THE NOWHERE DOG
He came out of nowhere and we probably loved him more than we would have loved our firstborn if we’d had children, which we didn’t. That was just as well. There was little room in our lives for kids. Only dogs.
He came out of nowhere in northern Montana—a beautiful black and white border collie who could have leaped off the screen of some bucolic Scottish film set in the Hebrides. He came out of nowhere to nowhere, because we were living in the middle of nowhere at the time—my new young wife Gena and I. Recently married and simply, completely, and unguardedly in love—the way you can love only once—we wanted simple lives close to nature.
So we took jobs teaching on a remote Indian reservation in northern Montana, thirty-five miles south of Havre, in the Bear Paw Mountains. We lived in a hired hand’s shack on a small working ranch run by an accommodating but taciturn Montanan who ran scrub cattle, worked for Burlington Northern, danced Friday nights at the VFW, and puttered around the range on his ATV. His wife sold Mary Kay.
We dubbed the dog Old Shep because he looked so much like a typical “Old Shep” that we couldn’t resist. We didn’t think he’d stay, anyway. Surely the beautiful creature we first saw lapping water from the rusty hydrant in our front yard when we were painting, trying to make the mice-infested shack livable, belonged somewhere. When I’d lured him close with some buttered bread, which he ate hungrily albeit apprehensively, and we’d become friendly, we dutifully loaded him into my truck and made the rounds of all the farms and ranches in the area.
Nobody knew him. Nobody knew of any rancher missing a dog, “But you might try Curtis Farley two miles south on Beaver Creek Road. His bitch might’ve had another litter last spring....”
Nope. Improbably, miraculously, this beautiful creature we’d saddled with a clichéd name was ours. Old Shep he was. Old Shep he’d stay, though when he first came he was maybe two years old, if that.
Like we newlyweds at the time, Old Shep was full of clean-burning energy and bursting with adventure. His happiness at having found a home shone in his sparkling eyes and in that big, pink tongue drooping sloppily over his blissfully smiling jaws so full of perfect, bone-white teeth. His silky coat quickly gained a similar shine from all the home-cooked chicken we fed him, and I think that crooked white stripe down his nose fairly glowed.
Our lives became his very quickly—his, ours—but there was always an untethered, independent quality about Shep. He didn’t want to come into the house at first but he rarely left our unfenced patch of yard except at night, which was when he scrounged the countryside for fobs and trinkets.
Shep was a packer, a hoarder. Mornings I’d go outside to start the truck for our twenty-mile trek to work and find another cow bone in the yard. Or a sun-bleached horse skull with dried hide still capping the ears. Tree branches, fence posts—some well over six feet long! Deer antlers or the jaw of some long-dead coyote. The wing of a coyote-killed hawk, maybe a rabbit’s leg. A dead snake or a pancake-flat porcupine obviously killed on the road.
Bones, bones, and more bones. Every bone a cow, horse, or deer ever had on his person ended up in our yard.
In the spring during calving, I’d wander outside yawning, a steaming mug of coffee in hand, and be met with the foulest of odors only to find that our beloved Shep, our sainted firstborn, had bestowed upon us a long, bloody wreath of rotting afterbirth.
Though Shep was young, he was half-wild when we first met him. He must have been living on his own since well before he was full-grown. He had the ways of the country down pat. Gena and I, from Georgia and North Dakota, respectively, joked that we couldn’t have had a better guide to rugged Montana living than our wily “old” border collie, and that was sometimes literally true.
When we returned home from work on the reservation each afternoon, Shep was invariably waiting for us on the shack’s front step, facing our direction and thumping his white-tipped black tail in delighted anticipation of our arrival and of our nightly stroll to Beaver Creek.
Rattlesnakes slithered in a low area along that route to the creek, near a slough sheathed in tall grass. We learned quickly that to avoid the serpents we needed only to follow Shep. He seemed to know where each diamondback lay hidden in the grass, soaking up the day’s last rays. We’d follow his serpentine path around them, occasionally hearing them rattle ominously only a dozen or so feet away, raising the hair on the backs of our necks.
Sometimes Shep would dance amongst them craftily, defiantly avoiding them, so that we laughingly called him our own private Baryshnikov, after the Russian ballet dancer.
He had a lot of the ham in him, Old Shep.
The photo that accompanies this essay was taken at the grave of another, previous Old Shep of legend in Montana. This Old Shep lived in Fort Benton and was memorialized and honored by the locals for visiting the train every day after his railroader master died. This loyal Old Shep was apparently hoping to be reunited with his beloved pard when the next locomotive pulled up to the depot’s rough wooden platform.
He visited the next train, and, alas, the next...year after year for many years until that sad Old Shep’s ticket was finally punched.
Of course, when we heard the story, as everyone does eventually in that neck of the Montana buttes, Gena and I had to take our own Old Shep on a pilgrimage to Fort Benton. The photo was not posed. The three of us were merely strolling casually around that previous Old Shep’s lone grave on a bald, windy, yucca-tufted bluff overlooking the Missouri River, when I happened to turn around, camera in hand, and there he was, our own Old Shep posing handsomely before “his” name.
I doubt that any Barrymore was every more ready for his closeup.
Shep was a bit of a gymnast, too.
I’m not sure when or how we ever started doing this, but often when I was sitting on the floor at night, reading, watching television, or grading papers, he’d swagger up to me with his head down. He resembled a drunk looking for a corner to pass out in. I’d cradle his head in my crotch, wrap my arms under his belly, and fall backwards so that he’d turn a forward somersault and end up stretched out on his back over my chest and stomach, his tail in my mouth.
From wild old salt of the high and rocky to the most trusting, loving, and playful dog I’ve ever known...
He loved the winter, Old Shep did. Just as I did but as Gena, a Southerner by birth and most of her life till she met me, did not. So it was just Shep and me many a winter weekend afternoon, heading into the snowy Bear Paws in my pickup, Shep barking gleefully in the capped box and leaping from side to side to bark at open range cattle and deer and sundry unseen enticements so that the truck would be rocking on its springs like a shallow boat in raucous waters.
We’d pull off somewhere—Miner’s Gulch was my favorite trail with the trail to Mount Otis coming in a close second—and I’d strap on my cross-country skis. Off we’d go through that wonderfully vast, remote, and quiet country. Shep, of course, would take the lead, tail arched and waving, his ears raised as far as he could get them, sniffing and snorting through naked chokecherry bramble, leaping on mice he heard scratching beneath the snow, and occasionally lunging off to chase a rabbit.
Those were some of the happiest times of my life—hiking in the cold, snowy mountains with Old Shep. He was a great companion because he didn’t talk or require anything of me except my peripheral presence, so I could daydream and think about future writing projects, which was always my habit and still is.
He’d leave my side for long stretches, but I never worried about him out there. To me, he seemed as much a product of that rugged country as any of the old mountain men, though there were times, however, when he made the foolish mistake of trying to stick his snout up some porcupine’s ass.
I learned to carry pliers in my pocket or behind my belt...
I can still see the downy flakes falling on those gray afternoons amidst the lodgepole pines. I can hear the almost inaudible ticking of the falling snow, the snicks of my skis, my own labored breaths as I climbed a ridge, the chickadees peeping in the branches around me, the gurgling of a half-frozen creek.
Suddenly Old Shep would come galloping up behind me like a runaway horse—I can hear the thump-butta-thumps of his paws in the snow. I’d turn and see him grinning (don’t tell me dogs don’t grin, because Old Shep grinned!) as he came leaping up to my side in greeting and then pressed against my leg to be patted, as though we’d been apart for days or weeks instead of only fifteen or twenty minutes.
Once, Shep stood on the beach of the Pacific Ocean, tail half-raised in awe and staring off as though to see that vast water’s other shore. He was sneaked into more hotels before the advent of security cameras than most doctors’ breeded setters. Like some trendy starlet’s furry love-muffin, he was leash-walked around China town in San Francisco, and he spent a week in a posh condo in Santa Fe. He accompanied Gena and me on a trip through California wine country and had his picture taken at the grave of Jack London.
He was smart in so many ways, but he could be a genuine fool at times, as he was when he jumped out of the back of my truck to get at some cattle grazing along the road. He broke his back leg in two places and for six weeks had to hobble around on a steel rod. He also liked to show his domination over other dogs—dogs twice as big as he—and thus ended up on his back more times than Kim Kardashian.
He could be a gentleman around the ladies, though, and on cold winter nights often gave up his bed on our porch to a chubby female Aussie roaming from a neighboring ranch.
We found Old Shep a permanent mate after we moved to a small farm in western Minnesota. She was a funny-looking border collie/golden retriever cross, the last of a litter, and, after drinking a few beers in the country bar in which we saw her advertised, Gena and I traveled many miles through rough country to get her. Maybe it was the beer sloshing around in us, but we fell instantly in love with the spirited puppy we soon dubbed Miss Stella.
Stella and Old Shep hit it off very well—too well, in fact, because one morning while I was writing and should have been keeping the two separated, because Miss Stella was in season and Shep was mewling and panting like a lovelorn schoolboy, they somehow ended up outside together. Realizing, I tossed my laptop aside and ran out of the house and into the yard...too late.
Stella was only about ten months old, and we felt a bit trashy, but she was with puppies, all right.
The litter came in the spring—six squirming little rat-like pups I helped deliver out on the porch while Stella kept Shep away with fleeting, feral glances and brief shows of her teeth. Shep got the message. He’d done his part. He swaggered sheepishly off to sack out beneath my truck.
We kept two of the pups—Buck and Thor. Buck looked so much like Shep we often called him Junior. While he tried like hell to win his father’s favor—squirming and whining in the old man’s presence, licking his lips—it wasn’t to be. Shep was a wonderful dog in many ways, but in no way had he been cutout to be a father. He had little time for his offspring, so it was up to Miss Stella and us to do the raising.
The following years were wonderfully full of dogs, but of course we had our ups and downs. There were more broken bones and sundry other complaints including a rattlesnake bite. Thor lost a back leg to a hunter’s snare.
We had all four for a time but then our beloved Old Shep was stricken with a tumor in his jaw. We had it surgically removed but it grew back, so we knew it was cancer. The old boy didn’t have much time. I still feel wretched when I remember the vet handing his blanket-wrapped body to me after we’d had him “put down,” as they say in the hinterland. And then my laying our prized dog from nowhere gently in the grave I dug for him in our Minnesota yard before shoveling dirt on him.
I will remember on my own deathbed the horrifyingly dead weight of that beloved dog in my arms, his head and legs sagging with a lack of life that seemed impossible for a body that had for so long been fairly bursting with it.
Years have passed. I now live alone in Colorado, for not unlike the life of a good dog, or much of anything else, some marriages run their course. Buck died several years ago from the same cancer that took Shep. Thor lived sixteen years and died a mere two weeks after his mother. I had both put quietly to sleep in my house here in the mountains. I still have their ashes, which I foolishly cling to though I know they are only ashes and in no way contain so much as a spark of that fire which once made Gena and me so happy.
I shouldn’t say I live alone. Last Thanksgiving I rescued a beautiful, old, brown-and-white Australian shepherd named Sydney. I never thought I could ever love another dog as much as I loved Old Shep, Miss Stella, Buck, and Thor. But I was wrong. Thank God this old, jaded heart is large enough for at least one more dog from nowhere.
Still, though, I often wake in the bowels of the night, trembling, having dreamt that we’d left a living Shep back in Minnesota and that he was, after all these years, waiting for us on the front step. For hours afterwards, that nightmare lingers, and I can hear my own nightmare voice screaming his name.