Ben’s underground home was a cozy place. At the bottom of three rather wide steps was a den that stretched away in front of me. My toenails made snicking sounds as I scurried across the slick, shiny wooden floor. I crossed the room and sniffed at the fireplace. It had a large wolf Mandela, a wolf painted on a shield, above the mantlepiece. The mantle was a wide oak plank with many pictures of dogs and other Indian memorabilia on it. A bone-handled knife. A tomahawk. A long-stemmed pipe. Pouches of what I smelled to be sweet-scented tobacco.
I gave a start and leaped back when I saw that the entire fireplace was surrounded by what looked like a grizzly bear’s head shaped out of the stucco that formed the rounded walls of the underground home. The bear appeared to be snarling, with the hearth and the firepit deep within its gaping jaws. I sniffed at the ashes, for no fire burned inside of it now.
Grunge came up behind me, walking slow, turning his big head this way and that as if preparing for a surprise attack by some unseen dog. Yes, I could smell dog, too, but it was surely from the many other dogs this Ben fellow had allowed into his home.
*Grunge,* I said, glancing back at him, *it is safe here. There are no dogs hidden in these depths. There are no dogs going to attack us. Relax. Settle in. I think we hit the jackpot. This is a safe home. No more smelly, dirty junkyards for us, Big Guy.*
He gave a soft growl. He then looked back at Ben and Jessie standing at the foot of the landing, checking to make sure they weren’t up to something. *I am still not sure,* Grunge rumbled, *what this Indian is up to. He has to have an angle. Look at us, Bandit, two pits with such a dark reputation, and yet this man treats us with respect. Something is not quite right.*
I snooped around the den a little more, trying to think of something I could say to ease Grunge’s fears. *Are all humans not to be trusted?* I asked him. *They can’t all be cruel like the Hammerman, can they? Why, look at you, you’re doing like all those humans who you said judge us pitties to be mean and vicious dogs! Have you ever thought maybe some of them are kind and can be trusted?*
I left him standing there before the large fireplace while I explored the three other rooms linked to the den by a long, narrow hallway. Two were bedrooms, and the third was a washroom. This Native man sure kept a clean house. Everything was neat and tidy, with a hint of lemony scents drifting through the air from what I was most certain was furniture polish on the oak woodwork throughout the home. I could certainly get used to living in a place like this. It beat dirty, dingy, greasy junkyard living, hands down.
“Grunge,” I heard Ben calmly say, “you’re still not sure about me, are you?”
I then froze right there in the middle of the hallway, my mouth hanging open, my eyes gone wide.
There unraveling before Grunge and I was a very colorful vision.
That was the only way I could describe what I was seeing.
Just above Ben, a shimmering cloud of thick mist appeared. A swift wind rippled through the smoky cloud, parting it down the middle. At the far end of a distant horizon, a lone rider came racing down a long, narrow valley, his black hair streaming over his shoulders. He wore leather pants, his bare chest and shoulders were covered in a fine white chalk with a scattering of what looked like blue hailstones painted across his upper body. A single yellow lightning bolt covered his left cheek. As he wildly rode his horse directly toward Ben, he let out a war cry.
Grunge let out a snarl, his lips curled back to reveal his shiny white teeth. He lunged forward in one swift motion, and placed himself in front of me, taking up a defensive stance as the rider closed with Ben.
*I don’t think he means us harm,* I whispered to Grunge. *I think he serves a purpose.*
*The Otherworld,* Grunge said as if he knew where this strange rider came from. *When I was a pup, just born up on the Pine Ridge reservation, my first master was a medicine man. He walked in the spirit realm. He drew his healing powers from the Otherworld, a realm just beyond this one.*
Ben was looking at us two dogs, totally unaware of the ghost rider bearing down on him.
The horse and rider collided with Ben in an explosion of shimmering lemony flecks of light. He sank to his knees, a startled look on his darkly-tanned face. Tears sprang to his brown eyes, slowly trickling down his cheeks. He bowed his head, swaying back and forth, fighting to keep his balance.
*What’s he doing?* I asked Grunge, curiously.
*I don’t know,* Grunge replied. *I don’t think he knows he was even touched by that spirit rider and his ghost horse.*
I looked on as Ben slowly raised his head, his eyes coming to rest on Grunge.
Defiant and angry as ever, Grunge snarled at him kneeling there not three feet away from him.
Suddenly, a ghostly form drifted directly out of Ben’s chest. It was a spirit-Ben and he hovered there before an enraged Grunge. Blue and transparent, he raised his hands and spread his arms out wide, preparing to hug the snarling, snapping, growling Brindle pit.
This ghostly figure of Ben stopped, though, his hands outstretched toward Grunge.
I could see by his face that he wanted so badly to embrace the vicious dog standing there within inches of his nose, but he held himself back, as if not wanting to intrude into Grunge’s space.
I just knew Grunge was going to bite Ben. There was no way he could reach out and touch that angry pit without the big dog going into full-blown attack mode. I wanted to tell him to back off. I wanted to warn him that he was crossing the line with an unpredictable creature that was about to explode and do him severe harm.
But I dared not say anything, for fear that would set Grunge off. One word from me and it might ignite his killer instincts, unleashing a storm of fierce fury that Ben could not handle. A storm that he might not even survive.
Grunge was the spookiest dog I had ever seen. His teeth were showing in a snarl of red-hot rage. Gooey saliva was dripping from his wide jaws. He narrowed his eyes, locking onto Ben as if sending him a warning of deadly danger. In those eyes was a promise that he was going to do great damage. There he was, a pit bull, who had had his rage meter torked way past normal during whatever past fights he had been forced to endure. He had been ramped up to kill or be killed. Those dozens of scars crisscrossing his head and shoulders spoke volumes about all that the poor dog had suffered.
I was so scared I was shaking. I even glanced back to see how far away the door was in case I needed to escape when Grunge finally exploded and attacked Ben, kneeling there before him.
“I know you are lost and hurting,” Ben said, calmly to the rage-filled dog. “I know you have absolutely no reason to trust me, let alone allow me to touch you. You are suspicious and so uncertain of my intentions. But I ask you to allow me into your circle, please allow me into your space that you are so desperately trying to defend and protect. You place a barrier there between us for no reason, because the last thing I want to do is harm you. I know you have every bond that you formed with past owners broken, and broken most violently. It will take a lot to regain that trust if I ever hope to bond with you. I simply ask for your permission to give me a chance. I mean you no harm, Grunge, you big broken-hearted, badly suffering dog.”
I stood there, staring at Grunge in sudden disbelief.
One second, the large, fierce and furious dog was snarling and prepared to launch an attack, and the next, he fell silent as if seriously considering Ben’s words.
Something magical was taking place there before that fireplace in the underground home of the Lakota dog handler. I quietly whispered, “You really are a dog whisperer, Ben.”
He didn’t seem to hear me. He was fully concentrating on connecting with Grunge.
I greatly envied that Indian kneeling there with only two feet of space between a beast that could have savagely ripped off his face. I wanted to be able to do that, too. Whatever magic or medicine or power of connecting Ben was blessed with, I wanted it, too.
I was puzzled and amazed at the same time. Just when I expected Grunge to launch a savage attack, his extreme rage was slowly tamped down. One of those strange visions unfurled before me in a shimmering mist much like the mist the rider had emerged from. This one revealed a grizzly bear pierced by many arrows. The large brute stood on his hind legs, snarling in pain, rage, and fury.
Although the real Ben remained there kneeling before Grunge, his ghost-self raised his hands toward the infuriated bear, sage burning in one hand, and in the other a feather tinged with pulsating golden light. He waved both at the many arrows protruding from the body of the badly wounded bear. As the feather he held grazed each red-feathered arrow haft, they vanished in a sizzle of tiny flickering fireflies that hovered in the air between Ben and the bear.
When the bear was fully healed of his many wounds, it dropped to all four paws, regarding Ben with an unreadable look in his dark eyes. It huffed at him. It sniffed the air. It shook its massive head. It then turned and ambled away.
I know that Grunge had seen this vision, too, for he growled one last time at Ben, then lowered himself to the stones of the hearth, and quietly fell asleep.