He beat the cloud of dust into the ute.
Through the windscreen all he could see was an ocean of woolly arses bobbing away into the stubble.
His black and white bitzer was smiling and drooling all over the tray of the utility.
His brother, in the driver’s seat was laughing, fit to bust.
‘Get yourself a proper dog,’ he said. ‘Not the last one left from Snowy’s litter. A dog’s meant to save you a man, not cause you an extra bloke’s work to re-draft the buggers.’
‘And what do you suggest Professor Know-it-all?’
‘A proper sheep dog. Like those that go in the trials at the Show.’
In the trade magazine he read in the dunny, was a classified ad for pedigree kelpies. The breeder was only a couple of hundred clicks away. He’d call in and see him when he took the next load of wethers to the sale in town.
He wrote the contact details in his red notebook.
Getting the sale wethers into the yards was next week’s challenge. He wanted to draft off a truck load to take to Tuesday’s sale.
Early Monday morning he let the incumbent off the chain and patted the tray of the ute.
‘About the only order you can follow,’ he muttered, as the eager dog leapt onto the tray in a cyclone of tail, tongue and saliva.
Each gate he passed through he clipped back to the fence to allow the flock passage to the yards on the return journey.
He deliberately hadn’t asked his brother to join him in the muster. He didn’t want to be the subject of the laughs at next Friday’s get together at the pub.
He drove around the paddock, sounding his horn occasionally to move the reluctant sheep towards the open gate.
Gradually the mob gained impetus and moved smoothly in the required direction. They stalled at the gate, the leaders sniffing and stamping their feet in protest. He called to the dog.
‘Push ’em up, Bluey. Push, push.’
He accompanied the order with a couple of loud slaps on the door with the flat of his hand.
At that, Bluey’s heading instinct took over and he raced round the front of the mob, turning the leaders back into the paddock they were leaving.
The renegade sheep were encouraged to break ranks by the tirade of abuse and invective hurled at the dog.
‘You useless bloody mongel. I’ll bloody shoot you when I catch you.’ He followed with a number of other profanities in which those used to working with recalcitrant sheep will be well versed.
Lapping up the perceived praise from his boss, Bluey continued to keep the mob moving. They galloped to all corners of the 80 acre paddock. When he couldn’t keep up with the departing wethers, Bluey returned to the ute and jumped onto the back without any bidding.
He must have thought his day’s work was over when he was roughly chained to the tree next to the 44 gallon drum he called home.
Bluey heard more colourful language as the ute sped back to complete the roundup without him.
The brothers drafted and loaded the sheep onto the truck the next morning.
‘After we unload these at the sale yards, I want to see that kelpie breeder about getting one of his dogs.’
‘Not happy with Bluey I take it?”
‘I’ll take him, my kids love him.’
‘Waste of bloody offal. He’s all yours.’
The mood of the brothers improved as the sheep were unloaded and penned. Talk at the sale was that prices were expected to be the best in months.
He took out his red note book and read the mud-map he had sketched, with an ‘X’ marking the location of the dog breeder’s property. He showed it to his brother.
Their truck turned up unannounced, as is often the way in the bush.
Introductions all round, and small talk about the season, sheep prices and the good looking sort that presented the weather on regional TV.
‘Actually, I want to buy one of your dogs.’
‘Bitch or dog?’
‘Dunno, what do you reckon?’
‘I reckon a bitch, coz I haven’t got any boys left.’
With that settled they wanted to see the dog work.
A beautiful chocolate brown kelpie was let out of the canine equivalent of a city hotel. She trotted at the heels of the breeder and sat at his command.
The brothers nodded to each other, impressed.
With a faint whistle and a wave of his hand the breeder cast the dog wide, in the direction of a mob of grazing ewes.
In the distance the mob amassed and quietly head-nodded towards the men.
A whistle took the dog away to the right and the sheep turned towards a gate from the paddock. Another whistle and the kelpie dropped to her belly, holding the sheep still, while the owner ambled over and opened the gate. Another whistle and the dog started working backwards and forwards behind the mob until they were inside the yard and the gate closed behind.
One brother said to the other, ‘Minimum of fuss.’
‘Very impressive. And she’s for sale?’ one said to the breeder.
‘Yep. Three grand.’
The brothers looked astonished.
The breeder was used to such a reaction.
‘What would you pay a man to do what she just did? Not only does she do as she’s told, she’s gentle on the sheep. Imagine if you had a dog whose only skill was to rip, tear and split a mob.’
‘You been to our joint have you?’
They agreed on the price. One brother grabbed a dirty looking cheque book from the glove box of the truck and wrote out the amount. Both brothers signed the cheque.
‘What’s she called?’
‘Daphne! No way.’
The brothers sniggered.
‘Named after my late mother.’
‘Pretty name,’ one said hurriedly.
‘Here Daphne.’ He patted the vinyl driver’s seat and she jumped in.
‘When she comes in season, bring her back here and get her serviced. I’ll take the pick of the litter, that’s part of the deal.’
They shook hands all round and the three of them drove out the gate.
‘Can you and Daphne bring in that big mob of wethers for drenching?’
He lifted Daphne onto the tray of the ute and headed out.
Her ears were pricked when she saw the sheep grazing across the paddock. With a quiet command and a theatrically flung arm, he sent Daphne out to the right.
She took off and sheep went in all directions.
‘Round the back, round the back.’ The command was ignored.
He got out of the ute and ran around the mob.
Seeing that he had taken over her role, Daphne spotted a mob of ewes and lambs in an adjacent paddock, and decided they should join the fun. Encouraged by the boss’s shouting and arm waving she got the ewes in a milling mass that turned and galloped towards the wethers. At speed they flattened the ring lock fence and the two mobs were boxed. Then the ewes realised they had left their lambs behind and led the wethers back through the gap in the fence. Daphne now trotted calmly behind the mob as they trotted to the far side of the paddock.
‘Bloody useless $3000 mongrel’ he called after her.
Eventually he assembled ewes, lambs and wethers and drove them to the sheep yards, Daphne sitting alert, in the passenger’s seat.
He shut the gate to the forcing yard in front of the drafting gate.
‘You take over,’ he yelled to his brother, who ordered Bluey into the pen to push the sheep up.
He stormed to the house to call the breeder.
‘Bloody Daphne,’ he said by way of introduction. ‘She boxed two big mobs, separated the ewes from the lambs and cost me a days work.’
‘Hold your horses. Talk me through it.’
He told the story from the first cast.
‘She went out OK, but then all hell broke loose. She took no notice of me. Then she took off to muster the ewes and lambs in the next paddock. They spooked and broke through the fence….’
‘Why didn’t you stop her?’
‘I tried but she took no notice.’
‘Two short whistle blasts she’ll go left, three whistles and she’ll go right. One long note and she’ll stop dead. She’s trained to the whistle.’
‘What’s up?’ said the breeder.
‘I can’t whistle.’
Through the screen door he could hear his brother in the yards.
‘Come behind, Bluey you useless mongrel!’
Also by Steve Rogers: Australia Day, the poem; Hard way to make a crust; Truck That