Acorn knew that command very well. He bucked his approval and rushed forward out of the paddock.
As they ran, Jamie remembered how Acorn, since he was a yearling, had displayed that strong shepherding instinct that cutting horses and shepherd dogs have. From then on, one of his favorite pastimes had been to break into the sheep pen and see how long he could hold one away from the rest. Acorn loved it and he loved watching him. And he could have sworn that even the sheep had warmed to it, because they got better at every round. He liked to picture them in the barn at night keeping score and bragging about their latest moves.
It was not clear whether the sheep agreed with Jamie or not, but they all quickly cowered inside as the pair of rogues skidded to a halt in front of their shelter.
In the stall nearby, Brunga snorted and turned around. Underneath his broken horn, his bloodshot eye gleamed with malice toward the intruders.
Acorn and Jamie flinched and quickly shuffled forward.
Jamie got hold of the swiveling fences attached to the sheep's pen and pulled them to the shed. He fastened them to their latches, creating a corridor between the shed and the pen. Then he jumped inside the shed, opened the gate and drove the sheep out as they bleated in confusion.
Acorn watched the woolly animals filing in front of him, his eyes flashing from one to the other as if counting.
The sheep shot inside the pen and gathered in a heap at the farthest corner.
Jamie unlatched the fence and Acorn stormed in. The sheep broke ranks and hurtled in every direction. Acorn pulled back his ears, bared his teeth and with a couple of well-placed lunges gathered them back together.
Jamie climbed onto the fence to get a better view.
Acorn surveyed the herd coolly, his wet, dark eyes searching through the mass of woolly creatures. He apparently found what he was looking for and aimed ahead.
Jamie followed his gaze and landed on Pillow, a fluffy ram that was studying Acorn with apprehension. Despite the name and the appearance, Pillow was one of the most athletic sheep in the herd, and one of the shrewdest ones. More than once, he had proved a worthy challenge for Acorn.
"Good choice, buddy!" Jamie called out.
Acorn twitched his ears, but did not look away from the sheep. He studied the herd for one more second, then bolted forward, cutting through them decisively. The sheep broke ranks again. This time, Acorn let them trickle away and zeroed in on Pillow. He spread his forelegs wide, dropped his head low until his nose skimmed the dust on the ground, and crouched down in an almost feline chasing pose. He looked like a hunting animal ready to pounce or a runner ready to sprint from the blocks.
Cornered, Pillow broke out in a frenzy.
Acorn, gathered up underneath himself and perfectly balanced, responded lightning fast to Pillow's erratic jolts. His huge body seemed to glide in the air despite its impressive mass. Like a defensive basketball player, he marked Pillow closely, anticipating his every move and sealing any escape route. With his head low and his eyes locked on him, he pressed closer, pushing Pillow's and his own reflexes to the limit.
Jamie watched mesmerized. Acorn's muscles gleamed in the late afternoon light; Pillow's coat billowed and swayed with his every move; their hooves thundered, scraped and slid on the ground. It was a superb match, all shrouded in a mystic cloud of dust that glittered against the sun. The speed and reflexes of both animals were almost blinding.
Suddenly, Acorn pulled back to take a breath. Pillow retreated, relieved. The two went to their corners, studying each other.
With his back against the fence, Pillow darted his eyes around, taking in the whole pen, looking for a chink in Acorn's defenses. It seemed he couldn't find one. He stared at the other sheep huddled behind Acorn.
Jamie could tell that the herd instinct was building inside him. Away from his mates, he felt weak, alone, vulnerable. In a matter of seconds, he was going to break.
Acorn was watching him closely too, catching his breath.
Jamie counted under his breath. "Three... Two... One..."
Acorn nudged forward.
As if a spark had ignited under his hooves, Pillow jolted, thrusting himself at Acorn's left. Acorn pulled back almost instantly. He coiled himself up, then lunged, baring his teeth. Pillow stopped cold, then wheeled around blindly. He threw himself back in an attempt to outrun Acorn in the other direction, but misjudged and crashed against the pen. One of the rickety bars of the fence gave way under his weight. The rusty nail popped out of the rotten wood like a cork from the bottle. A gap suddenly opened in front of Pillow. He seized his chance and squeezed himself through, running for his life.
"Hey!" Jamie cried out.
In response, Pillow bleated loudly and bolted into the open. It wasn't clear whether he was bleating in terror or triumph, but he was certainly making a magnificent escape.
Jamie meant to be angry, but he couldn't keep an admiring smile from spreading on his face. Man, that sheep was good!
Acorn was not as pleased. Snorting angrily, he galloped up to Jamie, demanding he open the gate. The sheep around him scattered, noticed the gap in the pen, then started filing out into the open.
Jamie jumped off the fence and unlatched it. Acorn bolted past him in hot pursuit. "Wait up!" he shouted and sprinted after him, his soaked shoes squeaking as he ran at the top of his lungs.
In a second, they flashed around the corner of the house and stormed into the yard. Jamie had a faint impression of the herd of sheep parting like the Red Sea before two human figures, and then he recognized his mom with Mrs. Roeg. Too late.
"Jamie!" yelled his mother through the stampede.
He and Acorn froze in the face of authority.
Authority, as personified by Maddie Blackshear, looked rather diminutive, yet quite intimidating nonetheless. Even though she was shorter than her son, she managed to stare down at Jamie. Her black eyes gleamed with threat, crowned by a mane of wild, curly black hair that resembled her son's, but looked even more untamable. As if charged with electricity, those locks curled in the air and gave her the uncanny resemblance to the fabled monster Medusa.
"I didn't do it," Jamie blurted. "Acorn did it; I swear!"
Maddie raised her black brows in utter disbelief as she glanced at the walking skeins of wool straggling through her garden.
Acorn's gaze drifted to Pillow, now grazing happily around blue and violet tulips.
"Don't you even think of that!" Maddie yelled, raising the sleeves of her jacket to reinforce her message.
Acorn startled and looked away.
Maddie raised her finger, pointing at her son and his accomplice. "You two stay away from the sheep before I throw you both in Brunga's stall!"
That was Mom's standard threat. Never put into effect, yet still pretty effective. Brunga wasn't known for his good manners--he had broken a couple of Dad's ribs once and Mom's wrist another, so a trip to his stall would probably entail some kind of physical damage.
Mrs. Roeg giggled, amused.
Jamie turned to her, exploiting the chance to take immediate evasive action. Mrs. Roeg was one of Mom's few friends and he liked her. She was a willowy, auburn-haired woman with ladylike manners. Whenever he looked at her, he couldn't help thinking of honey--maybe it was the gold tone of her skin or her warm smile that did it. He didn't know, but he found her very pleasant and pretty. He smiled politely at her. "Hello, Mrs. Roeg."
"Hello, dear," she replied, beaming, then she turned to Maddie and winked. "Looks like Captain Chaos and Helper are on a new mission."
Maddie glared at her son's drenched clothes and shook her head.
Jamie made to open his mouth and explain.
Maddie waved her hand impatiently. "I don't even want to know."
Jamie grinned. He was going to tell her later anyway. He was sure Mom would find his adventure very amusing. She usually liked it when he came up with wild plans. He hoped he could at least get a laugh out of her--it was always a treat to see Mom laugh.
He turned expectantly to Mrs. Roeg. If she was here, then maybe... "Did Holly come?" he asked in one breath.
Mrs. Roeg's eyes shifted; something like a shadow passed over her smile. "No, she had to stay home. She said she was behind in math."
Jamie's grin died away. Of course, he thought.
Mrs. Roeg threw him a strange glance. "Sorry, dear."
Jamie shrugged. These days, Holly didn't come to visit him anymore. It sucked. He didn't understand why she always had to be so busy. He was mulling over these thoughts when he felt his mom's hand running through his hair. The touch of her skin made him feel a little better.
"Dry out your clothes," Maddie said gently, "or you'll catch a cold."
She bent down and gave him a kiss.
Jamie felt the warmth from her lips spread to his chest. Oh well, perhaps Holly was really busy after all. He'd ask her to come play with him and Acorn next time. "Good-bye, Mrs. Roeg!" he said, turning to her.
She beamed, apparently relieved he was in good mood again. "Good-bye, Captain!"
Jamie's smile flashed back on his lips. He saluted militarily and ran off with Acorn.
"Jamie," Maddie yelled after him, "get those sheep back into the shed!"
Flustered, Jamie stopped in his tracks. "Oh, right, right!"