Valley of the Dogs
Rick Bass

All of my dogs have been wonderful accidents that have happened to me and now I am drowning in them and it is still wonderful. I go to sleep amid the sounds of dogs stirring, settling in for the night downstairs, and wake up in the early mornings to their whimpers and yawns and stretches. The first two dogs I ever owned as an adult—or was owned by—are still with me: Homer and Ann, eleven year old black-and-tan Mississippi hounds of some unpatented beagle, Walker, and black-and-tan-mix. I found them dumped roadside when they were tiny pups. Their sweet and loyal nature was only heightened by the fact that I plucked them, mangy and worm-ridden in their infancy, from certain death. I only meant to take them to the animal shelter.

I’ve written about it elsewhere—how I first came into possession of—or rather, became possessed by—dogs: and of the sudden escalation of good luck and magic, once I became possessed by their good hearts.

I was driving down that backroad in Mississippi at dusk and saw the two live ones, abandoned, sitting next to a dead car-struck third one. Who could not stop to help out?

But then, having given them a little milk, and assigned them names, who could turn them away? I held them tiny in my hands. I followed them as if through a door. Jim Harrison has written in his journal, “Remembered that Wang Wei said a thousand years ago, ‘Who knows what causes the opening and closing of a door?’”

In short order—within hours, days, weeks—I fell in love with my girlfriend, Elizabeth, who later became my wife, and then the mother of our daughters. I quit my office job and became a writer. I fell into a deeper kind of happiness, and deeper into mystery, as if a bolt of lightning had cracked down from a rainless blue sky and knocked open the door to some other place. I published my first short story. Elizabeth and I moved to Montana. My heart grew different. Nothing was ever the same.

Can I articulate how, by stopping for four, five minutes and picking up those sweet, funny, vulnerable little hounds, the train-tracks of my old life presumed to blast straight on forward elsewhere, passing me by, while for me it was as if I had stepped aside a bit into a slightly different world, and stood now at peace at the edge of shadows and sun-dapple while that other roaring train receded?

A swirl of dogs, a nest of dogs. Less and less I find myself adept at ferreting out what people mean when they say or do something. More and more I find myself settling into a love for and understanding of the integrity of dogs. I guess I’m addicted to them. And addicted too, I am, to their magic: and I find myself reaching for more.

So enraptured am I with my new young bird dog, Colter, and his amazing talents, that I asked Tom and Nancy to breed his mother, Pagan, one last time, to the same male, his father—Kootenai Clay. I’m a glutton—clearly an addict. All spartan, aesthetic traces of the artist have long been lost. My heart has become inflamed, watching Colter. I know most people spread the ages of their hunting dogs out at about five year intervals, but I can’t wait, don’t want to wait—and don’t want to risk losing out on Pagan, who is seven dog years old now, pushing eight. It’s her last launch at immortality.

So now I am driving fifteen miles up the valley almost every day, to go look at her new litter: trying to decide on the one. There are four males and four females, and Tom and Nancy have graciously allowed me the pick of the litter. I know that as inexperienced as I am I should choose a female, playing the odds that she might be more biddable, less hard-headed—but I am so in love with Colter’s masculinity—his eagerness to cover immense ground, his manic, dopey, goofiness—his bodybuilder’s physique, and his unique developing mixture of recklessness and caution—that I’m afraid I’d be let down by the difference in style a female might offer. I want a Colter clone, or as close to it as I can get—for better or for worse, as they say.

My four-year-old daughter, Mary Katherine, rides over there with me daily to check them out. Jarrett has said that in choosing a pup, it’s good to notice which one pays close attention to your voice. Tom and Nancy are hunters and trappers, and spend huge amounts of time fleshing hides. I always feel guilty, taking up so much of their time, but they always welcome me in to study the pups. There are lion and bear and deer and elk hides all over their cabin by the rushing river, buffalo skulls and stuffed turkeys and geese and grouse—furs and antlers everywhere, and a fire heating water for coffee on the wood stove and gold sunlight pouring in through the loft window, illuminating the tiny bear-cub pups—six chocolates, two tickeds (one male, one female), and it is an addictive, beautiful setting.

As Mary Katherine crawls in and rolls around squealing with the pups (Pagan’s seen it all before, and Tom and Nancy believe in maximal socialization), it occurs to me that I’m deeply happy, and don’t want to choose: I just want to keep immersing myself in beauty, coming over here every day.

Tom is bemused but patient with my growing quandary: the more time I spend around the pups, the more I realize each one’s qualities. “Look at Colter,” he and Nancy remind me. “The runt of the litter, and look how he turned out.” I’m tempted to just shut my eyes and point into the mass of writhing brown. It should be easy. Four males to choose from, right? Three browns, one ticked. Since I want a Colter clone, that means the brown one: one of three. Easy, right? But the way they wriggle and lick and chew on you—each one reacting differently to each other pup, too. How can you choose?

Tom laughs, goes back to work. I think he’s glad it’s not his decision. “You can’t tell anything about them at this age, anyway,” he says. “It’s what you put into them that counts.”

Nancy has one in each hand: they’re giving her kisses. “Isn’t it amazing how their breath smells like coffee grounds?” she says. Mary Katherine decides she wants “that little spotted female”—a beautiful, elegant, trim little ticked female. Over and over she insists she’s in love with that one—and knowing of the prescience of children, I start to waver, and driving home, it feels like I am unraveling, as I begin to reconsider: a little female would be nice, wouldn’t it? I’m moving further from my goal.

I want to know: does anyone else dream as frequently as I do of being afield with their dog, and finding birds—swinging on the birds then, in the dream, and firing, and always (this is the great thing about dreams), always connecting?

I’ll bet I have that dream—always a different covert—usually grouse, but sometimes pheasant or quail—fifteen, twenty times a year. My freezer should be as full as my dreams.

Tom came up here twenty years ago, after he retired from the rodeo—he was a bronc rider—and decided to live off the land. He had an old ticked shorthair named Nuthin’ who was, to hear Tom talk about him—and I’ve never heard Tom exaggerate about anything else— about the best dog there ever was. The first couple of years I was in the valley, in the autumn I’d often see Tom walking down a dirt road late in the afternoon, dressed in his buckskins, carrying a big old goshawk on one arm, with Nuthin’ working the cover ahead of them. Dogs and cats live an extraordinarily long time in this valley—no one knows why—and Nuthin’ was seventeen before things started to go poorly for him—his eyes and hearing fading, his hips—everything of consequence.

Tom went down to the vet for pain pills but had told us that when he ran out of them that was going to be Nuthin’s last day, and I remember the incredible sad uneasiness of those last several days, as I moved through the valley on hikes—I wasn’t a bird hunter yet—trying to remember which day it was: if Tom had four pills left, or three, or if it was down to two, or if today was the last day. Trying to stay away from that end of the valley, to avoid hearing the shot.

Over at Tom and Nancy’s again. By now Pagan thinks Mary Katherine’s her ninth pup, so much time has she spent crawling around them. There is one sweet brown boy I call Superman for the big white-ticked vee on his chest, like a cape, who just melts in my arms: rolls over on his back and stretches his neck out to be scratched; but there is also the ticked male, tiny, whom Tom and Nancy call “Point,” because already he is pointing, with an incredibly focused and neat, dainty style—precise, sneaking steps—the grouse wing tied to the end of a bamboo pole. This dog is—for the moment—clearly establishing itself as the birdiest pup, but when I scoop him up to love on him, he tenses, then wriggles to get free—wanting nothing but to hunt.

Do I go with the lover, or the machine?

Point has his tail docked extra long, to leave a little tip of white on it at the end; he’ll be more visible in the valley’s dark covers. It’ll be a little longer than most shorthairs’ stubs. I am attracted to this notion of otherness, roughness, unorthodoxy. This valley’s not like any other place in the world, dark and mysterious and ragged, and I like the idea of a near-mythic dog, seemingly half one-thing but half-another, like a centaur. Like devil’s-horns on a prince. I like it.

Tom and Nancy have moved the pups outdoors, to be near them while they work on the hides. The pups nap during the heat of the day in an old tent strung over a rope tied between two trees: a pup tent. They wrestle and fight for possession of their sole toy, a coyote tail. Tom and Nancy look up from their work often, keeping a close eye on them to be sure they don’t wander off into the forest and get snagged by a hawk or coyote. They’re not much larger than the grouse we’ll be putting them on, five or six months from now. Their little piles of poop look remarkably like those of their quarry.

I’m not sure where, or when, or how the thought first occurs to me—permeating my skin, perhaps, from the outside—the cooling nights, the brightening stars, as summer attenuates and begins, possibly, to dream of autumn. Or maybe the idea, the notion, occurs to me from within: percolating within my blood, like some gaseous script of fate—no more discernible than words written with one’s fingertip in the air, or on a fogged-over glass pane—but the words still as true, within.

Or it could be the dogs, and the valley, forming the decision, so that I have little if any say in the matter. Why not two? Why not both?

I have to go with my heart: the solid brown lovable Colter-clone, Superman.

And yet, I have to go with my daughter’s choice, and what is clearly the pick of the litter.

All my life I have had this problem of loving too much, of wanting too much—a desire, a passion, for the things I enjoy that is so intense as to approach gluttony. It bothers me, and I have been trying for a long time to cut back on both the volume and magnitude of my desires. Sometimes it makes me feel a little ashamed that neither my heart nor my appetite, even now, near forty, knows restraint. Perhaps it is this way for Colter when he runs too far or too hard—when he allows himself to be drawn too enthusiastically, even recklessly, toward the scent-cone of the huddled birds and runs over the top of them, busting them wild and without point.

Even on the days when I am able to relax and hold back a bit on my desires, or my joy, there is always the awareness that it is a conscious, rather than “natural,” position on my part: so that in some ways I am more unnerved by the falsity of that position than I am by the problem I perceived to have in the first place of wanting to go after the world hog-wild; and of almost never, ever being satisfied. I know it’s a sin, that gluttony—a handicap, like some injury to the soul. I just don’t know what to do about it.<?P> 

Two dogs, then. Or rather, two more, for a total of five. What’s the difference, really between four and five? Colter was down in Texas that summer, training at my friend Jarrett’s. Homer and Ann, my sweet hounds, were getting old. There seemed to be a nice symmetry to things—the two old female hounds (who had never been any trouble, and who had in fact helped balance and take care of one another; friends, twin sisters)—countered eleven years later by two young male pointers, Point and Superman—with the great Colter anchoring the five dogs, in between the two sets of twins. Yes, my blood, or the valley, or both, whispered.

I held the idea of it secret for another week, not daring to utter it yet to Elizabeth: until one day she herself uttered it. There was no way to choose between the two. And it was Pagan’s last litter.

“A fine idea,” I said. “Yes. A good idea. All right. Okay. Good idea.”

In the old life—the one before this valley—I had learned well the propaganda, that events are random and unconnected. And I have spent the last thirteen years up here unlearning that faulty lesson.

What this valley has been teaching me is not so much cause-and-effect—that not everything we do is of importance or significance; we are not at the center of the universe, we are not the focus of all else, nor a fulcrum. But what this valley—still possessing a natural integrity—has been teaching, or re-teaching, is that everything is still, or should be, connected.

The result is that when one thing happens up here, and then another, you tend to look for links between the two. And often you find them, up here, even if you do not understand them.

It was late July when I made the decision. I went over to Tom and Nancy’s near dusk on the forty-second day to get both pups and bring them home. Nancy cried as I was leaving: glad the boys would be staying in the valley, but broken-hearted at the rift. No one can raise puppies like Nancy. For forty-two days she had had puppies in her arms, puppies in her hands, puppies all over her, for all hours of the day and night.

Forty-two days and nights of playing with them, petting them, loving them: turning them into something sweeter than a dog should be. Imparting a sweetness to them with her incessant handling and petting of them as a potter might work a piece of clay. Her love, from the moment they came into the light, at least as fierce as any dictates of blood-lineage. She was that way with Colter and his littermates, three years earlier, and it was one of the reasons I wanted a Colter-clone. My last chance, it seemed, at such an animal, such a time.

Take those first two ingredients—Pagan’s and Clay’s bloodlines, and Nancy’s improbable, ceaseless love—and factor in the magic of this dark wet valley—and throw in the fact also that these pups will have the amazing Colter as their mentor . . . well, how could you not pick two?

They whined and cried all the way home. So tiny: holding one in each hand, when I got home, as I had once carried Homer and Ann. I wondered if my life would lurch into some next-gear of more uncountable blessings, as it had done when I had stopped and picked up that first batch of little double-hounds. I didn’t see how it possibly could, and not even a glutton could dare hope for such. In fact, had I considered it, I would have probably been terrified at the thought of more blessings. Everything I needed, I had. I just loved dogs, was all. It was so strange, arriving home, to get out, holding each round-bellied pup literally in a hand, and to imagine the unimaginable: all of the future hunts that would spring from out of these whiny little wrigglers—a magnificent, talented, magical future held literally in one’s hand. I couldn’t help it. I wanted it all. I don’t know how to turn back from joy.

It got hot, in the next few days; August came like a wall of fire. Dogs, so susceptible to heat, began to crack under the pressure, falling ill to various maladies. Previously unrevealed stresses that might never have been seen or noticed if the temperatures had stayed in the nineties, now popped out, as new heat records were set—records, anyway, for the brief period of time for which such things have been measured.

There were some days when the temperature crossed over the hundred-degree mark and kept going. The vet’s office was full day and night with both dogs and cats. And out, in the woods, the lions and wolves and bears and coyotes were stirring—coming into the yards to pound on the domestic animals. Human tempers rose, as well. The moon waxed.

Tim and Joanne’s sweet Maddie blinked out. She fell ill—throwing up, then retching—and within twenty-four hours had to be put to sleep. Doug, the vet, did exploratory surgery on her near the end, and found that her intestines had somehow decomposed; though she was only seven, and in her awesome prime, there was just nothing left. Three weeks before hunting season began again and she was gone, as invisible now as scent. It seemed incomprehensible—such reversal.

Tim had to keep up his job of guiding on the river, through it all; he had clients lined up. It was just awful. He and Joanne had bought a new pup, Jessie—also a Golden Retriever, a little female—earlier in the summer, in the hopes that Maddie would help train the pup. It was just awful. You could feel it hanging over the valley—could feel the pall of it like smoke, a density and stillness in the hot air, the sluggish nights—sorrow, and an interruption of grace.

I think we tend to see the world too smoothly everywhere. We imagine form and rhythm and order all around us, with ourselves at the center. We forget that the teeth of the saw are ragged. We try to imagine our lives as art—are gratified when they appear to be, then puzzled when seamlessness fails.

That’s one of the great things about the hunting season. You submerge beneath the seams and rough edges. Down below—in the place where you go, with your dog—everything weaves back together in braids. Everything.

Maddie came up three weeks shy. She went to a place where Tim could not follow her, could not even see her. Grace will always return, but never as with your first dog.

A week later, I lost Ann—my first dog. She was eleven, and starting to slow down. It had gotten even hotter. Friends were visiting with their children and we were about to go down to bathe in the cool river below the falls, in the shallows.

There were dogs everywhere. The pups had commandeered the prime spot under the porch, by virtue of their incessant badgering and ear-biting and tail-nipping—ceaseless playing. Homer had retreated to the back porch where, the instant that door was opened, she scooted inside to spend the rest of the afternoon sleeping on the cool tiles of the utility room.

Ann would never relinquish daylight. She was out at dawn, and then back at dusk: never traveling far, only patrolling the perimeter of the yard, and the trails through those woods within sight of the house were trampled clean in a spidery, wandering skein that spoke of her passage: a trail as well-worn as if carved by man and his machines, rather than the soft padded feet and wandering curiosity of a hound. She had never slept beneath a truck or car before. But she had never been eleven in August before, had never seen it hit 103 degrees in Montana before—had never been plagued by twin devil-pups before.

It must have been cool, in the gravel beneath the shade of the truck.

Elizabeth had bought big new snow tires that week, to beat the autumn rush.

Our guests’ van was parked next to our truck. I was in their van, to show them the way to the river. Our guests were leaving later in the afternoon. We were in a hurry.

Both cars started up at once. Our friends waved to Elizabeth to back out first—to lead the way. She backed up in a hurry. I heard an awful yelping. I thought it was one of the pups. I leapt out of the van and saw Ann thrashing and flapping the gravel. Elizabeth had backed over her and dragged her a ways. Ann kept falling, when she tried to stand. I’d never heard her give acknowledgment to pain—not in eleven years. I hurried over to her. She was laboring to stand. She had finally somehow managed to do it. She fell again. I picked her up and she bit me hard—clamped down and wouldn’t, couldn’t, let go—I felt her teeth pass through the palm of my hand and through my thumbnail, felt her upper and lower teeth find purchase as she bit all the way through the meat of my hand with a single crush from this little beagle-sized hound—and I was crying, and just held her, didn’t say anything as the blood began to trickle down from her mouth, running from my hand. I tried to absorb, through my hand, some of her pain. Her eyes were squeezed shut. With my free hand I petted her, and with her eyes still shut and teeth still latched through my hand, she wagged her tail.<?P> 

I gathered her and placed her on the front seat of the truck. I told everyone goodbye and raced for the vet. It was a Saturday. I drove fast, petted her, with her head on my lap all the way. Her breathing was slow and shallow and she kept her eyes steady and unblinking on nothing, as if trying to argue away the pain. She had always been such a strong little dog—glorying in her strength. She was the one who, despite her small stature—about forty muscular pounds—pulled us on skis, and who fought with the coyotes when they came in the yard. The little bear, the little bull, we called her. Long, long eyelashes, like a queen. A little smile.

Elizabeth had called ahead, so that Doug was waiting for me. Doug checked Ann’s pulse, temperature, and eyes before running an x-ray. She had a broken hip bone, but that seemed to be all. It was all I could do to keep from crying with the weakness of relief—the miracle of it. We turned her over to check the other side and I noticed something strange about Ann’s rib cage—as if two or three ribs were missing. 

“Yes,” said Doug, “something’s different there.”

He ran a scan of some kind; I don’t even remember what it was. I don’t even remember what it showed; only that she was messed up inside. Doug said my best bet was to drive her five hours to Pullman, Washington, where they could operate on her on Monday. He said he could try the operation but that they had better equipment and her chances were better there.

I was just wearing shorts, a T-shirt, sandals. I had no money. I might have to stay a couple of weeks with her. Doug loaned me two hundred dollars and I drove west. Doug had poured some water for her, which she sipped, and wagged her tail again; she seemed, for a moment, like her old self.

It was like I was a young man again, and like she was a puppy again: all the miles we’d traveled, all around the country. Swimming in lakes in Mississippi, in the glinting sun—treeing squirrels in Central Park—chasing armadillos in Texas, and finally, her life as a mountain dog in Montana—she had led me to all these places—and she died shortly after we crossed over the Idaho line; she grew restless, uneasy, tried to shift around, then looked up at me one last time with troubled eyes, almost guilty, then dipped her head, and was still.

I grieved for a long time—the rest of the summer. I dug a deep hole for her in the yard, within sight of the front door, so she could continue to keep watch over us as she always had, and so she would not feel turned out or away, even in death.

Poor Homer! Her twin, her other; in her solitude, does she possess more magic, or less? I’ve heard it said that in such instances you’re supposed to show the other dog, the body of the dead dog, so that the living dog can begin, and travel through and along, the grieving process—but in no way did I have the strength, courage, stamina, to do that to my old dog. I hated my weakness, my softness, but I couldn’t. The next day Homer went to the spot where Ann had been crushed and sniffed at that spot, then lay down there and waited for a little while. And in subsequent days, she stood on the porch looking and waiting, and became depressed, and would watch me expectantly, as if depending on me to find Ann, and return her.

I buried her like a pagan. I put deer bones in with her, for her journey; a blanket, for warmth; flowers, cedar fronds, stones from places we’d been, grouse feathers, a tidbit of raw venison hamburger, and a swatch of my own hair. A headstone, a footstone. I planted an aspen tree above the headstone, to give her shade, and to someday provide leaf-music in the breeze.

It took a long time before I was worth a damn again. How to measure the eleven years of magic she brought to us? How, now, to say thank you? Too late, as usual, for these sorts of things.