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Irons in the fire: No more Newt

Paul Marchant for Progressive Cattle Published on 26 July 2022

Summer was upon us. I was sure of it. There were several telltale signs: the sweat running into my eyes from under my hat, the worn-out little roan gelding under my saddle and the cantankerous, uncooperative cows that were now very much under my skin.

We were just about a week from turning out on the mountain. Although the grass in the lower country and the foothills was better than I’d seen it in maybe 25 years, our cows, the products of several bovine generations that have run in this same country for about four decades, knew it was time to be on the move to higher country. I couldn’t really argue with the cows’ logic. I pretty much agreed with them. The U.S. Forest Service district ranger’s policies, however, are rarely in sync with the natural internal timing mechanisms that inevitably and strongly influenced my cows. On this day, we were sorting 20 or 30 pairs from one of my neighbor’s herds. They’d taken it upon themselves to begin their trek to the mountain a week early and had found themselves among the burnt-out junipers and fleshy black cows on the rocky hillsides of the Manning place.

Since my cows kind of wanted to be on the move anyway, and they knew darn well they were trespassing, they sorted out from the Open A Slash-branded cows without much of a fight. By that time, though, we were well into the afternoon and the heat of the early summer day was wearing down the stamina of man and beast alike. We only had to trail the cows about a mile and a half, and even though the terrain wasn’t terribly steep, it was an uphill climb, nonetheless.

My four stubbornly loyal dogs had been mostly well mannered and even, dare I say, slightly helpful for most of the day, but they too were spent. I didn’t fret much when I’d look back and notice one or two of them shaded up under some sagebrush. That was standard procedure. They’d rest for a bit and then catch up a few minutes later. Old Newt, the 12-year-old brown and white border collie who, throughout his less-than-illustrious career had shown many more Hank the Cow Dog than Lassie tendencies, was right with me when we stopped for a minute so I could trot over and pick up 10 head that had veered a couple hundred yards off course to the north. My dad stayed with the main bunch of cows, and Newt found a spot beneath the inviting shade of a big ol’ 7-foot-tall Artemisia tridentata specimen.

A mere two hours later found us finally back at the trailer. I was a little irritated because two of the dogs, Newt and Hercules, had not caught up with us, nor were they waiting under the pickup like I’d expected them to be. At the time, I was hot and tired, and I didn’t really feel like hunting for them. Since we were only about 3 miles from home, I figured they could find their own way back.

Later that night, at about a quarter after 11, as I was returning from a meeting in town, my headlights caught the glow of two green eyes bouncing down the road as I approached the driveway. The pair of eyes belonged to Hercules, the mostly-pet-almost-cow-dog Idaho shag. As I stepped out of the pickup, he dragged his tired bones up to me and thumped his tail on the running board as he greeted me with a weary and grateful yowl. But there was no sign of Newt. If he wasn’t there by first light, I figured I’d run back up on the hill on the four-wheeler to where I thought he might be.

The next morning the yard was still devoid of any sign of Newt. I slipped back up the hill to see if I could find him, while Grandpa took the horses and trailer up to a nearby BLM pasture where I’d meet him after my dog search.

I whistled and called and hunted for my old friend for quite a while to no avail. Later that day, after some more cow hunting, we rode through the same area. We did the same the next day and the day after that when we took another bunch of cows through. Still no Newt. Despite a sincere and honest prayer or two, in hopes of realizing the opposite of the obvious, I’d already pretty much come to terms with what appeared to be the facts. Newt wouldn’t be returning home.

Even though I cussed him a lot more than I praised him, I always figured Newt would end up in the informal mutt cemetery behind the house with a few of the other honored canines who’ve shared our family’s joys and perils. Though he really wasn’t much of a working dog at all, just by virtue of his longevity on an outfit like mine, he deserved that. I hated to think that he died perhaps thinking that I’d eventually come back and find him (even though logic and common sense tells me a dog probably doesn’t even have the ability to form such thoughts).

In my unwritten and unspoken eulogy I rehearsed in my mind to the old dog, I noted that his career and life were decidedly similar, if not absolutely parallel to that of his human counterparts. In reality, there are probably more rough days than joyful days. The frustrations probably far exceed the triumphs, and the sadness of life may seem heavier than the happiness can lift.

But through life’s experience and relationships with people (and maybe even a few critters), I’ve learned to alter the language in my prayers. I don’t ask that the bad times avoid me, but rather, I plead for enough strength to carry the burdens and enough light to pierce through the gray of even the darkest hours. Life, just like a dog like Newt, doesn’t always work like I think it should, but it always works out.   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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