January 20, 1997 12:00 PM

AS A WORKING DOG, RODEO USU-ally sleeps out under the stars on the Thompson family’s 80-acre ranch in Olivehurst, Calif. But these days the 4-year-old Border collie is sharing Jimmy and Janice Thompson’s warm bed.

It’s not that Rodeo is getting soft: He’s entitled to a few creature comforts. He was keeping watch over the Thompsons’ 80 head of cattle around 8:30 p.m. on Jan. 2 when the rains that had soaked Northern California for a week ruptured a levee, sending a 20-foot wall of water surging toward the Thompson’s three-story home. “As the first wave hit, Rodeo must have gone up with it and landed on the carport roof,” says Jimmy, 57, who was tending the family’s general store in nearby Marysville at the time. (Janice, 55, a bookkeeper, called frantically for Rodeo before escaping by car.) As the water rose through the night, Rodeo climbed the roof just ahead of it.

At dawn, helicopter pilot Michael Kidd and cameraman Ron Middlekauff, who were covering the flood for a local TV station, spotted the waterlogged dog. By the time they returned, just before sunset, “the water was raging around the house,” says Kidd, and Rodeo “looked so forlorn, you could just cry.” As Kidd hovered his Belljet Ranger above the roof—its 30-foot blade just inches from the TV antenna—Middlekauff, with no safety belt, clung to the landing skid with one hand and scooped Rodeo up with the other. “It was probably stupid,” he says. “But we were following our hearts.”

The Thompsons, who like thousands of other flood victims stayed with relatives last week, were overjoyed to be reunited with Rodeo. “Everybody lost,” Jimmy says, “but to see Rodeo want to live so bad was inspiring.” Even if he does hog the blankets.

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