Tuesday, September 6, 2011


Last year I was gathering a few cows that needed moving back north with the rest of the herd. I was working by myself on the four-wheeler. River was with me, though, so I wasn’t really by myself. Which could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending…

The cows were bunched loosely in the northwest quarter of the pasture section, and I wanted to pen them in the corral down on the south side, so River and I got ‘em headed that way and enjoyed the day as we trailed along behind ‘em.

Soon enough we came to the drift fence and the cows ambled along toward the corral and started in through the west gate. They still had calves at their sides and were acting a little skittish. A half-dozen broke off at the gate and headed south and I quickly looked around for River. Nowhere to be found. Blast that dog! Probably off rolling in something dead, I thought. What’s the use of having a working dog if she’s never around when you need her?

I zipped around and steered the balky cows and calves back into the corral and got off the four-wheeler to shut the gate, satisfied with a job (the first part of it anyway) well done. It was then that I noticed River sitting there on the east side of the corral, guarding the open gate. The gate I remembered closing a few days before, and had (as usual) assumed to be still closed.

I smiled and shook my head. So much for the superiority of the highly developed brain. But hell, who needs to check the gates when you’ve got a fine working dog who knows more about what you’re doing than you do?

River helps move a bull on the EJE Ranch south of Kimball, Neb.
Once river caught on to her job, when her grown-up herding instincts overcame her puppy-like chasing instincts and she started figuring out what moving cattle was all about, she became a valuable asset to the operation. She wasn’t perfect by any means, and sometimes she’d get too excited or put herself out of position or let a bull buffalo her.

She was also prone to sticking her face into a porcupine from time to time, and never seemed to learn the lesson, which always seemed a remarkably human trait to me.

But mostly she was a good solid working dog, filled with enthusiasm and energy, and if you took the time to watch her work you could learn a few things about moving cows.

River plays with a new puppy last autumn on the EJE ranch south of Kimball, Neb.
River whelped nine pups earlier this year, her first litter, and handled her new job with ease. The fat little puppies grew like weeds and were soon up and about, learning how to use their new bodies and new senses and busy exploring their new world.

River died last Friday. She was only five years old, and as full of life and energy as on the first day she came home. Then she was gone in an instant, leaving a surprisingly painful hole in our lives.

Being ranching folks, we’re able to put her loss in a reasonable perspective. We miss her and our grief is profound and real, yet we live close enough to the cycle of life to know that her life and our shared experiences were far more important than her passing. We’ll all make a similar journey one day, a fact which gives life its incredible beauty and sweetness.

River is gone but her very existence added a special richness to my life. She’ll live on in my mind, and in my mind’s eye, she’ll always be sitting in that open gate, holding a pen full of cattle, seemingly saying, “Don’t worry, I’ve got your back.”

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