By Morris R. Pike –
One hot July afternoon, Betty and Lucy Rambouillet took a break from grazing the watershed south of Antelope Reservoir in southeastern Oregon. The two young sheep found a patch of red dirt to lie down on for a quick rest. It would be quick, because they knew that Wally Collie, their rancher’s annoying herd dog, would soon be nipping at them to get back with the rest of the flock.
Betty and Lucy hated being sheep because they were never supposed to challenge or question anything the bigs want them to do. And, to make matters worse, the bigs hired (or at least appointed) two dogs to carry out their ridiculous orders. But, as far as Bet and Lu could tell, Wally Collie was the only dog who ever did anything. From Betty’s point of view, the other dog, Max Maremma, seemed pretty lazy. He loafed all day long, mingling among the sheep and resting when he felt like it. And even worse, he looked like a sheep. Lucy thought maybe he was… some foreign breed that she (a Rambouillet), had never seen or even heard of. At any rate they thought Max wasn’t worth much. But, Wally Collie was a different story. He acted like he owned the flock.
Though she didn’t have much of a sense for time, it gnawed at Betty that day after day, week after week, month after month sheep were herded around like they didn’t have a brain cell alive. They fed themselves by dutifully nibbling at tufts of Sandberg bluegrass growing in sparse clumps on the arid hillside not far from the high desert town of Jordon Valley. And then, at end of day they are forced to gather in a ridiculous tight clump for the night’s sleep.
“Look at them!” Betty bleated, “not an independent bone in their bodies.”
“What can we do?” Lucy asked, “That pesky herd dog won’t leave us alone.”
“You think the two of us could take him?” Betty asked.
“Uh oh, here he comes …” Lucy noted getting to her feet. “You want to find out?”
“He’s showing his teeth… Betty returned, “We better wait until we can surprise him.”
Wally crouched in a menacing stance as he moved toward the two wayward sheep. “You two sheep in the back, get with it, or I’ll be nipping at you heels, for sure,” he snapped.
“Take it easy Wall… we’re going,” Betty said moving toward the flock.
Lucy rose to her feet and shook her wooly back sending puffs of dust into the air. “Hey Wall,” she said moving toward Betty. “What’s with that Maremma dog? How come he never helps you with us sheep?”
Wally trotted alongside Lucy. “You noticed,” he snorted.
“Yeah, and it doesn’t seem fair,” Lucy said and added, “Looks like he’s not worth much.”
“Aw,” Wally sneered, “He wanders among the sheep like he’s king or something. But what can I say? I just do what a good herd dog is supposed to do… that’s me… doing my duty… day after day…”
“Yeah, you keep us in line all right…” Betty complained.
“Bundled in a knot is more like it, “Lucy said. “Why can’t you let us sneak away for half a minute? Let us see what’s over that hill?” she concluded, tossing her head south of their grazing range.
“Let you sneak away?” Wally snapped. “Are you kidding? Arf! Herding is what I do – t’s in my blood . It’s my duty to corral you … to move you in the right direction … to keep a tidy flock. It’s my calling. Always pushing you toward fresh patches of succulent grass, a pool of fresh water…”
“Ooookay, okay, we get it,” Lucy interrupted.
“Yeah, its OK to do that with the rest of them, they’re lemmings… but Lucy and I, we’re adventurous. We want to know what’s out there.”
You can’t watch all 99 of us at once I’ll bet,” Lucy said, “Before long we’ll catch you nodding…”
“Don’t try it. I know the sound of everyone’s hooves,” Wally growled giving Betty and Lucy a soft nip on the Achilles tendon. “Now, get in there among the others. You two don’t know how good you have it. You don’t have to think for yourselves, someone else tells you what to eat, where to go and when. What a life!”
“Yeah, while you jump in the back of the moving cart and go somewhere with Mr. Big every night. What’s that about?” Betty asked.
“Well, I’m not a sheep. That’s all you need to know.” Wally said and bounded off to corral Jack Sheep who had slid down the bank of a ditch and didn’t know how to get out.
Betty and Lucy found themselves mingling among the other 97 sheep who were nibbling at tender shoots of squirrel tail grass. It irritated the two rebellious sheep that they couldn’t escape being buffeted about.
Before long they bumped into Max Maremma, who was standing by the water tank lapping water. Max grunted.
“Sorry Max,” Lucy said edging alongside the large dog and taking a drink.
Betty eased up on the other side of Max. “How come you don’t help Wally manage us sheep?” she asked tentatively.
“Hum?” Max said looking at Betty.
“Wally runs himself to death chasing after us sheep all day. I was just wondering why he has to do all the herding and you just mingle?”
“Yeah,” Lucy added, “Are you a sheep too?”
“Cool,” the big dog said.
“What’s cool?” Betty asked.
“You two are cool,” Max answered and nudged his way through the herd toward the periphery of the flock.
The two bewildered sheep looked at one another. “What’s cool mean?” Lucy asked.
“I don’t know and coming from a lazy dog that looks like a sheep, I can’t tell if it is good or bad,” Betty said.
“Let’s ask Wally when he comes back,” Lucy suggested.
“You know what? Betty asked changing the subject. “I just had a thought. Let’s wait until Wally leaves with the big this afternoon, and then cut out for a look at what’s over the hill.”
“Good idea!” Lucy said, “Why didn’t we think of that before?”
Suddenly, sheep were running in all directions. Betty and Lucy were being buffeted about and didn’t know why.
“What’s up?” Betty asked Lester Sheep who in his excitement bumped into Lucy knocking her to the ground.
“Eagles!” Lester said looking up. “I’m out of here. He won’t get me!” Lester said dashing off toward the reservoir.
“Holy Goat,” Lucy shouted. “Let’s get to Wally, he’ll know what to do.”
“Yeah, he’ll protect us.”
The two frightened sheep dashed toward the gully where they thought Wally would be, but he wasn’t there. From the slight rise, they could see what was happening. Sheep were running in all directions and Wally like a bullet was circling the field attempting to herd the flock back into a manageable group. Max however, was standing in the middle of it calmly eying the pandemonium taking place around him.
“Hey Max!” Betty said trotting up to the big dog. “Wally needs your help, don’t you think?”
“Cool,” Max said returning to the water tank.
Betty and Lucy followed nervously eying the big bird circling the sky above the grazing range.
“No need for excitement,” Max said. “It’s Rusty Eagle.”
“No need indeed,” Lucy cried! “Eagles eat our lambs.“
“You don’t know Rusty … he’s cool … kinda like president.”
“Hey, Rusty, it’s been a long while,” Max said as Rusty flapped his enormous wings to nail his balance before coming to rest.
“Let’s see…” Rusty said eyeing the two frightened sheep. “A couple of moons at least.”
By now the remainder of the flock were huddled together on the other side of a gulch that bisected the grazing range. Wally was lying on his stomach facing Max and the others. His paws were flat on the ground, he was panting, his tongue was hanging out and moving up and down like a yo-yo.
“You frightened the flock, you know,” Max said with a grin.
“Didn’t mean to… but it can’t be helped, I am what I am.”
“Mr. Eagle, Max says you’re cool,” Betty asked timidly keeping Max between Rusty and herself. “What does cool mean?”
Rusty laughed. “It’s a word Max heard the bigs say… I’m not even sure he knows what it means… do you Max?”
“Cool is cool… not hot like magpies always peck, peck, pecking,” Max said coolly.
“He says we’re cool too … is that good?” Lucy asked stepping closer to Rusty.
Rusty laughed again, “Has Max ever lied to you or done anything to hurt you?”
Lucy thought for a moment. “No, I guess he hasn’t…” she paused before adding, “but he doesn’t do much of anything. Look at poor Wally over there … his lungs hanging out from exhaustion and Max here just acting cool.”
“There you have it… Max is cool as a cucumber. So cool is good,” Rusty said.
“But is it cool for Wally to do all the herding while Max just sits around being … well, cool?” Betty asked.
“I get it…” Rusty said cocking an eye on the distant flock. “You think it’s not fair for Wally to do the herding while Max sits around, it that it?” Rusty asked.
“Yeah. Does that seem fair to you?” Lucy asked.
“My wooly bodied friends, existence isn’t always fair. Ask the salmon I feed on and the deer coyotes feed on and the turkeys at Thanksgiving time what’s fair,” Rusty said. He thought for a moment and added, “Don’t badmouth Max. He’s cool.”
“What you doing over here?” Max asked Rusty. “You still live in the Siskiyous?”
“Yeah, the Illinois River. Stopped by to see how things are going over here on my way to the Wallowas to do some fishing… and see Olie Bear and his gang ….”
“You sure get around,” Max observed.
“Yeah, got friends everywhere. Stopped by Crater… and… Albert… and Krumbo Reservoir before coming here. Gruff Bear says hi, Bonny Beaver says hi, Reb Turkey says hi… and mustn’t forget Blather Bat… says hi too.”
“When you see them next, tell them I send a friendly paw.” Max said.
“I’ll do it… Got to get going now before sweet light comes and goes. Good to see you and to meet… Lucy, is it? And Betty?”
“Yeah, we’re glad to meet you too,” Betty said moving closer to the big bird.
“Me too,” Lucy said putting her front feet on the rim of the tank next to Rusty.
Rusty flapped his wings lifting himself from the lip of the water tank. He hovered for a few seconds before rising into the air… He circled twice. Then, he swooped back to the water tank once more. He hovered above Max and the two sheep and shouted, “Thought you’d want to know, there’s a pack of wolves hanging out in the bed of Cow Creek.” Flap, flap and he rose into the sky. Max, Betty and Lucy watched him grow smaller and smaller.
“Mom always said when you see an eagle coming run for cover,” Lucy said returning all fours to the ground. “I don’t see why… Rusty is nice.”
“That’s still probably good advice,” Max drawled, “… Not every eagle is a Rusty.”
“How come you know so much?” Betty asked.
Max laughed, “Paying attention … Just pay attention.” Max concluded before strolling away toward the rest of the flock, “You better come with me,” he added.
Betty and Lucy followed Max to the flock where he disappeared among the sheep. Betty and Lucy were hungry. They had spent so much time being distracted with dogs and eagles that they hadn’t eaten much. They began gnawing at tufts of grass. The afternoon sun was making its way toward the western horizon. Within and hour or so Rancher Big would expect them to bed down.
“After Wally leaves, let’s sneak up the gulch and over the hill … see what’s there, okay?” Betty suggested.
“We’re not supposed to …” Lucy cautioned.
“We don’t like being sheep like the rest of them, do we?” Betty answered.
“Alright, but I’m running back as soon as we see what’s there.”
With that agreement, the two young sheep turned serious attention to eating.
Betty raised her head to see the dust trail of Rancher Big’s hauler coming in their direction. He stopped the rig, climbed out, reached inside for a bag, and made his way to the water tank where he made an adjustment to something. He whistled and Wally Collie came bounding from the far side of the flock and jumped on big, licking his face. Lucy didn’t understand such behavior.
“It’s enough to nuzzle, but to lick? Yuck!” Lucy said under her breath.
Big walked to the flock and into it until he came to Max who in characteristic demeanor, was lying on the ground resting. Big took something to eat out of the bag and put it in front of both Max and Wally. The two dogs “wolfed” it down like they hadn’t had anything to eat for weeks. “Dogs have no manners,” Lucy thought.
Big said something to Max petted him on the head and headed back to his hauler. As he climbed in, Wally settled on the seat beside him. Lucy watched the hauler turn around and began bouncing across the rough terrain. Wally was looking back at the flock, his tongue hanging out of a mouth fixed in a satisfied grin.
One by one and in bunches, the sheep began to bed down. Max, lying on his belly facing north in the center of the flock, looked to Lucy for all the world like a sheep.
Ahhwooo, ahhwoooo, a mournful sound filled the lazy atmosphere of oncoming dusk. Max’s ears perked up. He rose to his feet, turned in the direction of the sound and sniffed the air. He moved a few feet before settling back into his resting mode.
Lucy and Betty worked their way though the lounging sheep toward the southern periphery of the flock, where they lay down and pretended to be asleep.
Dark shadows of the distant horizon etched the barren hillside, but the sun still lit the hill to the south where Betty intended to explore. In the shadows, the two wayward sheep sneaked out of the flock, down the bank of the draw and headed south.
The spine of the draw curved several times before Betty decided to head up the bank to the crest of the still sunlit hill. Lucy began to shake as she followed her sister up the gentle grade.
Ahhwoooo, followed by a more mournful and threatening Ahhwoooo sounded. And,it seemed to be very near.
Lucy scooted near Betty, “What’s that?” she asked. “Maybe we’d better go back.”
“Hold on! We’re almost there,” Betty answered her voice betraying a growing anxiety. Suddenly the two young sheep were at the crest of the hill looking down the other side. They only had time to see that the terrain and character of the landscape was almost exactly like their grazing range: dry, arid ground with patches of the ever familiar Sandberg bluegrass and Squirrel Tail grass and more red dirt.
The only difference the two frightened sheep could discern from their regular grazing range, was three shadowy wolves with teeth bared for the kill, creeping up the hill toward them.
Lucy wanted to let out a bleating scream but nothing would come. Betty cried, “Run for your life!” before she dug her hind legs into the dirt, pivoted and started running back toward the flock.
Lucy followed… but it was too late. The wolves were faster than the pudgy sheep.
Fierce Wolf was nipping at Lucy’s hind legs intending to break her leg or sever her Achilles tendon so he could move in for the kill. The other wolves would take care of Betty.
Suddenly, as if he’d dropped from the sky, Max was on Fierce Wolf knocking him to the ground and away from Lucy. Without missing a beat, he took out the second wolf that had drawn blood from Betty’s flank. The power of Max’s attack sent the second wolf tumbling to the ground in a heap. Max turned to face the third wolf that was about to join Fierce Wolf for the kill.
The third wolf skidded to a halt, thought for a moment, then, turned and ran back down the hill away from a confrontation with the fierce dog. Max glanced to see that his two wayward sheep were out of immediate danger, then, he pounced on Fierce Wolf again ripping a gash in his left hind leg making it impossible for the defeated wolf to further threaten his charges.
The second wolf got to his feet and dashed toward Max. Max growled and bared his teeth ready to take on the enemy. The second wolf stopped several feet away. Before Max could attack, he turned and dashed away down the grade to join the wolf that had run away.
Max relaxed his stance but remained alert until Fierce Wolf struggled to his feet and dragged himself down the hill away from the battle scene.
Only when he was certain that his flock of 99 was safe, did Max Maremma rejoin them.
“You two are what give sheep a bad name … dumber than sheep, that’s what you two are,” Max chided as he brought Betty and Lucy back to rejoin the flock.
Betty and Lucy were too shaken and humiliated to say anything in reply. They just bedded down in the middle of the flock and tried to go to sleep. They took comfort in knowing that with Guard Dog Max doing his job they were safe.
Early the next morning Rancher Big arrived in his familiar hauler. A long distance before the rig arrived where the sheep were still in slumber, Betty and Lucy, who hadn’t slept very well, could see a refreshed Wally Collie, hanging out the passenger side of the vehicle, ready to take up his duties.
“Alright you slovenly bunch of helpless sheep, it’s time to get up,” Wally barked. “We’re moving to a new part of the range today. See that hill to the south? It’s up and over to succulent beds of clover… okay, maybe not clover… but fresh grass at least. Up and at em.”
The first time Wally began bragging about how hard he worked and how unfair it was for Max to do nothing, Betty and Lucy put him in his place.
“Yeah, we understand now,” Betty said softly … you’re a herd dog… Max is a guard dog. He’s cool … but we need you both.”
“Well I’ll be…” said Wally. (This story is also available on Amazon.com)
For another Oregon wildlife story, read Morris Pike’s “The Diary of Snap Wolf” based on the real life story of OR 7 – the wolf that walked 1200 miles across Oregon in search of a mate. Ideal way for grade school students to learn about wolves, Oregon and never giving up.