The old man and the boy sat on a rise overlooking the valley below. It was a large valley completely surrounded by high mountain peaks. At one end, there was a small alpine lake, mirror-smooth and reflecting the grandeur of the surrounding mountains. There were scattered copses of pines dotted haphazardly across the valley floor and knee-high grasses and wildflowers carpeted the remainder. Mixed forests of aspen and pine climbed the lower slopes of the mountains and gradually gave way to the twisted forms of jack pine as they neared the upper limits of the forested area, which in turn, gave way to bare rock, low groundcover and scattered patches of the year-round snow pack, hidden in the shadows and protected from the summer sun.
It was a pleasant-looking and inviting valley but strangely bereft of evidence of life, save for the cry of the magpies and the occasional sound of the song of a meadowlark. There was no sign of human habitation and no game trails through the grasses to indicate the presence of larger game animals. It appeared to be a virgin area, somehow missed in the rush to populate the habitable areas of the earth. A veritable paradise awaiting the arrival of a new first man and woman.
The boy looked with awe at the peaceful valley but was struck by a feeling of loneliness coming from the valley. “Where are the people and animals, Grandfather?”
“Gone,” the old man replied. “People have never lived here and the animals have all gone.”
“Into the mountains and desert.”
“But why would they leave a place of such beauty and abundance?”
The old man stood and motioned for the boy to follow him as he started down the hill towards the valley floor. He began to speak as they descended, and the boy had to scramble to keep up and hear the words coming from his Grandfather....
This was a long time ago. Back when the animals could talk and all were living in harmony. The valley had large herds of sheep, goats and antelope then. There was plenty for all and none went hungry. There were bears, wolves, coyote and cougars that hunted in the valley. They took only the weak and lame animals, making the herds stronger.
The sheep were the most plentiful. They were the strong backbone of the valley, refreshing it with their droppings as they moved across it while grazing. They were careful stewards of the land, moving to new pastures and not returning until the old had been renewed.
Coyote was the weakest of the hunters and relied on his wiles to eat. When one of the larger animals made a kill, He had to wait around until they’d eaten their fill and then was able to scavenge the remains of the larger animal’s feast. If he was lucky enough to make a decent kill, the larger animals would chase him off and he would only get the leftovers, if there were any.
One day, Coyote came to Sheep and said, “It’s a shame that Antelope and Goat get so much of the good food while you have to forage so near to the ground. If they weren’t around, there’d be so much more for you and your kind.”
Sheep considered Coyote’s words for several days and observed as Goat and Antelope ate the tender leaves of the bushes and grazed the succulent grasses of the valley. Sheep rarely ate the leaves of the bushes, but began to feel that he should be able to if he wanted, and was sure Antelope and Goat would eat it all, leaving none for Sheep.
Sheep called a gathering and addressed his kind, “Brothers and sisters, I have decided something must be done about Antelope and Goat. They browse and graze our valley, taking the best of the food, leaving us to graze the ground with our heads bowed in submission to their desires. It is our droppings that enrich the soil and feed the plants that grow. We are the stewards of the land. We are many and they are few. The valley and all it contains belongs to us and we must do something to protect our kind from the encroachment of Antelope and Goat.”
There was a gentle murmuring that slowly built to wails of despair among the crowd at the gathering. “Woe is us! What shall we do? Antelope and Goat are taking what is rightfully ours. We and our children will starve and our kind will disappear from the valley! We must stop them and reclaim our birthright!”
Sheep listened to the shouts and wails from the crowd and then said, “We must drive Antelope and Goat from our valley. We must reclaim what is ours and protect our way of life.”
The crowd responded with shouts of “Yes! Yes! You must go to Antelope and Goat and tell them they must leave our valley. Tell them to return to the places from which they came!”
Sheep looked out over the crowd and nodded. “If that is the wish of my brothers and sisters, I will go to Antelope and Goat and tell them they must leave our valley.”
Sheep approached Antelope and Goat and told them what the gathering had demanded: that they must leave the valley and would no longer be allowed to unfairly take what were the fruits of the labor of Sheep.
Antelope and Goat responded. “Is this valley not our home too? Do our droppings not also feed the plants? We take mostly the food that Sheep will not eat, food that would be wasted if not for us. We browse the bushes and clear the underbrush so that when predators come, all can see them and run away. Does not Sheep use these cleared spaces to find shade on hot summer days? Why is it that you say we must leave?”
Sheep grew angry at this. “Because we are the many and have the right to decide what is best for our valley. You must leave or be driven out!”
Antelope and Goat answered sadly, “But we have nowhere to go. If we leave our home, we will starve in the desert or in the muntains. Can’t we all share this valley and live in peace?”
“No! You must leave!”
“Then you must drive us out, for we will not willingly abandon our home.”
“So be it,” Sheep responded, and returned to the gathering to tell his brothers and sisters what had transpired.
When the gathering had heard the response from Antelope and Goat, they raised a great cry and demanded that Goat and Antelope be driven from the valley immediately. “Let us not delay,” they shouted. “Let us go now and drive Antelope and Goat back to the place from which they came. Let us drive them back to the place of their kind!”
And so it was. It was a battle that lasted all day and night, but Sheep prevailed and all of Antelope and Goat were driven from the valley. The valley floor was littered with the dead and dying. Cougar, Bear, Wolf and Coyote had much to feast on for many days, and Sheep were undisturbed and safe from the hunters.
Coyote laid in the tall grass, sated at last, and smiled.
When they reached the valley floor, the old man sat to rest and gazed silently across the valley spread before them. He thought back through the years to the time when he was brought to the valley by his own Grandfather.
He had lived a lifetime and seen many changes, but the valley was unchanged.
He had lived through times of war and times of peace. He had witnessed movements of peoples to new lands and fought many battles to protect his own people’s lands or to take someone else’s. It seemed the lessons of the valley were still not learned.
The boy interrupted the old man’s thoughts. “But, Grandfather...”
“Hush boy, I am old and in need of a rest. There is much more to this tale, but you must learn the patience of a stalking cougar.”
The boy sat beside his Grandfather and had nearly fallen asleep when he heard his Grandfather rise and start to walk away. He followed the old man, and as his Grandfather began his tale anew, he could see, in his mind’s eye, the valley floor, dotted with bands of contented sheep grazing peacefully....
It wasn’t long before all the dead had been eaten and their bones left lying in the sun to bleach. The hunger returned to the hunters, and they turned to Sheep and his kind. They found the fat, contented Sheep to be much easier prey than the wiley Goat or fleet-footed Antelope.
Soon the hunters were well fed and began raising larger broods and increasing the number of Sheep taken. Now it was not just the old, infirm or weak that were taken. Now the healthy were also meals for the hunters and the number of Sheep was dwindling.
It was a time of hunger for Coyote too, as he was forced back to scavenging the kills of others or having his own kills stolen. Once again, he approached Sheep. “I worry about you, my friend, Sheep. The number of hunters is growing. Soon there will be no safety for you in your numbers.”
Sheep considered this for many days and called another gathering. “Brothers and Sisters, we grow fewer in number as the hunters increase. Yes, we are fat and healthy now, but can we much longer withstand the loss? We must act soon or face the loss of safety or even the destruction of our kind.”
Once again, the crowd mulled over the words of Sheep and soon were working themselves into a panic. “We are doomed!” many cried out. “What can we do? The hunters have sharp claws and teeth as weapons. We have nothing with which to fight. We are surely doomed and our kind will disappear from this earth.”
“No,” said Sheep. “We have our horns and our very numbers as weapons.
If we act now, while we still have the strength, we can drive the predators from the valley and insure our safety. If we allow ourselves to be slowly weakened, we will soon see the end of our kind.”
“Yes! Yes!” shouted the gathering, “Let us act now. Let us make a plan to rid ourselves of these so different and cruel.”
And they did plan. The next morning, when Bear emerged from his den, he was astounded to see a multitude of Sheep. “Leave our valley!” they chanted over and over. Bear laughed at the brazenness of Sheep and decided to take an early meal since the food had come to him. As he approached Sheep, however, he soon found himself attacked from all sides. It seemed the more he killed with mighty swings of his huge paws, the more Sheep there were. He found himself swept off his feet by sheer numbers and was trampled under the hooves of so many Sheep, they could not be counted. Soon Bear was no more.
Cougar had watched from his lair and approached Sheep. “Why have you done this evil thing to Bear?” he asked.
“Because he might eat us,” Sheep responded. “And we will kill you too if you don’t leave and bother us no more.”
“I am no lumbering Bear,” said Cougar. “I am swift and powerful. I don’t fear you and your numbers.”
“Your power is no match for our numbers, and where will your swiftness take you? Which way will you run? Forward? Backward? To a side?”
Cougar looked around and realized Sheep had surrounded him but confident of his strength, he still had no fear. He charged into the throng and began killing one after another of Sheep. After a long time, Cougar tired and began losing his strength and had no place to run. Soon Cougar was no more.
Wolf had heard the commotion of the battles and had come to see what was happening. Standing on rocky crags looking down on the battlefield, he saw Bear and Cougar. “Who has done this to Bear and Cougar?” he asked.
“We did,” answered Sheep.
“You did?” Wolf laughed. “But you are only silly Sheep. How could you have done this thing and why?”
“Because they wanted to eat us and might have destroyed our kind. We will kill you too, if you don’t leave and bother us no more.”
“Why would we fear you, Sheep? We are Wolf and are in numbers too.” Then, looking at the vast numbers of Sheep, his eyes glinted with intelligence and he continued. “Besides, we were leaving this morning. We have heard stories of sweet Bison meat on the other side of the mountains and we are going to sample it. You don’t frighten us, and if we decide to come back, we will, and you won’t be able to stop us.” After saying this, Wolf, along with his brothers and sisters, turned and disappeared up the side of the mountain to seek better hunting on the plains.
Once again, the carnage had been great, and now there was only Coyote to feast on the fallen. There were so many fallen sheep that Coyote and his brothers and sisters were unable to consume them all, and many rotted on the once-pristine valley floor.
For many days, Sheep lived in safety and now feared nothing in the valley.
Coyote laid in the tall grass and smiled contentedly.
The boy ran ahead of his Grandfather as they neared the small lake at the far end of the valley. Gathering pebbles and flat stones, he began skipping the stones and testing the strength of his arms by throwing the pebbles as far as he could. Overhead, Eagle screeched in protest to the disturbance of his hunt and the magpies whistled warnings to each other that strange creatures were about.
The old man smiled as he watched the boy play. It was good that life was returning to the valley.
“Grandfather!” the boy shouted. “There are fish in the lake. Shall I catch some for us to eat?”
“Yes. We will build our camp here where there is good water.”
The boy pulled a sinew string and bone hook from his pouch and set about to gather grasshoppers as bait. The old man built a small fire and was building a bed of coals in which to cook the fish. Before long, the boy returned with three fat trout that he had already gutted and packed in mud. Carefully, the old man laid the fish on the bed of coals and raked more coals to cover them.
While they waited for the fish to cook, they went down to the lake to bathe. After cleansing themselves, they returned to their camp and spread the robes for their bed. When the fire had died down and the coals had begun to cool, Grandfather took two sticks and removed the fish, one at a time. Now encased in a hard shell of baked mud, the two used small stones to break open the mud, and as it was pulled away, it took with it the skin and scales, leaving nothing but succulent cooked fish. After eating their fill, the boy took what was left over to the lake and tossed it in, so the animals that lived in water would eat the remains and there would be nothing around their camp to smell and attract scavengers. Now with full bellies, they lay back on their ground robe and watched the sunset and the stars appear one at a time.
“Grandfather?” the boy asked, “Where are the sheep? Were they not safe and happy in the valley then?”
“Yes, but now that the predators were gone they faced an even bigger danger: Themselves….”
For many years, Sheep lived safely and happily in the valley. They were content and grew fat. They never noticed their numbers increasing at an ever-growing rate.
Coyote’s numbers grew too. With the ever-growing herd size, there was no need to hunt. Enough died from disease or injury every day to feed Coyote and all his brothers and sisters.
Sheep never noticed that the grass was no longer as high when it was eaten, or that new grasses weren’t coming up as much each spring, because the plants had been eaten down before they could reseed the valley. He never noticed the once-clear lake was now muddied and foul-tasting from the great numbers drinking there.
There came a day when many of Sheep’s brothers and sisters came to him. “Brother, we are troubled. There are not many young born, and many that are born die soon afterwards. Our old are dying and we are growing more hungry. Where are the tall grasses we used to feed on? Where are the clear waters we used to drink?”
“I will think on this,” answered Sheep, and he left to find his friend Coyote.
He found Coyote lying in the sun, surrounded by his many children and many brothers and sisters. “My friend,” Sheep said, “my brothers and sisters grow worried about the grasses and water. Our elderly and young are dying in greater numbers. What is the cause of this and what are we to do about it?”
“Friend Sheep, there is no cause for alarm. This is but a natural cycle on the wheel of life. Soon, new rains will come and all will be as it was. The grass will grow tall and lush again and there will be clean water for all.”
Sheep returned to his brothers and sisters and explained all this to them, and they went away, comforted to know that soon things would be as they were.
But things never were as they were before again. With the grasses gone, Rabbit and his brothers and sisters soon disappeared and were no more. The insects followed, as did the songbirds, as there were no plants or seeds to feed on. Eagle and Hawk no longer circled in the skies above the valley. Now, only Vulture and Raven were in the skies ready to feed on the carrion that was dotting the valley floor in ever-increasing numbers.
There came a time when Coyote, Vulture and Raven, along with all their brothers and sisters, could no longer dispose of all the dead, and many were left to rot. The rotting flesh spread pestilence among Sheep, causing the deaths of many more; which, in turn, rotted, spreading more disease and causing more deaths. There seemed no end to the circle and Sheep became worried about the survival of his kind.
He called a gathering and was shocked and saddened by the few who were left to attend. “Brothers and Sisters, we have become few in number and grow fewer each day. Our valley, which for many years nurtured us, has turned against us. We have no food, no water. We are plagued with disease. Soon our kind will be gone from the earth unless we act quickly.”
“What will we do?” wailed all the brothers and sisters. “Are we and our kind doomed?”
“We have no choice if we wish to save our kind,” Sheep answered. “We must leave our valley in search of food.”
“But where will we go?”
“Some must go into the mountains and some to the desert.”
“Separate? Why must we separate? We’ve always been strong when we stand together.”
“Yes, but if we all go to the desert and it won’t support us, or if we all go to the mountains and they can’t support us, all will die and our kind will be no more. If we separate and those going to the desert do not survive, those in the mountains might. If those in the mountains don’t survive, those in the desert might. It is the best choice to ensure our kind does not disappear.” And they did separate. And the valley was left to the dead and the scavengers.
After many days, Coyote noticed that there were no freshly dead to feast upon and went in search of Sheep. He searched the entire valley but Sheep was not there. He went to his brothers and sisters and asked if they had seen Sheep, but none had. He then went to Vulture. “Have you seen Sheep?” he asked.
“Sheep and his kind have been gone many days,” Vulture replied.
“But where have they gone?”
“Some to the mountains and some into the desert,” Vulture again answered.
Saddened, Coyote returned to his brothers and sisters. “Sheep has abandoned us and left us to starve,” he announced. “He has fled to the mountains and into the desert. We too must now leave our homes and go in search of Sheep, so we will not starve, and our kind disappear from the earth. From this time on, Sheep will be our enemy. We will feed on their live young and harry them to the ends of the earth.”
“What of our young?” his brothers and sisters asked.
“We must leave them. When we find Sheep or other food, there will be more young.”
And Coyote did leave the valley: some into the mountains and beyond to the plains and forests; some into the desert to scuffle for lizards and mice. And to this day, you will never see Coyote fat.
“That is a sad story, Grandfather. Will Sheep ever return to their valley?”
“Not in our times, boy. The valley is healing itself, and soon Deer and his kind will arrive to eat the tall grasses. Wapiti and his kind will come to winter in the milder climate of the valley, from their mountain pastures. Bear and Cougar will follow, and balance will be restored.”
The boy snuggled close to his Grandfather under the warmth of their sleeping robe. “Grandfather?”
“Tomorrow, will you show me Bear’s den?”
“Yes. And perhaps I’ll tell you the tale of Bear when he slept through the summer.”
“Yes, do Grandfather,” the boy replied sleepily.
Soon, the boy was sound asleep and Grandfather lay awake listening to the songs of Frog. “Or perhaps I’ll tell you the tale of the Frog Brothers.”
I’d like to give a special thanks to Blue for editing this for me, and especially for the awesome graphics he drew for the story.