By Patrick O'Grady
 Dog Mountain, CO

I was working on my wife's car, restoring a bike rack stripped by thieves, when Fuérte disappeared. She ambled up our rocky driveway the way she always had, off to do whatever it is that dogs do when people aren't watching.

This time, though, she never came back.

We live in the Wet Mountains of south-central Colorado; a jagged country, prickly with piñon and cactus, scarred by ravines and gorges, abraded with a scattering of boulders. Shannon and I searched it for days, with little hope and less luck. Fuérte could have been anywhere, but was nowhere. I now know this unforgiving terrain much better than I care to after a week of hiking up and down deer trails, trying to read purpose into fading tracks left in melting snow, the only note Fuérte left for us.

She was simply gone.

While her disappearance was tragedy, her appearance was pure comedy. It was 1982, and I was working at a miserable little newspaper in Corvallis, Oregon, when my upstairs neighbor dropped by to tell me that my elderly mutt Jonathan -- Jojo, to his friends -- was going to be a daddy.

Not possible, I replied. I'd finally agreed to have the old guy altered during a recent surgery to excise some bladder stones that were interfering with one of his few remaining pleasures: peeing on things. Jojo was getting up there, 11 years old with a heart murmur, and the vet said the additional procedure might forestall a few problems down the line.

It might have at that, if he'd actually performed it -- but the neutering apparently slipped his mind, as I learned during a quick phone call to his office.

I was annoyed and embarrassed, but my neighbor wasn't a bit upset. She'd wanted her dog to have a litter, and here one was. Still, I felt a share of responsibility, and though I didn't need another dog -- and as a single man, working tall hours at a small paper, certainly wasn't equipped to handle one -- I promised to take one of the pups.

All puppies are adorable, but these chow-spitz-whatever hybrids seemed especially so, at least to me. My neighbor insisted that they remain together as a "pack," for socialization purposes, until they were nearly three months old. Meanwhile, I visited them, played with them, and tried to decide which one I wanted.

One of the males was a real chip off the old block, a near carbon copy of his pappy. But I'd had more than a decade of Jojo's watering my sofa, books, records and the occasional Christmas tree (and its presents). He was a fighter and a roamer, a three-time loser at pounds in more than one state, and while I loved him for those qualities as much as for his softer side -- when I would come home after a too-long day at work, he would take my wrist gently in his jaws and walk me around in circles to tell me he was overjoyed to see me at long last -- I thought a female might present fewer problems.

But which one? We would take parents and pups for romps in a nearby park, and it seemed that each was more lovable than the next as they tumbled over one another in play fights, declaring war on pine cones, sticks and each other. Pick a pup, any pup. I couldn't decide.

So Fuérte decided for me. One day, while I was sitting on the floor in my neighbor's apartment, once again fruitlessly sifting the squirming inventory, she looked up at me, climbed into my lap and began furiously licking my face; then she curled up and nodded off.

I had me another dog.

It seemed to be my destiny to collect dogs in unusual fashion. I had been given Jojo in my sophomore year at Adams State College in Alamosa after his owner, an acquaintance, returned home from class to find burglars had stripped him of everything he owned, leaving only the clothes on his back, the motorcycle he was riding, and the dog -- who'd been off goofing with his cuates while the crooks cleaned out the house.

But Jojo was an adult when I got him, and none too happy about the new living arrangements at first. It took both of us a while to grow first accustomed to, then fond of each other, and finally inseparable. Fuérte came to me as a pup, and the choice seemed more hers than mine, though I quickly grew to love her even more than I had her father.

Still, like most new relationships, ours had some rough sailing early on. "The first night you take her home," my neighbor advised, "let her sleep in the bed with you. She's been sleeping with her brothers and sisters, and she needs to know that you are her new 'pack.'"

I did as instructed, and woke the next morning to see an anxious pair of eyes just inches from mine, a furry fanny quivering on the pillow. I jerked away just in time to avoid a good soaking, but the pillow was a goner.

Given our soggy start, maybe I should have called her Squirt. But dad was a veterano of the canine gang wars around Alamosa, a real bato loco. And daughter proved to be a hearty, vocal branch of his Southwestern family tree, so I called her Fuérte, which means both "strong" and "loud" in Spanish. Even as a pup, Fuérte would try her best to jerk my arm out of its socket when I walked her on the leash. And while Jonathan still used a wristlock for "hello" after lengthy absences, Fuérte would bounce briefly on stiffened legs, with muzzle cocked away and eyes angled back toward me, voicing a reproachful greeting that sounded half howl, half growl: "HarRARRRGGhhhhhhlll!"

It was always worth the leaving to hear that gurgling welcome upon my return, even if it was to find that she had eaten two-thirds of the baseboards in my kitchen, as was once the case. I offered Milk-Bones as an alternative, and Fuérte found them a most acceptable substitute, demanding them upon arising, before and after trips outside, and as both appetizer and dessert come dinnertime.

Like her father and me, Fuérte proved early on to be a rover, a family trait that neither spankings nor spaying would alter. Leave the door open a crack while collecting the newspaper or checking the mailbox, and she'd be down the road and gaining speed, a streak of red blazing over the horizon. I would collect her, chastise her and cherish her, knowing that, like me, she just had to know what the hell was going on out there.

When Jojo's heart failed him for the final time, shortly after I moved back to Colorado, Fuérte took over the family business with a will, hurdling the fence while I was at work only to wind up occasionally -- like her old man before her -- in the Pueblo County pound. Having done my own stint in the Denver jail for drunk and disorderly back in '77, I tried not to judge, and Fuérte returned the favor. She didn't care whether I was a drunken coke fiend, a jobless wanderer or a monomaniacal athlete, all of which I have been during our 14 years together. With an equanimity found in no human companion before or since, Fuérte loved me without reservation, whether I came home smelling like whiskey or Gatorade, with paycheck or without. That I came home was enough for her.

Home was endlessly redefined as we rambled in my decaying Japanese pickup truck from newspaper to newspaper throughout the West -- Corvallis, Oregon; Pueblo, Denver and Colorado Springs, Colorado; Española and Santa Fé, New Mexico. Fuérte often accompanied me to work, and if she occasionally scribbled her byline across some publisher's carpet, well ... there was an extra Milk-Bone in it for her.

Finally, after one too many publishers pointed a flabby finger at the writing on the wall, we jumped that fence for good, moving first to Colorado Springs, to help care for my dying mother while trying to make a go of free-lancing, then here, to a 43-acre retreat in the Wet Mountains that a share in Mom's estate transformed from fantasy to reality. Shannon and I had old friends here, in the hills just east of Westcliffe, and Fuérte enjoyed our visits to their ranch as much as we did, seizing the opportunity to chase squirrels and gobble burro manure. That last proved a whole lot easier to catch than squirrels, especially for a middle-aged dog who wasn't as quick on the accelerator as she had been a few years earlier. When we finally were able to move here ourselves, Fuérte remained appreciative of the opportunities, but was less able to take advantage of them.

For to everything there is a season, and though it was long deferred, winter finally came to Fuérte. She grew less inclined to play, and more to sleep; her hearing grew faint and her vision dim. The legs she once locked for her bouncy greetings stiffened for real, and for good. When we took a ride together, I had to lift her into the cab of the truck, and she often had trouble keeping her seat.

At home, she occasionally would stand, swaying slightly with her tail down, and stare into the distance, as if she were listening to a voice only she could hear. On Feb. 10, 1997, she finally answered its call. The voice that spoke so clearly to Fuérte will not tell me where she has gone, though I have pleaded with it, cursed it, and finally ceased to listen for it, knowing at last that I am deaf.

It is snowing as I write this, and whatever tracks Fuérte left behind are slowly fading. But the tracks she left in my life are not so ephemeral. Nothing will erase them; not even my own death, when it comes, as it must, to all of us. I hope I can greet it with the same courage.

I think Fuérte embarked upon her final journey so that we whom she loved could remember her as she was, not as she would become. And I'm trying. But God damn it, it's hard; so hard.

She was stronger than I am. She was Fuérte.

© 1999 Patrick O'Grady/Mad Dog Media.