Lambing


Outside Lampasas, the road narrowed and turned to gravel and Oren bumped across a ditch, and lifted a wire gate. "This is the Bar Kay Ranch," he said. "Place I rent is out back."

The tamales were good but they were greasy and Penny was dabbing at her lips with a paper napkin when they drove into the barnyard. There wasn't much to it: barn, corral, couple pickups, gas tank, tiny travel trailer, and a cowboy chasing a sheep and not catching it.

Since the sheep had a half-born lamb dangling out of it and since the lamb was flopping up and down, the cowboy chasing the sheep wasn't as funny as he might of been, even when he made a dive and went headlong. Half his face, half his pants, half his shirt, became stinking black mud. The ewe had joined a dozen others in the corner of the corral. The lamb dropped on the ground and, spooked, Mama hurried away.

"Hope," Penny said. When Hope came out of the truck, Penny waited until he was looking at the right sheep before she said, "That one."

Hope saw a crowd of woolies, smelled the lambing scent, the powerful stink of blood and mucus, swept around the far side of the corral and dropped down on his elbows to scoot under the rails where the stunned, bewildered new mother saw him and stamped her foot. Faced by this predator, she remembered her lamb, rushed back, and stood over it protectively.

The dog retreated a pace, and the ewe fell to cleaning the mucus off her new baby. Hope laid down as the mother cleaned, stomped, nickered, returned to the exciting thing that was her own, hers!

The cowboy paused at the spigot to wash the muck off his hands. Close up, Penny could see he had mud in his long lank hair. "God damn these sheep," he said.

"You're fired," Oren said.

"Too late," the cowboy said and got in his truck and gunned it. Another cowboy, younger, came out of the trailer with a cup in his hand. He raised a hand in a lackadaisical salute and scratched his butt against the doorpost.

"Where's Lonnie goin'?" he asked. The cowboy was nineteen or twenty and his jeans hung off his skinny butt. "I ain't gonna do all the work myself," he said.

Inside the corral, the new mother looked up at the sky, surprised as a fresh contraction shook her.

"She's got another one," Penny said. "You got pens?"

The young cowboy said, "I don't know we got any clean ones. Lonnie was going to do that."

Oren shook his head tiredly and led Penny into the long, metal pole barn. "Used to be horses," he said. "We tore out the stall dividers and kept the tack room for supplies. You can bunk here."

The tack room was a stall with a concrete floor, dusty high window, a refrigerator (into which Oren put medicines), and an army cot with a mattress, a couple Hudson Bay blankets, and pillow. Oren looked dubious. "You sure you can do with this?"

"Last night I slept in jail." She set her duffle on the bed. "Show me your operation."

As Oren toured her through the barn, past the pens of ewes and lambs, the young cowboy started forking used bedding from vacated pens. Oren told Penny about the shots and docking, what to feed the ewes, and where feed was kept. Each four-by-four wooden pen had a metal card holder where special instructions were written for the next man on shift.

"You got twenty-six hundred ewes? How many of us is there?"

With a thumb, Oren Wright jabbed her, him, and the cowboy. "I got to get some shut-eye or I won't be no account for nothing. Can you handle it until night?"

"I expect. These ewes the only ones bagged up?"

He shook his head. "They're the ones we could catch. We got newborns out in the breaks, some a week old never had their shots."

When Oren Wright left, the young cowboy rolled a cigarette. "Where you from?" he asked.

"Somewhere the help don't quit as soon as the boss walks out the door. I'm gonna need a dozen clean pens."

The lambing barn had four rows of pens against the long walls and back-to-back in the middle. At any one time the pens could hold eighty ewes and their lambs. When things went well, a ewe came into the barn on Monday and left on Thursday, and after her apartment was renovated the shepherd could install a newcomer. When a ewe had trouble--mastitis, milk fever, pneumonia, blue bag--the pens filled with sick sheep and the sheep housing stock shrank. Penny spent a couple hours examining the ewes in the barn, medicating those that needed it, turning others with their lambs out into the sunshine. She slipped bands on lambs' tails, checked new mothers for milk supply, milked out ewes for their colostrum, ear notched bad mothers so they could be culled. Hope found himself a straw bale and laid down with his head on his paws.

The young cowboy didn't say another word but kept at the pens making room for new arrivals. At noon Penny got cold tamales out of Oren's truck. She ate four, Hope ate four.

"The main flock--the flock with the untreated lambs, which direction are they?"

The cowboy pointed at the expanse of broken hills and ravines behind the ranch.

Penny said, "Come by, Hope. OUT." And the dog shot off. Penny returned to the barn then to gather used syringes and needles to boil on her hotplate.

"Where's he goin'?" the cowboy asked as Hope climbed the first ridge and disappeared in the mesquite.

"After the sheep."

"How's he know where to go?"

Penny dropped needles into her boiling water.

"He just does, that's all."

Hope set out on his gather with joy in his heart. This is what he was always meant to do, nothing less: to seek woolies and bring them home.

The pasture was 280 acres of rough scrub, more mesquite than grass. Plenty of woolie sign, scraps of wool clinging to the thorn bushes, but Hope went out, a half mile, three quarters of a mile until one woolie saw him and bolted inward for safety and company. Hope paused, was this all? Not all, he decided and swung out again seeking more. The second band was much larger and spooky. The moment they saw him they were away, shooting off to his right, but Hope didn't pursue them directly, he kept on going. When he stopped he was a mile from where he'd started and all the bands of sheep were between him and Penny.

Penny went through the refrigerator combining half-empty vials, tossing empties, making a list of what she had and what she needed. Strong iodine, neomycin, boluses, covexin 8. . .

"That dog of yours done took off, huh?" The cowboy was leaning against the door of the tack room.

"This is my room," she said. "Off limits."

"Ain't we particular," he said but he did take a step backward."

"You gonna get the feed out for those sheep or you gonna stand around jawing?"

The tack room door dragged when Penny pulled it closed. She put a fresh pot of water on the hot plate and watched the elements turn red. She wondered how many women there were like her, runaways or in hiding. The mug she rinsed said TEXAS AGGIES.

Out in the pasture, Hope was combining the flocks. Ewes get hysterical if their new lamb gets separated, which happens if the sheep are brought along too fast. When a ewe loses track of her lamb she'll rush back to the spot she last saw it and only a dog's teeth can stop her. Beyond a point--and a dog's teeth bring that point on promptly--ewes lose what small sense they customarily possess and go insane rushing hither and yon, no rhyme or reason, uncontrollable.

So Hope stayed back, just far enough to make the ewes uneasy so they'd slide along at a walk, their lambs beside them.

He slipped beneath low mesquite bushes, light and shadow, and the sheep drifted away nervously.

That strange smell coming out of that burrow? Hope had never smelled armadillo before--he'd maybe come back later. He haunted the flock of sheep, a presence in their rear, more sensed than seen, ghosting through the brush. The sheep streamed over the brow of the hillock behind Oren Wright's barn, like a thick, bumpy liquid.

"Well, I be damned," the young cowboy said.

"We got enough pens for these critters?"

"Yes, ma'am. Yes, ma'am."

At midnight, the alarm went off in Oren Wright's trailer and he sat up and wondered briefly where he was. He splashed water on his face, thought he'd shave, maybe later. He'd slept in his shorts and socks and now he slipped into the dirty insulated coveralls that hung by the door and pushed his feet into his calf-high rubber boots. He was out the door under the brilliant wash of stars before he remembered to be worried: what if that girl wasn't what she'd seemed?

He'd met her at the Fort Worth Stock Show. Oren had raised and showed sheep since he was a boy of nine, first with the 4-H and later with the FFA. Oren brought his show sheep into the stock show barn five minutes before the deadline and trimmed them in the barn. He hadn't had time to do any fancy work at home. He combed and clipped his animals, making not-quite-perfect animals look perfect. At night he slept in an empty stall, right next to them. Plenty of sheepmen paused to look over his best ram lamb after the judge (from Brigham Young University) gave Oren the blue ribbon for senior ram lamb and light purple for reserve champion Rambouillet. It wasn't much prize money: his blue ribbon was worth a hundred bucks but the purple ribbon brought $250 and a fellow from Kerrsville said he liked the looks of the ram lamb. Could he call him with an offer?

"Sure. I'm lambing right now so you'll probably get the machine."

Lamb prices had been off, so Oren was scraping hard to make his feed payments. The prize money was unbudgeted and a pleasure. At the Budweiser stand he bought himself a two-dollar-and-fifty-cent cup of beer. He was done with his part of the showing but, according to the rules, couldn't remove his animals until all the sheep classes were finished, so he hung both ribbons over his pens beside the sign that said: OREN WRIGHT, LAMPASAS, TX. GRADE AND REGISTERED RAMBOUILLETS.

Rodeo tickets were sold out so he watched the miniature-horse show. Costumed owners brought out their stallions "under thirty-six inches in height" and stood the feisty little beasts for the judge's inspection. Country people have strange ideas of fun.

After the last stallion pranced out of the arena, they brought out pens and slatted gates for the sheepdog trial. Oren'd seen working dogs before but never a trial, and he sat, sipping his beer, kind of entranced by it all. The checks in his breast pocket made his pocket feel warm.

That's what he needed for his sheep, a good dog. But where in the world would he find the time to train it? He didn't watch the entire trial, but he did see Penny run with Hope and he liked the confidence the young dog showed.

A couple hours later, he'd seen the Budweiser Clydesdales, seen the llamas, walked through the poultry barn (when he was in 4-H, he'd also shown chickens), and eaten two hot dogs. Penny was carding out montadale ewes. "That's a nice dog you got there," Oren said.

"If I'd been a little quicker at the gate we might have taken second. Wasn't Hope's fault."

"How'd you learn how to do it?"

"My daddy is Lewis Burkeholder. . . " She paused like she expected Oren to know him. "It's a hobby of his, the sheepdogs. He has that Nop dog, maybe you've heard of him?"

"First sheepdog trial I ever saw was tonight." He offered his hand for the dog to sniff but the dog ignored him. "You grow up with stock?"

She said she'd gone away to Ohio State Ag School and majored in sheep management, but she'd been away from it for a couple of years and was starting over. "Me and Hope are on the trial circuit this year, first time for both of us. I am completely determined to run in the National Finals this year"--she gestured at her grooming tools: comb, clippers, wool whitener--"so I'll do whatever sheep work comes along."

With that check burning up his breast pocket Oren asked her, casual as he could, if she'd ever lambed out sheep before. He said, "I been lookin' for somebody on my place . . ."

When Penny hadn't showed up, he'd been annoyed but not surprised; wouldn't be the first farmhand to give work a pass. When she phoned and asked him to pick her up at the Bosque County Courthouse, that hadn't been anything new either, except that she was a woman. He'd been so tired and his two cowboys didn't like sheep and wouldn't learn the simplest things about them. They didn't know much about cows either but could distinguish between dozens of pickup option packages. So Oren fetched her and fell into the longest uninterrupted sleep he'd managed since lambing began.

***

The sheep barn was calm, one ewe nickering to her lamb. Penny had a newborn in her arms, banding its tail. There were many, many ewes in pens, most with older lambs.

"Hope brought 'em in. Hold this iodine will you?"

"Some of those lambs are two weeks old."

"I figured we'd keep 'em in one night, figure who was who, see if there's any of these ewes need culling. You can put them out in the morning.

She set the lamb gently back in the pen. "Okay, Sonny, here's your mama," and gave him a little push. "When you want me in the morning?"

He told her ten sharp and she said okay, give her door a kick about eight and could she borrow the pickup to go into town and get some groceries and was there a laundromat?

He said, "I'll pay for the groceries. That was part of the deal."

She said, "Hope's dog food too. You're getting his work thrown in for free. I reckon you can feed him."

Everything was so quiet in the barn, ewes snoozing or nursing, lambs banked up next to their moms. It was that quiet that blocked Oren's rejoinder. For the first time in weeks, his animals were content. The woman pulled off her manure-filthy boots outside her room and summoned the dog and closed the door behind them, and Oren could have sworn he heard two people talking together in there.

Penny chose to herd sheep. Hope had that choice made for him two centuries ago. Hope's many times removed great-granddam was a bitch named Fly. Fly looked quite a bit like Hope, and if you could set the two dogs side by side, you'd remark the similarity. Fly was smaller than Hope but had a much thicker coat. She was a harder beast than Hope, quicker with her teeth. She lived long before the first sheepdog trials, during a lean and hungry time in Scotland.

Fly belonged to shepherd Jock MacRae, who tended sheep in Glen Lyons on land that had once belonged to the Campbells but belonged now to Sir Isaac Belevedere, who had served as colonel of artillery under the Duke of Cumberland at Culloden and used the slaughter after that battle to improve his family fortunes. This says little about Jock's bitch Fly but helps to explain why her master tended another man's beasts on ground he'd once worked as a free crofter. Why Jock and Fly slept in a filthy stone bothy and why the smoke of Jock's fires exited through the broken front door.

One night in late summer, Fly came into season and Jock bred her to a neighboring shepherd's dog, Luath by name. As the days cooled and shortened, Jock and Fly climbed the great hill through the lowering mists into the sunlight where harrier hawks and eaglets soared and Cheviot sheep browsed in this brilliant air. In the distance, other hills poked through the mists, which Jock knew to be tended by men like him and dogs like Fly.

In September of that year, Jock took Sir Isaac's lambs to the market at Sterling. The drove roads Jock and Fly traveled shunned the towns, crossed high passes, meandered beside still waters, and one flock followed another with no more space between them than prevented intermingling. The shepherd traveled at the rear of his flock, depending on his dog to range ahead, prevent wrong turns, retrieve ewes inclined to straying. "She was such a thrifty bitch," Jock said later, "I never suspected a thing."

They were on the Grampian downgrade, four hours east of Sterling, when Fly dropped her first pup. So near the town, every hundred yards presented a new lane to tempt the ewes, and Fly raced forward to check escape, raced to the rear to chivvy laggards, and as each pup came, she bruskly cleaned it and laid it in a safe spot, beside a milepost, perhaps or just inside a gorse thicket where it wouldn't come to harm.

Jock noted this but his duty was plain: to bring his master's lambs to Sterling and turn them over to Sir Isaac's factor. Only after Sir Isaac's factor closed the gate on the lambs, marked the final tally in his book, and said, "That'll be right," did Jock turn to Fly and say, "That'll do, Lass," and the bitch shot off, back the way she'd come.

A half hour later, Jock was having a pint at the Black Bull Arms when the bitch dashed in, dropped a pup at his feet and was gone again. Jock told the other shepherds how she'd had her pups and abandoned them to continue her work and they said, "Aye" and "Ah then."

When Fly reappeared with her second pup, Jock was eating a great chunk of cheese. Men smoked their pipes, discussed the terrible price of fat lambs, the progress of British arms and Old Boney. Fly brought her third pup and paused, panting, to let them suck. By the time she returned with the fourth pup, the landlord had found a topless cask and bedded it with rags where the pups could nestle. Each pup she went for was farther back along the road and she dashed through oncoming flocks, ducking the curses and stones of drovers whose animals she afrighted. The next pup was dead and Fly's feet were bloody from travel. The final pup was dead too, but she laid him beside his dead brother before she clambered into the cask. No shepherd remarked at the time about what he'd seen, but before he left Sterling the next morning, Jock had promised every one of the pups, and Sir Isaac's factor himself found space behind the seat of his ponycart for the bitch and her brood. Jock, of course, walked.

That is what Hope was--his ancestors: Fly; Spot; Nell; Corrie, who died trying to bring her flock to shelter in a March blizzard; Wiston Cap, who won the International Sheepdog Trial when he was only two years old; Nop, who'd been the finest sheepdog in America.
Donald McCaig, Nop's Hope, pages 24-35

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