Tampa, Fla. • On a stretch of Nebraska highway last week, a Utah woman lost her husband. Thirteen grown children lost their father. And a tiny dog named Taz lost his way.
Home was South Jordan near 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 earlier this month when Wright, who hadn't been feeling well, parked the rig on the side of the road. He left the window cracked. 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.
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 from Cheyenne, who had known Wright, would drive Taz out of Nebraska via Florida.
The trucker, whom Kairle knew only as Rocco, was headed east to Brandon, Fla., where he had a load to deliver to a Walmart store.
Rocco called from the road with updates. The calls consoled Kairle, 57, as she arranged Larry's cremation, and the family planned a wake with his favorite Elvis music. They wrote an obituary. Taz was mentioned before any other relative.
"He's the only thing left of my Dad," said Wright's daughter, Sherri, 46, of Boise. "Any warmth that is left of my Dad's life is in this dog."
Wright's ashes arrived home on Tuesday.
That same day, the phone rang again. It was Rocco. Taz had slipped out of his collar and run away outside the Walmart in Brandon.
Rocco and volunteers from Hillsborough County Animal Services searched unsuccessfully for Taz.
Finally, the idea came to Kairle.
She put off her husband's memorial service and bought a plane ticket to Florida.
"This little dog, he deserves to be home with us," she said. "I deserve to have him home with me."
Then on Friday night, a phone rang again. Her son stopped Kairle at the Salt Lake City airport to deliver the grim news.
Searchers found Taz's remains buried in an area north of the Walmart where he disappeared, said volunteer Nancy Latimer. He had apparently been hit by a car.
"My first thought was, 'How are we going to tell her?' " volunteer searcher Jennifer Roberts said.
Everyone cried for Kairle.
Then the kind-hearted strangers found a place to cremate Taz and take impressions of his paw prints and will send his remains to Kairle.
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."
Kairle has lost a lot in two weeks. But in the search for a dog, she found faith in humans.
Tampa Bay Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report.