Blurbs from Rescue Road:
Rhiann Kelly twisted the lens on the digital camera, capturing the scene of two adult dogs sitting in front of a downed cottonwood tree. Golden leaves splayed on the ground, creating a natural carpet and accenting other autumn colors throughout the Montana campground. She smiled at the scene framed in the camera’s viewfinder.
Rays of mid-morning sunlight danced among the aspens, cottonwoods, and pine trees and enveloped her canine subjects. As she took a deep breath to steady herself, Rhiann silently willed the wire-haired West Highland terrier and the coppery cocker spaniel to stay. Pressing the silver button atop the camera, she snapped two photos.
“Good dogs! Really good dogs!”
The four-footed creatures stood in union at her praise and wagged their tails. Rhiann walked to them and presented each with a soft treat from the pocket of her fleece jacket. First one and then the other nibbled the bacon-flavored morsel from her extended hand.
Rhiann repositioned the dogs to the right, closer to a russet-colored shrub. She coaxed the animals to sit and stay, and they obeyed. Rhiann walked back to the camera and glanced at the dogs. She smiled at the new scene. The animals’ fur blended well with the colors of the serviceberry bush, its crimson branches and burnished leaves cascading toward heads of yellowing grasses.
“Stay!” Rhiann again commanded as she readjusted the tripod and camera. She looked through the viewfinder. This will make a great adoption photo.
Rhiann placed her index finger on top of the camera. Sticks snapped along the nearby wooded trail. Rhiann paused and raised her head. Her photo subjects looked to the left, and she glanced in that direction. Her green eyes widened.
Leaving the camera and tripod, she swept the dogs into her arms and drew a deep breath. Knowing southwestern Montana provided prime habitat for such creatures and that October offered opportunity for food foraging before hibernation, she reprimanded herself under her breath.
“Why didn’t I bring that bear spray?”
Leaves crunched as running steps padded closer. Rhiann sprinted toward the nearest concrete picnic table. The two dogs chorused a barking frenzy from the security of her embrace. Rhiann tried to hush them as she leaped upon the structure’s seat and climbed to the higher tabletop. Twigs cracked as something rushed from the surrounding forest. She quivered and bit her lower lip to stifle a scream. She knew bears had poor eyesight, and if she kept quiet, perhaps the creature would move on without noticing her.
On impulse, her right hand delved into her jacket pocket in search of a defense weapon. However, the two wiggling dogs in her arms made the attempt difficult. Rhiann shushed them as her fingers closed around a set of keys. Her hand emerged from the pocket, and she whispered praise to the dogs plastered against her chest. Rhiann closed her eyes in silent prayer. The intruding noises ceased, and she re-opened her eyes. Her mouth rounded in an “O” when she saw what stared at her.
Rhiann stood on the porch of the mid-century ranch house. Cup of coffee in hand, she watched the blazing orange sunrise. Streamers of light cascaded on the mountains west of the property, casting a rosy glow on the rocks and patches of snow upon the higher elevation. October’s morning danced with the browning grasses of the nearby pastures as touches of frost shimmered upon tan sprigs surrounding the house. Overhead, a flock of Canada geese in traditional V formation honked as they winged their way south.
Rhiann observed them and whispered, “We have something in common. We’re starting over.”
As he drove closer to the ranch house, Levi noticed a small, red dual-cab pickup parked near the building. His eyes squinted. He remembered seeing a similar vehicle at the Twin Bridges Campground yesterday. He parked next to the truck.
“Who in the world could that be?” he murmured as he exited his pickup.
He looked at the license plate. He didn’t remember George knowing anyone from Washington state. He saw a heart-shaped sticker on the side. Levi scowled. He meandered to the driver’s side and saw the “Rescue Road” emblem.
“Can’t be,” he muttered.
He looked up when he heard the front door of the house slam. He stared.
“What are you doing here?” he and Rhiann asked simultaneously.
Rhiann couldn’t believe her eyes. Left hand on her hip and straw broom in her right, she glared at the man she had met yesterday.
“Well?” she questioned, looking Levi in the eye. “Answer my question. What are you doing on my ranch?”
“Your what? YOUR ranch? This is my land,” he snapped.
“Uh, unless your last name is Kelly or McCallister, I don’t think so.”
Levi stalked toward the front porch. Rhiann took a step back. She looked into his smoldering gray eyes as he said, “George Nelson left this place to me. Just who are you to come claim it as yours?”
Before she could respond, he rushed on, “Are you related to George? I didn’t think he had any kids or grandkids. Are you a niece or something?”
Rhiann shook her head. “I didn’t know Mr. Nelson. I’m the granddaughter of Mary Martha McAllister. She was born here, in that log cabin over there.”
She pointed to the two-room dwelling to her right.
“That’s my house,” Levi said.
She detected the curt tone, and she responded in kind.
“I don’t know why you keep saying you own this property. That cabin, this place, has been mine for nearly four months and was in my family for two generations. I’m just now getting here after settling the back taxes.”
Levi’s face blanched. “Back taxes? What are you talking about?”
At that moment, his cell phone rang. She watched him pull the device from a back pocket of his jeans. He turned away from her.
“Mr. Williamson, Yes, this is Levi Butler. You have news for me?” He paused in his conversation. “I see.”
Rhiann continued observing him. He gradually turned toward her. His eyes darkened, and his teeth clenched. Rhiann took a step back, holding the broom in both hands. I’ll swing this thing at his head if he takes one more step.
“Yes, yes, I’ve met her. In fact, I’m looking at her right now.”
His icy statement sent chills up Rhiann’s spine.
Stacy Johnson, one of the female crew members, spoke up. “I looked into therapy dog training. We can get someone in Bozeman to come test his temperament, and if he passes, Phil and I are willing to take him through training since we’re on different schedules.”
“Good idea, Stacy,” Levi said as he stood up. “I’m glad you and Phil are willing to take that on.”
“Well,” Rhiann said, handing the leash to Levi, “I would say, Captain Butler, Max belongs to you and your crew.”
Several team members gathered around Levi and the dog.
“Welcome, Max!” he heard someone say.
“Glad to have you aboard, little buddy!” said another.
Levi noticed Rhiann’s eyes twinkled with joy despite a tear in the corner of one. He watched as she knelt next to Max. Rhiann cupped the dog’s face and said, “You be a good boy, Max, as I know you will. You’re a great dog, and these are good people who will be caring for you. Do incredible work. I know you’re fulfilling a special purpose.”
Rhiann stood, and Levi watched as she wiped a hand across her eye.
“It’s never really easy passing a dog onto a new owner but truly worth doing, knowing the dog will be cared for and fulfill its purpose. Thanks for taking Max and giving him an important job,” she said to the crew.
He noted her quick smile before she turned and walked toward the door.
Levi gave Max’s leash to Phil and said, “Get him settled in. I’ll be right back.”
He dashed out the door. He saw Rhiann climb into the blue pickup. He ran up to the driver’s side window and tapped on the glass. She looked over, saw him, and the window came down.
“Thanks for bringing Max to us. I think the chief will be pleased. I know the crew is,” Levi said.
He watched her wipe her eyes again. “Sorry. You’d think I’d be used to placing dogs in homes by now and not be so emotional.”
“You get attached, I’m sure.”
She nodded. “Just take good care of him, okay? Make sure whoever has him takes care of him.”
Levi smiled. “No problem there; we’re all dog people. And Rhiann …” He placed his hand on hers. Trying to ignore the tingle he felt from the touch, Levi said with sincerity, “Thank you for what you’ve done regarding George’s other place. That area is likely filled with all kinds of wildlife, from elk and moose to foxes and pine squirrels. I know George would love to see it protected, and you’re doing just that.”
“And you get to have your horses on land that’s meant for them. No access or water worries.”
“Well, I do still have to drive up what is officially your road.”
“Have Mr. Williamson draw up an easement provision. I’ll enjoy seeing horses in the pastures one of these days. I just hope the dogs in my rescue won’t keep you awake after you build the house you want … neighbor.” She smiled at him.
Thank you for letting me be your guest this week!