Authors Note: In my last blog piece (A Sense Of Place), I referenced an old story. Slacker, that on reflection I might not have ever posted. My apologies, if I am repeating. The piece is a bit long especially the lead in. but I encourage you to stick with it. A very young Buddy surprised both Trudy and me with the greatest feat of herding I have personally ever witnessed. This is where in “gangsta” terms, he “made his bones.”
Buddy’s potential for becoming a phenomenal herding dog suddenly becomes evident. Now that Buddy has become an old dog and a risk adverse dog and with his best herding days far behind him, recollection of his early herding prowess fills me with pride. I hope you enjoy this reflection.- JTH
Wire mesh panels hung askew from the thick steel cable. What had breached this water gap was immediately evident to me, as our bull had proved to be a breakout artist and an all-too-frequent explorer of Live Oak Valley. I pulled out my cell phone and dialed, reluctantly. “Guess what? Bull’s missing.”
“Oh shit, not again?” my wife shouted into the phone.
I flinched. Then I heard a long sigh followed by a pause before Trudy responded, “Be there in a few.”
Fifteen minutes later Trudy and I hiked the dank creek bottom at our Texas ranch. It smelled of decaying vegetation and heady juniper. I also had a sense of my own building desperation. Trudy’s glare described her lack of enthusiasm for another bull chase. She hesitated near the destroyed blowout fence, shook her head and pivoted to face me.
“Can’t believe the damned bull’s out again.” Her eyes were slit-like, her arms crossed, and her lips held tightly together. “What’s it Francisco calls him?” By reminding me, she had already inflicted a verbal wound.
“Hamburguesa,” I whispered, careful to avoid locking gazes.
“Ah yes, Hamburguesa,” she boomed. “And why, pray tell, why did he call him that?”
I gave a mental shrug. “Well, Francisco grumped that the next time he met the bull, he wanted him between two buns at McDonald’s.”
Trudy’s hand shot up, jabbing the air emphatically, “Yeah, sounds good to me too, make mine a double bull burger and hold the cheese! After all, I’m watching my calories, you know.”
She gave a brief, tension mitigating smile. I nodded and bent low beneath the creek-spanning steel cable. When a flash flood occurs—a fairly regular occurrence in the Texas Hill Country, the incredible force of the raging water tears the wire panels away from their metal fence posts. This allows the panels to swing back and under the cable so that limbs, trees, and other flood-related detritus can flow under the panels rather than rip out the entire fence line. As useful as these water gaps are, they are the weakest point in the fence line and where lusty bulls typically break out.
With careful steps Trudy and I trudged along the creek bank as my gaze glanced into the stream, unable to resist the urge. Growing up in Texas, I’d heard many stories about poisonous snakes. Standard fare at Boy Scout campfires, almost as common as consuming s’mores, had been stories of wriggling water moccasins boiling up from the depths of a creek and pulling down an unfortunate person to a slithering, agonizing death. While no real proof existed for this often-repeated tale of woe, we Scouts were convinced such horrible occurrences must have happened.
Trudy’s pace hesitated, distracting me from my obsessive serpentine thoughts. She turned toward me. “Why is it, COW-BOY, after countless breakouts, you haven’t sold that roaming ruminant and bought a bull with instincts more akin to a homesick prairie dog?”
Ouch, I recognized a practiced soliloquy when I heard one. She must be seething.
I felt Trudy’s frustration as fully as did she. In the past we’d scoured the hills and valleys of neighboring ranches, searching for our missing bull. We’d navigated treacherous arroyos, advanced through nearly impenetrable stands of juniper, and skittered down rocky embankments on our pained backsides, all of which had inevitably left us sore, scraped, frustrated, and barely speaking.
I had not missed her enunciation of “COW-BOY” and her sharpness of tone. While stinging, I was relieved my lawyer/wife had used it, rather than one of her scatological, so-called “legal terms of art.”
“Well Trudy, he was expensive, out of a champion line. And he throws great calves.” This is your final foray, big guy. It’s a one-way trip for you to the auction barn.
She paused to speak but before she could argue further, her foot slipped off a wet rock and she splashed into the shallow creek bottom. I heard her emit a grunt and saw her face develop a scowl worthy of Ivan the Terrible during a bad toothache.
“Yikes, this water’s arctic!“
“You ask me, this freakin’ bull’s got the lineage of a bulldozer crossed with a race horse!” Frustration basted her voice, as she scrambled out of the icy, spring-fed creek.
This isn’t going to be fun.
Desperate for Trudy’s help, I felt mollifying her was a must, as teamwork would determine our already limited chances for success. “Well, we may need to sell the big guy. His episodes are getting more frequent and he’s learned to outsmart us.”
My good friend and neighbor, Tom, his three young grandchildren, Trudy, Francisco, and I had chased the bull on multiple occasions. Tom’s grandchildren, careening about the neighboring ranches in Tom’s four-wheel ranch utility vehicle, had relished the pursuits to a much greater extent than had we. Tom’s grandchildren once had even pleaded, “Grandpa, next time we’re at the ranch can we pleeeease chase the bull again?”
But in this instance “Colonel Tom,” as we called him, and his young charges were unavailable and Francisco was away from the ranch for the weekend. The task of rounding up our wayward bull fell solely to Trudy and me. We were feeling clearly over-matched. But we had little choice but immediately to take action, as the bull had escaped in the direction of a ranch known for its prize-winning Angus. A white calf amid a herd of Black Angus stood out like a beacon, as with great embarrassment I had once before experienced.
While all marriages have disagreements, often over money, sex, or how best to raise children, our marriage had matured to the banal stage where these bull chases represented the principal challenge to our marital bliss. Okay bull, this time it’s gonna be you or me.
I had left Buddy, our nine-month old Border collie back inside the pickup with the windows partially down for ventilation. Before heading down the creek, my parting glimpse of the young dog was of him perched in the back seat with his left ear standing up and his right ear flopped over. Buddy had never been able to elevate his right ear, a maturational quirk I assumed, but one that imparted a comical and eternally youthful appearance.
Trudy and I continued down the creek bank. Here we are busting our butts, chasing the bull while our lazy dog snatches a snooze in the pickup. What good is a working dog that just sleeps in the pickup? What a worthless slacker he is! Maybe I should get rid of him at the same time I get rid of the bull?
Trudy and I rock-hopped our way down the shaded creek bottom where slivers of sunlight created silvery streaks in the rolling creek water. We ducked beneath bowing branches of live oaks, dodged flickering cottonwoods, and pushed through pungent juniper whose needles clawed at our exposed skin.
Trudy’s hair became disheveled with twigs tangled within her neck length, curly russet locks. The burbling creek and rustling leaves of the cottonwood trees seemed to hint at what an impossible challenge lay ahead for us.
A quarter of a mile into the adjacent ranch, in an area overgrown with clinging brush and waist high native grasses, we discovered the neighbor’s cattle. This occasion also revealed the location of our bull. Cool Spirit, our peripatetic bull, stood in the middle of a scraggly herd of mixed breed cattle, languidly licking the neck of an old, skinny cow whose bones bulged out under her hide like a hastily built stork’s nest. The old saw came to mind how women in the bar get better looking after midnight, and I wondered if a similar sentiment might also hold true for horny bulls.
Of all the forms of love, lust seems the easiest to dispense with as it simply defies logic. Hillary Clinton once described her husband, Bill- America’s best-known philanderer, as too often thinking solely with his little head. This implies the sexual urge is a strong, an even overpowering one at times. After all our bull had charged through seven-stranded barbed wire fences, accepting untold cuts to be with an intoxicating, pheromone-secreting cow. Bill Clinton also had paid his public penance as a result of his libidinous escapes.
Just then something jarred my thoughts back to reality.
“You see that big bull over there?” Trudy said.
I shifted my gaze. “Good Lord,” I croaked, my voice cracking like a teenager. Apprehension shot through me like a jolt of electricity. By then the red bull before me had lowered its head and was advancing in the direction of our Charolais bull. Our bull had already spotted him, and had shifted his attention from the homely target of his desire toward the threat of the approaching bull. Our bull in turn lowered his white, curly topped head. The two bulls glared, snorted, and scraped hooves at each other from a distance of less than thirty yards.
Each bull weighed well over a ton. I felt my worry rocketing higher. Oh my god, we sure ‘nuf don’t need a bullfight.
Unfortunately our approach seemed to act like a starter’s pistol. Just as Trudy and I crept forward, both bulls became determined to establish their dominion over the scraggly herd. They began pawing in earnest at the ground with their huge cloven hooves, throwing sprays of brown dirt under their massive, bulging bellies.
Their aggressive displays, fearful as they were to us, deterred neither bull and soon gave way to full, all out combat. The bulls, like two race cars off the starting line, ran at each other, crashing head on. Locked head to head with their muscles rippling, they strained to drive the other into a compromised position. The bulls continually emitted loud and fearsome sounds like preternatural beasts from Hades. Their ruckus kicked up a thin cloud of dust that carried on it their rank aroma.
Locked in combat their heated battle raged back and forth across the shallow creek bed. The bulls’ massive blows caused the very ground under my feet to shudder. Their enormous bodies knocked over small trees, as if broomsticks, and they splashed through the rocky creek bottom with a dull clattering of their hooves.
Appalled by this brawl, Trudy and I scrambled to find safety behind a large Live Oak tree. We cautiously peered around its trunk and observed the ongoing fight. I felt powerless to intervene, having by then lost any hope of driving our bull back to our ranch.
I felt thoroughly dejected. The escalating circumstances had outstripped my limited capacity for retrieving our bull. Just on reaching this emotional low point, a flicker of movement caught my attention. I swiveled my head and caught sight of a black and white form flash by.
Recognition set in a second later, as both Trudy and I gasped in unison. Young Buddy, ignoring our shouted, desperate entreaties, raced headlong into the midst of the horrific bullfight.
“God, he’s going to be killed,” yelled Trudy, her cry barely rising above the din of the mêlée. Trudy turned and slumped down next to the tree, no doubt fearful for what was likely to follow- the killing of our half grown dog.
The bulls, focusing fully on their fight, paid no heed to the yapping dog. With the bulls locked in a violent head-to-head embrace, Buddy circled behind our Charolais. Relinquishing further attempts to intimidate with his high-pitched barking, Buddy instead gave the Charolais’ tail a vicious chomp. Startled by the attack and from an unanticipated direction, our white bull momentarily broke off the fight and took a hesitant step backward.
Our neophyte herder, sensing an opportunity, then circled and sped between the narrowly separated bulls. He charged maniacally at the red Shorthorn bull with his teeth bared. With a bite, as quick as a mongoose, Buddy gashed the red bull’s broad, dark nose. Blood flowed.
By biting him, Buddy had startled him and backed him off. Feigning a direct charge, Buddy was able to turn the Shorthorn slightly away from the Charolais. Then to my amazement, our young Border collie began to arc back and forth behind the Shorthorn moving him up a nearby hill. At the same time, Buddy was able to gather the remainder of the herd and drive the lot of them out of the creek bed and up the hill.
I whispered to Trudy, “Oh my god! Would never have ever believed it, if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.”
“Is that vicious animal the same sweet puppy that licks my face first thing in the morning?”
When seemingly satisfied by the degree of separation between the two warring bulls, Buddy turned and loped back down the hill. He then made a kamikaze-like assault on our somewhat bewildered appearing Charolais, breaking it off at the last instant. This forced the bull to retreat several steps. Then after a series of charges, nips, and barks Buddy succeeded in turning him away from the retreating Shorthorn bull and ran the white leviathan along the winding creek bottom in the direction of our ranch.
“Come on, let’s trail him,” I urged, pulling Trudy from her sitting position to her feet.
Trudy and I scrambled out of our protected site and followed at a safe distance. We saw Buddy expertly drive the Charolais along the creek and into a copse of trees. When lost to sight, the ripping sound of breaking limbs along with Buddy’s urgent barks identified their location. Soon the bull emerged from the trees, hurried on by our overachieving, young canine. Buddy stayed after him providing constant herding pressure, hastening his always forward movement and in the direction of our ranch. The pair, bull and herder, soon passed through the broken fence line and back into our pasture.
I yelled to Trudy who trotted along creek bank, “How can a barely forty pound dog, too young to train, manage to break up a bullfight?” She shrugged her shoulders and turned her palms upward. I wondered where within Buddy’s DNA resided the knack for such shepherding? To this day, I stand in awe of the nascent abilities of Border collies.
Trudy approached me, her head down as if penitent. On nearing me she raised her head and flashed a warm smile and a coy head tilt. I noticed she now moved with greater fluidity and in a more relaxed, willow-like manner.
We did not know it then, but never again when the bull would break out of our ranch, would we encounter difficulty returning him- thanks to Buddy. On spotting our oncoming Border collie, our wayward bull would immediately reverse course and beeline it back toward our ranch— such was the respect the Charolais had for Buddy.
With newfound spring in my step, I headed for my pickup parked near the water gap. Nearby I spotted Buddy sitting on his haunches, intently staring in the direction of our grazing bull.
“Just look, that dog’s grinning like a fat man at a smorgasbord,” said Trudy.
Buddy bore an unmistakable snout-wrinkling doggie smile. She reached for my hand and gave it a warm, gentle squeeze. We stood hand-in-hand for several minutes, gazing upon our cattle and admiring our collie.
I would soon make the necessary repairs to the blowout fence, but first I wanted to savor the success of Buddy’s achievement along soaking up my wife’s affection. With my idle hand I leaned down and stroked Buddy’s soft, furry head. He was panting, his tongue bobbing up and down like a pink yo-yo. His amber eyes sparkled with excitement.
Over the next several minutes I sensed his adrenaline rush ebb away. As I stroked his silky fur, he laid back his ears, turned his head, and evidenced a satisfied gaze.
The bond between man and dog is like no other between animal and man. The empathy and understanding of a dog can slow the anxious human heart. The love of a dog remains steadfast, providing affectionate licks to the hand that may lack food to offer. That day I felt the loving bond between man and dog like I had never felt it before.
“Now that looks like one happy dog,” said Trudy. She moved closer, and we hugged.
“I’m sorry for being so cross earlier. You know I love you.”
“Forget it, perfectly understandable. You know, this dog of ours might just work out.”
Trudy’s face split in an endearing smile and I heard her emit a giggle, as warm as a toasted bun.
Buddy had not only herded massive animals that day, but also my lop-eared canine had herded my wife’s disposition from sour to mellow. I couldn’t decide which feat was the more impressive.
I did realize that love, like good wine and I Love Lucy reruns, only improves with time.
That memorable day left me with two thoughts that still resonate. The first is that love presents itself in unique ways be it intoxicating lust, the security of mature love, or the incredible and unique bond between man and dog. Love of many kinds empowers the soul and warms the heart.
The second consideration is that help can arrive, when least expected, and charge in on four paws and have a wet nose.