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HeavenThe Black Dog and the White Stone
By Teri Wilson

Number 209746 heard the man coming up the narrow aisle before he actually saw him. He wore a ring of shiny, metal keys on his belt loop, that jingled while he walked. At first glance, the man looked like all the other men that had come before him. Like the others, he wore a uniform and carried a leash in his hand.

But, there was something distinctly different about this man. The hopeless smell of death did not linger on his clothing, as it had on the others. And when he looked at the dogs cowering in their metal cages, he seemed to actually see them. Whereas the others had seen only numbers as they daily led dogs down the concrete path to their doom, this man seemed to see life.

Number 209746 watched this man walk slowly up and down the aisle and carefully study each set of eyes peering back at him from behind the chain-link. Sometimes he would stop in front of one of the cages and bounce a shiny, red ball up and down. Some of the dogs watched the bouncing ball with interest, while others lay listlessly on the concrete floor as if their vacant eyes didn't really see the rubber toy.

Number 209746 felt his body tense as the man approached his pen. He tried his best to remain in control, cock his head and look adorable. He had heard this was the only way to escape the reality of his concrete and metal existence. But when the man waved the gleaming red ball back and forth in front of his eyes, his ears began to twitch. When the ball began bouncing rhythmically up and down, Number 209746 lost all control. He barked frantically, and in his frenzy, his black, furry bulk moved up and down in sync with the bouncing ball.

The man looked Number 209746 directly in the eyes and smiled. Then he disappeared back down the aisle, his keys jangling against his holster as he walked.

Number 209746 scratched at the door to his cage. He had an urge to follow the man with the kind eyes, but knew he would never see him again. That's the way it usually went, anyway.

Then the black dog heard voices down the aisle. He pricked his ears and tried to understand the words.

"Did you find yourself a dog, Sergeant?"

"I think so, Hal. I'll take the black Shepherd-Lab mix at the end of the row."

"Oh, Number 209746. He's a wild one, Sarge. You sure you want to take that on?"

"He's got high drive, that's all. So long as he's a good learner, he'll make a great bomb-sniffing dog. The high drive dogs usually make the best ones. He could end up being the one I've been searching for all along."

"Okay, suit yourself."

And then, to Number 209746's astonishment, he found himself at the end of the leash walking beside the man called Sarge.

"C'mon, pup. Let's get in the squad car." Sarge patted the backseat and tugged gently on the lead.

Number 209746 looked at the big automobile warily and tried to back away, but found he was tethered to Sarge's hand with the leash. He panicked and began to flail wildly.

"Calm down, now." Sarge's voice remained calm and even. "You can trust me. Now get in the car."

The big, black dog stood still, his eyes open wide with fright. He wanted to follow the man, but fear and uncertainty gripped his heart. Maybe it would be better to just stay where he was.

"I'm not going to force you against your will, pup. You get to decide whether or not you want to follow me. Maybe this will help you make up your mind." Serge removed a small chunk of hotdog from his pocket and tossed it up onto the backseat.

Number 209746's mouth watered at the smell of the treat and he leaped up into the squad car. Sarge smiled and shut the door behind him. They were on their way.

The weeks that followed were strange and wonderful for the black dog. The man taught him many new things, such as how to smell dangerous substances and to search boxes, packages and suitcases. He demanded obedience from Number 209746, but always treated him with kindness and compassion. The black dog began seeking ways to please his master out of respect and for a simple pat on the head, whether there was a hotdog involved or not.

Yet there remained one area of his training where Number 209746 resisted Sarge's guidance. And that was the obstacle course which all search dogs with the police department were required to maneuver through at the direction of their handlers. Sarge and the black dog practiced every day. Number 209746 could nimbly weave in and out of poles, pick his paws through the tire maze, and jump over bars at various heights. So long as he could see his master encouraging him with clapping hands and firmly set expression, the mutt flew through the course with ease.

Their troubles came when faced with the big, 8-foot scaling wall at the end of the course. Number 209746 had become physically strong and agile under Sarge's leadership. He was more than capable of climbing the wall. But while Sarge waited for the dog on the other side, Number 209746 began to panic. Since he couldn't actually see his handler while he was climbing, he imaged he was all alone. Even though Sarge's voice was still calling out directions to him, he was confused and disoriented without being able to see the man's face. He imagined reaching the top of the wall and peeking over the edge, only to find that Sarge had disappeared and left him for good. Fear of the unknown paralyzed Number 209746, and every other officer in the department doubted he could pass the exam to become an official bomb-sniffing dog.

Sure enough, the day of the exam came and Number 209746 had yet to scale the imposing wall.

"You can do this, pup. Just get up over that wall. I will be there for you on the other side. And when we pass this test, I'll have a big surprise waiting for you." Sarge patted the black dog on the head and winked.

Number 209746 wanted to trust him. He really did. As he galloped through the obstacle course with grim determination, he never took his eyes off Sarge. He could hear cheers from the other officers but did not let that distract him as he sailed over jumps with grace he had never possessed as a simple shelter dog.

Then, he was at the end and faced his nemesis--the 8-foot scaling wall. He watched Sarge disappear around the wall, and for a moment thought about quitting. Then he remembered Sarge's promise of the big surprise and decided to finish the course, no matter how difficult it became. He scrambled over the wall, knowing he would see his master's face waiting on the other side.

When Number 209746 leaped down from the wall, he covered Sarge's face with wet, sloppy kisses.

"You did it, pup! Good boy. Good, good boy."

Then, he reached in his pocket and pulled out a shiny, silver badge. He polished the badge with a soft, cotton cloth and pinned it to the police department vest Number 209746 wore on his back.

"There you go. Your own police badge with your new name: Justice. How do you like it, pup? I chose it the day I chose you down at the pound."

Sarge patted Justice on the head and told him again what a good boy he was. Then they strolled back to squad car and shared a hotdog.

"To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it." (Revelation 2:17, New International Version.)
Teri Wilson is the author of All Creatures of Our God and King: What God's Word Says About Animals (Eden Publications LLC). Her short stories are published regularly in a variety of animal-related periodicals and literature anthologies. Teri is the winner of the 2006 Westminster Kennel Club ANGEL ON A LEASH writing award, and a finalist for the 2006 Dog Writers Association of America Maxwell Medallion for excellence in short fiction. If you would like to write to Teri, you can do so care of her website, http://www.teriwilson.net.