Kathleen Livingston lives in Deposit, N.Y.
Culture: Readers Write
The tale of an Upper Peninsula cow dog
March 1 2010
[A note about this story: The Cur is based Kathleen Livingston’s memories of her grandparents, Laura Osier and Jerry Russell, and their two cow dogs, Rex and Rex II. True pioneer people who homesteaded in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan at Topaz, a small, farming community south of Ontonagon, where her family still resides. The story is told from the dog’s perspective after he has passed away and imagining what might have been. All of the memories are from Livingston’s childhood spent helping with the farming chores in the summer months. Laura Osier’s remaining sister, Irene Osier Hokens, will celebrate her 100th birthday this year.]
He wasn’t certain when his spirit left his body… after the pain and darkness subsided and only the light remained…. but he nimbly rose from beside the man’s feet where he had been curled. The man was snoring softly in his chair, the woman asleep in the front bedroom. It was their usual routine in the heat of the late afternoon to rest before beginning their evening chores. His nails clicked on the worn linoleum as he trotted across the floor, past the round oak dining room table where the man fed him scraps from his dinner plate, through the kitchen, gliding past the wood cook stove where he had spent many a cold winter night pressed into its warmth. He nudged the back screen door open and slid silently outside into the late afternoon sun. He must hurry before they awakened, so he crossed the clay hardened drive and took the shortcut. He hadn’t been able to slide beneath the bottom of the barbed wire fence separating the yard from the field since he had been a gangly pup 15 years past but now he did so effortlessly. Soon, he was eyebrow deep in golden Timothy, his amber coat blending seamlessly with the grasses. Only his black nose lifted high and the tip of his white Collie tail showed as he raced through the sweetly scented field. He was on a mission. Across the field in the back forty he knew the twelve dairy cows would be grazing. And this time he would get it right.
It had been many seasons since the man had taken him out to bring the herd in. He had replaced the old dog, the one they spoke of constantly, the best darn cow dog they ever had. Now, they had to make do with the pup. The man would bring him along, encouraging him to gather the cows in. Nip and duck, nip and duck. Just enough nip to encourage them forward, then duck when they kicked back. He had to be quick to avoid being injured by their hard hooves. But the excitement of the chase made him crazy, and the more the man yelled at him the faster he raced until the cows were scattered in every direction.
“You cur dog,” he had heard it so often he thought it was his name, and the louder the man yelled it the more the Collie waved his tail. Finally, the man would storm away in frustration.
The Collie would have been all right if he hadn’t wanted to please the man and woman so. But one morning, before they had arisen, he slipped out the door to gather the herd in. They were in the back forty and he raced wildly across the pasture toward the far woods. He saw them scattered here and there, quietly grazing. He charged into the field, nip and duck, nip and duck. They were running everywhere, finally breaking through the barbed wire fence and disappearing into the forest. He could smell blood and stopped short in the center of the field, dazed. He heard the man yelling, “You cur dog,” and saw him running across the field. He knew something was wrong as he slunk along the fence line, making his way back to barn.
Much later, in the deepening shadows of evening, he lay alongside the barn wall listening to the man and woman talking in hushed voices with another man with a black bag. The cattle were in their stanchions, some with jagged tears along their legs and chests and udders. The man with the bag was speaking slowly, “you should get rid of that cur dog; you could have lost your whole herd.” After he left, the woman was crying softly and the man put his arm around her, speaking gently to her.
The man ignored him for many days, and he did not share his food under the table where the Collie waited patiently. Worse, the man’s voice never rose as before; he never uttered those words the Collie had become so familiar with. When they were ready for the morning and evening chores, the man would lock the screen door, leaving the Collie inside, pawing and whining. The woman would pull him into the kitchen and stroke his head and try to soothe him with tidbits of food.
And so it was for many, many years.
But, while he was no longer welcome in the barn, the woman would take him with her to the woods and streams. She would check her trap line for beaver and otter and, if she was lucky, mink. She seemed happy and sad at the same time when she would find an animal in the trap. She took little pleasure in the killing but the money from the hides fed her family and her cattle, repaired the equipment and warmed their hearth.
In the summer, he would happily follow her down the trail through the east woods until they came into the clearing where the berries grew thick and juicy. He could always smell the bears that had been feasting on the bounty earlier and he sensed the woman feared them so he made sure they felt his presence—scouting the perimeter of the field, scattering his scent on the brush. She would hurriedly gather the fruit and they would be off again.
Sometimes, the man and the woman would return to the woods to fell the big trees. He watched from a safe distance when the big pines came thundering down, shaking the ground beneath him. They would pause for lunch and rest and share their food with him. The man would stroke his muzzle with the back of his hand, muttering quietly, you old cur dog. The Collie would thump his tail.
When they would return from the woods, the man would call the Collie to him and gently comb his hair looking for ticks. In the winter, the man would pull the ice balls that clung to the long hairs between his toes. They bathed him after he would chase skunks into the woodshed and he would stand quietly when they pulled the porcupine quills from his muzzle. Life was good.
But still the cattle were off bounds—not part of his life—not part of what he was born and bred to do.
The seasons came and went. The man and woman slowed down. The Collie could no longer lift his own weight from the floor and the man would gently put his arms beneath his belly and lift him up so he could walk outside to relieve himself. It became a routine, like the rest of their lives.
He didn’t know when the pain began—deep inside his chest—different than the pain in his hindquarters. He would crowd closely to the man for comfort and whine in his sleep when it became unbearable. And then there came today, as he lay by the man’s feet, the pain was suddenly gone.
Now, he stood at the edge of the field, the back forty, looking at the herd. They had not seen him yet or sensed his presence. His body was strong. He slipped silently into the woods and worked his way around the field, so they would not catch his scent. As he stepped into the clearing, the cows lifted their heads in unison and bawled. Slowly, slowly he worked his way left to right, gathering them together, crouching, nip and duck, nip and duck. It seemed so easy now. The one with the bell around its neck that always led the others began moving, across the forty and down the lane, and the rest followed. His tail tucked low, he moved gracefully behind them—nip and duck, nip and duck.
They finally entered the safety of the barnyard, crowding around the water trough, quenching their thirst with long, noisy draws. They would be content now, drinking their fill then lining up at the closed barn doors waiting on the man and woman. Six to the right door and six to the left; they would file into the barn in that precise order to their respective stanchions, as they had day in and day out for years, the routine ingrained in their slow minds.
The Collie would have a few minutes to rest before the man and woman would come. He trotted to the grassy knoll not far from the herd and within site of the farmhouse. Here, he dropped to his haunches, then to his belly, resting his muzzle on his front legs, ears pricked forward in anticipation. Soon, he heard the screen door open and saw them step out. The woman was adjusting her cap, tucking the stray ends of her dark hair underneath its brim. The man matched her stride for stride. The Collie could hear their faint voices and his pulse quickened.
As they crossed the drive and began the walk up the hard-packed trail to the barn, he rose to his feet, head high, tail curled over his back. The breeze slipping through the aspens ruffled the white apron on his chest. He wanted to yip a greeting to them but held back. He lifted his chin slightly higher. He knew he had gotten it right this time.
The woman saw him first and a smile creased her worn cheeks and lit up her eyes. The man look startled, took his cap off and shaded his eyes against the afternoon sun with his hand, and saw the cattle crowding the doors to the barn. Realization crossed his face and he slowly dropped to one knee and clapped twice, commanding, “Rex, come.” The Collie hesitated at first, and then the man commanded again, “Rex, come.” He saw the man open his arms wide, and heard his name. As he bounded toward this man and this woman, he finally knew in his Collie heart that he was a good dog.
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