Stories & Lit
Print|Text Size: ||
Play Dogs of the New West
She may have washed out of cow-dog school, but her new life suits her just fine.


My cow dog Daisy and I are going to work. We’re eating goldfish crackers—two for me, one for you—in my pickup truck and howling Buck Owens and Merle Haggard ballads off the tape deck, when we come across a broken pickup 39 miles down 40 miles of bad road. Old blue-and-rust Chevy. Open hood, pair of boots sticking out from underneath. Four tires bald as apples, three with air. I roll the window down and I can smell that they haven’t had a shower for weeks.


South Dakota plates, they may be horse thieves, but friendly enough. The guy under the truck doesn’t say much while the upright waddie speaks through the two front teeth he has left. “We’ve got 120 head a beef up Crystal Creek. Forty horses. Some not worth a bullet, but some’s ok. Most ain’t broke.” He leans over to inspect for progress. “Been out for a month. Going into town for a shower and a couple beers.”


“Got what you need?” I say.


“We ain’t got nothing but a screw jack and no handle.”


This waddie regards me as a yuppie and not to be relied on. I’m wearing a sun visor, the kind an amateur tennis player might wear. Hiking shorts, and some après-ski slip-ons popular with the lodge set, which isn’t very smart considering the air force of mosquitoes and rocky tire-changing terrain. Sporting a coffee-stained T-shirt that reads something about a ski company. These punchers take me for the tourist I am, but this tourist has a jack. “I’ve got a bottle jack,” I tell him. I pull over and rustle for the jack under the jump seat. Then I piece the handle together and reach it to the one under the truck. The jack is, embarrassingly, almost brand-new, though I have replaced a few tires on this very road. My tires happen to be brand-new as well, compliments of the Firestone recall. My truck is a little Japanese outfit that is never asked to haul anything more than a mountain bike or a canoe. These hands know my income doesn’t come from cows and they may suspect a trust fund, which isn’t accurate.


Daisy stays in the safety of the truck cab. A guy on horseback gaits by, checking cattle, two rangy Border Collies tailing behind, running in and out of the sagebrush. Daisy barks at them through the window. What a sissy, the ranch dogs must think. She can’t even ride in the back of a truck, has to stay up front with the organic dog cookies and air conditioning. Cow dogs, I think, have the most expressive eyes of any breed, and I see it in her brown pair—she hankers for the working cow-dog life.


Make it me, Daisy’s whines say. Her bat ears perk up, those eyes go wide. I want to be a cowgirl, I want to cut calves and keep coyotes at bay. I was wired to be in the front row at brandings and sheep dockings. I can surf a two-story rick of hay. For her it is an atavistic need. I had unrequited dreams, too: I always wanted to be a pro ball player but wasn’t nearly good enough. So I try to explain to Daisy that she is with me, and a play dog, because she wasn’t very good at working cows. They docked her tail, turned her out, and didn’t perform up to snuff, flunked the tryout, was cut from the squad. I’m pretty sure she’d been abused; she still doesn’t like tall men in cowboy hats. Most of the ranchers I know don’t keep pets.


Dogs and wolves, researchers believe, diverged from a common ancestor around 135,000 years ago, domesticated 100,000 years ago. For the past thousand years, breeding has focused canines to perform specific work. In Wyoming, where we live, work means working cattle. Ain’t much use for a dog who don’t work cattle. (As I write this, a pickup truck with hay stacked two stories high rolls by, a pair of Blue Heelers surfing on top, guarding the stuff that’s worth more than gold in this, the third year of severe drought.) Daisy, and a passel of doggies just like her, doesn’t work cattle. She’s a dog of the New West, accustomed to mountain bike trail drives instead of cattle drives, wool ski hats instead of herds of sheep. She’s at home with her canine friends on the deck at the brew pub, or with me, angling for trout.


But that makes me wonder—what happens to a Cattle Dog that doesn’t work cattle? How does such a dog evolve?




Jon Billman is author of When We Were Wolves. He is a former wildland firefighter and seventh-grade teacher; he now teaches at Oklahoma State University. english.okstate.edu
More in Stories & Lit:
Search and Rescue
Greyhounds of Avalon
Wildlife Researcher Recalls His Backcounty Co-pilot
Shelter Stress Can Take Its Toll on Dogs
On Responsibility
Letter to Brigit
Shelter Visits Help With Healing In Between Dogs
Poems: Life with Dogs
The Opie Path