TAMPA — On a stretch of Nebraska highway, a woman lost her husband. Thirteen grown children lost their father. And a tiny dog named Taz lost his way.
Home was Salt Lake City, but Taz had a job. He rode shotgun beside Larry Wright, 68, a long-haul truck driver who plucked him from puppyhood six years ago and showed him America.
They seemed right for each other. Wright, a retired jockey, weighed 118 pounds. Taz, a miniature pinscher, weighed no more than 6.
They were inseparable until July 17 when Wright, who hadn't been feeling well, parked the rig on the side of the road. He got out, walked a few steps and collapsed.
The phone rang in Mesquite, Nev., where Wright's wife of 28 years, Kairle, was staying with her sick father. The officer told her Wright had suffered a massive heart attack. He was not expected to survive.
"Where's his dog?" she remembers asking.
"I have him," the officer said. Taz was bunking with police dogs.
Almost nothing was in Kairle's hands. There she was in Nevada, her dying husband air-lifted to a Colorado heart hospital, his truck and cargo and their dog in Nebraska.
She didn't know if her husband even heard her voice when the nurse held the phone to his ear. She missed his last breath.
"He was the love of my life," she said.
She couldn't bring him back.
But she knew instantly what she could do. Get Taz.
• • •
From the trucking world came an offer of help.
A trucker in Cheyenne, Wyo., who had known Wright, would drive Taz out of Nebraska.
At first, Kairle thought the trucker, whom she knew only as Rocco, was headed west from Florida. It was the opposite: He was headed east to Brandon, where he had a load to deliver to the Walmart at 1208 E Brandon Blvd.
Before she knew it, Taz was en route to Florida. Rocco called from the road with updates.
The calls consoled Kairle, 57, as she took care of other matters.
She found someone to haul her husband's stranded payload to Tennessee. She arranged his cremation, and the family planned a wake with Wright's favorite Elvis music.
In the obituary, Taz was the first family mentioned.
Born Aug. 22, 1943. Died July 18, 2012. While driving his semi truck, accompanied by his faithful companion Taz …
Everyone wanted Taz back.
"He's the only thing left of my Dad," said Wright's daughter, Sherri, 46, of Boise, Idaho. "Any warmth that is left of my Dad's life is in this dog."
Wright's ashes arrived home Tuesday.
That day, Kairle got a call from Rocco the trucker.
"How's my dog? Is he eating better?" Kairle asked.
"I lost him," Rocco said.
Outside the Brandon Walmart, Taz had slipped out of his collar and raced away.
The trucker searched. He called Hillsborough County Animal Services, and a volunteer searched with him.
On Wednesday, Kairle wrote this on her Facebook page:
I miss you, Larry. Please, honey, you got to help me get through this. Help me find Taz. If you are listening, help me. It's like losing you all over again.
Kairle made sure Taz's microchip file was up to date. The Wright children posted ads on Craigslist and started a Facebook page called Help Get Taz Home.
This is when Kairle learned that people 2,300 miles away cared about her and her dog.
One woman put down food. Another set out a cage. They posted fliers, knocked on doors.
Kairle had never met volunteer Jennifer Roberts, of the rescue group Heidi's Legacy, or Nancy Latimer or Linda Kelecy, both Animal Services volunteers. But the women searched.
Roberts knocked on doors, showing people a picture of Taz. She had heard about a dog hit by a car and buried along Mount Carmel Road, but people thought it was a Chihuahua. Taz was no Chihuahua.
Kairle, meanwhile, put off her husband's memorial service and bought a plane ticket to Florida.
"My whole life has changed," she said. "If I don't do this, I can't go forward."
• • •
On Saturday morning, Kairle was scheduled to arrive in Tampa. She had planned to go to the Walmart and call out to Taz.
"This little dog, he deserves to be home with us," she said.
"I deserve to have him home with me."
But she didn't get that far.
Instead, on Friday night, a phone rang again. Her son stopped her at the Salt Lake City airport to deliver the grim news.
That night in Brandon, people had worked solemnly with flashlights along the Mount Carmel Road burial site, gloved fingers searching the soil.
In a week, little Taz had lost a master, broken out of jail, visited Florida, tasted freedom, soared through the air, breathed his last breath. He had been buried, mistaken for a Chihuahua, been on TV, been lost, been found, now exhumed. Not by those who knew him, but by people in a city on the highway.
Roberts, the volunteer, scanned the remains for a microchip. The scanner beeped and showed Taz's number.
Everyone cried for Kairle.
"My first thought was, 'How are we going to tell her?' " Roberts said.
It wasn't over.
These people in Florida would find a place to get Taz cremated.
They would make plans to return his ashes to Kairle.
The crematorium, in Pinellas Park, would make impressions of Taz's paw prints.
Kairle lost a lot in two weeks. But in the search for a dog, she found faith in humans.
She posted a note Saturday on TampaBay.com, thanking those who filled her heart.
"Taz is coming home," she wrote. "I am getting my little buddy back."
News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Staff writer Patty Ryan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3382.