Hoot's Happy Ending
We began our usual circuit - down the back steps, between the posts of the half-finished fence, stop for pee break (her, not me), then around the corner of the porch to the front yard. In the evenings, I usually get the mail before circling around to the other side of the house, where Millie often poops near the holly tree.
Last night when I approached the mailbox from our sidewalk, I saw a dog across the street. I reined Millie in and fell silent, hoping not to encourage it to cross the road, fearing it might start a confrontation with my pooch or get hit by a car on his way across.
The dog came on over anyway. He gave Millie a cursory sniff and headed right for me, where he moved in quick for the kill - a doggy grin and a handshake to introduce himself. He was mellow and friendly, just the sort of dog I love to meet.
I'd never seen this dog before, but my first thought was that it might belong to my part-time neighbor Denise. He was an Australian Shepherd, and I thought I'd heard her say she had one. Maybe he had escaped out the door or wandered off earlier in the day.
So I cinched up on Millie's leash, and away we went through the dark past the tennis court and beyond.
I admit I was a little nervous, out there in the cold, in the dark. But Eutaw is a tiny town, and there wasn't a soul to be seen on foot or in vehicle. And I had two dogs for protection.
But as I got to Denise's house, I saw she wasn't there. And then it dawned on me that Denise's dog was a girl, and this one kept hiking its leg to pee on tufts of grass and clumps of leaves - a very boy behavior.
By now the dog was wandering off through the neighbors' yards, so I headed home, hoping he would do the same. But when we paused at the corner, he caught up with us again and sidled up to me. In the pool of light from the streetlamp, I pushed back the thick fur on his neck to look for a name or contact information.
On a bright orange collar written in black were the word "Hoot" and a phone number.
"Go home, Hoot," I tried, but he followed us back across the street into our yard.
Millie and I finished the circuit, and as I headed for the back steps, Hoot came, too.
"No, no," I said at the door. "Go on home."
I admit my tone of voice wasn't very authoritative. Understandably, Hoot didn't listen.
But I figured he would leave once we were inside. I've had dogs try to squeeze into my house before; I even had a pair of Labrador Retrievers climb into my car with me at a yard sale. But if they have a home to go to, they eventually just go.
Not Hoot, though. He stared at me through the glass of the back door, his eyebrows knitted together and ears pricked. Puh-puh-puh-please, his brown eyes said.
Millie joined in with a whine. "Let him in, Ma! It's cold out there!"
The thermostat read 38 degrees.
But I turned away. "If we leave the hallway, if he can't see us," I told Millie, "he'll go on home."
And when I peeked my head back into the hallway a few minutes later, he was gone. I relaxed a little, though my tense stomach told me all was not well.
Then Hoot came back. This happened several more times, and I started worrying about him in earnest. This was not normal behavior for a dog who so obviously had a family.
Finally, I decided to call the number on his collar, though it was 10 p.m. and I was afraid of disturbing someone's sleep. All I got was voicemail, so I left a message.
But I wasn't satisfied. So I called an expert - my sister. Resisting a possibly lost, lonely dog is even harder for her than it is for me.
She agreed with me that he sounded lost, especially when I told her his fur was caked with mud. He was obviously a house dog, since he seemed so convinced he needed to come in my house.
But I was afraid to bring him inside in case he really did belong to someone and might wander home at any moment.
Finally, I spread a towel out in the sheltered corner of the stoop and brought him a bowl of water and a jerkey strip. The next time I came to check, he was curled up on the towel.
Now I was convinced he was lost, so I called the number again and left a second message updating the owner on the situation. I told him he could call any time, but I didn't hear from him all night.
I went to bed with a heart full of worry for poor, sweet Hoot.
So when the phone rang at 5:33, he was my first thought. I sat bolt upright, instantly wide awake.
It was his shocked and happy owner, who said Hoot had disappeared Sunday afternoon. The puppy he was with had returned, and when Hoot was missing two nights in a row, they'd feared the worst.
I told him Hoot was on the back porch and I would bring him inside to make sure he stayed put until they could come get him.
Before we hung up the phone, I had to ask, "Where are you?"
"Boligee," he said.
"I'm in Eutaw!" I answered.
And we both marveled over how - and why - Hoot made it 11 miles from his house to mine.
After we hung up, I brought in Hootie, fed him some of Millie's food and shut him inside the bathroom for the cats' protection, just in case, though he'd shown no signs of hostility at all.
When a family friend came to pick him up an hour later, I was a little disappointed. I was hoping to witness the joyful reunion of dog and family, the doggy kisses and those brown eyes winking with satisfaction.
Still, I am filled up with joy for this small, miraculous thing. What if Hoot and I hadn't met on the sidewalk last night? What if we'd missed each other by moments, and he was gone, left to wander another 11 miles, or worse?
I couldn't be happier if I'd invented a teleporter. How precious to almost lose something and then get it back.
*In memory of Sophie and Toby, who were lost and never found.*