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My daughter chose him. Of all the puppies at the shelter, he seemed the sweetest and kindest — big floppy ears, gangly legs, and big paws, covered in beautiful brindle fur. His shelter name was Garth, perhaps because he’d come from the South and someone who worked at the Humane Society was a country-music lover. He was a stray by the side of the road, picked up and put in the pipeline that takes dogs from areas that don’t have shelters to states where rescue dogs are in demand.
She named him Scout.
He was an exceptionally even-tempered little hound, and only ruined two pieces of furniture when he teethed. One of them was the sofa, and this gave my wife an excuse to get that new piece she’d been eyeing. The other was a sofa in the gazebo, where he would gnaw on the wood between springing up to chase rabbits. I worked at home a lot; he sat on the steps or the sofa or his bed, as if waiting for me to pick up the shootin’ iron and head into the woods to ping away at squirrels.
He ran away the first summer. He smelled something that needed chasing, and burrowed under the fence. We found him a few blocks away, and I filled in the hole. He made another, and ran off to harass rabbits on the waterpower hill. I pounded 120 galvanized iron spikes under the fence, spaced six inches apart all around the property — no weak spots except for one in the back under bushes. He found it.
If he got out, it was because SOMEONE, not me, left the gate ajar. I was always telling everyone to make sure the gate clicks. I could hear that click from my studio, even if the window was closed. If I didn’t hear it I’d run downstairs in a panic, only to find Scout on the sofa outside: what?
One night we couldn’t find him, and feared for the worst. After five hours he came home exhausted and dropped in the corner, having run his paw-pads ragged. Another night he didn’t come back at all. I slept family-room with the back door open. In the morning my wife found me balled up on the tiny sofa, door open, food dish outside, and Scout on the gazebo sofa, snoozing.
Eventually I made everyone in the house as paranoid about the gate as me. I’d hear daughter say “it has to click!” and know we were good. But I still always feared he’d gone off. In the evening he liked to sit in the cool recesses of the bushes at the back of the yard, and being a black dog, could not be seen. I’d rustle the Milk Bone box and exhale with relief when he trotted out from the shadows.
He had a conscience, inasmuch a dogs can. When he ate something off the table, and knew very well he shouldn’t, he would come up to my studio, sit, and put a paw on my leg. He would stand very still and his tail would move a little, and I would know he’d done something. So I’d go downstairs and see the pizza box tipped to the floor, and all I had to do was look at the box and look at him without changing my expression or posture, and he slunk away — only to come back and put out a paw. Sorry, boss. We good?
He loved to fight; he boxed well. For a while he was afraid of your hands if they moved under the bedsheets, but then he figured it out and pounced. Most of all he loved to run, and my wife took him to the woody off-leash park by the Mississippi where dozens of people and dogs every day and night cavort in the woods. A few times she told about some worrisome moments — he ran into the woods, and didn’t come back, right away.
But he always came back.
Until he didn’t. It was a warm night, early August. Twilight on the banks of the Mississippi. Across the shallows the woods thicken, and there are often deer in there. He ran. He didn’t come back.
When my wife called me to come to the park with flashlights I had the horrible feeling he was gone for good, lost in a place on the other side of town. But you have to look. So we headed into the woods, down to the water in the dark, and I can’t tell you how empty it felt: I couldn’t sense him. Sometimes you can; sometimes you know. There was this horrible vacancy.
What followed was three weeks of searching, aided by a volunteer organization that whips you into shape and sends you out with a mission. We gathered up stray dog sightings, set up Facebook pages, pinpointed where we thought he might be, and posted big neon-paper signs on streetcorners. These gathered leads, and we honed in on the neighborhood where it seemed he’d fled. A rather bad part of town. My wife and I had our anniversary dinner in a scruffy park — two pastrami sandwiches — waiting for the park to empty out so Scout might go to the food bowls.
We had positive sightings that turned out to be nothing. Pet psychics called. Two men tried to lure me to the area for a robbery under the guise of a reunion. Phone call: yeah, a homeless woman has him at Franklin and Cedar, on a chain. Phone call: yeah, I saw in by the train station this morning. Phone call: the homeless people who live in the apartment behind me ate him last night, I heard it. Sixty five signs spread across six neighborhoods in Minneapolis; daily trips to check their condition, swap out the pictures for the rain-ruined images, note which ones had been removed by vandals or city officials.
We had it covered.
My phone rang constantly. Sometimes it was someone who was sure they’d seen Scout, and that sent me racing to the spot, and while nothing ever came of it, he was alive in my mind again. We’d just missed him. More signs for that area, then. Fliers. Walk around, hand out pictures, see a crooked sign, run back to the car for the hammer.
Every sighting of every lost dog went to my phone, it seemed. Dog in the road on 55: go. Dog in the street in Uptown: GO! Someone saw a dog running down their street four days ago: they call me. The good leads seemed to shift back towards the place where he fled, and then one night a lady said she’d seen him in the dog park.
Our case worker said they do that. They circle back.
So the case worker drove over and we walked in the black woods for a few hours, tracing the area where he’d last been seen, leaving old clothing to remind him of the family scent, smearing Alpo on tree trunks, giving him a reason to hang around. Our case worker said two to five weeks was normal for them; the signs would get the sightings, the sightings would nail down the location, and then we’d put up the feeding stations and trail cams and remote-controlled cages.
And then, nothing.
And then, the call. The Department of Transportation had been cutting the grass by the highway, and they found him. Scant remains. A collar. In all likelihood he’d been hit the night he fled. We’d been chasing a ghost for three weeks. He’d never been anywhere. He’d always been there.
You reach for consolations. We had an end; we knew. As much as we’d said oh he’s having a fine time chasing squirrels, we knew the truth was otherwise if he was alive — cold, wet, alone. He didn’t go through that. He died on a night when our scent was still fresh on him, so in a way we were with him when he passed.
Scout could stand up and put his paws on your shoulder and give you lick hello, and I’ll miss that. He mostly did it to my wife:. I remember his paws around my shoulders when he was small and I took him upstairs the first month he was home, cradling him like a baby, wet nose on my neck. I thought that he would be around when Natalie came back from college, wagging his tail, a reminder of the home she’d left for the big world. But there are no guarantees. Ask any dog who’s run after a squirrel.
Can you blame them? You have to do what you’re born to do — to sniff, to stop, to brace yourself for a second, and then run.
He ran. He didn’t mean to leave us all behind when he caught the scent of the deer across the dark water. There was just so much joy in the moment he had to go.