Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

By Jayson Jacoby


The boy wanted a friend.

It would perhaps not even be overstating things to say that this boy, at this moment, needed a friend.

And it was then that he met the dog.

This boy and this dog were best friends for the next 15 years.

When you hear the story of how their friendship came to be you could maybe believe that it was fate, or else something so close as to not matter.

But whether you concede the concept of destiny, or you ascribe such things to plain dumb chance, you'll see that this pair, the boy and the dog, were made for each other as much as separate beings can be.

This bond, as it inevitably does in such cases, ended long before the boy was ready.

Boys, of course, grow into men.

But dogs..... well, dogs just grow old.

This boy, Kit Haberman, was at the time 11.

It is an awkward age anyway, skirting as it does the precipice of adolescence. That's a crumbly piece of ground - treacherous, really, and capable of bringing down even the sure-footed in a painful fall.

But Kit struggled more than most of his peers to make, and more importantly to keep, friends.

"I didn't have many," he said in a telephone interview last week, now a man of 27.

And so Rodeo could hardly have come along at a better time.

He didn't come with the name.

Or with any pedigree, for that matter.

In fact, the way in which the boy and the dog found each other seems more the realm of fiction than of reality.

It happened on Independence Day.

The year was 1996 and Kit and his mother, Gayle Laird, who then as now lived in Portland, were visiting relatives at Rock Creek in Baker Valley.

They went to the Haines Stampede Rodeo.

The festivities that year included what Gayle describes as an "animal scramble" - an event in which kids were allowed to go out into the arena and try to catch a dog or a chicken or a rabbit or whatever else was careening around the dusty ground.

What the kids caught, they kept.

Kit, unbeknownst to his mom, rushed into the melee.

Gayle and her husband, who died of heart disease when Kit was 3, had adopted him as a newborn.

He suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome and attention deficit disorder.

"He was very spontaneous, and still is," Gayle said of her son. "As a kid, whatever came into his head, he'd do it."

The animal scramble organizers had strung a rope across the arena entrance as a height guide - kids who could walk beneath the rope without doing the limbo were allowed in.

Although Kit, at 11, was likely older than most of the kids who participated, he was, his mom said, always small for his age.

The way he remembers it, "I was one of the last kids in there - I barely fit under the rope."

When Kit walked into this menagerie, about the first thing that happened was he stepped in a couple of cow pies.

But then he saw the little white dog with dark spots.

After that he saw nothing else.

"It took me probably a minute and a half to catch him," Kit said.

A few minutes later he ran up to his mom, clutching the frightened puppy.

"My mom said something like, 'Where did you get that?' '' Kit remembers. "I think I said something to the effect of, 'Can I keep him?' But what kid doesn't say that?"

Gayle, though she had not even considered adding a pet to her family, recognized in her son's eyes a level of desire that she simply couldn't deny.

Besides, she said, "I love animals."

The dog was of no particular breed.

Gayle pegged him for a cross between a Dalmatian and an Australian shepherd.

Kit didn't care about breeds.

He had his buddy.

"Love at first sight," Gayle wrote in a column published in The Oregonian in 1996.

Of course they named him Rodeo right then and there.

The boy and his dog went back to their home in Portland.

About a month later Gayle noticed that Rodeo walked with a limp.

A veterinarian told her that Rodeo had suffered an injury to his right front leg, probably soon after birth. The growth plate was damaged.

The options, the vet said, were amputation, an expensive surgery or euthanasia.

Gayle, a single mother who worked at the Portland school her son attended, didn't know what to do.

The last of the three options wasn't conceivable, certainly.

She remembered too well that look in her son's eye back at the rodeo grounds.

But she couldn't afford surgery.

One day in early November 1996, Kit was sick and had to stay home from school.

Gayle, wanting to stay with her son, first had to drive to the school to leave a lesson plan for her substitute.

She brought along Rodeo.

"The kids gathered around the dog and had a ton of questions about his leg and why he limped," Gayle wrote in a recent letter to the Baker City Herald. "I mentioned that he needed a surgery that we couldn't afford, but we were looking into possibly having the leg amputated when it got too bad."

Gayle drove home and took care of her son.

And Rodeo.

Later that week, with Kit feeling better and back at school, Gayle noticed signs at the school that read "Come to the bake sale and help a friend."

Then Kit came home and asked her if she could bake cookies for the sale.

It was for some Christmas project, he told her.

Not long after, the school's principal told Gayle what was really going on.

Kit's classmates planned the bake sale.

They wanted to help pay for Rodeo's surgery, to save his leg and, maybe, his life.

Gayle didn't know what to say.

Except "yes."

And "thank you."

She spoke with a veterinarian from Baker City (she doesn't recall his name) who helped her arrange to have Rodeo's surgery performed at the Veterinary School at Washington State University in Pullman.

The cost was half the earlier estimate - $2,000.

Still too much, really.

But Gayle decided to put the bill on her credit card and never mind the interest.

Rodeo's operation was scheduled for December 1996, the week before Christmas break. Gayle needed to pay half the bill before the surgery.

On a Friday, the day they left for Pullman, Gayle picked up Kit at school. His class had had three bake sales. One of the students handed Gayle a check. The amount was slightly more than $1,000.

"I was astounded," she wrote in her letter to the Herald.

Kit remembers that day, too.

"I had helped out with the bake sales - I just didn't know what they were for," he said.

A week later, after the 17-hour ordeal of driving through a Columbia Gorge ice storm, Gayle, Kit and Rodeo returned to Portland.

When school resumed in January, Kit's class presented her with a second check. Now she had only to pay the balance on the $2,000 surgery.

It came to what, by then, seemed the paltry sum of $88.12.

Gayle told her brother the story of Rodeo and the bake sales.

He wrote her a check for $88.12.

"It was incredible outpouring of love for a young, emotionally struggling young boy and his mom," Gayle wrote in her letter to the Herald.

"I have thanked the people of his school over and over for their generosity."

And so the boy and his dog were together.

Every year they came back to Baker Valley, usually for the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving.

They stayed with Kit's aunt and uncle, Arlene and Joe Dethloff (Joe died on Oct. 18, 2002).

Although the surgery had left Rodeo's leg straight as a ramrod, so that he sort of skipped when he ran, whenever they returned to Baker, Gayle wrote, "Rodeo would romp around with the other dogs forgetting he had hardware in his elbow. He loved going home."

Where home actually was, Gayle never learned.

Arlene had her suspicions about which family had brought the mongrel puppy to the Haines Stampede arena on that Fourth of July, but nothing concrete.

It didn't matter anyway.

Certainly it didn't matter to Kit.

For him, Rodeo's friendship, so rare and thus so precious, was the true thing.

It's not that Kit was a sullen child, Gayle said.

He loved babies.

He was intelligent and well-spoken.

His fault, if that is even the proper word, is that he was perhaps more self-centered than most of his peers, Gayle said.

Not selfish, exactly. But immature.

Whatever the reason, Kit never quite fit in with his classmates in quite the way almost all children yearn to do.

Yet the emptiness that Kit's social struggles created was filled, with unerring canine constancy, by Rodeo.

"He was there for me when I was basically all by my lonesome in the friends department," Kit said. "He was there whenever I needed him.

"We did everything together. We went for walks - lopsided runs in his case. Sometimes he got out and got into mischief. What dog doesn't?"

The way Gayle remembers it, Rodeo was the one friend - besides his mother, but that's an altogether different relationship - that Kit never had to wonder about.

"It's that unconditional love that a dog can give," Gayle said. "Dogs just have a way. Rodeo was always his buddy."

Last fall Gayle noticed that Rodeo, who lived with Kit in his Portland apartment, looked a trifle thin.

He was never a big dog, to be sure - maybe 50 pounds in his prime, including the steel hardware the vets put in to stabilize his leg.

That long ago surgery at Pullman saved Rodeo's leg, but no vet could completely heal whatever had happened to the pup.

He suffered increasingly from arthritis. Not an uncommon affliction in elderly dogs, of course, but Gayle figures Rodeo's case was exacerbated because he had to compensate for his damaged leg by putting extra stress on his three other limbs.

She and Kit switched Rodeo's food.

But he continued to shed weight.

One day he was down to 19 pounds.

Mother and son had a decision to make.

Compared to Gayle's decision about Rodeo's surgery in 1996, this one was both easier, and immeasurably more difficult.

They went together to the vet's office, the mom and the dog and the boy, only now he was a man.

"That was hard," Kit said. "I would have loved to be able to afford to spend thousands of dollars trying to find out what was wrong with him. He might have lived to be 20.

"But I knew eventually, that in some way or another I'd see him again. And I'll always have wonderful memories of him."

"They let us be in a room alone with Rodeo," Gayle said. "He kind of died in both our arms."

And now Rodeo is coming home.

For the last time.

It was Kit's idea, Gayle said, both to have Rodeo cremated and then to bring his ashes back to Baker Valley.

She was most pleased by this, saw it, in fact, as evidence of how much her son has matured during the past 16 years.

"I felt it was kind of a fitting closure for a canine life well-lived and well-loved," Gayle wrote in her letter to the Herald.

She intended the letter to serve as a public thank you.

"There are a lot of difficult kids out there who need love, and because we received some unexpected love from Baker County when my son needed it, we wanted to pass it forward," Gayle wrote.

Kit expects to arrive in Baker County, by bus, early Tuesday.

He plans to distribute Rodeo's ashes in three places: his aunt's place at Rock Creek, a lake in the Elkhorns, and, naturally, at the rodeo grounds.

Rodeo, quite literally, will rejoin his native soil.

And so a drift of ash will briefly mark the end of a story that began, in a distant summer, inside what must have been a similar spray of gritty dust, where a boy's fingers first felt the soft flanks of his best friend.