From the Relief Society Magazine, January 1944 –
The Least of the Flock
By Vesta P. Crawford
Benjy shielded his eyes with his hand. The bright glow of the setting suns truck his thin brown face. He could see Obed, the shepherd, standing at the gate of the fold. It was time for the sheep to come in from the hills.
Benjy had been watching the lambs. Now he scrambled down among the rocks and began calling them by name. “Rabath! Nam! Mescal! Tobe!”
White heads bobbed up from among the dark stones. Woolly white bodies moved among the bushes. Benjy turned and carefully picked his way up the hill. The lambs followed. Their bleating sounded clear as a flute. On the hill, the walls of the sheepfold stood out against the pale sky.
Obed stood by the wall, a puzzled look on his wrinkled old face. “Benjy, lad, one of the lambs must be lost. Have you idled through the day? Did you fall asleep on the hillside?”
Benjy turned and looked at the flock behind him. “I will count them,” he said, sudden fear tearing at his heart. He would have to pay for a lost lamb and that would take all of the denarii, the precious pieces of silver, he would earn in one whole month. His mother and sister in the town would go hungry. But there was something else to think of, something even worse.
He hurried to the gate of the sheepfold and laid his staff across the opening. Then, as each lamb passed under the rod, he spoke its name and raised his staff. Soon the lambs had bounded into the fold. Benjy stood still, grief and disappointment on his face. He bowed his head and his small brown fingers knotted the bright fringe of his sash.
“One is lost,” he said, “the lamb Tobe is not here.” Benjy looked at Obed’s face.
The shepherd was silent for a moment. Then he spoke in a kindly voice. “If these were my sheep, I would forgive you, but I am accountable to the great flockmaster in Bethlehem.”
Benjy choked back a sob. He thought of the little orphan lamb. He had given him the name Tobe because the word meant good, and Tobe was a good lamb.
“I will find the lamb,” Benjy promised. “I will not let Nimer, the leopard, have him, nor the panther hiding in the rocks.”
His words were brave but Obed noticed the small clenched hands, the trembling of the slender body. “Don’t go wandering far, lad,” he said, “look around close by while still the light lasts. That is all you can do.” Obed turned to meet the other shepherds as they hurried toward the sheepfold in a cloud of dust, followed by the big white ewes.
Benjy climbed down the rocks. Then he stopped and listened, hoping to hear the bleat of the lamb. He lifted his flute and blew a shrill note. He waited, listened. there was no answer. He leaned forward, strained his ears. He heard no sound except the distant growl of Fahed, the panther, echoed from a far canyon. Benjy stumbled as he tried to run in half circles, covering the hillside. Darkness moved up from the valley. It was the time of the cool of the evening. below him the caravan road that gleamed white by day was now melted into the twilight.
Benjy cupped his hands to his lips and called, “Tobe-e-e …” Again there was no answer.
In the deeper darkness, he stumbled back toward the sheepfold. He could not hunt for Tobe in the black night. And yet he was not afraid of darkness. It was only for Tobe that he was afraid. he thought of the little thin lamb, its soft white wool, its big gentle eyes, and the way its tail moved up and down joyously when it found a spot of grass among the rocks.
But now it was dark. He would have to wait until morning to hunt for the lamb again. As he reached the sheepfold he heard the men talking, as they often talked when the night came. And yet always the words seemed new and strange to him.
“The time must be near at hand,” he heard the oldest shepherd say.
Benjy loved the sound of the man’s voice, sure and full of hope. He edged in between the shepherds and laid his head on Obed’s knee. he was very tired.
“The King will surely come,” he heard Obed say.
The King! Benjy had never seen a king in all his life. Perhaps he would grow old and gray like the shepherds and never see a king.
The men talked in low voices. Soon, Benjy was sound asleep with Obed’s robe tucked warmly around him.
He wakened with a start. Intense light shone on his face. He jumped up and rubbed his eyes. He must be dreaming, he thought. Over the hills toward Bethlehem a great light flamed in unbelievable brightness. Then Benjy looked at Obed and the other shepherds. They stood in wonderment with light upon their uplifted faces.
Finally Obed caught his breath and said, “The star! The new star!”
Then suddenly they heard singing, many voices, like a choir. Benjy was too startled to hear the words at first. Yet he seemed to feel the music with his whole heart. He looked upward and listened. Finally, he heard the words – “Glory to God … Good will toward men.”
The sound died away, but the light remained and the valleys and the hills glowed with a splendor brighter than the sun.
Obed turned to the other shepherds. “Let us go at once to Bethlehem,” he said, “let us find the King!”
Benjy held his breath. “What King?” he asked.
“The one long promised to our people,” Obed said, and he looked toward the white walls of the hill town. “Lad, you shall come with me. The others can watch the sheep.”
Benjy gathered his robe about him, wound the scarf around his head. Eagerly he reached his small brown hand to Obed. This was his one chance. “Let us hurry. Let us be the first to see the King!”
Then he stood quite still in the path. His eyes fell and the gladness left his face. “But the lamb! Now that the hills are lighted, I can find Tobe.”
Obed looked searchingly at the boy. He had seen the choice clearly. Finally the shepherd said, “Go, then, lad, and find the lamb, but do not wander too far from the sheepfold. I will go alone to Bethlehem and seek out the King.”
Without a word, Benjy turned and ran down the lighted hill. “Tobe-e-e … Tobe-e …” he called. He looked among the bushes, looked back of the rocks. He called and called. The brightness still glowed upon the hills.
Then, a few rods in front of him, he saw something white against the dark rocks. He leaped over the stones. It was Tobe! Now he could hear the faint and tired bleating.
“Tobe! Tobe!” He took the lamb up in his arms, smoothed its wool, patted its head. The lamb was unhurt.
Benjy was about to turn and go back up the hill when he noticed the white road below him – the road to Bethlehem. Perhaps, if he hurried, he might still find the King. But he would not have time to take the lamb back to the fold. He would take Tobe with him.
Carefully, with the lamb in his arms, he picked his way down the road. There he rested for a moment, his sandals sinking down into the dust.
Then he heard voices and the bustle of travel. Framed against the light, three tall camels came into view. Their riders, richly dressed and eager, urged the animals forward.
Benjy stood at the side of the road and looked at the strange travelers. The leader stopped his camel and bent down to look at the shepherd boy.
“Who are you, my lad?”
“I’m Benjy. This lamb is Tobe.”
“And where are you going?” The man’s voice was deep and kind, his dark eyes full of interest.
“I’m going to Bethlehem.”
The man stroked his long white beard, adjusted the folds of his gold-colored turban. “Strange,” he said, “we, too, are bound for the hill city. Would you like to travel with us?”
“Could Tobe come, too?”
“The lamb shall ride, also.” The man lifted Benjy and the lamb high up to the camel’s back.
In a moment they were traveling swiftly along the white road. Benjy was too happy to say a word. The light still glowed on the hills and over Bethlehem a great star shot down its streamers of flame.
The camels, in long strides, climbed the hill. Benjy saw the walls of the city, the white buildings clustered on the hills. He could hear the sound of the camels’ hoofs beating on the stones.
They came to the inn. Benjy heard the voice of the landlord, saw him shaking his head, his long finger pointing to the manger. Then Benjy felt himself being lifted down from the camel.
Still holding the woolly lamb in his arms, he followed the men down the stone steps. They paused in the doorway and one of the men pushed Benjy in front so that he could see the wonder there.
Benjy held his breath. The King! The King was a Baby. A young Child in its mother’s arms. Around them a great brightness glowed. The face of the Child was more beautiful than anything Benjy had ever seen. He thought of white lily petals, of morning sky, of young white doves. But the face of the Baby was more beautiful.
Gently Benjy put the lamb down on the stones. He moved forward to look at the Child more closely. A great joy surged in his heart. He was the first to see the King!