“Did you come to get your puppy?” the brothers ask, breathless, their blond heads bobbing.
“My puppy?” I ask. I start to shake my head, but then stop. I am surprised to hear I have a puppy. I so am surprised, in fact, that I fumble for words. "Wait a minute, what?"
”Yeah, your puppy. Are you taking her home today?” says one of the bigger brothers, leaning the points of his elbows on his other brothers’ shoulders.
“I don’t know...um, how do you know which one is mine?” I ask, still scanning my memory trying to regain my footing in the tidal wave of little boy excitement.
“Because Bo picked her out, remember?” J.D. says. “She’s the one you held last time you came over.”
“And I named her for you.” Bo says, tucking his head down, suddenly shy.
“Really?” I say, ”So what’s her name?”
“Noelle” he says and for reasons I can’t explain, I know he is right, she is my puppy and today is the day she will come home.
“Well, let’s go get her.” I say, and we do.
So, now there is a puppy in the little pasture. I didn't get my other dogs till they were older so this is my first puppy. Her mother is a beautiful, black-eyed Maremma named Mercy and her father a Great Pyrenees. In a few months she will be a gangly teenager, all knees and thick, white fur, and eventually she may outweigh me, but for now she is a roly-poly bowling ball covered in fluff, bandy legs trying mightily to move the rest of her around. She misses her family so every once in while she will lift her wee head back, wolf-like, and let out a high musical yowl. She is the politist puppy I have ever met, and she is going to make a great guard dog someday, I just know it. Mostly though I am amazed, as always, by the intensity of life contained within such a small shell. She is miraculous, she is alive, she is a little being with wants and needs and a soft beating heart.
The course ahead is not without challenges. Miss Elle, as I’ve taken to calling her, is also a first because she is the first dog I am not going to let inside.When she is grown, she will be a working member of the pasture and as such she will have responsiblities. Namely, to keep coyotes away from the lambs, and coons away from kittens and chickens. Micah and Lily are city dogs -- or started out that way, and they retain that sensibility despite their change of address. When all the chickens but one were killed in the coop one night last summer, neither of them made a peep. Protection isn't their job.
You see, Micah is an Italian Greyhound -- a tiny dog fit for the tiny apartment I lived in when I got him. Micah’s first year with me was spent in a 6th floor walk-up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He rode the subway perched on my lap, waited with me in line at the deli, where he knew at least part of my sauerkraut and roast beef sandwich would be shared with him on a park bench, and he met his friends at the corner pub where they snoozed under the barstools while the humans chatted overhead. He is not and will never be a ranch dog. He is terrified of cows and horses -- barks every time one is spotted. “Oh good Lord -- look!” he shouts, “Another one approaches! Run for your lives. Everyone, run for your lives!” At twelve years old, he is not interested in adjusting his mindset.
Lily, on the other hand, has some cowdog heritage, and chafed at city life. She was a runaway, had a rough childhood, and came to me a little broken, but not beyond repair. She never liked leashes, or fences, but she accepted them as part of domesticated life, along with sitting on the couch and regular meals. I think she likes living on a ranch, but she doesn’t go out much on her own. She is used to being part of the human pack -- that’s just how it’s always been. Plus, she is nine now, so adventures are still fun, but not as fun as napping.
In her short eight weeks of life, Miss Elle has never been inside a house, so there is nothing to miss, no habits to break. She is, however, used to a lot of companionship, only a small part of it human. I thought I would be cold comfort, but I was wrong. There was a little weeping on the drive to the ranch, but once we reached our destination and I liberated her from beneath the seat where she had wedged herself, she shook her out her polar bear pelt, stood up on her sturdy bowlegs, and decided to call me home.
Teaching her to come when called won’t be necessary as she never leaves my side unless made to do so. Chicken coop to shed, shed to barn, barn to pasture, she follows the best she can as I do my chores. Her acclimation to the little pasture is going pretty much as you might expect. I am sticking to my guns about not letting her in the house, so now I am rarely allowed to go there either. Micah and Lily don’t know what to think. They are too old to find a puppy fun or cute, but they like hanging out with me pretty well, so they are torn. Well, not that torn. I can already tell you the end of that story -- the couch wins.
Just like almost all my ventures in the little pasture, this is not going as I expected. As I write this, I am sitting under a tree in the long grass by the barn, a puppy curled beside me. Facing a blank page can be terrifying, and yet it is what a writer must do every day, or nothing ever gets written. Listening to a puppy cry is also rather terrifying, or maybe that’s just me. Either way I am here, getting words on the page, June air breathing around me, warm and a little wet. It’ll probably storm tonight. And there is now another small being to bear witness to the joy of being cherished and the wonder of being so new that everything is an event, including the simple pleasure of napping with a guardian nearby.
My sweetheart likes to say, “It’s a good life, if you don’t weaken.” I heard him say it just last week to another rancher in reference to all the rain this summer after the last few years of drought. “What does it mean?” I asked, when the other man left. “I think it means, life is good if you don’t give up on it.” he said.
Yes, I think that’s true. I spent a lot of years lost and very lonely, especially when I was young and worried about what lay ahead. I didn’t know there was a little pasture waiting for me on the South Dakota prairie. Or that one beautiful morning in June a small boy would find me my first puppy -- the puppy he knew belonged to me all along. Noelle means Christmas, or the return of the light. I can tell you truly, it was worth the wait. It is summer, my pasture is green and full of life, and I am so thankful.