Get rid of that effin’ mutt or he's dead meat. Got it?" (Click).
Clara hung up the phone. Her face was ashen.
“What was that all about?”
“Someone just threatened to kill Lance.”
“What? Do you know who it was?”
“I didn't recognize the voice.”
“Male or female?”
“Did he say why?”
“No. He hung up right away.”
I checked the caller I.D. “Caller unknown.” I hit redial. The number was blocked. The only thing worse than a death threat is an anonymous death threat.
Clara looked at me suspiciously—almost accusingly.
“Have you gotten into any trouble with him lately?”
“Well, why would anyone make a call like that?”
“I wonder if Chuck is still pissed off about what happened to Diablo.” Diablo was Chuck’s dog that Lance had sent to the hospital—at my expense.
It had all started innocently enough. I noticed that, when we were outside, if I broke into a run, Lance tended to run alongside me. One day, I decided not to bother leashing Lance prior to his walk. My plan was for us to run across the street and immediately enter the woods. What could possibly go wrong? A lot.
On this particular day, Taz, living directly across the street from us, happened to be outside and also unleashed. These two had never met, as we made every effort to keep Lance away from dogs as well as people. Taz had been lying on his owner’s driveway, but upon seeing Lance, sprang to his feet and rushed towards us on the street. I sprinted for the woods, hoping Lance would follow me. Instead he stood still, awaiting Taz’s arrival. I called for my dog to come to me, to no avail. Taz began sniffing Lance. I became cautiously optimistic—without good reason, as it turned out. Lance returned Taz’s sniff down with a smackdown. He got into full-attack mode, making my commands worthless.
Although the two dogs were about the same size, the fight quickly became a mismatch with Lance inflicting all the damage. I watched in horror as a domestic pet struggled against a semi-feral beast.
If Lance had his way, this was going to be a fight to the death. I grabbed him by the collar. He whirled his head around and let out an unearthly growl. For a split second, I thought he was going to switch gears and come after me. Rather, he had only been distracted momentarily from the task at hand. He went back at Taz, dragging me along with him. Do I keep trying to pull Lance away from Taz and risk aggravating my dog to the point of getting bitten, or let go and… do what?
Lance sunk his teeth deeply into his opponent’s abdomen. Taz let out a yelp and hightailed it for his owner’s porch. Thankfully, Lance must have felt he had made his point as he showed no interest in finishing off his victim. Donna, Chuck’s wife, was at her front door and she immediately opened it to let Taz in.
After coaxing Lance back into our house, I went over to ask Donna how her dog was doing. He had a nasty open wound in his stomach that required medical attention.
“Why in the world do you keep that dog? He bites Clara for God’s sake, and I saw him go after the termite man. You should get rid of him. If I ever see him off a leash again, I’m calling the cops. I’m telling you that right now.”
Chuck called me that night. I didn’t bother to point out that technically the fight had occurred on neutral territory and that his dog had also been unleashed. Instead, since Lance’s reputation preceded him, I apologized profusely, offering to pay any medical bills. Two weeks later Donna showed up at my front door with a vet bill of $800.
That incident had occurred six or seven months before the threatening phone call. Even longer ago, Chuck walked into the woods behind his house with a shotgun and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, threatening suicide. It took some twenty state troopers, several police dogs, and a helicopter to locate him. The law officers persuaded him to come out of the woods peacefully. On the one hand, six or seven months was a long time to hold a grudge over a dog fight. On the other hand, Chuck wasn’t the most stable individual. You just never know about people.
Of course, our neighbor Vinny couldn’t be ruled out. He’d had that run-in with Lance on a nearby field. A Cosa Nostra type— like Vinny imagined himself to be—is known for holding on to grudges and doing something about them.
There was something else that I hadn’t shared with Clara that I did now—a problem of my own that may have led to this threatening phone call. Recently, my hip had started giving me trouble. The orthopedist said I was losing cartilage. At times, the hip hurt like hell, but Lance didn’t want to hear any excuses. He would not let his exercise schedule be modified. His relentless “hounding” forced me into taking what had become excruciatingly painful walks. When my discomfort was particularly severe, and if Clara wasn’t at home, I’d let Lance out on his own. Sure it was unwise but— well, you know, anything after “but” is…
I had no idea where Lance was going on these solo excursions. He didn’t stay outdoors for more than fifteen or twenty minutes before he’d come back home. Clearly he didn’t find walking alone as exciting as traveling with his owner. Nevertheless, Lance on the loose could do a lot of damage in fifteen minutes. How many people had he threatened when outside alone? This admission elicited a lecture from Clara about my irresponsibility, which in turn elicited no rebuttal. A flawed dog had a flawed owner—me.
There was another incident that may have provoked a neighbor. I hadn’t advised Clara about this event either, and didn’t plan to since I was still licking my wounds from the above-mentioned scolding. One day several weeks earlier, while Clara was at work, I was home bringing firewood inside and stacking it near the fireplace. The side storm door was propped open to make my entry while carrying logs easier. Lance tagged along every time I left the house and then reentered with me. At some point, nature called. While I was in the bathroom, Lance began to bark from somewhere in the house. There followed brief quiet and then the barking resumed—outside the house. The side door is open! I rushed outdoors just in time to see Lance—well, at least a black tail with a white tip— disappear into the woods behind our house. I called out his name, but I knew obeying me would not likely be his main priority. I wondered what was?
After grabbing my jacket and a leash, I scrambled into the woods, hoping I’d spot my dog. Too late. Lance was nowhere to be seen or heard. Where to head in search of him? The trouble with dogs is, in the woods, they leave invisible paw-prints. If I had to guess, and that’s all I could do, he’d given chase to a deer and could be anywhere by now. Behind our house lay vast acres of extremely dense woods, in which were a few dirt roads and even fewer houses. Looking for Lance in that maze would be like looking for the proverbial needle.
Having no plan of action, I sat down on a large rock and waited. I didn’t know where Lance was, but maybe he’d find me. The still grayness of an overcast, chilly late fall afternoon provided a somber backdrop for my growing discomfort. Fiddling with the leash, I occasionally called out “Lance!”, getting more concerned each time there was no response. Five, maybe ten minutes went by. Then, a soft tapping on my back startled me. Certain it wasn’t Lance, who or what could it be? Another tap. I turned around. It was Winky, our cat. He was just saying hello. After petting him, he stretched out next to me on the rock. We both waited.
Bam! Bam! Bam! The report of a rifle. Then a dog’s barking—surely Lance’s. Bam! Bam! This time the only thing that followed was the rifle’s echo. This second round was sufficient to send Winky heading for cover. I listened intently, hoping, praying to hear my dog’s bark. Nothing. The stillness returned.
That’s right—it’s still hunting season! Panic set in. I could no longer just sit and wait. It was time to actively search for my dog, though not knowing where to begin and fearing what I might find.
I headed in the general direction from which the rifle shots had come, shouting a nonstop stream of now desperate sounding “Here Lance(s)”. Not one of my calls got a response. Now after four o’clock, it was beginning to get dark so I upped my walking pace.
Although moving quickly as if with a purpose, I really had no idea where to begin looking. Some of these woods were turf Lance and I had traveled, some weren’t. There were various houses, maybe five or ten, scattered about the area. These were a mixture of newer, more expensive homes owned by New York and New Jersey transplants and older, much more modest cabins, the properties of locals. I always steered clear of all of these residences because of Lance.
“Here Lance! Here boy!” My calls were now less frequent and less enthusiastic, because his lack of response was getting to me. I mentally kicked myself for not having closed the door at home. Had I sent my own dog to his death?
Bam! Bam! Bam! More blasts and much closer, again followed only by a rifle’s echoes. The idealist in me couldn’t believe someone would actually shoot a dog; the realist in me could. Most likely as a hunting accident, but there was another scenario to consider. After all, this was Lance, at times a very menacing dog. Most everyone else in the world wouldn’t be as tolerant of him as Clara and I were. Had he threatened the wrong person?
From the woods, I spotted a dirt road and walked out onto it. With the sun almost set, I could see lights coming from a few houses off in the distance. Between the gunfire and the quickly darkening sky, I felt uncomfortable for my own well-being, as well as full of dread for Lance’s.
Many times on our walks we’d get separated along the way and then reunite before heading home. Tough to picture something like that happening this time. There were even a couple of times we had gone our own ways and not met up again until getting back to the house, where Lance would be waiting for me on the stoop. I didn’t see that happening today either.
The very strong possibility that someone may have shot Lance sickened me. What a horrible end to what had been for so long such a horrible life. I was determined to find out what had happened to my dog and get it over with. I could not go back home and just sit there, waiting for him to show up. There was nothing to feed my optimism that he would or even could make it back.
The road I was on led back to Route 447, close to its intersection with Oak Tree Drive. I’d go home, get a flashlight, and continue the search.
Bam! Bam! These shots came from deep in the woods south of me. There were a couple of houses in that general area. Maybe an already injured Lance had just been finished off, maybe he had dodged the earlier shots only to be hit with the latest round, or maybe—I desperately hoped— all the shooting had nothing to do with him.
The only light to guide me was coming from a now suddenly cloud-free sky full of bright stars and a three-quarter moon. I was on a dirt path just yards from a main road when a fast-moving crunch, crunch hit my ears. Something or someone was about to burst out of the woods just ahead of me. Then I heard it—the unmistakable sound of Lance’s whining! He popped out onto the road and rushed up to me. I gave him a quick once-over. No blood. Thank God! I couldn’t believe our luck. That whining was his reaction to the most recent volley of shots —oh, how he hated loud noises. I hooked him up and we headed home double-time.
What actually happened that autumn day? Had Lance threatened one of our neighbors living behind us? Or had he simply wandered onto somebody’s yard and been greeted with gunfire? Or had he not been a target at all? As of that day, the woods behind our house became officially off-limits for all future walks.
The threatening phone call served as a wake-up call. We could no longer leave Lance’s containment to chance or my bad judgement. Fencing the yard was an expense we could barely afford, but we agreed that a fence would in equal parts protect the public from Lance and Lance from the public, and protect us from lawsuits. It was doubtful that Lance would happily run himself ragged in an enclosed area, even one well over three quarters of an acre in size. But, when I wasn’t up to walking him deep in the woods, anything was better than dealing with his unpredictability inside the house or letting him run free outside it.
The fence cost almost five thousand dollars, in part because Lance’s jumping skills called for an additional foot of height. Purchasing such an expensive fence was a luxury that Lance had turned into a necessity.
We never did find out who made that call.