Louis Latka was sure he'd never again see his toy poodle Tiki when he disappeared after being thrown from the family car in an accident near his home in Parker, Ariz., on Nov. 28.
After all, a California Highway Patrol officer spent hours combing the area's scrubby desert and hollering "Here Tiki! Here Tiki!" to no avail, CHP officials said.
"I went back the next morning and found huge paw prints--figured a coyote got him," said Latka, 61, a retired machinist.
On Sunday, 15 days after the accident, Latka and his wife Jean were lifted out of the doldrums by a collect call from a woman in Yermo, Calif., 218 miles west of Parker.
"Did you lose a little dog?" asked Catherine Chacon.
"Is it white? Does it have a blue rhinestone collar? Does it say 'Tiki' on it?" Latka shot back.
"That's it," said Chacon, adding that she found the dog trembling and hungry near a freeway overpass just outside of Barstow.
When the shouts of joy subsided, one intriguing question remained: How did Tiki manage to get so far alone in a desert teeming with critters big enough to have had it for an afternoon snack.
People familiar with the story speculate that the dog was picked up by a westward-bound motorist who later jettisoned Tiki by the roadside.
But the way Latka figures it, his "brave little pile of skin and bones" trekked--in the wrong direction--an average of 17 miles a day along canals and highways before Chacon came upon him.
"I keep looking at him and I can't believe it," said Latka, who had Tiki in the groomer's on Wednesday. "He was filthy, loaded with vermin and burrs."
And Tiki, who had lost three pounds during the adventure, was being fed "whatever it wants" by Latka, who was happily trying "to get some meat back on those bones." Tiki normally weighs about seven pounds.
Finder Has Other Image
But the dog that Chacon will always remember was scrawny and gnawing on something at the side of a road halfway to nowhere.
"When I picked him up, he was just fur and bones--a skeleton," said Chacon, who took the dog home and placed the pitiful specimen in a box near the fireplace.
"I gave him slurps of sugar water and baby Pablum," she said. "By the Lord's will, he still had on his dog collar, which had five telephone numbers to call."
The telephone numbers, which were stamped on a dog tag shaped like a bone, belonged to Latka and several of his relatives in California.
"This has made me feel very good at Christmas," Chacon said. "We have very few miracles nowadays."
Having Tiki back has also buoyed spirits in the house trailer where Latka and his wife, Jean, 58, have been recuperating from injuries suffered in the accident when Latka lost control of his car while trying to pass a truck. Latka is mending a broken vertebrae and a cracked sternum. His wife had a badly sprained neck and shoulder.
"Having the dog back eases the pain and anxiety," Jean Latka said. "All my husband did for 15 days was cry, 'Poor Tiki, Poor Tiki.' "
"It sure has made my Christmas," Latka said. "Tiki's back on my lap; that's where he usually hangs out."