Dogs were a big part of daily life at the ranch. We always had two or three, mostly Australian shepherds, though we migrated on to Queensland heelers as I got older. However, like everything and everyone else at Date Creek Ranch, they had a job to do. No freeloaders at the ranch, no sir. They were cow dogs.
The dogs I remember best were Foxtail and Delbert. Delbert was the steady old hand. He did his job and he could be counted on to back off when we yelled at him. Foxtail was the young ‘un, the loose cannon. I used to carry rocks in my saddle bags to throw at him when he wouldn’t leave the cows alone, though I don’t think I ever actually hit him. He was smart and I was a bad shot.
Both of them thought round up was just about the finest thing ever invented. Riding in the truck was nice. Being petted was nice. But chasing cows was what they lived for. For them, the sound of spurs meant Christmas had come. The second one of us stepped outside wearing spurs they went crazy, wriggling and play fighting, their tongues lolling happily.
Back in the early days our herd was, to put it nicely, made up of mangy, skinny, half-wild cows, many of them with bad tempers. They didn’t care if you were on a horse or on foot, if you got between them and their calves they were coming for you. If they didn’t like where you were herding them, they were getting out of there and heading back for the hills.
Worst of all were the cows Dad bought from southern Arizona, off one of the reservations. They were some kind of Hereford cross and every one of them was just about batshit crazy. They just didn’t give a flying cow turd for what we wanted them to do.
Generally, cattle are herd animals. Get a group of them together, get them all pointed in one direction and they’ll pretty much go that way. But not those cows. They were cranky and ornery and they weren’t going along. Every now and then, while driving a herd of cows back to the corrals, one of them would just stick her tail straight up in the air and make a break for it. Now, our horses, moth-eaten and swaybacked they might be, were faster than the cows. We could run them down and cut them off. Usually.
Sometimes, though, that didn’t work. Run them down, cut them off, and they just cut behind your horse and keep running. Over and over. There was nothing you could do.
Those were the times Delbert and Foxtail lived for.
We’d call out “Foxtail! Delbert! Get ‘em!”
We never had to tell them twice.
Foxtail and Delbert would light out after that cow and whoever had been chasing the animal would just head on back to the herd. We didn’t have to do anything else.
Those Australian shepherds would run the cow down, bring her to bay, and then Delbert would go for the nose and Foxtail would go for the ears. They weren’t just nipping either. They’d dodge hooves and horns and, when the chance came, dart in and get a good hold. Once they did, they didn’t let go.
It wasn’t uncommon to see some cow swinging her head side to side, two dogs hanging off her. She might shake one off, maybe even both at the same time, but before too long they were right back on her.
It varied, depending on the wildness of the cow, but usually about ten minutes after taking off here’d come that cow running back to the herd, nose bleeding, ears shredded. We’d call the dogs off and that cow would head right into the middle of the herd and not cause a peep of trouble the rest of the drive. Generally, cows only went through this once and never caused trouble again. I imagine them telling stories to the other cows about the terrible demons that waited outside the safety of the herd.