I got back from riding up the creek one afternoon. I’d spent the day riding alone, checking on some fences or cows, I don’t remember. I must have been about nine or ten. I unsaddled my horse, turned her out and went to the house. I’d only been there a few minutes when Mom asked me where Delbert was. Didn’t he go with me on the ride?
Delbert was one of our dogs, an Australian shepherd (I’ve written about him before). He was mostly black but for some brown and white on his face and one of the friendliest dogs you’d ever meet. He was also an excellent cow dog. His only shortcoming was this unfortunate tendency to hump people when they were on the ground. Kids are wrestling on the front lawn? Be careful, Delbert might try to hump one. My cousin is visiting and falls down in the orchard? Here comes Delbert.
Anyway, after Mom said that, I went outside and called. No Delbert. Then I started getting worried. Delbert was an old dog. I went back inside and told Mom. She told me I needed to get back on my horse and go look for him. I knew how old he was, she said. I should have been looking out for him.
See, the problem with the Australian shepherd dogs was that they didn’t know when to quit. They’re a long-haired breed, probably better suited to a cooler climate than Date Creek Ranch, where temperatures are over 100 degrees for much of the summer. When they’re young, this isn’t much of a problem, but as they get older you have to be careful. They will literally run themselves to death. It’s what happened to Delbert’s predecessor, Lucy.
Lucy was Mom’s dog and one day Mom was on a long ride and by the time she got home it was after dark. As soon as she walked in and I saw Mom’s face I knew something was wrong. When we asked her she started crying and told us that she was chasing a cow and afterwards noticed Lucy was gone and when she went looking for her she found her dead. She was home late because she’d been burying her.
I thought of this as I re-saddled my horse and headed back up the creek. It couldn’t be, I told myself. I hadn’t chased any cows. I didn’t run at all. But I couldn’t get Mom’s words out of my head. I knew when I rode out that morning that I needed to be careful with Delbert. And I meant to be. But instead I did what I always did, which was get lost in myself and think only about me. I never once thought to check and make sure he was still with me.
I found him in the shade of some cottonwoods a couple miles from the house.
Digging his grave without a shovel was hard, but the ground was sandy and I had a lot of experience digging holes. I rolled him into the hole and tried to say a prayer for him but I didn’t have much to say. I just felt so darned guilty. I kept thinking that if I’d just paid a little bit of attention to him he would’ve lived. I kept thinking that I killed that beautiful, loyal dog.
I piled as many rocks on him as I could so the coyotes couldn’t dig him up. I wanted to make a cross to put on his grave but I didn’t have any string or rope, just my knife, and I gave up on it after a while. I had to settle with roughly carving his name into a stick and jamming it into the ground.
When I got home someone asked me if I found him. I don’t remember who. I said yes and went to my room and shut the door. I never shed a tear. Deep down I wanted to cry for him, but I’d been taught boys don’t cry and so I just kept it inside.