The dog in the woods was on her mind and in her prayers.
I was brand-new to the real estate business the first time I visited the long-abandoned rural house I was trying to sell for an out-of-state mortgage company. The property was in Brunswick County, N.C., practically in the middle of nowhere. I was putting up a For Sale sign, the hammer echoes blending with the whine of the cicadas, when the feeling struck me: Someone, or something, was watching.
My hammer paused in mid swing. I thought I saw a movement in the scraggly undergrowth behind the house. There it was again. That time I was sure. In the woods was a dog. Even at a distance I could see he was mangy and undernourished. He panted heavily in the thick humidity. Nothing’s stickier than a mid August day in coastal Carolina. I wonder if the house still has running water, I thought, but one step and the dog melted into the woods without a sound.
While driving back to the office, winding along the dusty country roads, I wondered about the animal. Two weeks before, Hurricane Bertha had walloped Wilmington, tearing a broad swath of devastation. Was that dog a refugee from the nightmare storm? Had he ridden out the gale in those woods?
A few days later I went back to the house to meet with a mowing service to arrange to have the brush cleared and grass cut. Once again I had the eerie sensation of being watched. When I glanced into the woods there he was, in almost the identical spot. I called, “C’mon, boy!” But he vanished at the sound of my voice.
“People shy,” the lawn man commented. “You’ll never get near him.”
I had half a ham sandwich left over from lunch. Pulling it out of my bag I tossed it into the brush, and the dog emerged and pounced on it ravenously. I was able to get a closer look at him. His fur had fallen out in clumps, except for on his head and legs, where it was dull and matted. His back was covered with sores. His eyes shifted furtively. He gobbled my offering, then was gone.
That night at dinner I mentioned him to my husband, John. “It’s best you stay away from him,” John advised. “Probably wild.”
“But he must have belonged to someone once,” I protested. I just couldn’t understand how anyone could abandon a dog.
“Don’t get any ideas,” John warned. “We’ve got a full house.” He was referring to our schnauzer, Max, and Minnie, a calico cat. All I could muster in response was a noncommittal sigh.
That week at my Wednesday prayer meeting I hesitated to talk about the dog in the woods. After all, people were concerned with serious life issues—health problems, divorce, finances, job loss. What business did I have asking prayers for an animal? Yet I couldn’t get him off my mind. Finally, at the end of the meeting, I said, “I’m sorry if this sounds trivial, but I would like to ask prayers for a stray dog who’s living behind a house I’m trying to sell.”
To my relief, everyone smiled and nodded. Our minister, Jeff Douglas, rested his hand on my shoulder. “Remember, he’s one of God’s creatures too,” he said.
The dog was put on our regular prayer list. As word got around, he was added to friends’ and neighbors’ lists as well, and people asked me about him from time to time. A couple of days a week I found an excuse to visit the property, and brought along a bag of kibble and a bowl. I set the food at the edge of the brush and from a distance watched the dog eat. He always seemed tense and hyperalert, eyeing me warily as he devoured the kibble, backing off if I got close, his fear even more powerful than his hunger. I wished he would trust me not to harm him. Yet I dared not venture too close, afraid of scaring him off… maybe for good.
One day John caught me red-handed, loading the trunk of my car with kibble and treats. “Diane… ” he said sternly. I slammed the lid. “You know we can’t take on another pet,” he went on. “With my retirement and your just getting started in real estate, we have enough to worry about.”
“I know. I just don’t want him to starve,” I said as I drove off.
The truth was, I didn’t know what I wanted. Mainly, I wanted the stray to be all right. I wanted to stop worrying about him. I didn’t want him to be so scared of people that no one could help him. I knew we couldn’t take in another animal, but I couldn’t stand by and do nothing while the poor creature wasted away. Dear Lord, I begged, I feel so bad for that dog. Please help me find a solution.
Meanwhile, I wasn’t having much luck selling the house. At least that allowed me to keep visiting the dog. Weeks passed. I tried to drop by as often as was practicable. Sometimes I saw him and sometimes I didn’t. Usually he was skittish and hungry, as if he didn’t know how to find food on his own. Then, six weeks after I first spotted the dog in the woods, the National Weather Service issued an alert: A hurricane was bearing down on the North Carolina coast, maybe even bigger than Bertha. He’s all alone out there, I thought.
We began to prepare for the worst—boarding up windows, stockpiling emergency supplies. One thing I had to do was go around and pull up all my For Sale signs. In gale winds they can become deadly projectiles. As I drove out to Brunswick County, racing ahead of a plum-marbled sky, I was tormented by worry. He’s survived one hurricane. Can he possibly survive another? How could I convince him to come with me to safety? Lord, he has to trust me!
When I got to the house, the rain was coming down in wind-whipped sheets. I didn’t see the dog anywhere. After I pulled up the sign I took a bowl of kibble to the edge of the brush. Saying a prayer, I put it on the ground and piled heavy rocks around it. I stood up, the wind buffeting me. One last look.
And there he was, just five feet away, closer than ever before. I stood stock-still even as a clap of thunder crashed overhead. Our eyes met. Then I turned and calmly walked back to my car, opened the trunk, took out a blanket I kept there and spread it out on the backseat. I stole a glance over my shoulder. He was still there. Staring.
I faced the dog. “If you want some help,” I said, pointing to the open car door, “please get in.”
The trees seemed to bend as one, choreographed by the wind. Then the dog was moving toward me, past me, and nimbly into the backseat.
Back home, my husband’s resolve broke down as soon as he set eyes on the bedraggled refugee. We put the dog in the bathtub. He was covered with sores and nasty ticks, but he didn’t struggle or bite when we washed him, though I knew the soap must have stung something awful. He bore it all stoically. “Good boy,” I kept chanting soothingly as I dried him. The storm was poised just off the coast. I took advantage of the respite and rushed the dog over to our vet, Dr. Deborah Wicks.
“Diane,” she said, “this dog has the worst case of mange and insect bites I have ever seen. Good thing you got him.”
Treatment would be costly, and I doubted John and I could afford it. Right then, I just wanted to get the dog help. “Do what you can,” I told the vet as I left. We would decide what the next step was after the hurricane passed. It’s up to you, God …
Rain swept across our driveway as I drove up. John was bringing in camping lanterns and the phone was ringing. I rushed past him to get it.
It was Dr. Wicks’s assistant, Shannon Hewitt. Yes, the dog was doing fine. Shannon was cleaning his sores and giving him a special medicated bath. She thought he was going to pull through okay. “Listen,” she said, hesitating. “I don’t know if you and Mr. Wills are planning to keep him, but the truth is I’ve been praying for a dog to come along. Not just any dog, but one who really needs a home and the kind of love my little boy and I could give. This guy here is pretty special. It would be an answer to prayer if I could keep him.”
I had to stop myself from crying. Because Shannon worked at the vet’s, the cost of treatment would be substantially reduced. John and I could help her out. Together we could swing it.
“What are you going to name him?” I finally composed myself enough to ask.
“After what he’s been through, I think I’ll call him Gamut.”
Gamut made it through Hurricane Fran just fine. Today he has a lustrous coat, as black as coal. He’s healthy and he loves people. He couldn’t have a better home. When I stop over to visit, he offers me a paw and throws his head back. I know he’s grateful because I feel the same way. Grateful for the prayers of neighbors and friends, and for a God who looks after all his creatures.
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