The story starts with Tarmund, a thief, and Jacob, a shepherd.
Tarmund was down on his luck. He wasn’t a thief originally, but had become that way once he’d set out on his own and discovered that he was grossly unprepared to begin adulthood. He was too prideful and too afraid to go home and ask for help – thinking that he had to prove himself somehow, for something – and began to steal valuable goods to sell for his fortune.
He had never stolen a sheep before, but the word on the street was that there was a shepherd outside the town with a very special flock of sheep, asking if somebody would come out and help him manage his daily duties.
Some people called him the sheep master. Some people said that a sheep had never been stolen from him, not even once, and that he’d never lost a single sheep to a roaming pack of wolves or lions. Some said that the shepherd was looking for help because he was growing old and senile, and was looking for apprentices to take over after he was gone.
Personally, Tarmund didn’t care about his reasons. All that Tarmund knew was that his stomach was crying out for food, he didn’t have the money to get any, and that he would get some money one way or another.
He found the shepherd, sitting among his flock, and quickly discovered that the shepherd was not old and senile – he was, in fact, about 14 years old. Tarmund counted his lucky stars that the shepherd was so young and naiive, because if he was much older, it would have been much harder getting his trust. (The rumors about his age had probably sprung about like most folktales – by people taking the truth and stretching it until it turned into fiction.)
The shepherd’s name was Jacob. The boy was eager to have help, and quickly assigned Tarmund to the task of milking the ewes every morning and evening. Tarmund was promised food and a place to sleep, though Jacob could not guarantee that it would always be comfortable.
Tarmund did not need comfortable. He would only be here for a little while.
The rumors about Jacob’s age had been false, but Tarmund was quickly realizing that the rumors about the flock being special were very true, and might not even measure up to the quality he was seeing.
Every sheep was loaded with long, white, soft wool, pure in color and fine in texture. Staring at them in the sheepfold, Tarmund came to the conclusion that they all looked like fluffy white snowflakes, like he had seen on a mountain he had crossed coming to this land. The first night, Jacob had welcomed Tarmund with stewed mutton, which had been exceptionally good and evidently came from Jacob’s very own flock. And besides all that, Tarmund found that the milk the ewes gave was sweeter and less prone to spoiling.
The first day of work, he was sent down to the market to sell the milk he’d gotten, and found that it even fetched a higher price than normal in the market. He was not the only one who recognized its unusual characteristics. Whatever variety the boy was raising, it was something special, and he was sure that there were many men who would be greedy for the chance to start their own flock.
A single sheep – or even better, a pair – would probably fetch a high price at market.
Still, Jacob was such a young boy, and was quite kind to give Tarmund food and a sort of home. They had tents pitched next to the sheepfold, and enjoyed a hot meal by the fire every night. Tarmund’s stomach had been the only reason that he had pursued this endeavor in the first place, and it was quite well satisfied by the good cheese, the stew, and the bread.
But now that Tarmund had seen the marvelous sheep up-close, he didn’t need his stomach to keep him going. Now, all he needed was his greed, and the knowledge that a boy who had never been betrayed was beginning to trust him.
After a few days, Tarmund noticed something strange about the way that Jacob treated his sheep.
Tarmund had met shepherds before – granted, they had all been older shepherds, jaded and worn with time. The shepherds would care for their sheep, and the sheep would follow. The shepherd certainly never hated his sheep, but after a while of seeing them come and go, the shepherd would more often than not forsake individual relationships in order to spare himself the pain of seeing them go to the slaughter or of seeing them grow old, sick, and die.
But Jacob was not like these other shepherds.
It seemed like he had named every sheep individually, would pet and hug them affectionately as he passed, and often talked about them as if they had personalities and minds of their own. Tarmund knew that he had been shepherding long enough to see them go to the slaughterhouse, to see them grow sick and die, and he wondered how he bore the burden of watching them die again and again when he loved them all so much.
One night, Tarmund asked Jacob why he gave all his sheep names.
“Oh, that’s easy,” Jacob replied around a hunk of bread. He chewed rapidly and swallowed the piece of bread, with difficulty. “If we’re all God’s sheep, and he gives us all names, why should I not do the same for mine?”
Admittedly, Tarmund was not satisfied by the explanation, as he did not understand. He did not press the matter, though.
Tarmund was still working for Jacob when the Passover came around. Being a Jew, Jacob had to depart for his house, which still remained in the town, bearing the passover lamb behind him – a sweet little lamb, unblemished, whom Jacob had named Jesse. Tarmund was not circumcised, and so could not participate.
He was content waiting until Jacob returned from the Passover. If he could get Jacob to think that he could trust him looking over his sheep while he did his religious duty, then it would be much easier for Tarmund to take his pick of the crop later. For now, he would wait until Jacob returned.
But there was still one thing that was nagging at him.
“Jacob,” Tarmund began.
Jacob was busy doting over his finest lamb, brushing him out and checking for dirt. “What is it?” he asked, without looking up.
“How do you do it?”
“You always dote on your sheep so much, but then you go and send them to the slaughter. How do you live with yourself?”
In truth, Jacob didn’t look too happy about the whole state of affairs. Jesse was a beautiful little lamb, was always happy to see his master, and loved attention. But Jacob managed a smile.
“Well,” Jacob began. “I don’t think God was happy when his prophets and servants were slain, but He wouldn’t have let it happen if it wasn’t for the best. I like to think about it that way.”
Tarmund didn’t reply. He watched Jacob walk away, the lamb following blissfully behind him.
After Jacob had left, it became clear by the way that the sheep skirted around Tarmund that they did not trust him like they trusted Jacob, and the fact that Jacob had left them alone with the stranger had them all on edge. He would not have been able to get away with a thievery if he had tried.
Tarmund might’ve been their master’s assistant, but he could never replace Jacob’s constant, loving affection. The sheep were all jumpier, less affectionate, and even weren’t producing as much milk. He had not known that sheep could become watchful in their master’s absence, but they had, and Tarmund was now glad that he had stayed behind and figured that out.
If he was going to get away with anything, he’d have to do it with Jacob at home. But how was he supposed to run off with a sheep when the shepherd was there?
When Jacob returned from the Passover feast, there was a veritable stampede, and Tarmund dodged out of the way while the flock of sheep charged forward to welcome their master home. Jacob was not alarmed, greeting all of them warmly, offering hugs and kisses to every sheep he could reach.
Jacob did eventually reach the little firepit and the sheepfold, and asked Tarmund how things had gone in his absence. Tarmund played the usual song and dance about everything being swell, but while he was expositing on how supposedly cooperative the sheep were, Jacob’s eye drifted away for a moment, and an expression of horror came over his face. Ignoring the rest of Tarmund’s story, he ran right past him, calling “Manna? Manna!”
Tarmund flipped right around, surprised, and discovered that Jacob was running towards an older sheep lying on the ground. Tarmund hadn’t noticed before, but it was breathing hard, and not moving.
“What’s the matter, girl?” Jacob asked of the sheep as he inspected it. “Oh, boy. Are you in pain, girl?”
The sheep didn’t say anything.
“I think she’s sick,” Jacob finally said. “Tarmund, did anything change while you were in charge?”
“What? Well, I just kept feeding them their hay and grain every day. Why?”
“Well, ah, I don’t know, uh-” Tarmund shrugged. “I just threw a bunch out every day for ’em.”
Jacob rolled his eyes. “’A bunch’ is probably too much. In hindsight, I should’ve given you instructions before I left. Augh. I think she’s colicky. I might be able to treat her myself, but can you run out to town and get a doctor anyway? Just to be on the safe side.”
“Well, uh, sure-” Tarmund said. “I’ll go get one.”
Truth be told, Tarmund had known full well how much Jacob gave his sheep. The hay was supposed to be purely supplemental, because while the plains were covered with lush green grass it was always short this far south, and grain was supposed to be a treat only. Tarmund hadn’t realized that the amount mattered, and wouldn’t have cared if it did, so he had just put a bunch out every day and let the sheep have a field day.
Tarmund should have had enough sense to realize that the sheep wouldn’t stop themselves from eating too much.
He wasn’t sure how much harder his flub-up would make things, but he could certainly see Jacob not leaving him alone with the sheep anymore. Perhaps he should have taken his chance while he had it. Oh, well.
The doctor’s diagnosis corroborated what Jacob said well enough, and after treating the sheep (something Tarmund found to be a rather unpleasant affair), Jacob happily paid the doctor a decent fee, and sent him off with a smile and a blessing.
Around the fire that night, over supper, he told stories of other times when he’d had to go away for cultural obligations, other feast days, about the sheep flock’s antics, about times when he’d been barrelled over by older sheep, and when sometimes he rose up from the ground looking like he’d been in a battle, laughing and covered in hoof-prints.
He certainly didn’t seem bitter over what had happened, and probably blamed himself for expecting Tarmund to know what to do. Tarmund knew that was not the full story, but he didn’t mention anything, because that suited him just fine.
A week passed. Manna seemed to be doing just fine after being sick, and it seemed as though Jacob had forgotten the matter altogether. Because he had paid the doctor a lot for the treatment of his sheep, Jacob asked Tarmund to go to market and sell a pair of sheep to the highest bidder.
The idea was born in Tarmund’s mind, and before he left, he packed up his things, trying to keep Jacob from seeing anything suspicious. (Jacob had seen the bag Tarmund was carrying, and thought that it was strange, but he didn’t mention anything.) So Tarmund took the sheep – an ewe named Mary and a ram named Moses – down to town, and considered what he should do with his good fortune.
He could go to town, sell the sheep, and run off with the money. That would be as good as if he had stolen the sheep and sold them all by himself. But it was beginning to look real appealing for him to just keep the sheep and start his own flock. That would surely bring in more money than if he just sold the sheep, right? But that was so much work… milking the ewes was hum-drum repitition, shearing made him allergic, and then there was the cost of feeding and pasturing! No, no. He might as well just keep the money for himself.
But then he also began to consider if he skipped the nearest town altogether, sold the sheep in a faraway city that wouldn’t know where he’d gotten them, then went his way, no one suspecting that he was a thief. Any rich man in Jerusalem would pay good money for such fine sheep.
So he turned his way north, laughing to himself at Jacob’s foolishness, leading the two unhappy sheep behind him all the way.
It was about two days’ journey to Jerusalem from here. Of course, that was on foot, and not having to stop every so often to let the sheep graze at a rare patch of grass. All told, the needs of the sheep had caused a delay of at least a day, and Tarmund got impatient with them by the second day, kicking and shouting for them to get a move on, having them skip meals, and overall making a hard time of it for them.
By now, the two sheep were quite unhappy. By the time they got to Jerusalem, their bleating had become quiet and sad, and Tarmund had become tired of the sound. He was beginning to wish that he had dumped the sheep back in the previous town, but he also knew that this was where he would get the highest price for them, and so he mushed them on into the great city.
The walls were high, made of sandstone. The walkways twisted and turned around homes and businesses, smoke rising into the air from the hearths, the native Jews running about to this appointment, on that errand. They were all dressed in woolen robes, most of them in brown and white, but a few in shades of red, yellow, maybe green. Tarmund grinned at the sight of their colorful robes – at least a few folks who lived here weren’t poor, and he was excited to see what he could get for his sheep.
He made his way through the crowd, towards the center of the city, in front of the grand, lavish temple that made the city such a center of commerce and culture in the region. Tarmund made his way straight towards the center of the square, and brazenly began to call into the crowd, exclaiming that his sheep were a special variety from a far-away land, that they produced the finest wool, the best meat, the sweetest milk. He kept advertising his two miserable little sheep through the whole hour, and by that time finally realized that he had hardly been spared a glance.
He kept calling in desperation. “I’ve brought these sheep from far away to sell to the highest bidder! They would be excellent stock for any shepherd! I assure you that-”
“Shut up!” Somebody called from the sidelines. It was a potter, with many more customers than Tarmund. “You’re getting on my nerves.”
“Yeah, really,” said a woman, inspecting a lovely clay pot.
“Who’d buy those pitiful little things?” somebody muttered, as they passed by.
“They look ill,” said somebody else.
This was not going as expected at all. If Tarmund had seen Jacob selling his lovely little sheep in the market, he’d have snatched them up right away. Why were they passing up on his offer?
Finally, he took a hard look at the pair of sheep at his side. Jacob’s sheep were always bouncy, lively little sheep, covered from head to toe in beautiful soft wool, not at all coarse. But as he inspected his stock, Tarmund was alarmed to realize that these sheep no longer looked anything like they had when they’d left Jacob, but in fact had become lethargic, and looked almost worse than any normal sheep. They didn’t resemble snow; they were now closer to the appearance of an old, matted, wet rug.
No wonder he had no takers! He had been advertising wet rugs the whole time!
He was suddenly very angry with the sheep. He scowled at them. He’d taken all this time to gain Jacob’s trust, to walk all the way to Jerusalem, and now the sheep had lost all of their quality on top of it all! All of it was for naught, because these two stupid animals were too lazy to bear traveling all this way!
Mary was trying to sleep and Moses was wobbling on his feet, exhausted. Tarmund didn’t care anymore. He was done! Done!
He kicked at the two sheep, shouting at them, ‘git! git!’, and the two sheep – despite their fatigue – got up to their feet and took off running, bleating in fear all the way. Tarmund kept throwing rocks at them as they left, shouting and cursing at them until they disappeared far beyond his reach.
When they were gone, all that Tarmund had left was the contents of his pack, and the glares of a few disapproving onlookers. They could all probably guess why the sheep were in such a miserable state, and Tarmund finally decided that he should probably get out of dodge before anybody got too mad at him.
By this time, the sun had fallen, the place was dark except for the light of some fires, candles, and torches, and the air was cold. Tarmund hadn’t figured on needing a place to sleep, and realized that while he’d taken most of his things, his tent was back with Jacob. He had nowhere to go.
Jacob. He was so young, he was probably back at home wondering where Tarmund had gone. Maybe he would think that Tarmund had been killed by bandits, that the sheep had been stolen. If Tarmund never went back, Jacob would probably live the rest of his life thinking that either Tarmund had been killed or had run off with the sheep.
Tarmund would never be able to show his face in the little town again. He was fine with that. He was quite sick and tired of all the sheep, anyway! All the bleating, day and night, the daily monotonous milking, sneezing constantly as Jacob sheared the ones who’s wool had gotten too long, living in a lousy tent, eating the same thing every day!
Tarmund’s stomach growled. Jacob would probably be giving thanks and sitting down for a hot meal right about now. He had talked about getting a sheepdog from time to time, but the sheep had always kept him company, and who needed a sheepdog when you had a friend?
No. Tarmund didn’t need a stupid teenaged boy to be teaching him pithy phrases about friendship, of all things! Of all the blasted things to be lectured about, Tarmund especially did not need to be lectured about friendship! He didn’t need a lousy child to be feeding him every night! He was an adult! He could take care of himself!
He had forgotten his blanket back at the sheepfold, too. He didn’t see any hostels open at this hour, and after that stunt he’d pulled today, he doubted that anybody would be charitable enough to offer him a bed for the night. He had made absolutely no money on his endeavor, and if he was too poor to get food he was definitely too poor to pay for lodging.
All of his efforts had left him worse off than when he’d begun.
But he didn’t need to be some shepherd’s apprentice. The shepherd himself was young enough to be Tarmund’s apprentice! He could make it by himself. He didn’t need no super-sheep.
But first, he needed to sleep. There were no beds.
Jacob, in truth, had been wondering what had happened to Tarmund, and where his two little sheep had gone. He had entertained the idea that Tarmund had been mugged, but this area was so remote that he didn’t think the bandits would have been likely to walk through here. There was a reason as to why only the locals had heard about Jacob’s lovely sheep, and it was largely because nobody traveled enough through this area.
Not long after Tarmund had left, Jacob had been able to look out over the sand and see a trail of footprints veering off into the desert, well away from the nearest town. At the time, Jacob had figured that Tarmund was taking the sheep to a different town for some reason, and didn’t worry about it. But now he was beginning to have different ideas as to why Tarmund had taken the detour, and he was beginning to feel down about it.
Why would Tarmund become his friend only to betray him later?
Sometimes it seemed as though the sheep knew that their master was feeling sorrowful, because they weren’t bleating as much as they usually did, and were nudging at his elbows, as if asking, ‘what’s wrong?’ He would simply reach his hand down, pet them on the head, and force a smile. No need to bother the sheep with his human problems!
But after six days, he was able to look across the sand, and saw two lonely little sheep crawling across the sand towards the sheepfold. He charged down the hill towards them, and was delighted to see that Moses and Mary had found their way back to him. They were both tired, with matted, dull, sand-ridden wool coats, and were very hungry. After he lead them back towards the rest of his sheep (some of whom had followed him down), they put their heads down and took a long, peaceful nap. Once they had woken up, he found them hungrily mowing down all the grass they could get, and he watched them while he had his regular dinner of bread and stew.
But still, the question remained in the back of his mind: where was Tarmund?
Tarmund was freezing his bippy off in a little cave a few miles outside of Jerusalem, huddling around a small fire and trying to come up with his next money-making scheme.
His assumptions had been mostly correct so far. He was too poor to afford housing, and he had tried the local hospitality, but most of the locals had just grimaced at him and shut the door when he asked for lodging. He was not about to stoop to asking them if he could have lodging in exchange for some kind of work; that was a breed of slavery that he was not interested in.
Still, he wasn’t sure what else he was going to do. He could keep doing the same thing as before – stealing things and selling them off – but, in truth, he was getting tired of the routine.
The thrill of snatching something from right under the owner’s nose, and then reaping the benefits, was what got him hooked on this sort of lifestyle to begin with. But then the money he got ran out, and he would have to tighten his belt while he looked for a new opportunity, a heist he’d be able to pull off. And back in his hometown, he had buddies that he could boast to, could share in their mutual wickedness around a hot meal and a warm fire, but then he’d decided that he wasn’t content with small jobs, wanted more, more, more, and he went out into the world to seek out his fortune.
Now he had nobody.
He’d looked at the estates of rich men and deemed them too difficult. Now he’d gone after a fortunate child, and ultimately ruined himself with his rashness and frustration.
Jacob was probably enjoying a hot meal at the fire, surrounded by his adoring sheep. Tarmund was freezing and starving and alone.
Huh. Must be nice.
The following week, Jacob doted on the two downtrodden sheep, shearing off all the unwanted, unsalvageable wool, and feeding them well to bring them back to full strength. While their original, fluffy white coats grew back in, Jacob considered what he should do, now that they were back and Tarmund was gone.
He supposed that he could look for Tarmund, ask if anybody had seen him. He roughly remembered the direction that he had gone, and supposed that if he were to find him, he would have to leave the sheep for a while and see where the wind took him. Still, he hated the idea of leaving his sheep all alone; it was partly why he had looked for assistants to begin with. He was always tied down to his flock, nervous to leave even to buy food in the marketplace, and having a second pair of hands freed him up to run errands or to attend feast days. But now Tarmund was gone, and he was back at square one.
And besides all that, the bill from the doctor had been expensive, and Tarmund’s assignment was to sell the two sheep so as to make that money back. Jacob was still enjoying a nice meal every night, but he had tightened his belt a little bit to try and save up that money since the sheep went missing. Was he going to turn the two poor sheep over to somebody else new so soon after they’d come back to him?
No. The wool and the milk made good money on the market anyway. He would ask somebody else to run the errand for him, but after the recent disaster he was reticent to ask for the help of a stranger, and would probably ask his younger sister if she’d like the work. She had always been an uncontrollable bundle of energy as a child, and was probably itching to do something besides stay inside and help manage the household.
Maybe he would sell a different pair of sheep later, but right now he was content the way he was, and after everything didn’t really want to bother at the moment.
He would probably look for Tarmund after he had found somebody else to help out. He didn’t like the idea of leaving his sister alone to tend the sheep while he went gallivanting off to look for Tarmund; maybe his uncle would be willing to help?
That was not a matter to be deciding on so close to bedtime. He would finish his meal, and then he’d go to bed. That was that! He had to get his beauty sleep, after all.
Tarmund was not getting much sleep tonight.
He scoured the city for jobs he might be able to pull off, something he might be able to nab and run away with, but the locals were too wary of him and there were guards everywhere. It was occuring to him that Jerusalem might be too strong altogether, and he was preparing to pack what he had left and move out when he considered the question of where he was supposed to go.
Back home, he wasn’t sure how his buddies would take him running out on them only to come crawling back with nothing to show for his efforts. His mother and father had excised him from the household in disgrace years ago. He had no other homes to think of. He could just keep wandering, but he’d been hoping for his big break because he was tired of always running around, looking for something else to snatch and sell.
Would Jacob welcome him back? Surely not. He was young, and probably would throw a temper tantrum if Tarmund showed his face again. Children were not prone to taking betrayal well, and he doubted that Jacob would do any better than most children. He was fairly mature for his age group, given that he was given sole charge over a flock of sheep, and did very well for himself. He always had food on the table, even if the fare didn’t change much, and took very good care of his sheep (Tarmund was beginning to suspect that his care was partly responsible for their exceptional quality).
He was not the child that would be called the failure of his family. He was very different from Tarmund.
Maybe Tarmund was underestimating him. Just maybe he could go back to Jacob and pretend that nothing happened. But it was hard to pretend that nothing happened when you ran off with your employer’s stock, and if Jacob was mature enough to forgive Tarmund he was equally mature enough to fire him, too.
But why would he even want to go back to Jacob? Augh! Little kid giving him pithy lessons about friendship and love and stuff. Eating the same thing every day! The constant bleating of the sheep, all the time! Tarmund sometimes wondered how he bore it all!
But he was also getting tired of sleeping out in the cold, hungry, by himself.
He ran the options through his head again. Disowned parents, former crime buddies, uncharted territory, or Jacob.
He scoffed at himself, rolled his eyes, and trudged across the dark desert sands in the dead of night, head dipped in shame.
Well, if Jacob didn’t work out, he supposed that wandering in the wilderness would be a good plan B.
Jacob was settling down for a long, deep sleep. It had been a hard day of working, and just like every other night, he was quite ready to simply curl up in his warm, cozy tent and dream until the morning. The sheep were laying down for a quiet night, the lambs had all found their mothers, and all the bellies were full of dinner. Nothing was happening. It was all quiet, with the exception of the occasional night-dwelling bird or insect.
But there were a few sheep who were all night-owls – they were almost like the night watch for the flock – and they began to bleat in alarm at about 11 o’clock. They woke up their fellow sheep, who also began to bleat loudly, to run about blindly, wondering what to do, and after a little bit the whole ruckus woke up Jacob, who had been sleeping quite contentedly just before. He blinked blearily at the walls of the tent – dyed a pretty yellow color – wondering what was going on, and then realized that his sheep were running about wildly outside the tent in a panic. He rushed out of the tent, trying to calm his sheep and figure out what had them so upset, when he finally saw the dark figure approaching them over the sand. His gait was slow and lumbering, tired, weary. Jacob squinted at him for a little bit, before letting out a little gasp of surprise.
What was Tarmund doing here? And walking around at this hour! Why, he must be frozen half to death.
Jacob charged down the hill to confront Tarmund, simultaneously elated at his return, concerned with his demeanor, and bewildered why he had come at such a ridiculous hour.
Somehow, the tall man with the black hair looked guilty.
“Tarmund!” Jacob called, once he’d met him at the bottom of the hill. “Why, where have you been?”
“We can talk a little later. I promise I’ll explain everything,” Tarmund said wearily. “But do you have any food to spare?”
Tarmund explained everything from beginning to end, once he had some food in his stomach. Jacob’s saving up had allowed him a bit of extra vittles left over to spare, and Tarmund gnashed down hungrily on the stew and bread, which now tasted positively delicious, sitting by the warm, cozy fire.
He began with an admission of why he had come to work for Jacob, and what he’d done with the sheep. He explained that he was a thief, who’d come through and heard from the locals about the miraculous stock Jacob was raising. He said that the heist had failed spectacularly due to his own failure to take care of the sheep, and that now he was dirt poor and had nowhere else to go. Therefore, he came crawling back, hoping that maybe they could start over, because the whole thieving thing was not working out, and Tarmund was getting tired of it.
“At least, you know,” Tarmund continued sheepishly, “Maybe lend a place to stay and something to eat while I figure out what I’m going to do.”
Jacob had been listening quietly the whole time with this funny smile on his face, like everything Tarmund said was so predictable but Jacob was happy hearing it anyway. When Tarmund was finished, he chuckled, and said, “Well, of course I can lend you some food and a place to stay. I can’t turn down a man trying to turn over a new leaf. That’d be bad of me.”
Tarmund looked taken aback. “Oh, well, uh, thanks-”
Jacob interrupted, looking still more amused. “Wait! Don’t thank me yet,” he said. “I don’t suppose you know the Jewish law about theft, yes?”
Tarmund’s face fell. He knew where this was going. “No.”
“When you steal something from somebody,” Jacob said, “You must return to them five times what was stolen as your proper repentance.”
“What?” Tarmund looked alarmed. “I don’t have – what, I gotta give you the equivalent of ten sheep?!”
“That’s what the law says!” Jacob grinned.
“Dude, that’s not funny. I don’t have any money! I can’t pay you!”
“Now wait, wait, we can work something out.” Jacob held his hands up. “If you gave me the equivalent of ten sheep in labor – well, I’d be happy with that, and you’d be earning your stay on top of that. Better than begging for handouts, right?”
Tarmund was definitely not amused with the proposition, and he opened his mouth to argue more, but then realized that there was no point. He was the aggressor, and he’d never win in a Jewish court of law. Jacob was getting his assistant back whether Tarmund liked it or not.
“How about it?” Jacob insisted.
“How much are those sheep usually worth?” Tarmund asked wearily.
“Oh, they can go for 200 or 300 shekels a piece, usually,” Jacob replied.
Tarmund’s hair stood up. 250 shekels times 10 was 2,500 shekels! He had not seen that many shekels in the same place in his entire life. It was too many!
“How am I supposed to make that much?” He asked, bewildered.
“Oh, ah,” Jacob thought for a moment. “Well, I suppose when you milk the ewes, a single ewe will be worth 1 shekel. And then anything you earn by selling my wares in the marketplace will be counted towards paying off your debt, too. And also note, you didn’t really return the sheep, but I’ve got them back anyway, and I bet you would have returned them anyway, so you’re really paying for the price of 8 sheep, which I guess would be, like, ah… 2,000, 2,400 shekels.”
It was still too many shekels. Also, Jacob had misunderstood the question, though Tarmund knew that the details like that needed to be ironed out, too.
“No, no,” Tarmund said hastily. “How am I supposed to raise that many shekels??”
“What? I just… Oh, oh. I get it. Oh. Time and effort. Point is, you’ll get a roof over your head and food on your table, and you’ll be earning it.” Jacob looked at Tarmund, decisive and intent. “You will work until you earn the equivalent of 2,000 shekels. Then, your debt will be paid, and you’ll be free to go. Do you accept my terms?”
Well, Tarmund didn’t see how he could argue his way out of this one, and it gave him some time to consider his options anyway. He nodded almost sadly. “I accept,” he said drearily.
“Good. That makes this easy,” Jacob said, satisfied. “Now, I am exhausted, and I can tell you are too. Get some sleep. I left your tent up because I couldn’t be bothered to take it down, so you’re free to lodge in there.”
Tarmund began to creep over to the little green structure.
“Right, and by the way,” Jacob said. “I’m glad you’re safe, anyway. I thought bandits could’ve gotten you or something.”
Tarmund didn’t reply. He just went inside, and that suited Jacob just as well.
In the morning, they began with a good breakfast of cheese and bread toasted to a golden-brown over the fire, and some comfortable talk about nothing in particular. They didn’t discuss Tarmund’s debt right away, and Tarmund made an effort to avoid the matter altogether for some time. But they couldn’t avoid it forever, and once breakfast was done, they put on their rugged sandals and got to work.
Tarmund was looking a little grumpy at the whole affair, glaring at assorted sheep as he passed. They all stared back, wondering what they’d done wrong, and shied away at the glare of the scary man who had run out on them.
Jacob, however, was looking positively pleased, and also a little amused at the demeanor of his partner. It kept occuring to Tarmund that Jacob should’ve been angry or something, considering that he was being followed by the person who had betrayed him, but if anything his mood was better than before. It was very strange.
“Hey, Jacob,” Tarmund asked. “What’s up?”
“Why so smiley?”
Jacob just smiled more. “Why not?”
“It doesn’t make any sense. You aren’t making any sense. Why aren’t you, you know… mad at me? You make no sense.”
“Oh, that’s easy,” Jacob said. “The matter’s been resolved. We’ve settled on a way to pay your debt. Why should I still be angry? Heavens, why should I have been angry to begin with? Anger is one of the least productive emotions you can have, right?”
“Mm, well…” Tarmund frowned. “Well, if you think about it, it might be unproductive, but it’s kind of natural, too, you know.”
“Oh, I see where you’re going,” Jacob laughed. “You see a wierd anomaly when you see me smiling, is that it?”
“Well, I am kind of confused.”
“Take it this way, then.” Jacob looked back and grinned a big, sparkling, lively grin at him. “You did something wrong, but you’ve come back, and you’re turning over a new leaf. This is the kind of story I like hearing about, and I’m just happy that you’re coming around. It’s very awe-inspiring, you know?”
Tarmund had not been expecting that answer. He stared at Jacob for a little bit, looking a little bit like Jacob had spontaneously sprouted rabbit ears, and then looked away, feeling awkward and embarrassed.
Jacob didn’t comment. He bent down, and picked up a trusty wooden pail. There was a little bit of sand in the bottom, but a few knocks on the base took care of that.
“Take this,” he said, handing Tarmund the pail. “Some of the ewes need milking. You can get started on that.”
Tarmund stared at the pail, looking apprehensive. He had expected a whole slew of things coming back from Jerusalem: hard labor, suffering hunger, cold, an angry employer and lots of scowling faces. And though shepherding always came with heavy labor, he was well-fed, properly housed, and being treated with respect. Heavens, he had expected Jacob to throw a temper-tantrum on top of it all, being so young. But… Jacob was trusting him alone with the sheep again? Expecting that he would milk the ewes, instead of cheating his way out of working? How could Jacob trust Tarmund, after everything?
“But why?” he asked, bewildered.
“Why are you treating me like this? It doesn’t make sense. I betrayed you, stole your sheep, ran out on you when you needed me! How can you trust me after all that?”
Jacob smiled gently. “Tarmund, let me ask you this. Does an untrustworthy person question you on whether you can trust him or not?”
Tarmund didn’t reply, just staring helplessly at the wooden bucket.
“Yes, you did do all that. But you came back, you said sorry, you asked for forgiveness. We’ve already laid down the terms of your sentence as per the Mosaic law. If it doesn’t work out, there are other ways of dealing with you, though I don’t think I’ll have to resort to that. Point is, I don’t see any reason to still be mad at you or to not trust you. I’ve forgiven you.” Jacob grinned mischeivously. “Now go do your job, and stop questioning my judgement! I’m the boss around here, not you.”
Tarmund stared at the bucket a little longer, still looking helpless, then looked awkwardly at Jacob. Jacob was shorter than Tarmund, younger by at least a decade, but there was a lot of heart and wisdom in that little body of his.
In most things, Tarmund would have been the one in charge. Tarmund was the adult, he was stronger, faster, more experienced. But Jacob was – well, besides being the person who knew how to take care of sheep, he had a lot of wisdom on Tarmund, was less impulsive, and already a great man of God.
Tarmund did not need an employer who could just tell him what to do, give him his earnings, and send him on his way. Tarmund needed a boss who would invest time and effort into his employee, would help him to grow and figure out what he was supposed to do next. Jacob was that person.
He had been blessed with a new lease on life, and Jacob was his teacher.
He smiled timidly, took the pail, and rolled his eyes. “Alright, boss-man. Where do I start?”