His four legs buzzed beneath an ample body for a dog of his smallish stature. His hind end was chiseled and strong although pronouncedly wide-stanced. Broad-shouldered and deep chested, Pinochle appeared to be well fed. However, while his appearance suggested stability, his behavior betrayed an uneasy ceasefire with an uncaring world.
Domino and Checkers seemed to know him already, yet, maybe, instinct was more to credit than history. Pinochle trusted them, getting straight to the tail-wagging, scent-sniffing business that dogs do. Pinochle was fine with other dogs too, but he lowered not his guard, not until he learned much later that I am one of them. Always at an arms reach, he would not be fooled. Unoffended, I watched as he trailed off toward the dumpster around the corner behind the church.
The weather was pleasant. Early summer sun was not yet scalding, allowing cool breezes to take center stage. For the next six months, Pinochle patrolled daily through our neighborhood. Although we had occasional rain, standing water on the street was rare. As the summer wore on, Pinochle came to rely on the bowl of water we offered outside our shop. Sometimes, when Pinochle arrived, Domino would frantically race to the glass door, partly to let us know that we had a visitor and partly because she was a neurotic mini Aussie and that’s what they do! Checkers loped along from the rear with a mellow wag.
Not long into that summer, it became more apparent that Pinochle was a stray. He was a little boat adrift on the world. He had a set schedule, an agenda, a checklist in his little doggie brain. But the total lack of restraint, his knowledge of streets and traffic, his reluctance to make contact with folks was revealing. Unlike people, Pinochle didn’t mind at all that he had no home.
Meanwhile, my wife, Toby, and I lived our lives too. Jobs to do, bills to pay. Our checklist included working on our building, installing a roof, windows, walls, plumbing, and more. We had a lot of work to do, the kind of work that meant very little to a little dog, but times change. The weather changed, and our work changed. Our visits from Pinochle changed too.
Blazing summer suns came and went. I spent time walking Domino and Checkers, sometimes on leashes, other times, without. We took them to cut firewood, the only source of heat we had in that drafty old building. But we were thankful to have them… the building, the firewood, the wood stove and the dogs. We appreciated everything… the weather, the dogs, the times and the work. We had a roof overhead and food on the table.
Temperatures in mid-Missouri remain mild until December. That year, the drop came in the first week. I remember because it was my birthday, December 7 when the thermometer dipped to six degrees below zero. I worried about Pinochle. We hadn’t seen him all day. I had some work to do in the shop, while Toby took the dogs upstairs to light a fire and start dinner. Just as I was getting ready to climb the stairs, I noticed movement outside the frosty front doors. It was him.
His head bopped up and down, his paws dancing on the icy concrete. I opened the door and noticed the water bowl filled with ice. Pinochle looked me anxiously but still kept his distance. I took the bowl, dumped the ice and grabbed a jug of water. With fresh water, I set the dish down inside the door and held the door open. This was it, he was gonna have to trust me if he was going to have that water. He saw the water, glanced furtively up at me, his eyes danced from me to the water and back. I stood stoically. The wheels in his little doggie brain were working overtime. He knew stepping inside was risky, but he had no choice, and both of us knew it. So I waited.
He gently brushed a toe inside the door toward the water. Why is it that so often desperation is the only force strong enough to induce change? Three steps later, Pinochle began to drink. He was in the shop now, still I held the door open wide. I paused, looking at the open door. I could see that he was thinking about darting, but the water! When he turned back to the water dish, I let the door close. Pinochle, my birthday gift from God, was home.
We kept Pinochle in for a few days. We made him welcome, gave him plenty of food and water and the other dogs accepted him right away. I knew there would come a day soon enough that he would find and exit and return to the streets he called home. But I hoped that he would see the benefits of trusting us and a warm home.
For the next few years, Pinochle would mock an escape to return to his vagabond ways for a few hours, but he always found his way home again, to us.