I just got back from an extended weekend at the ranch. My son is off with his dad at the Grand Canyon for the first half of spring break, and will be back home with me tomorrow.
Yesterday, the cowboy asked if I’d like to take a short walk down to one of the water storage tanks so he could turn a valve on to pump water to another part of the ranch. I said sure, and off we went with all six dogs — five of them his Catahoula working cattle dogs, and one my orange-red city mutt, Topaz.
We kept Topaz on leash for the first part of the trip to the valve box. This is because the last time I was at the ranch, Topaz had taken off after a Barbary sheep, taking one of the cowboy’s highly-trained dogs with her. Because she’s a house dog and has not been trained as they have, Topaz is sometimes a bad influence on the ranch dogs, particularly the youngest ones. Tolerating her presence on the ranch is one of the many concessions the cowboy has made for me being in his life.
Anyway, once we got to the valve box, the cowboy began to feel sorry for Topaz on her leash. She watched the other dogs romp and sniff with freedom, and she quivered with envy. “Let her off,” he suggested. “We’ll keep an eye on her.”
So, we let her off leash. Five minutes later, all six dogs were gone, up a canyon. We heard the pack barking at some great distance. They’d found something. We didn’t know yet what it was, but we suspected that Topaz might have had something to do with this bad behavior.
Because the ATV is in the shop and the horses need shoeing, we were limited in what we could do about the errant canines. We walked back to the house, and got into the Chevy, and took off up the steep and very rocky hill where the barking was coming from. I’d never been in a pickup in anything this rough before, and finally understood why a person might actually need something like four-wheel-drive.
Halfway up the hill, we stopped the engine and listened. Still barking. “Must be on some longhorns,” said the cowboy. “If it’d been deer, they’d have outrun the dogs a long time ago. Sheep, too.”
Sure enough, we found all six dogs excitedly circling a dozen longhorns in a thick stand of cholla cactus. The cattle were from a neighbor’s ranch, but had come up to our hill looking for water. Without a horse or an ATV, the cowboy’s options in getting the longhorns pushed back through the gate were limited.
He got out on foot with a sly smile. “I’ll scare ‘em back,” he said. “If you see one of ‘em start to hook me, blow the horn.”
My heart raced. It was a dangerous thing, what he was doing, but he clearly loved it. He’s a risk-taker, a man drawn to this lifestyle in part because of the physical and mental challenges it offers. I sat there helplessly, watching him take charge of the little herd of cattle and the pack of dogs, at the same time. It was truly amazing to see. At one point, a red bull came toward him like he wanted to hook the cowboy, and I blasted the horn. The cowboy threw a rock at the animal. It stayed back.
There was something primal about the afternoon. Something ancient that stirred something visceral in my psyche. Something about a man and dogs working together with a herd of animals, in the open air and in nature, with the sun, the blue sky.
Once the cowboy got the cattle through the gate, he had everything under control. His dogs were at his side, the cows were gone. And then…my dog bolted through the gate, after the cows. Stupid Topaz! Her frenzied enthusiasm undid the ranch dogs, and off they went, too. The cowboy was annoyed, and rightfully so.
He ran after her, and pulled her off, leashing her and then easily gathering his dogs again. I could see the conflicted emotions on the cowboy’s face as he marched my city dog back to the pickup. He loved me, and he tolerated my dog, but there were always going to be limits to how precisely our worlds would be able to fit together.
“From now on, she stays on leash, or better yet, she only goes out with you. We can’t bring her with the other dogs anymore.”
I nodded, understanding, and realized just how far he’d come. A year ago, when I first met him, the cowboy might have been annoyed enough to ask me to stop bringing my dog altogether. After all, she’d put him and his dogs in danger, and she’d been a catalyst for bad behavior in his own dogs, animals whose obedience he literally depended upon for his work and, at times, his life.
The cowboy walked back to the ranch headquarters with his dogs, to keep them together, and asked me to drive the truck “a little ways”. What he didn’t tell me was that he intended for me to drive the entire way back to the house, down that incredibly rough, steep mountain, by myself.
“Put it in first gear,” he told me of the automatic transmission. “That way you don’t have to ride the brake all the way down.” He also instructed me on how to make the huge rocky steps in the pickup. I took a deep breath.
“You can do this,” I told myself, and I did. I drove that ranch truck out of the cholla, down the rocky mountain, away from the hooking horns of the cattle, following my man as he led his dogs home.
When we got back to the house, the cowboy got himself a bit of scotch and I got some cold water. We sat on the porch, and he grinned at me. “You know those old Virginia Slims ads?” he asked. “The ones where they said ‘You’ve come a long way, baby?’ Well, that’s what I’m thinkin’. You have.”
I smiled back at him and told him I had just been thinking the same thing about him.
And there we sat, each of us realizing with a deep satisfaction that with every passing day our lives, once so completely opposite one another, were slowly but surely coming into a strange and beautiful sort of alignment after all.