Category Archives: Life On The Ranch

Paws Across Texas- Part III of Jack’s Story

Editor’s Note: This is the third portion of Little Jack’s Backstory that he has been dictating to me. By the way he loves to hear from those who have enjoyed his story. Please share any of your thoughts with us.

 

Little Jack, also known as Scrapper, dictating his backstory. Note he lays on two pillows- a long way from his days when he was on the road

 

That first night was awfully scary. That is because in the distance I heard the yipping and howling of coyotes. I could not see them, but I knew they were out there. They yapped and howled all night in a most unnerving way. While I had never confronted coyotes before, somehow I knew if they found me, it would not be good. I slept little and restlessly that night with one ear cocked up.

When the sun finally rose over the distant hills, I felt safer. I also felt hungry, as it had been a day since I had last eaten. With my nose to the ground I began to search for something to eat. Despite my concerns over finding food and safety while on my own, I reveled in my freedom and chance to explore new territory. At last the whole world lay before me just as I’d always hoped. It was like the world had become one big dog park.

Later that morning while walking down a stream bed I came across a strange round animal. The animal moved slowly and awkwardly. When I approached it, the animal pulled its head back into its hard shell that covered its body. I pawed at the animal, tempting it to come out. I managed to tip the animal over, but even then the animal did not stick out its head. I tried licking on the strange animal and found it cold, and it didn’t taste very good either. I decided I wasn’t hungry enough to wait out this odd creature. I departed to search for better hunting.

These days I do most of my hunting from the back of a pickup

The following day, I had still not eaten and my hunger had increased. I sensed a hollow feeling in my belly. Later that morning I came upon an animal that had thick scaly plates all over it, but this one moved considerably faster than had the round animal with the shell. This new animal could not retract its head into its shell as had the first one, and it gave me a tremendous chase before I managed to catch it. I bit down on its plated tail, only to have its powerful legs and clawed feet pull away from me.

The animal was almost as big as I was and seemed determined to escape. Eventually I grabbed its pointed head and shook that animal for all I was worth. I think I broke its neck, as while shaking it, I heard a snap like that of a breaking twig.

Desperate from hunger, I believed this animal could serve as a meal. After shaking the life from the armadillo, I began to tear at it with my teeth and claws until I penetrated its covering on its underside. It wasn’t the best of meals, yet the meat was warm and filled my empty belly. With improving hunting abilities and finding these animals plentiful, armadillos kept me mostly fed for the time I was on the road.

My excellent sense of smell helped me greatly and led me to many meals. I also learned on really hot days the rotting carcasses had extra vibrancy and could be more easily located. I learned this especially by finding dead animals along a roadside. While off putting, the strong smell simply had to be overlooked in order to serve as a meal.

Many days later while watching a ranch house from a safe distance, I saw a panel truck rumble up to front door of the house. The truck stopped in the driveway, and the driver climbed back into the back and pulled out a package. He then got out the back door of the truck, placed the package under his arm, and proceeded to take it to the door where he left it. Remembering how much I loved to ride, I impulsively ran to the truck and jumped through the open back door. Sometimes I just do things on the spur without thinking much about it.

The panel truck looked something like this one.

Once in the truck I looked about and quickly learned that the truck had no windows from which to see the passing scenery. I was disappointed. But it proved too late for me to jump out, as just then the truck’s back door slammed shut.

For the next several hours I mostly hid behind packages while the truck made multiple additional stops. At each stop the driver would remove one or more packages and deliver them to various houses.
Since then I’ve been asked if the truck was brown or if it had orange markings. I do not know because, you know, I am not very good at seeing colors. I can tell you though that the truck had a noisy ride and smelled of cardboard and paper.

I eventually felt the need to relieve myself. As I was closed up in the truck, I could not get out to find a proper pee target. To make matters worse, we traveled over bumpy country roads that worsened my sense of urgency. Eventually I couldn’t hold it any longer and hoisted a leg on a nearby box. Relief at last! I felt so much better.

That basic need addressed, I found myself again becoming hungry, which had remained my typical state ever since going on the road. While the driver of the truck was out delivering a package, I crept up next to his seat and pulled a food sack back among the packages and into my hiding place.
There I shared his sandwich, just like I had done in the big city with the sweet, flower scented girls. After finishing my fair portion of the sandwich and during one of the frequent stops, I returned the remaining food to its original place in an admittedly torn sack. I didn’t think the driver would mind or perhaps even notice. Well people, I was wrong!

When the driver stopped in a pull off area to eat his lunch, little did I expect his reaction? When he retrieved his lunch sack, he did not act at all as had the sweet smelling, young ladies in the big city. Not at all and, in fact, yelled out, opened the door to the back of the truck, and came back to where I was hiding. I saw his eyes cut to where I’d pee-d on one of the packages. I guess that too was a no-no, as he became even more excited. The driver began moving boxes around until he revealed me in my hiding place. I cowered back as far as I could. While he looked like a nice, clean-cut sort of young man, I learned that day that looks could be deceiving.

The next thing I knew, I was on the side of a busy highway. He had thrown me out the back of the truck. I licked my sore spots and thought how ungrateful the driver was. A real spoiled sport, I thought, because if the situation had been reversed, I would have gladly shared my armadillo with him. Ever since I have hated those panel trucks and will bark furiously whenever I see one. Panel trucks are bad news!

I began to trot alongside the highway. Some really large trucks screamed by with noisy wheels and huffy brakes. These trucks scared me and when I heard them coming, I would retreat into the weeds and trees alongside the highway. There I felt a little safer. I would hide until they passed.

I don’t have to sleep in the wild any longer but sometimes I have to share my bed with another dog

Also to my surprise by the highway, I found old deer bones. I’ve always had powerful jaw muscles and was able to crack the bones and eat them, marrow and all. Occasionally I came across a freshly killed animal hit by a passing car. The deer meat, if it hadn’t already gone bad, was especially yummy. I was able to fill my belly in this way, although the quality of the deer carcasses proved variable. Nevertheless, my road-kill finds provided me with periodic meals and kept me going. I was, however, losing weight. I noticed my ribs had begun to protrude, and I stayed hungry most of the time. My energy also had begun to diminish. My paw pads had become sore and required my licking them thoroughly every evening before falling asleep.

I also once had a close call when dragging a dead possum off the road. I misjudged the speed of the approaching car and barely escaped becoming road-kill myself. I recall the blaring of the car’s horn and the screeching of its tires. The car just grazed me but left me with a sore hip and the bad smell of burning rubber in my nose. More than hurt, I was scared. I had come so close to being killed on the highway.

At my first opportunity I crossed the highway and headed down a shady, less traveled country road. I put increasing distance between the highway and me. On each side of the lane, I found ranches with a stream crossing under a bridge on the road. The cool water was so good. On one side of the road was a long stacked rock wall. I saw several horses peeking their big heads over the wall. They looked none too friendly to this hungry dog, and I determined their pasture wasn’t good to wander through.
While road-kill proved scarce along the country lane, the woods along the creek had live animals including squirrels, possums, mice, and armadillos. I couldn’t be sure of making a kill every day, but my hunting proved successful enough to sustain me.

One night the temperature dropped very low. When I had left my people from the big stinky city, the leaves had begun to fall from the trees. After having been on the road for a long time the nights became very cold and ice formed in the creeks.

It was during this cold time when one night I heard a loud screaming sound, a sound I had never before heard. The eerie sound caused me to lift my nose from under my tail where I had placed it to keep it warm. The frightening noise repeated many times, and I could tell it was coming closer and closer toward me. I jumped up onto a dark, rocky ledge. I drew back until my tail touched a wall. I crouched low. I lay very still on the cold rocks. I was downwind of the approaching animal. The scent in my nose was like nothing I had ever smelled.

That Mountain Lion looked like this

Again I heard an even louder cry. Just then out of the shadows came the biggest cat I’d ever seen. It padded by not more than fifty feet away. The large animal was slender and had a small head. Its color was a light tone and it had a very long tail. Its eyes looked menacing and unblinking. I felt my heart race and I began to shiver in fright. Slowly, ever so slowly the cat silently moved my way.

My thoughts briefly flashed back to earlier in the day when I had found a huge store of deer bones in a nearby cedar thicket. Only after spotting the mountain lion did I comprehend what had created that bone yard. I understood the risk that now stood on four paws mere feet away from me. I remained very quiet, nearly frozen in terror. I prepared to fight as best I could should the giant cat detect my scent and attack. Oh I hope that mountain lion isn’t mad at me for discovering its haunt and for having taking some of its store of bones!

The mountain lion gave me the impression that it might slink off when suddenly it stopped, turned around, and stared vacantly with bright eyes in my direction. I saw its whiskers twitch. It must have sensed something but couldn’t identify where or exactly what was out there. I barely breathed and suppressed my desire to pant or to run. The giant cat took several steps toward me, but stopped, as if considering what next to do. I could tell the mountain lion was four or five times my size, and I instinctively knew that I could not outrun it and certainly couldn’t out climb it.

I searched my experience for a way to escape that scary predicament. What could I do? What could I do? Then it came to me– the bluff that Tex and I had played on the puppies. It was a real long shot, but I could think of nothing better. What choice did I have? Suddenly I drew myself up, pushed out my chest, and flung myself off the ledge. During my descent, I let out a fearsome howl and on hitting the ground, charged directly at the mountain lion. In the process I made as much noise as possible by knocking down small bushes and breaking sticks. The cat startled, shrank back, and then turned away. To my relief, it sprinted off into the woods.

As soon as the giant cat turned, I pivoted and raced away in exactly the opposite direction. I ran as fast as I could. My heart pounded, and I didn’t stop shivering from fright for several minutes. I had successfully bluffed that giant mountain lion. What luck. But it had been a very close call, far too close for my satisfaction.

I continued to run through the woods and didn’t stop until completely out of breath. About then I came across a flock of goats and sheep. I was tiring of being a lone dog and believed it would be safer to join up with those sheep and goats. After all, they were numerous and safety existed in numbers.

Just as I began to circle prior to plopping down, I saw an angry donkey heading my way, braying loudly. The donkey clearly was unhappy about something, as it had its head down and charged in my direction. When it turned around in front of me and just before it began kicking, I took my leave. But my terror due to almost having been kicked by an angry donkey had not ended, as I quickly encountered an even larger animal. It was light colored and had thick, shaggy fur, a long neck and later I learned it was a llama. The llama pursued me. I zigged and zagged in my attempt to avoid that strong-minded and persistent llama.

I mean that donkey looked mean

I tried running under trees beneath which it could not go. I wasn’t but about fifty yards from a barbed wire fence through which I was able to slip. The fence acted as a barrier and halted the mad llama. The shaggy beast stood at the fence looking really bossy and spitting at me. I then moved on down the country road.

Having barely reached safety, I trotted along the roadway and avoided pastures. I remember wondering why donkeys and llamas were so protective of goats and sheep and how ill mannered they had been. After all I wasn’t there to eat one of their precious charges, only herd up with them.

Not long after I found an even smaller road, heading off to the left. I took it because it put still greater distance between me and the mountain lion, donkey, and llama. After a while, I felt reasonably safe from those scary and cranky animals, at least safe enough to stop and rest. Indeed, I felt exhausted, emotionally shaken, and very sleepy.

Nearby was a dry creek bed where I curled up. Never before had I felt such total exhaustion. I covered my nose with my tail and rapidly fell asleep. I had a cold night’s sleep in that uncomfortable, rocky creek bottom. When I awoke I thought back to my previous warm beds in the big stinky city and the cozy dog box of my puppyhood. My life in the wild had evolved from a carefree adventure to what had become a journey increasingly packed with great risk and discomfort.

 

To Be Continued

Summer Odds And Ends From MSR

Like a lazy river, life at Medicine Spirit Ranch flows on. The Fourth of July holiday has come and gone, and we are now left with only fond memories of Trudy’s family visiting from Baltimore, south of Fort Worth, San Marcos, and Greenville, Tx. What fun to enjoy the holiday with family and friends who seemed to thoroughly enjoy what the ranch has to offer. Gator tours were the biggest hit of their visit along with lots and lots of pool time.

Robert Kearns and Henry visiting the ranch from Baltimore

Family spent much time in the pool

The Golden Retriever also made her way into the pool. Note Bandit keeping a close eye on Brinkley.

Caitlin, Henry and friends

The most noteworthy and concerning aspect of our summer has been a persistent drought. This was  addressed recently by half an inch of rain that may have elevated my spirits more so than drenching our pastures. Nevertheless, it was welcome and the pastures have greened up. Much more rain is needed.

The drought is harder on our stock and wildlife than humans. This week I found the persistent work of some frustrated critter that had gnawed through a thick piece of particle board only to be met by the wire mesh that encloses our duck and fish food box. I suspect the perpetrator may have been a raccoon but I can’t be sure. I left a little extra food on the ground around the food box just in case he should return.

Evidence of one persistent but no doubt frustrated varmint

Likewise the deer have had to search for food. The drought has brought them into our yard and into direct conflict with Trudy. The deer have even made it onto our porches and eaten hanging plants. They have been eating our newly planted landscaping in the front courtyard, much of which is “deer resistant.” Trudy has responded in force by caging rose bushes and frequently applying Deer Be Gone or water with Dawn Dish Washing Soap. These concoctions mildly discourage the deer.

Bella, our female Border collie, has become our nighttime deer monitor. She will bark loudly enough to wake us. When let into the yard, Bella encourages (well, yaps ferociously and chases) the deer to jump back over the fence when she thinks they belong. No invading Bella’s space, mind you.

Bella, our night time deer monitor
Photo by Ramsey

Once again I have been reminded that our cattle and horses are big animals and must be paid due respect. Retirement into ranching hasn’t been in the best interest of my health (broken arm, ruptured disc in back, sprains, numerous cuts and abrasions, and concussion). Recently when working calves and sorting cattle in the pen, my attention had focused on the Black Baldies such that I didn’t see Bell, our oldest Longhorn approaching. She let her presence be known by clubbing my right arm with her horn. This is her way of indelicately asking me for more range cubes to eat.

Many folks incorrectly believe Longhorns protect themselves by stabbing predators with the tips of their horns. This is not the case. Their main horn defense is by shaking their heads from side-to-side and bludgeoning predators (or humans) into submission. In any event my scrapes have healed and I have renewed respect for Longhorns. NEVER IGNORE A LONGHORN!

Longhorns wield heavy clubs and demand attention

 

 

Visual Treats From Medicine Spirit Ranch

I’m overdue for a blog post, although I’ve lately put more words down on paper than is typical for me. This is because Little Jack Kerouac, our Texas Brown Dog, has been dictating his memoir of his first year and a half before adopting us. Acting as Jack’s scribe has taken more time than I anticipated, but answers many questions such as where he came from, why he hates panel trucks, squirrels, and armadillos, and why he feels so at home at Medicine Spirit Ranch.

Jack reclining on his chair, dictating his backstory

I will post Jack’s story in the near future and do so as a series of posts. In the meantime I offer my readers inspiring pictures of nature’s wonders at Medicine Spirit Ranch. Such sights give me a feeling of awe and wonderment. Below are some of my favorites that I hope you too will enjoy.

View of Medicine Spirit Ranch on a misty morn

A large buck standing as if posing in front of our barn

Dandy, our roan gelding

Painted Buntings have been prevalent this year. Their beauty never fails to stop me in my tracks

Ground feeding Cardinals are daily visitors to our bird feeders

Great Blue Herons according to folklore predict good luck. The ducks have proven less successful because of predators

Wildflowers such as the Bluebonnet grace our ranch in the Spring

The waterfall that gives Hidden Falls Ranch its name

The ranch just wouldn’t be the same without Border collies. From bottom to top: Bandit, Molly, and Buddy

Sunset at the ranch

Nature has a healing effect and of this I am certain. I hope these glimpses of life at Medicine Spirit Ranch provide you with a measure of pleasure and awe that I regularly experience.

Oh, and Happy Father’s Day to all you fathers!

Horse Sense

Dandy (on the left) and Fancy (on the right) at an earlier meal

Horse behavior like other animal behavior interests me. Usually the nature of horse behavior is self-protection from injury or threat. Such an example I witnessed today. I’ve always known the term “horse sense” but had not thought much about it until today.

The origin of horse sense is likely ancient but in 1870 the New York magazine The Nation offered the following description of horse sense as it applies to humans: “The new phrase, born in the west we believe, of horse sense which is applied to the intellectual ability of men who exceed others in practical wisdom.”

But how does the term apply to horses? This morning I delayed my ranch work today in order to complete my workout routine. I failed to notice the gathering of dark clouds and the freshening of the breeze. A storm had been predicted but arrived earlier than predicted. When I looked out the window of my house and saw the rain down in the valley, I tore out, jumped in my pickup, and drove to the pens to feed the horses. I struggled with my umbrella, as I made serial trips with scoops of feed from the feed sack in the back of my pickup to the horse trough. My umbrella kept getting turned up in the gusty wind.

Meanwhile I looked up and saw Fancy and Dandy, our two horses, standing together in a nearby pasture under a Post Oak tree. They followed my goings and comings with interest, as both perked up their ears and stared in my direction. Neither, however, moved even a single hoof toward the horse trough. Usually they see my approach at feeding time and come running.

I suspect they sensed that walking around in a thunderstorm was not a very good idea. Is this what is known as horse sense? While both love nothing better than chowing down on their daily meal, I learned in this instance that eating would just have to wait until after the storm.

I consider this an example of horse sense. Maybe the horses proved they have it and their human companion doesn’t. He was foolish enough to get out in the rain and presented a moving but tempting target for the lightning. The horses might have even thought themselves more intelligent than the rancher, something the Border collies at Medicine Spirit Ranch figured it out a long time ago.

Maybe W. C. Fields was right when he described horse sense as the thing a horse has which keeps him from betting on humans.

I sure know enough not to get out in a thunderstorm

So do I but these humans act pretty strange sometimes

A Dandy Addition To Our Ranch

Dandy, newly arrived roan gelding

Recently we had a new horse arrive at Medicine Spirit Ranch. He’s a roan gelding that belongs to my ranch hand, Juan. A friend of Juan’s gave him the horse, but Juan had no land on which the horse could graze. He asked if he could leave it at Medicine Spirit Ranch. I’ll end up feeding and treating the horse, if the latter is needed, but in return Juan will take care of the hooves of both the roan and our Paint horse, Fancy.

I said yes as the big red horse will herd up with Fancy and replace our recently departed Doc. When the papers arrived we learned the horse’s name was Dandy. It’s around eight years old and is said to be rope trained. I assume at one time Dandy was a roping horse as is typical for many quarter horses.

Dandy (on the left) and Fancy (on the right) get along well.

Word is Dandy is a great riding horse but hasn’t been ridden in awhile. Without question Juan who is a skilled horseman will be first up on Dandy. Dandy is friendly and very gentle. He likes to  nuzzle me on the neck and be scratched. He loves carrots but surprisingly won’t eat apples.

Dandy is not afraid of Little Jack and Bella, two of our dogs, who despite our best efforts continue to strafe the horses. Dandy stands his ground, puts down his big head with the white blaze and star, and holds his ground. Like sensible animals, the dogs veer off and instead chase a fleeing Fancy.

Dandy up close and personal

We look forward to getting to know Dandy. No doubt stories will follow as I observe his explorations of his new surroundings.

Let’s all welcome Dandy to Medicine Spirit Ranch.

Dread of Drought

I peer into the northwest sky from where the elusive rain is said to come. The grass beneath my feet crunches as if walking on popcorn. The leaves on trees sag like the craggy faces of older people. Despite a  brave and collective denial of reality, an early drought has set in. The weatherman maintains hope by elevating rain predictions only at the last minute to reduce our chances.

Several years ago Central Texas suffered a drought of historical proportion. Our fields browned out, crops withered, and dust rode the winds like powder before a fan. Ranchers lost crops and failed to produce hay. Stocks of expensive hay had to be trucked in to maintain herds of cattle, sheep, and goats. Some ranchers along with their crops withered under the assault.

This year I maintain two barns full of hay, enough easily to tide me through an average winter. I am capable of one trial learning. Yesterday during one of our typically wettest months, I had to put out hay for my cows. I fear what lays ahead.

Creeks flow slowly or not at all. Stock tanks recede and algae spreads like kudzu. Bluebonnets appear slaked. Our hopeful Spring has given way to a dusty desperation.  We’ve taken to shaking rain sticks, a Caribbean superstition thought to summon rain. Why not engage in superstitions when all else has failed?

The rains may still come and rescue our land from early drought. I obsessively check weather reports. How fickle and cruel is Mother Nature. We remain hopeful as time exists for the skies to open forth with crop restoring, creek flushing, and pond filling rains. Time will tell. We wait.

 

One Day Later: It rained! Just after writing the piece above, the skies opened and half an inch of rain fell- hardly enough to break our drought but might it be the beginning of a much needed rainy season.

Already the fields have begun to green up. Amazing how fast the turnaround can be and how quickly the spirits of ranchers can improve.

Buddy’s Retirement- April 20, 2018

Buddy as a younger dog

It was inevitable, I suppose. Retirement is part of life isn’t it, that is if we live long enough. Buddy about whom you’ve heard much lately (Buddy- The Slacker) retired from his life’s work today. His retirement from herding came suddenly or at least it surprised me.

On request Buddy declined to jump out of the bed of the pickup to help herd the mama cow about which I recently wrote (A Sad Day On The Ranch). This job in the past would have been an easy one for Buddy, merely moving one cow through a couple of gates and into an adjoining pasture where the remainder of the herd grazed.

When I called to Buddy, he merely stared back at me. Has he suddenly gone deaf? What’s wrong with that dog!

After a few moments of reflection on the statue-like, immobile Buddy, I thought perhaps his bad back might be hurting him or else he had judged after twelve and a half years he’d accomplished his limit of herding cattle. Nevertheless, pushing one cow through a couple of gates and into another pasture has previously hardly been work for our Buddy who has lived to herd. But I know twelve and a half years makes for an old dog, especially for a Border collie.

He’s been the best herder I’ve ever had on the ranch. His exploits are legion, as I tried to indicate in the Slacker piece, his first herding experience. Nevertheless, lately he has been less invested and less enthusiastic about this effort. I maintain that in his place today he urged the younger Bella to help me. Surprisingly Bella did a fairly good job but not up to the standards set earlier by Buddy.

Buddy on left and Bella on right. Photo by Ramsey

Buddy has lately spent more time napping on one of his four beds (yes, can you believe it- four beds) that are scattered strategically around our house. He never has to take more than a few steps to find a doggie bed. If a bed is not immediately available, a low chair will do just fine.

While he still enjoys riding around in the pickup, he now seems anxious to return to the house and resume his doggie slumbers.

Perhaps his life’s arc from superb and indefatigable herding dog to his current “just don’t bother me” attitude is an expected part of normal aging thatis sure to affect us all. I’ll admit since retiring, I enjoy naps more.

Years ago when I asked my grandmother Hutton when she was quite elderly what it was like to get old, she replied, “Tom, you just slow up.” This observation must be as true for Border collies as it is for humans.

I hope Buddy reneges on his retirement for at least a brief period of time. What gives me hope is that Francisco, our ranch hand of seventy-five years old has retired at least five times. Each time after his announced retirement he came back to the ranch after having become thoroughly bored with watching TV and missing “his” ranch.

The animals, the beauty of nature, and the opportunity to make the ranch better proves for Francisco an incredibly strong draw. Might Buddy one day feel a spurt of new resolve along with a strong desire to herd- just one more cow? Time will tell.

By the way, what does one give a Border collie as a retirement gift? He has no use for a watch. Your thoughts?

Buddy, the retiree, taking one of his frequent naps

A Sad Day On The Ranch

We are well into Spring calving season but today unfortunately we lost a calf. One of our mama cows was found agitated and having great difficulty delivering a calf. The calf was large and although the cow had previously calved without difficulty, she couldn’t deliver this calf.   We were to learn the calf was hung up at the shoulder (referred to as shoulder dystocia) and was clearly dead when we found the distressed mama.

The vet and her assistant came in an emergency call. We pulled the calf, using what is a essentially a “come along”. Following this the mama was able to get to her feet although clearly exhausted from a night of labor. Currently she’s in the pen where I will be giving her, if needed, shots of oxytocin to assist her in pushing out the placenta.

I’m sad over the loss of the little bull calf. I suppose for me this is therapy via my keyboard. I know occasionally we’ll lose a calf and, rarely, even a mama cow, but it still bothers me greatly. The sensation recalls how i felt during my practice when I would lose a patient to death. While inevitable, it still hurts. I never got used to it while practicing and suspect I will never get used to it ranching.

Ironically I was about to pick up a spreader full of fertilizer (8000 pounds) and begin treating our hay fields. Instead of fertilizer bringing forth new life, we instead lost life in a birthing process. Such is ranch life, I suppose, and tomorrow I’ll return to fertilizing. Meanwhile I will ponder the life that wasn’t. Such is life on the ranch. Happier days will follow.

Buddy- The Slacker

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

A young Buddy posing

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.

Charolois bull in a less distracted state


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 okay?”

“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.

Buddy when a little older and after bringing his ear under control

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.”

Author with Buddy who was born to herd

“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.

The Importance Of Place

Have you ever noticed how comfortable you feel at home?  Each of us has a certain comfort zone and a sense of place. I’ve often wondered about this?

Buddy as a puppy. “Say this lap feels pretty natural”

This feeling of belonging, belonging to a certain geographical place affects us all- a place that feels right, looks right, smells right and provides comfort and mitigates the travails of the world. Whether it’s early imprinting, as occurs with baby chicks, or some combination of the sounds, smells, sights, and memories (an overall gestalt for an area), I am not entirely sure. Nevertheless, for many who have lived away from their special places know the strength and durability of the homeward draw. It’s like a magnetic force and can be almost overpowering.

Buddy:Being in this pickup truck just feels right

Trudy and I lived for ten years in Minnesota while I trained in Neurology. Our two children were born there and we have wonderful memories of Minnesota. We met some lovely, lifelong friends, enjoyed the incredible 10,000 pristine lakes, and delighted in many novel experiences (have you ever tried lefsa or lutefisk?).

Nevertheless, both Trudy and I felt a nascent longing to return to Texas, our native home. When offered the opportunity to join the faculty of the new Texas Tech School of Medicine in Lubbock, Texas, we quickly determined to leave our adopted State of Minnesota and head homeward.

What is it that makes a place comfortable for us? I’d lived in Texas during my formative years. Trudy had always lived in Texas. We both missed the gratuitous friendliness and expansiveness of spirit that is Texas.

Minnesotans were in no way unfriendly but seemed not as overtly warm and forthcoming as we’d come to expect from growing up in Texas. Plus we admittedly missed the Mexican food and Bar-B-Que along with the independent mindedness and largeness of spirit in Texas.

A friend of mine in Fredericksburg, Texas recently told me of having his grandchildren visit from New York City. Wishing to introduce his grandchildren to the wide, open spaces of Texas, he drove his grandchildren to The Big Bend Area. There with their recently purchased packs, canteens, and hiking boots, they set off on a well marked park trail to explore the grandeur of the Big Bend National Park.

After some time had passed, one grandchild developed a quizzical look on his face, looked around with an expression of perplexity, and said in a panicky voice, “Grandfather, we are lost!”

The grandfather asked in a calm voice, “what makes you think we are lost?”

The grandson replied, “Well, there are no people here, we must be lost!”

“I feel right at home in my pack.”
Buddy stands tall above Mollie and Bandit

 

The lack of people, the lack of built environments, and absent din of traffic noise was not “home” for the grandson. It was clearly different from New York City. No doubt the solitude struck the boy as unnerving and frightening. The grandfather shared that he strove to introduce an alternative sense of place to his grandchildren, one closer to nature than is New York City.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’ve learned a lot about animal and human behavior by simply watching our furry, four-footed friends. This includes the importance of a sense of place.

Buddy, our now senior Border collie, was born in my bedroom closet.

Daughter-in-law Alissa holding Buddy shortly after his birth

With rare exception Buddy has never ventured much beyond the outer fence of our ranch. Oh he frequently rides along on trips to the feed store and has on occasion gone on a wild bull chase throughout neighboring, overgrown ranches (see an earlier post, Slacker), but he is most definitely a home dog.

Buddy crouched and ready to herd

Once and only once, Trudy and I drove him to our daughter’s home in central Dallas. Buddy absolutely hated it. The loud sounds and strange smells were, I suppose, not what he was used to. He let his displeasure known by wetting on the floor, whining, pacing, scratching at the door, and at the end of the visit most eager to jump into the car and return to the ranch. We’ll never make that mistake again. Buddy is not and never will be a city dog.

Once when our ranch house was undergoing remodeling, we had to move about an eighth of a mile and live for several days in our guest house. Buddy, despite the short distance from our home, absolutely hated it.

We had packed a few things and loaded up the dogs for our stay at the guest house (The Yellow Rose). When the sun began to set, Buddy began scratching at the door of the Yellow Rose to go out. When later I went to call him in, I couldn’t find him. Buddy had gone home. I had to return to our main house, gather him from the back porch, and haul him back to the guest house.

Buddy: “Just thought I’d wait for you here on the porch at home while you dawdled  at that other place”

This sequence  of futility repeated several times before I wised up and closed the yard gate to the guest house so that Buddy could not leave. Needless to say, our dog spent a few restless nights at the guest house while the remodeling proceeded.

I learned from Buddy’s escapes that a sense of place proved more important than for him than did human companionship. His preference for place over person proved a little humbling but informative as to what was most important in Buddy’s canine world.

Like Buddy we all share a feeling of comfort when at home and mild discomfort when away from home.  A sense of place may go a long way to explaining homesickness, an emotion we have all felt.

While we may not understand why others feel comfortable in radically different places than our own and with different looks, smells, and accents than what we are used to, we can perhaps understand the comfort that comes to others with residing in their own familiar places.

“Why look elsewhere when I am already home”

A final thought regarding a sense of place deals with the impact of age. As Buddy gets older, he’s developing an even stronger love of home and dislike of travel. He is the first  to return to the pickup when we work on the ranch. Buddy is the first dog to want to go inside when spending time on the patio or in the yard. He is the least likely of the dogs now to participate in a deer chase or challenge a cow.

Perhaps as an older dog, Buddy feels more vulnerable. Home is comforting for him. Are there parallels in humans? As humans age, it strikes me we also develop an increased awareness of our frailties and have an increased love of home place. Don’t many older people, like Buddy, appear less willing to travel, explore, and seek out new adventures?

Our sense of place seems as important for humans, as it is for our canine companions. Perhaps our sense of place which is lifelong may even strengthen with age as it does for my four-footed friend.