Loyalty, by Judith Weckman
Updated: Oct 26, 2021
Maranda is twenty-five years old, has purple hair, a nose ring, and big blue glasses. She’s a trained opera singer, having graduated from college summa cum laude in music, a former high school ROTC commander, and a dog lover. She is my daughter-in-law and one of Ki’s best friends. She and my son, her husband, are living with me this year.
Although Ki never gets on the furniture or sleeps in human beds, he will put his paw on Maranda’s lap and just stare into her eyes. When I use her as a practice live-find victim, it is unbearable for Ki to be detained while she walks away to hide in the woods. He fights me, pulling hard on his leash to be free.
One of Maranda’s first chances to accompany Ki and me on an actual search and rescue mission was in the middle of a hot July night. A woman was lost in the Cumberland Mountains. On that sweltering afternoon, she had been out four-wheeling with her boyfriend, but then disappeared in the woods.
When my team’s notification alarm went off, I rose wearily from my bed and pulled on my hiking pants, boots, and a sweatshirt with my name on one shoulder and our team’s logo, Kentucky Search Dog Association The Paws That Save, on the other. My snake chaps were already in the car. I quickly fed Ki a light meal and put him in the backyard to go potty.
I then woke Maranda and asked, “Do you want to come with me on a search? It’s a couple of hours away and we need to go now.” She agreed to come along. Already keyed up, I started barking orders, “Pack the drinks. Eat a snack before we go. Put on long pants!” As always, Maranda took it in her stride.
Within twenty minutes we were on the road, Ki snoozing in his crate. I looked for a radio station without static as we headed toward the mountains through a thick fog.
“What do you think happened to her?” Maranda asked me.
I felt a bit contemptuous and replied, “I think she got into a fight with her rude-ass boyfriend because he was driving too fast, so she jumped off the four-wheeler and ran away in a huff. He probably took off when she walked away. When he came back for her, she was gone, and I bet he didn’t even call for help until it got dark.” Maranda seemed skeptical of my cynical explanation.
A couple of months before, when Maranda first got interested in my search and rescue work, she came along on an all-day training mission and wound up serving as the lost victim for five hours in a wilderness preserve. The sponsors, a canine handler couple, were helping train a local group of EMTs for search and rescue cases.
The wife served as the instructor, patiently teaching the young men how to be an effective Incident Commander. She discussed how to interview volunteer family members, read maps, and organize a methodical search. She introduced “her students” to me and explained to them that Ki and I would be their canine search team, a resource they would sometimes use in actual search operations. Of course, they were excited to see my big, beautiful dog ready to help find their lost “victim.”
Maranda was then taken off in a four-wheeler and placed in a location unknown to me and the Incident Commander trainee. As they drove out of sight, Ki went crazy barking and jumping straight up in the air. Although I held his lead tightly and put my arms around him, he didn’t calm down at all. Every muscle was tensing as he was ready to run. I pulled him in the other direction to distract him from his hysteria.
After half an hour, the Incident Commander trainee had planned his search and called me into the command post, a trailer set up with maps and radios, for a briefing. He showed me five sectors drawn on the map and asked me to go with a support person to check each area. I then planned our route through the first two sectors, mostly forested areas. One man came with me as my flanker. He was ex-military and was very interested in how Ki was trained.
In the first two areas, Ki showed no sign of detecting Maranda’s scent. After spending nearly two hours looking, we returned to the command post to take a half hour break and plan the next search. We had walked about five miles while Ki covered twice that distance by constantly running out and back to me.
The next sector of the search was through brush and open farm fields which is an excellent habitat for a vine called catbrier. It forms dense impenetrable thickets, sometimes referred to as razor wire, which can stand over six feet high. The vine’s canes are lined with large, stiff, recurved thorns.
Within the first half hour of our search, Ki’s body language told me that he was on to Maranda’s scent. His head snapped, the nose went up into the air, and his direction of travel changed abruptly from time to time. He was moving in and out of the cone of odor wafting on the breeze.
I puffed baby powder into the air to check the direction of the wind. My aim was to keep Ki working into the breeze to catch the scent. Then he ran out ahead of me through a thick stand of catbrier. I struggled to keep up while fighting the thorns yanking at my shirt and pants. One thorn caught the flanker right in the lip and I had to help him get loose. Blood ran down his chin.
At that point, Ki let out a yelp, but I didn’t think much of it because he never stopped running ahead. We followed him out into the open field. He ran toward the bank of a creek and straight into the water where he laid down to cool off. I was more than a little miffed at his performance, thinking he had stopped his search to play in the creek. I sighed and called him over to me. He came a little reluctantly and then sat down facing me. I then realized his sit was an indication for a live find.
Although I was a little confused, I gave him the command, Show me! He moved about twenty feet away and then around the gigantic roots of a fallen tree. I followed him and there lay Maranda wrapped in a blanket. He sat down next to her, ever loyal to his girl. We all laughed, and I gave Ki a hotdog, his reward for the find.
After the training exercise was over, we packed up to return home. When we arrived back at the house, I fed Ki his dinner. Later that evening, Ki began pawing at his eye. I could see that it was cloudy and oozing.
The next few weeks were marked by several expensive visits to a vet ophthalmologist and Ki wearing a gigantic cone around his neck, but the eye was saved. A catbrier thorn had penetrated the iris of his eye while hunting for Maranda. When he yelped, he didn’t have time to stop or come to me with his problem. In his mind, the search had to go on. Such is the commitment of the German Shepherd.
As we continued our drive that night through the foggy mountains, I thought about Ki dozing in his crate and how committed he was to his humans. Just as the dawn began to break, Maranda and I arrived at the search site for the missing woman. We parked at a four-wheeler camp and waited for one of the local officials to find us. Three other members of our team showed up shortly. They had driven even farther than we had.
About that time, a local official drove up and said “I’m sorry you had to come all this way. The good news is we found the woman about fifteen minutes ago.” He expressed his appreciation to us all. He then told us that searchers had been out all night long on the mountain in four-wheelers, shouting out to the woman.
He explained that a helicopter with an infrared sensor flew in from the state capital and was on-site just before dawn. Because the surrounding woods had cooled down overnight, the device was able to pick up the woman’s heat-print on the mountain slope. An all-terrain vehicle then completed the rescue.
She had been wandering out there all night in a tank top, shorts, and sandals. She told her rescuers that she had heard their calls and called back throughout the night, but they never heard her over the roar of their machines. I thought to myself that we might have found her faster, walking quietly with our dogs.
When we asked how she got lost, the officer explained that she had gotten into a fight with her boyfriend and gotten off the four-wheeler and walked away. The boyfriend had driven away. When he came back for her, he couldn’t find her. The area where she was found that morning was what they called a bear wallow, a long trough on the side of the mountain where black bears regularly travel throughout the night.
She was still angry at the time of her rescue and refused to see the boyfriend. The officer told us that the search teams had travelled almost a hundred miles over the mountain trails that long night. I wondered if the couple had considered how dangerous it had been for their searchers and the considerable expense of the entire operation.
We didn’t stay long after that. I let Ki out of his crate for a short walk and then we headed back home as the sun came up.
Maranda turned to me at one point and asked, “How did you know?”
I looked out at the distant hills as we drove toward home then glanced back at my beautiful 101-pound shepherd. I didn’t really know what had happened between the four-wheeler couple, but I understand that people are not always loyal to those they love.
Judith Weckman is a volunteer canine search and rescue handler. Her dog's name is Ki and they have worked on many cases involving the search for missing bodies as well as for living lost people. She works as a research director at a small private college in Kentucky.
Elder Gideon, MFA, is a Gnostic folk artist visualizing a rare oral tradition of mystical Christianity. Trained in classical and contemporary painting and sculpture at California State University, Sacramento and L'Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, Gideon's icons, talismans, and sacred space installations are sought by Gnostic practitioners throughout the U.S. and abroad. He is also a published poet, translator, and essayist. His upcoming show Equal Arms will open at the Sacramento Poetry Center this November 2021. Please visit him @elder.gideon or http://www.eldergideon.com.