BRANDON — Michael Mayhew knew he was dying of a rare blood disease when he took the puppy home.
He wanted a way for his grandchildren to remember him. He chose Cooper, a long-legged chihuahua mix, to comfort them in his place.
But, with only months left in Mayhew's life, the dog vanished from the family's Sacramento, Calif., yard.
For two years, Cooper's fate was a mystery.
Then, last week, he turned up nearly 2,800 miles from home.
Two women found Cooper along a busy Brandon street. Concerned for his safety, they scooped him up and took him to Care Animal Hospital. Employees scanned him for a microchip and discovered just how far the little dog had traveled.
Even the microchip company was surprised.
"They asked me how far I was from Brandon, Fla., so I could come pick him up," said Mayhew's daughter, Michelle Baetge. "All I could say is, 'From where?' "
No one is sure what happened to Cooper or how he got to Florida, but vets said he appeared healthy and well fed.
"Somebody definitely had him and has been taking care of him," said Cheri Kane, owner of Care.
When Cooper first disappeared in 2009, Baetge and her family hung flyers, called animal shelters and searched their neighborhood.
Her son, Cody Baetge, 16, didn't want to give up.
"I used to think about him almost everyday, and it was kind of going away after a while," he said.
Then, Mayhew died.
"When we lost both of them it was especially heartbreaking," Michelle Baetge said.
For months, Baetge's 7-year-old daughter, Natalie Yamada, carried around a stuffed animal chihuahua.
"We finally decided it was time for a dog of her own," Baetge said.
In August, the family chose a 3-pound Shih Tzu rat terrier mix named Bentley.
Baetge urged her son to get a dog, too.
"He said no. He still wasn't over it," she said.
That's when the call came.
"I didn't believe it at first," Cody Baetge said. "I didn't think it was true."
They had had false alarms before.
Other dogs who showed up at shelters with the same brown eyes and dark-colored nose. It had always ended in disappointment.
But the microchip doesn't lie.
On Monday, Cooper will come home.
The microchip company, HomeAgain, is covering all the expenses of the flight in exchange for Baetge reactivating the company's $16.99 yearly service. Laura Segers, a veterinarian technician at Care, will give him a ride to the airport.
His family can't wait for the plane to land.
Cody Baetge hopes Cooper remembers him.
"Getting Cooper back," Michelle Baetge said, "is like getting a little bit of my dad back."
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2442.