I met Rover on a sheep and cattle farm. My initial impression was that if ever I have a dog, it would be a lot smarter than Rover. It was during the first week at a farm called Kanangra that I spotted the mutt. He was sitting up in the front seat of a blue De Soto ute. His master, Old Jack Moy was doing his block and calling the dog names I wouldn’t put on paper. I had just started work on this farm as a labourer; the job was my first paid employment. I would be ‘kept’ which meant I lived and worked on the farm from Monday to Friday, I was sixteen years old.
Now Jack Moy, Rover’s owner was a rotund old man of seventy and owned the farm next door to where I worked. He had the misfortune to own this ugly brindle part-kelpie dog called Rover. In fact, I thought old Jack was pretty tolerant; perhaps the dog was his pet as well? Like me, old Jack Moy lived at Kanangra from Monday to Friday. We shared two bungalows out the back of the main homestead. We both ate all our meals with the owners of the farm. I will never forget the first meal I had on that Monday night. It was like a banquet. But it wasn’t a special night- perhaps put on for my benefit as I first imagined. In time, I discovered that most meals were at least three courses, completely different to home where we had large simple meals with little variety. Mum also insisted that once a week we bathed and only got dressed up for dances barbeques and balls. Now in this new job, I was showering every night. As well, everyone got dressed up for tea, which started with an appetizer and a sherry. The meal that first night was a bit daunting really. At the table, I found myself bamboozled by the array of knives and forks in front of me. Then there was this bit of cloth wrapped up in a metal ring. I watched every move the others made. We were up to the main course when old Jack who had arrived a bit late, joined us. He had been down to the Post Office to collect the mail. Naturally, he couldn’t go past the pub on the way back so he walked in with a slight lean to one side and a lop-sided grin to the other. He lunged towards the table, sat on the sideways turned chair, and then plopped the napkin on his lap. Grunting, he turned his chair, pushed it back some distance. The result - it enabled him to slide his sizable belly under the edge of the table and lean forward on his elbows. He then commenced eating and boy, was I fascinated. Most intriguing were his table manners, I had never seen a display like it before; it was amazing. His sizable stomach increased the distance from the plate to his mouth as he sat well back from the table. Then, leaning forward, he would pivot his food towards this opening whilst his elbows rested on the table. Naturally, his arms were too short to reach his gob, so the last two inches - best described as a fling or flick in the general direction of the rather ugly looking thing called a mouth. Actually, to be fair, over time I noticed he was quite accurate, most went in. However, this night, with his skill levels lowered by the intake of a few ales, the food went anywhere. The first time I saw him swivel his food towards the nicotine stained opening, I blushed with embarrassment as I struggled to stop a giggle coming out. It reminded me of my two and a half year old young brother feeding himself. But old Jack appeared not the least bit bothered as he hoed into the lamb cutlets and salad. In fact, I was amazed that the boss, a gentleman, didn’t point out to old Jack that he had a piece of lettuce hanging off his bushy eyebrow! Then again, before I started at the farm, mum had told me old Jack was a Shire Councillor and my guess was you didn’t mention this sort of thing to such an esteemed gentleman. Then again, when a piece of beetroot landed on his left shoulder, on a clean, newly starched shirt, I thought something should be said but I guessed the boss didn’t possess such courage.
As a result, I went to bed that night with a head full of Old Jacks eating prowess and doubts about the order one should use the assortment of knives, forks and spoons. As well, the boss gave me instructions to rise about 6.00am, milk the cows, separate the cream and come in for breakfast at 7.00am. Fortunately, I could do all those things, but the dining etiquette- that was a different matter. My first day was certainly a steep learning curve.
The next morning I got up half an hour early. Old Jack in the next bungalow stirred as well. He opened the door and Rover emerged, he’d slept in the room? I’d never known a dog allowed in a house before, let alone a bedroom? Old Jack, in a dressing gown, appeared on the top step. Firstly he stooped with a grunt to pat Rover, they seemed good mates? Then he stretched, reached inside his pocket and started another ritual that was far more intriguing than his eating habits. Old Jack began this weird charade of rolling a fag. I had known a smoker before, but never seen a smoke rolled whilst the roller had a convulsion and certainly never seen anyone finish a whole cigarette in one drag. Meanwhile Rover, who had disappeared briefly and pee’d on every post within 25 yards returned hurriedly. He appeared to enjoy the fag rolling as well. Now old Jack unscrewed the round orange lid on his tin of Log Cabin, plucked out a small wad of tobacco and rubbed it around in his palms in a circular motion. His lips held (temporarily) a cigarette paper. Gradually a small blurting cough like a two-stroke engine refusing to start emerged from his mouth, a sort of a choking sound. Then, once the rhythm had been established, he increased the volume to a squawk and splutter, spraying saliva in a circle of roughly six feet all over the concrete and Rover who didn’t seem the least bit bothered. Then, the old blighter pulled the cigarette paper from his mouth and coughed some more. By this time, it was a deep, loud, rumbling gut-wrenching growl like a possum in the mating season. Old Jack’s body started to bend forward and wobble, the cough got deeper, louder and the process of rolling the cigarette continued. Until finally, with his belly flopping up and down, his face red, his eyes bulging, hands reaching for the matches, old Jack spat out this oyster like solid piece of phlegm, the size of a large grape. Thwack, it hit the saliva-drenched concrete and Rover barked. I was stunned. Then the dog sniffed at the vile globule warily. I’d never seen anything like it. Like Rover, I felt like applauding this exhausting feat of human endurance, only to discover this was only Act 1, yes the show wasn’t over yet! For at the bottom of his oyster ejection spit and rasping convulsion, old Jack, with his head on his belly, his belly jammed between his knees; he shoved in the rolled cigarette, struck a match and lit ‘er up’. By the time he was vertical he had sucked the fag down to his lips and thrown it away. A large ‘ahhh!’ came out of his mouth; he thumped his chest and start rolling another. I guessed for old Jack, this was the perfect start to the day. For me, well I reckoned I should have applauded, but farm labourers - not known for bursting into spontaneous clapping, I remained silent. Rover just sat, mouth agape and his head twisted to one side, a look of admiration I thought? Thankfully, he didn’t touch the repulsive blob of spit.
Consequently, from day one I had met a useless ugly dog and an esteemed gentleman with fascinating eating habits and a foul tongue that smoked non-stop all day. However, old Jack seemed content on his farm doing small jobs, tinkering in the woolshed and driving around with Rover perched up in the front seat of the blue ute. Over time, I could see the old fellow struggled when it came to doing the stock work on his farm. Any wonder, as both Rover and old Jack were useless. Old Jack would be really browned off, or just plain angry. He spat out numerous confusing commands like a passionate footy supporter as he and the dog tried to round up the sheep. The only command Rover appeared to obey was,
‘Git in tha ute ya useless prick of a bloody thing’
Now, I didn’t own a dog, just a slow old horse. But after only a week, soon I found myself helping old Jack in the paddock after I finished work. He would sidle up to me and quietly ask,
‘Can ya give us a hand mustering some sheep mate?’
I obliged if I wasn’t busy; then, it was always the same routine. The three of us, Rover, old Jack and me, in the front of the ute heading up into a paddock somewhere. After several open then shut gates, we would be within sight of a mob of sheep. To be fair, old Jack would always try Rover first. He’d call Rover out of the Ute and,
‘Come here, g’way out, go back, speak up, sit, sit you brindle bastard, sit!’ bellowed Old Jack as the sheep split up and run anywhere. Rover seemed to run in decreasing, confused circles, barking occasionally, he had no idea.
‘Go back, come ‘ear, come ‘ear, ah shit go back.’
‘Useless, bloody brindle bastard, git in tha ute.’
Rover would then leapt through the open window and sit on the seat. Old Jack would turn to me,
‘Baz can you head off those bloody ewes mate?’
That is how it happened, and I did my sheepdog impersonation thing. Now running and flapping arms, whilst making tugboat noises and copping abuse was exhausting; but it was a lot of fun and I became very fit. As the sheep started to move along, old Jack would sit in his blue ute, hopeless bloody Rover beside him, his tongue hanging out, and me doing all the dogs work, but sit? Old Jack tried it once and I think he meant it, but I drew the line at ‘sit!’
Over time, old Jack and I became real good mates. He let me drive his blue ute and talked a lot about his days growing up as a youngster on the farm. He had done it tough. I enjoyed his yarns about the horse and carts, the stagecoach and finally when ‘gold fever’ hit the district. Listening to old Jack was like reading a good book. Then unexpectedly one day, the boss told me old Jack had inoperable cancer; and didn’t have long to live; that was a shock. Old Jack was a loveable character.
Odd, but before he went away old Jack left a message that when he died I was to have Rover. This was a strange request I found a bit embarrassing, what good would a mutt like that be? Then several weeks later, poor old Jack had passed on and I became Rover’s new owner. To be honest, I was at a bit of a loss. The unwritten law about useless dogs on a farm was lead poisoning. Yes, take them up the back paddock and shoot them. Then again, I recalled the weird friendship old Jack had established with Rover and decided I’d find another owner for the dog. Someone that wanted a house pet maybe?
The problem of Rover had bothered me all that week. I had kept him chained up most of the time and only let him off just before I fed him each night. That way I knew he would come when called; he did, straight away. Then one night I asked the boss to tell me a bit about old Jack’s dog.
‘He was trained by one of the best trainers around, a bloke from Bairnsdale. In fact, old Jack paid a top quid for him as the dog rated as one of the best. But, that’s the way it goes sometimes; no matter how well trained, the dog turns out a dud; a one man dog, won’t work for anyone else. No damn good in other words; and that’s what old Jack got- a useless mongrel.’
Come Friday it was time to head home. I put Rover on the potato bag I had wrapped around the bar of my pushbike as a seat. Warily I pushed off for the four-mile ride home. As a precaution, I also had a long rope, just in case he wouldn’t stay on the bike. I would let him run beside me. There we were. Rover with his front paws rested on the handlebars, his back legs on the bar below, and I peddled off for home. What I thought would be a frustrating ride with Rover trying to get off; this proved incorrect. He sat quietly. Many thoughts about the dog filled my heard as I peddled along on the bike. To be honest, I hoped an answer to the dog dilemma would eventuate at home; mum was fond of animals and maybe she would look after him for a time. It was a pleasant 30-minute ride to our house on the Tambo River and my brother Peter, aged almost three, was as usual there to greet me. He immediately fell in love with Rover and in no time was hugging him and leading him around with a length of hay band (rope). Mum liked the dog also and that meant he had a home. Phew! I was pleased, as I didn’t want to take him back to the farm. Peter played with Rover all weekend and mum indicated that he was a quiet dog with a nice personality. On Monday, I rode to work believing old Jack would be happy his brindle mutt had a home; even if it was only temporary.
Several weeks passed quietly and I barely gave the dog a thought. Then on this Friday, I rode the Malvern Star home and was pleasantly surprised to find Rover in an old pram wrapped in a blanket, wearing a bonnet. He was Peter’s baby and Peter was babbling to him. Rover, tongue hanging out, was lapping up the attention. Then my brother John, who also lived at home, came outside and commented,
‘Check out what Rover can do Baz.’
John pursed his lips and then whistled Rover out of the pram; flicked his fingers and pointed towards the kids’ new toy. Curiosity found me watching Rover rocking in Leanne’s toy rocker. He sat in the seat, paws on the handles, just like on my bike, and rocked. Amazing, then another whistle from John, and Rover sat at his feet. John, who was enjoying this, then told Peter to go and hide. Giggling, Peter skiattled off and hid behind a fruit tree whilst Rover lay on the ground with his paws over his eyes.
‘Find Peter.’ said John.
It was obvious that Rover knew exactly where Peter was hiding; but he pretended otherwise. He wandered off aimlessly, looking and sniffing roughly in his direction. A fit of giggles from Peter forced Rover to show his hand (paw)? After much hugging and a belly scratch as the dog lay down on his back, John announced it was Rovers turn to hide. He gave the instruction and Rover went to another fruit tree and stood behind the trunk with his back to Peter. Peter hid his eyes, counted roughly to ten and then declared in baby talk, he was coming ready or not. Rover stood very still, his head slightly turned so he could watch the proceedings. After 30 seconds, Peter had no idea where the dog was; so, Rover shook his collar and gave his position away, much to Peter’s delight. He thought he had found him. Mum, looking through the kitchen window, clapped. I was puzzled; maybe this dog has some potential? John said it had only taken him a couple of weeks to train Rover to do those tricks. Consequently, after a bit of pondering I cautiously decided to try Rover at mustering – just the once on the farm. He seemed pleased to sit up on my pushbike when I headed off on Monday. Again, he was the perfect passenger.
We were drenching sheep on the farm. The boss had normally done all the required mustering and I did the yard work. He was away this day and there was one last mob to bring into the woolshed. I decided- well here goes, I’ll try to muster the mob of young ewes with Rover. There was no one about and I had nothing to lose. Cautiously, I walked with him into the Lucerne paddock. With hesitancy, I said:
Rover ran along the fence, behind the sheep.
A good dog will bark and force the sheep to run into a mob. Rover barked twice, the sheep herded together.
‘Come over here.’
He started to come towards me when some of the sheep broke away.
‘Go back!’ I shouted, fearing this is one test he wouldn’t pass.
He headed them, and then knowing where I planned to take the sheep; he started to push them towards the gate. Within an hour, to my amazement, I realized; this dog was good, very good. It made Rover, a good paddock dog. It made me very happy.
Getting sheep to the woolshed and yards efficiently was an enormous time saver on a farm. Then, next, is a good yard dog. A yard dog has to be forceful, aggressive and tough. It runs across the sheep’s backs and turns them towards the desired direction. Many times in a small yard packed with sheep, a dog will fall, and struggle. Finding themselves trampled quite severely. Most farms have two or three dogs. One a cattle dog, another for the paddock and the other for the yards; Rover was better in the yard than the paddock. He was an all-round stock dog. In fact, he was a champion. It made sense that old Jack had paid a top quid for him.
By now, Rover was three. I had had him over eighteen months. He was a brilliant stock dog with sheep or cattle and a dear friend. He would work tirelessly and never let me down. He enjoyed praise and pats, but most of all he enjoyed travel. For some reason, dogs do. He sat on the bonnet of the tractor, the saddle on the horse, particularly if he was weary. He loved the Land Rover, a four-wheel drive vehicle I drove when fencing or doing practical jobs. Rover would sit with his head out, ears flapping and his drool running down the door. However, most of all he loved my new motorbike, yes I had updated from the pushbike. We had so much fun. I had no helmet or protective gear and I rode it with typical teenage bravado and stupidity. Full throttle or flat out, and then a sliding stop were my only speeds. An awesome bike; the 175cc Super Bantam. About 40 miles per hour was flat out. Rover sat on the fuel tank, between my arms. We had quite a few prangs in the paddocks, but never hurt badly, just bruised. He loved my bike and grinned whenever I said ‘The bike mate,’ he would rush over and sit beside it. However, when things got a bit hairy on the Bantam I was on my own. Rover had this knack of abandoning the bike just before I skidded across wet grass backwoods, the motorbike beside me bumping along with its engine screaming. Then, one day as he was about to hop onto the bike he put his paw on the red-hot exhaust. I got a very dirty look. Would I ever get him on the bike again? Typically, Rover decided the best way was to sprint at the motorbike and leap into the air from about 3 yards away. My part was to catch him; it worked, clever blighter!
A good sheep dog has many skills on a farm. However, the thing I admired the most in Rover was at lambing time. I loved lambing down as it’s called on a farm. Every morning, very early, you go around the ewes and their new lambs. If everything is going well, you move away the ewes that have lambed that night into an adjoining paddock. It’s hard; the dog has to separate off the new mothers by wandering quietly through the mob. One hopes that the dog can bring the lambs as well. This rarely happens. Dogs invent ways to catch the lambs. Bonny, the boss’s dog would hold them in her mouth until he came over and picked up the lamb. Typically, Rover was different. He would knock them over and gently put a paw on the lamb until I came over and carried the lamb quietly behind its mother.
Like any good sheep dog, Rover soon had a reputation in the district. His standing enabled me to get work away from the farm, like roustabouting. A job that required throwing a fleece, sweeping the floor and filling the catching pens. I enjoyed the atmosphere of the woolshed. At daybreak, Rover and I helped the farmer muster, pen up, brand and then returned sheep to their paddocks’ that night. He was exhausted by most evenings and like old Jack, I let him sleep in my room in the shearers’ quarters. Then, out of the blue, one day I was asked to do some cattle droving. What a privilege. To enjoy the nostalgia of droving hundreds of calves from the high plains at Benambra, down to the railhead at Bairnsdale, I couldn’t wait. Normally it took ten days to complete the journey. Rover, was a forceful cattle dog, he worked tirelessly, but his poor old feet bled from the twisting and turning on the sealed roads. So, to prevent him from getting sore pads I sewed him some small canvas boots. With disgust, he chewed them off! Another dirty look!
After the sale, the calves let out onto the road. The calves usually settle after five days on the road and I would walk along leading Swanee my horse, flicking the stockwhip occasionally. Rover, deserving of a well-earned rest, would sit in the saddle nursing his poor old feet. This somehow appealed to people driving along the roads. They would stop their vehicles, get out and take photographs of this likeable dog. Odd, but they always asked his name. I would tell them and then add, he was such a good dog he’d been promoted to stockman and could ride a horse. I’m sure he smiled at that remark.
The love I had for this wonderful dog only surfaced when tragedy stepped in. I was roustabouting in a three-stand woolshed. As the only shed hand, I was flat-out. My old friend Bill I mentioned above was one of the shearers. Typically, Rover would be asleep on a wool pack having a well-earned break. Then, a short whistle from me, he’d run to the swinging doors ready to fill the catching pen.
This morning, just before smoko, I was about to pick up a fleece when I noticed Rover moving towards me. He was staggering, losing his sense of direction, but determined to get to me. (Farm dogs never cross the woolshed floor.) I quickly dropped the fleece. He reached my feet and tried to sit, as he usually does but fell over. I reached down to pat him. He shook, his eyes fixed on mine.
He went limp and died.
The shearers’ turned off their machines. Someone turned off the petrol engine.
I picked up my sweet dog hoping he would lick my face and be Rover again. He was warm, soft and beautiful. I looked up for something...a miracle…some hope. One of the shearers Bill, had tears running down his cheeks. He used to sneak Rover biscuits at morning tea, while I pretended not to notice. Tom another shearer walked outside shaking his lowered head.
Time had stopped.
I put Rover on his favourite wool pack. Bill patted Rover with tender loving strokes,
‘What happened Baz?’
‘I don’t know he’s only a young dog.’ I replied in my strongest tearful voice.
‘I reckon the Vet should see him, just in case it’s dangerous,’ said the farm owner.
Carefully we put Rover in the boot of the farmer’s car.
The Vet said it was ‘hard pads’ disease, caused by the constant feet trouble he had had from droving and mustering, somehow his infected feet poisoned his blood or something like that…
Rover returned to me the next day.
I brushed him, wrapped him in a warm blanket, and took him down to the Creek where I had dug a hole the day before. I buried him with affection and dignity and then raked the mound neatly. I cut a branch from a weeping willow tree, drove it in the ground and hung a sign that simply said:
‘My good friend Rover.’
Twenty years later with a wife and three kids, I was driving up that winding road that Rover and I had driven cattle on. I was telling them about Rover.
‘In fact, let’s visit the old fella.’
I hadn’t been up that remote road since Rover died. Suddenly, I stopped the car. Staring at the creek with tears in my eyes, and overcome with emotion. What a surprise. Not my grieving for Rover that had triggered my reaction. Here was this magnificent weeping willow tree that had grown from the small branch I had stuck in the ground all those years ago. It’s still there today.
He deserved that.