Allison’s mouth fell open as she looked at the man who claimed to be Cooper’s owner. His intense stare made her skin tingle. She instinctively gripped the dog’s collar and thought of Maggie’s suggestion to carry a gun.
Cooper remained calm and stayed at Allison’s side. He didn’t act as if he knew the man, but neither did he act aggressive toward him.
Allison glanced toward the trail ahead of her. No one else was around. So much for the area being crowded today. A little solitude was fine, but she wished other people were nearby. This man could be a serial killer or a terrorist much like the reclusive Unabomber.
The man’s face softened. “I’m sorry. I’ve frightened you. That wasn’t my intent.”
Allison found her voice. “So this is your dog?”
He took a deep breath and exhaled. “I found him on my doorstep one morning last fall. Stayed a couple of months and left. No idea where he came from.”
The man didn’t act like a serial killer. Allison relaxed a bit and Cooper wagged his tail. “He showed up at my house two months ago with no way of identifying his owner. He isn’t microchipped.”
“I figured he belonged to a hiker or camper. Don’t get many visitors on this side of the forest unless they’re hiking the backcountry. Most of them use the Moose Creek entrance.”
That would explain why more people weren’t around. “This is my first time here. I didn’t know about the other place.”
The man held his hand out to Cooper. “Hey boy.” His voice sounded kind and compassionate. “I wondered what happened to you.”
Cooper licked the proffered hand.
“If he belongs to you, please take him.” Cooper had been with her two short months and she didn’t want to give him up, but she needed to do the right thing.
“No. He’s happy with you. I can tell you’re taking good care of him. He came to me freely and was free to go.”
“But what about your family? Would they—.”
“There’s no one. My companions are the birds and the animals of the forest.”
“Oh, I see.” Allison thought she detected an element of sadness in the man’s tone.
“I’ve kept you long enough. I must go.” He nodded his head and moved past Allison.
She watched him walk away. She wondered about the man. Who was he? Where did he live? “Wait,” she said.
The man turned around. This time she didn’t mistake the moisture in his eyes.
“I’m Allison Schultz, the new veterinarian in Mill Creek.”
“Henry Odom. I live in a small cabin nearby.”
“If you’re ever in town, you’re welcome to stop by the clinic to see him. He comes with me to work each day.”
“I don’t often go into town, but thanks.”
“I see.” She looked at the dog. “Okay Cooper, it’s time to continue our walk.”
The man looked at her with new interest. “Cooper? That his name?”
“Yes. Somehow it seemed to fit.”
“It’s a good name,” he said. “Reminds me of… Well, never mind.” He turned and walked away.
Allison arrived back in Mill Creek in the early afternoon, tired from the hike. Although she got a lot of physical activity dealing with horses and cattle, she realized how much needed exercise. Daylight hours were growing longer, so she resolved to take Cooper for walks each evening.
She glanced at the seat where the big dog sat and looked out the window. After meeting Henry, Cooper’s story became even more of a mystery. Did someone hiking the backcountry lose him in the forest? Worse, had his owner been lost or injured? German Shepherds were fiercely loyal, so she couldn’t imagine him leaving them behind.
Then there was Henry. He was obviously a loner, but after her initial wariness, she thought he seemed kind and gentle. Why did he choose to live a secluded life?
Allison slowed her truck and pulled into a convenience store to purchase fuel.She killed the engine and lowered the passenger window enough for Cooper to get some fresh air.
“I won’t be long,” she said as she stepped out of the truck. Allison shook her head. Talk about a solitary life. She’d begun to speak to Cooper as if he were human.
After inserting her debit card into the pump, she lifted the nozzle and waited for the tank to fill when a pick-up pulled up beside her. The man who got out was Jonah Reeves. Allison felt a twinge of excitement upon seeing him, but then remembered Sally’s words about mourning his wife.
“Hello,” he said and tipped his hat. “Nice day.”
“Yes it is. Cooper and I hiked in the National Forest today.”
She gestured toward the dog. “I finally gave him a name. Seems as if he isn’t going anywhere. However, I did learn something about him today.”
“I met Henry Odom on the trail. It seems Cooper showed up at his cabin last fall, stayed a couple of months, and then left. I guess it was shortly thereafter he came to my place.”
“So you met Henry?”
“Do you know him?”
“Yes I do. As you probably guessed, Henry pretty much keeps to himself.”
Allison pursed her lips, deep in thought. “I offered for him to take Cooper back, but he refused. Said Cooper seemed happy with me.”
“Well, I wouldn’t blame Cooper for choosing you over Henry.” Jonah grinned.
Allison felt her face grow warm.
“Say, do you have plans for tonight? There’s a dance at the community center. Would you like to go with me?”
Allison tried not to seem too eager to answer. “Um, sure. I’d like that.”
“Great. I’ll pick you up around seven.”
“Okay.” Allison smiled. For the first time since arriving in Mill Creek, she had a date.
This is the fourth installment of a series. To read the other parts, visit the Friday Fiction section and click on the posts for The Arrival, The Encounter, and The Discovery.