A love that conquers fear of death
There are more things in heaven and on earth, Horatio
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Hamlet, act I, scene v.
Recently, I’ve read some stories about Civil War dogs – the bravery, loyalty and courage of dogs who accompanied their masters into battle. Sallie, a dog adopted by the 11th PA regiment, followed the men into battle that fateful July day at Gettysburg. On the first day’s fighting, the regiment was decimated by Confederate fire and overrun. Despite the confusion of the Federal retreat, Sallie made her way back to her fallen comrades, and there she stood sentinel, licking the faces of the dying until they passed into another world...and guarding the bodies against looters, refusing to leave. Days later, after the Confederate retreat, a member of the 12th Massachusetts found her still on guard, weak from lack of food and water, but still alive. Today, her monument graces that glorious field at Gettysburg…
Another story is told of Confederate Brigadier General William Barksdale’s dog. Barksdale led his Mississippi boys into battle at Gettysburg, only to be cut down on the second day’s fighting. Following the battle, Barksdale’s wife journeyed to Gettysburg to exhume her husband’s remains and return to their home in Mississippi. It was a trip that broke the heart of Barksdale’s dog. Troy Taylor tells it this way:
She was accompanied on her trip by the General’s favorite hunting dog. As the old dog was led to his master’s grave, he fell down onto the ground and began to howl. No matter what Mrs. Barksdale did, she was unable to pull the animal away.
All through the night, the faithful dog watched over the grave. The next day, Mrs. Barksdale again tried to lure the dog away, but he refused to budge, even though the General’s remains had already been loaded onto a wagon to begin the journey back to Mississippi. Finally, saddened by the dog’s pitiful loyalty, she left for home.
For those who lived nearby, the dog became a familiar fixture during the days that followed. He would occasionally let out a heart-breaking howl that could be heard for some distance. Many locals came and tried to lead the dog away, offering him food, water and a good home. The dog refused all of their gestures and eventually, died from hunger and thirst, still stretched out over his master’s burial place.
Wow! What a story of loyalty and love! Can we ever fathom the depths of true dog and human love? It is said that on the night of July 2, the anniversary of Barksdale’s death, an unearthly howl echoes across those silent Gettysburg hills -- a witness of a faithful dog who still grieves from a place beyond this world…dead from a broken heart.
In another story of love, the 102nd Pennsylvania Regiment named their large black and white dog “Jack.” Jack fought with distinction ‘through a score of battles’ and finally took a bullet at Malvern Hill. He recovered from his wound only to be taken captive with his comrades at Salem Heights, and imprisoned for six months at Richmond…
York, the dog of Federal Brig. General Alexander S. Asboth, fought with his master throughout the battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas. He ran beside the general’s horse, refusing to leave his side…one eye-witness was so impressed that he sketched a picture of the dog which ran in Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.
Just a few stories of loyalty between dog and master, fortitude under fire, for the sake of love…
A love that risks itself for the other
Upon reading these stories, my mind went to a time where my dog Wyatt almost killed himself to be near me…and then, in turn, where I had to risk myself to rescue him.
On this gorgeous spring day, a friend and I were exploring, looking for campsites and potential fishing spots. We walked several miles, roughly following a large creek through a mountain pass. A tributary, smaller creek formation caught my eye on the other side, and I decided to cross the large creek for a closer look. I knew better. It was a dangerous creek, more like a mini-river, a favorite of local kayakers…the second fastest creek in Pennsylvania.
In the back of my head lurked the images of four children drowned the same day by this creek, neighborhood children buried by my father, who offered their funeral services years ago. And, I was also warned by the knowledge of a kayaker killed that year on the creek. So I took caution…I thought.
I picked out a section where the creek broadened out, a gentler section where the deepest water wouldn’t even reach much above my waist. Downstream, the creek narrowed through rock walls into twisting vortex of undercurrent and whitewater…but I wasn’t going down there! No way! Not a chance…I was here, many yards upstream, where it was safe to cross.
So I asked my friend, Joe, to hold my dog Wyatt while I crossed. I cautioned Joe not to drop the double-rope leash at any cost: “Whatever you do, please don’t let him follow me!” I couldn’t take the chance that Wyatt would be swept down into danger. So I charged Joe with the task of holding him, and started across.
I balanced myself, walking with care across the rocks and into the deeper parts. It all went well…until behind me, above the roar of the creek I heard a shout: “Loy...Wyatt!” I turned to see Wyatt dashing into the creek, leash and all. He would not be held. It was too much for him to see me crossing alone. He had to be with me!
He wrenched himself free by pure force, and braved the creek. Several leaps and then he was swimming…swimming, and then gone. “Wyatt! No!” I shouted! “NO!” But it was too late. The current grabbed him and swept him down toward the vortex. Only seconds, but it seemed forever: I watched, stunned in horror…as my dog swept faster and faster toward death, struggling for his life. “God, no! Please!”
Suddenly, something caught Wyatt. There, a large single, large rock jutted out of the stream…swept to that exact spot, he clung for dear life. Drenched, and visibly afraid, he looked back at me, pleading to me for help. “Stay, Wyatt, stay!” I cried. I held up my hand, giving him the hold signal…and with all the power in my lungs and body, I commanded, “Stay!” If he tried to move, he was done.
I only had seconds to make a decision.
The current swept by him on both sides, there so deep and powerful that it would take both of us. Vexed in my spirit, I could not leave him! But I had no answer. Even the rope I brought would just hang me in the current…but I had to do something! He couldn’t hold on forever!
Immediately, a voice said: “Approach the rock from directly above. Let the current take you to him, and then trace the exact steps back up to lower water, directly against the current.”
And just as immediately, I acted. “Stay, Wyatt!” “I’m coming!” I took a deep breath, and positioned myself directly above him. Gingerly I walked…then deeper and faster the current caught me…but it only pushed me to that same rock! Wyatt’s fear-filled eyes looked at me with hope, and I carefully took him in my arms…a full-grown, large dog, but he felt as light as a baby to me. And he rested as gently as a baby, too, trusting me implicitly, as I turned back and faced the current. He did not struggle in the water at all…he instinctively realized his life was in my hands, trusting me for the outcome. And I trusted God, and prayed…a step at a time, straight against the current, one more step, not fallen yet! Another step…another…another…gradually less depth, and gradually less current…and then…free from danger!
Just like that, the ordeal was over.
A hint of Love greater than all loves
I put Wyatt down on the bank. And he looked at me with incredible understanding, and licked my face. I’ll never forget that look. He was trying to thank me, in awe and gratefulness. He knew. And I knew too, that should I ever have need, he would die for me in a second.
I hugged him, grateful that we both were alive. How was I to scold him whenever he only wanted to be with me?
And I looked at my friend Joe. He hung his head: “I couldn’t hold him,” he said. “He tore himself free.” And I shook my head. “It’s ok.” “It’s over.” “All’s well that ends well…”
And, it was well!
We made our way back, each a little richer for the experience. I gave thanks to God for clear intervention, for the still, small voice of power and peace. I also gave thanks for the bond between this man and dog, which mirrored, if but for a moment, the infinitely higher bond between human and Creator – a Creator that is never at loss to rescue His loved humans.
I prayed then, and pray still, to be a child that would not fret His control, nor tempt His hand. “It is written,” said the Lord Jesus. “Thou shalt not put the Lord thy God to the test.”
Indeed! But thanks be to God, those times I’ve walked that edge of testing Him, He has been so faithful! And to think that He loves me and you far more than I loved Wyatt, or Wyatt loved me! And yes, He has risked far more to free us from the vortex of our days...
Such incredible, infinite Love!
For those of you hanging on by a thread, in the threatening vortex of life…may the loyalty of a dog renew you again in the loyalty of the One who holds you safe in His awesome hands!
Trust child, trust. Stay, and release yourself to His care…