Missing dog, bullying victim heal each other
By the end of his adventure, Murphy had become a minor social-media celebrity in Iron County.
A network of animal activists kept the missing dog's brown and white-blazed face popping up in scores of Facebook feeds. For five days, sightings were reported around Cedar City, showing the intrepid dog had survived multiple crossings of Interstate 15. Finally, news of his heartwarming return to his family Tuesday night fanned out to dog lovers across the state.
But as the community rallied around the little basset-pit bull mix, they didn't know Murphy's latest jaunt was part of a longer journey of healing that brought together an injured stray and a victim of relentless middle-school bullying.
Brycen Roberts remembers coming home from school one afternoon in April with cuts and bruises over his face.
It wasn't his first beat-down at middle school. But it was the worst. Brycen had become a target of some football types, he said.
"People would just run up to me, push me over and run down the hall."
Brycen said he went to the water fountain only to be slammed into a wall and chased away. There was no way to avoid the people who didn't like him. The school is built around a single hallway that funnels everyone together, he said, trapping everyone with their enemies.
"I think a prison architect designed the school," said Brycen, now 15.
Brycen's aunt, a volunteer with Salt Lake County's pit bull shelter program, heard about his troubles. She and Brycen's mother, Cassie Roberts, had spoken about adopting a dog to cheer him up. About a year ago, shelter staff identified a perfect match: a little stray pit mix that had been injured in a fight with his kennel-mate at the shelter, said volunteer coordinator Kiera K. Packer.
The dog needed a lot of help. He had open wounds from the fight and drains installed to prevent infection. He would initially require at least weekly vet visits, Packer said.
"We felt like we needed to get him out to a foster," Packer said. "This seemed like a good fit. A kid who was bullied needed someone, and here [Murphy] got bullied a little bit, too."
A volunteer drove through a snowstorm to take the dog to Brycen in Cedar City. It was Christmas Eve.
"For Christmas vacation, all he did was hug Murphy," Cassie Roberts said. "All they did was snuggle and sleep side by side and get each other into a good place."
But the trouble continued at school. Things bottomed out in April, when someone spat on Brycen. One boy pulled his jacket hood over his eyes and pinned his arms while another boy punched away at him. The police eventually got involved. Cassie said a school official told her it might be best for Brycen to stay home for a few days.
Brycen spent those days with Murphy the only one in his life who wasn't in on the drama.
"He's always there," Brycen said. "He doesn't judge. He's not capable of it. Even if you've done something bad, he'll be there."
Cassie said she isn't sure the family alone could have buoyed Brycen through it all.
"A parent can only do so much. Siblings can only do so much. But when you have someone to come home and hold, that isn't going to lecture or ask questions, just be your best friend in the world there are no words for it."
After the days off, the dust settled at school and Brycen got through eighth grade.
"Things are going better now that I'm at the high school," he said. "There's just a lot more people, and everyone does their own thing."
Meanwhile, Murphy fully recovered from his injuries, but he still had some behavioral quirks, Cassie said. Odd things a man taking off a hat, for instance send him cowering.
And on Nov. 8, something apparently set him off during a visit to the Roberts' family farm on the west side of Cedar City. After Cassie had removed his collar to scratch his neck, Murphy took off running. When the family tried to chase him, he panicked and ran farther.
Friends and others in the community helped to search for Murphy as word spread over the next five days. Cassie and her husband, Bryan, drove around in shifts.
Brycen waited at home, realizing in a quiet house that the progress he had made in the past months, coping with some infuriating and terribly lonely times to get to a better year that it really was all about Murphy. The thought of his dear friend darting around the freeway and possibly never coming home devastated Brycen.
"I was not doing well without him," Brycen said. "When I figured we had lost him last weekend, our family kind of fell apart. If somebody pushed me too far, I would have started swinging at them."
Brycen had resigned to do some homework Tuesday night when his sister heard scratching at the front door. After eluding every would-be rescuer, Murphy had found his way home hungry, cold and tired but otherwise uninjured.
"We gave him kisses and lots of hugs," Brycen said. "I'm so, so happy that he found us."
Cassie said it was meant to be.
"They healed each other, and they're going to be together," she said. "They're just the perfect match."