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One Man, One Dog, Forty Steers

THE first year I worked on the ranch in northeastern Oregon, my irrigation water dwindled in late spring. I crossed the river and rode up the meadow. There were steers on the ranch above, so I had to close the gate in the boundary fence behind me. I remounted the motorcycle and rode, and steers came out of the willows at a gallop to see what was going on. I didn't know whether they would stampede me to dust; one doesn't read newspaper accounts of steers stomping ranch hands, but I wasn't sure. It was thelack of certainty that was difficult. If I were sure they would, I'd flee from their territory. John and Mike, my bosses, loved a good laugh. They'd throw their heads back and roar if I said, "I can't get in to work on the log-crib dam. There's a herd of steers up there, and I'm afraid they're going to trample me if I try. You'd better send up a couple of guards to get me through." It would be funny to tell, but I was having trouble mustering a laugh, because about 40 steers had me surrounded. These steers were part Simmental, bigger than the Herefords I was used to. They probably averaged about 600 pounds, and even if they were nonaggressive, I wanted to be sure they were careful with all that weight and all those hooves. "Go on, dog. Move 'em out of here. Clear me a road." For all I knew, it was hush-hush when herds of steers stomped ranch hands. Newspapers don't print everything that happens. I was used to Herefords who would leave my work area after a half-loud suggestion; who were curious, but only from 30 feet away and only if I didn't move fast; who would flee at a mere suggestion of action by the dog. The dog was used to Herefords, too. These steers puzzled him. He ran fast arcs back and forth in front of them. These steers found the dog an interesting novelty, and they surged forward to get a closer look. This didn't lend the dog any sense of confidence. Me neither, since the dog retrea ted behind me. "How many times have I told you not to retreat to me in times of danger but lead the danger away from me? Obviously, they don't use dogs to work these cattle," I grumbled. I imagined being marooned there for days. I got off the bike, yelled, and waved my arms. The steers in front of me backed up a step. The ones I wasn't facing moved a step closer, curious about what I was doing. "Do it again, dog. Bite some noses," I said. When dogs are working with men on horses, the cattle learn the cues and will react to any one of them. One man on a horse, wanting cows to move, means move. A dog, moving like a dog does when it wants cows to go, means move. These steers weren't trained at all. The dog circled, nipped noses, flanks, and heels, turning them around and moving them 20 feet before their curiosity overcame their fear. Their motion dwindled, and they turned back to get a closer look at this gray, white, and black stub-tailed dog. He couldn't tell the desire to get a close look from the desire to get close enough to stomp him any better than I could. He broke away and ran, with 40 steers thundering close behind. It was almost funny when it was the dog they had on the run, because I was sure they weren't really going to stomp him. If his nerve hadn't deserted him, they wouldn't have been after him. But it wasn't quite fu nny, because I still remembered 45 seconds earlier, when I was the one having trouble keeping my nerve. He took the steers away from me, out across the meadow, so I jumped on the motorcycle and rode to the log-crib dam. I climbed down into the log-crib, dropped two boards into place, and stepped on top of them to drive them down underwater. The current and the weight of the water held them in place. The river above the dam rose. Suddenly I noticed there were about 40 steers standing on the bank above the crib, looking down at me. "Hi, you guys. Don't you have grass to eat or cud to chew? What's so entertaining about a ranch hand and his dog?" I asked. I climbed over the boards and around the bank upstream of the crib, where the dirt was protected against erosion by large rocks dumped down the bank. Steers weren't going to walk over the rocks. My dog lay in the shade of a willow, waiting for me. As long as the steers weren't stampeding after him, he wasn't afraid of them. Neither was I. They didn't knock over the motorcycle, though they milled all around it. I looked at it like this: I had to go up there a lot, and the steers were going to be there until fall. I'm sure they wouldn't hurt me. I had memories that were of some help. We were separating male from female calves in the big corral. Mike and I were on foot, talking. Two hands on horses had 40 calves in a full gallop around the corral. Mike had his back to the calves. He jokingly arched his back to give them extra room to go by. He knew they wouldn't hit him. Another memory came from that same day. Ranchers get together and "neighbor," as they call it, helping each other with the work that demands more hands. That day, one of the men helping was small, bent with age, and slow moving. He stood in a gateway to keep some of the calves from going through. They headed for him at a gallop. He flipped up his hands without raising his arms more than a few inches, and the calves skidded into a turn and went by without trying to go through. The calves we were working with were Herefords, smaller and younger, but Herefords or Simmentals, steers are about the same. My sense of reason pretty well won out over the small reservoir of fear that I was trying to work out, and I walked over to the motorcycle. The steers retreated and gave me six or eight feet of space. I started the bike and rode toward the steers, and they gave me space to ride through and then followed me. I went slowly. It was when they were at a gallop that I was afraid they'd m isjudge and trample me. We were a dignified procession with one dog leading and one man on a motorcycle, riding as slowly as he could while still maintaining his balance, and 40 steers patiently pacing just behind and to both sides of him. I opened the gate just wide enough to squeeze through. I shut it behind us, relieved to be back in Hereford country. It might be nice to say that I haven't been afraid of the steers since, but the fact is, I have always been a little edgy around large bunches of them, because they liked to get so close, but I worked through them for nine irrigation seasons, and the only thing that ever caused me any problem was my own fear.

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