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ADHISH lovingly patted back the brown unruly hair from his son, Manu’s face as he sat beside him on the rock. He was moved by the great love and care with which Manu was tending to one of their lambs that had a deep wound on its hind leg. The boy was only 12, but he was almost as good a shepherd as his father was. Adhish knew it and he was fond of his boy. Manu knew each sheep by name (for he had named them in his own childish manner) and the animals were also quite attached to him.
God had been good to them that year and their flocks had increased. It was getting difficult to manage the entire herd between father and son. So Adhish decided to employ a couple of shepherds.
As they herded the flock along, there came a man seeking alms.
“What is your name, my man?” Adhish asked him.
“There are people who call me Raghu. Now why ask my name. Just give me something so I can be on my way.”
“Okay, calm down my dear fellow; tell me one thing. Can you tend to a part of my flock?” Adhish asked. “If so, you’ll be well rewarded each month.”
Raghu’s slanted eyes flitted around for a second. This man seems to be a simpleton. I can certainly make a lot of money out of him. He agreed. “I’ve a friend, Bhaskar, who was once a shepherd. Something happened and he lost all his sheep and property. Shall I bring him too?”
“Oh! that’s very good. We can do with all the help we get.”
Bhaskar and Raghu were good at their job at first, always looking for ways to please Adhish. But soon they began to show their true colours. The problems began with some of the sheep disappearing at times. Manu knew exactly which those were and told his father.
“Where have Renju, Mini, Somu, and Lambu gone?” Adhish asked Raghu. “I had seen the two of you herding them over to the other end of the stream last evening.”
But Raghu and Bhaskar always had some excuse, saying either that the lost sheep would come back in the evening, or that maybe they had fallen prey to some wild animal. This went on for some time.
Meanwhile, Raghu began enticing the healthy part of the flock to pastures elsewhere from time to time. Maybe the animals too thought these were the real shepherds. For they were the ones who led them to greener pastures. So when Manu tried to pet his favourite lambs, they just kicked him and walked away.
One fine day, Raghu and Bhaskar had taken the entire flock for grazing before Adhish or Manu were awake. On waking up, Adhish saw that their sheep had disappeared. He shook his son up from his slumber.
“Wake up, my son. Those two shepherds seem to have disappeared with all our sheep. Let’s go find them.”
They began looking for the sheep in two directions. Adhish soon caught up with the gang.
“Why have you taken them to graze so early in the morning?”
“We looked for you and you were in deep slumber. So we thought you must be tired and we didn’t want to disturb.”
While they were thus talking, they heard a sudden hiss. Right in front of them, a few yards away stood a huge python, as thick as a man’s wrist. It seemed so huge that it could cover the entire flock with a flick of its tail.
They stood stricken in fear; Bhaskar and Raghu slowly slinked away to the back. For a moment Adhish too seemed paralysed, yet soon regained his presence of mind. He quickly surveyed the place and found a stack of firewood and a box of matches that had fallen off Bhaskar’s hands while making his flight. The two new’ shepherds’ had disappeared into the woods.
Soon, without any quick moments, he had quietly arranged the firewood as a barrier between themselves and the snake. He struck the match and was just about to light the fire, when he stood paralyzed on glancing up. His dear son, Manu, stood frozen with fear just a few feet behind the snake. Now there was not a second to lose. The snake was ready to attack them. But if he lighted the sticks, the snake would turn around and come face to face with his only son. He hesitated for just a second, but then looked back at the sheep he had nurtured so far with love and care. He wanted each one of his herd to be safe. Soon all the sticks caught fire.
The snake gave another great hiss and turned back towards Manu. With a heartbreaking sob Adhish quickly herded the entire flock to safety, the agonizing sound of ‘Appa, appa” piercing his ears. The sound was slowly dying down and Adhish did not want to turn back and see the dreadful fate of Manu.