016 Woolly Chess

Our camp for the night was spread on sloping terrain just below the summit of the Sierra Ancha. (Herders usually pronounce Sierra Ancha as “Seriancha. ” The nearby Mazatzal Mountains, in which Reno Pass is located, are called “Matazals.”)

The climb up had been hard for me; upon reaching the campsite, I found a tree for a prop and rested, leaving Pablo with my usual chores of wood gathering. Far below, as supper was cooking, we watched Rosalio leave the sheep and head toward camp. His great strides carried him upward with much less effort than the ascent had cost me and he came into the circle of the fire with a smile and a nod. His first task upon reaching us was to pour a drink for his dogs.

As supper was prepared, and as we ate it, there began to unfold for me the pattern of wizardry with which Rosalio handled the sheep. Throughout much of this trek he was playing a massive game of chess with his herd, and here now was unfolding one of the subtlest moves. It had been 3:00 in the afternoon when Rosalio had directed Pablo where to place this camp for the night. Three hours later Rosalio had left his animals, still grazing and traveling slowly onward, and had joined us for supper.
While I watched him climbing toward us, I also watched his sheep moving along in thin strands, not in the direction of camp at all, but at right angles to it. While we ate, the sheep, far below, were still moving in a direction at variance to the manner in which it seemed to me they should be traveling.

Darkness came and Jupiter, befitting the king of heaven, led the parade of night across the sky. Last night the moon had stepped first from behind the horizon but tonight Jupiter took command and marched at the head of the parade. As the planet and then the moon swung into their stride, they lighted the other marching columns down below — the thin strands of moving wool — and I began to see the strategy of Rosalio’s move. The herd was still not heading toward camp but they were progressing toward an impassible barrier, a stern palisade of rock which stood like a Chinese wall before them. It would turn them inevitably in our direction.

Our camp was under a juniper, at a spot in the mountain slope which seemed level. But it was level only in comparison with the sheerness of the drop below us and the ascent above. Actually we were on a stiff grade and all three of us shifted and rolled and tossed most of the night, using our energies in maintaining a sleeping position rather than in sleeping. As I squirmed about in my bedroll, some sand and other debris got into it. When I developed an itch, I wasn’t sure whether it was foxtail grass, cactus spines, ant sting, or what.

Somewhat after 10:00 P.M., a soft roar crept through the night — the eerie sound of crunching jaws and of some 6,000 hooves scuffling along the rocky slope. The herd had arrived and, splitting around our dying fire, they moved around and past our camp, creating a nocturnal commotion like night raiders in a battlefield. The animals streamed on either side of my bed. Startled at seeing me, they stopped in the moonlight to stare at me before heading on. Rosalio got up and with his flashlight went ahead of the animals, circled them, and in about half an hour had them bedded down. He brought the herd at last to rest a few hundred feet from where we lay, thus ending a move in this game of woolly chess which he had set up and planned seven hours before.

Forty-six years of experience were behind his strategy; an exact knowledge of the terrain, which would inevitably force the sheep into this one course; a perfect comprehension of the vegetation, just sparse enough to keep the herd moving in search of feed. He had to understand that his animals were hungry and thirsty enough not to stop at darkness as they usually did; he had to take into account the factor of heat which would keep them traveling long after their usual hour of rest. And it all had to be planned so that, when the final stopping place was reached at last, there would be sufficient forage so that the animals could be made to bed down. All that was lacking was a level spot for spending the night.

The bobbing flashlight danced its way back to camp; Rosalio mumbled to Pablo some words that the sheep were down, and once more sought the covers of his precariously sloping bed.

Soon he and Pablo, and the dogs as well, were sleeping soundly once more. And just ahead, the sheep were resting and quiet, a gray patchwork quilt spread on the mountain slope in the moonlight.
But I did not sleep. It was not alone the crazy slope of my bed, but a stirring ecstasy inside me at what I was experiencing. The moon and planet now seemed closer to each other in the sky as they climbed away from the horizon. I seemed to hear Jupiter lean over and whisper to his beaming companion:
“God’s heaven, what a herder. He reminds me of that boy David we used to see on the slopes of Palestine. Not since then has there been a shepherd like this one.”