One morning last August, Sarah Stone walked out of her Lady's Island home to find a 3-month-old puppy waiting on the back porch.
He was malnourished and covered in fleas, but that didn't matter to her five children.
"Look! A puppy!" they shouted.
She told them to leave the dog alone, that with luck, it would simply go back to where it came from.
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But the puppy stayed all day and through the night, and despite Sarah Stone's best efforts, eventually wiggled his way into the family's home and hearts.
They named him Buddy.
He was with them not quite a year, following the kids everywhere and acting as a watchdog while dad Jesse, a Marine sergeant, was deployed to Japan.
On Saturday, the family lost Buddy forever.
A.J. Stone, at 10 the family's oldest son, and his mom found Buddy dead of a gunshot wound on the front porch.
No one heard the shot that left the hound mix dead.
PROTECTOR AND FRIEND
Sarah Stone was not a dog person.
When Buddy showed up, she told her husband they already had five kids and didn't need a sixth.
She took the puppy to the Beaufort County Animal Shelter, where the Stones were asked to foster him for a week to give his owners time to claim him.
"No one did," Sarah said. "By the end of the week, I was completely in love."
So was the whole family.
If the kids were reprimanded and sent to their rooms, Buddy would hang his head and wait outside their door until they were allowed to come out.
A watchdog, Buddy barked at any movement outside -- a car pulling up the driveway, neighborhood kids cutting through the yard or the UPS driver dropping off a package.
When Jesse was deployed in March, Sarah Stone was comforted knowing Buddy would alert her if anyone approached their 3-acre, wooded property.
"I didn't have to do the half-asleep, half-awake thing at night, because Buddy was listening for us," Stone said.
"Buddy was just a perfect fit for our family."
NO EVIDENCE FOUND
On the day he was killed, Buddy was let outside at about 2 p.m. to relieve himself.
He never returned.
About 30 minutes later, Sarah and A.J. drove around the property looking for him. He was nowhere to be found.
As they drove past the front of the house, A.J. spotted the dog on the front porch.
Sarah could see that his fur was soaked in blood, and managed to stop A.J. before he reached the porch.
Based on the blood trail, the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office determined Buddy was shot while on the Stones' property, about 15 feet from their back door. The wounded animal managed somehow to make it to the front porch.
Deputies searched the property for footprints and spent shell casings, but found nothing.
The Stones wanted to bury Buddy in their backyard, but the thick tree roots wouldn't allow that.
The Beaufort County Animal Shelter retrieved Buddy's body, which will be cremated after an necropsy is performed.
"Hopefully they'll be able to retrieve the bullet, and maybe we'll get some answers," Sarah said.
The Stones have put a cross at the spot deputies believe Buddy was shot. The children pick flowers from a hibiscus plant and lay them around it.
On Monday, Sarah was walking 6-year-old twins Weston and Gage into school when one of them spotted a flower he liked. He stopped, saying he wanted to pick it for Buddy.
Stone said A.J. has been most affected.
She said she has sometimes looked out the window to see the boy sitting alone by the cross, crying.
"(A.J.) had a special bond with Buddy," Jesse Stone said via email. "We often joked that Buddy was his dog, and he was Buddy's boy."
All five children are left with questions their parents can't answer: "Why would someone kill him when he did nothing wrong? If we're in the backyard, is someone going to shoot us, too?"
"You don't expect your children to ask those kinds of questions," their mother said.
From Japan, Jesse tries to comfort his family through phone and Skype conversations.
"This person has done much more than kill a dog," Jesse said in an email.
"This person murdered a friend, a playmate, and a protector. They stole the security of my family. They traumatized my children."
Follow reporter Laura Oberle at twitter.com/IPBG_Laura.