Big Bad Buck Sheep
When I try to remember stories from my years on the farm, thinking drama and excitement, not a lot comes back at first. I mean there were a lot of boring days when I had just my sisters, one older and one younger, and my little brother to do anything with, and my brother was five years younger, so pretty useless — sorry Bro, but you know it’s the truth. Things really picked up when we moved into town, particularly because there were a lot of kids on our block and an empty lot right across the street where everyone got together to play baseball and football and learn to cuss.
On the farm, a lot of the excitement had to do with the animals, and NO we weren’t into bestiality. If you’ve got some sicko thoughts arising, shame on you, it seems like that one always comes up when city folks talk about animals and farms in the same breath. But animals were a big part of our lives. They were a lot of work: feeding, herding, and counting to see if they were all there. But they could be fun, too.
Every afternoon after school, I had to roam the fifty acres or so where the sheep were confined, including about ten acres of woods, to see if a coyote or a pack of wild dogs mightn’t have done something to reduce the flock of about forty that we kept. While the work of counting the sheep is not a fond memory, seeing the little baby lambs sucking on their mama’s tittles with their tails wagging about a hundred fifty miles per hour is a sight I won’t forget. They are so cute. Ok — I know a boy really shouldn’t use that word, but I mean the way they hop around and wag that tail make even a playful little kitten seem downright boring by comparison.
However, my most distinct memory about the sheep was about one in particular, a buck, two hundred pounds of compact muscle, and this one was the meanest one we ever had. He had a habit of butting you, and it hurt. He was black-faced and looked half cross-eyed if you stared at him, but when he was after you, look out! He would hop step and rear up on his hind legs and WACK, smack whatever was in front of him.
Our flock only required one ram to service the 25 ewes we had, and only once did we get one with a mean streak like this. You’d think we’d sell him off with that habit of his, but he did a good job in the woods keeping his 25 sweethearts happy, so my father never got rid of him. But man did we have to watch out when he was up around the barnyard!
One memorable winter afternoon, my dad and mom had gone to town and left Uncle Bob in charge. Bob was about as city as they come, having lived in Europe and California and other places we’d never heard of, so he was pretty useless on the farm when he visited, except I guess he did give Mom and Dad a chance to get a little respite from taking care of four kids, forty sheep, fifteen hogs, a hundred head of cattle, one horse, and a whole bunch of cats, dogs, and chickens.
I was about six years old and one of my jobs in the winter was to go out to the coal shed and bring in a bucket of coal every so often, maybe once or even twice a day if it was really cold. I’d been doing it since I was five so it was not really a big deal, except for one minor problem. There were about 45 or 50 feet between the yard fence around the farmhouse and the coal shed, and when that buck sheep was roaming the immediate neighborhood, it was a no man’s land. I was safe as long as I was in the yard, but before opening the gate and making a dash for the coal shed, I had to scan the area to make sure that mean old ram was not in the vicinity.
Well that afternoon, which was in the dead of winter with about a foot of snow on the ground, I scoured the area carefully to make sure my nemesis was nowhere near the yard or coal shed, and quickly opened the gate with my coal bucket in hand. Then as I got about halfway to the shed, in the middle of no man’s land, that sneaky bastard came right out from behind the coal shed and looked triumphantly over in my direction, yup, right at little defenseless me, his prey for the day it would seem.
Not that this damn ram had any malice aforethought, or was a premeditated butter, or had any sense at all, he just had an instinct to butt any animate object around that he thought wouldn’t hurt him. Why he even experimented one time, and one time only, on our big old saddle horse Golden Dale. The summer before that stupid cross-eyed sheep butted Dale so hard in her hind legs that they collapsed, with the full weight of the horse smashing right down on top of the idiot. Not what you like to have happen to your livestock, your only mare getting her leg broke while the father of the lambs commits suicide by horse-squashing. However, once he was able to get that ram up on its feet and established that neither party was seriously injured, it seemed it was one of the funniest things my dad ever saw by the way he told it. That stupid buck sheep just had an untiring urge to butt something, and now I was right in his cross hairs.
Well once he spotted me in no man’s land, things kind of accelerated, at least in my memory it seems like kind of a fast forward from there to the end of the story, because the next thing I remember was KERPLOWIE! and me on the ground with that mean old buck sheep breathing hard, looking at me cross-eyed with snot dripping out of his nose from his head resting heavy on my chest. Somehow I remembered how my dad had explained to me that the sonuvabitch couldn’t just keep butting me without backing up a few steps to get a short run, raise his front paws and BAM! deliver another blow. So the advice was that if I ever got in trouble with the buck sheep I should just hold on to his head and that would somehow save the day.
When I first heard that from my dad, I really kind of thought he was saying something to be saying something because it didn’t make much sense, holding on to the head that butts you, but at that moment it was the only thing that came to mind in my precarious situation on the ground in front of my attacker, so I held onto the scruffy fur on the top of his head for dear life, and as he backed up trying to get away from me so he could get those couple of steps he needed to deliver another blow, I jumped up at him out of the snow, clearing his head in one lucky leap. And where did I land but right up astraddle of the danged old buck sheep, and backwards to boot.
Well I don’t know who was more surprised about that move, me or the buck sheep, but there I was hanging on for dear life with both my claws dug deep into the fleece of his back, riding him like a bucking bronco, except backwards, as he dumbfoundedly lurched around the barnyard with a 70 pound boy on top of him. By this time I must have been hollering or wailing or bawling my brains out because little sister Beth and Uncle Bob had appeared in the yard with a startled look on their faces, and Beth was looking up anxiously, imploringly, at the only adult around to see what he was going to do to save her brother from annihilation.
I didn’t have much hope that Uncle Bob was going to be my salvation. In the first place as I think I mentioned already he was pretty useless around the farm. I mean he was a true city slicker; he didn’t even know how to ride bareback, much less milk a cow or herd cattle, so what the heck was he going to do with that mean old buck sheep. And that getup — white shirt, black pants, and penny loafers in a barnyard covered by a foot of snow? Come on… I nearly laughed when he ran out to where I was gallivanting around backwards on the back of that dang ram and snatched me off its back. “Oh great, now he’s gonna back up and deliver us both a whack,” I was thinking, when Uncle Bob started gesticulating with his free arm, kind of limply waving it backwards and expressing his desire that my cross-eyed attacker leave us alone by delivering the wimpiest thing I think I’ve ever heard a grown man say to get an animal to move: “Shoo, shoo,” he uttered at the big bad buck sheep several times, and I thought, “Man, we’re doomed.”
I knew that ram was a tough cookie. I mean he wasn’t afraid to take on my dad when he got a shot. I remember the time he butted my father, catching him by surprise one day coming around the corner of the tile block barn where we milked the cows and knocking him to the ground. Well in his moment of rage, the nearest thing my dad found lying around the barnyard where the buck sheep had laid him out was an old brick, and that turned out to be just the right thing to teach that animal a lesson, and he did, smacking him upside the head with the brick and putting a hurting on him that he didn’t soon forget. After that, the buck sheep added my father to the same no-hit list that our saddle horse Golden Dale was on in his peabrain of a cerebellum. Unfortunately, Uncle Bob and I weren’t on that list.
Well back to the action! I know you can’t wait to hear how the buck sheep laid me and Uncle Bob out in the snow and trampled all over us, right? Well you know what? With Uncle Bob’s “Shoo, shoo,” and the barely threatening waving of his hands, the ram turned tail and took off at a trot through the snow, heading out of the barnyard and down past the barn toward the pond, removing himself from the scene as quick as his short, mean legs could carry him. He couldn’t have been scared of Uncle Bob, unless of course it was the surreal vestiment — white shirt, black pants, and penny loafers — that totally spooked the animal, like an apparition from a spaceship right there in the middle of the barnyard. I think maybe in retrospect that that buck sheep was just mixed up and befuddled, baffled and bewildered and generally stupefied that some little creature like me had been riding him like a bucking bronco.
So I guess what I’m saying is that I was the real hero that day, not Uncle Bob, although I must admit that getting me off the back of that riled up ram and shooing him away was the most useful thing he did the whole week he was there visiting us. However, I don’t think Uncle Bob ever got much credit for his role, while my heroics, on the other hand, have been enshrined in a story told by one of the nation’s best professional storytellers, who just so happens to be my sister who was a witness that day. She’s told the story at the National Storytelling Festival and all over the darned country.
Only one time did I hear the story myself, when she was telling at the Public Library in our hometown and I happened to be there in Missouri for a family reunion. There were about fifteen children of varying ages in attendance, and when Beth announced at the end of the story that we had the little boy hero himself present that day, though slightly older than at the time of the story, like forty years older, well I did what only seemed natural. I stood up and pounded my chest with both fists and sat down again.
You might say, as my own kids did that day, “Some people never grow up,” but to me it seemed like a natural celebration, though somewhat belated perhaps, of my miraculous survival the day I faced down the Big Bad Buck Sheep.