SPYING FROM HAMMOCK as Radish dragged home the spine of a winter-killed whitetail he'd scavenged in the forest, I realized that I had developed a bad case of professional jealousy. The truth is, my 13-year-old red heeler was far better at what he did than I am at what I do. While I was missing the boat, buying high and selling low, choking on the anxieties that settle in with the night, yet feeling nothing in the morning except that cool remove, Radish joyously organized his days so that they passed before him like gleaming cans of Alpo on an endless conveyor belt. Because he was a monument to the simple life naturally lived, I decided to study him one summer day, to read him as if he were one of those get-ahead books, Ten Habits of the Super Successful, say, or Twelve Steps to the New You.
The next morning I wandered from the bedroom to find him sprawled on the living room couch with Clara, our little four-year-old Border collie. On the other couch were three of their pals from the neighborhood, an expensive corgi of the Cardigan variety named Mister Rogers, an Australian shepherd named Cricket, and a sweet-tempered pit bull named Big Head Todd. These high breeds sometimes spent the night whenever Radish allowed them through the dog door. They had about them the contemplative emotional weather of people who had just settled onto their beach blankets with a best-seller and a cold one. My wife, Kitty, ushered out the neighbors so the home dogs could eat their breakfasts. And then our day began.
Radish trotted down the hill behind the house to the slough for a drink and the first of his many swims. Next stop was the corrals, where Kitty was feeding the horses. Radish made a beeline for Mokie, a mare Kitty's family has owned for all of the horse's 35 years. His obsession with this geriatric wonder was based on the fact that because her teeth have been ground to stubs much of the meal she chews dribbles from her mouth and falls to the ground. After grazing on horse feed, Radish sampled next a nice fresh horse turd, a delicacy no dog can seem to resist, rendering the phrase "shit-eating dog" redundant. He was so fond of a little taste every day that in the winter he smuggled in frozen hunks of it, dropping them on the hearth to thaw.
When he was finished at the corrals I followed as he headed across our front field, under the wood-rail fence, and out into the pastures of the ranch next door. When we first moved to this floodplain in western Montana, Radish counted on the fact that the rancher fed his cattle every morning with milled oats. Because stealing oats came under the heading of what Radish did for a living, he made these feedlots a mandatory stop on his daily roam until the rancher went to an all-hay diet. But it wasn't the memory of porridge that drove Radish on, it was grooming. Or maybe "image enhancement" would better describe the streak of green cow shit that he smeared across his cape as he rolled on his back in the muck, his legs waving languidly in the sweet mountain air. He jumped to his feet with a satisfied grunt and turned to admire the glorious mess he'd made of himself.
I walked him back down to the slough and heaved a stick into the water. He went after it like a shot, throwing himself off the bank and hitting so hard his belly flop spooked a pair of pheasants, which exploded from the brush with a stream of cuss words and a flurry of wings. When Clara heard the ruckus she streaked from the house and flung herself into the water as well, in order to wrestle Radish for the stick. They swam around each other in circles, growling, a dog fixed to each end of the stick, until Radish let her have what she wanted. It was his nature to live and let live. He'd been in only two fights—a blue heeler named Bingo tore his right ear, and a neighbor's calico named Wilma jumped on his back and rode him like a bronco.
We got Radish from a cattle rancher named Jerry Hamel, whose spread is on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Six years earlier we'd bought a mare from Hamel, and we trusted his estimation of animals. But when we drove up to look at the pup he was so fat and his legs so short I decided this blob couldn't possibly be a heeler—that speedy and quick-witted working breed that everyone in the West who traffics in quarter horses simply must own to complete his self-conscious ensemble.
But Jerry assured me that this bag of butter was indeed a heeler; he was fat because he and his brother, Mouse, were the only pups in the litter. When we drove back to the rez a few weeks later, Radish and Shine, his momma, were playing in an irrigation ditch. Before he could waddle off I snatched him up. While I sat with him in the truck and Kitty chatted with Hamel I noticed that this new addition to our menagerie had no tail.
"Jerry!" I called, not knowing then that working dogs are often docked so there's nothing to get in the way of the work.
"Where's his tail?"
"Ho, you know Indians," Hamel said. "We ate it."