking mental note of how many lambs he needed to tag and tail dock. A long, low howl erupted in the twilight. He pat his horse on the neck as its ears flattened.
“Steady now, girl. It’s nothing to worry you.”
A second howling moan burst forth closer, and his horse skittered, shoving backward away from the sound emanating from the gloom. The sheep, that had been huddling rump to rump after the first howl, now broke formation like billiard balls and sprinted off in every direction with their lambs at their heels. With a curse, the rancher gave his horse a soft kick and spurred her into motion. He would have to collect them all again, but it would be harder now that the sky had darkened.
The wolf chorus increased, making his task difficult. A ewe with twin lambs scanned the horizon, her ears twitching and alert, her horizontal pupils staring into the shadowy recesses beneath the bluff, nostrils wide.
And then it was silent. Even the crickets stopped their nightly cacophony. The rancher peered into the gloom, feeling something stare back at him.
A dark shape darted past his vision, and all of the sheep erupted into noisy, bleating chaos at once. He felt his horse freeze, quivering beneath him, and he spurred her into action. He charged his horse forward towards the sound, yelling out as he pulled his shotgun from its scabbard. He could see nothing from here except the pale masses of woolen bodies against a dark palate, skittering in all directions.
Jerking abruptly to a halt in the clearing, he saw the black shadow move swiftly across his view, and as he shot at it. His horse reared up and bucked him from the saddle. Landing hard on his hip, he scrambled to his feet, holding his gun at the ready. It was now too dark to see any distance at all, sweeping his rifle back and forth.
The night sounds resumed, broken only by a lone lamb’s distress. The sheep stopped running and after a few minutes, attended to their young. The rancher limped his way through them, trying to assess. He saw a lamb, standing alone in the clearing. It looked up at him and bleated again, but the ewe was gone.
“Shit,” he muttered. “Fucking wolves.” He picked up the lamb under his arm and held it snuggly, surprising it enough to stop its crying.
“Sorry, little one. I guess you’re going to be a bottle baby.”
Returning to his horse, which had hidden itself in a nearby grove of trees, and hoisting the lamb up with him, he finished his work herding the sheep and heading them back to the corral for the night. As they walked in front of him through the gate, he did another mental tally.
It was then he realized three ewes were missing.