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Rambler’s Return Gave Him Hope

His dog had run away and now his grandson was off to war. Where would he find faith during the holiday season?

The inspiring tale of one dog's amazing journey home.

Christmas Eve should have been a happy day.

Our house was decorated. Work was done at the small-town church where my wife, Ricki, and I are pastors. Our kids and their families were coming over the next morning. And best of all, Blake, my grandson, was coming with them.

Blake had just finished basic training in the Navy. We hadn’t found out till the last minute whether he’d be home for the holidays. It would be such a relief to see him.

Ricki and I were so shook up when he announced before he’d even graduated high school he planned to enlist. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. I served in the Navy during Vietnam, and Blake spent most of his growing up years asking me every which way about my aircraft carrier.

All day I wandered around the house feeling low. I couldn’t stop thinking how short Blake’s visit would be, how soon he’d be getting back on that plane. When would we see him again? He’d enrolled to train as a medical corpsman. After that he could be posted anywhere and experience the horrors of war I’d seen in Vietnam.

I stared out the windows at our big, winter-brown lawn. We have 20 acres out here, about 40 miles from Little Rock. It was cold outside. My eyes went to the spot where I’d built a dog pen awhile back. Maybe that’s why I was so sad.

I’d built that pen for hunting dogs I’ve had over the years—and for one dog in particular, a redbone coonhound named Rambler. That was Blake’s coonhound, the one he’d gotten when he turned 15, when we decided he was grown up enough to join me out in the woods.

Rambler was a real escape artist. The pen didn’t hold him. Stakes couldn’t. He just hated being cooped up. He’d break free and trot right over to the house. Wanted to be with us.

Blake had boarded him with someone he knew in Little Rock during basic training. Not long after, Rambler had escaped. This time, though, he disappeared. He’d been gone a couple months. No trace. We’d done everything we could to find him.

I got real quiet thinking about Rambler. Those had been special times, those nights Blake and I spent hunting. The coons were the least part of it.

The point was being together, talking, tramping through the woods under a blanket of stars. We’d talk about any old thing, school, sports, church, the Navy. And, of course, girls. Blake was a teenager.

“How’d you and Nana meet?” he’d ask. “No, I mean how’d you ask her out? Weren’t you nervous?”

Now Rambler was gone. Those hunting trips were over. Blake was gone too. What would he be like tomorrow morning? I knew he’d be happy to see me and tell me all about basic training. But somehow it’d be different.

He’d be talking about his new life, his new friends, not the old things we did together. He was becoming a man. Rambler’s disappearance just sealed it. Those old days were in the past. A chapter had ended.

I looked at the lawn, the bare trees. It seemed like only yesterday Blake was out there toddling along beside me while I mowed that lawn. He had a little toy mower. Didn’t matter how long I took or how hot it was, he mowed up and down, scampering along in these little sandals he wore. We ended up bronzing those sandals.

Blake was our first grandchild. His mom and dad, our son Chip and his wife, Sunny, were just starting out when they had him. They lived in a trailer on our property. I spent part of every day with Blake. He’d toddle over in the morning and climb up a stool I kept for him in the bathroom.

He had his own play shaving cream and razor and we’d shave together, aftershave too. Later, in kindergarten, his teacher said to Chip and Sunny, “Your boy always smells so good!”

I took him camping. We fished. We worked in the yard. I loved all my grandkids to distraction, but there was something special about Blake and me.

He followed me everywhere. Boy, did he come at me with questions about the Navy! We’d see a ship on TV: “Is that what yours looked like, Papa?” Or we’d be out fishing: “What was it like being all the way out there in the middle of the sea?”

I tried to be honest, but what could I say about fear and dying? I liked it better describing the stars we’d see at night, the quiet of that big ocean. “Out there you don’t doubt there’s a God,” I told him. Which was true. Except now I wondered whether I’d made it sound too good.

Blake looked up to me and I knew that was part of why he’d enlisted. Should I have been more straightforward? Did I do right by him, Lord?

I turned away from the window. I knew what I should have done. I should have offered to board Rambler. Why hadn’t I? Just hadn’t thought of it in all the rush of Blake’s leaving.

Rambler had actually stayed with us when Blake first got him. Blake’s family lived in a house in town by then and we had a lot more room at our place.

Blake knew Rambler was gone. We’d even talked about it at his graduation from boot camp a few weeks before. I couldn’t tell how shook up he’d been. Everything had been so busy and, of course, his mind was elsewhere. Was that always how it would be?

The question hung there. I pushed my hands down in my pockets and bowed my head. Father, I’m going through a hard patch this Christmas. Please stay close to me.

The phone rang. Ricki got it. Suddenly she shrieked, “Denny!” She ran into the room, phone to her ear. “It’s Chip,” she said breathlessly. “They’re on the highway from picking up Blake. Someone just called Chip’s cell. They found Rambler!”

I stared, my mouth open. Ricki talked to Chip. “He’s in Vilonia,” she echoed, a town about 30 miles from Little Rock. Rambler had wandered 30 miles?

“The lady who found him said he’s skin and bones.” She nodded into the phone. “Chip and Sunny are driving there right now. They’ll bring him with them when they come tomorrow. Denny, he’ll be here. Him and Blake both!”

I shook my head. I didn’t know what to say. Was this an answer to prayer? Except I hadn’t prayed for Rambler in a long time. I just figured he was gone. A shiver ran down my back. All those weeks, all this worrying, finally giving up. God was watching over us the whole time. He’d guided Rambler. He’d had his hand on Blake. What a happy Christmas it would be!

The next morning Chip and Sunny pulled up in their car. Out climbed Blake in his uniform, tall and skinny, his hair buzzed short. Then out bounded Rambler, even skinnier.

Blake ran straight toward me and took me in his arms. Rambler jumped all over us. Ricki wrapped her arms around Blake. For a second I couldn’t tell who was who. Then we all pulled apart and just looked at each other, grinning. Rambler threw his head back and howled.

We had our traditional Christmas breakfast: eggs, bacon, biscuits and gravy. We opened presents and sang happy birthday to Jesus. Blake chattered on about boot camp, corpsman training, any old thing that came into his head, as if he’d never left.

I sat on the sofa, thinking about Rambler flopped down on the porch. How had I ever managed to convince myself a chapter of my life was ending? I should have remem­bered.

No good thing ends with God. He makes all of our endings into new beginnings. Rambler sure found that out, wandering halfway across Arkansas. I guess I did too.

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