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A wedding, a runaway dog: Our beloved Charlie's improbable journey home

Posters across rural Washington County, Iowa, alerted residents to the missing spaniel mix from Kansas City. (Rick Montgomery/Kansas City Star/TNS)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Charlie was never to be part of the ceremonies.

Another mutt, his future in-law Arya, was ring-bearer.

Did this bother Charlie? Or did our 9-year-old spaniel mix just feel forgotten as all the humans were busying themselves with the wedding of Arya's owners — Laura Shorey and our son Max.

Regardless, an urge struck Charlie three hours before the nuptials commenced in Iowa.

"Hmm. Think I'll be running now."

Into the wilds 300 miles northeast of his Kansas City home.

It was a surprise move from a shy guy. Charlie enjoys a good run but grew up mostly indoors, splitting naps between two couches.

He bolted when my brother Bill took Charlie outside to roam off-leash in his yard in Riverside, Iowa, 10 miles from the wedding. My wife, Sue, and I were away decorating the reception hall.

Guilt-stricken Bill approached as we pulled into his driveway: "Charlie's taken off."

A missing mutt brought together Sue Montgomery, left, and Beth Cawiezell. (Rick Montgomery/Kansas City Star/TNS)

We shifted the car in reverse and patrolled Riverside streets, yelling his name.

Then we spotted him. Charlie paused on a sidewalk, stared at us, then spun and raced into a farm implement lot. From there we believe he ducked into the woods and left town.

Always one to come when called, this dog seemed frightened and flustered.

We feared that Charlie recognized his uncertain future. He had been diagnosed months earlier with terminal cancer.

His veterinarian said: "Could be weeks, could be months, could be years."

Still, his tail never, ever stopped wagging.

Maybe Charlie chose our family wedding to find a faraway place to lie down, be done with it and cause no trouble.

But nobody involved in the search — including several wedding guests and some extraordinary residents of Riverside — could bear to imagine Charlie dying alone in the creek beds near U.S. 218.

If only he might return home to his two couches, he'd have a second lease on life.

Someone that afternoon told the sheriff's office about a dog pacing the shoulder of the highway, 2 miles east of Riverside. There amid coons and cocklebur, Charlie maybe harbored regrets.

The aroma of Bud's Meat Market near the interchange had to tease him something terrible.

As for the wedding, I arrived sweaty, harried and without Sue. No family photo session for us.

I explained it to a few guests. My cousin Russ Marshall and his wife, Michelle, up from Platte City, were the first of a half-dozen relatives and friends to volunteer to search for Charlie.

Twenty minutes before the wedding was to start, Sue was still out there. One of her happiest days was dissolving by the minute.

"Max would want me looking for Charlie," she said over the phone, through tears.

I asked the groom.

"That's silly," Max said. "Mom should be right here. At my wedding."

Hearing this, Sue dressed in record wedding-day time. At the lakeside shelter where vows were exchanged, she was delivered by the bride's uncle on a golf cart.

The ceremony was beautiful, truly.

Charlie is again grabbing Sue's stocking cap to let her know he's ready for a morning run. (Rick Montgomery/Kansas City Star)

Then Sue and our other son Jack rushed back to Riverside bearing flashlights.

Already, Russ and Michelle had hit pay dirt, encountering a Riversider named Beth Cawiezell doing yard work.

"If Charlie is within 5 miles, I'm going to find him," Cawiezell pledged. She's known by neighbors as a lost-animal sleuth who keeps leashes in her car.

Over the next few days, my family posted notices around Washington County. We bought ads in two local newspapers.

But after day four, we had to drive five hours back to Kansas City and return to our jobs.

That drive was torture. We feared we were leaving Charlie to die.

He was spotted two days later — Friday morning rush — limping up an entrance ramp to U.S. 218.

Julie Lang was the first to pull over. She explained later: "Charlie was confused, and I thought he might be hurt. As I reached out, he seemed to be thinking, 'Look, I'm scared. I don't know who you are. So I feel I just have to nip you a little.' "

That's a nice way of saying that our dog bit Lang on the hand.

The next to pull over was Cawiezell. "Charlie," she shouted. And he lay down, pressing his burr-covered belly to the roadside.

Turns out that no two persons in Washington County could have been better suited to rescue a confused, gimpy and bedraggled dog.

Lang is a registered nurse who loves animals. Cawiezell works at the Iowa Hygienic Laboratory, where Charlie's brain tissue could have wound up if authorities destroyed him to test for rabies.

Both begged officers not to put Charlie down. Brother Bill and wife Jo dropped everything to rush him to the pet hospital.

A Washington County sheriff's deputy called with the news. He wanted to know when Charlie was last vaccinated.

"Er ... ," I stammered, "our vet advised against that last spring because Charlie was undergoing chemotherapy."

It's in writing, I assured him. And though euthanasia deserved consideration here, please let us drive up and assess the situation.

The deputy: "Rules on dog bites are to protect people, not pets. ... But we'll wait. You have a safe drive."

Before that first reunion in the Iowa City hospital, my family wondered if Charlie would be angry. Or sickly sad? Turns out he was just Charlie — licking our chins, whimpering a bit, twirling that tail.

I later made one last 600-mile round trip to retrieve him after a 10-day mandatory quarantine.

Rescuers Lang and Cawiezell split our $200 reward. Both gave the money to a local animal shelter.

Now two weeks back with the family, Charlie's spirits are high. A sprained front paw has healed enough so he can once again grab Sue's stocking cap from a hallway basket, signaling it's time for his morning run.

Nobody can say how many mornings are ahead. Could be weeks, months or years.

But Charlie has proven himself a survivor. Right now, he must be thinking years.

Story by Rick Montgomery / The Kansas City Star