Blue Ribbon, Red Fire – Part IV

Training Logan gave me a purpose to move forward again.  I would never forget Rowdy but I could train Logan to be a living memorial to him. But unlike well-behaved Rowdy, Logan was a bundle of mischievous energy, a challenge, always into the trash, the laundry, digging holes in the yard, pulling up flowers and on and on.  Obedience training didn’t simply happen in two thirty-minute chunks of time.  This devil-dog needed constant work learning new commands like: leave it, off, back, release (whatever was in his mouth), quiet and a few tricks so he could earn some quick treats.  He learned to walk on lead with no problem except he pulled like a draft horse, nearly dragging me to the ground.  Even when teaching him competition heeling with a short lead, he would try to forge past me, prancing, jumping and twisting, almost tripping me.

Finally, one day, exhausted from his diabolical methods to run and play, and/or create havoc, I remembered another exercise that I could teach him to take advantage of his exuberance. He was going to learn to track, an American Kennel Club sport which requires the handler to follow their dog, who has a (minimum) twenty-foot to forty-foot line attached to a special non-restrictive harness.  The dog follows a scent path previously laid by a tracklayer, with the track at least 440-500 yards long, and thirty minutes to two hours old.  In the beginning the tracks were short but eventually as training progressed and the tracks lengthened Logan settled into his job and excelled.  After each training session he slept quietly in his crate on the way home.  The sport was not only good for his energy level but it kept his mind engaged.  We were both happy.

As the months went by I pondered whether to call Jimmie. The news media occasionally interviewed the County Sheriff about the fire but few details were released.  The usual comment was that arson investigators were still working, lots of people to interview and the scene had to be meticulously searched for evidence, an exhaustive process, etc.  One time one of the news reports showed Jimmie  working through the burned ruins at the hotel. Something about him made me stare and watch, fascinated.  Finally I told Chris and some of my other friends about him.  Of course, since most were married it was easy for them to state the obvious, “Call him!  You have an excuse, the fire.”

“Then ask him out, “Chris laughed, ever the jokester.

With all their prodding there was no turning back. So of course one Saturday, with my arms around Logan, hugging him nervously, I called Jimmie.

“Hi, Jimmie? I’m Betty.  From the hotel fire?  I was wondering if, if, if,”  I was stuttering. This wasn’t going well.

“Yes, so sorry not to have called back. I can’t reveal details about the investigation since it’s ongoing.  But I haven’t forgotten you and of course, the possibility that it might have been started by your ex-husband.  Hey, “He hesitated, “How about we meet for coffee?”

When he said those words I must have hugged Logan too tight. He whined and moved away from me.

“Oh, yeah, sure.” Was I gushing?

One attempt at meeting him led to several more attempts but time after time after time our conversations over the phone or plans to connect over a simple cup of coffee, or dinner or even a walk at Champoeg Park, were cancelled because of his work.  Finally he called and with his voice slow and measured, he said, “Look, this isn’t going to work. I’m up to my ears in work problems.  This is part of my job.  It’s 24-7, nonstop.  I don’t want to get in the way of your meeting someone else.”

My eyes filled with tears as I held the phone and listened to his proclamation.

“Jimmie, five seconds or five hours, it makes no difference. I’ve enjoyed talking to you.  Look, can you get away Sunday?  Logan is entered in an AKC tracking test at Champoeg Park.  It starts at seven a.m. and goes until about noon.  If you get called away it won’t be a problem, other than missing me being pulled 500 yards by my crazy dog.  How about it?”

I couldn’t believe my nerve, asking a man for a date but Jimmie gave me hope and a human heart. I needed him but didn’t want to sound pushy.  He agreed to try to be there.

“Jimmie, some day you’ll have to tell me how you got into your line of work, what drew you in.”

“Sure. We’ll save that for an uninterrupted hour, assuming it ever happens.”

Sunday, while lined up next to other competitors for the drawing to determine our track running position, I saw Jimmie’s red pickup pull into the parking lot. Perhaps his presence would be our good luck charm?

Logan’s track was the last one out of seven. As I pulled him from my Toyota he twirled and twisted and acted goofy while I put on his harness.  Jimmie had never met Logan before now.

“He’s going to settle down and work to find a little glove in that big field? “ He said doubtfully. At the same time Logan tried to jump on Jimmie, almost pulling me over.

I guided Logan over to the starting flag where he indicated the first article , a small handkerchief that held the tracklayer’s scent.  Now twelve months old, when Logan stepped off from the starting flag he became a serious working dog, pulling, with his head down, sniffing, indicating all the turns, ignoring deer smells or whatever resided in the deep grass.  He finally found the tracklayer’s leather glove and the judges whistled that we had passed.  As if that wasn’t exciting enough, back in the parking lot Jimmie gave me a congratulatory hug.  I couldn’t help but mentally thank Logan.  He got a ribbon, some cold water and some chicken treats but I got a much-needed hug.

Jimmie’s phone remained quiet for the rest of the day. Over lunch, he finally told me about his job and what drove him to be an investigator.

“My sister was killed in an explosion at her workplace in Rochester, New York. At the time I was a fire fighter in that city.  Since the explosion was huge and did not appear to be accidental, there was a demand for more Arson Investigators.  Since I have a degree and technical background I applied and became an apprentice with one of the best.  The work got me through my grief.  It’s sometimes sad and grueling and dirty work but I feel like I make a difference.  I couldn’t save my sister but I made sure the people who caused the fire were put in jail for life.  My wife couldn’t take all the hours my job took from our life.  I agreed to take a similar job in Oregon, hoping the pace wouldn’t be as chaotic but she eventually left me anyway.  So that’s how I ended up here in a job that keeps me so busy I don’t even have a life, or so it seems.”

He looked at me and took my hand. “You remind me of my sister, soft and vulnerable and smart and goal-oriented.”

“And dog crazy,” I warned him.  He smirked and rolled his eyes.  But we laughed, enjoying our first full day together.

True to his word, he continued to be swamped with work. We finally made plans to go to a dog show in Seattle together where Logan would make his debut in the AKC Novice obedience ring.  The drive to the show was like a dream for me, a good man and a good dog at my side.  For once I could relax and trust.

Logan’s energy now worked for him and me. With maturity he calmed enough to heel with drive and purpose.  At the show site I went to the Novice obedience ring to get my armband number.  There stood Suzy with her back to me.   I noticed that she had a new dog, another immaculately groomed black and white Border Collie, that had on an expensive kangaroo leather collar and matching leash. Suzie wore her signature black and white suit, but now wore expensive Turquoise jewelry: earrings, a necklace and a matching ring. She was still flashy, still wanted to be the center of attention.

There was a long wait until our class started.  I sat with Jimmie as he lovingly patted Logan, who, like me, decided this man was a very nice person.  We were interrupted by Suzy who walked up slowly to our chairs, her dark brown eyes taking in the three of us.

“What’s this?” She pushed her long black hair off her shoulders, “Another dog to be torched?  You’re going to keep me busy.”

For the first time ever, I saw Jimmie explode in anger.  He jumped up and towered over Suzy.

“What? What did you say?  Did you have anything to do with that fire?”

For once I saw Suzi lose her composure and haughty demeanor and turn white.

“I’m only joking. Get a life, mister.”  She quickly walked away and disappeared into the crowd.

“I need as much info on her as you can get,” He said as he turned to me. “That lady just made herself a suspect.”

He was no longer my date.  I saw him transform into The Arson Investigator, all business, with a pen in one hand and his phone in the other.  I held out my catalog which always has exhibitors names and address in the back for reference. Jimmie grabbed the catalog and as he walked away he was dialing his cell phone.

Could it be, I wondered?  Did a blue ribbon mean so much to Suzy that she’d kill?


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