Muffin, Charles, and Trail found themselves a home

They were strays, all three of them. Misfits, for sure. Two girl dogs and a boy dog. Somehow they made their peace together, and so we managed to live with 12 more legs running around the house. All three dogs could count; there's no doubt about that. When one got more biscuits than the others, there was an immediate hassle. They knew who got what. And how many. They knew a lot more than we knew that they knew.

Muffin arrived first. That was a long time ago, further back than we ever wanted to tally. No one wants to count years for someone or something else because there's always an end to years.

Way back then, Muffin was a puppy with a ratlike tail. A passerby found her, dripping wet, climbing out of the canal where someone had thrown her. She evoked all sorts of piteous emotions from many, but the sympathy went only a pat deep. No one really wanted her, so she was shifted from person to person and house to house until she ended up with us.

In time, she developed into quite a princess: sensitive face, fluffy tail, and superior airs. She expected to be the leader on all the strolls we took, and no one ever preceded her out the door. There was a definite daintiness about her deportment, and had she worn clothes, they'd have been of lace with ruffles and bows.

But regardless of her regal ways, she dutifully adopted the role of mother when Charles arrived. Charles was a girl dog, too, named by our son, so small then that he hadn't yet sorted out all the male and female business. So ``Charles'' was as apt a name as Sadie, Lulu, or the like.

We never had to housebreak Charles or teach her that the blue upholstered chair was out of bounds. Muffin did all that. Without question, Charles was a little much to train because she had been a wild one, living in the Kentucky woods. That's where we found her, her legs peppered with buckshot. Lots of unwanted dogs down there are dumped in the woods, and there's no middle way for them; they either somehow survive starvation and grow viciously wild, or they die. Charles was on the latter route. She wasn 't cut out to be a wild dog; there was too much clown about her and not enough soldier.

Charles had never been in a house before, and Muffin's patience was taxed to the extreme in laying down the ground rules. The housebreaking wasn't too hard, nor was the ``no-no'' of the upholstered chair. Muffin's hardest job was teaching Charles to navigate the basement stairs. Run in the woods Charles could do, but walk up and down steps was something else. Bump, bump, bump, and whine, and we knew that Charles hadn't yet learned. It took a long while.

Years later, fat and gray, Charles still bumped about and clowned around, playing in snow and rolling in leaves. She kept a few of her wild ways, too, although they alone could never have carried her through lean autumns and winters in the woods. She could catch a bee and a fly in flight, a bird before it took off, and a squirrel on the run. Sometimes she nosed through high grasses, hunting what wasn't there, and she never forgot how to crack a nut to get the meat inside.

We thought two dogs were enough. More than enough. But then there was that cold Saturday morning, 10 below. That's when I found Trail, lying by the road, frozen or hit, I didn't know. When I went to lift him, he got up and dragged himself away, not letting me get near. His skin was strung taut over bones. And he was mean. I knew I could get him if just the two of us were left alone, but others got involved. The more frightened he became, the nastier he got. In the process of it all, he bit a man. That d id it. The police were called, and the dog warden was awakened from a Saturday nap. Nets and maneuverings, commotions and cursings.

The dog warden knew this dog, a street tramp that had been roaming the city for more than three months. No one had caught him, but that day was the day. He was finally cornered, caught, and sentenced.

I stood there watching him struggle in the net and thought about the two girl dogs at home; they'd never put up with a male invader now, but I signed my name anyway, promising to pick up Trail after a 10-day impoundment.

The tenth day came, and I stood arguing with the keeper of the pound who wanted me to sign my name again. This time for permission to do away with the stray. The dog was described as vicious and mean, and no one could get near his cage. I had never been scared of a dog before, but when they dragged him out, I sat down to think. It was then that he jumped into my lap. So, together we went home.

Admittedly, the first six months were touch and go. The girl dogs wanted no husband at this point in life, especially one they shared. We spent $24 on ads offering a ``free dog,'' but we had no takers once people saw what was free.

The dog fights usually started in the kitchen. Savage, yes. The three snarled and tore, twisting around and around. I'd scream and spray water from the kitchen sink, but that was hopeless, like tying cyclones with a string. Muffin and Charles always fared the worst because, after all, Trail was a male street dog who knew how to fight.

Then one day, the fights stopped. Trail was taken into the fold. We never knew why. It wasn't that we didn't ask, but they spoke a language we didn't know.

The three lived together quite peaceably from that day on. Inch by inch we watched Trail's reshaping from street fighter to wimpish canine. There was no meanness in him anymore. He was gentle and became an ``inside'' dog, finding his safety in the house rather than out where the wind blew. The close of spring was the only time he scratched impatiently at the door to be let out. He seemed to know that special time of the season when dandelions go to seed. Slowly, he went from weed to weed, eating off th e feathered tops.

If all the world suddenly spun into make-believe, and canines sat in a human scene, this is what we'd see. Muffin, the princess, at afternoon tea. Her hair is coiffured and she sips her tea with little finger crooked.

Next to her sits Charles, the middle-aged frump. Happy, but a little too plump in a dress that's splashed with pattern and color. She clowns and laughs and is just a bit too loud, and there's a decided slurp when she drinks her tea. But the princess ignores it all.

Across the table sits Trail, the henpecked spouse. There's a plate of crumpets and cupcakes with plenty of whipped cream, but it's decided that for him rye crisp is best. He fidgets when the princess mentions there's been tracking on the polished floor. And who tramped in the petunia bed? For the most part he's silent and content just to sit. But he's always ready when someone says, ``Dear, do go see if there's more tea.'' But that's all make-believe.

Our house was never dull with those three around. Every day they handed us laughs and giggles. And every night they stood in a line, looking and waiting. That's because there were always biscuits before bedtime. They could count, you know. And we counted, too: their biscuits but never their years.

Approximately 20 million animals per year -- mostly dogs -- are handled by local shelters, according to the American Humane Association. This is an increase of almost 10 million since 1980. An estimated 72 percent of these are euthanized, l7 percent are placed in new homes, 10 percent are lost pets and are returned to their owners, and 1 percent fall into other categories, including animal research.

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