Ranger’s Courage

by

Vella Munn

After losing his wife, rugged forest ranger Jake Pruitt puts everything into his job. Consumed with guilt, he never thinks that he’ll be able to move on…until he meets Sari.

Sari Dunham works as a tracking dog trainer. When she’s assigned to work with Jake, the attraction is instant and undeniable. But Sari’s hiding a secret from the past and needs to keep Jake at a distance.

Will Jake’s guilt and Sari’s past destroy any chance they have at love and a future together?

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“A new dog and its handler are on their way. You might want to hold off starting the search until they show up.”

Jake frowned. “New?” he asked the forest ranger on the other end of his cell phone call. “The dog’s trained, right?”

“I’ve been told it is,” Hunter said. “They’re coming to us complements of the Bob’s group.”

The Bob, as many Montana’s residents called the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, was precious to nature enthusiasts such as the group Jake’s fellow ranger had just referenced. The group had been looking for a search-and-rescue dog to sponsor since their previous one and its handler had retired. The forest service, his employer, relied on the animals for a number of things, including locating people who went missing in the mountains. Unfortunately, on this early October day, none of the dogs available to them were nearby.

It was early afternoon, and Jake Pruitt was responsible for organizing the half-dozen volunteers trying to find a missing sixteen-year-old girl. Largely because it was a weekday, not many people had been able to respond, but those who had were eager to end the nightmare for the girl and her family. The right dog under the right handler’s control would go a long way toward making that happen, hopefully before night.

“How long do you think it’ll be before they reach us?” he asked Hunter.

“Shouldn’t be long. Sounds like she was basically ready to go when she got the call.”

“She?”

“That’s what Robert told me. Sorry. That’s all I know.”

Jake’s frown returned. Massive as the national forest was, the majority of those who made their living in and around it knew each other. If the female handler had been around for any length of time, he, Hunter, and Garret would have heard about her. Much as he wanted to believe things were about to take a turn for the better and Bethany would soon be reunited with her parents and younger brother, life had taught him happy endings seldom, if ever, happened. Until he was looking at a living and uninjured Bethany, his stomach would remain knotted.

Determined to concentrate on what he had a semblance of control over, he returned to where the girl’s family was and informed them a tracking dog would soon be on scene. The Shermans, who lived in Chicago, had come to Montana for a family vacation. Their original intention had been to pitch their tents at the Swan Lake campground for three nights then go home, but, once they got here, the parents had decided bonding time was more important than getting back to school. Twelve-year-old Keddy had been all for it in large part because another family had a boy his age, but, although the parents insisted Bethany hadn’t objected, Jake wasn’t sure, especially when Keddy let it slip his sister had a boyfriend back home.

He pictured a pouting teenager demanding they pack up and return to civilization. When she didn’t get her way, well, just about anything was possible.

“This is crazy,” Bert Sherman said. “It’s going to be dark in a few hours and that girl of mine doesn’t know north from a chemistry test. The longer she stays lost, the harder it’s going to be to find her.”

“Bert, stop it,” his wife warned. “This ranger knows what he’s doing. You’ve done this before, right? Found people.”

“Yes.” Jake refrained from hugging Judee Sherman. He needed to focus on finding Bethany. Getting too close to the girl’s mother’s panic would get in the way of what needed to be done. “She’s young and healthy. That’s in her favor.”

He didn’t mention that Bethany hadn’t taken her backpack with her. She had a jacket, but unless they found her today, the night would be hard.

Holding Judee’s gaze, he explained what would happen once the search-and-rescue dog arrived. Keddy responded with a thumbs-up and a grin. In the boy’s world, the presence of a trained animal meant the adventure was real. He’d have a hell of a story to tell his friends and classmates.

Let him think that for as long as possible. No reason for him to grow up any sooner than necessary. Life would kick him eventually. It always did.

For maybe the millionth time in the past year and a half, Jake struggled to free himself from thoughts he wanted nothing to do with. Today was about locating Bethany Sherman, nothing else.

He checked his cell phone for the time. To the uninitiated like the Shermans, early fall in the Bob was a time of multicolored leaves and crisp mornings. They probably didn’t know how quickly and cruelly nature could turn. He did.

His phone buzzed. When Hunter’s number came up, he walked away from the Shermans before answering.

“I’ve been talking to Robert,” the Salish Indian said. “He told me a little more about the dog handler. Apparently he’d watched her and her dog during a competition in Missoula. He was impressed by the bond between them. Figuring it was a long shot, he approached her about moving here. She asked him about employment possibilities. When she told him about the kind of work she’d done, he helped her get a job with the Polson Humane Society. He helped her find a rental in Sweetheart that has a dog kennel. I figure you know which one it is.”

“I do.” The small house and sizeable kennel facility, like the town, was burned into his memory. “Did Robert say anything about her ability to keep up?”

Hunter chuckled. “What he said was that he might be sixty plus, but he isn’t dead. Sounds like she’s easy on the eyes.”

Jake wasn’t interested in that, something his friend should know. “So she’s in good physical condition?”

“Sounds like it. Get going. I’ll talk to you later.”

As he placed the phone back in his pocket, Jake pulled up a mental image of the powerfully built Native American he considered a brother. Brother substitute, he amended, since his only sibling was a sister ten years his senior. If he was asked whether he felt closer to Hunter or Garret, he wouldn’t be able to say. The three of them were a unit. They had each other’s backs, knew how the others’ thoughts, their strengths and weaknesses.

Hunter and Garret had grown up together while Jake had moved to the area after becoming a forest ranger, but he never felt excluded. Things had shifted some since Garret had fallen in love, but the core remained. By saying he’d talk to him later, Hunter was making it clear he cared. Jake had no doubt he’d hear from Garret before the day was over.

“Where are they?” Bert Sherman demanded when Jake rejoined them. “I don’t understand why you didn’t bring the search dog with you.”

Instead of trying to explain and risk more of the father’s misdirected fear, Jake asked Bert to again explain how Bethany had gotten separated from the family.

“You’re too young to have a daughter that age. When you do you’ll understand how impulsive they are. They think they know everything, certainly twice as much as their parents ever will.”

“That isn’t helping,” Judee snapped. “Jake, I apologize for my husband. Things have been strained between him and Bethany. We were hoping getting her away from her friends and the boy she’s seeing would make it possible for us to reconnect.” She pressed an unsteady hand to her forehead. “I should have known it wouldn’t work. Maybe all we can do is wait for her to come to her senses.”

Listening to her, Jake considered the difference between youthful fantasies about what it meant to be an adult and reality. When Bert and Judee got married, they’d probably never envisioned their life together would include a chapter like this one.

An increase in the sounds coming from the volunteers and other campers turned him toward a well-used Jeep pulling into the parking area. The driver’s door opened and a woman and dog got out. The woman reached into the rear seat and extracted a backpack. Good. She’d come ready to go to work.

Shadows made it difficult for him to see what she looked like beyond her slight stature. The dog was another matter. It was tall, nearly waist-high to his owner with a big head, wide shoulders, long legs, and lean body. As the two headed for the campers, he placed the dog’s weight at around one hundred pounds. Most of the search-and-rescue dogs he’d worked with were purebreds. This animal was a mutt.

“A woman,” Bert said. “You didn’t tell me.”

Judee snorted. “What difference does it make?”

“What if she can’t hold up?”

“Damn it, Bert. Give it a rest.”

Silently applauding Judee, Jake continued to study the newcomer. She’d corralled her long, dark hair in a single braid down her back. Despite her substantial pack, she had no trouble standing upright. A white T-shirt clung to a slender frame and smallish breasts. She had on jeans and boots.

Because he was wearing his forest service shirt, he wasn’t surprised when she veered away from the group and headed for him and the Shermans. She stopped a few feet away with the dog at her side and held out her hand. “Sari Dunham. Hopefully you knew I was coming.”

Right now, the only thing he cared about was she believed in a firm handshake, her smooth skin was tanned, she wore no makeup or jewelry, and her hazel eyes were large and bright. He guessed she was nearing the end of her twenties.

“A coworker gave me a heads-up,” he said. “That’s the first I’ve heard about you.”

“Is it?” She rested her hand on the top of her dog’s head, drawing his attention to her short nails and lack of polish. “I understand there’s a missing teenage girl.”

“My daughter,” Judee said. “Bethany is sixteen. She doesn’t know anything about the wilderness.”

“She would if she paid attention,” Bert broke in.

The look Sari gave him said she wasn’t sure how to handle the parents’ relationship. If she’d been involved with search and rescue for any length of time, she’d know stress did different things to different people, none of it easy to deal with.

Determined to get Bert and Judee to stop going after each other, Jake asked Sari how her dog worked.

“He thrives on praise, which I lavish on him when he does his job.”

“Don’t you give him treats?” Judee asked.

“No, because praise reinforces our relationship.”

“How do you keep him from getting distracted?” Bert asked. “With so many people around and all those smells—”

“Kona’s sense of smell is what made me decide he’s the one I wanted to work with. Also, from the first, he keyed into me and that keeps him on task.”

She wasn’t bragging, simply stating what she believed to be a fact. Her voice was low both in tone and volume, making it necessary for Jake to stay close. Judging by how she leaned back a little, he had the feeling she wasn’t comfortable with his nearness, but if she didn’t want it, she’d have to speak louder. Maybe she was accustomed to being alone.

Not knowing what to do with the random and maybe wrong observation, he asked if she was ready to go.

“As soon as my dog gets a drink.”

Nodding, he pointed toward the Shermans’ campsite. “Is there a bowl you can fill with water for Kona?” he asked Keddy.

“Sure thing. Should I bring it to him? Maybe he’ll come with me,” Keddy said.

Sari nodded. “If I tell him to. Like I said, he’s bonded to me.”

And you to him, Jake concluded judging by how the dog stayed by her side.

“I’m going to need an article of your daughter’s clothing,” Sari said after saying “go” to Kona and pointing at Keddy. “One she recently wore.”

Eyes tearing, Judee withdrew some bikini panties from her pocket. “So it really is like it’s done in the movies? That’s how your dog works, I mean.”

“It depends on which movies you’ve watched. How long have you been holding these?”

“Since the ranger told us about the dog. I figured—there’s nothing more intimate than underwear.”

“True.”

As he waited for Sari to continue, he noted how infrequently she met the mother’s stare. He, too, separated himself as much as possible from emotion at times like this, but Judee needed to connect with the person she prayed was going to save her daughter. Surely Sari understood that.

“I’d prefer something with just your daughter’s scent,” Sari said. “That way he won’t get confused.”

“You can promise that?” Bert asked. “I know what you said, but I don’t understand how a dog can focus on a single smell.”

“Kona can.”

For the first time since Jake met Bert, the man didn’t have a reply or retort. If it felt right, he’d tell Sari he admired her approach. She hadn’t given Bert enough to chew on.

When Judee started toward the campsite, Sari went with her. The two women crouched over a sleeping bag buried under a pile of clothing. Sari picked up another bikini using her fingertips, straightened, and walked away. She called Kona to her side.

Jake couldn’t say why the young woman was making it hard for him to concentrate on his game plan. She was attractive in a healthy, uncomplicated way, but it had been a long time since he’d been attracted to a member of the opposite sex. It couldn’t be that. Maybe it was the way she carried herself, an athleticism most people couldn’t match. She clearly treated her body like a tool.

She wasted no time presenting the underwear to Kona who sniffed repeatedly, his long, whiplike tail moving slowly. They were carrying on a conversation meant for them alone, human and dog in sync. After maybe a half minute, Kona lowered his head and started trotting around the campground. He showed no interest in the barbecue pits.

Today’s volunteers were pros who knew to leave the dog to do his job. Jake kept an eye on Bethany’s parents and the other campers to make sure they didn’t do or say anything to distract Kona. The campers had offered to help search but he’d told them to hold off for now. Mostly he didn’t want to have to worry about the untrained getting lost or in the way.

Kona’s wide arcs tightened. Every human eye was on him, but he was oblivious to their presence. Surely the dog couldn’t comprehend that what he did or didn’t accomplish had a great deal to do with whether a girl would survive. To him it was a game, one he’d be rewarded for by the most important human in his life.

His wife had wanted a dog; they both had, but they’d agreed to hold off until they had room for one, which was why at one point they’d looked at the place Sari was renting.

The old, sharp pain gnawed at Jake. Well-versed in the battle, he clenched his fists and shrugged to redistribute his backpack and the rifle the Shermans had stared at but hadn’t asked about. As soon as Kona located Bethany’s scent—when not if—he’d have something to do. In the meantime—

“Find,” Sari said. “Find.”

Kona’s pace slowed. He’d narrowed his search to a twenty-foot-wide area. One path was the start to a bike route while the other led to an observation area and beyond that, the Swan Mountain Range. By the time Jake joined Sari, Kona was standing on the second path staring into the forest.

“Tell me,” Sari said. “Where will this one take us?”

“Deep into the mountains. Before long the path becomes a narrow trail.”

She gnawed on her lower lip. “Figures. How do you want to handle this?”

“By getting going.”

“Good.”

Jake had tried to convince Bethany’s parents to stay in camp but they’d refused, not that he blamed them. Unfortunately, they were used to walking on city streets, not trying to cling to steep, narrow trails full of ruts, rocks, and vegetation. This was wilderness plain and simple, sometimes a joy to explore, sometimes a survival test.

To the uninitiated like the Shermans, today was close to perfect when it came to early fall weather. They might not have taken note of the clouds to the north. If Bethany had been bent on proving herself, she could be above the tree line where there was nothing to slow the wind.

“I don’t get it,” Bert said. “Bethany insisted one hike was enough for a lifetime. No way will she risk ruining her shoes. Are you sure the dog smells her?”

“He does.” Sari didn’t look at Bert.

“I’m still not convinced. You don’t know my daughter. She loves her comforts.”

Maybe but something had taken the girl from her family’s side. From what he’d been told, Bethany had been missing for a couple of hours before Judee became alarmed enough to call nine-one-one. The call had been routed to the Bigfork ranger station, which was why he was here. By now, Bethany had been out of sight for going on four hours, a lifetime for a city girl.

“What’s the weather report?” Sari asked a half hour later. “I didn’t take the time to check.”

The two of them were far enough ahead of the others that their voices shouldn’t carry. Sari had been in the lead with him close behind. She walked with her legs apart to help balance her slight weight on the uneven ground and looking as if she could do this forever. The Swan Lake campground was on an open area complete with picnic benches, but it hadn’t taken long to move into the trees. It would remain like that until they reached a much higher elevation.

“About fifty percent chance of rain at the lake by night,” he answered.

“And in the mountains? Never mind. I think I know what you’re going to say.”

She glanced back at him, and in that moment he connected with her. They didn’t need to spell anything out. Things could go sideways if a storm hit. He’d added Bethany’s sleeping bag and a coat he kept in his vehicle to his backpack in case they couldn’t return with the girl until morning, if they found her. Providing for the girl’s comfort had meant he’d had to leave his tent behind. It wasn’t the first time.

“How long have you been doing search and rescue?” he asked.

“Not long. What about you?”

She was deflecting, changing the conversation just enough to keep him from questioning her expertise. Even if he had concerns in that department, and he did, what was the point? If not for Kona, they wouldn’t be on this trail. Instead, everyone would have spread out around the lake looking for something, anything.

“About five years,” he said. “What happens when the trail ends? Kona can work cross-country?”

She didn’t immediately answer. “We’re going to run out of trail?”

“In about a quarter of a mile.”

“Damn.”

“Yes, damn. About my question—”

“Where the scent is makes no difference to my dog. He’ll go where he needs to.”

He fell silent while Bethany’s family repeatedly called her name. Even her brother added his voice. Keddy sounded both angry and scared.

“This is killing them,” he said. “Like Bert said, his daughter loves her creature comforts.”

Sari increased her pace until she caught up with Kona. “Sometimes creature comfort isn’t enough reason to keep a person where they don’t want to be.”

“You’re right,” he said when he wanted to ask where her comment had come from.

This was the first hint of a semi-personal statement. He expected to hear more. Searches had a way of doing that to people. Strangers bonded, stayed close throughout the action, then went their own ways. Most never forgot the connection, which was why he was determined to keep his mouth shut about certain things.

That said, the longer they walked, the more he wanted to know about Sari. So far she had no past, no story. He didn’t know where she’d come from, why she’d agreed to move to this part of Montana, whether she’d left anyone important behind, where she wanted to be in a few years.

Maybe, like him, she deliberately didn’t look that far into the future. Maybe, like him, it was about getting through one day, one night at a time.

“That’s it?” She moved to the side so he could join her. “The trail’s end?”

“Yes,” he said with her shoulder inches from his and the wilderness all around.

End of Excerpt

Ranger’s Courage is currently available in digital format only:

ISBN:

July 3, 2018