A Dog's Work


Early Christmas morning, like every other winter morning, Lewis Burkholder and Nop went out to feed the livestock. The Stink Dog came to the door with Nop and, as usual, Lewis said, "Stink, get back," and shut her up in the kitchen. Nop did all the stockdog work on the farm though eight hundred woolies and seventy cows are really too much for one young dog.

Lewis's boots crunched the frozen dirt. Although it was plenty cold, in this part of Virginia snow doesn't stick until January.

The Big Dipper careened brilliantly overhead. Lewis chafed his leather mittens together and hunched deeper into his jacket. He was a rangy, brown-haired man who farmed his family land along the Shenandoah River.

On account of the holiday, Lewis will feed special this morning. Instead of the fine, fluffy orchard grass, he'll feed the thick-stemmed, furiously green alfalfa, normally reserved for she-woolies with nursing lambs and he-woolies before they're turned out to breed.

The tractor's headlights throw fans of light on the frosted weeds beside the lane.

Nop scrambles onto the back of the hay wagon, among the aromatic bales, shivering in the chill and straining for the first glimpse of woolies. In the east the sky is deep dark blue and the stars are fewer and brighter.

They chug past the cornfields, past cow droppings like frozen black rocks among the stubble.

Tractor smoke smells bad, like burning things that have been too long dead. Nop can smell nothing but bad smoke.

When Lewis stops to open a gate, Nop climbs up on the very tiptop of the bales, balancing himself for a look-see.

Nop spots a few woolies, young ewes under Cinnamon Nose. Nop can hear their bells. One ewe stamps a warning, another bleats to a pal.

Nop skids down the hay bales and runs on ahead.

"Nop! That'll do, Nop!"

Ah, how Nop hates that command. His instincts surging in him, instincts to run among woolies, to order, to gather woolies and bring them to his master.

"Nop!"

Nop returns to Lewis's feet, drawn surely as by wire.

The field is twenty acres, sloping gradually upward to the scrub locust trees along the fence line.

Clumps of woolies. The end of the field looks like a moonscape---these scattered boulders are white sheep. More bleats. The woolies know the tractor sound.

Lewis pulls beside the long row of feeders and when he dismounts, Nop is down too, belly flat on the frozen earth. One eye cocked at his master. One eye cocked at the woolies. Oh, it's hard to lie still when your body's all aquiver!

The slats of the feed bunks glisten silver.

"Nop, Nop. Way to me!"

And Nop's heart hurls blood into his arteries and his muscles flow and he is floating above the winter-killed grass, skittering like a stone on ice. As commanded, he runs out to the right side of the sheep. Balance: to come in near enough so the woolie sentries will see him but not near enough to panic them.

He races out, out, for a quarter of a mile, feeling the rush in his blood and the soaring in his lungs, running until he's well past the flock before he turns inward, running flat behind them now.

More bleats. The sheep hurry to each other for comfort, for safety in numbers.

Nop pauses and comes on toward the sheep at a walk.

Before Nop began his run, Cinnamon Nose's woolies were scattered, going about their separate enterprises. Now they were gathered tightly: a solid mass--one animal, one mind, faced away from the dog at their heels.

At a trial, with a smaller group of sheep, Nop would drive directly, pursuing them like a nemesis, like an unwanted, embarrassing relative. With a large flock like Cinnamon Nose's, Nop casts from one side to another, rousting one flank of the retreating flock and then the other.

It was too dark for Lewis to see Nop. Behind the flock even the white tip of his tail and his ruff were quite invisible.

Nop had become his instinct. His moves were smooth, automatic and greatly satisfying in his bones.

Nop was a black-and-white Border Collie with tufts of brown at his ears. His habitual motion was low slung as a film star's sportscar and quite as fluid. Anyone who hunts with bird dogs would remark the similarity between his approach and a hunting dog's point. Anyone who's ever seen a red fox slipping up behind an unsuspecting young groundhog has seen Nop's delicacy.

Nop moved sheep by careful and specific intimidation; his sharp snout close to the ground, his eyes flaring and fixed, his forward motion implacable.

Sometimes, at play, a Border Collie pup will eye a human as Nop eyes his sheep. It's odd and unpleasant.

Nop's eyes were like searchlights with vague shapes behind the glare--shapes who might be armed.

He ghosted across the rear of the flock and the flock trotted briskly forward. Some of them pulled out in front, forgetful of the dog at their heels, hungry for the hay in the bunks, the warm excitement of heads together feeding side by side. Cinnamon Nose did a little jump in the air from sheer joy and a couple pals did the same. These were the young ewes born last January, bred late and fed heavy because they hadn't finished all their growing and were carrying lambs of their own.

The hay wagon pulled forward.

"Nop, Nop. Come by!"

Though Nop was at the far corner of the flock and going away, the call threw him into the tightest turn he could contrive. In three lengths of his body he was around and digging in, full-tilt, because the woolies were far in front of him and Lewis wanted him around the left flank of the sheep.

From the hay wagon Lewis saw past the sheep to the flicker of white that was Nop's ruff and called, "Nop, Nop!" just to encourage him.

Nop was running hard and fast, breathing in new life, breathing out the life he had no more use for. He passed the left shoulder of the flock and came around the head.

Twenty yards in front of him the tractor was stopped beside the feed bunks. Nop passed the first sheep in front of the tractor's front wheels.

"Stand!"

When Nop swung past, the woolies turned inward, forming a bulb shape. The dog braked in Cinnamon Nose's face and eyed her rushing flock.

Cinnamon Nose thought: Woolies need to feed. Feed in usual place. Woolies hungry. Dog. Dog teeth. Dog threat. Oh. Food beyond the dog's teeth, behind the light in his eyes.

The woolies in the rear climbed onto the leaders' backs--hungry woolies press hard to reach feed, sometimes right over the man with the feed bucket.

The woolies stopped hard against Nop's warning eyes.

Lewis stood easy beside the bunk, cutting twine from a hay bale. He wound the twine around his hand and stuffed it in his jacket pocket.

Nop paraded before the flock, full of menace.

Cinnamon Nose took a step and lowered her head to butt. She pawed the ground. Nop slipped toward her, drawn to her resistance. He held. She held. Lewis arranged the hay in the bunk and turned his back to shelter his pipe. The flare of a wooden match shone in the eyes of a hundred sheep piled up against the dog's will.

Cinnamon Nose backed and turned her head away. One woolie bleated. Another shook herself like a sponge rearranging itself.

"Nop, that'll do." Spoken quietly and Nop returned to his master for a pat and an ear pull before scrambling back on the hay wagon.

At each feeding station Nop gathered a flock and held them until Lewis finished his inspection and let them feed.

Once, on the outrun, Nop cut in too close and Lewis whistled "Get back" and Nop veered wider.

Once, he missed a few ewes hidden behind a low rise of ground and Lewis whistled a correction.

Like all dogs, Nop's tail was the semaphore of his feelings: his fear, his welcome and his smile. Like all Border Collies it signified his work habits too. Once all the sheep were fed, his tail curled, happy and foolish, over his rump. Though he'd run ten miles this morning and reacted with the intensity of a quarterback calling Superbowl plays, he had extra energy and bounced from tussock to tussock, snuffling for the mice who sheltered there, finding no mouse but finding plenty of good mouse reek. When the tractor turned toward the hill pasture where the cattle grazed, right away Nop's tail dropped into the working position: low, following the line of the buttocks, almost concealed by the legs except for the uptilt at the tip. (In Scotland, breeders sometimes refuse to certify a working dog if he works with his tail held high. A high tail indicates a frivolous disposition.)

The cows usually ate silage augered directly into troughs from the silo, but this was a holiday and today they were to have alfalfa too.

The cows were Chianina-Charolais crosses, great slabsided things the color of a fawn's belly. They put on weight faster than the black cows Lewis used to run. These crossbreds were much rougher than the black cows. Though Lewis had sold the cow who hurt the Stink Dog, there were plenty more where she came from.

The cows trotted toward them before Lewis had the gate fastened.

"Nop, you stay." And Nop lay his head down on a hay bale and watched the huge silly things lumbering and bawling toward them. A growl came to Nop's throat but he swallowed it. The stockdog must not growl and snap at the livestock like a house pet.

Their udders swung from side to side as they came on. Several stretched out their necks to moo. Lewis broke bales and scattered them on both sides of the wagon, remounted his tractor seat and drove forward to repeat the process. A cow's digestive system can't stand a sudden change of diet. Lewis fed out fifteen bales for the entire herd. Accustomed to ensilage, a full ration of alfalfa would start the cows scouring and by tomorrow morning the pasture would stink. The hay was a holiday treat. No more than that.

Nop lay at the edge of the empty wagon bed, hoping.

A few cows came near to investigate but lost interest after they saw the dog. Nop watched the cows eating, tossing the hay in the air. Lewis counted. Counted again. The first-calf heifers were bred to calve while the weather was still good enough to get to them and help if necessary.

"One gone, Nop," Lewis advised. "Let's see if we can find her."

Like all cows she'd hidden her newborn--safe from whatever ancestral predators sought young calves. She was alone at the edge of the woods feigning disinterest. Lewis called Nop to his heels as he circled the cow. When he was directly between her and her calf, the cow lowered her head and snorted.

"Nop," Lewis spoke softly and Nop froze, on guard. He was trembling on his hocks, eager as a sprinter at the starting line.

The cow snorted again with less conviction. Softly, Lewis moved back into the woods, ten, twenty feet.

"Little bull calf, Nop," he called. Nop's ears were pricked like a bat's. Disturbed by Lewis's examination of her newborn, the heifer mooed unhappily. Lewis returned to the tractor toolbox for the banding device, a small bottle of iodine spray and several thick green rubber bands, just big enough to go over your little finger. In another twenty-four hours it'd be real work for him and Nop to catch this calf, but right now it was birth-weary and one man could kneel on its chest and hold it. Lewis worked each testicle down into the scrotum. He sprayed the sac with iodine and the calf bawled against the sudden cold.

Mama bawled back.

"Steady, Nop," Lewis said.

Nop was precisely balanced between his own urge to hurl himself at the heifer and his master's command. Though he'd seen the Stink Dog hurt by an animal just like this one, he wasn't afraid.

"It was the excitement that betrayed me, Nop," the Stink Dog had explained when she came back from the veterinarians with the steel pins in her hips. "If I'd been rightly settled, it wouldn't have happened."

Lewis cast a glance back where Nop held the heifer. The Stink Dog's ribs and both hips had been shattered. Lewis's cracked ribs had hurt him all summer and made weary work of the haymaking. He slipped the bander over the bull calf's scrotum and released the band. He double banded it. It's the least painful way to make a steer. The calf bellowed. Mama charged.

Nop looked into the cow's eyes and it was like the eyes of a snow-covered mountain. Mama was a mass of wrath, coming on, picking up speed.

From the tip of his flat tail to the tip of his nose, Nop was a projectile, poised.

Her dim sense had deserted her and the cow's eyes were mad and opaque. She lost sight of the dog until the dog cocked itself: a small move. It got her attention. She dug in her forefeet, forgetting her urge to protect her young, forgetting her rage, forgetting everything except this silent weapon directly in her path.

The cow thought: wolf/thing/glowing eyes.

She filled Nop's vision and peripheral vision. A clump of frozen dirt dislodged by her hooves slid through the air over his back. Particles of dirt and cow dung and dead grass rained down on the dog, on his drooling transfixed face and his lolling tongue. Nop did not blink.

Brought up short, the cow recoiled two, three steps, like she meant to try the matter again.

"Nop, Nop." Ah! Lewis was near! Nop felt his presence and drew from his closeness and strength. Nop's eyes glowed hot.

The heifer tossed her head. At once, she became quite unconcerned. No concern of hers what old two-legs was doing in the woods. She lowered her head and found a patch of dead grass and pulled at it like it was the best feed a cow ever ate.

A clatter when Lewis dropped the bander in the tool-box. Nop broke his gaze. The calf was up on its feet, stretching. It hadn't been hurt bad, just alarmed. Ma grunted and hurried wide around the dog, man, tractor and wagon. She licked her worry off her calf.

"Good boy, Nop." Lewis's pat was heartfelt and Nop released. Nop had some foul-tasting stuff on his tongue. He wondered where it had come from.

Briskly, Nop trotted along beside the tractor and, while Lewis put the machine away, Nop galloped up on an unsuspecting barn cat and set her spitting and scurrying up a tree. Nop's tail was as gallant and silly as a plume.

Food smells at the kitchen door. He and the Stink Dog touched noses.

"Did thou work woolies?" she asked.

"Oh, I worked them well! Worked cows and woolies. Oh, I am a fine stockdog."

He retired to his rug beside the woodbox and started cleaning himself, happily.
Donald McCaig, Nop's Trials, pages 3-12.

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