A third farmer, rail-thin and wearing a knit cap, pointed at me as we approached. “Here he is!” he called out. “Where you been off to, son?”
Dad patted me on the back. “Tell them,” he said confidently.
I tried to sound like I had nothing to hide. “I was exploring the other side of the island. The big house.”
Knit Cap looked confused. “Which big house?”
“That wonky old heap in the forest,” said Pitchfork. “Only a certified idiot would set foot in there. Place is witched, and a deathtrap to boot.”
Knit Cap squinted at me. “In the big house with who?”
“Nobody,” I said, and saw Dad give me a funny look.
“Bollocks! I think you was with this one,” said the man holding Worm.
“I never killed any sheep!” cried Worm.
“Shaddap!” the man roared.
“Jake?” said my dad. “What about your friends?”
“Ahh, crap, Dad.”
Knit Cap turned and spat. “Why you little liar. I oughta belt you right here in fronta God and everybody.”
“You stay away from him,” my father said, doing his best Stern Dad voice. Knit Cap swore and took a step toward him, and he and my dad squared off. Before either could throw a punch, a familiar voice said, “Hang on, Dennis, we’ll get this sorted,” and Martin stepped out of the crowd to wedge himself between them. “Just start by telling us whatever your boy told you,” he said to my father.
Dad glared at me. “He said he was going to see friends on the other side.”
“What friends?” Pitchfork demanded.
I could see this was only going to get uglier unless I did something drastic. Obviously, I couldn’t tell them about the children—not that they’d believe me anyway—so instead I took a calculated risk.
“It wasn’t anybody,” I said, dropping my eyes in feigned shame. “They’re imaginary.”
“What’d he say?”
“He said his friends were imaginary,” my dad repeated, sounding worried.
The farmers exchanged baffled glances.
“See?” Worm said, a flicker of hope on his face. “Kid’s a bloody psycho! It had to be him!”
“I never touched them,” I said, though no one was really listening.
“It weren’t the American,” said the farmer who had Worm. He gave Worm’s shirt a wrench. “This one here, he’s got a history. Few years back I watched him kick a lamb down a cliffside. Wouldn’t of believed it if I hadn’t seen it wi’ me own eyes. After he done it I asked him why. To see if it could fly, he says. He’s a sickie, all right.”
People muttered in disgust. Worm looked uncomfortable but didn’t dispute the story.
“Where’s his fishmongerin’ mate?” said Pitchfork. “If this one was in on it, you can bet the other one was, too.” Someone said they’d seen Dylan by the harbor, and a posse was dispatched to collect him.
“What about a wolf—or a wild dog?” my dad said. “My father was killed by dogs.”
“Only dogs on Cairnholm are sheepdogs,” replied Knit Cap. “And it ain’t exactly in a sheepdog’s nature to go about killin’ sheep.”
I wished my father would give it up and leave while the leaving was good, but he was on the case like Perry Mason. “Just how many sheep are we talking about?” he asked.
“Five,” replied the fourth farmer, a short, sour-faced man who hadn’t spoken until then. “All mine. Killed right in their pen. Poor devils never even had a chance to run.”
“Five sheep. How much blood do you think is in five sheep?”
“A right tubful, I shouldn’t wonder,” said Pitchfork.
“So wouldn’t whoever did this be covered in it?”
The farmers looked at one another. They looked at me, and then at Worm. Then they shrugged and scratched their heads. “Reckon it coulda been foxes,” said Knit Cap.
“A whole pack of foxes, maybe,” said Pitchfork doubtfully, “if the island’s even got that many.”
“I still say the cuts are too clean,” said the one holding Worm. “Had to have been done with a knife.”
“I just don’t believe it,” my dad replied.
“Then come see for yourself,” said Knit Cap. So as the crowd began to disperse, a small group of us followed the farmers out to the scene of the crime. We trudged over a low rise, through a nearby field, to a little brown shed with a rectangular animal pen beyond it. We approached tentatively and peeked through the fence slats.
The violence inside was almost cartoonish, like the work of some mad impressionist who painted only in red. The tramped grass was bathed in blood, as were the pen’s weathered posts and the stiff white bodies of the sheep themselves, flung about in attitudes of sheepish agony. One had tried to climb the fence and got its spindly legs caught between the slats. It hung before me at an odd angle, clam-shelled open from throat to crotch, as if it had been unzipped.
I had to turn away. Others muttered and shook their heads, and someone let out a low whistle. Worm gagged and began to cry, which was seen as a tacit admission of guilt; the criminal who couldn’t face his own crime. He was led away to be locked in Martin’s museum—in what used to be the sacristy and was now the island’s makeshift jail cell—until he could be remanded to police on the mainland.
We left the farmer to ponder his slain sheep and went back to town, plodding across wet hills in the slate-gray dusk. Back in the room, I knew I was in for a Stern Dad talking-to, so I did my best to disarm him before he could start in on me.
“I lied to you, Dad, and I’m sorry.”
“Yeah?” he said sarcastically, trading his wet sweater for a dry one. “That’s big of you. Now which lie are we talking about? I can hardly keep track.”
“The one about meeting friends. There aren’t any other kids on the island. I made it up because I didn’t want you to worry about me being alone over there.”
“Well, I do worry, even if your doctor tells me not to.”
“I know you do.”
“So what about these imaginary friends? Does Golan know about this?”
I shook my head. “That was a lie, too. I just had to get those guys off my back.”
Dad folded his arms, not sure what to believe. “Really.”
“Better to have them think I’m a little eccentric than a sheep killer, right?”