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Bandit and the Wolf
By James M MacKrell
Sunday, December 16, 2007
Rated "PG13" by the Author.
A life or death struggle in the sheep country of Montana.
“Up unto the hills….”
A horse fly’s bite sent a quiver from the gelding’s tail through his body. Javier resat the saddle, placed two worn hands on the horn and let a breath out into the crisp morning air.
He clucked to the horse he called Bayo, shook the reins and moved out toward the pasture. The mountain breeze ruffled his worn blue shirt. A scarred hand massaged the ache in his leg. At his age hurt was just something you lived with.
“We’ll let these ewes eat their fill this morning, then let’em nap a bit. Late in the afternoon after they’ve grazed some more, we’ll move them and us home for the night.” He smiled at the thought of his cabin with all the things collected that he loved.
He ducked a low-hanging fir branch about to slap him across the face and noticed how fast the grass was turning brown. It wouldn’t be too many more weeks before they would have to move the sheep into winter quarters.
He squinted as he surveyed the verdant vista ahead. How he loved Montana, with its mountains, its valleys, forests and streams. If he could paint his conception of heaven it would look like Montana.
“I’m glad Mr. Jim left you for me, old hoss,” as he rubbed the bowed neck of the animal with an ungloved hand. “You and me, we been trotting along for a good long time.” He smiled, gently urging the horse forward.
The memories of their arrival in Montana remained as vivid as the morning in front of him.
Javier Coronado, a Basque herdsman moved to Montana with his friend and employer, Jim Townsend. As they stepped off the train in Big Timber three decades ago, both men were overcome with the beauty of the Big Sky country. All of their hopes and dreams were pinned on the sheep in the cattle cars they were bringing to their new ranch, just outside Big Timber, Montana.
“A lot more open than back in California,” Jim laughed, as he gazed at the surrounding mountains and their snow-white peaks
“Mr. Jim, we gonna have a lot of room for our sheep here.”
“It’s going to be just you and me, old boy. We’ve got a lot of work cut out for us.”
“Don’t forget the dogs, Mr. Jim. We’ve got our dogs and they are the best helpers.”
A brisk wind snapped Javier out of his melancholy. He noticed ominous thunderheads starting to build up over the western mountains. The air smelled of moisture, but he believed there were a couple more days of grazing before he wintered the sheep.
Jenny, Javier’s three-year-old Australian Shepherd carefully watched him and the band of ewes moving up the path toward the pastures. Her body sagged with the feeling of uselessness. Why was she locked up like a wayward pup? She longed to be about her business. A sudden throb shot through her midsection. The effort of expectant motherhood tired her. She moved into the sunlight again, circling in an ancient canine ritual. When she was satisfied with her resting place, her weary body plopped back down. Again, she breathed a heavy sigh. Resigned to her solitude, the sheepdog turned her head away from the spectacle on the hillside. As the morning sun climbed, its warmth made her drowsy. Perhaps she might sleep until all had safely arrived at home again. An unborn puppy twitched and an involuntary reflex shifted her sluggish body into a more contented position.
On this Indian summer day in November on the foothills of the Absaroka Mountain
Range in Montana, the band of sheep, resembling a large woolen blanket, flowed like sea foam in rising water up the rocky passage toward the grazing pastures high in the foothills. Australian Shepherd dogs, looking from the distance like tiny colored dots, danced around the edges urging the moving mass up and up. The familiar routine made Jenny tremble with anticipation. Oh, how she wished to be there. “They’ll probably need me,” Jenny uttered to no one in particular.
Small clouds of moisture escaped with each snort as the bay Morgan horse slowly picked his way up the rocky path he and the band of sheep had been climbing for the past 30 years.
“Bayo, you and me are getting a little long in the tooth for all this work” he smiled, with a wipe of his handkerchief across his chestnut brow. Javier tugged at the rope attached to the pack mule Sarah. “Yep, too soon we get old”. Taking a deep breath he continued, “With lambs to be born next spring and Jenny with her puppies, I guess we have to keep trudging along.” He complacently chuckled.
The land was his, owned lock, stock, and barrel, since James Townsend, childless, had bequeathed some 3000 acres to his faithful friend and employee.
Jenny was not only Javier’s favorite stock dog, but an Australian directly from the intensive breeding program started back in California by Jim Townsend’s father and grandfather. In fact, her bloodline could be traced back to a dog called Perro, that Javier’s grandfather brought with him from Australia.
Jenny was a shepherd, a working stock dog and now bred to the number one Stockdog Champion in the whole northwest. Being pregnant was new to her, working sheep wasn’t.
Just before she let the afternoon’s warmth overcome her with sleep, she glanced again up the trail to where her littermate, Blu and the other Aussies were going about their work with precision. Resigned to her fate, she let her black head fall to her paws and soon was dreaming of better days. Jenny didn’t know that soon ominous black clouds would be hanging over her head, delivering life changes to her, those she loved and those she would come to love.
“ The price of motherhood…”
Restlessness hounded Jenny most of the night. The chill fall temperatures caused her to curl into a tight fur ball, which was difficult due to the enormity of her belly. Before dawn her exhaustion overtook her and let the mist of sleep lull her tired bones. Her restless legs pantomimed running. Every apparition caused her sleeping eyelids to twitch. As deep slumber began to settle in, a bright light forced her awake. Golden beams causing long cool shadows from the foliage signaled the beginning of another day. Vivid yellow leaves on the aspen and cottonwood danced in the sunlight with the accompaniment of wind.
The dog shook herself to cast off all the night’s aches and pains; she stretched as far as her lying body would let her. The weight of motherhood reminded her of her delicate condition when she struggled to get her paws beneath her to stand. “Oh, my” she grumbled as she stood erect, looking through the chain link fence, “Here I am stuck in this kennel again.”
A picture of peaceful ewes grazing skipped across her mind. Her absence from the flock only made her predicament worse. Oh, how she loved tending the sheep, listening for the herder’s commands, all the while keeping her keen eyes riveted on the grazing stock. Each movement of his hands sent her in a direction to correct some errant ewes or a ram that had exerted his independence and strolled from the group. She let her brown eyes play over the partially green hills. Caring for those wooly sheep was her way to show Javier how much she respected him and wanted to attend to his every request. Sometimes her tenacity and drive to work sheep periodically overroad her need to please Javier, those times when she had ‘selective hearing’ were thankfully rare. Blowing her flews as she sighed, she remembered fondly Javier always saying he loved a working dog that could think on its own. Jenny could certainly work and not be totally dependent upon Javier for her every move when working sheep or cattle. Jenny was an Aussie whose toil was Javier’s bread and butter.
Her head snapped around at the loud clanging kennel door.
Lonnie, the freckled-faced neighbor boy who came over to help Javier feed the animals, opened the door, stumbled a bit but still balanced the dog’s kibble that rattled in a shallow tin pan. The black dog settled back in the hay on the floor and pretended to give little reaction. She gave a disinterested sniff in the direction of her feeding dish. Quick eyes darting between the hillside and the pan of waiting food gave no hint of her misery. “I don’t think my belly will hold a crumb with all these puppies jammed up inside,” she grumbled, the Aussie’s white lip curling in a half-smile knowing she could utter whatever she pleased; “Dog speak is beyond human comprehension”, she barked.
Javier stepped gingerly out on the coarse wooden porch and stood for a moment leaning on a rail. The wind rattled the windows of the rustic wooden cabin where he had lived for the past 30 years.
A cup of hot coffee created wisps of steam in the morning’s frigid air. The tang of his aftershave wafted across the restless morning breeze. Jenny’s black nose stabbed the air trying to find the source of the familiar scent. A loud yawn suggesting he hadn’t slept well either, broke the morning silence. Two startled crows squawked a cry leaping from the branches of a gnarled old evergreen near the house. A well-worn brown hand rubbed his forehead with a ragged red and white bandana. The handkerchief was as much a part of Javier as the faded Montana State baseball cap constantly perched on the top of his balding head.
After a deep swallow of coffee, he ambled down the four wooden, porch steps and wandered out into the yard. Missy, the old spotted momma cat dashed for imagined safety as his heavy boots left a path in the frosted grass. The last smoke trails from the house’s rock chimney ascended the crisp and clear blue sky like prayers reaching to heaven. Night temperatures had left a glaze of white on the porch and roof that would soon burn off with the rising sun.
Javier’s weathered face broke into a crooked smile at the sight of a red squirrel doing a circus trick, hanging off the edge of the roof trying to pillage the bird feeder.
“You little thief! I hope one of those big Magpies pecks your criminal head off.”
Secretly he loved the old squirrel, even though the rodent always found a way to steal some of the birds’ food.
“What a wonderful morning,” he sighed. Old Emma meandered out of the cabin door and found herself a sunny spot on the porch. Emma snuffled a contented sound, agreeing with her master. Javier glanced back at the elderly Aussie.
“You’re right old girl. It’s good to still be alive.”
Emma glanced in his direction and then firmly plopped her head down on the porch to resume the task of getting as much sleep as she could.
A glance toward the sheep pens reminded the herder of the old days when Emma and Mr. Jim ran things at the ranch. Now that she was approaching the age of 14, she moved a lot slower and Javier joked with her, “You old pooch, now you’re just in charge of sleeping.”
Emma grunted at this. She would always grunt. Grunting was her way of answering without being bothered much.
Emma raised her head and stared at Jenny in the kennels.
“I know how you must feel, young momma,” she thought “but when you’ve brought the pitter patter of feet, wet noses, and wiggling butts into the world, working dogs that carry on our great linage and help Javier, the miracle of motherhood will erase the misery of carrying that extra weight around. Some of Javier’s working dogs are getting old, and he needs new blood coming up. He’s depending on you. Plus Javier is getting an itch to trial competitive again. Maybe his competition partner will be one of your pups.” she said thoughtfully.
If Dogs could grin Emma would be showing all teeth. A fly lit on her nose and she let out a breath through her nostrils, not caring whether or not the fly stayed or went.
If the Townsend Sheep Company had a matron it would be Emma. In her merle coat of many colors she reigned over the entire ranch. No one crossed Emma; no one dared to disagree with her at all. Even the chickens, who didn’t mind anyone, paid close attention to the wishes of Miss Emma as they called her. Chickens were all well aware of Miss Emma’s one blue eye and couldn’t tell when it was watching them, so they stayed on guard all the time When Miss Emma was in sight.
Trips to the pasture, where she liked to stretch her legs and take potty breaks. She formerly chased rabbits at breakneck speed. She would also take cheap shots at Javier’s small band of milk cows for whom she had little respect. Those trips are less frequent now. Not long ago, she recalls the cows were quick to move out of her way for fear she would give them one of her famous surprise nips on the back heel. Just for fun, she’d grab a nose and make them change direction because she knew she could and they would if she demanded it. The dairy cows probably knew she was old now, so she was a bit more respectful and gave them more leeway when her old bones allowed her to meander into the pasture. She didn’t want to learn they weren’t as dumb as she first figured, so she tended to her business without interfering in theirs. Oh, how she did love it, when Javier used to let her take the cattle from one pasture to the next, or help him gather calves at branding time. Assisting him in loading a stubborn group of calves into trailers. Now, she had to be satisfied with watching the other dogs do these tasks. Javier didn’t keep many cattle, only dairy cows for milk, his main income was the sheep. His Aussies, however, true to their Stockdog heritage would be capable of working both.
Jenny lifted her black, copper and white trimmed head, and with a probing nose searched for Javier. She saw him coming and flipped away as if not to notice. Her feelings were hurt by his supposed rejection; she felt that today would be no exception.
“If he doesn’t care for me anymore, I will just ignore him.”
Her big heart couldn’t let that happen. She was totally devoted to the Master and could not, no matter how hard she tried, obey his every beck and call. That was the law. That was the bargain between Aussie and herder.
“Hey, old gal, how’s my number one helper this morning?”
Jenny couldn’t believe her ears, it was the boss, in her kennel stooping to stroke her. She heard him before she saw him. Although he knew it was for her own good, he hated to pen her up so he make sure to stop and stroke her each morning when filling her water pail and food dish. He made sure Lonnie would do the same on morning he attended to the feeding chores. This morning she heard his feet coming down the steps from the house and his spurs jangle on his boots when he crossed the yard.
A thrill ran through her body causing warmth to flood her being. She looked into the face she adored. Her eyes beamed. She wasn’t forgotten. She was still loved. Australian Shepherds are known for singling out a human and attaching themselves literally at the hip, never wavering in their devotion to that one person. They are always worried they aren’t loving that person sufficiently. Javier’s Aussies needn’t worry; he loved them without reservation. These dogs were his family his ranch hands, his buddies.
The woolen shirt he had chosen this morning started to feel a little too warm. Indian summer’s temperatures were predicted today to climb to the mid sixties. After all the years in Montana, Javier knew the temp could swing in either direction as fast as one of the mountain birds could swoop on an insect.
“If it stays this warm tomorrow, my Jenny Dog, I will let you take a walk with us up the lower mountain. You probably need a little exercise and I’m worried about leaving you in your condition. This way I’ll be sure your are okay.” He ruffled her collar with a familiar stroke. “Plus we’ll take it easy and I’ve missed having you with me.”
Jenny was the top herding dog on the place. She had earned it, and with her new puppies he was hoping that one of them would grow into her stature. Secretly he prayed one of the puppies would be so great and so grand he would become the number one Stock Dog champion in all Montana, surpassing his sire, Warner. Javier competed in stock dog trials when his time allowed, which for the past couple of years had been minimal. He had a hankering to try his hand at it again. It was a great hobby that kept his handling skills sharp. Plus it was fun and winning was in his blood and always on his mind. He liked proving his dogs both on the ranch and in competition.
Jenny’s hind leg reached forward to scratch her left ear, not so much because it itched, but more to prove she was awake and this promise of escape was real. Two magpies lit on the kennel floor trying to pick the last couple of kibbles left in the pan from this morning’s feeding. She didn’t care.
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