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HOMER AND PANCHO,
and all who sweetened my life before them
Properly trained, a man can be a dog’s best friend.
On a chilly morning in February with a misty rain shuttering the windows, Devin and Rosie Cauldwell made slow, sleepy love. It was day three of their week’s vacation—and month two of their attempt to conceive a second child. Their three-year-old son, Hugh, was the result of a long weekend on Orcas Island in the San Juans and—Rosie was convinced—a rainy afternoon and a bottle of Pinot Noir.
They hoped to repeat their success with a return visit to Orcas, and happily applied themselves to the mission at hand while their toddler slept with his beloved Wubby in the next room.
It was too early in the day for wine, but Rosie took the quiet rain as an omen.
When they were snuggled up together, loose and warm from sex, she smiled.
“Who had the best idea ever?”
Devin gave her ass an easy squeeze. “You did.”
“Hang on, because I just had another one.”
“I think I need a few minutes, first.”
She laughed, rolled and propped herself on his chest to grin at him. “Get your mind off sex, Sleazy.”
“I think I need a few minutes for that, too.”
“Pancakes. We need pancakes. Rainy morning, our cozy little house. Definitely calls for pancakes.”
He squinted at her. “Who’s making them?”
“Let the fates decide.”
She scooted up, and in a long-standing Cauldwell family tradition they let the balance hang on Rock, Paper, Scissors—best two out of three.
“Damn it,” she muttered when he crushed her scissors with his rock.
“Superior skill wins out.”
“My ass. But fair’s fair—and I have to pee anyway.” She bent down to give him a smacking kiss, then jumped out of bed. “I love vacation,” she said as she dashed into the bathroom.
She especially loved this vacation, she thought, with her two handsome men. If the rain kept up, or got heavier, they’d play games inside. But if it let up, maybe they’d strap Hugh in the carrier and take a bike ride, or just go for a long hike.
Hugh just loved it here, loved the birds, the lake, the deer they’d spotted and of course the rabbits—all brothers to his faithful Wubby.
And maybe he’d have a brother of his own in the fall. She was ovulating—not that she was obsessing about getting pregnant. But counting days wasn’t obsessing, she thought as she caught her sleep- and sex-mussed hair back in a band. It was just being self-aware.
She grabbed a sweatshirt and some flannel pants, glanced back at Devin, who’d gone back to snoozing.
She really thought they’d hit the money shot.
Delighted with the idea, she pulled on heavy socks, then glanced at the watch she’d left on the dresser.
“Gosh, it’s after eight. We must’ve worn Hugh out last night for him to sleep this late.”
“Probably the rain,” Devin mumbled.
Still, she turned out of their room for his, as she did every morning, at home or away. She moved quietly, content to let him sleep—a bonus if she could grab her first cup of coffee before she heard the first Mommy of the day.
She peeked in, expecting to find him curled up with his stuffed bunny. The empty bed didn’t bring panic. He might’ve gotten up to pee, just as she had. He’d gotten so good with his potty training.
Even when she didn’t find him in the little bathroom off the hall, she didn’t panic. Since he was habitually an early riser, they’d encouraged him to play for a bit before waking them. She usually heard him, talking to his toys or running his cars, but she’d been a little distracted having vacation sex.
God, she thought as she started downstairs, what if he’d looked in when they were doing it? No, he’d have walked right in and asked what game they were playing.
With a half laugh, she turned into the pretty living room, expecting to see her little boy on the floor surrounded by the toys of his choice.
When she didn’t, the first fingers of unease tickled up her throat.
She called his name, moving quickly now, sliding a little on the hardwood floors in her socks.
Panic struck, a knife in the belly.
The kitchen door stood wide open.
SHORTLY AFTER NINE, Fiona Bristow pulled up at the pretty vacation house in the heart of Moran State Park. Rain fizzed along the ground more than pattered, but its steadiness promised sloppy tracking. She signaled her partner to stay in the truck, then got out to approach one of the local deputies.
“Hey, Fee. You got here fast.”
“I didn’t have far to go. The others are on their way. Are we using the house for base camp or do you want us to set up?”
“We’re using it. You’ll want to talk to the parents, but I’ll give you the basics. Hugh Cauldwell, age three, blond and blue. Last seen wearing Spider-Man pajamas.”
Fiona saw his mouth tighten a little. Davey had a boy about the same age as Hugh, and she imagined he had a pair of Spider-Man pj’s, too.
“The mother first noticed he was missing at about eight-fifteen,” Davey continued. “Found the back door open. No visible signs of forced entry or an intruder. The mother alerted the father. They called it in right away, and they ran around, calling for him, looking in the immediate area.”
And tracked up the place, Fiona mused. But who could blame them?
“We did a house-and-grounds search, to make sure he wasn’t just hiding.” Davey turned back to Fiona with rain dripping off the bill of his cap. “He’s not in the house, and his mother says he has his stuffed bunny with him. He sleeps with it, carts it around habitually. We’ve got rangers on the search, McMahon and Matt are out there,” he added, referring to the sheriff and a young deputy.
“McMahon cleared me to call in your unit, and assigned me to base.”
“We’ll set up and get started. I’d like to interview the parents now, if that’s good for you.”
He gestured toward the house. “They’re scared, as you’d expect—and they want to go out and look for him. You might help me talk them down from that.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” Thinking of that, she went back to the truck, opened the door for her partner. Peck hopped out and walked with her and Davey to the house.
At Davey’s nod, Fiona crossed to the couple, who rose from their huddle on the couch. The woman clutched a little red fire engine.
“Mr. and Mrs. Cauldwell, I’m Fiona Bristow with Canine Search and Rescue. This is Peck.” She laid a hand on the head of the chocolate Lab. “The rest of my unit’s on the way. We’re going to help look for Hugh.”
“You need to go. You need to go right now. He’s only three.”
“Yes, ma’am. The rest of my unit will be here any minute. It would help us if I get some information first.”
“We told the police and the rangers everything.” Devin looked toward the window. “I need to go out there, look for him. We’re wasting time here.”
“Believe me, Mr. Cauldwell, the police and the rangers are doing everything they can to find Hugh. They called us because finding him is everyone’s priority. We’re trained, and your little boy is our only focus now. We’re going to coordinate with the police and the park rangers. I need to make sure I have all the information so we optimize our resources. You realized Hugh was missing about eight-fifteen, is that right?”
Tears swam fresh into Rosie’s eyes. “I should’ve checked on him earlier. He hardly ever sleeps past seven. I should’ve—”
“Mrs. Cauldwell . . . Rosie,” Fiona corrected, using the first name to comfort. “You don’t want to blame yourself. Little boys are curious, aren
’t they? Has Hugh ever left the house by himself before?”
“Never, never. I thought he’d come down to play, then I couldn’t find him, and I went back to the kitchen. And the door . . . the door was open. Wide open. And I couldn’t find him.”
“Maybe you could show me.” Fiona signaled to Peck to follow. “He’s wearing his pajamas?”
“Spider-Man. He’ll be cold, and wet, and scared.” Her shoulders shook as they moved back to the kitchen. “I don’t understand what you can do that the police can’t.”
“We’re another resource, and Peck? He’s trained for this. He’s been on dozens of searches.”
Rosie swiped tears off her cheeks. “Hugh likes dogs. He likes animals. If the dog barks, maybe Hugh will hear and come back.”
Fiona said nothing, but opened the back door, then squatted down to take in the view from the level of a three-year-old boy. Likes animals. “I bet you can see a lot of wildlife around here. Deer, fox, rabbits.”
“Yes. Yes. It’s so different from Seattle. He loves watching out the windows, or from the deck. And we’ve taken hikes and bike rides.”
“Is Hugh shy?”
“No. Oh no, he’s adventurous and sociable. Fearless. Oh God.”
Instinctively Fiona put an arm around Rosie’s shaking shoulders. “Rosie, I’m going to set up here in the kitchen, if that’s okay. What I need you to do is to get me five things Hugh wore recently. Yesterday’s socks, underwear, shirt, like that. Five small items of clothing. Try not to handle them. Put them in these.”
Fiona took plastic bags from her kit.
“We’re a unit of five. Five handlers, five dogs. We’ll each use something of Hugh’s to give the dogs his scent.”
“They . . . they track him?”
Easier to agree than to try to explain air-scenting, scent cones, skin rafts. The boy had already been gone more than an hour. “That’s right. Does he have a favorite treat? Something he likes especially, something you might give him when he’s been good?”
“You mean like . . .” Pushing at her hair, Rosie looked around blankly. “He loves gummy worms.”
“Great. Do you have any?”
“I . . . yes.”
“If you could get the clothes and the worms,” Fiona said with a smile. “I’m going to set up. I hear my unit, so I’m going to set up.”
“Okay. Okay. Please . . . He’s just three.”
Rosie dashed out. Fiona shared a brief look with Peck, then began to set up operations.
As her team came in, human and canine, she briefed them and began to assign search sectors while poring over her maps. She knew the area, and knew it well.
A paradise, she thought, for those looking for serenity, scenery, an escape from streets and traffic, buildings, crowds. And for a lost little boy, a world filled with hazards. Creeks, lakes, rocks.
More than thirty miles of foot trails, she thought, over five thousand acres of forest to swallow up a three-year-old and his stuffed rabbit.
“We’ve got a heavy drizzle, so we’ll keep the search grids close and cover this area.” As field OL—operational leader—Fiona outlined their sections on the map while Davey listed data on a large whiteboard. “We’ll overlap some with the other teams, but let’s keep good communications so we don’t step on our own feet.”
“He’s going to be wet and chilled by now.” Meg Greene, mother of two and recent grandmother, looked at her husband, Chuck. “Poor little guy.”
“And a kid that age? He’s got no sense of direction. He’ll wander anywhere.” James Hutton frowned as he checked his radio.
“He might tire out, just curl up and sleep.” Lori Dyson nodded toward her German shepherd, Pip. “He might not hear the searchers calling for him, but our guys will sniff him out.”
“That’s the plan. Everyone has their coordinates? Radios checked, packs checked? Make sure you set your compass bearings. With Mai in emergency surgery, Davey’s solo base OL, so we’ll check in with him as we cover our sectors.”
She stopped as the Cauldwells came back in.
“I have . . .” Rosie’s chin wobbled. “I have what you asked for.”
“That’s great.” Fiona crossed to her, then laid her hands on the terrified mother’s shoulders. “You hold good thoughts. Everyone out there has only one thing to do, one thing on their mind: find Hugh and bring him home.”
She took the bags, passed them out to her unit. “Okay, let’s go get him.”
With the others, she walked outside, hitched on her pack. Peck stood by her side, the slight quiver in his body the only sign he was anxious to get started. She and the others spread out to take their assigned sectors, and like the rest of her unit, she set her compass bearing.
She opened the bag holding a little sock, offered it to Peck’s nose.
“This is Hugh. It’s Hugh. Hugh’s just a little boy, Peck. This is Hugh.”
He sniffed enthusiastically—a dog who knew his job. He glanced up at her, sniffed again, then looked deep into her eyes, body quivering as if to say, Okay, I’ve got it! Let’s move!
“Find Hugh.” She added her hand signal, and Peck lifted his nose in the air. “Let’s find Hugh!”
She waited, watching him scent and circle, let him take the lead as he prowled and paced. The thin, steady rain posed an obstacle, but Peck worked well in the rain.
She remained where she was, giving him verbal encouragement as he tracked the air and the wet pattered on the bright yellow of her wind-breaker.
When he moved east, she followed him into the thickening trees.
At five, Peck was a vet, a seventy-pound chocolate Lab—strong, smart and tireless. He would, Fiona knew, search for hours in any conditions, over any terrain, for the living or for the dead. She had only to ask it of him.
Together, they moved through deep forest, over ground soft and soggy with needles shed from the towering Douglas firs and old-growth cedars, over and around clumps of mushrooms and nurse logs coated with rich green moss, through brambles edgy with thorn. While they searched, Fiona kept an eye on her partner’s body language, made note of landmarks, checked her compass. Every few minutes, Peck glanced back to let her know he was on the case.
“Find Hugh. Let’s find Hugh, Peck.”
He alerted, showing interest in a patch of ground around a nurse log. “Got something, do you? That’s good. Good boy.” She flagged the alert first with bright blue tape, then stood with him, scanning the area, calling Hugh’s name. Then closing her eyes to listen.
All she heard was the soft sizzle of rain and the whisper of wind through the trees.
When he nudged her, Fiona took the sock out of her pocket, opened the bag so Peck could refresh the scent.
“Find Hugh,” she repeated. “Let’s find Hugh.”