Search and Rescue by April Wilson
The alarm on my phone wakes me promptly at six-thirty. “No,” I groan as I reach over the tap the snooze button. I don’t usually have an urge to throw my phone across the room, but this morning I’m tempted. I just got home the day before from a three-day trip to Chicago to celebrate the birth of my brother Shane’s new baby—a darling little girl named Ava.
Yawning, I stretch my limbs and debate shutting off the alarm and sleeping half the morning away. Just this once. I think Scout—my one-year-old Belgian Malinois—agrees because he doesn’t seem inclined to jump out of bed either. He flops against me as he stretches his long limbs.
I scratch behind his ears. “What do you say, buddy? Should we play hooky this morning?”
Scout’s pointed ears perk up, and he jumps off the bed and races out of the bedroom to investigate whatever sound he heard—probably a squirrel foraging around outside our cabin as it stores food for the upcoming winter. Then he starts barking at the door, wanting out to go outside to pee and chase squirrels.
So much for sleeping in.
I haul myself out of bed and head to the bathroom to empty my bladder. As I’m washing my hands, I stare at myself in the mirror. My hair looks wild and definitely needs taming.
Scout barks again, reminding me he needs to go out.
“I’m coming, buddy. Hold your horses.”
Usually I’m an early riser, but not today. I’m still reeling from the emotional whiplash caused by my trip back home. I saw my family, of course, which is great. I have an awesome family, and I love spending time with them. But I also saw him. And seeing him always throws me for a loop.
Killian Devereaux gets to me in a way no man ever has. And it’s not just his looks—although those are stellar. It’s all of him—his personality, his presence, his sexy Cajun accent. He’s confident and direct and highly competent, and I find all those things very sexy.
Killian was the one who picked me up from O’Hare and drove me to my brother’s estate. I wouldn’t be surprised if Shane sent him on purpose. Killian hasn’t been shy about making his interest known. He’s asked me out a number of times, and each time I politely declined.
Starting up anything is pointless. We live a thousand miles away from each other, and as I’ve told him a million times, I’m not moving back to Chicago. My life is here in Colorado—in the mountains.
Mentally shaking myself, I force thoughts of Killian out of my head. That way lies madness. And longing. And wishful thinking.
Scout, my one-year-old Belgian Malinois, stretches beside me on the bed and lets out a quiet woof. He doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to get up either. I reach over and scratch his pointy ears. “Did you miss me, pal?”
He replies by licking my hand.
Laughing, I ruffle his fur. “I’ll take that as a yes.”
Scout hops off the bed and stares at me with intense dark eyes. He cocks his head, then leans close to nudge my hand with his cold, wet nose. He chuffs under his breath as if to say, Are you getting up, or what?
“All right,” I say with a groan as I sit up.
The cabin air is chilly this morning as the fire in the woodstove went out hours ago, and I was too lazy to get up in the night to replenish it. It’s September, and overnight temperatures at this altitude can drop pretty low.
Scout nudges my hand once more. He’s insistent, if nothing else.
“I know, I know,” I say as I set my bare feet on the cold wood floor. “Cool your jets, mister. I’m moving.”
After a quick trip to the bathroom to pee and brush my teeth and hair, I pull on a pair of gray sweatpants, a black tank top, a University of Denver hoodie, socks and running shoes, and open the door for Scout to lead the way outside.
It’s still dark outside my cabin, as the heavy tree canopy overhead blocks much of the early morning sun. While Scout runs down the steps to the ground and saunters off to do his business, I take a moment to enjoy the quiet serenity of my wilderness home.
Living on the side of a mountain is such a contrast to living in the city. I was born and raised in Rogers Park, Chicago, in a crowded blue-collar urban neighborhood. When I was a kid, my family of nine lived in a three-bedroom, two-story brick townhouse. We were crammed in like sardines, we three girls sharing one bedroom, my four brothers in another, and my parents in the third bedroom. As a family, we were close—we still are—and we had a blast together. It wasn’t until I went away to college—to the University of Denver on a full scholarship—that I discovered the vast wilderness that awaited me. I’ve never looked back since.
My home—a small one-bedroom cabin deep in the woods—is my happy place now. It’s a balm to my soul. This is what I was born for—to live a life outdoors. To breathe fresh air and smell the scent of pine. To hike and camp and live under a quiet night sky that’s so dark I can actually see the stars.
As part of our daily routine, Scout and I start each morning off with a two-mile run along a paved single-lane road that snakes up from Bryce, Colorado into the mountains I call home. Scout needs the exercise as much as I do, probably even more so. It’s a necessity for a young and rambunctious Belgian Malinois. These dogs require a lot of structure and training, and in return you get a loyal companion and fearless guard dog.
Scout runs at my side with a focus that never fails to amaze me. No matter what little creature scurries across the road in front of us, he never veers off course. He’s practically attached to my side, watching me intently as if waiting for a cue.
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. I studied the breed in depth before committing to getting one, and I knew the level of training he’d need. I was more than willing to put in the work because I knew he’d make an excellent companion and one hell of a first responder one day. My goal is to train him to do search and rescue work.
Right now, he’s a handful, and he requires constant redirection to channel his energy into something productive, rather than destructive. He needs work to do, and I give it to him.
After the run, I bring him back to my property and put him through an agility course I made myself. Up, down, across, under, around, through… I put him through his paces. He can jump fences and scale a ladder, and he has almost mastered the balance beam. No matter how I challenge him, he excels, and he clearly loves it.
When the agility course work is completed, Scout’s reward is to play his favorite game—hide-and-seek. I lead him into the barn, where I instruct him to sit, and he stays there while I run out into the woods surrounding my cabin to hide. I blow a short whistle to let him know the game is on. Then I sit back in my hiding place and wait for him to find me.
In the beginning, it took him half an hour or longer of scouring the woods around my cabin to find me. These days, it’s usually more like five minutes.
“Good boy!” I tell him when he finds me. I check the timer on my phone. “Seven minutes. Not bad, pal.” I wrap my arms around his neck and bury my nose in his thick fur. “That’s my good boy. Ready for breakfast?”
He takes off running for the cabin, with me right behind him. While I eat my bowl of instant maple and brown sugar oatmeal, he scarfs down his breakfast.
Exhausted from his morning exercise, Scout crashes on the rug in front of the stone hearth, while I go grab a quick shower. After dragging a comb through my hair and pulling it back into a ponytail, I dress in my usual attire—khaki cargo pants, a white tank top, a long-sleeved forest green sweatshirt, warm socks, and well-worn hiking boots.
Today I’m dressing warmer than usual because, according to my weather app, there’s a snowstorm coming. I make a mental note to leave work early this afternoon so I’ll have time to come home and bring in more firewood for the woodstove before it gets dark.
The last thing I do before walking out the door is slip my handgun into my ankle holster and a knife in my belt sheath. You can’t be too careful this deep in the woods. It isn’t unheard of to run into bears or mountain lions. A little extra protection never hurt anyone. I also carry a can of bear spray in my backpack, just in case.
Scout follows me to the door. “Be a good boy,” I tell him as I scratch behind his dark ears. He sits at attention and stares up at me. “You are such a handsome boy,” I say. And he is, with his thick auburn fur, dark narrow face, and dark ears. He’s often mistaken for a German Shepherd.
When I sling my backpack over my shoulder, he barks eagerly, practically bouncing on his feet. “Sorry, pal. Not this time. But I’ll come home for lunch, if I can, and we’ll have some more fun.” I hate leaving him alone for more than a few hours because he can get destructive when he’s bored. He still has enough puppy in him to get into trouble at times. I just hope his basket of chew toys will suffice until I return. Then I’ll put him through the agility course again, and we’ll play catch with a tennis ball and hide-and-seek with his toys—his other favorite pastimes.
After locking the door behind me, I jog down the wooden steps and head for my black Jeep Wrangler, which is currently splattered with mud thanks to a recent off-road trip. I make a mental note to wash it this weekend.
It’s only a quick ten-minute drive down curving mountain roads to the center of Bryce, Colorado, where I make my customary morning pit stop at Emerson’s Grocery Store to grab coffee and a donut. I park right in front of the store.
“Hey, lady,” I say as I push through the front door and step into the store, which smells of freshly-brewed coffee, baked goods, and lemon-scented cleaner.
It’s the closest grocery store for miles around, and while it’s not huge, Maggie does manage to carry just about anything we need. She gets fresh-baked goods to sell from the diner next door, and she buys fresh cuts of meat from the butcher down the street. She’s even got a rack of paperbacks and magazines, school supplies, and even DVDs and VHS tapes for rent. Yeah, Maggie Emerson still rents out VHS tapes. Bryce is the kind of town that the modern world left behind long ago—and we kinda like it that way.
According to Maggie, the store hasn’t changed much in the past seventy years, since her grandfather bought it. The floors are still well-worn oak boards that creak underfoot, and the sales counter is the original old oak display case. The cash register is one of those old-fashioned kind, the mechanical ones that don’t make a single beep.
Bryce, Colorado—population eight-hundred-twelve—is barely a blip on the Colorado map. It’s located north of Estes Park—the popular Rocky Mountain Park tourist destination—far enough away to miss all the heavy sightseeing traffic, which suits us just fine. We mostly get diehard hikers and backpackers up here, and lots of rock climbers. Still, it’s pretty tranquil in our little spot of heaven. You’re just as likely to come across a cougar or a bear on a trail as another human being.
If you blink, you’ll miss our little stretch of downtown. It consists of four blocks of businesses. Outside of that, you’ll find random cabins scattered all over the mountainsides and in the valleys.
Maggie waves at me from behind the sales counter, where she’s unpacking a shipment of candy bars. “Mornin’, Hannah,” she says as she tucks a wayward strand of wavy light-brown hair behind her ear.
Maggie was the first person I met the day I moved to Bryce after I graduated from University of Denver and accepted my first professional job here in town at the local wildlife rehabilitation center. We hit it off right away, and we’ve become best of friends. She and I have a lot in common—we’re both independent and strong-willed, though Maggie calls it hardheaded. I’m okay with that.
At forty, Maggie is a dozen years older than me and a divorced mother of two teenage boys who are probably responsible for the onset of a few gray hairs.
The coffee counter is calling my name, and I pour myself a large cup. I dump in plenty of sugar and my favorite caramel-flavored creamer before I give it a good stir and pop the lid on. Before I move a single step, I take a sip and groan in pleasure. Just what I needed.
As I head to the sales counter, the door connecting the grocery store to the diner opens, and Maggie’s two sons—Riley and Brendan—walk through. Both boys are tall for their age, like their father, Maggie’s asshat of an ex-husband, whom I’ve only met one time. They both have the same brown hair as their mother and her blue eyes.
Riley’s carrying a heaping plate of glazed donuts. “Get ’em while they’re hot,” he says. “They just came out of the fryer.”
“Give me those,” Maggie says, laughing as her sons snag two each. “Or there won’t be any left for my customers.”
She offers me the plate, and I take one. The donut is still warm, just as Riley said, and the sugary glaze is gooey to the touch. I take a bite of my guilty pleasure, and the tender donut practically melts in my mouth. “Mm.”
Maggie sets the plate with the remaining donuts on a silver cake stand and covers it with a glass dome. “I’ll bet you these won’t last the hour,” she says. Then she turns to her sons and points to the door. “You two, get to school. You’re going to be late if you don’t leave soon.”
The boys grab their backpacks, sling them over their shoulders, and head out the front door, Riley dangling a set of keys from his fingers.
“And drive carefully!” she yells after them.
“Bye, Mom!” Brendan calls back just as the door closes behind them.
Maggie shakes her head at me. “Teenage boys. They’ll be the death of me. Or, I’ll go broke just trying to feed them.”
As I polish off the last of my donut, Maggie gives me the eye. “I don’t know how you manage to stay so fit when you eat so many carbs.” She props her hands on her own curvaceous hips. “Obviously, I don’t have your talent in that department.”
“Fast metabolism, I guess.” I suck the sugar off my thumb and index finger, and then I pull a wet wipe from the dispenser on the sales counter and wash my hands.
“How about joining me and the boys for dinner tonight?” Maggie asks. “I’ve got a pot roast and potatoes in the slow cooker.”
As I take another sip of my coffee, I nod gratefully. I’m a single gal who doesn’t like to cook. “Gladly. You know I would never turn down a home-cooked meal.”
Maggie’s cooking reminds me of my mom’s cooking.
When my phone rings, I check the screen. It’s Ray Calhoun, my boss at the wildlife rehab center. “Hi, Ray. What’s up?”
“Where are you?” he asks, sounding more curious than anything.
“I’m at Maggie’s shop, getting ready to head to the center. Why?”
He blows out a relieved breath. “Have you got your hiking gear on you?”
“Of course.” I always keep my hiking gear in my Jeep.
“Perfect. I’m glad I caught you before you got too far out of town. I’ve received a couple of reports while you were out of town about some suspicious activity up on Eagle Ridge. We might have a poacher issue. Would you mind making a stop there on your way in? Hike up that trail and see if you can spot Betty. Let’s make sure she’s all right.”
“Sure. Not a problem.” Honestly, I’d much rather be hiking today than working indoors at the center. It’ll help me get my head on straight after spending three days back home. “I’ll head up there now.”
“Keep me posted and call me with an update as soon as you can.”
“Who was that?” Maggie asks as I end the call and tuck my phone into my jacket pocket.
“Ray asked me to hike up to Eagle Ridge and check on Betty. Apparently, someone’s been scoping out her nest.” Bald eagle poaching is a growing problem in these parts. Their feathers go for big money on the black market. It’s illegal to even possess bald eagle feathers, and the penalties include fines and even jail time.
“They’re probably just avid bird watchers. Do you think it’s safe to hike up that far today? They’re predicting some pretty serious snowfall this evening.”
“I’ll be down off that ridge long before the snow hits. It’s a two-hour hike up, I check on Betty, and then a two-hour hike down. I’ll be off the trail by midafternoon, and I’ll be home in plenty of time to have dinner with you tonight. What time do you want me?”
“How about six? The boys should be home from football practice by then. I’ll see if I can get my brother to close up the shop for me this evening. He owes me a few favors.”
“It’s a date.” I salute her as I walk backward toward the front door. “Six o’clock. I’ll bring the beer.”
“And bring Scout!” Maggie calls. “The boys haven’t stopped talking about him.”
Maggie’s sons watched Scout for me while I was in Chicago earlier in the week.
Once back on the road, I head north on the only paved road that runs through Bryce, heading toward the trailhead where I will park my Jeep. When I reach the spot about ten minutes later, I text Ray to let him know I’ve arrived and am getting ready to hike up to the nest.
Ray: Be careful, Hannah. Keep a close eye on the weather. A storm is coming in.
Hannah: Don’t worry, dad. I will.
I chuckle as I pocket my phone. Ray thinks it’s his job to watch out for me.
After hopping out of my Jeep, I walk around to the back, open the hatch, and grab my pack. Everything I could possibly need for an afternoon hike is in there: water bottle, protein bars, flashlight, thermal blanket, bear spray, and a satellite phone with a full charge. And of course I’m armed with a handgun, knife, and extra ammo. I don’t want to be caught empty-handed in case I run into any vicious animals—human or otherwise.