In the summer of my twenty-fourth year, I earned my living by working as camp tender on a Montana sheep ranch. The great western ranges, unlike other sheep countries of the time, were devoid of sheep fence. As a result, we herded sheep every day of the year except during the winter when we kept them in feed lots. The summer range was in the higher altitudes. The high plateaus and mountain meadows furnished green grass during those months when the lower ranges were dry. The ranch where I worked employed several herders. Late in the spring, each herder took a band of sheep, a sheep-wagon and a dog up to the summer range. The herder would likely stay up in the highlands until the first serious threat of snow. As a camp tender, my job was to visit each herder’s camp and supplying it with necessities. I was doing my job one August day when I opened the door of a herder’s sheep-wagon to find him lying there dead. His dog, a female named Cisco, laid stretched out over her owner’s body. She growled at me when I moved to investigate the grisly scene. She seemed determined enough that I decided not to test her mettle. But from the viewpoint I had, it looked like the dead sheep herder was holding the pistol he had used to take his own life. I retreated down the mountain to inform the ranch owner who called the local sheriff.
The ranch where I worked was owned by a man from Tennessee. He favored a particular breed of dog which he had brought with him from back East. Those dogs had a glossy black coat, a tan spot above each eye, and a tan bar across the chest. When the ranch owner, sheriff and I returned to the herder’s camp, the black and tan dog named Cisco had to be forcibly taken from her dead handler’s side. We placed the herder’s body in the sheriff’s car and carried him down the long, rocky trail out of the mountains. Behind the car, we towed the herder’s sheep-wagon. And the dog named Cisco trotted alone and unapproachable at the rear of the sad procession. Her head she held low, her tail she held lower, and her eyes had a distant, hollow look. That night at the ranch, Cisco parked herself under her late handler’s sheep-wagon. She stayed there for three days. She refused meals, and I didn’t see her drink any water. She put off all who approached, laying with head on her paws and eyes cast downward. Days turned into weeks, and months turned into years. The weeds grew tall around Cisco’s wagon. Once she had been among the ranch’s best sheep dogs, but now she refused to work. In those days, a working dog who didn’t perform wasn’t usually kept around for long. But to the ranch owner’s credit, he took pity upon the broken-hearted dog. He retired her but continued to provide for her well-being.
It was around that time that I met a nice girl who agreed to marry me. We were blessed with a son we named Jared. On Christmas Day of his second year, Jared got his first bicycle. He loved his red bike and worked earnestly to learn to ride it. A few months shy of Jared’s fourth birthday, I remember it was a Wednesday, the toddler came up missing. As you might expect, my wife was beside herself. She came to find me, and I immediately dropped what I was doing to help in the search for our son. We looked high and low. As I stood in the door yard of our small cottage, desperate and out of options, I saw the unusual sight of Cisco running towards me. The black and tan dog was older now, five or six years old. She rarely left the overgrown confines of the same sheep-wagon where her late handler had expired. And yet here she came to where I stood. She barked and barked. I wasn’t sure what to make of her behavior, but her tone grew desperate. She was emphatic. Finally, I followed her to the ranch’s machine shed, where she led me inside. There, in the back of the room, she took me to a dark corner where some of the machinery had fallen over. My boy Jared’s red bike lay there, next to the tumbled metal equipment. And there under the weight of the machinery lay Jared, unconscious and bleeding. The toddler had toppled the metal gear upon himself while riding his bike.
Later on at the hospital, the doctors told us that if we had not found Jared when we did, he likely would have perished. Even so, he stayed in the hospital for several weeks while his small body recovered from the crushing injuries. After Jared returned home, I went back to my duties as camp tender of the ranch. That first night I came back home from work, I returned to find Cisco in our cottage. The black and tan dog was lying on the floor at Jared’s feet. Somehow, my wife had persuaded Cisco to vacate her old sheep-wagon and join our family. The dog’s eyes had brightened, and her body language had improved. In Jared, it seemed that Cisco had found a new mission in life. And for nearly a decade, Cisco was Jared’s constant companion and protector. She would accept no other condition than to always be by his side. In return, Jared loved Cisco like a boy should love his dog, and through her old age he tended to her until her final day.
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