Hard-won trust proves elusive

July 31, 2011 

My brother's house is the last stop for a good stretch of road, with plenty of room to make a swooping 180 for the quick and quiet getaway. And so his yard has been the dump for several abandoned dogs the past few years.

First a shy brown one appeared; maybe a collie and pit bull mix. Then an ancient, half-blind white shepherd and a watchful black puppy, probably a Lab, showed up. A poodle also got put out; a pregnant one my brother thought he'd found a home for. He delivered it one Sunday afternoon and it nearly beat him home. It had to go to the pound.

The brown mix, the white shepherd - he limped around in cold weather so my brother called him Chester after the stiff-legged deputy on "Gunsmoke" - and the black dog were all such trusting and hopeful survivors that they were allowed to stay. A broadly grinning beagle from a few houses away also came around most every day to join the party.

I liked visiting this pack, especially if I had some meat trimmings for them, when their jumping and flipping was like watching a clown dog show at a circus. Chester, who always kept his distance, particularly came to life when grub was produced, talking to me and snapping scraps out of the air like an old alligator. And the black one in time learned to leave me a finger or two.

One afternoon a few months ago, I pulled into the yard and cut the truck off. Nothing came to meet me. The yard was still. A funeral was going on at the church across the road - the funeral of an infant it turned out - and from over there a man in a gray suit saw me and hustled over.

"Do you own a white dog?" he asked.

"Well, one hangs around here."

He told me that when he had arrived for the service a white dog was lying dead nearly at the church door. He had wrapped it in a sheet and dragged it to the edge of the woods. I thanked him and he went back across the road.

While I waited for the funeral to conclude, I looked around the silent yard. Just past the big apple tree there was something in the grass. I went to it.

Stretched out lifeless was the beagle.

When the last of the cars had pulled out from the church I went to look at the white dog. It was Chester, not a mark on him.

Later I found the black dog in the woods, his muzzle resting on the ground between his paws.

And the carnage got worse. A woman down the road found one of her dogs dead under her house. A family across the way lost their golden Lab. Their neighbor lost three puppies.

One of the animals was taken to N.C. State for a necropsy. It had been poisoned. A highly toxic insecticide mixed with fresh meat.

The brown dog is the only one left. He survived only because he's a persnickety eater. And probably because the others gobbled up all the poisoned meat before he could get any.

For a time his personality changed. He started giving me room the way Chester did. But now he's looking for friends again. We had a little birthday supper for my dad in June and the air conditioning got too cold for him so he went outside to sit in the evening sun. The dog came over and set his paw on my dad's knee.

He stands alone in the yard now when I leave, watching me go. Sometimes a current of wind will blow over him and he'll lift his nose to it, searching the air I imagine for his buddies. And finding no trace of them he'll drop his head and trot away to his hiding place.

Waiting for his enemy to return.


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