Friday, April 17, 2009

An Unexpected Outcome

A cool, gentle breeze had moved through the windows and screen door of the cabin since Bonnie and I had dozed off a couple of hours earlier. I rolled onto my side in my bunk, enjoying the comfort of the unzipped bedroll and the soft movement of cool air around me. Bonnie shut the front door with some force. The noise hung on the fringe of my awareness. "Bill, wake up!" she insisted in a voice just above a whisper. She repeated the phrase a couple more times as I reluctantly opened my eyes and attempted to focus in the darkness.

"There's a large dog just outside the screen door, and it's wearing a collar!" she asserted. Coming fully awake, I swung my legs over the side of the bunk. My pistol was in my hand as I reviewed the implications of what my wife had just told me. Dogs meant people, and we were very far from any known neighbors. The family ranch in McMullen County, Texas, was remote by any standards. I whispered her into silence, assuring her that I was awake. We were five locked gates and miles from the nearest highway. The Rio Grande and city of Laredo were less than 100 miles away. Drug traffic, smuggling guns and money, murders between rival gang factions and illegal immigrants flowed across the border near this area in record numbers. People should not be on this ranch or around this bunkhouse this time of night nor during the day. I told Bonnie her pistol was on the shelf nearby, and we sat quietly as we strained to hear any noise or catch a glimmer of light in the silence and absolute darkness that surrounded us. There was nothing. I moved quietly to sit at an angle rather than in direct line with the open window.

The silence stretched on. One hour. Two. The dog did not growl or bark. We could hear his pads and claws slide over the concrete surface outside. Occasionally he would shake all over, and the noise of his ears snapping against his head was audible. These were the only breaks in the gentle sound of wind drifting through the mesquite branches in the moonless night. Our vigil was approaching three hours. The prolonged silence reassured us. We knew we were relatively safe in the cabin. The darkness we shared inside was even deeper than the inky blackness outside the cabin. It would be impossible for a person to move about outside without some kind of light or stumbling over one of the many obstacles scattered around the yard. We were reasonably sure we were alone, except for the dog. Our eyelids grew heavy. We slept.

When Bonnie next woke it was still dark outside. She needed to step out of the cabin. I approached and slid the bolt out of its setting on the door, and extending the revolver slightly ahead of me, I followed it outside. There was no sound or motion. Bonnie eased out behind me, the beam of her light cutting a sharp swath into the darkness as she moved it left to right. It settled on our chairs which sat before a dimly glowing mound of embers emitting the faintest of glows from beneath a fleecy layer of ash that now layered them. "There he is," she whispered.

The head of the dog rested on the arm of my chair, where he had taken refuge for the night. There was a look of infinite weariness in his eyes. He made no move toward us. He made no sound. I approached him slowly with the barrel of the pistol extended toward his head in the event he showed any signs of aggression. I spoke to him quietly as Bonnie rounded the side of the house. I allowed him to smell my hand before laying it gently on his head. His head remained on the chair arm as I gently scratched his ears. His tail began to thump against the chair back.

Bonnie moved back around to the front of the cabin and noticed me stroking the dog. As she entered the bunkhouse she thought that he appeared to be a Boxer, but I noted two things immediately. One was that he was a Pit Bull, which can be a ferocious breed, and second, that he was fully encased in heavy canvas body armour. I mentioned neither of these things until Bonnie had gone back inside, and when I told her I thought he was a Pit Bull, her eyebrows arched up in surprise as she watched us through the screen door.

I slowly unbuckled the six-inch wide collar that protected his neck. Then came the line of buckles running down the length of his spine that held his chest and abdominal armour in place. As the kevlar reinforced shield fell away, he released a huge breath of relief. He scratched at places he had been unable to reach for days and rolled freely in the dirt.

After gathering an armload of firewood, I fed it to the smouldering bed of coals in the fire pit. The rich aroma of mesquite smoke lifted into the stillness that preceded the dawn. I drained water into the coffee pot, noting the layers of soot feathered across the lower third of it. Fresh coffee went into the bail and I rested the pot over the blue flame of the stove top, waiting for it to come to a boil. I then retrieved scraps of steak left over from our supper the night before and set them before our new friend. My hand searched out a cigar from the inside pocket of my brush jacket. It bloomed to life as I leaned over, placing its tip into the blue flame beneath the coffee pot, and drawing the sweet taste of it into my mouth. Slowly easing into the rocking chair in front of the dancing flames of the campfire, I studied our visitor.

He quickly finished his meager meal, looked up at me, walked over to the chair and placed his head on my knee. There was pure gratitude in those beautiful amber eyes. His tail began to wag slowly. He won my heart as I stroked his head and scratched his ears. Soon the coffee began to gurgle in the pot and Bonnie joined us with her own cup of coffee. She, too, was entranced by this amazing dog. Searching through the chuck boxes, she found several cans of stew and prepared a makeshift breakfast for him. What a magnificent animal.

We inspected his heavy, discarded collar and discovered a name and phone number from the town of George West, some 45 miles away from the ranch. Bonnie studied the dog closely, noting how emaciated he was. It was obvious that he was a hunting animal from his protective gear. Wild hogs would have difficulty penetrating it to do him serious injury. Hogs roam the brush country in large groups or packs, seriously damaging the few dry land crops put in and preying on newborn calves and wildlife. With maturity, hogs produce enormous tusks and represent what can be a vicious, destructive force. Hunting them and thinning their numbers is an ongoing effort on the part of area ranchers.

Bonnie prepared a wonderful breakfast of tortillas and huevos rancheros as I began to pack away supplies and load the truck for our journey home. We would pass through George West on the way, so I called the number off the collar and left a message to the woman's voice on the recording. The dog stayed with Bonnie step for step. He would occasionally lie down and follow our motions with those bright, intelligent eyes while we moved around the camp. Bonnie expressed concern that he be returned only to decent, caring hands. He had won her heart as well as mine. We called him Mac, as the ranch was situated in McMullen County. It seemed to fit him.

With the truck finally loaded and the camp squared away for the next visitors, we prepared to head out. I dropped the tailgate to let Mac jump into the bed of the truck, but he was too weak so I lifted him in. He curled up and seemed happy to be moving. We made it through the five locked gates and worked our way back to the pavement on Highway 16. The trip to George West went fairly quickly as we journeyed to the east, then north for the final run into town.

About three miles south of our destination we saw two women stranded on the shoulder of the road in an old pickup. They were waving frantically at us in hopes we would stop. I looked over at Bonnie as I hit the brakes. She knew there was no way I could leave them stranded. As I came to a stop across the highway from them, one of the women crossed the road to explain she was trying to get her passenger to a doctor and they had blown a tire and had no spare. Would we send help from town?

She wrote down her cell phone number and I assured her help would arrive shortly. We continued into town, judging that the truck stop at the main intersection as we entered George West would be the surest place to secure help. I pulled up to a bay where two mechanics were working on a vehicle, quickly explained the situation to them and asked for their assistance. They were willing to help but wanted assurance they would be paid, which I guaranteed for them. I inquired if they knew the man's name we had found on the dog's collar, but they had never heard of him.

Waving to Bonnie, I entered the adjacent cafe to secure a phonebook and hopefully find the address of Mac's owner. The name was not in the book. One of the mechanics had followed me in and approached a nearby table where two men and a young woman were eating. He asked the men if they knew the man I sought. One of the men's eyebrows rose in surprise as he looked over his fork in my direction. "My son's best friend," he said. "Why are you looking for Evan?" he asked. I explained the dog to him, and he shook his head in amazement.

It turned out that our new friend, Rusty Williams, owned the truck stop and cafe. He was also the county tax assessor and apparently knew everyone in a 50-mile radius of George West. Bonnie and I liked the man instantly and formed a friendship through our conversation. Rusty called his son and explained our need to speak to Evan, who called in within a few minutes.

Evan told me that he had been hunting on a ranch near ours over two weeks ago and lost the dog when he chased a hog through a game-proof fence. Evan had returned to the site each day after work to search for his dog, but after a week of fruitless effort, he gave him up as lost or dead. We left the dog with Rusty who assured us that he would soon be back where he belonged. He also assured us that the women we had stopped to help south of town would be fine, able to pay or not.

Evan called me back at home the next day. His thanks were profuse. He explained that the dog was an American Bulldog, not a Pit, which was a much more gentle breed. His four-year-old daughter had been overwhelmed with his return. So had the dog. Evan seemed to be a truly fine young man.

After our conversation, I fished the cell phone number of the two ladies with the flat tire from my pocket and was reassured to hear they had completed their journey and were safely back home in Bruni. They were surprised to hear from us, but very pleased for the chance to thank us again.

Bonnie and I shared a cup of coffee over the kitchen table at home and reflected on a very special trip. We had greatly enjoyed the ranch, saved a very special dog and ensured two stranded women could complete their trip safely. Unexpected outcomes. Had we not made the trip--which had been quite spur-of-the-moment and spontaneous on our part--things could have turned out very differently with a tragic outcome certain for our friend "Mac."

Do bad things happen to good people? Absolutely. However, when we give of our time and extend an effort, the result can be a happy ending.