For Christmas, I got him this little wooden cross that dangles from his dog collar, only half-jokingly to signify his calling. I threaten to get him a little black robe with a white collar, but he — with his classic border collie coat — already wears those. I, once his equal partner in search and rescue, am more and more often relegated to being his manager and chauffeur.
The wilderness search is over, the missing hunter found, the Office of the Medical Examiner on the way with a white body bag. As we arrive back at Incident Base, most of us studiously avoid the little knot of people standing slightly to the side, these being relatives of the subject.
They are deep in grief, silenced by the depth of their loss. All around us, clamor prevails — four-wheeler and ground-pounder search teams returning, radio coms continuing hot and heavy, doors and tailgates slamming on State Police, Forest Service and Border Patrol trucks.
He makes a beeline for the relatives, still wearing his bright orange Search K9 vest. At an almost-but-not-quite hesitant walk, he approaches, drops a stick at their feet.
His eyes seek theirs — seemingly expressing their pain: the senseless Big Question of why it had to happen this way. His body language empathetic, his eyes now implore theirs to set the tragedy aside for a minute, just for a bit, really, to throw the stick just this once, please. He crouches, belly on the ground, somber as a pallbearer.
He bounds after the stick, returns it at a gallop, drops it on their feet. He lies down again, imploring.
They end up throwing the stick a dozen times. Then they are talking to each other for the first time since showing up here, six miles up this little wilderness dirt road. When I call him, he doesn’t come right away, but stays with them a little longer, licks a hand, gets a hug.
Their immersion in this somber game validates my dog’s conviction, deeply embedded in his K9 worldview, that all transactions around this particular stick are very important. This, he is teaching me, is the unfinished business of search and rescue.
Dave Baldridge’s last piece for the Gazette was “A Rescuer Reflects on Angels and Idiots,” which appeared in #174. Baldridge lives in Albuquerque.