HELENA, Mont. – A 7-year-old golden retriever named Buck, startled by a train whistle last summer and lost for six months in north-central Montana, is back home in Washington state thanks to the efforts of several Chester residents.
"I've never had a miracle happen to me, so I don't really know what to think," said Kim Halter of Bonney Lake, Wash.
Halter said she, her husband and two of their sons were on a family trip to Montana in August when they stopped at a rest stop along U.S. Highway 2 in the small town of Chester.
"The dog was normally never on a leash. Big mistake," Halter said Thursday. "But he was always next to my son. He never left his side, so we never really had a problem."
"We were under the trestle when the horn blew. When Buck heard the whistle, he took off like a shot. None of us even saw him."
Halter said Maxine Woods, who lives across the highway, was waving her arms and trying to tell them that their dog ran away.
"He just basically disappeared," Woods said Friday. "He was just going faster than any dog I've seen run."
Woods joined the search for the dog.
"She got in her car and then she started calling people and before you knew it everybody around there was looking for our dog," Halter said. After two days of unsuccessful searching, the Halters, brokenhearted, resumed their travels.
"We went to the library and the librarian in Chester made us posters and wouldn't charge us a dime for them," Halter said. The family put up posters in banks and post offices in the small towns around the area.
"That was about all we could do," she said.
After a few false sightings, the family didn't hear anything for six months.
As fall turned into winter, heavy snow fell in the Chester area and temperatures occasionally fell into the 20-below-zero range.
"Every time we'd hear about the weather we would just cringe," Halter said. "I would just cry even harder, thinking 'Where is my Buck?' And of course I couldn't let my son (17-year-old Jason) know. I never let him see me cry because he kept the faith and kept the hope."
"He would tell me all the time that Buck's coming home," she said of her son, who had had the dog since it was a puppy. "He actually thought he was going to walk home like in (the movie) 'Homeward Bound."'
It was about 27 degrees below zero early on Jan. 25, the day Jason Wanken spotted a stray dog on his family farm just north of Chester.
"We spotted this dog out here on the farm, just on and off, going through the creek and whatnot," Wanken said. "We just never had a prime opportunity to go over and get him."
Later in the week, Wanken used a snowmobile to bring some food to the dog, which had taken up residence under a collapsed building.
Wanken's mother had remembered the name of the golden retriever that had gone missing last summer and told Wanken to see if the dog would answer to the name Buck.
"The next day, I took the boys out with me and I had a full bag of food with me and I just rattled that bag," he said. "I started to feed it and could actually pet it then."
Wanken and his wife were able to use food to lure the dog into a kennel.
They then took the dog to Woods' house.
"I thought it couldn't be this dog, though, it's been too long," Wanken said.
Woods called Halter on Saturday, Jan. 31.
"She e-mailed me three pictures and when I was on the phone with her I received the pictures, and we both started crying and I said that was him," Halter said.
Confirmation that the dog had an underbite sent the Halters on a 750-mile trip. "We drove all night," she said, arriving in Chester Sunday afternoon.
"When we got to the Wankens, he ran right up to us and it was absolutely without a doubt him," Halter said. "It was a miracle. He looked at us and we looked at him and we were all crying. It was beyond amazing."
No one seems to know where Buck had been between Aug. 13 and Jan. 25.
"From the time he left us until the time Jason Wanken found him, there is no clue where he's been or what he's done," Halter said. "Only he knows. I almost feel like taking him to a pet psychic to see if they could tell me. Only he knows his secret and he's keeping it to himself.
"I tell ya one thing, he hasn't stopped smiling since he got home and neither have we."