It is tough country out beyond Gundagai; not many trees, low hills and thin grass. In summer the place is all glare and dust. In winter the frost can be as thick as snow. The merino sheep here grow fine wool in their hunger –19 microns or less. After the sweat of the shearing sheds, the wool eventually makes it to the mills of Milan where its turned into “100+” suits. Managing these sheep are steady men and their dogs.
The dogs live on chains in the yard. When visitors come up the drive they set off a right racket. There are only ever 4 or 5 as the farmer needs no more. They are treated with a kindly familiarity. Each dog known by name: Georgie, Alice, Badge, Blackie, Screwie (short for Screwloose). There is also Jess, the farmer’s first dog. At almost 18 she can barely walk and can be a mean bitch. The farmer has a love for her and she alone of all the dogs knows what lies beyond the farmhouse door. She was a great worker in her time and most of the dogs are related to her in some way.
The great passion of the dogs, aside from dinner, is working the sheep. It only happens every 3 or 4 days and that is their time. They become what they were born for when they are unclipped from the chains. The farmer shouts out the odd command: “get back”, “go-round”, “behind” or “speak up”. The last request is met with a staccato of barks that will move even the dullest sheep in the yards. For long stretches they work without commands as they seem to be able to look towards the farmer and guess his desire. Generally there is one dog, but only one, that knows right from left. The farmer can shout, “left Alice” and she will move to that side of the mob. Folks from the city don’t notice but the farmer smiles inwardly at how clever she is.
Every couple of years the farmer needs a new dog to replace one that is getting old or is injured. He will take his top bitch and mate her with a neighbour’s dog he knows is a good worker. Out will come five or six brown balls of fur. The bitch will suckle them protectively. The farmer will watch them as they grow. None are named. In due course they earn their own chain. They strain to be taken out with the other dogs to work the sheep. The farmer is careful here because a new dog can cause a mob to split or worse. He introduces them slowly and watches. It is hard to guess his thoughts at this point.
Over time each of the dogs learns the basics but some learn quicker and some seem to know what is required before the others. The farmer watches. Is that dog a little lame? Does that dog bite too hard when asked to “nip”? Does that dog move left with Alice when I call? He watches. And he begins to judge.
The first one isn’t the hardest. There is always one dog that wasn’t meant for the farm. It will be late in the day. The farmer will walk up to the dogs and release just the one dog from its chain. This is rare and the free dog is dizzy with the treat. The farmer will gently rough her round the ears. He will look at her with a terrible kindness and may reach into his pocket for a bit of dried food. They will walk out. She is young and won’t walk close like the older dogs know. For the moment the farmer doesn’t mind. His thoughts are elsewhere. He carries the old sawn-off 22 (its not strictly a legal gun but is very convenient). They will walk for a little while and then perhaps a little while longer. The farmer says to himself he wants to be out beyond where the other dogs can hear. He gains a little more time in the presence of this unnamed dog. He calls her to him and all-trust she runs up and delights in his special attention. The rest is quick. A single shot.
The hardest dogs are the last. These are the ones who could almost make it. They are almost named (the farmer has the inkling of a name in his head). He walks even longer with these ones. He will drink an extra beer in the evening after he returns. At the end there will be just one, good dog from this litter and he or she will be named.
It makes the tough decisions of the city look pretty easy.