The shepherd was sick and the shepherd's wife looked out from her door with anxious eyes. "Who will carry the sheep to the pasture lands to-day?" she said to her little boy Jean.
"I will," cried Jean, "I will. Mother, let me."
Jean and his father and mother lived long ago in a sunny land across the sea where flowers bloom, and birds sing, and shepherds feed their flocks in the green valleys. Every morning, as soon as it was light, Jean's father was up and away with his sheep. He had never missed a morning before, and the sheep were bleating in the fold as if to say, "Don't forget us to-day."
The sheep were Jean's playfellows. There was nothing he liked better than to wander with them in the pleasant pastures, and already they knew his voice and followed at his call.
"Let the lad go," said his old grandfather. "When I was no older than he I watched my father's flock."
Jean's father said the same thing, so the mother made haste to get the little boy ready.
"Eat your dinner when the shadows lie straight across the grass," she said as she kissed him good-by.
"And keep the sheep from the forest paths," called his sick father.
"And watch, for it is when the shepherd is not watching that the wolf comes to the flock," said the old grandfather.
"Never fear," said little Jean. "The wolf shall not have any of my white lambs."
There were white sheep and black sheep and frolicsome lambs in the shepherd's flock, and each one had a name of its own. There was Babbette, and Nannette, and Pierrot, and Jeannot,—I cannot tell them all, but Jean knew every name.
"Come, Bettine and Marie. Come, Pierrot and Croisette. Come, pretty ones all," he called as he led them from the fold that day. "I will carry you to the meadows where the daisies grow."
"Baa," answered the sheep, well satisfied, as they followed him down the king's highway, and over the hill to the pasture lands.
The other shepherds were already there with their flocks, so Jean was not lonely. He watered his sheep at the dancing brook that ran through the flowers, and led them along its shady banks to feed in the sunny fields beyond, and not one lambkin strayed from his care to the forest paths.
The forest lay dim and shadowy on one side of the pasture lands. The deer lived there, and the boars that fed upon acorns, and many other creatures that loved the wild woods. There had been wolves in the forest, but the king's knights had driven them away and the shepherds feared them no longer. Only the old men like Jean's grandfather, and the little boys like Jean, talked of them still.
Jean was not afraid. Oh, no. There was not a lamb in the flock so merry and fearless as he. He sang with the birds and ran with the brook, and laughed till the echoes laughed with him as he watched the sheep from early morn to noon, when the shadows fell straight across the grass and it was time for him to eat his dinner.
There were little cakes in Jean's dinner basket. He had seen his mother put them there, but he had not tasted a single one when, out on the king's highway, beyond the hill, he heard the sound of pipes and drums, and the tramp, tramp of many feet.
The other shepherds heard too, and they began to listen and to stare and to run. "The king and his knights are coming," they cried. "Come let us see them as they pass by."
"Who will take care of the sheep?" asked Jean, but nobody answered, so he too left his dinner and ran with the rest, away from the pastures and up the hillside path that led to the highway.
"How pleased my mother will be when I tell her that I have seen the king," he said to himself, and he was hurrying over the hill top when all at once he remembered the forest, and the wolf, and his grandfather's words.
"Come on," called the others.
"I must stay with the sheep," answered he; and he turned and went back, though the pipes and drums all seemed to say, "Come this way, come this way." He could scarcely keep from crying as he listened.
There was nothing in sight to harm the sheep, and the pasture lands were quiet and peaceful, but into the forest that very day a hungry gray wolf had come. His eyes were bright and his ears were sharp and his four feet were as soft as velvet, as he came creeping, creeping, creeping under the bushes and through the tanglewood. He put his nose out and sniffed the air, and he put his head out and spied the sheep left alone in the meadows. "Now's my chance," he said, and out he sprang just as little Jean came down the hill.
"Wolf, wolf, wolf!" shouted Jean. "Wolf, wolf, wolf!" He was only a little boy, but he was brave and his voice rang clear as a bugle call over the valley, and over the hill, "Wolf, wolf, wolf!"
The shepherds and knights and the king himself came running and riding to answer his cry, and as for the gray wolf, he did not even stop to look behind him as he sped away to the forest shades. He ran so fast and he ran so far that he never was seen in the king's country again, though the shepherds in the pastures watched for him day after day.
Jean led his flock home at even tide, white sheep and black sheep and frolicsome lambs, not one was missing.
"Was the day long?" asked his mother who was watching in the doorway for him.
"Are the sheep all in?" called the sick father.
"Did the wolf come?" said the old grandfather; but there is no need for me to tell you what Jean said. You can imagine that for yourself.