"What is it dear?" A quiet whisper in the farmhouse darkness.
"Clay." A simple answer as the bedsprings creaked beneath the farmer's shifting weight.
"How it is you know these things ... well, it's beyond me." She sighed and turned to switch the light on the nightstand.
Each was up, donning rubber boots and thick farm coats. The farmer's wife knew to trust her husband's intuition. After all, he had been right on so many occasions. Besides, she loved Clay as much as the farmer. She'd been there on the day of his birth and fed him from a soda bottle when his mother struggled to drop her milk. He was ... special.
Flashlights in hand, the pair walked across the yard and entered through a squeaking gate. The barnyard was quiet with night save the occasional dog barking in a far off distance. It was late September and the winds had already taken on a chill of autumn.
As they neared the barn, Farmer Jack saw Tink in the doorway ... her eyes told him what he already knew ... Clay was gone. Off again on some foolish adventure. Tink was the barn cat. She kept watch on the farm animals and took pleasure in outing any animal that misbehaved. Tink's black velvet coat glinted blue in the moonlight. She curled her tail around the feet of her master as he came near the fold.
Farmer Jack counted ... one, two, three ... eight lambs all snuggled beside the wool of their parents... there should have been nine including Clay.
He and his wife exited the barn and began swinging their lights across the fencing. Most lambs would get tangled in the barbed wire, they looked there first. No Clay. Behind the barn in the midst of wild clover, no Clay.
That's when he heard it ... the low howl of a coyote. Farmer Jack turned and found his wife's eyes. They were moist with tears.
"Those coyotes sound closer than any time before." Her voice was muffled with fear. "What if Clay made it out of the fence again?"
Another low growl ... closer still and another on the opposite side of the barnyard.
"They're circling now. Go to the barn, up to the hayloft. I won't have you walking back to the house. Not knowing those coyotes could be somewhere between here and there." He gave his wife a push in the barn's direction.
Obediently, she went where he bid. In the loft, she looked down on the yard and area beyond the fence. She squinted her eyes and tried to make out shapes in the blackness.
Clay was a curious little fellow. Since the day of his birth, Clay had been trying Farmer Jack's patience. Just when he thought there was not an ounce of patience left in his heart, Clay would do something sweet. And, that sweetness would fill him up to face the next challenge.
Clay had out done himself in the testing of fences. Literally. He no longer found satisfaction in the normal lamb rompings. Clay had already grown tired of "king of the mountain". While the other spring lambs found contentment inside the fences, Clay found thrill in adventures outside the fence. On more than one occasion, Farmer Jack had found Clay roaming the backyard in search of a good chase with the barn cat or Laddy the Golden Retriever.
Farmer Jack took hold of the long staff leaning against the barn entrance. Why was it that this one lamb tested him so? What was it that caused him to come to the barn and check on Clay this far past sunset? Farmer Jack knew ... it was a sense. Something within his heart stirred for this one small member of his flock. He knew when Clay was safe in the barn, safe within the fences crafted to keep the flock in and the predators out ... and he knew when Clay had ventured too far and gone outside the fence, out where a little lamb might meet with danger.
The sound of coyotes came closer and Farmer Jack began to call for his lamb. From the shadows, a movement near his tractor caught Farmer Jack's attention. Two coyotes circled the back tires. Their eyes glowed with hunger. Clay was there, Farmer Jack knew it. Without thinking of his own safety, the farmer ran at the coyotes. He swung his staff back and forth, jabbed at their sides. Each animal turned on him. Taking their attention away from the prey hiding behind the tires, they lunged at Farmer Jack. He thrust his staff at them, swinging it back and forth ... catching the predators on either side. Soon, the animals gave up. The far off howl of their pack called to them and they went back into the shadows.
Farmer Jack heaved a sigh, shivering from the cool air and his battle with the enemy. He moved slowly toward the tractor. Hiding beneath the tarp hanging over Farmer Jack's orange tractor, there was Clay. His creamy coat was covered in dirt and his floppy ears were wet with blood. He'd been caught in the barbed wire and snagged his ears trying to get free. The coyotes had taken the scent of his blood and found him.
Clay nudged out from his place of hiding. His eyes questioned the Farmer. He'd done it this time. A foolish adventure after dark had caused trouble and nearly gotten the Farmer hurt. He hung his head low and shivered with the knowledge of his wrong doings.
Gently, Farmer Jack reached for the lamb. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and began to wipe Clay's face and ears. The farmer's wife joined them from her place in the loft. Together, they went to the house to tend Clay's wounded ears and heart.
After being cleaned and fed, Clay found comfort in the farmhouse laundry room. He couldn't sleep with the fold tonight. The scent of blood would bring danger back into the barnyard.
Sometime near sunrise, the farmer came to Clay. He knelt beside the lamb and lifted the youngster's face so their eyes met.
"Clay ... you've done wrong. Why must you always leave the safety of our fence? Why must you always go where danger awaits?" Farmer Jack's voice was soft and reprimanding.
The lamb tried to look away but the farmer's grip wouldn't let him. Tears formed in the lamb's eyes. Clay whimpered and let those tears begin to fall.
"You're sorry, I know." Farmer Jack let his hand fall and he rubbed Clay's back. Then, he lifted the little lamb and carried him in his arms, close to his heart. "I forgive you, Clay. You are one of my fold. No matter where you go, what you do or how far you wander ... I'll always come for you. I'll always forgive you. You are mine."
Isaiah 40:11 "He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young. "