A pup wins a place on the ranch

Ben, a border collie, began life here on the ranch. He was born to this patch of land in Wyoming's Black Hills, and it belonged to him. Ben is the son of purebred Margaret, grandson of Sir Robert and Lady Hilary (imported from Scotland), and great-grandson of McTeir's Ben, an international champion working stock dog.

But Ben needed no fancy pedigree to claim royalty. He held that within himself.

Margaret, with her symmetrical black and white markings, was classic border collie, small and refined but with that famous "eye" and stance. She believed in action.

Margaret circumvented our plans for registerable puppies. She cleverly made her own arrangements - the first time with Snoopy, who lived nextdoor on a neighboring ranch. Although he was not registered, Snoopy was still a border collie - or mostly. An older gentleman of more dignity than his name implied, Snoopy had good working stock-dog experience. Margaret chose well.

Ben arrived, the first of six puppies. They were only a few days old when I picked up each one, just to cuddle their tiny, sweet-smelling bodies for a moment. They all held their heads away from me, reaching out for a more familiar mama - all except Ben. He nestled his face into my neck, staking a claim that I soon recognized as mutual.

We advertised the puppies, and, one by one, they left home. Down to two, I worried that someone might try to talk me out of my Ben. He had the classic markings of his mother, with a formal white chest that would later develop into a magnificent ruff. Jake, the other pup, looked more like his dad - mostly black, his hair a bit shorter and ears more upright. Ben was irresistible and loving, Jake uptight and aloof.

The folks who next came to look at the puppies left the door of their pickup open. Jake didn't stop to fiddle around. He made a beeline for it, scrambled in, and waited for them on the front seat. Jake stole their hearts while Ben stole mine.

We had five Jersey cows then, and I began taking Ben with me to bring them in for evening milking. I always kept him on a leash to keep him near me, keep him safe, and keep him from making tactical mistakes with the cattle, sheep, or horses. A pup can be foolish until he establishes his relationship with livestock. He must learn respect for the larger animals while learning not to be intimidated by a cow or ewe defending her young.

Ben would soon work by voice or arm signal, and eventually he would become "ranch manager," bringing in the milk cows all on his own. But at the beginning, I'd carry him across the creek, and we'd set out on one of the trails to the lower field, or the leased land, or the outer pasture.

That first summer, we walked up the long hill through the ponderosas and range grass of the Milk Cow Piece. Ben waddled and bounded along until he tired, and then I'd carry him, coming over the top of Milk Cow Ridge and cutting across to the upper field. There, the cows grazed the hayed stubble. A cool breeze usually pierced the heat of the day as the sun lowered toward the western hills. I loved the warmth of the little dog nestled into the crook of my arm. Crickets strummed a descant background, while meadowlarks joined robins, orioles, and redwings in evening song.

This was open country - just sky and hilltops, with no building in sight. Good thing. No one to see or hear me as first I called the cows (not the traditional "Bos-s-s, bos-s-s," but my own "Cow-e-e-e-e-e" that stretched out and echoed through the hills) and then took off running.

Gesturing exaggerated signals with my free arm as I ran, I bellowed, "Go round! Go way round!" and followed my own command, gallumphing across the fields, huffing and puffing between shouts, the puppy jouncing against my ribs. Over to the west, Herefords scattered. Old Joe snorted and positioned himself between us and his little band of mares, while they nickered their foals close to their sides.

The Jerseys stared, stopped chewing their cuds, and finally - as we curved around behind them - started for home in their quiet, cowlike way. Vivian led, her cowbell sounding a steady muffled "dong" in rhythm with her steps. She was followed by Janet and Shirley, Helen and Anastasia. The heifers spilled around them, and then settled into a dignified walk. The scents of evening mingled pine, cow, and warm earth, fringe sagebrush and juniper, as ponderosa shadows stretched blue and gentle across the fields, distant cliffs turned pink, and sunset deepened into twilight.

I'd set Ben down and we'd walk behind the Jerseys. I'd say "Good dog! Oh, good boy, Ben!" over and over. We made a line across the ridge - five cows and a few heifers, Ben, and then me, still panting and glad to be moving at a cow pace.

Our shadows marched with us, a parade of silhouettes sliding over rocks and dipping into depressions. Nighthawks "peenked" and dived after insects, the horses resumed grazing, crickets shrilled, and we headed for the barn. Ben, the working stock puppy, was proudly taking home the cows.

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