The sheep sighed. Off in the near distance they were coming. He turned to the small Shetland pony grazing idly nearby: “here they come again Max, only this time there’s more of them” he said, barely moving his black sheepy lips. The pony looked up with mild interest and blew a lazy breath, soft and slow into the late winter air. “Right. How do you want to handle it this time?” he said swivelling his ears in the sheep’s general direction. The sheep raised his long tattered ones and stared, narrow eyed and hostile at the small group of people headed towards them. This time there was a Land Rover as well, and a couple of children. He knew they could outrun the children and outmanoeuvre the car, but all those people might be tricky, even with seven acres of sloping field to help them.
They were getting closer. The sheep and Max would have to move quickly. “We’ll use the old trick” he said, “up here on the top of the hill … just wait for my signal and then head down as fast as you can.” As the 4×4 positioned itself halfway down the slope, the people started making their way to the top. They were a curious assortment, about eight of them, some looking like farmers or the abattoir guys, a couple of teenagers looking like exotic birds with tangled multicoloured hair and ragged clothes, stylish tat. The sheep and Max continue to graze, cropping at the meagre grass, moving gradually along the hedge ready to charge at top speed down the hill. And the tightening group started to surround them.
The circle was obvious and getting smaller when the sheep once more lifted his ears, and stood ready to charge. “Watch it he’s going” the man in the boots and battered trilby shouted, lunging too slow towards the sheep. The sheep stamped, dropped his head and ran straight for the bottom of the field, neatly bypassing trilby man who stumbled and slid gracefully into the sod, his hat rolling slowly away beyond him. The whole slew of muddled people were suddenly hurrying in an impotent frenzy of haste after them down the hill. Of course the children stumbled and soon fell into a silly giggling heap and the teenagers lasted only a few minutes, before giving up the chase. The sheep and Max watched from the top of the other side, slightly puffed and waiting for the next time. Their wait was short. The people weren’t about to give up.
Three, perhaps four times running down the slope and up the other side, and soon it was a game for the people, especially the teenagers who didn’t do the whole run. The sheep, heavy in his winter fleece and not really built for speed, was starting to tire. It was Max who first noticed how close they were to the yard and that the gate to the field on the other side was open. “Look” he said, panting only slightly, “they’ve left the gate open”. Quite why the sheep fell for this old trick he never quite worked out. It might have been because he was tired and a little anxious, or it might have been because he had a nagging suspicion that things were not as they seemed and thus distracted couldn’t concentrate properly. First off besides the abattoir man who was without his usual collies, there were just too many people. The people all looked different and there was no lorry waiting in the yard. And he was the only sheep left. The only one of the small flock remaining from last Spring.
Whatever it was, it prevented him from thinking things through properly, and it was what led to his not fatal error. When the circle started to close around them the next time, the sheep and Max headed top speed for the yard and the open gate, the sheep’s little tail flapflapping, head down, his short legs pushing forward as hard as they could go. The gap between the gate from their sloping field and the entrance to the yard was narrow and it was only at the last minute that the sheep realised that the circle of people wasn’t complete. They were two short and the missing people were positioned on either side of the gap, hidden on one side by the hay barn and on the other by a low wall. He stood no chance as he and Max dived through the gap. “We’ve got him!” a skinny, bleached blonde screamed exultant and lunging across the sheep’s shaggy back. Her teenaged partner on the other side panting and half in squealing hysterics had him around the neck. He came down on his side, face to face with a pretty, wild eyed blonde whose laughter and excitement had turned her face very pink indeed.
As is their habit the sheep immediately gave up the fight. Max, a galloping fury of blonde and golden chestnut, powered straight past the crumpled sheep across the yard and through the open gate to the beckoning spring grass beyond. Not so much as a backward glance pondered the sheep, motionless beneath his captors. Not even a goodbye. “We’ve got him!” squealed the pretty blonde girl. Within moments he was in the back of a 4 x 4 and hurtling along a bypass, radio blaring, windows partly down. Staring blankly out of the side window, the sheep heard a woman say “Let’s call him Hotpot.” As he scowled at the face of an incredulous little boy in the back of an overtaking Vauxhall, the sheep heard the other voice. “Will Hotpot recognise the Grey Horse do you think? Or has it been too long?”
When they reached the empty field where Hotpot was to start his new life it seemed most sensible to drive into the field, shut the gate behind them park and the car on a slope so that Hotpot could jump out easily. That way Lucy and Daisy could get the sheep out of the car gently, keep him calm and show him his new home. A reasonable plan, except that the sheep wasn’t particularly ready to be calmed. As soon as the door opened he leapt out and carried on running until he reached the post and rail fence which had been carefully reinforced with sheep netting. They watched in a horrified stupor as he charged off, stopping only to pound his bony head against a tree that interrupted the fencing at the bottom of the field. Of course it was the one place in the fence where the netting was loose and there really was no contest. They stood and watched as the sheep forced his head and then the rest of his portly form into a widening gap before wrenching himself through and tanking off in the direction of the woods. Only a couple of Bengal cats busy stalking rabbits noticed as he flew pass. The lonely injured horse, standing miserable in his stable saw not a thing.