The Chosen Ones
It's another tiny airport,” said Tod, as he and Gran walked away from the plane toward a chain-link fence at the edge of the field.
“Still, at least we won't have to wait for our luggage,” said Gran.
The pilot was striding in front of them, carrying their bags. Tod and Gran paused and glanced back. Jo was shooing their sheep into a shed in the opposite corner of the field. She'd told them that animals always had to go that way.
“They look fine,” said Tod.
The pilot marched through a gate in the fence, heading for the parking lot, and Tod and Gran had to run to keep up with him. None of the sheep noticed Tod and Ida. They were too busy trying to keep up with Jo.
“Ohmygrassâ¦” said Jaycey, as they trotted into the shed. “It's sooo hot!”
“And the sun's not even up yet,” observed Wills, glancing up at the dawn sky.
“Excellent,” said Sal. “This
be the right West. We want the West where the sun scorches fleeces.”
“And the hottest winds blow,” grunted Links, moving away from Oxo, who'd rather overdone the greens on the plane and was having a gassy time digesting them.
As Tod and Gran arrived in the parking lot, Holly Boomberg squeezed her husband's hand again.
“Right, darling,” she said. “These must be the owners. Now, do you remember what you have to do?”
“Drive them to Back of Beyond Ranch,” said Stanley reluctantly.
Stanley pulled a face. “Be charming.”
“You can if you try,” said Holly firmly. Then her voice became brisk again. “The sheep transporter I ordered should be here any minute. As soon as it comes, I'll follow you to the ranch and you can choose the two you want.”
The pilot had reached the Boombergs' car. It was the only one in the parking lot. He dumped Tod's and Ida's bags beside it and then hurried back to the plane.
“Remember,” whispered Holly into Stanley's ear. “You're from the Society for Rare, Humble, Unwanted, Beautiful, and Rare Breeds.”
Panic spread across the Professor's face. “I'm what? Tell me again.”
She gave him a little shove and strode away toward the shed, flashing a breezy smile at Tod and Ida as she went.
“I'm rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarbâ¦” muttered the Professor, walking slowly toward his car, his shoulders hunched, his head down.
He was still muttering when he came face to face with his supposed guests.
“Good morning,” the old lady said politely. “I'm Ida White and this is my great-grandson Tod.”
“I'm Rhubarb,” Professor Boomberg announced. There was a pause. He didn't know what else to say, so he opened the car door and gestured for them to get in.
It was a very long, low car, black with black windows. Stanley turned up the air conditioning, handed Tod the remote for the TV, and showed him how to get cold drinks from the mini fridge.
“Uh, let's go,” he said, sliding into the driver's seat.
“What about our sheep?” asked Gran.
“They'll be right behind,” said Stanley, even managing a smile. “My wife will be bringing them.”
“Is this your wife now?” asked Gran, looking through the tinted windows at the woman in red high heels marching across the parking lot toward them. “She looks rather cross.”
Holly was cross.
“I'm so sorry about this delay,” she gushed, peering in at the open window. “Do make yourselves at home for a few moments while we sort out the, er, formalities.” She turned to face her husband and spoke out of the corner of her mouth. “Come with me, Stanley.”
Stanley didn't argue. He slid out of the car and followed her to the shed.
“You can't trust anyone to do anything right,” said Holly as she marched. “I ordered a truck and look what they've sent!”
Parked behind the shed was a small, open-topped cart, the sort of thing used by golfers.
“And the idiots are blaming
. They thought I said cart when I clearly said truck!” She turned to face Stanley. “Well, we can't get five sheep in this thing. You're going to have to choose here and now.”
Stanley started to flap his hands and tut. He hated being rushed.
“OK,” he said, “I'll get the brain scanner from the car.”
“There's no time for that,” said Holly. “This
illegal. And the pilot wants us to go. Now!” She pushed open the shed door and hurried inside. Five pairs of eyes turned toward her. “Which two do you think?”
Stanley followed her in and shut the door peevishly. “I don't know by just looking at them, do I?”
“I did tell you they're all bright,” his wife reminded him.
“I know, but I'm a scientist. I have to conduct some sort of intelligence test.” Stanley looked irritably round the shed. “Ah.”
He'd seen a pile of buckets by the wall next to a bin of animal feed. He hurried across, took three buckets, and stood them in a row. Then, while the sheep watched, he took a handful of feed from the bin. With a flourish, he dropped one of the round, grape-sized nuts of food into the first bucket. Then he dropped two nuts into the second. The third he left empty.
“Pass me that newspaper, honey,” he instructed.
Holly glanced at her watch but fetched the old newspaper her husband was pointing at and handed it to him. He placed a folded page over the top of each bucket.
“The smartest animals,” he said to Holly, “will remember which bucket has the most food and head straight for it.” He folded his arms and stared at the sheep.
They stared right back.
“What's all that about?” asked Oxo.
The sheep had eaten well on the plane and not even he fancied a snack yet.
“No idea,” said Wills.
Jaycey suddenly noticed that the empty bucket was shinier than the other two. She trotted across to it.
“Ohmygrassâ¦” she moaned, peering at her reflection in its side. “Just look what this heat is doing to my fleece alreadyâ¦”
Holly was standing beside her husband with the clipboard she always carried in her briefcase.
“Cross that one off,” said the Professor. “It went straight for the empty bucket.”
Wills followed Jaycey. With his teeth, he gripped the newspaper from the top of the empty bucket and dropped it on to the floor.
“If I can find a map,” he said, “I might be able to tell exactly where we are.”
“Just as stupid as the first one,” declared the Professor. “Cross it off.”
“Are you sure, darling?” Holly was watching Wills. “It actually looks quite bright to me.”
The Professor raised his eyebrows. “Honey, do I tell you how to go about organizing things?”
Holly bit her lip. Stanley only ever contradicted her when they were talking about something scientific. And she always let him. He was, after all, the cleverest scientist in the world. Or so she believed.
They watched the sheep silently for a few moments, then Holly glanced at her watch again and began tapping her fingers anxiously on her clipboard. Links got to his feet and walked away.
“She got no rhythm, man,” he muttered. “That is painful on the ears.”
“Cross it off?” asked Holly.
“Cross it off,” said Stanley.
“So we take the remaining two?”
“Just let me make quite sure.”
The Professor dredged a handful of feed nuts from the bin, held them high in the air, then dropped the lot noisily into the empty bucket. Then he opened up another sheet of newspaper and with a dramatic flourish laid it across the top.
Something scarily familiar caught Oxo's eye. He stiffened.
“Do you see what I saw?” he asked.
Only he and Sal had been watching.
“A red tongue,” she breathed. “On the bucket.”
“Just like the one on the laptop thingy?” asked Oxo.
“Exactly like it,” said Sal. “Is it a pop-up?”
“No,” growled Oxo. “It's a challenge.”
He lowered his head and charged. Sal did the same. The shiny bucket with its handful of nuts went spinning across the shed. The sheet of newspaper covering it was shredded under two sets of hooves as they trampled the printed image of Red Tongue.
The Boombergs retreated hastily to the top of a stack of hay bales.
“Awesome,” murmured the Professor. “They homed in like missiles.”
Holly took a coil of rope from her briefcase and tied it in a slip knot. She stood up, ready to take aim. There was no escape.
The Staple Gun
What's up?” asked Wills, as he, Jaycey and Links ran to join Oxo and Sal by the upturned bucket.
“Red Tongue!” panted Sal. She nosed the trampled newspaper.
“Oohâ¦have we killed him already?” gasped Jaycey.
“No, dear,” said Sal. “This is only a pretend one. We were practicing.”
Wills peered at a torn headline.
“This is just talking about him,” he told Jaycey. “It says, Red Tongue isâ¦”
“What?” asked Oxo. “As good as dead?”
“No,” said Wills. “It says, Red Tongue is on the road!” He looked up, pleased. “That's good. All we have to do is find the road.”
“Easy,” said Oxo. “Let's go.”
But as he turned to the door, his eyes suddenly bulged and a choking noise gurgled from his throat. Beside him, Sal was bulging and choking too. From on top of the hay bales, Holly Boomberg had thrown her rope and caught them both in the one noose.
“Hold them,” she instructed, handing the rope to Stanley. “Pull as tight as you need. Just keep them still.”
hold them!” cried Stanley, digging his feet into the hay and clutching the rope to his chest. “Honey, what are you doing?”
“Isn't it obvious, dear?” asked Holly, jumping down to the floor. She had taken a very large staple gun from her briefcase and was fitting something into it as she edged toward the struggling sheep. “My plan was to do this at the ranch, but I might as well attach the sensors now, while they're nicely trapped.”
She lunged forward, grabbed Sal's ear, and deftly stapled a silver stud into it.
“Excellentâ¦” she said, fitting a gold stud into the staple gun.
Oxo choked and strained helplessly. Holly turned to him, pushed her sleeves up a little so as not to dirty the cuffs, then grabbed one of his ears. With a snap, the gold stud was fired from the staple gun into his flesh.
“Ohmygrassâ¦” wailed Jaycey. “That must be sooo sore!”
Holly smiled up at her husband as she slipped the staple gun back into her briefcase. “Back on track, darling,” she said. “You can go back to the car now and drive the ancient shepherdess and her boy out to the ranch. I'll take these two back to site in that stupid cart thing. They'll just about fit.”
“What about the others, honey?” asked Stanley, slithering down from the hay bales, the rope still clutched to his chest.
Holly shrugged. “They're no use to us now. They can stay here.”
“They'll die without water,” observed Stanley, though his glance at Jaycey, Wills, and Links was unconcerned.
“That's what sheep are supposed to do, isn't it?” said Holly, barely listening. “Die and get eaten.”
She opened the door a crack and peeped out. Don, the pilot, was pacing up and down close to the plane. He saw Holly and tapped his watch angrily.
“Do hurry, darling,” Holly said to Stanley. “The pilot's going to explode if we don't get away from here soon.”
“OK, OK, I'm gone.” The Professor dropped the rope and hurried to the door. “Stay in touch.”
He disappeared, leaving the door open. Sunlight poured in and the sheep made an instinctive bid for freedom. Holly stooped and swiftly grabbed up the rope trailing from Sal's and Oxo's necks. She hauled them back, the noose tightening around their throats, making them choke and cough again.
say when we leave,” she told them, stepping back farther to gain a better hold.
Then a strange, undignified thing happened. Her feet slid from under her and continued to slide, no matter how hard she tried to stay upright. It was like running uphill backward on roller skates. It didn't work. And after a few seconds, she was flat on her back. She clung on to the rope but her bottom was sliding now as well as her feet.
In the moment before she collided painfully with the wall and lost her grip on the rope, Holly was sure she glimpsed the skinny brown lamb standing beside the feed bin. The bin was lying on its side now, its load of feed nuts bouncing across the floor like a thousand organic marbles. Surely he couldn't have turned it over! What's more, she thought she saw the lamb clacking front hooves with the curly-haired ram. She certainly saw him scamper across to where Stanley's chosen sheep were trying to get through the door at the same time. The skinny brown lambâthe one her husband had dismissed as stupidâtrod on the noose so that the captives could back their heads out of the circle of rope as it slackened.
Then they were all gone and Holly was left with nothing but a large headache. She stumbled to her feet, kicking feed nuts in all directions, and rushed outside. The desert beyond the fence appeared entirely sheep-less. She heard a sound and spun round. Don, the pilot, was walking quickly toward the plane. Jo had already shut the passenger door.
“My sheep have escaped!” cried Holly, running after the pilot. “You've got to help me get them back!”
Don turned briefly and frowned at her.
“Sheep?” he said. “What sheep?”
Tod and Gran were standing beside the car, gazing at the stark landscape beyond the chain-link fence, when Stanley returned.
“Uhâ¦sorry to keep you waiting,” he said, picking hay from his jacket. “It was the uhâ¦”
“Formalities?” offered Gran.
“Sure.” Their host nodded. “The formalities.”
“Are our sheep OK?” asked Tod.
“They're being loaded right now,” said Stanley.
Reassured, Tod and Gran clambered back into the luxury of the biggest car they had ever seen. The sun continued to rise behind them as their host drove from the parking lot and on to the straight, empty road. There were no houses, no trees, no peopleâjust barren flatness. It was only broken by great slabs of mountain in the distance, rising in sheer cliffs that were blood-red in color, turning to orange as the sky above hardened to bright blue.
“Beautiful, isn't it?” whispered Tod.
“Amazing,” agreed Gran. She squeezed his hand and giggled. “A bit different from Eppingham.”
“I wonder where the conference center is,” Tod said. “Shall I ask?”
Gran nodded, but before Tod had a chance to speak, the car jolted to a halt and they were thrown forward by the abrupt stop.
“We've what?” they heard the Professor snap into his cell phone.
They couldn't hear the other end of the conversation, but Stanley could. His wife's voice was loud and clear.
“We've lost the sheep,” she repeated, sharply. “Act like nothing's wrong. Keep driving.”
Tod and Ida were thrown backward as the car lurched on again.
“The idiot pilot wouldn't help me catch them,” Holly continued. “Anyway, I haven't exactly lost them. I'm on their trail. Keep going until you hear from me again. And be charming to our guests. Distract them. Point out all the interesting things you pass.”
“We're in a desert,” said the Professor. “There
any interesting things.”
“You're a scientist,” snapped his wife. “Invent some.”
And she ended the call.
Holly Boomberg had indeed found a trail. A scuffle in the dirt behind the airfield shed had settled into a steady line of hoofprints that soon joined the desert roadâthe same road Stanley had taken only a few minutes earlier. The only road, in fact.
, she thought. Where did they think they were going? They'd be dead within a day. She had to save themâwell, Stanley's chosen two. The rest could become vulture meat for all she cared.
Holly had got over the shock of the sheep's escape, convinced herself it had just been bad luck. No sheep could be
clever. She was feeling confident again. She leapt into the golf cart and drove off in a dramatic swirl of dust.
Some way ahead in the shadeless desert, the warriors had slowed from a headlong race to a brisk trot.
After a while, Sal said, “We
going the right way, aren't we, dear?”
She was sure Wills had once said something about using the sun to know where you were.
Wills's short legs had to move fast to keep up.
“Yes,” he gasped. “The sun's behind us. It rises in the East, so we know we're heading West.”
“That's what I thought,” said Sal and she broke into a gallop again. “Onward, brave warriors!” she cried.
Wills tried to speak but his voice got lost in the thunder of hooves and heavy breathing.
Jaycey glanced at Sal and Oxo as she ran. It must have hurt when the Staple Gun Woman put the studs in their ears, but they did look very bling, glinting silver and gold in the sunlight. They were, she thought, wasted on Oxo and Sal.
Oxo had forgotten all about the gold stud in his ear. The complete absence of grub was a much greater concern. There was simply no grass. He'd tried a nibble of one of the gray stunted trees dotted about the place, but it was dry and bitterâa poor second even to an Eppingham fence post. The spiny cactus plants were greenish but, whichever way you came at them, they gave you a bloody nose. He was fed up with not being fed.
“What's the point of a place where there's no point stopping for breakfast?” he complained as he ran.
“What did you expect, man?” said Links. “It's the desert, right.”
Wills finally made his voice heard.
“I think we should slow down!” he called to Sal, who was still in the lead but now panting heavily.
She skidded to a halt, then, after a moment, walked on slowly, her sides heaving.
“West is west,” she puffed, “and Red Tongue's about to meet the bestâ¦”
“Right,” said Wills. “But we've set off too fast.”
Behind him, he heard Links beginning a new rap, his voice croaky but determined.
“We ain't never been so hot before,
But we gotta show Red Tongue the door,
We got a job and it's gotta be done,
So it's no use complainin' 'bout the sun.
We know we can take it, 'cause we is tough,
The Warrior Sheep ain't never had enoughâ¦
The Warrior Sheep ain't never had enoughâ¦”
He sang quietly at first, nodding his head and flicking his damp curls from his eyes as he walked. The others listened and then joined in, gradually getting louder and stronger as they stopped puffing. Their plod became a march, their necks straightened, and their spirits rose.
“The Warrior Sheep ain't never had enoughâ¦”
A little way behind them but catching up fast, Holly Boomberg stopped to take a drink from the bottle of water in the golf cart. She was no longer angry at the size of the vehicle. Or its lack of air conditioning. It went surprisingly fast and she only had to glance out of the open sides as she drove to follow the trail. She could still see the sheep's hoofprints. She ran a comb through her hair, slicked on a smear of lip gloss, and drove confidently on. It could only be a matter of minutes now.
The warriors sang until they were too hot to sing anymore, and then they marched in silence. They reached a long line of billboards at the side of the road.
“I'm sooo thirstyâ¦” whimpered Jaycey as they passed the boards.
“Yeah, and my stomach thinks my mouth's been tied shut,” said Oxo.
Wills stopped and craned his neck to look up at the boards. His heart skipped a beat.
“Hey, wait a minute,” he called. “Look at this!”
There, way above their heads, were tongues. A whole line of Red Tongues. And under the pictures were words. Wills squinted into the glaring light.
RED TONGUE'S GONNA SLAUGHTER THE RAMS.
FORT WILMOT, LAS VEGAS
Wills read the words to himself, then aloud.
“Ohmygrassâ¦” whispered Jaycey. “Is that a message for us? Like the pop-up?”
“I think it must be,” said Wills, still squinting up into the sun. His head suddenly started to spin and then his legs buckled under him.
“Sorry, guysâ¦” he said, feeling dizzy. “I seem to be sitting downâ¦”
“It's the sun, man,” said Links, giving him a little nudge. “Get in the shade.”
Wills wobbled to his hooves and they all stepped from the road, tottered round behind the billboards, and flopped down. It was a relief to be out of the direct sunshine.
“We gotta rest here a few minutes,” panted Links.
“Yes. We must pace ourselves if we're to be fit for battle,” gasped Sal. “I recall saying that earlier.”
Gradually, their breathing steadied and one by one they closed their eyes.
Seconds later, Holly Boomberg's cart appeared. She didn't even glance at the billboards as she whizzed past. She was staring intently at the road, which had briefly become too hard and stony to show hoofprints, and was anxious to pick up the trail again. Her cell phone rang. She heard Stanley's stiff voice.
“Did you find the sheep yet?”
“Almost, dear. Are you being charming to our guests?”
“Almost. They're getting twitchy. Do you realize how many prickly pears we have in Arizona?”
“All will be well, darling,” Holly assured him. “Just get them to the ranch.”
She made a little kissing noise and switched off before he could tell her how busy he was and how many calculations he had to do before B-Day. Let the white-coated scientists he employed do a few, she thought. That was, after all, what she was paying them for.
Stanley glared in the rearview mirror at his passengers. He longed to be rid of them but his wife was right: keep them happy.
“Oh, look!” he said. “Over on your right. A very fine example ofâ¦uh, another prickly pear.”
Tod and Gran had already seen hundreds of prickly pears. They looked at each other then turned and peered through the rear window yet again. There was still no sign of the truck carrying their sheep as they'd been promised.
“As soon as we stop,” Tod whispered, “I'm going to find a phone and call the police.”
“Agreed,” said Gran. “There's something fishy going on here.”
The warriors had dozed in the shade for only a few minutes, but it was enough to revive them. With Oxo in the lead, they stepped out from behind the billboards, back onto the stony road.
“Onward?” asked Oxo, already feeling the sun beating down on him again.
“Onward!” the others cried, half closing their eyes against the glare.
They marched on, the air so hot now it seemed to burn in their noses as they breathed. Their throats felt parched and even Links couldn't manage to sing.
After a while, they paused to catch their breath by a signpost stuck crookedly into the ground.
“What does it say, dear?” panted Sal.
“Fort Wilmot via Dead Man's Creekâ¦” gasped Wills. “Fort Wilmot! Red Tongue's there!”
“Dead Man's Creek,” grunted Oxo. “Sounds inviting.”
“What if it's Dead
Creek too?” whimpered Jaycey.
“It's taking us toward Red Tongue,” said Sal. “That's all that matters.”
They marched on.
“Anyway, what's a creek?” Oxo asked suddenly.
Wills had been trying to remember the same thing. He thought a creek was a sort of river but he didn't want to raise anyone's hopes so he didn't answer the question. Instead he said, “Should we rest again for a moment?”
Sal's sides were heaving more than ever and she was beginning to stagger. She slumped to the ground but while the others gathered anxiously around her, Links stepped aside and raised his head. Listening.
“Uh, maybe sitting's not the best thing right nowâ¦” he said.
The others lifted their heads and heard what Links had heard: a noise in the distance behind them. A growl that rapidly became a roar. Staring in its direction, they saw a plume of dust.
“Ohmygrassâ¦” squeaked Jaycey. “Is itâ¦is itâ¦Red Tongue?”
“We's in no state to find out, man,” said Links. “When in doubtâ¦run!”
They prodded and heaved Sal to her feet and, forgetting their thirst and fatigue, ran for their lives. They galloped away along the road, their hearts pounding with fear. But the plume of dust behind them drew closer, and the roar grew louder, accompanied now by strange braying blasts.
Wills veered off the road and the other warriors followed, but it was no use. The roar followed, getting closer and louder. The ground was rough here and strewn with boulders and prickly cacti, which they stumbled over and into. They all began to slow, their flanks heaving, their tongues swelling in their mouths. Then, one by one, they dropped to their knees and rolled on their sides, beyond panic, utterly exhausted. Tongues lolling as they gulped down breaths of stifling desert air, they awaited their fate.