Before the sheriff came to get him, Lloyd found the sheep out by the pond. He’d counted head that morning and come up one short. He did the count over because he was still hazy from the night before. And he’d woken with a foul smell in his nose. So he went into Mr. Mac’s house — it was early morning; the old man would be dead to the world — and filled his canteen with some white lightning. He felt shaky and bad and the spring morning was cold. He shouldn’t have gone to town the night before.
The sheep lay on its side in some rushes. A flow of yellowish mucus was coming from its nose and its eyes were sickly-thin slits that looked afraid of what was happening. Lloyd thought the sheep honorable; it had left to die so it wouldn’t infect the rest of the flock. Lloyd knew the sheep’s sickness was his fault and that he couldn’t do anything about it, but he squatted down next to the animal and rubbed its underside. In this hour before sunrise, when the night-dew was still wet and shivery, the warmth and animal smell felt good. Lloyd moved his hands in circles over its lightly-furred, pink skin and lines of blue veins, its hard cage of ribs, its slack, soft belly. Across the pond, the sun peeked red through the panhandle dust over a low line of slate-gray clouds. With his free hand, Lloyd took his canteen from a pocket in his jacket, clamped it between his knees, opened it, and drank. For a moment the liquor stung the sides of his tongue, then dissolved in him like warm water. The sheep’s lungs lifted up and down, its heart churned blood like a slowly pounding fist. Soon the sun broke free and the pond, rippled by a slight breeze, ignited in countless tiny candle flames. When Lloyd was a child, Mr. Mac used to tell him that at the Last Judgment the pond would become the Lake of Fire, into which all sinners would be cast. Lloyd could still picture them falling in a dark stream, God pouring them out like a bag of nails. The sheep closed its eyes against the light.
The Atlantic Monthly (June 1999); short-listed in Prize Stories 2000: The O. Henry Awards, cited in The Best American Short Stories 2000; National Magazine Award nominee, 2000; reprinted in The Best American Mystery Stories 2000, New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best 2000, Best of the South, Vol. II, From the Second Decade of New Stories from the South, and What If?: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers.