by Priscilla Ireys of Paw Paw, WV
photos by Joe Razes
I drove down the steep driveway. It wasn’t very long, but it was narrow and bumpy. It ended about twenty feet from a tiny, rickety pen that held a wiry-looking buck and a big puppy.
The pup stood his ground and barked in a low tone as my truck came into his territory. He showed no fear, just a steadfast resolve to do what he had been bred to do.
That was my first look at Hercules, a three-month old Maremma male pup. The thick snow-white fur that covered his body stood straight up on the top of his handsome square head and down his back. His black nose was like a piece of coal in the middle of a winter field. He had almond-shaped hazel eyes. He was only a pup, but his instincts were clear to me. He would do what needed to be done to protect whatever was in his care, even if his side still hurt from the beating the buck gave him after the farmer put him in the pen.
Once I was out of my truck, I looked at the young man who owned the place. “Why is he in a pen with a buck?”
The man shrugged. “Because he chased the kids and the does.” The doe herd and kids were in another pen that was slightly better than the miniscule one the pup and the buck were in.
The young couple that owned him had no idea what they were doing. They were barely out of their teens with two children under three. The wife was pregnant again with their third child.
A menagerie of animals ran everywhere, with the little boys chasing them, waving sticks over their heads. The mother looked on with no emotion, just a lot of fatigue. I figured they had maybe eight acres. The trailer they lived in was small for a family with one child, but coming on three was a stretch for my imagination.
He told me he was going to be a farmer and live off the land. “Bad coyote problem around here,” he said. He was told he needed a guardian dog to protect his goats. “I bought this pup from an older couple up the road. They said the dogs were guardian dogs, called Maremma. Come from Italy.” He was proud of his knowledge.
I asked what he wanted for the pup. “He ain’t done nothing, and I paid a hundred dollars for him!” He stared me in the face, ready for an argument. “That’s what I’m asking for him.”
“I’ll take him,” I said. “Would you open the gate?”
“Oh, lady, he’ll run off. It happened the other day. I had a terrible time getting him back.”
“Open the gate,” I repeated. “I’ll take responsibility.” I sat down on the ground, crossed my legs, and hoped for what I figured would be a miracle.
“What are you doing?” the young man asked.
“I want to see if he will come to me,” I answered.
The young man shook his head and slowly opened the gate.
The pup cautiously came out of the pen. He stood still and looked around. After studying the area, he walked up to me, curled himself up, and lay down in my lap. His big body trembled. I wrapped my arms around his back. He continued to shake but didn’t move from my lap.
Despite his weight, I rose to my feet, keeping the huge dog in my arms. I put him on the backseat of the truck. He lay across the seat as if he’d done it a hundred times. I wrote the young man a check and took Hercules home.
He worked out well in my family, which included a big Lab-Shepherd-mix dog and two teenaged boys. For the next eight and a half years he had my back. He was my four-legged knight in white fur.
We bought goats not long after we started living on the farm full time. Hercules was not interested in the goats at first. He still slept in the front yard with Sammy, our Lab/Shepherd mix, and watched the driveway for our boys to visit from college. He loved to tag along with Sammy when I rode a horse in the mountains. He and Sammy also hunted groundhogs, but he never missed coming with me on all the chores.
Hercules took to howling at night while walking the perimeter of the field where the goats stayed. When we lived in Baltimore, he had done the same thing to keep the coyotes away from that neighborhood. Most of the neighbors were thankful. It seemed like Hercules was working on that same goal here in the country. With Hercules on the prowl, we didn’t have a coyote problem that winter — and neither did our neighbors. We didn’t lose a goat, and my neighbor never lost a calf. We also never got another complaint about nocturnal barking.
Early spring brought our first kidding season on the farm. As soon as the first kid hit the ground, Hercules knew what to do. One of his most important jobs was serving as bookkeeper of the new kids born every year. He thoroughly examined each one, from sticking his nose up their butts to licking their heads — despite the side battering and bites he received from the does. Smelling the babies gave him information that went into the database in his brain. He was the guardian of that kid for as long as he or she were on the farm.
By the second birth, most of the does just let Hercules go through his ritual. First sniff, then lick. Their kids seemed none the worse for it. The routine went on until all newborns were inventoried.
Hercules never left the does and kids after the first kidding season, rotating with them. He would go from one group to another, checking on his goats throughout the day and night.
The herd of does quickly learned babysitting was one of the perks of having Hercules around. He always picked nice, dry places for naps. The kids and he all slept wrapped around each other in the shade. He never moved a muscle until all the kids had stood up, stretched, and run to play or find mom for a snack.
Hercules found a spot in the pasture above the house where he could see the barns, the fields, and the house with just a turn of his big head. He slept there for years, staying on watch.
When the boys came home from college, they would try to coax him down from the hill and into the house. Before we had the goats, he loved to come inside. “Mom, he’ll freeze in that snow! Why won’t he come in?” they’d complain. Once again, I defended Hercules and my choice of farm management.
My older son would yell, “One morning we’re going to find him frozen! Have you thought of that, Mom?”
“He knows what he’s doing!” I’d yell back.
The next morning, they would always see him in the pasture weaving among the herd like a huge white ghost. Not one goat paid him any mind as he silently passed through the snow-covered pastures on his early morning rounds.
Late summer, I moved the livestock to the back pond pasture where the pine thicket added a cool break from the heat. I was filling mineral buckets for the goats when Hercules stood up, placed his nose in the air, and walked slowly, silently, to the end of the pasture. The hair on his back stuck straight up.
He scrutinized the woods near the creek — never making a sound, just staring through the fence.
After a few minutes, a strong, low howl came from deep in the woods, followed by a long silence.
Hercules never moved but continued to look in the direction of the howl.
After another minute or so, there came another howl. This time, Hercules answered with his own call. He continued to sit and stare in the same direction.
The silence was unnerving.
By this time, the goats and I knew something was up. Everyone stopped and looked in the direction of Hercules.
Adrenalin rushed through my body. We were in danger. I had never heard coyotes that close, and I was glad I had the truck nearby. But what about the does and the kids? There was only one Hercules, and I didn’t know how many coyotes were roaming the mountain.
They clamored down the trails, their noisy yipping spooky as they romped down the mountain with their pups.
Hercules went into a defensive trot around his herd and the perimeter of the field. Now and then he would let out his own howl, followed by barks, and wait for a reply. Was he trying to judge the location of the pack? Or was he sending a message to the leader of the pack? Either way, things were tense.
Another long, mournful howl came from the mountain. Hercules stood deathly still. Pointing his head directly at the sky, he let out a long, strong howl that ended in a menacing low growl. His eyes narrowed and his head dropped square with his shoulders. His body language changed to a defensive, balanced stance. The sounds coming out of him were not recognizable, but primal and serious. He was a large, fierce animal that would fight to the death, if necessary.
There was silence.
After a few moments, the pack moved off. High-pitched whines and barks carried up from the mountain. We stayed quiet until their sounds faded into the hills.
A bargain of some sort had been reached between Hercules and the pack leader, because we didn’t hear the big male again until winter set in. They made sure we knew they were in the mountains, but they stayed out of reach, and that was fine.
After that, I decided Hercules needed help with a herd the size of ours. The farm backed up to a mountain range that was still wild and used only for hunting. We needed another dog.
Our next Maremma was Bella, a fuzzy white pup that was born in a barn full of sheep. I brought her home at eight weeks old.
Hercules sniffed her all over and decided this was not help, but another baby to look after. He looked at me quizzically.
“It will work out,” I assured him. “She’ll grow up and help you.” And, eventually, she did.
Bella had been with sheep from birth, so that helped with her training. She took to sleeping with the herd quickly and wasn’t interested in life outside of the herd. But puppies are puppies, and they need toys. The wagging tails of the goats looked a lot like a toy to a big Maremma puppy. Unfortunately, some goats had sore tails during Bella’s baby years, and Hercules had his hands full teaching Bella.
By the time she was a little over a year old, Bella and Hercules had become quite the dynamic duo. Bella was no longer a cute little pup that curled up with her goats — she was an important part of the team.
Most guardian dogs pick favorite kids now and then. Hercules had a kid he fell in love with. It was a little doeling born to a wonderful and patient Spanish doe named Betty. We named the doeling Pearl because of her markings and coloring. She was feminine with long strong legs and had a rare striping on her face.
Hercules was completely devoted to Pearl, who followed him as much as she did her mother. She was a healthy young kid that seemed to enjoy life. If she hadn’t slept safely curled up in his warm fur that night, they found each other first thing come morning.
At three months, kids should graze with the herd. But Pearl backed away from the chaos. We fed her and Betty separately, but she still didn’t seem interested in the hay, grain, or the pasture. We couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t thriving. We wormed her and gave her vitamins. I even called the vet.
Pearl would rally, but then she’d get weak again and not eat except for nursing from her mom. Most does don’t let their kids nurse after a certain amount of time, but Betty let Pearl nurse whenever she needed. After a while, Pearl was too weak to follow the herd in the pastures and wouldn’t leave the barn. Her mom and Hercules stayed with her, taking turns going out, Betty to graze and Hercules to help Bella keep track of the herd.
After a few days of this, Betty left Pearl in the barn. She knew Pearl was dying. But Hercules stayed. When he left the barn to check on how Bella and the herd were doing, he always rushed back to Pearl as soon as he could. It got so we took Hercules’ food to the barn where Pearl lay. He doted on her night and day.
My husband and I decided to let nature take its course. We would no longer doctor Pearl. She couldn’t live long. I think even Hercules knew. Nevertheless, he would not leave her and became aggressive even to the barn cats as they strolled by. The last day of her life, he stayed with her every minute.
I had to get on with chores, but tried to stay within earshot of the goat barn. Around four o’clock in the afternoon, a mournful howl came from the barn, followed by whining and frenzied barking. I knew Pearl was dead. I also knew Hercules would be hard pressed to give up Pearl’s body or let anyone near her for a while. He needed to deal with his sorrow. I left things alone. He didn’t leave Pearl’s body for two days, and barely ate. He nudged her body gently, laid his head on her and whined.
Finally, he left the barn, and I was able to take Pearl’s body. I called the vet, who had always been puzzled by Pearl’s illness. He ran different tests. We found out that Pearl had a birth defect in her colon, which was twisted, and as she grew and needed to eat solid foods, it became a real problem. The food couldn’t get by the blockage and pass through her digestive system. That’s why she could drink water and mother’s milk, but that was about it.
Hercules went back to his job, but he never took up with another kid like he did Pearl. He also slept alone in the pasture overlooking the house and barn.
One day I noticed a knot on the side of Hercules’s leg. Nothing else. He seemed normal, and we went about our lives. When his yearly shots came due, I pointed out the knot to the vet. He suggested we do a biopsy; it came back cancer. There was nothing we could do.
Hercules went about his duties as usual, and so did I. I could see him getting tired and sleeping more in the field. The other dogs picked up duties they could do for him, and we all put up with his bad humor.
I knew the morning would come when I would see the weakness and fatigue in Hercules’ eyes, and that dreaded morning came. He didn’t want to eat and was mad at the world. He stayed with the herd trying to do his job with as much energy as he could muster. He still climbed the hill where he had slept for years, but every night the climb grew harder. As much as I hated it, I knew it was time. I called the vet.
One of the magical things that happened that terrible day was that both boys were home. My fantasy was that Hercules called them to come home. Dad and I would need them, and Hercules wanted to see his boys one more time.
When the vet got to the farm, we all marched to the goat barn Hercules struggled to get to every day. Our ancient Lab-Shepherd mix Sammy came to the barn with us.
Hercules had made it up the hill and lay down in the small lot in front of the goat barn. Bella lay beside him, licking his face. I looked out into the big pasture beside the barn. The herd of goats and the other dogs lay silently in the grass. They had come to pay their respects.
Hercules never moved as I sat beside him, stroking his big noble face. He looked at me with tired sad eyes and told me goodbye. The vet gave him the injection. He let out a big sigh and was gone.
None of the animals moved. There wasn’t a sound. The king was gone, and everyone knew it. I could only lay my head on his majestic body and weep. Who was going to have my back now? I had started all this with him. How did I keep my dream alive without him? He was a loss I never planned.
After a while, the herd and the dogs quietly moved into the pasture. Only Bella and I remained beside Hercules. What was my next step? How did I fill his paws? Had I learned enough to go on without him? I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I had so little time left to gaze at him, and then he would be gone for good.
My husband drove the tractor over, and the boys helped put Hercules in the bucket. I wrapped him in my favorite velvet quilt and buried him on the hill where he had slept and watched over all of us for so long.
Bella lay on his grave that night. When her howl went out in the dark, I knew she was saying goodbye to her love.
Bella was in the field with her herd the next morning. She moved silently through the goats like we had seen Hercules do for years. Bella was dog boss now. At times, I was sure she wondered what Hercules would do about an issue she faced.
Farming is mainly chores, chores, and hope — but then there are moments of memorable magic like a four-legged knight in white fur.