English Shepherds were unknown to me just a few years ago. After purchasing Lucas from Mary Peaslee’s Shepherd’s Way, I soon discovered the dog I’d always desired. Devoted, loving, able to work and able to relax… this dog would fit into ranchlife just perfectly.
Fate intervened and Lucas was injured. I honestly didn’t know if he’d ever walk very well, much less do strenuous cow work. The best dog I’d ever had, and now he’d miss out on his life’s work. But I wondered… surely… surely… I could find the right female to breed him to and get that pup that could take his place.
A conference with Mary Peaslee turned into a phone call with DeAndra Butcher in Oklahoma. A long time breeder of English Shepherds, Mrs. Butcher was ready to slow down. Her last female had just had a litter of pups, and they were all placed. Although not actively seeking a new home for her girl, she was willing to talk.
I told her about our place. The cattle, the trailing and gathering, the wide open spaces that make up Wyoming. Mrs. Butcher thought her girl would like it here. She didn’t get to work cows that often, her husband tended to use their male.
“But,” I asked, “Do you think she’ll settle in? That she can grow fond of me? She’s three years old!” De assured me that she, indeed, would grow to love me.
Although I was vaguely wary, we agreed, Butcher’s Foothills Elsa was coming to Wyoming.
I was born there… have relatives scattered in the Kiamichi Mountains, but Elsa was in the Eucha Hills of northeastern Oklahoma…
I placed a phone call to my sister in Texas. Yes, she was coming to Wyoming, no, she wasn’t going to see her in-laws in Oklahoma on the way… Why?
“Well… I bought a dog. I just thought you might be able to give her a ride!”
My sister was kind enough to change her plans, and she picked up Elsa on her way.
I first met Elsa on July 2, 2007. Thin haired from blowing her coat after her litter, she seemed so petite compared to lumbering Lucas. Named after the lioness in Born Free, Elsa had been an escape artist as a pup, wriggling from any enclosure. She had lots of room to run now… I just hoped she wouldn’t run back to Oklahoma her first chance.
Weeks later, a weak bond formed, I decided to see if she could handle cows. A short trail with cows and calves would be her test. Instantly, I regretted bringing her. Once we started moving, Elsa yipped. And yipped. And yipped. A high, piercing, hurt-your-eardrum yip. Oh. My. Gosh. Nothing worse than a barking dog with momma cows. But, we were moving… no going back.
I couldn’t quiet her. She was nervous and scared and to her this was just WRONG. My imported cowdog was not working out.
Part way along the trail is a hill… the cows tend to stall out here… we use some yipping ourselves to encourage them to keep hiking uphill. Suddenly, she was gone. No yipping. No Elsa. Panicked that I’d scared her off to Oklahoma, I helped the guys up the hill and then abandoned them. I was more scared that I was losing Elsa. Where had she gone?
Trotting my horse along the trail, I called and called. Through horse high sagebrush, I begged Elsa to Come! My empty words echoed along the red cliffs.
I hit the main trail, and searched the fine dust. Ah. Petite pawprints heading west overlayed the hoofprints heading east. She was a smart girl. She was heading home. I only hoped she’d stop once she arrived. I trotted all the way home, never catching up to her. Finally arriving, I dismounted and called again. She was not in sight.
Unsure of what to do next, I walked to my house. There, in the chokecherry bushes, lay a golden ball of fur with brown pitiful eyes.
“Oh, Elsa… I’m so sorry. I thought you would like that. I thought you liked moving cows. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.” I crawled next to her… reassuring, petting, talking, crying, and she laid her head on my lap and sighed. She hadn’t been ready and I had pitched her in the deep end.
She forgave me eventually… as dogs do… and as she got used to our driving method of moving cattle, the ear piercing yip subsided. I could send her out with a directional look and a “swwswwss”. 9 times out of 10 if I looked at my left stirrup while stopped, Elsa was right there.
Always eager to go, she’d give a high bound as I’d head out the door. Vermin Killer Extraordinaire, she’d killed everything from rabbits to moles to coons. I could actually have a garden again.
She and Lucas had 30 pups together… great pups in great homes, farms, and ranches. She was a wonderful mother, patient, instructive, attentive.
Was she perfect? No. I’d look across the road at the calves in the lot, and notice them all bunched in the corner… I’d hike over and find her holding them there. Bad Dog. Leave them alone. After a few months, she did… But, the horses. Horses Who Should Not Be Close To The House. That was her Rule… and I tried and tried to abolish it. What it became was a modification. They could finally be closer, but still Not Close, she simply had her boundary and it didn’t match mine, but we both gave a little.
She, more than Lucas, more than Dally, became the sensitive lover. Quietly padding on her little hairy Hobbit toes, she would sneak and lay beside me, or behind me. Giving rise, on many an occasion, to an exasperated “ELSA!” as I tripped over her. Insistent with her English Shepherd Lean, her head and her paws begged for More Attention, always More Attention. Taking food delicately or not at all until you gave her some Space, she would never be a greedy, ill mannered dog.
She was the one with whom I could trust the grandsons… pulling an ear now, some hair then, a touch on the eye, she’d take it all.
Wednesday, as I began to suffer from this cough… I noticed she was moving slowly. She acted stiff. Well, we did have a foot and a half of snow, and patches of ice on the road… who knows if she had pulled something? I fed the dogs, pulled some burdock from her coat, and sent her back outside. Thursday, I was in my own little fog, sore from coughing, exhausted after walking only a few feet. She accompanied me to the chicken coop as usual, although her and Dally didn’t frolic in the falling snow. Home from the doctor, I fed the dogs… but Elsa wasn’t interested. Hmmm, I remember thinking. I wonder if she has a sore tooth? I’d expected that eventually, as she’d worn her teeth down from ripping into the sod looking for mice and moles. I rubbed and petted her, clipping a few clumps of matted fur from her haunches. She needed brushed! She would have to wait, if the sun was warm the next day, I had planned to work on her as long as I could.
A good night’s sleep and drugs restored me to The Living, and I checked on Elsa first thing Friday morning. Laying in the protected triad of evergreens, she wouldn’t get up. Her eyes were not dull, her breathing slow and steady. But there was a sense… one I rejected immediately from my over active imagination… I brought her water. She didn’t drink. Coughing racked my chest and I returned to the house, checking on her through the window.
Where’d she go? I rushed to my windows and now found her under the front pine tree, a favorite place for her to lay. She must have followed me slowly to the door and I hadn’t noticed… and she’d continued on to her normal spot. This time I mixed up some warm beef broth and took it out to her. She wasn’t interested.
“Ah, girl… Vernon will be home for lunch soon and we’ll load you up in the Durango…”
And I left her there.
I made lunch, ate, then returned to the kitchen for two slices of cheese, Elsa, hopefully, would love the treat. I opened the door, looked out, and knew I was too late.
She is buried on the hillside by my studio… a couple of feet from where I took the sundog photos. We had to build a bonfire to thaw the ground, and it was Vernon’s strength and a crowbar that managed to dig her a spot where she’d be close to me.
Her silent self still lingers… and I think I catch a glimpse of her padding softly, head down, in her classic You Can’t See Me, Don’t Make Me Go Away pose. I check before scooting out my chair from my desk, or glance behind me as I do dishes, making sure I won’t trip over her… Lucas’ coat caught the setting sun last night and it glowed golden and there was a catch in my throat. Dally waited to come in the gate, I had to open it just a smidge wider… and my laughter tumbled over Elsa’s quirk of having Plenty Of Room.
She’s here, in the soft golden light.
In the light breeze that lifts fine hair in shimmering waves.
Where fuzzy Hobbit toes leave feather light tracks.
Where a nudge on my leg comes softly, then more insistently, and my hand drops to find the soft head of the Oklahoma girl that came to grow fond of me, that came to Love me.
She, too, I honestly believe, grew to have this Red Dirt In Her Soul.
May she find peace ‘neath the buffalo grass…
February 17, 2012 I Interrupt This Lesson… For Ranchlife!
February 17, 2011 Red Dirt of Home
February 17, 2010 Home ( my favorite photo of my 3 dogs! )
February 17, 2009 Axe-ident
February 17, 2008 No entry.