24: Traveler

24: Traveler

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: What I Learned from the Dog


Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear—not the absence of fear.

~Mark Twain

The dog charged across the field, nose sniffing the air, and headed straight for the tractor, where my husband, Jack, was mowing the wild grasses. He padded alongside the tractor until lunchtime when he followed Jack to the house. They shared a pizza. The dog was dirty and thin, and he ate, and ate, and ate, as if he hadn’t had a good meal in days. After the food was gone, he lifted a paw to shake hands, then curled under the mesquite tree for a nap.

That hot summer afternoon, I knew we had a new dog, unless he had run away from home, and his owners were looking for him. On the chance that some heartbroken child was crying for his missing dog, I put the part-Australian Blue Heeler in the fenced backyard until I could run an ad in the newspaper and locate his family. He howled and scratched at the gate and let me know right away he was not a yard dog. So I let him out. He’d probably stick around anyway, since he seemed to like us. Or was it the pizza? I was wrong, however.

The dog lifted a paw for a handshake, his way of saying thanks for the food, I suppose, and then trotted down the road to the neighbor’s house.

“Stop by anytime,” I called to his retreating back. He kept on going.

“We’ll never see him again,” I told Jack.

Jack agreed.

I was wrong a second time. The dog showed up for breakfast the next morning, and since then he has visited us at least once a day to see what’s on the menu. He loves his dry dog food soaked in milk. I buy the kind for older dogs, since I believe he is no young thing. Lately, however, Traveler (so named because he likes to wander) prefers people food like chicken and steak. Smart dog. He visits our son next door to see what they’re eating. When the neighbors on the other side of us are outside, he bounces over there to see what’s happening.

A few days after Traveler took up residence in the country, I put his picture in the local newspaper, asking anyone who knew this dog to please call. No one claimed him, and he’s now our neighborhood pet, roaming at will, accepting hugs and handouts and love from all his families. Our son set up a small tent on his front porch where Traveler sleeps when it’s cold or rainy. Traveler has learned that the country is a great place to live. He chases rabbits and snaps at dragonflies. He plays with armadillos until they escape into their burrows. Once, he tangled with a skunk. Big mistake. The skunk taught him which animals to leave alone. Traveler also figured out that a tilt of his head and a tail wag can earn him a pat on the head, a kiss, and perhaps an extra helping of dinner.

I’m learning from Traveler as well. Watching him enjoy his meals, play with the grandkids, take long walks with Jack and me, and snooze peacefully under the shade of the mesquite has helped me put things in perspective and accept my life as it is, the way he accepts his. When Jack’s health problems threaten to overwhelm us, I look at Traveler, who faces each challenge—food, shelter, and fear—head on, and makes the best of his situation. Even when he is afraid of something, he stands tough. I try to do the same.

For example, one Sunday afternoon, Traveler saved Jack’s life. Jack and the dog were in the driveway when Traveler started barking. It wasn’t his normal “I am hungry, please feed me” or “Come out and play with me” bark, but a shrill, almost panicky yap, yap. I went outside to see what was causing the commotion. The dog’s attention was focused at a spot beside the chain-link fence.

“What is it?” I asked.

Jack strolled over to the fence and looked around. “I don’t see anything.”

Then I heard a rattle, rattle, rattle, like maracas or a baby’s rattle, a sound that is quite familiar in these parts. A diamondback rattlesnake issued its warning, telling us to beware.

Jack has trouble hearing certain pitches and wasn’t aware of the danger. “It’s a snake,” I said, and cautioned him to stand still, until we could pinpoint the reptile’s location.

The grass was fairly high along the fence row, and we couldn’t spot the snake at first. Traveler kept barking, but kept his distance. Finally, I saw the diamondback, next to the chain-link fence. It was a big one, three to four feet long.

I pointed. “Over there.”

Now knowing where the snake was, Jack circled the spot and went into the house for his gun. The rattler was no match for a double barrel shotgun. At the first blast, poor Traveler took off, more frightened by the boom of the gun than of the snake. Had he not alerted us to the diamondback’s presence, however, Jack surely would have been bitten.

Later, Traveler returned. He had recognized the danger, and even though he feared the snake, he held his ground. We rewarded him with hugs, and ear scratches, and food, of course.

This little dog that belongs to no family in particular, but to every family in the neighborhood, helps me separate the important things in my life from the less important. His bravery helps me face whatever life hands me with courage, the way he faced the snake.

I still wonder where Traveler came from. Did he know we’d need his courage one day? I bet he has a story to tell. But he’s not talking.

~Beverly McClure

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