By Alan Reid

Fred had always been a crack shot. His first rabbit was shot through the eye when Fred was a youngster and when he shot rabbits during winter for their skins he would bag an even 180 every night, all of them shot through the eye.

He maintained a rifle was just an extension of the arm and aiming it was just like pointing his finger. Fred said his finger always pointed spot-on and so did the rifle.

Fred knew his shooting ability could be critical during the night as he stared out past the tent flap, straining to see across the flat. The moon was beginning to swamp the plains and bush in its blue-grey light, not quite night, not quite day creating a world of silhouette. Fred could see the evening dew sparkling on the grass and its patchwork of patterned spider webs stretching beyond the flock of sheep pressing tightly into the corner of the makeshift yard.

He’d been shepherding the mob since dogs killed on the other side of the range and a few had been shot out of the pack, but there were some left. The remaining dogs hadn’t been heard or seen since and the killing had stopped. It was obvious they were on the move and it was only a matter of time before they moved into fresh territory looking for an easy kill. If they crossed the range and followed any of numerous firebreak and bridle tracks Fred’s charges were the closest mob and would be easy pickings for a pack of wild dogs or dingoes.

Not that there were many dingoes left, not full blood dogs anyway. Any dingoes were mixed blood and these days most are just wild dogs. Some came from animals left behind by the plantation workers and others had been dumped by people from town. The town people found keeping a dog was more trouble than it was worth and just left them in the bush. It was the same with cats, which had a much greater impact. The dogs took down larger animals such as kangaroos and wombats by hunting in packs while cats were individuals and more naturally adaptive hunters which destroyed game such as birds and reptiles, frequently taking animals bigger than themselves. Both played their part in the annihilation of wildlife, but people continued to dump them without thinking about what they became, or any knowledge of the devastation they could cause.

Is it really ewe?

With the introduction of feral dogs, the true dingo had pretty well died out or been killed by trappers and others years ago. Fred had shot a blood dog a few years before, but it had hardly any teeth and was near starved to death. It was probably the last. The dogs killing on the other side of the range had been feral dogs.

Fred continued to stare into the half-light, seeking out any sign of movement, listening for the slightest sound. He’d heard howling a few nights before, but it was a long way off and there hadn’t been anything since. Maybe what remained of the pack had moved out of the district. Shooting usually frightened them off. There was plenty of stock around in the high country at that time of year, working the long paddock and agisting on the summer grasses so it was an outside chance Fred’s mob would be the next target.

He had hunted dogs before and knew their behaviour reasonably well. He knew that once they were in the area they would hit the sheep. Sheep were easy prey for dogs. They didn’t fight back like wombats and kangaroos. They just ran in circles until one panicked and broke free and that’s the one the dogs would take. Once a sheep was on its own it was easy for a dog to grab a jaw full of wool and pull it down. Fred had seen dogs in action. Even trained working dogs went for the throat wool if a sheep broke loose. It’s instinct; in the blood.

Dogs go from domestic to wild very easily, and quickly. Even trained working dogs who have been around sheep for years are known to turn and join others in a kill, forcing their destruction. But the real change in a tin fed dog turning wild is the howl. Domestic dogs howl only if they are distressed or lonely, otherwise they always bark. In the wild only the young dogs bark, and even then, it is more of a yap than a bark; and they stop that after a couple of months. Town dogs bark all the time, but in the wild they take up howling within a few days and never bark again, even when they are chasing prey.

Dogs are cunning hunters.

They become silent cunning hunters, more cunning than dogs born in the wild because they are familiar with man and knew how he thinks and behaves. Fred knew he had to be extra canny also to outwit a turned domestic dog. They were a damned nuisance and shepherding animals too stupid to defend themselves, lying in a cold tent when he should be in a comfortable bed in a fire warmed hut was an imposition he didn’t need.

He didn’t know why he had let himself in for this job. Shepherding sheep was foreign to his peripatetic lifestyle. So was the sedentary life distilling eucalyptus day after day. He’d needed a change and the offer of droving was timely, even if it resulted in shepherding a mob of dumb sheep. Travelling with a mob on the road was attractive but he hadn’t expected to stay on after they reached the grazing lease. And he certainly had not expected to be lying in a tent all night, waiting to see whether a dog would show up.

It was the same whenever dogs were around – keep the mob in sight, watch the scrub, check for tracks, look for signs, listening, watchful, prepared. Trailing the mob on a horse was far more to his liking.

A sudden movement among the sheep drew Fred back to the mob, but everything was the same as he scanned the plain. No new shapes had appeared, there was nothing moving near the sheep, or further across the flat. He was sure there weren’t any dogs around and with the moon heading towards the horizon he was confident no dogs would show up. The sheep had settled some hours ago and it was unlikely there would be any activity from them until daybreak. He laid the rifle beside his bedroll and closed his eyes to take his daydreams to another sphere.

He didn’t wake with a start. He didn’t even know what had lulled him from sleep. “I’ve only been asleep only a few minutes,” Fred muttered quietly to himself.

He rolled over, grabbed the rifle and pushed the tent flap aside with the barrel. His sleep-fogged mind threw up a series of questions. Who the hell was working the sheep? What was making them run in a circle? Had he been woken by a voiced command? Why was someone working the sheep at night anyway?

Fred lay, spread low in the tent, attempting to moon a silhouette, looking for something familiar, a dog, a horse, a man, a vehicle.

He saw a dark, indistinguishable outline move quickly around the sheep in a slightly wider arc. It was moving fast as it disappeared into the darkness created by the bunched mob only to reappear briefly before merging into the mob once more. It was circling with the mob. Fred blinked to clear the sleep from his eyes and strained to capture a glimpse of the careering animal. Was it a sheep running wide of the mob? Was there a post or rock to force it to leave the mob? It came into sight again, closer to the mob this time, moving low to the ground. There were no more questions – it was a dog.

Image: Charlie Mackinnon.

Fred cocked the rifle and lifted it tightly into his shoulder as the dog moved between the tent and the mob. He cursed to himself as his eyes adjusted to the gloom and he saw the shadowy form move across the flock and once again disappear behind the circling sheep.

The dog was working the mob on its own which explained why there hadn’t been any howling. What he heard a few days ago was the dog looking for its mates. It was probably the bitch that managed to escape with the pup when the other dogs were shot and she’s looking for food for the pup. It must be around somewhere too.

Fred saw the dog arc around the mob again, closer this time, biting at the neck of a sheep, trying to break one out of the pressing mob, force it away from the sharpened hooves of the flock. They might be easy prey, but a mass of trampling, frenzied feet can cause a lot of damage and she wouldn’t risk getting hurt with a pup at heel. Next time it came around Fred would be ready.

He sighted the rifle alongside the circling mob, waiting for the dog to come around again. He knew that as long as the mob stayed tight the dog would continue circling. He waited, pressuring the trigger, imagining the dog’s arc, lining up for the expected quarry.

Suddenly his sights were filled. The form came headlong towards Fred and he squeezed the trigger. He saw the target stumble, crash full length to the ground and lie still. He re-loaded and stared into the distance at another form racing across the plain. Fred jumped to his feet and fired but the dog kept running, weaving, ducking, dodging for the protection of the scrub with a smaller dog close behind.

Fred leaned his rifle against the tent pole, picked up a knife from the nearby table and walked over to collect the scalp from the form lying prostrate on the ground.

“Damn. The mongrel cut one out,” he said as he surveyed the woolly form at his feet. “I’ll be eatin’ mutton for a month.”