“One I hope you all will give a chance before you form opinions,” Aundy said cryptically.
“We can do that, Miz Erickson,” Bill said, looking around at the other fellows. Dent was the only one not nodding his head.
“Wonderful. In that case, I’ll hope you’ll join me for lunch today as well. The surprise should arrive early this afternoon,” Aundy said, smiling and starting to rise from her chair.
“In order to be prepared for this surprise, why don’t you just tell us what it is,” Dent said, his voice taking on unfamiliar hard tone. She quickly surmised Dent didn’t like surprises of any kind, unless they involved food.
Sitting back down, she put some starch in her spine and looked directly at Dent. “Yesterday, I bought some sheep.”
Fred, who had been leaning on the back legs of his chair, let it thump forward. “Goldurn it! How many of those filthy, stinkin’ monsters did you buy?”
“Roughly five hundred,” Aundy said, not letting Fred’s annoyance cause her to back down. She gave each man a look before continuing. “I intend to raise them for their wool. The man I purchased them from will be delivering them this afternoon. He assured me they should take far less care and feed than cattle.”
“Five hundred woolies! Five hundred!” Fred ranted and started to jump to his feet. A restraining hand on his arm from Dent kept him in his seat.
“That’s a lot of sheep, Missy,” Dent said, giving her a look that said she had lost her mind. “Don’t you think we maybe should have discussed this before you bought them?”
“Perhaps, but I assumed you men would all belittle my idea, think I’d gone crazy, and do your best to talk me out of it,” Aundy said, starting to lose her temper. She needed the men and appreciated their hard work, but she sorely wished they’d quit treating her as if she had rocks in her head. “I researched the options extensively and came to the conclusion that sheep would provide additional income, could be pastured on less acreage than the cattle and should be far easier to care for.”
“But I done told ya…” Fred started to say, but was interrupted by Aundy. Getting to her feet, stretching to her full height that was taller than several of the men, she gave her temper free rein. Angry blue sparks shot from her eyes, burning into those seated at her table, rendering them speechless.
“I quite clearly heard what you told me, Fred. I did take that into consideration. More than you can possibly know. I need all of you here on the farm. The thought of any of you leaving, for any reason, saddens me greatly. You work harder than I expect and are far more dedicated than I deserve. I appreciate each one of you, which is why I don’t want any of you to have to spend time working with the sheep. Mr. O’Connell said his shepherd would be happy to keep his job regardless of who he’ll be working for,” Aundy said, taking a calming breath and sitting down again. “Perhaps at some point, once we get our feet back under us, we can look at getting cattle once again. I know you all prefer working with the cattle. For now, though, we have a farm that needs care and are short on people willing to work for a woman. If you’ll stick with me, I will do my very best to make it worth your while.”
“You really aren’t going to make us work with the sheep?” Bill asked, glancing at Fred, who looked mad enough to chew nails.
“No, I’m not. You certainly may if you choose, but I won’t demand any of you work with the sheep on a daily basis. If they get out or we need to move them to another pasture, I may ask for your assistance, but other than that, you won’t have to work with the sheep. When it’s time to cut their wool, I plan to hire a crew to see that done.”
The men sat quietly for a few minutes, considering their options. Aundy treated them fairly, paid them well, and often made them special treats. They all knew they’d be hard pressed to find somewhere to work where they earned as much pay with comparable working conditions.
“I apologize for springing this on you, but I didn’t know what else to do,” Aundy said, looking pointedly at Dent. He stared at her for a minute before nodding his head in resignation. Aundy could have mustered up some tears and turned the men in her favor. She’d seen countless women do just that, but she didn’t operate that way. If she wanted men to treat her like the owner of a farm, then she’d swallow back her emotions and act like one. “Please, give me and the sheep a chance.”
The men glanced at one another and finally Dent gave her a tight smile. “We’ll give it a chance, but if it looks like it isn’t going to work, will you agree to sell them?”
“Absolutely,” Aundy said, nodding her head, glad the conversation went as well as it had. “If you’ll come back just before noon, I’ll feed you lunch and then the sheep should be here.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Dent said, getting to his feet and opening the door while the other men filed out. Turning to Aundy, he studied her a moment, looking thoughtful. “I sure hope you know what you’re doing.”
“Me, too,” Aundy said, with a bravado she was far from feeling as Dent went out the door.
Washing the breakfast dishes, she checked on the stew and finished what lunch preparations she could. Bringing in the clean laundry from the line, she ironed and then put away the clothes.
Glancing at the clock, she had a couple of hours before the men would return to eat, so she took the pile of dresses that belonged to Erik’s mother to her bedroom and began trying them on to see if she could wear any of the clothes.
Buttoning a navy calico dress sprigged with dainty pink flowers, she ran her hand down the fabric. Although out of style, the dress still had plenty of wear left in it. It billowed around her, but she decided with an apron over the top of the dress, it would serve well to wear on the farm. The dark color would help hide dirt or stains and the loose gown would be welcome on hot summer days.
Glancing down, Aundy noticed her petticoat hanging an inch or so out of the bottom of the dress and pulled up the hem to see if she could let it out. Studying it, she heard a commotion outside and the sound of a dog barking. Without taking time to change, she ran to the front of the house and threw open the door.
Sheep filled the barnyard, with wooly animals milling around as far as she could see.
Owen O’Connell rode his horse to the end of her walk and waved his hat at her. “Mrs. Erickson! Top o’ the morning to ya.”
Hurrying down the steps and across the front walk, Aundy was grateful for the fence around the yard that kept the sheep away from the flowers she’d carefully weeded. “Mr. O’Connell, I wasn’t expecting you until this afternoon.”
“I know, lassie, but these woolies whispered bright and early they were ready to head to their new home, and moved right along,” O’Connell said with a beaming smile.
Seeing Dent approach, Aundy started to make introductions, but Dent greeted the Irishman by name and shook his hand. “If you’ll bring the sheep this way, we’ll pasture them in the north section over there,” Dent said, waving to an area behind the house.
“Sure and certain, Dent,” O’Connell said, herding the sheep in the direction Dent indicated.
When all the sheep were penned in the pasture, O’Connell returned to the house with a dog and a boy in tow. The dog, a Border Collie, wagged his tail in friendly greeting. Aundy had heard that particular breed was excellent at herding sheep.
The boy, who looked to be about fourteen or so, was tall and gangly, with dusty, worn clothes, a happy-go-lucky grin, and a mop of shiny brown hair topped by a bedraggled cap. He carried a small lamb in his arms, giving it a tender glance, letting Aundy know right away the youth had a soft heart and a gentle hand.
“Mrs. Erickson, I’d like ya to meet yer new shepherd. He’ll do a good job for ya, or answer to me,” O’Connell said, thumping the boy on his shoulder. “Tell her yer name, laddie.”
The boy set down the lamb. It bleated once then nuzzled the grass of Aundy’s yard.
Sweeping the cap from his head, he bowed and raised big, brown, soulful eyes to Aundy. “I am Nikola Zorian Gandiaga, your humble shepherd.”
Aundy fought down a smile and nodded at the boy solemnly.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Nikola Zorian Gandiaga,” she said, her tongue working to pronounce the strange name properly. “Is this your dog?”
“Yes, ma’am,” the boy said, rubbing his hand on the canine’s head. The dog leaned against his leg and looked up affectionately. “This is Bob. He’s a good helper.”
“And how about this little one?” Aundy asked, bending down and petting the lamb. Its coat was so soft, she thought she could spend an hour just rubbing its back.
“This is a poor orphan baby,” Nikola said, offering Aundy a smile that would someday make women swoon. “Just like me and Bob.”
“An orphan? What happened to his mother?” Aundy asked, looking at O’Connell.
“When we were passing by a farm this morning with the sheep, a huge dog ran out and killed one of the ewes before we could stop him. Beast looked more like a wolf than a dog. Came out of nowhere, it did. It’s a bottle for this baby, unless ya can convince one of the mommas to adopt him.”
“I’ll make sure he’s cared for,” Nikola said with a firm nod of his head.
“Any other mishaps?” Aundy asked. O’Connell shook his head.
“No, ma’am. That was it. Yer now the proud owner of four hundred and ninety-eight head of sheep.”
“And I suppose you’d like the rest of your money, then?” Aundy said, tipping her head to O’Connell with a teasing smile.
“If yer of a mind to give it to me, I’d surely like to get the funds and be on me way. Me fondest hope is to begin me journey to sunny California by sunrise the day after tomorrow.”
“Then by all means, let’s get you on your way,” Aundy said, turning toward the house. Looking back over her shoulder, she studied the shepherd boy. “Nikola, if you wait right here, I’ll be back and we can talk about your wages and getting you settled in the bunkhouse.”
O’Connell was soon heading down her lane with his hands following behind. Two of them approached Dent about working there and he discussed his thoughts with Aundy. She agreed to give them a chance and they promised to return the following evening.
Waving one last time at O’Connell, Aundy looked at the lamb, now asleep in her yard, the boy who sat nearby, and the dog with his head resting on his master’s lap. What a picture it made. One she never thought to see, but dearly loved all the same.
“Young man, the first order of business will be to get you settled. You go on over to the bunkhouse and pick out an empty bed for your own,” Aundy said, with a gentle smile to the thin boy. He looked like he needed good food and some motherly attention. Since he mentioned being an orphan, she wondered how long he’d been taking care of himself.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, getting to his feet. “I appreciate you giving me a job and letting me stay with the sheep. When Mr. O’Connell said he was leaving, I didn’t know what I’d do. Thank you for giving me a home and a place to work. I usually sleep out with the sheep, though, so I don’t need a bunk.”
“You pick a bunk, anyway. I’m not sure I like the idea of you sleeping outside when the nights are still cold. You’re most welcome about the job. My men almost revolted until I told them the sheep came with their own shepherd.”
Nikola grinned at her and she smiled. “I’m very glad you decided to come along with the sheep and bring Bob,” Aundy said, placing a gentle hand on the boy’s shoulder. Standing together, he nearly stood eye to eye with her. While he looked thin, she had an idea he was stronger than he appeared. “Do you prefer to be called Nikola?”
“I answer to Nik. It’s what my mother always called me and what my friends call me. I hope to have friends here.”
“Nik it is,” Aundy said, feeling her throat tighten at the sad look on Nik’s face when he mentioned his mother. Where did this boy come from? Who were his people? He was raised with good manners and someone who had been kind, no doubt.
“You go settle in. I’ll keep an eye on Bob and…” Aundy looked from the lamb to Nik. “Does the lamb have a name?”
“He doesn’t, yet,” Nik said, grinning broadly as he lifted a knapsack and headed toward the bunkhouse. “You could give him one, if you like.”
Aundy watched Nik saunter toward the bunkhouse, whistling a happy tune. Turning her attention back to the dog and the lamb, she dropped to her knees and patted both on the head. She was murmuring softly to them when she felt warmth behind her and looked up into Garrett’s silvery eyes.
“Couldn’t help but see the parade go by,” Garrett said with a grin, hunkering down and holding out his hand toward the dog. Bob sniffed it and licked Garrett’s fingers. Garrett rubbed the dog’s ears and scratched his back, making a new friend for life. When the dog rolled over on his back, Garrett gave his stomach a thorough rub, watching Aundy stroke the lamb’s little head.
“I already see disaster looming,” Garrett said, tilting his head toward the lamb.
“What?” Aundy asked, turning her gaze from the lamb to the man squatting so close to her she could feel his body heat through the sleeve of her dress.
“You’re going to make a pet of that one, aren’t you?” Garrett asked, studying the lamb. It did look kind of helpless and cute, for a stinky wooly monster.
“Quite possibly,” Aundy said, grinning. “Feel his coat. It’s so soft. Like touching butter.”
“No thanks,” Garrett said, continuing to pet the dog.
“Oh, don’t be so obstinate,” Aundy said, grabbing Garrett’s hand and placing it on the lamb’s back. Forgetting how the contact of their skin sent wild sparks shooting throughout her entire being, she quickly let go of his hand. Garrett rubbed the lamb cautiously before returning his attention to the dog.