The real message from the parable of the boy who cried wolf is that there was a wolf
Once upon a time there was a boy.
He was a good boy who wanted only to make his family proud and serve the remote mountain village where he grew up.
When the time came to choose a career the boy knew his family was not wealthy enough for him to become a merchant, nor did he much fancy leaving the village to become a soldier. So he approached the local sheep herder and asked if he could train to become a shepherd.
The shepherd agreed and the boy proved a conscientious pupil, quickly learning how to shear a sheep, birth a lamb, and spot threats to the flock that fed and clothed the whole village. He was happy in his work and felt particularly proud when he was tasked with staying overnight in the shepherd's hut high above the village to guard the flock.
The first night was cold and dark, but the boy didn't mind - he knew he had important work to do.
In the early hours he heard a pack of wolves howl from the ridge just beyond the shepherd's hut. He paused to think. He couldn't see the wolves and they may give the village a wide berth, as was the norm. But he knew it was deep into winter and the packs that had been spotted on the snowy hills in recent weeks looked skinny and desperate. They could easily pull down the ramshackle fence protecting the flock and then the villagers would be left without the meat, milk, and wool they relied upon to make it through the winter.
He made up his mind. He rung the bell hanging from the eaves of the hut as loud as he could and lit the beacon besides the sheep's pen, just as he had been taught.
Within minutes men from the village were rushing up the hill towards the boy and his sheep. When they arrived, the boy explained the wolves were nearby and sounded like they could attack at any time. But the villagers looked straight past him at the sheep safe in their pen.
"Why did you wake us?" they demanded.
"There are wolves nearby, they want to take the sheep," the boy protested. As he spoke, a howl echoed through the darkness. "Can't you hear them?" he asked.
"That's just the wind," the head shepherd insisted, angrily. "And even if it is wolves, we can just strengthen the fence tomorrow. We're going back to bed. Don't mess us around again."
The boy was left with the flock, chastened and alone.
The next day the other shepherds teased the boy mercilessly about the wolf attack that wasn't. But no one thought to make good on their boss' pledge to strengthen the fence.
That night the boy was left alone once more in the moonless night to guard the sheep. Just after midnight the wolves started howling again, but the boy did nothing. The howls got louder and the boy could see the hungry pack moving through the shadows cast by the tree line just beyond the fence. He edged towards the bell, but still he did nothing, fearing the criticism coming his way if he woke the village unnecessarily.
Then, suddenly, a giant wolf - the largest the boy had ever seen - leapt the fence and seized one of the young sheep in his jaws. As the boy hollered and rung the bell the wolf crashed through the fence and sprinted back towards the trees, carrying the sheep in his jaws as if it weighed no more than a rabbit.
Five minutes later a crowd wielding pitchforks and torches arrived at the hut.
"What happened?" the head shepherd demanded.
"A wolf," the boy panted, clearly scared. "He took one of the sheep."
The villagers looked over to the flock.
"All the sheep are there," said the head shepherd, as a howl spilt the night air once more.
"But… but… they're not," the boy yelled. "Count them. They are one short. Look the fence is broken, and there's blood on the grass," he said, his voice rising in panic as he pointed at a bloody patch of turf.
"Hmm," said the shepherd, "let's do a count." The men got to work. There should have been 100 sheep in the flock and most of the crowd counted 99. But two men counted 100 and a third swore blind he had counted 101 sheep. "The data is inconclusive," concluded the head shepherd. "Who can say what happened here, but it looks like a hoax to me."
"But what about the fence?" the boy implored.
"Could have been the wind," the shepherd said. "We can't rule that out."
"And the blood?"
The shepherd shrugged and yawned. "Even if it was a wolf, we can afford to lose one sheep," he said. "One sheep costs less than building a better fence."
He turned to leave, and then looked back over his shoulder to yell at the boy. "If this happens again, you're fired," he said.
The next day the boy had never felt more alone. None of the other shepherds would talk to him. Whenever he got close to them all he could hear was muttering about hoaxes and how the wolves would leave, if there were any wolves, which there weren't anyway.
The boy set to work on trying to fix the fence, but no one helped and by dusk it was still broken.
As his colleagues left him alone to face the night he pleaded with them to stay. "We're going to lose these sheep unless we take some precautions," he warned. "The wolves are getting stronger and more dangerous. The threat is growing. We'll be left with nothing."
"We'll be fine," replied the head shepherd. "Stop exaggerating. There aren't any wolves. And don't you dare wake us tonight."
Just after midnight the wolves came again. A swarming pack of teeth and claws unprecedented in its size and ferocity overwhelmed the fence and began their massacre of the sheep.
Even as he rung the bell the terrified boy couldn't be sure he was doing the right thing. But it mattered not, because none of the villagers came to his aid.
The next morning the shepherds surveyed the carnage. Every sheep and the boy were gone. The ravenous pack had left nothing but a handful of bones. A few of the men looked accusingly at the head shepherd, but no one said anything.
Two weeks later the villagers were starving. The pass to the next valley was blocked by snow drifts and food stores were running out. Perhaps he felt some responsibility or perhaps he was simply hungry, but it was the head shepherd who volunteered to try and make the treacherous journey to the neighbouring town to try and secure supplies. He toiled through two days of blizzards and eventually made it to the tavern in the market square.
He walked up to the bar, looking thin and wild-eyed. "What happened to you?" asked the barman.
"Let me tell you a story about the boy who cried wolf," the shepherd replied.