Another Yellow Brick Road
“Walk up, Raff. Raff, walk up.” But he couldn’t. Eyes fixed on the wall of woolly bodies in front of him, the big Collie stood as though rooted to the ground, paralyzed by the conflict of emotions within him. Once, obeying the voice he loved had been his life’s work. He was Lochranza Lionheart, the King, the best sheepdog she had ever owned. But that was before the Black Time, before the pain and the fear. Now even Pride, her new eight-month-old puppy, could outwork him. As if able to read the dog’s thoughts, the big white ram shook his horns and pawed the ground. Slowly, Raff turned and walked away. The lion had turned coward, and the shame of it broke his heart.
He had always been a fighter. So premature at birth that his body was almost hairless, he was given next to no chance to survive. But he wouldn’t give up, and neither did she. The bond that was formed then would carry them through the next three years. On the farm or at a stockdog trial, they were a team to be reckoned with. Together, they could do anything. He didn’t know she had written a story about them, didn’t know that people all over the world had read about the duo even Death couldn’t beat. He only knew that she loved him, and her wish was his command. Life was good.
Then came the Black Time. Like a fog in the night, an insidious Something crept in, and Death came calling. For two terrible weeks, they fought to pull their small flock from the Grim Reaper’s grasp. All day long and sometimes through the night they worked, moving ewes and lambs, separating those that needed medication or supplemental feeding, treating each one, then returning it to the flock. During the most critical period, they worked straight through more than thirty-six hours.
At one point, Raff’s gallant heart faltered. Exhausted, famished, battered and bruised by those ewes that still felt well enough to stand guard over their lambs, he ran out of the barn. He’d had all he could stand. He was through. “Raff, please! Help me, please!” she cried in desperation. A moment later, a bedraggled sable head appeared at the door. She could see the pain and exhaustion in his eyes. But behind all that still burned the “look of eagles” she knew so well. More clearly than any words could, those eyes said, “If you need me, I’ll be there.” Win or lose, they would finish this fight together. In the end, most of the flock would be saved, but the price of victory came high. For in winning the battle, the great dog lost his heart.
At first, she didn’t seem to notice. Raff did his everyday chores with the same ease he always had. Then, on a late spring afternoon, a big black ewe with a new lamb faced him down. Bent on protecting her baby, the ewe charged at him. Raff gave ground. Too many memories of too much pain. Head down, tail drooping, he slunk into the barn. For the first time in his life, he had failed to carry out an order. He had let her down, and he knew it. After that, the failures snowballed, piling one on top of the other. Soon, even the simplest tasks were beyond him. On the day he could no longer move the sheep out of the barn, the lion’s heart broke.
But in Raff’s darkest hour, the lady who loved him would see the light. Ever since his downward spiral had begun, she had tried every strategy she could think of to bring him back. Nothing had worked, and she was as miserable as he was. There, she found her answer. In the beginning, fear of physical injury had held him back. Now, it was only a minor part of the problem. It was she herself who was killing him, drowning him in her own disappointment. Each time he failed, he could hear it in her voice, see it in her eyes. No more! They had weathered too many storms together, had too many more worlds to conquer. Praying that the damage done wasn’t permanent, she began the second round of his rehabilitation. One step at a time – encouraging, coaxing, cheering each tiny victory. She didn’t have to hurry. It would be a long, cold winter. They had all the time in the world.
The winter wore on. Ever so slowly, Raff began to respond. Don’t push she told herself. When he’s ready, you’ll know. That April day dawned cool and misty, like so many others. But this morning had a different feeling to it. She knew the time had come. As the sun dried the dew on the grass, Raff stood facing a flock of sheep. At the head of the flock stood the white ram. It was now or never. “Walk up, Raff.” The dog stood motionless. Then she saw it – a brief flash of the old fire in his eyes. “Get him, Raff!” And the cowardly lion roared. As the big dog’s teeth met in his right ear, the ram jumped and fled, taking the rest of the flock with him. In a flash, Raff had them gathered again. Steady and strong, he fetched the sheep to her. He seemed to have grown a little taller, his shoulders a little broader. As his woolly charges trotted through the pasture gate, he heard the voice he loved. “That’ll do, Raff.” As she bent down and hugged him around the neck, he felt a tear fall on his head. He could feel the pride and the love in it. He was the King again, and all was right with his world.
Life was good. Lambing time had ended, and the long days of summer stretched ahead. As he lounged in the afternoon sun, he heard her call, “Raff, let’s go. I need you.” As they approached the training pen, he saw why he’d been summoned. Shep, a young Border Collie being trained as a sheepdog, stood tied to the fence. Inside the pen were seven sheep. The white ram was one of them.
In the days before the Black Time, she had proudly dubbed Raff Professor Emeritus, Sheepdog 101. If a dog in training showed a lack of confidence while working the sheep, Raff would be called in to help. Sometimes just his presence in the pen would give the novice dog the morale boost it needed. Other trainees learned what to do and where to be by following Raff as he moved the sheep around the pen. This would be his first teaching assignment since his rehabilitation. The three of them walked into the pen. “Away, Raff,” she whispered, and he sailed off on a right-hand outrun, the younger dog by his side. Directly behind the flock, they came to a stop. The white ram faced them, but only for an instant. At the sight of Raff, the ram turned and walked away, the ewes clustered around him. Shep, his confidence soaring, boldly pushed them on. “Shep, Raff, that’ll do,” she called. Raff trotted up, eyes alight, tail waving slowly back and forth. The Professor was back in his classroom. She smiled; looking down at the dog she loved, and loving him all the more. As they left the pen, the last verse of Charlie Daniels’ classic “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” played on the barn radio.
Johnny said, “Devil, just come on back. If you ever want to try it again ‘Cause I told you once, you son-of-a-gun, I’m the best that’s ever been!'”
He was Lochranza Lionheart, the King, the look of eagles shining in his eyes. Life was good.
To read Meredith Moore’s “Miracle Worker”, CLICK HERE — The story of Raff from the beginning
— A very special pup who’s breeder was determined to help him survive, no matter what the odds.