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Veronica's owners aren't sure how long she spent wedged in the 18-inch culvert that runs under their rural Graton road, nor what she endured as the hours passed and help did not arrive.

As day turned to night turned to day again, the 4-year-old hound must have heard them call her name, if not Diane Albracht's quiet nighttime sobs while she wondered what had become of her beloved dog.

By Wednesday morning, a day after Veronica escaped through an open gate, Albracht and her husband, David, were becoming increasingly worried by the distant, occasional barking that echoed through their valley.

"I said, 'David, she's fading. She's fading,' " Diane Albracht recalled.

But that evening, Veronica and her owners would be reunited after the Albrachts pinpointed her underground location and Graton firefighters answered their call for help, digging into the rocky hillside to free the exhausted hound.

"I don't think she would have survived another night," Albracht said Thursday, as Veronica lay nearby, still recovering from her ordeal.

Veronica, a rescued Walker hound who has lived with the Albrachts for three years, gets long walks every day but otherwise lives inside the fencing on the Albrachts' three-acre property off Bone Road.

Diane Albracht let her out into the yard around 7 a.m. Tuesday but, busy preparing for a family reunion at the house this weekend, didn't think about her again until her granddaughter, Chloe, arrived for her usual 9:30 a.m. playtime.

It was then Albracht discovered the open gate and began searching the wooded neighborhood off Green Valley Road.

Albracht heard barking Tuesday afternoon from her home in a bowl-shaped valley that she thought might have been Veronica.

But she could find no sign of her dog after driving the neighborhood and then hiking through the area with a friend and alerting neighbors that the dog was missing.

At some point Wednesday, Albracht decided Veronica must be trapped somewhere — perhaps confined in a barn or shed, behind a fence or maybe even tied up.

But contours of the valley allowed the periodic barks to bounce around, making it almost impossible to determine from which direction they were coming, she said.

Finally, as she listened to the barking from her driveway Wednesday afternoon, Albracht traced the sound to the southwest, and she and her husband began combing the creek behind their house.

David Albracht, wading through thigh-high water and then crawling through patches of poison oak, finally heard a whimper from above and, looking up, saw the outlet of a heavy culvert emerging from a rocky cliff.

He climbed up, looked inside and saw Veronica's eyes gleaming back at him in the dark.

Perhaps chasing a squirrel or another critter into the culvert from the other end, the 60-plus-pound hound had managed to scoot about 40 feet along the corrugated culvert before getting pinned at a turn in the pipe, where both the top and bottom were partially collapsed.

Graton firefighters were called to help get her out. They cut away about 15 feet of exposed culvert, but still had to move about five feet of earth and boulders weighing several hundred pounds each to get to her, Deputy Chief Bill Bullard said.

Talking soothingly and using hand tools they hoped would neither harm nor alarm the dog, they carefully cut away from the top of the pipe until Veronica's head emerged and, ultimately, her whole body.

"She was perfectly quiet," Bullard said. "She didn't make a sound, the whole time we worked around her."

Veronica walked the half-mile or so back home but had moved very little by Thursday and hadn't eaten much, either, Diane Albracht said.

She was shivering some, but took a biscuit here and there and mostly chose to lie out in the sun, on a cushy bed.

Albracht, who caught Veronica's tail wagging a time or two, is giving her time to rest up after such a trying experience.

"I'm just so happy to have her back," she said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.)