Some stories happen without anyone even noticing…
This is perhaps one such story.
However… little unknown heroes can sometimes
have an enormous impact!
“Howard the Saviour”
By Stephen James
Friendships spark at the most unexpected times. One minute we’re busy minding our own business, then, before you know it, a personality crosses your path, and life as you previously knew it has been altered forevermore. At times the new pathway is a rocky one. At other times, you wonder how you ever existed, before your new tune was being played. Let’s find out…
At sixteen years-of-age, now with the soft fleshy parts of his mouth starting to turn as grey as the hairs which sprouted from this very area, Howard took the morning’s square of sunshine to reflect back on his life. Warmed by this bright patch, on the timber decking of his master’s back porch, the crossbred chocolate-Labrador and German-shepherd dog knew his days were beginning to have numbers at the end of each. He must use them wisely. Time was precious. Life had dealt him a good hand but that’s not always the way things were.
It was England in the 1970’s. Born the runt of the litter, the puppy with one ear slightly bigger than the other, neither managing to be the standing-up type, which Shepherd’s carry so proudly atop their strong heads, Howard had to fight for his mother’s attention. She was the purebred Labrador. Dad was a near-pure Shepherd police dog. At twelve weeks, he found out about loneliness for the first time when all of his eight brothers and sisters were long-since claimed by new owners. No one wanted the ugly one. Howard moped, in between tripping over his giant paws, the likes of which he wondered if he would ever grow into. Finally, after fourteen weeks, a young girl picked him up and solved his problems with a gigantic hug. She took him home to her house in Wiggington-on-sea, in England’s far south. Sixteen-year-old Gail Moreton made Howard feel special and he returned her kindness with loyalty for three years. He wasn’t ugly anymore. Howard was strong and handsome. His trademark; slightly larger ear looked more like a character-by-design inclusion, rather than a mistake by his gene pool. The Moreton’s backyard suited his frivolous needs to perfection – until she became an air-hostess and Howard had to leave.
He hated the pound. It was in nearby Scoosbury, a much larger town and the conditions were cold, stark, noisy and miserable – the worst months of his short life. Uncaged for only one hour per day, the smart canine grasped one of these exercise-breaks as the opportunity to escape. He broke loose from his handler and scaled the wire-mesh fence to freedom. But where?
Instinct directed him back towards Wiggington-on-sea, where at least he had a memory of happiness. Drinking from streams and eating from rubbish bins and the odd generous hand-out, the journey took him just under a week. Collarless, Howard sat with a wagging tail beside the village green after having a good roll. He watched the traffic feeding its way through the narrow streets, in front of the rows of bay-windowed shops. He knew the large patch of grass well because this was the place that Gail would bring him on weekends. She was nowhere to be seen but he knew he would have to move on with life. The doggy days don’t stop rolling just because he’s alone. Howard trotted across the lush green couch to pause at the big white marks, on the big black hard stuff, which all those noisy bubbles with humans sitting inside them moved along. The big white marks had some magical power that made the noisy bubbles with humans inside come to a standstill; now he could move safely across the big black hard stuff. He didn’t know why – but it was the same every time. Gail had taught him good road etiquette.
He waited. A stroller pushed by a woman of forty, her toddler by her side, started things. The noisy bubbles came to rest and the dog headed off towards her. Moments later a man also in his forties joined the stroller’s group. Back in the 1970’s, everything moved slower. The cars were made of metal, not plastic. Fewer crowds. Less paint on the roads. Things seemed somehow much simpler. There were no mobile telephones. It wouldn’t be long before he would find a new owner. Howard was liked around here. He met them in the middle of the crossing. Tail wagging.
And then it happened…
A speeding car mounted the kerb, finding its way between the nine stationary vehicles without regard for the zebra-crossing’s pedestrians, of which, Howard was one. The dog froze in the oncoming lane as his path crossed with theirs. The father dashed to save his family, managing only to collect Howard. The dog’s life had been saved from certain death. The car beat him to his family. The man spun away with only Howard beside him. The car drove over the man’s foot before winding its way out of town. The driver was never stopped. Realizing what had just happened, Howard took off. He knew where Gail’s doctor’s surgery was and how to get there before anyone else.
The small crowd of panicking onlookers became quickly parted when Doctor Meredith appeared with his nurse. Sadly, the only thing he was able to do was to care for the man, whose name was Simon Stryker, by getting him safely to the hospital. This tragic moment of stupidity had cost Simon his entire family: Wife Stephanie, toddler-of-two Phillip, and pram-bound youngest Ursula. Howard never left his bedside. After several months his ankle gradually mended, albeit, with a significant permanent limp. But Simon Stryker’s heart was destroyed. His empty house no longer laughed each night. His back porch’s timber-decking became the place where Simon would sit to allow his heart to bleed. The friendship between Simon and Howard grew very strong – but nothing could replace his loss. It ate him away. The dog didn’t exactly know what a broken heart meant, however, he did know something had to be done. As the seasons stole their years away, the thankful, floppy-eared, brown with black bits, canine, changed Simon’s outlook. He walked further each day to build up his ankle. The dog would always keep Simon out for longer periods, noticing his master’s far-happier demeanour during the marathon evenings. These were the difficult hours for lonely Stryker, isolated by memories. Fighting when he already thought he was beaten. His house echoed at night…
When Howard turned eight, his master turned forty-six two weeks later. They had been together for four years, two months, five days and obviously a few hours. Simon had started working again as a milkman. Before, he had occupied an office job, this voluntary change gave him the exercise he required to return to the man he once was. Well, physically at least. Simon grew from strength to strength and knew he had Howard to thank for it. The downside for the dog was the fact that his personal time with his master had thinned-out somewhat, to a few shreds in the evenings and time on the weekends. The trade-off seemed well worth it. Simon had acquired a horse for weekend recreation. He had become quite friendly with a mother of one boy who rode from his shared paddock. The woman’s former husband-to-be had stood beside her at the altar. Only to turn at the moment of truth, then rush off to the arms of her sister. Her fatherless son is now six. Rides in the nearby forest suited Howard’s needs to within a millimetre of perfection. The lady seemed kind. Her name Sally had a nice sound to it. The pace was well within his grasp. The outdoors were his Gods.
By birthday ten, his chocolate blotches were beginning to have a dusty look about them and the spring which was in his step in limitless supply had lost a few of its coils. He never lost his reliability though. Always there when required. Howard lived for the weekends now, the two horses and their happy riders, beside them, a small pony being ridden by Sally’s son Julián, and Howard riding shotgun at the rear. The smells in the forest, to Howard, represented the morsels of a smorgasbord banquet to a hungry person. Life just couldn’t get any better…
That was until a year later when Sally acquired a female German-shepherd from the animal shelter. Howard visited whenever he was invited. When her first litter of six yielded one runt with a funny ear and an inquiring look in his eyes, Howard’s memories rushed back like diving gannets. At each visit, the puppy-numbers dwindled but Howard couldn’t count anyway, so it didn’t matter. At last, he did notice the last remaining puppy, which took a while to get selected. He knew the ropes. Life is a tough teacher but she’s rewarding – if you hang in there and listen.
Which brings us to the beginning of our story. Now in his twilight years, Howard’s favourite spot was without a doubt the sunny patch of the deck. At this time of year, if the shadow of the giant oak hadn’t stolen his warming platform, by the time the children crocodile their way past the front gate after school, it would be one of those enormous hour-things, before Simon came home. His pooch’s brain had reflected back while waiting, with not much other than his life to think about. I suppose, if you think about it, as humans, it is exactly the same for us. Memories are all we take. He dozed off… Awoken by the keys hitting the glass dish by the door. A sound he knew well. Howard’s tail thumped against the boards, as always. Now, to stretch and go get a pat. Tomorrow was horse-riding day. He wanted to fit in as many as he could get his paws on. Neither the dog nor his master thought either owed the other a single thing in life. They were a unified entity now. Each was grateful for the results. Sally would be coming over at eight in the morning sharp.
At the nearby derelict castle, the group had paused for refreshments. Simon had a surprise, he decided to kneel in front of Sally. Howard heard his master’s voice be joined by Sally’s in merriment and a hug. He saw her put a tiny yellow collar on her finger. It had a sparkle attached. A beautiful sunny day gave birth to warmth. He watched them kiss with the ancient, crumbling, grey stones as the backdrop. On the return trip, highly-involved Simon and Sally did not notice the wandering pony, belonging to Julián, taking the old route back to the village outskirts where his home was. The wooden bridge was not to be trusted under a laden animal’s weight. They now only used the new much-longer route to cross the small river. In moments, in a hail of Howard’s barks, the young boy had allowed his pony to climb the beaten old track which meanders onto the bridge. He scampered up the track to repel the pony. Creaks of distressed timber hit their ears. The bridge twisted helplessly. It was a four-metre-drop to the water. Clearly, the jutting rocks and swirling pools created by them were for observation purposes only. How could the boy have been so absent-minded? Sally screamed. Simon rode to the water’s edge, just beside the bridge pylon in time to witness the rotting structure give way. Julián fell to the stream still in his saddle. Howard followed the pony until they broke the surface, leaving behind a huge splash. The current began to carry its three latest guests. Against the rocks, the mass of his pony crashed its rider uncontrollably, before coming to rest in a shallower section. He was still pinned to the stirrups semi-submerged and gasping. Cuts covered his body. The pony was kicking a losing battle with time. Stunned, Simon was lost for an answer. Howard paddled over to the boy and gave him something to grab hold of. He was one-half water-dog and used his powerful paddling motion to keep Julián’s head above water. The boy hugged him tightly. Howard coughed and spluttered. The heroic dog was taking in plenty of water but fought for the both of them. Simon dived straight in. After several moments fighting against the pony’s thrashing, the boy’s feet were pulled free, allowing the pony to find its way, very much worse for wear, to the bank. It staggered out and lay on its side coughing up water. Simon now had Sally’s son in his arms on their marriage-proposal day. He looked close to death. Wary to move an injured person, in this case there was no choice to be made, and so, Simon carefully carried the traumatized youth through the water to the grassed bank. Howard scrambled up the bank on the closer-to-town side and barked madly. Simon nodded, knowing what he meant by his actions. It was twenty minutes, if he ran fast, to get to Doctor Meredith’s surgery. Howard was gone without giving Simon a chance to think. It was the right move because neither Simon nor Sally wanted to leave the boy, in case… he didn’t make it. The sixteen-year-old dog ran like he was two. He was there in nineteen minutes. The return trip took twenty-seven. Doctor Clive Meredith drove. Howard’s only way of showing him where to go meant he had to run along in front of the car. When Howard reached the spot where the distressed couple lay alongside Julián’s pulverized body, he collapsed with exhaustion. He didn’t feel the pain of his ageing doggy bones as they began stage one, of the recovery process. Meredith was a medical man of far beyond his unsung small village role. He was one of only three others to choose from in Wiggington-on-sea. His remarkable skills, the very same ones which saved Simon’s foot from amputation, were utilized to stabilize the boy suffice to take him to hospital. The doctor’s hands worked feverishly to prepare the severely-injured boy for the trip in his car. The intense situation afoot was fully-occupying the human’s mindsets.
Moments before loading him in, nobody noticed the true hero slipping away. The gruelling run to town and back had been Howard’s last. As the loyal hound watched on, he had a fulfilling feeling in his ageing doggy bones. He had saved Julián’s life at the expiration of his own.
What Howard didn’t know was that the scrawny runt of the litter he’d sired had been claimed by Gail Moreton. After years of flying back and forth, she had returned and changed her job to become a receptionist in the village. Out of love for her first dog, she had called her new puppy, Howard. News in the small village soon travelled to her ears. Gail, Sally, Simon, Julián and Howard Jnr often visit his grave site right beside the newly-replaced bridge.
… A brass plaque on it simply reads: “Howard’s Bridge”