For years I’d welcomed young people from the local youth group to my acre on Blue Mountain in northwest Colorado, where I lived with as many animals as I could tend to. The kids understood.
“My golden retriever sleeps in my room. And snores!”
“My dad’s mule has personality.”
“Five cats live in our barn. I go sit with them. They help me think.”
My animals had taught me many lessons in patience, forgiveness, tolerance and love, and I passed those lessons on to the kids as we all sat around the campfire.
“Tuck is the guardian of the bird feeder,” I told them on one occasion. My Border collie sat up proud bedside me. “He heard me fussing at the magpies for bullying the other birds, and now takes it upon himself to chase the black and white bandits away. Isn’t that right, Tuck?” I said. “Border collies, like the rest of us, need a job. Some focus to keep us out of trouble. Tuck’s job is official bird watcher, and he works hard at it.”
I read a passage from Corinthians about working enthusiastically for the Lord. That led to a comment from one young man that his parents worked too much and were too busy to spend time with him, which led to a frank discussion about balance. My animal stories broke the ice and gave the kids a chance to talk about issues in their lives.
One July evening, while we sat around the pit roasting wieners, a young man howled from the south side of my house. I went running.
The kids were free to go inside or roam my acre, visit with my donkey, Zorrow, through the fence, and take short hikes up the steep ridge to the north. The rules were simple: Stay in sight, don’t get in the corral with Zorrow, and be kind to the dogs, barn cat and each other.
As I dashed around the house with the youth group leader, a young man ran into us. “That dog of yours tried to bite me,” he said, pointing.
I looked down as my three dogs approached. “That one,” he said, pointing to my stray, Keeper. It wasn’t the first time Keeper had threatened someone. She knew I wouldn’t tolerate that behavior, but I knew she would only growl if someone was taunting her.
Rather than question the lad or make a scene, I turned to Keeper. “Kennel!” I commanded. “Now. You get a time-out for being naughty.” Keeper dipped her black and rust colored head with a guilty look, and went to the kennel near the barn.
I apologized to the young man. “You know I’d never put the kids in any kind of danger,” I said to the youth leader. I had a feeling she also suspected that there was more to the story. After three decades of hosting, I knew there were always a few kids that meant trouble. Of course, those were ones we hoped to influence.
The Colorado air was still brisk and the north ridge dotted with snow when the group once again gathered around my fire pit the following spring. Since this happened to be an after-school get-together and many of the kids had been to track practice, everyone seemed more interested in food than playing with animals or hiking up the ridge.
“Did you lose the stray dog?” one of the older girls asked, looking around for Keeper.
“Yes,” I said, motioning to Keeper’s resting place nearby. “She was a good friend, but the days of her teaching me lessons are over.” The kids were quiet, except for chewing.
“What was the best lesson she taught you?” one asked.
I grinned. “She always responded to my voice,” I said. “If I got short-tempered, she’d run and hide.”
The kids laughed.
“I learned to be more mindful of the tone of my voice.”
Once the kids were stuffed with food, they dispersed to visit Zorrow, pet the cat, throw the ball for Tuck or climb up over the ridge for an adventure. Only one young man remained near the fire, poking at coals with a roasting stick. He seemed preoccupied. I thought he might be the same boy who’d accused Keeper of growling the summer before, but I wasn’t certain. The kids grew so much from year to year, it was impossible for me to keep up.
I noticed him glancing back toward the edge of my garden where Keeper’s grave was marked with a wooden cross. Crocuses jutted up all around it. I saw a troubled expression cross the boy’s brow.
“You doing okay?” I asked.
“It wasn’t her fault,” he blurted.
“Keeper’s fault last summer when you put her in time-out.”
I spooned relish over my charred wiener, saying a quick prayer for guidance. “Oh?” I said, careful to keep any judgment from my tone.
“I was teasing her. Acting like I was going to give her a bite of my hot dog, then taking it back.”
“I see,” I said. “Well, she still shouldn’t have threatened you.”
The young man glanced at the grave and his eyes filled. “No, but I shouldn’t have been teasing her.”
“It’s good to take responsibility for our actions,” I told him. “I’m sure old Keeper dog forgave you.”
The boy sat up straighter, like a load had been taken off his shoulders. An eruption of laughter came from the group of kids climbing halfway up the ridge to the north. “I’d like to climb that mountain,” the boy said.
“You can catch up—if you hurry.”
When he scampered away from the pit, over the fence and took off in a dead run, I turned toward my stray dog’s grave and smiled. The days of this angel teaching me lessons would never be over.
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