The Contract (Based on True Events)

“Lisa, it’s time for bed,” Lisa’s mother Annie said.

“Mommmoommmm. I’m almost finished my book. Three more pages, OKkk?

“Ok, but ten minutes…..that’s it.”

“OhhhhKay……” Lisa answered.

Lisa was a typical 5th grader, except that she liked books more than TV and more than video games. She liked to picture everything in her mind, she told her mother. She got good grades, probably partially as a result of her reading skills, and was doing very well in school overall. Her mother, and her father Jack were readers too, but they gave a lot of credit to the fact that Lisa was in a Catholic, all-girl, environment. She seemed happy, and that was the most important thing to them. They had had to sacrifice to keep Lisa in this school, but there was no decision they had made, whatever the cost, that had felt so right.

“OK Lisa, time’s up.”

“Oh, Mommmm.”

“You heard your Mother darling, her father yelled over. You can finish that last sentence in the morning. Let’s go.”

“Alll…righhhht, Lisa moaned, knowing she was outnumbered now.

“You know the routine,” Annie said.

“Yeah, books away, floss, brush, night to Ranger, then bed.”

“You got it,” her mother answered, standing in the doorway to make sure the ritual was not going to be put off another minute.

“Mom, Lisa said, with overdramatic alarm . . .”

“Your project is in its case, ready to go in your book bag: is that what you were going to ask?”

“Yeah, Mom, thanks. I’ll be dead if I forget my project……!”

“Well, I don’t think it would be quite that serious dear, but you’re all set.”

“Thanks Mom . . . can we go over my introduction one more time?

“Don’t even try it,” her mother answered.

There were few things more amusing than the dramatic abilities of an 11-year old girl turning something minor into a major incident, and also trying to stay up a little bit later.

Annie was too sharp for that. She and Jack were both very competent people. Annie was a manager at a software company and Jack was an engineering troubleshooter with a wireless phone company. The only downside to their jobs was that they both had roughly an hour commute with traffic. And Jack, though he had moved up in seniority, still had one late night shift to work per week: but that was to change soon.

All in all they were very happy with their lives.

“Where’s Ranger?” Lisa asked.

“He’s upstairs; I’ll call him down so you can say goodnight.”

The Johnsens had gotten Ranger from a Labrador Retriever Rescue two years before. He had turned out to be a wonderful pet. They believed strongly that it was important to give homes to these dogs before bringing more puppies into the world.

The rescue owners told the Johnsens that the man who owned Ranger before had suddenly had to take on much more travel for his job and he didn’t think it was fair to his pet for him to be gone so much. Though Ranger had been a little people-shy when he first arrived at the rescue, he had adapted well, they had said.

The Johnsens didn’t know if they quite believed that story, but they decided to go visit Ranger and see for themselves. He was a beautiful, pure bred male black lab with all the markings of that breed. They had spent about a half-hour watching Lisa play ball with him in a large, fenced in area. They were pretty convinced then that Lisa and Ranger could be a match, but they thought they should think about it overnight. “Oh, Mom…..Dad, Lisa had implored.” But they were firm. “Just until tomorrow honey. We just want to be sure. No one’s going to take him before they hear from us.”

But then, as they walked to the car, Ranger was sitting with the rescue owner when he suddenly ran over to Lisa, picking up a tennis ball on the way. He pushed it against her stomach and made little supplication sounds: “eum…eum….eum…..”

Annie and Jack looked at each other and Annie said to the owner, “Where are the papers we have to sign . . . and oh, by the way, when did you teach him that?

“Just yesterday, he answered, But he got it down pretty good wouldn’t you say?”

More than 15,000 years ago, an unwritten contract evolved between human clans and certain wolves (canis lupus). It may have been because wolf packs and human clans operated in almost identical ways, starting with their cooperative hunting methods. Both humans and wolves chose a mate for life and reared their “children” in similar ways. In their new relationship with each other, humans supplied certain wolves with shelter, sustenance and companionship. Wolves provided their counterparts with hunting assistance, danger alerts and loyalty. As centuries went by, these wolves became the dogs we know today (canis familiarus). Though times have changed radically for both species, the contract, though occasionally broken tragically on both sides (the vast majority of times by humans), has remained in effect.


Soon after Ranger’s arrival at the Johnsen’s house, Lisa and Ranger did become fast friends. During those times when she would watch TV or a video, she would lay her shoulders and head against Ranger’s stomach when she watched TV. He was so strong—Ranger was a little on the large side for a male Labrador at 90 lbs.–he didn’t seem to mind at all. Lisa also ‘dressed him up’ with hats and things, and Ranger was longsuffering about it. Annie and Jack were still worried at first that he might suddenly take issue with something Lisa might do and snap at her, but he never did. Whatever had happened to him before, he seemed to be wonderfully gentle with Lisa; she, as well as Annie and Jack, were coming to really love this dog.

“Is Ranger coming down?” Lisa yelled over to her mother’s room.

“I’ll get him dear. Come on Ranger, come on, say goodnight to Lisa.” Ranger came down the stairs and straight into Lisa’s room.

“Come on you big lummox….,” Lisa said. She had learned that word at school and just had to use it.”

“Oh, Lisa  . . . that’s not nice. He’s not clumsy.”

“Oh Mom . . . I’m just saying it because I love him . . . ,” and Lisa threw her arms around his neck, getting a huge sideways lick in the face in return.

“Oh, yick….he got me!” Lisa squealed.

“See? said Annie, you shouldn’t call names…….” They both giggled.

Suddenly Lisa turned serious.

“Ah, Mom, Ranger’s acting kind of funny. He’s walking funny. Maybe his leg’s not getting better.”

She was referring to the sprain Ranger had suffered when his leg went into a hole the previous weekend as he chased a squirrel in the park.

“Oh, let me look at him. Ranger, come here boy. She reached out and felt Ranger’s right, front leg. Ranger pulled back. Yes, oh you poor fellow. I’ll get you some aspirin before you go to bed.”

Lisa’s Mom explained to her that the vet had said it could take another week or so before it would heal. But Ranger’s doctor didn’t want him to stay off of it either.

“Couldn’t he sleep down here tonight?” Lisa asked.

“You can try Lisa, but he really seems to have made a little home of his own up there.”

Lisa’s Mom was referring to the little five-step staircase in split level homes that leads to the upper bedroom. Ranger initially napped up there in the daytime and now had taken to spending the night there too.

“Don’t worry dear, you’re big “lummox” will be right up there.”

“Oh Mooommmmm!!!! That’s my name for him . . .!”

“I’m just kidding you honey. Now say goodnight.”

OK….goodnight Ranger. And goodnight Mommy….I love you.”

“I love you too dear,” she said, as she leaned down and gave her a kiss, “and so does Daddy, and so does Ranger.”

Canis familiarus is the result of some 15,000 years of domestication and at least 500 years of differential breeding. Yet, under the radically different outer appearance of a dog, beats the heart of an animal with nearly the exact DNA of canis lupus. Wolves often post a “sentry” wolf near, and often above the den to guard the puppies. Deep instincts and hierarchical impulses propel other seemingly strange behaviors in family pets, yet almost all, put in the context of a life in the wild, make perfect sense.

Lisa had gone to bed at 8:30 and her mother turned in about 10:30 that night. All was quiet in the neighborhood. One of the last thoughts Annie had before she drifted to sleep was that she hoped the aspirin she had given Ranger would take away any pain he was having in his leg. She had come to love the big dog too and she hoped it was just a sprain and nothing more, particularly for Lisa’s sake.

What she couldn’t have known was that Ranger was sleeping more soundly than usual.  A little while before Ranger went in for the night, a man walking along the sidewalk had surreptitiously thrown a few morsels of steak toward Ranger as he raced over to “defend the property.” Ranger had run to the fence but the man was gone. The stranger watched though from down the street as Ranger gobbled up the steak as he walked back to the house. It was laced with a time-release sleep medication. Later, between that and the aspirin, Ranger went into a deep sleep where one might imagine, he was dreaming of the chase.

At 3:05 am, the cylinder in the lock on the back door of the Johnsen’s door pulled to one side. A plastic “pick” had been inserted along with a tension wrench. It was one of the better door knob locks, so it would take a few minutes for the man holding the two small instruments to open. Finally, when all five cylinders lined up, the lock turned easily, just as though the key itself had been inserted. He was in.

For weeks prior to this moment, the intruder had peered through binoculars from the park across the street. He had seen Lisa being put to bed by her mother. He had watched Lisa’s dog turn to go upstairs. He had continued watching as Lisa’s mother pulled the curtains. Every Thursday evening, he had seen Jack leave for work about 9:45 pm. The detailed surveillance went on for weeks, but he had chosen Lisa several months before that.

This night, a Thursday, he had watched as their routine was followed. He knew that if his plan worked like it should, the only “X” factor would be Lisa’s mother. For that reason, he had gotten his hands on the strongest taser gun he could find on the black market—one strong enough to bring down a 250-lb. man.

The intruder was wearing surgical gloves and soft-soled shoes. He proceeded, ever so slowly toward the main stairs. Once there, he listened. Nothing. He took each stair slowly, testing it with his weight. They were carpeted, which softened his steps even more. When he got to the top, he turned right. He knew exactly where he was going.

The stranger had to work quickly. He had to silence Lisa and listen for Ranger. The “assignment” excited him. The danger provoked his disdain for other people’s so-called intelligence and their notion that they could “protect” their daughter if he wanted her. “I’m already in your daughter’s bedroom and you don’t even have a clue. Dream on Mommy,” he thought.

The kidnapper placed his hand over Lisa’s mouth tightly and waited for her to awaken. He was smart enough not to use her name, even though he knew it. That might ruin the lie. Then he whispered to her: “Listen to me. Listen. I am not going to hurt you. We are here to get your Mom and Dad’s jewelry and some money. That’s all we want. Don’t scream because my friend has your Mom in her bedroom and he will kill her if you make a sound. Understand? Lisa started to shake and tears started to form in her eyes but she shook her head, “Yes.” Inside a terror that felt like electricity flowed from her chest all the way down through her body, like the feeling a falling dream creates right before the dreamer goes off the edge.

Everything the man told her was a lie, meant to scare or calm her into submission. What he really wanted was her.

“I’m going to put this tape over your mouth just so you won’t accidentally yell. If my friend hears anything….even a little sound from you…..he’ll do what I said . . . remember that. But we don’t want anyone to get hurt. You got it? Lisa nodded yes. She wanted to believe him. After he had covered her mouth with the tape he said, “You can breathe OK?” Lisa nodded. Then without saying anything, he quickly brought her wrists together and bound them as well. “That’s only so you don’t accidentally hit something and make a noise,” he said.

“OK…you go with me just to the front door. My friend comes down with the stuff and we leave….we let you go. That’s it. If you do what I say,” he whispered, “you’ll be back with your Mom in less than a minute. Don’t be afraid. We just need money. Your Mom will give it to us if she knows we have you.” He listened again for the dog before taking the next step. . . . only quiet . . . that was good.

The man picked Lisa up “fireman’s carry” style and started downstairs. He had done the timing. Split levels have 12 steps with a railing that turns 90 degrees in the middle. Walking carefully, it would take one second for each step. Twelve steps and then the bottom landing. Open the front door and out: 15 seconds tops. He had parked the van where it blocked the view of the front door.

When they hit the first step, Lisa’s whole body shook. She didn’t hear her mother! She didn’t hear Ranger! Why? She was alone and heading for the front door with some monster who had broken into their house. She was panicking, but the tape over her mouth was tight and she couldn’t’ scream. Actually, she was screaming….little hums it sounded like. The man stopped for a split second pointed upstairs with his left hand. She stopped.

On the third floor, Ranger heard something, and he stirred. Even with all of the kidnapper’s cunning, he had been sloppy in one area. A dog’s metabolism is different from a human’s and the Johnsen’s canine companion was registering something, even in his half-conscious state.

Fourth step down: Eleven seconds to go.

The criminal’s caution caused him to pull out the taser.. . . just in case. If Lisa’s mother or her dog came down that staircase, he would simply pull his free arm up toward them. They would go from righteous protector to quivering mass of jelly instantly.

Ranger was lying down again. He had lost the scent. His other senses were also fuzzy. He was back in the wilderness.

Sixth step: Nine seconds.

Lisa’s mother also slumbered deeply. She had been very tired that night and incredibly, none of these happenings woke her up. There was only one protector left, and he was running through a dreamy ancestral forest.

The reality, at that moment, was that even if Ranger were up and ready, he could get up and run from his bed to the first landing in about one second, down the first flight in another one second, go across the landing in two seconds and take the main steps in about four seconds.

He would need eight seconds altogether plus the bottom landing.

If Lisa’s abductor got two more steps down, he and his precious “passenger” would be two seconds out the door before Ranger could physically, at his best, get there.

Eighth step down. Seven seconds to go.

Even the egotistical abductor couldn’t quite believe that he was pulling it off.

Ninth step down. Six seconds.

The man turned slightly to look up the staircase. Nothing. As he turned though, he swung Lisa just slightly, and her foot tipped a photo frame hanging on the staircase wall. It was a tiny click, but Ranger once again, registered something. But then he heard something else: he heard Lisa. He heard her scream through the tape. She couldn’t help it, despite the threat. To a human, the sound would have been totally inaudible. But to him, it was like a siren had gone off right next to his ear.

A canine’s sense of hearing is four times that of man; its sense of smell is 40 times greater.

Tenth step. That meant that in five seconds, the stranger would take his prize away in the night.

Ranger struggled up, ready to head downstairs. He dug his paws into the carpet and pushed off, but the sudden weight on his sprained front leg was too much and it buckled under him, causing pain to shoot up the injured tendon into his shoulder. His leg collapsed under him. By the time he had started to get up again, he had lost an unrecoverable second. The medication was still affecting him but the sound of Lisa kept waking him up. Ironically, the pain in his leg actually helped at that moment; it galvanized him.

Lisa struggled. She had been taught to at school and now it was coming back to her. “Fight,” she had been told. “Fight for your life.” So she did. She started wriggling. She arched her back and tried to throw the man off balance. It was the right thing to do but the predator simply squeezed her back with his arm—harder and harder. She couldn’t breathe. She had to stop or suffocate.

It took only one extra second to quiet her.

Lisa was in total panic. Where was Ranger? “Mommy! Mommy,” she screamed through the tape.

Ranger was on his way down to the second floor landing. But he was still seven terminally long seconds behind a tragedy.

Eleventh step. Four seconds.

Twelfth step. Three seconds.

They crossed the landing and what now felt to Lisa like an invincible robot under her opened the door with his left hand, which was still holding the taser. Lisa was about to go out the door: she had to scream! The kidnapper had one foot out the door now and was beginning to turn Lisa with him to get out quickly and shut it behind him. He was two seconds away from success.

Ranger crossed the landing, looking downstairs. He had run down to the front door before, hundreds of times, at best in four seconds.

Ranger crossed the landing at a dead run. He looked again. What he registered could be translated into the following four words:

Lisa; Perimeter; Stranger; Attack.

What Ranger saw was a large man carrying Lisa, and opening the door. In a second, they would be through it. A closed door was the one thing Ranger couldn’t overcome.

Lisa arched her back, reached behind her and grabbed the top of the door. The robot simply reached up with his right hand and knocked her arm off the door. In one motion he swung her down to his right hip. He had done it. He grabbed the outer doorknob with his left hand and turned to go out.

The ancient, howling choruses of Ranger’s ancestors were rising now, setting his brain on fire. He knew, instantly that going down those stairs would mean he wouldn’t make it. If he was going to get to Lisa he couldn’t go down the stairs. He would have to go up. Still on a dead run, he put his claws out and sunk them into the top stair carpeting. Pain shot up his right front leg. Ranger brought his hind quarters up under him as though he were going to jump straight up. But in one motion, he transferred all of that energy into a high arcing leap forward. He couldn’t misjudge it. He couldn’t catch one of his paws on the rail. He couldn’t err to the right or left. It had to be perfect.

Lisa looked up and saw Ranger leap. The most incredible feeling of joy came over her, but it didn’t last. Her captor was pulling her out the door. Ranger was too late she thought, and she was at least half right.

By the man’s plan, and the stopwatch, the man had beaten Lisa’s protector. Ranger would slam into a closed door and she would hear the soul shaking sound of the van door closing her in. But Lisa didn’t realize that in grabbing the door, she had bought Ranger another half second.

At that same second she was thinking this, the man sensed something. Halfway out the door he looked up, instantly crossed his left hand over his right and aimed the taser.

The explosion that followed felt to the man like an elephant had charged and pinned him against a rock wall. Ranger was not only a heavy dog, but his momentum traveling down at such a speed increased the impact geometrically. The criminal’s head, neck and shoulder blades were slammed into the door. The taser dropped to the floor with a single clack. Ranger had come in high, instinctively going for the man’s head and neck. Had it not been for the fact that the man’s body was straddling the door and that there was some give to it, he may have been knocked unconscious on the spot. Unfortunately, though the direct hit was on her captor, Lisa was knocked into the door too. The man dropped her instantly and she crumbled under the deadly attack above her. She was leaning against the inside of the door in pain, disoriented. “Mommy,” she tried to cry through the tape.

A sprinting wolf can pass a car cruising at 35 mph easily. He or she can then run at a steady trot all day. With a short start, he or she can spring nearly straight up 10 feet, latch onto prey and land perfectly, and from a running start, she or he can jump up and out more than 28 feet in just two seconds.

The massive collision was followed immediately by the most “savage” attack that Lisa had every heard. Even in her injured state she could hear the ferocious snarling and biting. It was good she didn’t see Ranger because she would have been terrified at the site of him. Ranger’s lips were pulled back all the way. His canine teeth looked like fangs and he was making sounds that scared her, even though she knew it was her dog.

It was not a man that Ranger saw that had tried to take Lisa: it was a coyote, the wolf’s ancient nemesis and kidnapper of pups. Ranger was going to tear him apart. He had thrown his whole weight into the man, biting at his arm and occasionally up at his neck. The sentence for taking a “pup” in the wild is immediate death and dismemberment. Ranger had started the process.

“He was like a monster, Mom” Lisa would later say. “He was so scary, but so wonderful.”

Ranger didn’t get a good hold on the man’s neck but as he slid down, he bit into his upper arm so hard that his canine teeth bit into bone. The man screamed as loud as Lisa had been wanting to scream for so long. Ahhh!!!!!..Oh God…no.” And then it was just high pitched screams….Ahhhh..ehhhh!! …Ahhhh!!! The would-be human poacher managed only once to actually get a phrase out…”Get him off me!!:….and then went back to his high pitched screams as Ranger sunk his teeth into his arm. If Ranger sensed he was losing his grip he would instantaneously let go and bite again.

The strongest muscle in a wolf’s body is its jaws. When a wolf bites down, she or he exerts 1,500 lbs. per sq. in. of crushing power. A wolf’s jaws can easily break the largest bone in a full-grown Caribou’s leg. Their ancient instinct, once they have bitten, is to hold on until the pack arrives. The lead wolf will often aim for the head or neck: even a full-grown, 1,600 lb. Bull Moose can have trouble shaking off a single wolf that gets a good hold.

Ranger kept his teeth in the man’s arm as he shook his own head back and forth. Lisa was under what sounded like a towering tornado above her. It was nearly 300 lbs. of man and dog twisting, turning and screaming. She covered her head with her hands and tried to yell for her mother.

“Lisa! Lisa….her mother screamed as she ran down the stairs. “Get him Ranger…GET HIM! she yelled. All her mother had heard from upstairs was this tremendous commotion and the sound of a terrible canine attack. She couldn’t imagine what it was all about. But when she saw Lisa’s bed empty, a shock went through her as though the loudest thunder she had ever heard in the sky had occurred directly over her head. An ancient instinct surged through her as well, just as it had through Ranger.

She didn’t call the police. She didn’t call Jack. She ran down the stairs to find Lisa. Like any mother, and like a wolf, she would have run through fire to get Lisa back. What she saw was almost impossible to register as real: The door was partially open with a man half in and out of it; Ranger like a primitive predator had pinned him in place and was sinking his teeth into him over and over. Lisa was sitting against the door with tape over her mouth and her wrists bound.

Lisa’s mother didn’t want Ranger to stop the attack because she realized that Lisa and she could still be in danger. The man could have a gun and get free for one second. She had to get Lisa and get back upstairs.

The kidnapper had been trying to pull away from Ranger the whole time and at that moment, his opportunity finally came. Lisa had been unintentionally holding the door closed with her body. When Lisa’s Mom reached her and grabbed her arm, the door swung open. Ranger fell back slightly and released his grip for one second. The kidnapper actually fell out the door. Ranger lunged for him again but inadvertently knocked the door closed. The man lay bleeding outside the door, but not for long. Even in his wounded state, he knew he still had a chance to get away. He tried to drive away but got only a block before he had to pull over. He passed out from blood loss and was taken into custody a few minutes later. In the wild, he would have died in minutes, the sentence having been carried out.

Ranger, for about thirty seconds, had become a ferocious, snarling, sacred avenger.

Then, just a few minutes later, Ranger was upstairs, kissing and licking Lisa, even as she descended into a total state of terror, realizing fully what had just occurred. She later would be diagnosed with a concussion from hitting the door when Ranger had thrown himself onto the man. The alternative though, could have been far worse.

The result of everything that happened to her was that she was lying on her mother’s bed, shaking violently and unable to talk. She was going into shock. An ambulance was on its way. Her mother would ride with her and her father would meet them at the hospital as soon as he could get there.

Two days later, when Lisa could finally speak from her hospital bed, she asked about Ranger. “Is he OK? Where is he? Did the man hurt him?”

She would need extensive therapy, and would suffer night terrors and panic attacks for years to come in the wake of the horror she went through.

Two months after the incident, and when Lisa was deemed well enough to attend, the neighbors threw a block party to celebrate Lisa’s bravery and survival and Ranger’s heroism. Ranger was awarded a beautiful canine medal of honor, bought and paid for by the Johnsen’s neighbors. More important to him, he was given an extra large hamburger, right at center stage.

For a long time after that, Ranger, and the night of terror that had happened in their midst, was the talk of the town.

Lisa’s would-be abductor lost most of the use of his right arm due to nerve damage and was sent to jail for life with no parole for aggravated kidnapping.

Jack went into his boss the next week and simply said, “No more Thursdays.” The woman just said, “That goes without saying Jack. I’m so relieved Lisa’s OK.” But he never would get completely over the fact that he had not been there, and what had almost happened.

Annie also suffered terrible guilt that she had slept through the ordeal, even after being assured that many other parents had slept through similar break-ins. It was the fact that the man was so diabolically clever, she was told, that made it happen. It didn’t help her much to hear that.

The family eventually healed as well as could be expected. Lisa is in college now, close-by enough that Ranger sometimes stays with her on weekends. When she is home, he refuses to leave her side. He sleeps next to her bed, and she reaches down and pets him until she falls asleep.

Lisa and her family, years before the attempted kidnapping, had rescued Ranger from a life without a pack: a solitary, lone wolf state that no canine would ever choose. They had given him a good home, plenty of food and water, medical care and constant companionship. Since he didn’t have pups of his own or littermates, they had allowed him to bond with Lisa and the two of them had become almost as close as if their “pack” was of the same species.

For his part, like so many of his gray wolf ancestors, Ranger had held up his end of the bargain. He risked his life without question or pause for his human family. No matter what his life had been like before the Johnsens brought him into their home, his rescue of Lisa proved that he still understood the sacred contract, and he meant to live up to it, he and his kind . . . forever.


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