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Irons in the fire: Old dogs

Paul Marchant for Progressive Forage Published on 31 March 2022

Growing up, getting by, surviving and hopefully thriving in a life immersed in the cowboy world can sometimes be a genuine struggle to even the most patient and strong-willed among us, no matter how you may have steeled yourself to cope with the everyday mishaps or occasional tragedies the lifestyle lobs your way.

I’m reminded of the rare blessings and the harsh realities of this path on a regular basis every calving season. The miracle of life, the frustrations of wrong choices and the pain of permanent loss may all make an appearance before breakfast on any given day this time of year. My methods of dealing with the disheartening vagaries of the profession are varied and, not surprisingly, met with differing levels of success, in terms of how I ultimately cope and move on.

Since there’s no fixing dead a calf who met his demise within half-an-hour of his birth at the hands of a merciless midnight north wind as it whips an early March blizzard through the valley, I have learned to eventually just get over the loss and “move on to the next one,” whatever that may be. There’s usually a cuss word or two, accompanied by the “if only I’d done this or that differently” back-and-forth argument that bounces around in my head for a while, and then I carry on, though sometimes a dark cloud may temporarily follow me around.

I’ve known Jared and Katy since our Block and Bridle days in college. They paired up with each other and got married and embarked on a career path similar to mine and a lot of our like-minded and similarly educated friends. They ended up running a big outfit with ranches located in several Western states. They’ve made a good name and a good living raising their kids with the cowboy code as one of their guiding principles. Consequently, Jared, whose demeanor I’d describe as tough, gentle and even-keeled, has pretty well figured out how to deal with the hills, turns and boulders he’s encountered on his life’s path.

One summer weekend, Jared and Katy were hosting a distinguished and kind urban gentleman from the leadership of their church. Though not ones to put on airs in any way, they nevertheless wanted to put their best foot forward in the presence of their venerable guest. No doubt they swept out the mudroom, tied up the dogs and got rid of the bones scattered out in front of the porch, but they certainly had no intentions of hiding who and what they truly were.

Early Saturday evening, Jared had plans to accompany his guest to a meeting in town. As Jared walked around his pickup to climb in the driver’s side, he noticed Norm, the old dog who’d for weeks been looking for a good opportunity to pass to the other side, lying in the shade of the truck. He also noted that old Norm had, on this day, taken the opportunity to peacefully slip off to heaven. Now, Jared certainly could appreciate a good dog who served his purpose, but he’d learned long ago, for his own sake, to dispense of any real sentimentality when it came to his canine cohorts.

As discreetly as he could under the circumstances, Jared – dressed in his Sunday best – dragged old Norm around the corner of the house. He figured his boys, each of whom were similar in disposition to their father, would notice Norm’s condition and, respectfully but without undue ceremony, give him a proper burial.

Jared then stepped in the pickup and turned his attention to his guest, who had climbed into the passenger seat and dutifully fastened his seatbelt. As he pulled out onto the highway, Jared realized he hadn’t thought to wash his hands after handling the canine corpse, and the prevailing thought in his mind was that his guest would probably be repulsed by his failure to take proper sanitary measures.

As he wrestled in his mind with this conundrum, his passenger thoughtfully placed his hand on Jared’s shoulder and asked him to pull over to the side of the road.

“Brother Jared, if you need to take a moment to shed a tear or two, I certainly understand,” was the consoling counsel that came from his friend.

Not wanting to seem too callous and uncaring, Jared assured the genuinely concerned man that he’d be ok. It was an old dog, and his death was not unexpected. “You get used to the harsh realities of life in ranch country,” he explained.

The rest of the evening, Jared didn’t give much thought to the old dog incident. But when he returned home late that night, he walked out behind the tack shed where his sons had dutifully buried his old friend, just to make sure they’d taken care of it, of course. It was then, for just a small yet poignant moment, that Jared let the barrier down. And there, alone in the pale light of the quarter moon night, he shed a tear or two. end mark

Paul Marchant is a cowboy and part-time freelance writer based in southern Idaho. Follow him on Twitter, or email Paul Marchant.

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