A Tale of Canine Courage

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The ice looked like daggers hanging from the gutter outside my bedroom window that winter day in 1968 when I first laid eyes on Fritzy. We piled in the family wagon that morning and headed out past the frozen corn fields and icy streams to the county kennels. We were going to get a dog. I pressed my nose against the car window, breathed on the cool glass, and wondered what he would be like. Would he shake hands, roll over, and chase squirrels? Each passing fence post drew me nearer to my most cherished aspiration - a dog of my own. The pandemonium as we walked through the kennel door was deafening. How we would wade through the canine chaos to make our decision was beyond me. Then, right in the middle of the tumult, silence caught my eye. He was sitting quietly and confidently in a corner cage, seemingly oblivious to the rancor raging around him. When I approached, he lifted his paw between the bars, and I took it. A handwritten sign at the top of his stall read, ''Collie/Shepherd.'' He pressed his nose against the door, and I rubbed his head. Ten minutes later he was sitting in the backseat of our car. ''His name is Fritzy,'' Grandmother announced that night as we watched him wolf down his inaugural meal. ''After your father's first dog.'' And so it was. Fritzy adjusted quickly to life at our little inn in the North Carolina mountains. Whenever guests would arrive, he would trot out to greet them. When they took their afternoon strolls, he was a cheerful escort. Fritzy's walking services became so popular that Dad had to finally institute a sign-up sheet to satisfy all the walkers vying for his camaraderie. When we sold the inn and moved to town five years later, Fritzy settled into restful retirement. The highlight of his day was when I came bounding through the front door after school. He would slip and slide across the tile entryway and then leap into my arms as if he had just won the doggy lottery. One Friday afternoon my father announced that we were going away for the night. Each year we took a journey across the mountains to his hometown of Knoxville, Ky., for a day of outlet shopping and sightseeing. As we loaded up the car, Dad informed me that the motel where we would be staying didn't allow dogs, and therefore Fritzy wasn't coming with us. ''He'll be fine,'' he assured me. ''I left him extra food and it's only for the night. He won't even know we're gone.'' My heart sank like a bowling ball in a swimming pool. We had never left Fritzy alone overnight. What would he do? What would he think? As we pulled away down the street, Fritzy stood watching from the edge of the yard, his ears pricked up and his tail wagged skeptically, as if to say, ''You must be kidding.'' I couldn't sleep that night. All I could think about was a lonely, frightened dog wondering why we had deserted him. It was just after 6 o'clock when we rolled into our driveway the next evening. There was no enthusiastic greeting. No euphoric yelping. No Fritzy. Night fell and no sign of him. We went from neighbor to neighbor, house to house. Each shake of the head drove me closer to despair. ''Please, God,'' I prayed kneeling by my bed that night. ''Bring Fritzy home safe.'' But a week passed and no Fritzy. I went to school and tried to concentrate, but all I could do was think about my missing dog somewhere out there wandering the lonely backroads. Each afternoon I would bolt out of school and run all the way home. But when I burst through the door and into the house I would be greeted only by stillness and my mother's sad smile. ''What's taking God so long?'' I asked mother one night as she tucked me in. ''Just hold onto hope,'' she said quietly. ''I don't think I have anymore,'' I whispered. ''As long as you come running up those steps every afternoon and fling open that door, you have hope,'' she replied as she switched off my light. It was right then and there that I decided my hope needed a little dusting off. I determined that, no matter how discouraged I was feeling, I was going to open that door with hope. Another week passed and hope seemed harder and harder to come by. But I kept at it, determined to make it my own. Then one afternoon I arrived home to find Dad's truck parked in the driveway, and I wondered why he was home from work so early. I paused just outside the driveway and gathered my hope before going inside. When I was sure that I was all hoped up, I opened the door and stepped inside. The hallway was empty, but I could hear the soft murmur of my parents' voices behind the kitchen door. All of a sudden, Mother cracked the door just enough to peer out at me. ''Hi, honey,'' she said smiling. ''I have a surprise for you.'' With that she swung wide the door, and Fritzy bolted past her like a wild boar. He slipped on the slick tile and crashed into the wall, got up and slipped again until he finally regained his balance and vaulted into my arms. I tumbled backward as he coated my face with licks. Around the dinner table that night, Dad related how our intrepid dog had found his way several miles across town to the office of a friendly veterinarian who had taken care of him once years before. For two weeks, Fritzy had been fed, brushed, and bathed, while he patiently waited for us to find him. The vet had been listening to the radio that morning when our lost-dog announcement caught his attention and he knew he had the culprit. That night as Dad tucked me in he asked if I had been afraid I would never see Fritzy again. ''No,'' I said. ''I knew that if I kept opening that door, one day he was going to be behind it.''

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