Northern Exposure Meets James Herriot-Episode 3
The Other Samson
We started our small flock with only females, putting off purchasing a ram until we knew a bit more about what we were doing. The ewes were sweet, little fluffy things. The rams, well that’s what I’m about to share with you.
The greatest percentage of sheep trading is done at the tailgates of two pick-up trucks backed up bumper to bumper. The location could be the side of a country road, a shopping mall parking lot, or the shoulder of a four lane highway. You get good at getting the one you want, while leaving the rest behind. Not too many cattlemen are this adventuresome, but shepherds are an inventive lot, and we get used to doing whatever we have to do wherever we have to do it.
When Fred and I decided to buy a ram, we contacted a longtime shepherd to do the buying for us. The day Ron called to deliver our ram, he said he’d meet us on the shoulder of Route 13 just off Highway 2, and we’d jump the animal from one vehicle to the other. He also added that he wouldn’t charge us shipping, if we’d bring our 100 pound Komondor dog, Dali, with us, so he could see her. The sheep community is rather small in Canada. The hum of gossip easily passes through its members, even across provinces. When the topic is predator control, everyone seems to be on the line, predation being the major problem for sheep farmers. Since we were one of the first in the country to turn to livestock guard dogs to address the predator issue, the sheep community was laughing up its proverbial sleeve at us, as dogs are right up there on the list of sheep predators. Ron not only had serious predator problems where he lived, but he was also keen to get a look at this alleged predation solution. He, along with the entire sheep community was watching, albeit from a safe distance, to see how we’d fare.
If we knew little about sheep, we knew even less about this breed of dog. Thus we wondered, as we loaded Dali in the back of the pickup truck, what might happen when it came time to load the ram in there too. But that was then. This was now, and farming is a “now” sort of endeavor. It wasn’t long before Ron’s truck appeared up above on the clover leaf, and he wound his way down to the country highway below. A soft rain had started to fall, and we stood in the fine drops and talked sheep for a while, but it was clear from Ron’s demeanor he was anxious to know if we had brought the dog. Since we had our stock racks on the truck, Dali wasn’t visible. He went to jump up on the fender to peer in at her, but we advised that if he valued life and limb, he shouldn’t do that. Nobody invaded her space without consequences. So we opened the tailgate and took her out into neutral territory for him to have a look. He was amazed. She was the strangest looking dog he’d obviously ever seen, but since she was now approaching 31 inches at the shoulders, he didn’t mention it to her. The layers of dreadlocks that were ultimately to cover her entire body, where beginning to form, adding an extra six inches of depth to her already massive body. When he could finally take his eyes off of her, he made us promise to keep him informed as to our experiences with her, but his skepticism wasn’t well hidden.
We, on the other hand, were getting antsy to see the ram he’d bought for us. We put Dali back in our truck and climbed up on Ron’s vehicle. Inside was our first ram, a Rambouillet range ram. As modern rams go, he was not overly large in stature, but he was immense in presence. The ultra-fine fibred wool that covers this breed made his fleece very dense like a plush carpet. It smoothed his body making him look solid yet sleek. To this already distinguished looking figure, our ram added the further distinction of horns, huge horns. The base of them molded onto his entire forehead and then swept upwards and back in a large ‘C’ shaped curve. Finally, just before they ended, they twisted at right angles to point out away from the head, twenty three inches from tip to tip. Buried deep in the wool on his face were soft brown almond shaped eyes that peered out at the world with unwavering composure. It was the look of one who has no doubts. Having spent most of his life on the range, he was distant and aloof. Only later did we find out that he was as testy as he was tough. Fred and I shot each other a glance that confirmed a similar concern. Had we been idiots to bring this dog with us or just mildly stupid?
As the rain was falling harder, we wanted to get him loaded up. We didn’t have a clue what he’d make of Dali as a travelling partner. Generally, sheep are terrified of dogs. We dropped the tailgates on each of our pickups, and Ron pushed the ram toward our truck box. As the sheep stepped from one tailgate to the other, the three of us braced ourselves to catch him if he turned and ran back at us when he saw Dali in the receiving truck. I guess I had no idea about how tough it must be to live on the range, for this old ram just sauntered into the box, took one look at this huge dog, circled around behind her and knocked her ass for tea kettle right out the back of the truck. Ron was a seasoned shepherd, and we were real green, but we all had our mouths’ hanging open to the same degree. Fred and I realized that this meant that our giant, now soaking wet and smelly guard dog would be sharing the cab with us on the home trip. The circumstances were not lost on Ron either, as he chuckled, winked, and returned to his truck to leave.
That was our introduction to Samson, known to his friends as Sammy, known to his enemies by whatever curse left their lips just before he nailed them. The first few weeks were hard on Sam and us, as we weren’t ready to have the sheep bred, and he was. Being a bachelor was not his idea of a good time, and he got particularly owly over the next several weeks. When we finally turned him in with the ewes, I thought his disposition would improve. I was wrong. While he became more content as a male, he became more territorial as a ram. The first day I fed in the pens where he had starting breeding was quite an education for me. I never even heard him come up behind me. He hit me so hard and fast that he caused me to do a “skin the cat” over the top wire of the barbed wire fence I was standing next to. The force of the impact sent me back around through the next two wires. I didn’t give two seconds thought to the searing pain in my back, because my head was now at eye level with his, and the barbs, having twisted into my clothing, held me fast. If he hit me again in that position, it could have been the end of my shepherding career. I ripped my shirt off, stood up, and grabbed my hay fork just as he charged me a second time. I beaned him with the fork handle as hard as I could and watched it snap in two, as if it were no stronger than a piece of straw. However, that seemed to raise my level of authority in Sam’s eyes, and he backed off for the time.
Strangely, all I focused on, even with my back feeling like an object lesson in whiplash, was that my one and only hay fork was broken. I stomped into the cabin, held up the two separate ends of my fork, and asked Fred if we had any electrical tape. I could see Fred was struggling not to burst out laughing. He settled on a bemused smile. “Electrical tape?” he inquired looking at the broken fork. Obviously his sense of physics was working better than mine in that moment. “What happened?” was his next question further stifling a laugh. I indignantly told him about Sam’s incivility, and he then burst out laughing. Seeing I was going to get no comfort there, I turned on my heels and found my own electrical tape, but all it did was keep the two ends from losing each other. I now essentially had a two foot long hay fork and a very sore body.
Sam soon wove himself into the fabric of our farm becoming a bit more civilized after attending Fred’s seminar on Approved Barnyard Manners. Fred had accomplished this change in Sam’s behavior by grabbing him by the horns one time when Sam charged him. Fred managed to wrestle him to a stop and booted him in the bum with his foot. Sam was amazed at this show of power and never touched Fred again. However, there was no carry over to me. I was still fair game. Fred suggested that I use the same tactic, as it had worked so well for him. I paused, turned in his general direction and gave him a long, withering glare. My 115 lbs. hanging on Sam’s 225 lbs. would make me no more than a cumbersome hood ornament on his charging hulk. I explained to Fred that the only thing he’d have to remember me by would be the parallel tracks my heels would make in the dirt as Sam dragged me off.
It was Dali who finally rescued me from the harassment by Sam. Dali had had her own history with the boy. She used to keep her feed pail with her out in the pasture. After all, that was her office and she always packed a lunch. She could be seen carrying her pail following the sheep as they moved from field to field. She had trained the ewes so that they did not even consider eating her food, but Sammy was another story. He was arrogant enough to walk boldly up and stick his face in the bucket, with her lying right next to it. She’d come flying up on all fours and push her nose against his hard enough to bend it slightly. Growls deep and menacing enough to scare the most confident, spewed from her throat along with frothy saliva. She knew she wasn’t permitted to bite him, but I am sure Sam felt her growls vibrating in his horns. With the tranquility of a monk, Sam would continue to eat. Fred and I felt it was just a matter of time before she might take the law into her own paws, so we built a moveable pen that she could access but Sammy couldn’t. Needless to say there was no love lost between the two of them.
One day, I was sauntering across the pasture carrying an empty ice cream pail that was a facsimile of her feed bucket, one of the standard units of measure for Canadian farms. It had contained milk I had taken out to feed a calf I was rearing, and I was on the return trip. I was glorying in the beauty of that summer’s evening and paying attention to nothing in particular. Sammy spotted me, but more important, Sammy spotted the pail. Thinking that it contained grain or dog food, he started coming for me full tilt. I was totally unaware. Dali must have observed this whole scenario and feared for my safety. She started moving like a freight train down a mountainside to make up his head start. I was still oblivious to the commotion taking place behind me. I didn’t hear Sam’s footfalls until just before he left the ground in attack, but that was too late for me to respond. I just froze. The only thing that spared me from possible grave injury was Dali. She had reached Sam just as he left the ground. She too took a flying leap, heading Sam off in mid-air. It all happened too fast for my reflexes. Sam veered to the side missing me by inches. When his feet hit the ground, he knew better than to pause in Dali’s general vicinity, and he kept right on running back to the barnyard. My heart was pounding, as I realized what could have been. I grabbed Dali’s big shaggy head and buried my face in it, thanking her lovingly.
Something changed after that episode. Ultimately, nothing disobeyed Dali on the farm. At long last, Sam joined that membership, and he didn’t trouble me again. In fact, Sam did more than that. He actually mellowed out. He and Dali seemed to offer each other the respect of peerage from that moment of truth on. He even sought her out to tidy up his bloodied horns when he’d been scratching them too much on tree trunks or posts. He’d walk up to her and drop his head so she could lick them clean, preventing any problem with fly strike during the summer, a constant worry with horned animals.
Like an old time rancher who can actually pull off wearing a tux, range ram Sammy became Gentleman Sam in his mature years. He adjusted graciously to sharing the world with all manner of creatures he had never countenanced before. One time it was the exotic broiler chicken headdress he wore one evening when two hens roosted one in each crook of his horns. Another time, we watched him tenderly give one of those “father-son” lessons to an obnoxious young male goat.
Eventually, we sold Sammy, and he returned to the range. Years later Fred encountered him once again, this time living with a band of ewes in the canyon country of southern Alberta. He said he was bedded down on a small outcrop of rock over a very deep canyon. It seemed appropriate. He always looked like a ram that should be on the side of a mountain.
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