A New Years Tale for Dog Lovers
from John & Sue Cox

I first saw the old dog last spring while cycling the two-mile route, from my home to the trail head where I go mountain bike riding. The foothills where I cycle are a series of hard climbs and fast descents and I had just made the top of one hill and was poised for the fast 40 mph downhill when I saw his black and tan form. He was standing in an area that had been cleared by tractors during the annual brush removal mandated by Los Angeles City Fire Department.

Like many of the mixed breeds I've owned over the years and have seen during my work at shelters his breeding was indiscriminate. From the shape of his head and the feathering on his body, I surmised he might have had a Gordon Setter somewhere in his ancestry. From his body language I could tell he was a stray.

I must admit I was tempted to ride on. The long stretch of road was beckoning and a friend was waiting, but my heart has always been drawn to those in need, 2 and 4 legged, so I parked my bike and approached him slowly. He was an old dog, with a well worn collar around his neck. Once someone's pet, he had wandered away from his home or had been dumped when no longer wanted. As I approached, his tail wagged in a tentative manner and then as quick as he could he retreated to the bushes.

I didn't need a written history on this dog to understand his sad tale. His eyes said it all. His days on the street had not been kind to him. He might have once had kind words and pats from human folk but I could easily imagine the only human words he had heard recently were, "Hey, get out of here, beat it," and the only touch he'd had from humans was the sting of a hard thrown rock to chase him away.

Neither I, nor the other human folk who took up his cause ever got too close to him. He made his home under a Sumac tree by digging out a hollow and we made sure he had lots of water and food and even managed to sneak wormers and flea repellent into his food. We decided not to involve the City Animal Regulation due to the overcrowded conditions in LA shelters. He would have been killed immediately as an old and feral dog but even more likely been spooked by the officers and run deeper into the wilds of the Los Angeles National Forest that borders our community. He would never have survived. So we advertised and hoped and took turns buying food, watched out for him and tried to earn his trust as the cool days of spring gave way to the heat of a Southern California summer.

He became a familiar sight on that hillside. In the early morning hours and during the cool of the evening he would leave his shelter and stand with almost perfect stillness in the clearing and look out over the valley. He appeared to be looking for something or waiting and his lonely vigil touched my heart. And then one day as the lady who fed him approached, he didn't retreat quite so far away and she saw the glint of a name tag on his collar. This is for you Rusty....

The old dog didn't know what had woken him. As consciousness intruded into his sleep fogged brain he tried to hang on to the dream. His tail still beat a tune of joy as the memories of happier times faded slowly from his mind. For a little while, he had once again heard the childish giggles and felt the loving touch of his human family but the sounds and touch receded swiftly as cold reality sunk in.

He was curled up in the hollow of a Sumac tree, the hard bed of dirt which served as his resting place just starting to warm in the morning sun. He rose slowly, stretching the stiffness from his body and made his way to the entrance of the den. His months in the wild had taught him caution however, and before he went to the waiting place he warily surveyed his surroundings.

And then he saw them.... people standing by the road. He recognized the girl with the bike and the lady who fed him daily but the other humans were strangers. The familiar feeling of fear came over him and he turned with a rush towards the safety of the bushes but just as he reached the edge of the clearing he heard it,... one simple word carried softly on the morning breeze, "Rusty," and his heart began to sing.

I was standing with the others by the side of the road as the dog we now knew as Rusty abruptly stopped his flight. He turned slowly until he was facing us once again and his tail started to wag. I don't know who moved first but all of a sudden he and his owners were running and they all met in a rush at the very same spot where he had waited for them all summer.

Amid tears and laughter and happy wagging body we watched as the happy group made their way to the car. Rusty was no longer the lonely figure we had come to know and as they opened the car door for him, he paused and for the first time our fingers found their way to that special spot below the ears where all dogs loved to be scratched and for a brief moment he rested his head in our hands and then he jumped in the car and was gone. My last glimpse of him was of his black and tan body curled up in the back seat between the two kids, their arms clasped tightly around him as if to never let him go again.

It's been several months now since Rusty went home but I will never forget him. I heard from my friend that he is doing well and suffered no ill effects from his ordeal. I still look for him on that hillside where he kept his vigil last summer. A dog of indiscriminate breeding who somehow personified the spirit of hope and trust as he waited for his people to come for him.

So in honor of Rusty, my wish for you all in this new millennium, is that you hold fast to your dreams and never give up hope. I know now, that while sometimes hope can seem illusive, it can be rekindled by nothing more than the sound of much loved voice carried on the morning breeze.