Little Boy Lost
Stretching lazily, Ben opened his eyes and looked up. The morning sky was a soft blue with little white puffs of clouds through-out. The air was crisp and chilly. “Boy this is cool” Ben thought as he looked around to see if anyone else was stirring. “I am finally the first one awake. I even beat mom up.” He beamed with delight at the idea, then, hunkered down into his sleeping bag as a brisk spatter of cold air dashed across is face. Ben and his family had decided to go camping for the Labor Day weekend. His sister Sarah was upset because they would miss all the festivities, but Ben didn’t care about any parties, he just loved being in the mountains.
He loved to sleep under the stars, especially in the mountains because without the city lights you could see thousands and thousands of stars. Last year, when he was only five years old his dad had taken him to the planetarium where he had learned about how some of the stars are planets that move around a sun, just like the earth. Learning about each planet set his mind in motion and he often imagined himself as the first astronaut to circle Venus or Saturn with its rings. Maybe he would be the first to travel outside our galaxy and meet people from other planets. While staring up at the night sky thinking of these great adventures, Ben would fall asleep and dream the best dreams.
But this morning he was ready for everyone to wake up and get going. They were going to hike up the trail to a place where his father said they could swim under a waterfall. Dad said it was the place he and mom would come to all the time when they were engaged to be married. They would swim in the lake for hours, then dive off the cliffs, swim underneath the waterfall and come up behind it, and then they would sit and talk about all the things they were going to do when they were married. It was a secret place that only Mom and Dad knew about and they had decided the Ben and Sarah were finally old enough to know about it too. Ben could hardly contain himself. He started making loud yawning noises in hopes of waking up the others. Then he coughed loudly and wiggled around noisily in the sleeping bag. He cleared his throat a couple of times then stretched again taking in a big deep breath and letting it out in a long breathy moan.
Others started stretching now and he knew he had achieved his goal. They were all waking up and he could be sure that things were going to start moving soon. He tumbled out of his sleeping bag into the chilly morning. Grabbing at his duffle bag that he had placed by his pillow the night before, he pulled out his favorite Levis and blue shirt with the short sleeves. Jumping around from foot to foot, he nearly fell several times as he tried to get his socks on, then his boots. “Wake up, Sarah” he hollered leaning into her tent. “Come on everyone, hurry, before the fish stop biting.” He had heard his dad say that all the time. Ben wasn’t sure what it meant but he liked the sound of it. He pretty much liked everything his dad said or did. “One day, I’m gonna be just like dad” he thought happily. “Just like dad,’ and then impatiently he shouted “WAKE UP”
Two excruciating hours later they were on the trail heading up to the lake. Ben had taken up the lead because the rest were walking so slowly. It was all Sarah’s fault. She took more time than anyone he knew to do everything. She had turned nine last month and since then she had become even more pokey. Ben thought it was because she had started liking the boys in her school recently. She took hours to get ready in the mornings, a guy had to pound on the door again and again to get her to hurry up. Thank goodness he could run into mom and dads bathroom when it became necessary. And now she was holding everything up again as she was always stopping to check out this flower or that tree, asking one dumb question of her parents after another.
Mom and Dad were much more patient that Ben, they would stop with her and answer her questions. They even made it look like they were interested in the flower or tree to. Ben on the other hand just wanted to get to the lake. He had been hearing about Windy Lake for-ever; well at least as long as he could remember and now they were almost there. “Just one more mile” his dad had said. “One more mile.” We could be there in ½ hour if Sarah would just walk a little faster, Ben thought. He started up the trail going just a little faster hoping to get the rest of them to speed up in an effort to catch up to him. He was so excited he wanted to run. Boy he wished they would hurry. “Ben”, his dad called out, “Ben, slow down. Ben” Dads voice was sounding more and more distant. Just a little further Ben thought, I should be able to see the lake from the top of the hill. I’ll stop and wait for everyone from there. I know it’s just at the next turn in the trail. Even In his excitement Ben noticed that the trail had gotten smaller.
It wasn’t as wide and well defined as it had been a minute ago, but he thought that was just because it was a secret lake only known to a few people. Only known to young people in love like his mom and dad had been years ago. “Ben” his dad called, and this time it sounded even fainter than before. Maybe I better wait here for them to catch up Ben thought. They can’t be more than a minute or two behind me. “Over here Dad” Ben called out. “Dad, I’m over here.” Holding his breath he listened to the forest waiting to hear the sound of his father calling him again, or the sound of the family coming closer to him along the trail. He waited. Waited….It was so quiet. So very quiet.
They should be coming up the trail any second now he thought. He should have heard them by now. “Oh, they probably just stopped to look at another flower for Sarah. I better go back and get them” Ben mumbled to himself as he started back down the trail. A few minutes later Ben nervously called out to his dad again. Still no answer. Could they have taken a wrong turn in the trail? No, mom and dad knew the way to the lake by heart. They had told him so. They would never have taken a wrong turn, which means… Ben slowly began to realize that maybe; just maybe, he had taken a wrong turn. Maybe he was the one who had gone the wrong way and maybe mom and dad didn’t know he had taken the wrong trail.
Maybe they were still hiking on the right trail trying to catch up to Ben. Ben began to hurry back along the trail to where he thought they would be waiting for him. He was starting to get nervous. He was afraid he might start to cry. Something was wrong and he knew it. He could feel it in his heart and stomach. They felt heavy like big rock was sitting on them. “Dad, Mom” Ben cried out. “Sarah” “Where are you?” He started moving faster and faster, trying to find mom and dad. “Dad” “Dad” Tears were streaming down his face now but he didn’t care, he just had to move faster. Now he was running, he had to get back to where they would all be waiting for him. He looked down at the trail to make sure he was still on it when a big branch from a crooked looking old tree grabbed him by his shirt. It tore a hole in his shirt-sleeve and he felt the end of the branch bite at his shoulder. He didn’t care, he just kept running.
The faster I go the sooner I’ll be back with my mom and dad, he thought. Faster, must run faster. It was getting harder and harder for Ben to keep running. His heart was beating so fast and his breath was coming in painful gasps. The tears in his eyes were making it hard to see and his legs were starting to throb too. Ben unwillingly began to slow his pace. Tripping over rocks and fighting low hanging branches was making it tough going and he found that he was getting very tired. He finally collapsed on the ground, and covering his face with his hands he began to cry.
“Come on, Vickie, wake up, wake up wake up” the dog thought loudly in her head. This, thinking people awake, was harder than it appeared. Jamie had been up and about for more than an hour and had decided she had been as patient as she could be. It was Saturday, and Saturday was the best day of the week. That was the day that Vickie didn’t have to leave for work. It was the day they spent together, just the two of them. On regular weekday mornings, Vickie would burst out of bed at the sound of the alarm clock, jumping into her running clothes that had sat neatly folded on the dresser, throw some cold water on her face and take Jamie jogging for a few miles. Then she would quickly shower and be off to work. It amazed Jamie that she was able to do all of that in just under two hours. But on Saturdays everything would slow down. She would often sleep in until after the sun had risen; eat a leisurely breakfast while sitting on the front porch watching the hummingbirds darting in and out of view as they looked for that perfect flower with the perfect amount of nectar nestled in between its petals. After an hour or so she would reach up to the hook on the kitchen wall by the back door and take down Jamie’s leash.
With a wink at her patient and longsuffering companion, she would open the door, step out into the fresh clean country air, and they would finally be on their way for a morning of long walks through the hills. Vickie was relaxed and able to enjoy things more on these days, which made it nicer for a dog like Jamie, who always wanted to stop and smell the flowers and bushes. Every thing she sniffed held telling stories that only a dog can read. Silent stories of who or what had gone thru the area the night before. Last week she had smelled where a mother raccoon had led her three young ones to the edge of the creek. She could tell by the scent they left behind that the little ones were nervous and Jamie wondered if it was the first time they had ever left their den. Further along in the walk, she felt a sense of tranquility when they came to a fallen log where an older lady had sat the evening before. Jamie could almost imagine the woman quietly sitting there with a gentle smile on her face, looking off towards the setting sun, contemplating how lucky she had been through out her life. That was the kind of smell she had left behind her.
It was a nice smell. Thinking of past Saturdays was only making Jamie more intent on waking up her friend and it became clear to the dog that stronger tactics would need to be used in order to get the woman moving this morning. The beautiful Border Collie mix stood on her hind feet, and firmly but gently tapped the bed by Vickie’s head three times with her paw. Excitement rushed through her as the woman started to move. She slowly stretched her right arm over her head as a long grumble escaped from her chest working its way to her throat and out her half closed lips. “Go away Jamie” the sleeping woman moaned, “Please, just give me ten more minutes.” But the dog was un-daunted by this plea.
With more purpose this time, she reached out with her nose gently nuzzled at the dozing woman’s eyelids. It was like a splash of cold water to the sleeping form, who jerked back quickly opening her eyes shocked by the contact. “Yep, I’ve done it” Jamie sheepishly grinned inwardly when she saw the startled look on the woman’s face. “Your awake now, aren’t ya?” “I guess there’s nothing left to do but get up and face the day.”
Sarah had never seen her mom and dad so upset. One minute Ben was right in front of them and the next he was gone. Just like that. She had been showing her mom a pretty little purple flower she had found next to a creek when she heard her dad first call out to Ben. The first time he called out he just said “Ben” but the second time, he hollered “Benjamin”. When Dad called him Benjamin, everyone knew that dad was upset. Mom took Sarah by the hand then and led her away from the flower to daddy’s side and both mom and dad called out for Benjamin. After about five minutes, dad told mom and Sarah to stay where they were while he went to look for her brother. “Don’t leave the trail” dad had said. “Wait right here, I’ll be back in a few minutes”. Then Dad pointed to a large pine tree in the middle of some smaller trees. He told mom he would keep an eye on that tree and stay on the trail so he could make his way back to them after he found Ben.
When her dad disappeared down the trail, leaving Sarah and her mother alone, Sarah felt a moment of panic. What if something happened to dad and Ben, what if she never saw them again? How would she and mom survive without her father? Does mom know how to get out of here if they don’t come back? Sarah felt her eyes start to fill with tears as her heart began to beat faster. Sarah could tell that Mom was trying to be brave for her, but she knew her mother was afraid too. “He’ll be ok” Sarah said to her mom. “Ben probably just wanted to get to the lake first and so he is ahead of us and couldn’t hear you when you called” Sarah heard herself say the words but in her heart she knew she didn’t believe them. Ben, her little brother, the boy who slept in the room next to hers, the boy who always got in the way when she was playing with her friends, who pestered and annoyed her constantly, was lost.
He was out there, alone, in the woods and he was lost. A tightness in her throat warned her that she was about to cry. She wished he was there right now, making faces at her and trying to get her to hurry up. “Come on Sarah” she could hear him say, “The lake will dry up before we get there because you are so slow” Oh what she would give to have him say those words to her right now. “Did you hear that?” mom whispered. Sarah looked at her mother who was standing on the trail looking back. Holding their breath, they waited. The forest was silent, and Sarah didn’t hear a thing. She could see her mother standing as still as the trees, waiting, listening. “I don’t hear anything Mom” Sarah murmured. “Shhhhsh” Mom put a finger to her lips to silence her. “I thought I heard someone cry for help” “Listen” Nothing Sarah thought, “I don’t hear anything” but still she waited, straining her ears to hear whatever it was that had caused her mother to become so alert. “Sarah” her mother said, “I want you to stay right here, and I am going to see if I can find where the sound was coming from."
Panic filled Sarah, “Mom, you can’t go, don’t leave me too, lets wait for Dad” she exclaimed. “Honey, don’t worry, I won’t leave the trail and I won’t be gone more than a minute” she said in a comforting voice. “I am just going back a few yards to see if the sound gets louder. I promise, I won’t leave you alone for long.” Sarah watched as her mother walked back down the trail and out of sight. A tingling sense of alarm was working its way slowly up her back like a spider lightly creeping across her flesh. She sat up straight and took a deep breath of the fresh mountain air into her lungs, held it for a full minute, then let it out slowly. She needed to calm down, relax, and wait. Everything was going to be alright she assured herself. Really, it was.
Ben sat up. The cool breeze on his face wasn’t as comforting as it had been when he awoke this morning. As it came against his tear streaked cheek, it turned cold. Ben felt a chill run through his whole body and he began to shiver. “Mommy, Daddy” he cried out in a fragile whisper. “Help me” “Please Help Me” He felt so alone. He had never been alone before in his whole life. Mom, Dad, or Sarah had always been right there. Even when he went to Kindergarten on his first day, mom had walked him to the door of the school, took him inside and went right to his classroom with him. She didn’t leave until she was sure that he was not afraid. Then when school was over, she was right there, at the door waiting to take him home again. Now there was no one with him, not his mom, his dad or Sarah, not even his teacher or friends from class. Nobody was there to help him. He was really alone. All alone.
A small hic-up of panic poured into his mouth and down his throat to the middle of his stomach. He had to find mom, he had to keep moving. Slowly he got to his knees, then leaning against a small tree he pulled himself up and started walking again. He didn’t know where he was going but he just needed to keep moving, keep looking for mom and dad. He imagined how it would feel to have mom hold him tightly in her arms. She was the best hugger in the world. Sometimes he would act embarrassed when she hugged him in front of his friends but he really liked it and he could feel himself smiling inside after she let him go. “Mommy” he said again, only this time it was a sad and lonely word that only made him feel more miserable. “Mommy”. Somehow, while he was running before, he had lost the trail all-together.
If he could only find the trail again, then he was sure he could find his way back to his family. It seemed that it was tougher now than it was when he was with mom and dad. There was no trail to follow and Ben was forced to climb over bushes and trees to make any headway. As he forced his way through a thick bush it bit and scratched at his hands and forehead. When he finally got through he felt something trickling down in to his eye from and reached up with his dirty hands to wipe it away. When he pulled his hands away and looked at them, Ben saw that they were streaked with a reddish brown stuff.
Blood, he thought, he was bleeding... Frightened at the sight of his own blood, Ben began to run again. He didn’t know why, he just had to run. It wasn’t easy, running through the thick underbrush, but he couldn’t help himself, he just needed to keep going. Faster and faster, farther and farther. Looking back over his shoulder as he ran, Ben imagined that something was coming after him. Something big and mean, that was going to catch up to him if he slowed down. It would reach him at any moment now. He ran faster. Ben knew if the beast caught up to him, it would grab him and drag him back to its cave. “Faster” Ben thought, “Must run faster.
Ben ran and ran until his heart began to hurt. Each breath he took came harder and harder and he felt himself slowing down. He tried but he just couldn’t go any faster. Almost walking now, he looked cautiously behind to see if it was getting closer. How soon would the monster catch up to him? He was so scared. He needed to hide. “That’s it, I can hide so the monster doesn’t find me” he thought. Breathing heavily, he stopped and looked around. But where? Where could he hide? Just a few steps away, Ben saw a big pine tree with great limbs that almost touched the ground. There was a tree like that in their back yard at home and when Ben would play hide and seek with his friends, he would always shimmy under the huge limbs into the darkened area by the base of the tree. He could see his friend’s running back and forth as they looked for him but they could never see him. He was surrounded by the pine bows and sheltered from the light. It was a great place to hide. He always won when he hid under that tree.
He never told anyone where his secret hiding place was. It was his special place and now as he looked toward the great tree in this forest, Ben knew he had found another “Special Place” a safe place to hide from the on coming beast. He ran to the tree.
“What a great day to be a dog. How cool is this, there are smells everywhere this morning. It’s enough to make a girl want to sing.” A long low howling came from Jamie’s throat bursting to the surface in a sound that caused her to stop cold in her tracks. “Where did that come from?” she thought alarmed at the silence that followed in the wake of the strange outcry, “I don’t usually make sounds like that, Copper the bloodhound in the search dog group makes those sounds, but I don’t” Bemused at herself, Jamie looked around to see if her beloved Vickie had noticed the unsettling noise. “Yep, she noticed” Vickie was bending over holding her stomach and laughing heartily as she watched the shocked and confused look on Jamie’s face. “Oh well,” Jamie recounted to herself, “A dogs gotta be what dogs gotta be” and with that thought in mind she happily trotted off to the creek for a quick splash. “Nothing like water, fresh, cold mountain water, to make you forget your troubles.”
Knowing exactly where to go, Jamie crashed through the thick leafy brush that grew along the shores of the creek, and leaping high into the air she spread all four legs in different directions at the same time. Then plummeted downward and landed in the middle of a deep pool of the most refreshing liquid imaginable. Oh, the man upstairs knew just what he was doing when he created water. Sinking quickly, Jamie made contact with the earth once more and pushing off from it began the climb back to the top. As her head broke through to the surface and air attacked her face she sucked in both oxygen and water simultaneously. Snorting through her nose she expelled the water and opened her eyes so she could see everything around her. “Yep”, she sputtered more droplets out her mouth “It’s a great day to be a dog.”
It seemed to Sarah that Mom and Dad had been gone a long time. She squirmed closer to the tree she was sitting under; it was comforting to feel the rough bark behind her. This was a powerful tree and it gave her courage. She didn’t know why, but she felt safe sitting under this giant of the forest. It was the same tree that Dad said he would use to guide him back to where they were waiting. Taller than all the other trees, it was like a lighthouse along shore. She knew that where-ever her mother and father were, they could see this tree. So she decided this tree was the best tree in the whole forest. She was going to stay with this tree as long as she needed to. This tree would bring her family back to her. There was something else special about trees that she was trying to remember.
What was that? Something she had learned at school last week. Concentrating, she took herself back to an assembly that they had had last week during Safety Week. They had had several days where different speakers came to school and talked about safety. She really liked the firemen. They told you how to get to safety if there is a fire, and more importantly, how to prevent fires. She went home and told mom dad and Ben all about it. The next evening for Family Night, they went through the whole house and looked for all the dangers the fireman had warned her about. They made an escape plan incase there was a fire and they had a meeting place outside so everyone would know they were safe. They even put in two more smoke detectors and a special alarm for carbon monoxide poisoning.
She had a wonderful time that night but as usual Ben griped and complained the whole time. He wanted to go swimming for Family Night but “Sarah always gets to choose” was his whinny comment. “This is soooo boring, why can’t we do something else”. He was such a baby sometimes, Sarah thought, then she immediately felt bad. If he would come back safe, she wouldn’t care what he said or did for evermore. She would just be so glad to see him. “Please Heavenly Father, please let Ben be ok” she whispered, “I promise to be nicer to him. I’ll help him with his homework and let him come with me when I go with my friends. Please help mom and dad to find him, Please” She quietly choked back a little sob closed her eyes and continued praying for her little brother. Seconds later Sarah felt loving arms wrap around her. Turning her head, she looked up into the tortured eyes of her mother and knew that they were both unbelievably frightened for Ben.
While her mother held her gently in her arms rocking back and forth, Sarah and her mother wept. As they clung to each other Sarah looked up at the sheltering branches of the great tree above them and suddenly remembered. One of the other speakers at the Safety Fair at school last week was a really nice lady who brought a dog. She told the students that her dog and friend was named Jamie. She was a Border Collie Mix and she was trained to find anyone who was lost. She had said that it didn’t matter if you were lost in the mountains, the city or buried in an avalanche, Jamie could find you. She talked a lot about human smells and how the dog can pick out your smell in the air. Sarah was amazed at what the lady said her dog could do.
During part of her demonstration the woman showed them what to do if they got lost in the mountains. She told the students that if they ever found themselves lost in the woods, to look for a big tree with low strong branches, a tree that would protect them from the weather and help to keep them warm at night. A tree like the one she was sitting under, the one Dad was using to guide him back to them. The lady had also assured her Sarah and her fellow students that if they would wait patiently by the tree, someone would come and find them as soon as possible. She had promised that men and women from all over the area along with Vickie, Jamie and other dog teams would not stop looking for them, not until they were found and brought home to their families.
Sarah had wanted to come home that day and tell Ben all about what she learned but when she got home, she found that Ben had been playing with his dirty old dump truck in her room. He had dropped sand from his sand box in big piles on her floor and was hiding his toy solders behind them when she came in. She had been so mad, that she forgot all about the assembly and what she had wanted to tell Ben. She just told him to get out of her room and never come back. She had lost her temper with him and said other bad things that she didn’t want to remember now. It was just a silly old pile of sand, why did she have to get so mad about a silly pile of sand. If she had not gotten mad, she would have told Ben about the assembly and he would have known what to do today.
He would have found a big tree, crawled under it and waited. He would have known that everyone in the world would come looking for him. Especially mom, dad, Sarah and the big beautiful search and rescue dog Jamie. If she just hadn’t gotten mad. It was all her fault…..
Ben hadn’t realized how cool it was getting as he forced his way through the branches of the great tree. His shirt was moist from the sweat his body had released while running and now that he was not moving as fast he could feel the chilly breeze travel through his shirt and onto his skin. By the time it got to his back it was like a winter wind and Ben fought down a shiver that tried to reach all the way from his toes to his head. As he moved closer to the base of the tree, pushing aside heavy limbs, a burst of heat surrounded him and a musty smell of rotting pine needles filled his lungs with much needed warmth. He stepped gently on the ground under him and felt it give way slightly with each movement.
Leaning against the tree Ben slid down to a sitting position and put his hands to the ground on both sides of his body. He felt the thick layer of fallen pine needles but was surprised how soft and flexible they were between his fingers. It was like he was on a big bead of feathers, well maybe not feathers but it did feel nice. When he saw the pine needles, he just naturally thought they would be sharp and painful when he sat down on them, but this was not too bad he thought. Ben had already forgotten about the monster that was chasing him. He was so exhausted from running and crying for the last two hours, that all he wanted to do right now in this cozy little “Safe Place” was to make himself a bed in the pine needles, curl up into a ball and rest for a minute. “Not for too long” he said to himself, “just for a minute or two”. Then I need to start looking for mom and dad again. They are probably very worried by now. Gosh I hope they aren’t mad at me, I bet their mad at me.”
Ben jostled the needles away from the base of the tree and burrowing down, surrounded himself with the warm ground layer, using the tree and its branches as a blanket above. Amazed at how safe he suddenly felt, he closed his eyes and was immediately asleep. He dreamed he was at home in his own bed and that his mother was tucking him in. She would stuff the clean white sheets into the sides of the bed securing him comfortably under the big blanket. It was so snug that nothing could crawl in next to him during the night and he felt safe as she bent down kissing him on the forehead and whispered the same thing she whispered to him every night for as long as he could remember. “Good night my sweet prince, sleeps well, sleep long, and know that you are loved from here to eternity. Now say your prayers then give me a big hug.” After his prayers they would talk about the day for a few minutes then hugging him tightly she would walk to the door, turn off the light and wish him to sleep with her parting words, “Snug as a Bug.”
Sarah felt herself being lifted and passed from her mother to the strong but gentle comfort of her father. He had come back so quietly that she had not noticed his arrival. She looked hopefully up into his face but was not met with the smile she had wished to see. Tear streaked eyes looked back at her as he slowly shook his head already knowing what she would ask if she could only speak. He reached out and pulled mom into his arms and the three of them held on to each other as though their very lives depended on the contact. She had thought she was all cried out but the look in her parents faces told of such pain and anguish, such fear and concern for her missing brother, that she felt herself begin to cry again.
After clinging together for a few more minutes, daddy purposefully separated himself from the hug and gently placed Sarah on the ground. He looked into her mothers eyes and they both stood like stone statues for a minute more. No words passed between them, just a long sobering gaze. She knew that they were speaking in their special language. Dad called it, his “you are special and I love you” language. Mom had told her once that people who love each other as much as she and daddy did didn’t need to talk out loud all the time. They could talk with their eyes and their hearts. It was a special way of communicating that was from the very spirit within.
Sarah didn’t understand it exactly, but she always knew when they were doing it and she loved to watch them look at each other that way because it made her feel safer and more loved when they did. “Now look here you two” her father finally said, “You know that I love you and Ben more than life itself, but I have to do something now that is going to be very hard for you both” Daddy was looking right at Sarah as he spoke and she was sure it was because mom already knew what he was going to say. “I want you both to stay right here in case Ben finds his way to this spot. I am going to run back to the truck and go for help, we need to get everyone we can to come and help us look for Ben before it gets dark” Sarah felt like she couldn’t breath and reached out to hold on to her father’s powerful arm.
She hoped if she held on tightly enough he wouldn’t be able to leave them again, but Dad just leaned down and gently wrapped his big sturdy hand around hers, then removing it from his arm, picked her up again and held her close whispering in her ear, “Punk in, you need to be brave for your mother now, I promise I won’t leave you here for very long but this is something that needs to be done.” Sarah knew that her dad could run very fast and that he would do just as he had promised. He always told the truth to Sarah and Ben. “That’s the rule, in this house” Dad would say, “We always tell the truth” He would come back and that is all there is to that. When her dad put her down, she reached over and took her mothers hand, the two stood together as they watched her father jog back down the trail. Not saying a word, they both stood looking at the empty trail for minutes after her dad disappeared.
Suddenly Sarah noticed how silent it had become. She had loved to be in the mountains, almost as much as Ben did. She loved the ringing sound of the rivers and streams as the water tumbled over rocks. At night when they were in their sleeping bags, she would fall asleep to the sound of the wind rustling through the trees, but now, there was no sound. Not a bird, or a breeze, even the water in the stream was quiet. It was like the forest was weeping in silence for her missing brother. Everything was waiting, hoping like Sarah hoped, to hear his voice calling out “Hurry up Sarah, the lake is going to dry up before we get there” but all she heard was an awkward silence. The sound of nothing weighing heavily on her ears.
Ben awoke from the painful empty sound of his stomach growling? It seemed like it had been days since he had eaten breakfast with his family. When Dad had gotten up this morning he started a fire so they could cook orange muffins. He knew they were one of Ben’s favorite foods while camping. He would slice an orange in half and they all ate the juicy center of them. Making sure to get all the sweet sections of the orange from the inside was part of the challenge. You had to eat it but you couldn’t bend or tear the outer shell. Dad would mix up the muffin powder with eggs and oil, and then pour it into a half orange, filling each one almost to the top. He would find a place on the side of the fire that was just the hot coals and place then in a little pocket of cinders. Ben liked to watch them as they started to boil then crust over into a very tasty breakfast treat. It was almost like eating desert.
Remembering this morning’s meal was only making Ben feel hungrier. One of those muffins would taste so good right now he thought as he turned over and curled his legs up to his chest. He hoped if he held his knees firmly under his chin and squeezed tight, he might not feel the throbbing emptiness in his tummy. Focusing his eyes on the base of the big pine tree he had crawled under, Ben tried to forget the aching of his stomach but the more he tried the hungrier he got. He remembered the scary creature that he had been running from when he found the big tree and wondered if it had gone away yet. He needed to find his mom and dad, they would have food. Gosh he hoped they weren’t mad at him still. Peeking out through the pine bows, Ben slowly looked to the right then the left. No sign of the creature. “Whew” he pushed air out between his lips, “Mr. Monster,” He called. “Are you there?”
The silence that responded was comforting. No heavy breathing, no shuffling noises moving through the trees. It was gone; he was safe, from the monster at least. Ben elbowed his way through the pine tree cover and came out into the open sun lit woods. Standing straight again he stretched his arms into the air and took in a long deep breath. Looking behind him he said good-by to the giant tree that had kept him safe from the monster like his tree in the backyard that hid him from his friends while playing hide and seek. Then he began to walk again. He knew he was lost, he knew he was alone, but he wasn’t crying any more, just walking. Sometimes he would call out to his mom and dad or to Sarah, hoping they would hear him, but mostly he just kept walking. Often he had to crawl under big logs that had once been tall trees, then they had fallen down. Over, under, around…. Keep moving, gotta keep moving… Once he thought he heard Sarah calling him. He stopped walking and listened harder.
It was only a bird. It sounded so sweet and kind, he wished it had been Sarah. He would be so happy to see Sarah. He wouldn’t even mind if she wanted to show him one of her dumb flowers or tell her about the fireman at school. He just wanted to see his sister. Ben stumbled over a rock in his path and nearly fell onto his knees but grabbed at a small bush in time. He was feeling a little tired he thought, tired, hungry and thirsty. Boy, his mouth felt dry, his tongue felt bigger than usual and his lips were kind of puffy. Dad had a big thing of water in his back pack. Sure would be nice to have a drink of that right now he thought. Or a nice cold drink with a peanut butter sandwich made by his mom.
Maybe not a cold orange soda but some hot chocolate now that would really be good he thought. “MMMM hot chocolate” he muttered out loud while rubbing his hands back and forth against each other. They felt a little cold right now, in fact he thought, he was kind of cold all over. He felt a shiver run through his whole body, and a fluttery feeling settled in his stomach. Looking up into the sky, Ben suddenly realized that it was getting late and that he might be alone when night time came. He had never been alone when darkness came before. Even after mom and dad tucked him in his bed at night, they left the door open so a soft light from the hallway danced across his bed. He could hear them whispering and see them moving around and he would watch them until he drifted off to sleep. It was a safe feeling. He didn’t feel safe now, he felt afraid.
It has been a marvelous day, Vickie thought. The sky was as blue as she had ever seen it and the air felt pure and refreshing as it rushed to her lungs after each deep breath she took. Jamie was resting peacefully at her side and Vickie wondered if life could be any better than this.
Leaning back on her elbows and tilting her head back so that her eyes were forced shut by the warm bright yellow rays of sunlight she laughed delightedly. Taking a hearty mouthful of the earth’s precious oxygen she held it in her lungs for a long moment, then slowly let it escape back into the atmosphere. A huge smile made its way across her lips climbing up into the tiny laugh lines by her eyes. It was a great day to be alive. She looked down at her best friend, lying at her side soaking in the afternoon sun and her smile grew wider. When she was out playing with her dog, her partner and friend, she had no fears. The simple joy that Jamie found in anything she did helped Vickie to see that the world was full of good and beautiful things.
When the two of them were together, just relaxing, everything seemed possible. With Jamie at her side, the world would slow its pace down and suddenly became more manageable. “I wonder why that is?” she meditated. “How come being around this dog, this wild and crazy friend, can I find such peace?” “It’s a conundrum” she said with a smile. She liked that word. It was a Jamie
word. Conundrum. She had looked it up once. The dictionary had described the word as a puzzle, mystery, an enigma and that is just what Jamie is.
Trying to understand her is sometimes like putting a puzzle together, especially when they are in the field on a search. Vickie knows Jamie is trying to tell her things that are important but because they can’t talk, like two human beings talk, she has to try and put the puzzle pieces of information she receives from her dog together. It is like a mystery book and she needs to listen and observe everything Jamie does to figure out how the story will end. It can be very frustrating for both of them, but the desire they both share in solving the problem helps them patiently work together to come to a conclusion.
Something turned in Vickie’s stomach. Suddenly there was a deep sense of urgency that flooded through her mind. The day changed from beautiful and peaceful to dark and heavy. She looked over at Jamie and noticed that she was now sitting up sniffing the air and appearing uneasy. “You feel it too, don’t you” Vickie said to Jamie as they both looked around cautiously. “Come on girl, we need to go home,” both Vickie and Jamie thought simultaneously, and jumping up on their six sturdy legs they began the run back to the house.
Sarah and her mother sat by the big tree for two hours waiting for Ben or her dad to come walking up the trail. It was only two hours but it seemed like forever to her. Every few minutes they would stand up and call out to Ben. “Benjamin,” her mother would holler. “Benjamin” It was a sad desperate sound. “He might think I am mad at him” her mother realized. “We only call him Benjamin when he is in trouble” she mumbled, then called out “Ben, honey, its mommy, Ben” Sarah wanted to cry all over again as she watched her mother and felt of her sadness. She wanted to comfort her mom but she didn’t know what to say or do, Sarah had never been more miserable in her whole life.
She knew this would be a day she would never forget, and these were feelings she hoped she would never have to feel again. Just as another tear started trickling down her cheek and she knew she was about to cry out loud again her mom started running from her. Dad was back. Mom ran to him and fell into his open arms. They were both crying and holding on to each other as though they could not live unless they were touching each other, hugging, holding on. Sarah watched them both in silence. Suddenly Sarah felt alone. A moment later Sarah was pulled into the circle of her mother and fathers arms and they all stood together in silence.
Then breaking away Dad told how he had been running back to the truck when he met up with a Forest Ranger. The ranger had her father relate all the information he could about where they were hiking to, how far they had gone when Ben disappeared, and how much time had passed. He had asked Dad all kinds of questions about Ben. What he was wearing, how much did he weigh, what size shoe does he wear and what kind of shoe are they. Dad said he was asked a hundred questions, some that were hard for him to answer. “Was Ben wearing a blue t-shirt” he asked mom, “or was it brown, I couldn’t remember” her father sadly pointed out. “How come I couldn’t remember what color his shirt was?’ Dad seemed confused and desperate.
Sarah had never seen him this way before and it frightened her. He was always so strong and in control. She had never been afraid when her father was with her, not until now. Her heart felt heavy and even though they were all together again, she felt like she was standing by herself isolated, in the middle of a great barren desert. Every way she turned, she could only see loneliness and despair. IF only Ben where here, everything would be back to normal and she could feel safe again. Oh how she wished she could fell safe again.
Vickie heard the phone ringing as she was bounding up the last four steps to the back patio. Flinging the rusty screen porch door open, she and Jamie raced to the corner wall. Vickie reached the telephone first, taking the handset off the wall and breathlessly greeting the caller. “Vickie” the husky male voice said, “This is Sheriff Binder, of Summit County” That was all she needed to hear to know that her feeling earlier had been a for-warning that someone was lost. In this case, as Sheriff Binder related, they had a 5 year old boy lost in the wilderness area above Mirror Lake.
He had been reported missing by his father two hours ago and searchers were already on their way to the scene. “We would like to have all the teams you can spare come up and assist” the man said. “Are you available?” Getting all the details, Vickie promised him at least five teams of her best handlers and dogs. Since many of the teams were farther away from the search area than Vickie and Jamie were, it would take them 20 minutes to get to the airport and they should start arriving within two hours.
Luckily she only lived a few miles from the spot where the search was at. She hung up with the promise to keep him apprised of the team’s where-abouts as she worked out the details with the Civil Air Patrol and that she would have an exact arrival time called into the sheriff’s office within ten minutes. Then Vickie went to work. She was already packed and ready to go on the search. It was the practice of all search teams to be able to leave on a moments notice and to be able to survive with the gear in their back-packs for up to three days. Vickie’s pack was sitting in the closet by the front door. Not having to worry about that, she went back to the phone and punched in a special number.
It would send out a page to all the handlers within the next 30 seconds and they would all be calling her back for information. Next she placed a call to the commander of the Civil Air Patrol for Utah and asked if they could have five planes ready to fly in the next half hour. With that done, she sat down for a minute to collect her thoughts. Had she done everything she needed to do to get things rolling? The phone started ringing and she answered each handler’s questions quickly and precisely. They knew that time was of the essence so all they asked for was the important details like, who was lost, where they were lost, and what time they should be at the airport.
She loved these people. They were strong of heart and will. They would drop anything they were doing to help find a missing person. Often they would be called away from family and friends at the worst possible times, but they would go. Last year they all were called away from their Thanksgiving festivities, some had even just sat down to eat, yet without thought they would just pack up and leave. When she was in the field with them, she knew they would do anything they possibly could to protect and take care of each other as they faced the dangers of the unknown. A closeness that cannot be described had developed between these people and Vickie cherished each and every one. Opening the closet door and grabbing her pack, Vickie headed for the van. She didn’t need to call Jamie or even look down to see if her partner was at her side. She knew she would be. That’s just what Jamie did.
Over the last fifteen minutes, Jamie had grown more and more anxious. She knew when Vickie answered the phone after they came into the house that something important was up. She could smell the difference in Vickie immediately. Humans were so easy to read, she thought. Her sense of smell could be used for so many things. “Dogs are so lucky” she mused, “we know more about humans than they do, just by the way they smell” “We can tell if they are happy or sad, mean or nice, we can even tell when they are not feeling well. Usually we know they are going to be sick before they even feel any signs of weakness.” So when Vickie’s smell changed from happiness to concern, Jamie was ready to respond. She knew that smell and it meant they were going on a search.
Jamie loved to go on searches. It meant that she was going to spend days up in the mountains with her beloved Vickie and also her friends from the search dog unit. She would get to see Murphy the huge hairy yellow dog called a Golden Doodle, Lacy the hound, and her best friend Tucker a quiet gentle Australian shepherd. And although, they wouldn’t be able to spend much time together before they started working, it would be just enough to say hi and catch up on what each one was doing. Then they would separate into areas of the mountain and get down to the sobering job of finding the lost person.
She loved that part most of all. It was something that both Vickie and Jamie took very seriously. It was a very important job that was often dangerous and hazardous. But it was also a time when they would depend entirely on each other for their own survival. Impatiently, Jamie paced back and forth across the room as Vickie made all the arrangements for everyone over the phone. If she could only open the closet door and get Vickie’s back pack out herself, she would do it. Jamie thought. A quiver of impatience rippled across her back and a small whine escaped from her throat. At the sound of Jamie’s gentle concern, Vickie turned and gazed down at her. The torturous look in the deepening shadow of her beautiful green eyes relayed to Jamie that this search was going to be an especially worrisome one.
Just by that momentary glance and the smell coming off of Vickie, Jamie knew that this must be a search for a missing child. Vickie loved small children and whenever they were lost she was more distressed than usual to get to the scene and start looking. Jamie could smell that desperation and it made her even more impatient to get moving because, you see, Jamie loved small children too.
Ben tripped over the big stump and fell to his knees again, barely missing a sharp twig that had grown sideways out of the old dead log. His knees hurt a little because they had hit the side of the old dead tree when he had fallen but even though he wanted to cry because of the pain, he found that no tears ran down his cheeks. Rolling onto his back and looking up into the trees that towered above him Ben firmly closed his eyes. Biting down hard on his teeth, he took a deep breath through his nose and waited as a cry of desperation and loneliness welled up from his chest, through his throat and out his unyielding lips.
Loud and long it moved through the surrounding mountainous terrain like a lake of dark waters carrying all the anguish, sorrow and grief of the world in its wake. A cry so loud and so painful that all the animals in the forest, the birds and bees, even the wind in the trees wept for this little lost boy.
“The rangers told me to come and get you both and take you back to camp.” Dad was saying, “He wants us to wait there for him while he gets Search and Rescue.” Mom shook her head slowly then firmly said “No, I won’t leave here. What if Ben finds his way back and we are not here?” “He won’t know what to do. He could so easily make the wrong choice and get lost again. I am staying right here and there is nothing you can do about it!” She sat down determinedly on the closest rock folding her arms and daring him to challenge her. Sarah’s heart swelled and she had to take a quick breath. She loved her mother.
She loved how her mom loved their family. She was like one of those tall powerful trees that filled this forest. She was kind and gentle, caring and thoughtful, but also when she needed to be, she was mighty and strong and when she said she wasn’t leaving this spot, Sarah knew that no amount of persuasion would get her to move. Not until she was good and ready. “You take Sarah back to camp with you, get her something to eat and make sure she is safe. I’ll wait here until you get back.” The look of dismay on Sarah’s face wrenched at her mothers heart. “Don’t worry punkin, I’ll be ok, I won’t leave this spot until your father gets back with the searchers. Once I am sure that someone is here to wait for Ben, I’ll come back and you and I can wait together. Now go, both of you. Hurry Up. I love you”
Sarah ran to her mother and threw her arms around her waist. Clinging tightly Sarah held back the tears that were waiting to erupt from her already tear stained lids. She wanted to be strong now, for her mother and father. She would not cry again, she thought, not again. Clinging to the gentle power in her mother’s arms, Sarah made one last hug then bravely stepped away from her mom and walked to her father. Looking back over her shoulder as they hiked down the trail she said a silent good-bye to the beautiful dark haired woman that meant everything in the world to her. She wondered if she would ever see her again. The forbidden tears began sliding down her cheek even though she had tried to stop them. This was the worst day of her whole life and she wondered if she would ever know happiness again.
Vickie opened the back of the van and put her gear in while Jamie sat watching her every move. She wanted Vickie to think that she was cool, in control, patient, but in truth, she was sure she was going to burst with excitement. Her insides were bubbling and it felt like she was about to explode. The need to get moving, to get there and start working, to help. This thing that Vickie did before every search, checking and rechecking things, well, it was just almost too much for a dog to take.
Vickie closed the back door of the van, walked over and secured the lock on the gate. Stopped, looked around thoughtfully and then finally, finally she opened Jamie’s door and said “Load up girl, its time to get on the road” Like a rocket, Jamie burst past Vickie up onto her seat, pulling her tail safely out of range, so the door could shut without grabbing a piece of it.
That had happened once when she was a little puppy. She remembered how much that hurt and how it bled for weeks afterwards. The problem with being a Border Collie is that it is your job to wag your tail with all the energy your body can offer. In the process of wagging your tail with all that power, one may often hit something with that tail. Now it isn’t so bad when you hit your loved ones legs, or the couch or even the end of the bed. They were all soft and bendy, but when you hit something hard during a wag, like a pole or a door frame, you can really hurt yourself.
After she had hurt her tail in the car door that time, she had to wear a bandage to protect the sore. It was heavy and felt odd to have the bandage on so every now and then when Vickie wasn’t watching, Jamie would chew it off, then feeling the freedom of no constraints she would go out and meet her loving fans. Of course, one must greet their fans with all the vigor available to them, so starting at the very tip of her nose and running slowly over the top of her head, down her shoulders across her back and all the way to the tip of her tail, Jamie would release a wave of pure joy. From front to back the sway would cause her body to move in five different directions at a time as the ripple made its way through her.
By the time it reached the end of her tail it was so powerful that, if you were in its way, it could feel like you had been hit by a baseball thrown by a professional pitcher of the national league. Many of the toughest, strongest people she knew were powerless against “The Tail”. People of all sizes, big or small would crumple in pain, collapsing to the floor in agony after having made contact with “The Tail”. Most of the time she secretly doggy giggled when they would wince and grab their leg where contact had been made.
She knew it hurt a little, but humans made such a big deal about pain. They should learn to toughen up a bit, be more like a dog, she had thought, stoic and brave. But those feelings and thoughts changed quickly when Vickie experienced her first real scare. After she hurt her tail, which was painful but nothing to cry about, she went out one day to greet her public after she had chewed her bandage off. Giving them “The Wave” as she passed, she accidentally hit the end of her tail on the mail box which stood on a metal pole out by the driveway.
At first she didn’t really understand what had happened but a moment or two later as she was wagging her tail, bright red drops of something kept sprinkling across her nose. People were jumping back from her and looking at their clothes. Mothers pulled their children into their arms and turned away from Jamie. She was suddenly frightened by everyone’s reaction and looked around to see what was wrong. It was then that she saw and felt the blood flowing from the tip of her tail and being flung in great wide loops all around her as she wagged it. Then the pain started working its way like a low dull ache along her tail towards her back. It hurt, really hurt but what hurt more was the looks on people’s faces and the way they pulled away from her.
Vickie was there immediately, gently holding her tail still and wiping the blood away, then wrapping gauze and tape around the wound. Subdued and sure no one would every come to see her again Jamie hung her head and went into the house. It was a very scary time for her. Thank goodness, humans are so forgiving. The next day the children were all back at the front door asking if Jamie could come out and play. From that day forward, if Vickie put a bandage on her foot, her ear, tail or any other place, Jamie left it there until it was removed by Vickie herself. The door closed gently and Jamie was forced back from her moment of remembering to the time at hand. The search, the missing boy, the job. The motor started and with the van in reverse, Vickie backed out of the driveway and headed to the mountains. A sigh of relief passed through Jamie and she settled down into the seat to get one last bit of sleep before the work began.
It seemed that the once deafeningly quiet of the surrounding mountains had changed to a busy downtown street corner to Sarah. People were coming up the trail in groups of two or more, passing Sarah and her father by with a somber nod of their heads or sympathetic “afternoon” on their lips. They were all getting together just outside of the camp and talking and even laughing now and again. She wondered what they could be laughing about. Nothing was funny to her. Nothing had been funny for her or her mom and dad since earlier this morning. Their laughter and smiles were as painful to Sarah as if they had walked by stepping on her feet. “Daddy, why are they laughing?” “What can be so funny about Ben being lost?” she asked. In his heart, her dad knew that the searchers were not laughing because Ben was lost, but he couldn’t understand the laughter when he had heard it either.
He wrapped his arms around his little daughter pulling her in closer to him and told her to ignore the sounds coming from the different groups. “Sometime people laugh when they are nervous and afraid” he said. “Maybe that is why they seem so happy” The sheriff who had called Vickie, Jamie and the other members of search and rescue, looked over sympathetically at the father and daughter huddled together in the distance. He had been greeting fellow deputies and old friends who had responded to his call-out for the missing boy. Some of these men and women whom he respected and trusted were people he would see only a few times a year and so the greetings were happy ones.
Looking over at the two people miserably snuggling together he realized how this must look to them and he immediately cautioned everyone to be more quiet and respectful. He had asked the dog handler to meet him at the family’s camp site so they could get a few articles of Bens clothing for the dogs to use. “Dogs are the most amazing critters”, he thought. “To be able to smell a specific persons clothing and know that is who they would be looking for. Then to go out where searchers had be working their way through the woods for hours and be able to close in on that particular smell, well, it was just plain unbelievable.” But he had seen it work and he was one of the believers so whenever he had a search, he would always include the dog teams when it was appropriate.
When he had a missing person, he would call out every possible resource he could think of because in his country, a wilderness area of hundreds of miles where the weather can change from 80 degrees to 40 degrees in less than an hour, a missing person could be dead in 24 hours. A child would take even less time to succumb to the elements here. A chill ran through him as he realized, “Night is coming on and already the temperature had dropped 15degrees from the time the boy had been reported as missing. 15 degrees in less than three hours. This was not a good sign. Walking over to the two defeated figures, the sheriff reflected on what he would say to them. What words of comfort he might give them. But then realized, if he were to be truthful with them, there was nothing he could say at this time to ease their concern or feeling of loss. He would tell them that everything that possibly could be done was being done. That, specialist from all over the state were on their way here to assist in the search. He could tell them all kinds of things but he knew they wouldn’t hear him. They were lost in a very desolate lonely place. A place without their son or brother. A place without Ben.
Jamie sat up as the van started to slow down then come to a rest. She stretched her head forward to better see over the dash board and what she saw amazed even her. There were cars and people everywhere. It seemed like hundreds of searchers had responded to the call for the little boy Ben. She knew his name was Ben because Vickie had been saying it over and over again as she talked on the cell phone to the other handlers who would be arriving later on in the day.
Luckily Vickie, Jamie and two of the teams only lived a short distance from the mountains that harbored the Little Boy so they were able to drive here directly. Two of the other teams had to be flown in because they lived farther away. They would fly to the Airport in Bear Lake, Idaho and then be picked up and brought to the scene by the sheriff’s deputies. It would be another two hours before they got here. Vickie opened her door, turned to Jamie and shook her head, “No Girl, you need to wait here until I talk to the commander and get our assignment.” Then with a grin said “Be patient Jamie girl, it won’t take too much time. I promise.”
She gently closed the door to the van and disappeared into the mass of people. Jamie loved it when Vickie talked to her and although she didn’t understand each and every word, she somehow understood what she meant. It was a special communication that they shared, full of feelings and thought images that passed between them. Jamie didn’t have this ability to communicate with any other human being, just Vickie, and that was ok with them both. It just made their friendship and partnership more unique. Too excited to lie back down again, Jamie started looking around. People were still coming, cars and trucks full of big healthy looking hikers. Trailers hauling horses passed her by three and four at a time.
The American Red Cross was here with food and other much needed necessities and it all looked like a fourth of July parade traveling down the main street of town. Everyone seemed as anxious as she was to get started, pacing back and forth waiting for assignments, packing gear, grabbing a bite to eat. They all wanted to get on the mountain as quickly as possible; no one wanted the Little Boy Ben to spend the night alone. Jamie stopped looking when she saw the lone man and little girl huddled together staring silently at all the people. They looked dazed and confused and even from hear she could smell their fear. They were so frightened Jamie could barely stand it. The smell was so strong, so sad. If dogs could cry, she knew she would have cried right then and there.
She had seen this same scene fifteen or sixteen other times in her life and each time was the same, yet different and each time she smelled the same smell. In her heart she knew that the missing person, the Little Boy Ben belonged with these people. She bounced over to the driver’s side of the car, placing both feet on the window and peering through the glass as a moan of pity erupted from deep in her chest.
“Where was Vickie? Hurry! Hurry! We need to hurry”, she thought as an uneasy sense of immediacy welled up from the very core of her being. “Hurry Vickie, hurry”.
Bens back felt warm as he lay there looking up into the blue sky peeking through the giant trees above him. His back felt warm but his face and hands were cold and numb. Suddenly he felt a chill that bolted through his body like lightning crossing the horizon during a thunder storm. That dark feeling scared him now almost as much as bad weather scared him when he was bundled safely into his bed at home. Slowly turning over Ben buried his face into the musty earth beneath him, painfully taking in deep gulps of hot muggy air that tasted bitter on his tongue as it flooded down into the empty reservoir of his lungs. Just turning over onto his tummy was difficult and it seemed that every move he made now was strenuous. He felt tired and weak, hungry, cold. He was still scared, but to exhausted to cry anymore. He just wanted to crawl into a warm place and go to sleep. Sleep until his mom and dad found him. Sleep until he could go home. Sleep. Sleep. Sleep.
Jamie saw Vickie as she was sliding through the crowd of searchers as she gently pushed her way around them and then walked quickly to the van. Opening the door she was greeted with a big wet kiss from her partner. She giggled pushing Jamie back so she could catch her breath without getting a more slobber on her cheeks and squinted eyelids. Greeting the one you love each and every time you see them in this manner was one of the perks of being a dog.
Dogs unlike most people are not afraid to show their love and affection. “It’s a good way to be,” thought Jamie. “If people were more like dogs, they wouldn’t be sick or stressed or depressed nearly as often as they are.” “Go with the flow I say, Don’t Worry, Be Happy, Enjoy life. Chase a bird, dance in the shadow of an airplane, stick your head out the window when driving and taste the wind. So what if a few bugs fly up your nose, that’s more protein for your never ending diet.” “Jamie” Vickie said interrupting her ramblings, “Let’s go girl”.
Moving aside so Jamie could jump out, Jamie reached into the back seat of the van and grabbed her back pack and extra containers of water. Locking the doors she turned and looked down at her faithful friend and whispered, “Now girl, we are going over there to that man and little girl sitting alone” she gestured with her eyes toward the same two people Jamie had already decided were family to the Little Boy Ben. “You know this is not the time to jump and play, just because there is a little girl there, this is the time to be loving and gentle so no face kisses, OK?”
She looked firmly into Jamie’s eyes hoping to convey the message with more than words but knew immediately that it wasn’t necessary. Jamie already knew what to do. It’s like she can read my mind, Vickie thought.
Sarah noticed the big man that had been talking to Dad earlier break through the crowd of searchers and make his way toward them. He had a kind face and as he looked at her a smile broadened his cheeks giving him an almost jolly look. She knew she would have liked him if she had known him anywhere other than here. But here, she was almost afraid of him, she didn’t want him to come over and talk with them. She was afraid of what he might say.
Turning away from his gaze her eyes fell upon another approaching stranger. A girl and a dog, a black and white, happy looking dog. For a moment Sarah was confused, there was something about the two of them she pondered, something familiar.
Then she remembered! “Vickie”, she cried out, “Daddy, its Vickie and Jamie” She broke away from her dad and ran directly at the girl and her dog. New hope sprang into her heart. “Jamie” she shouted, “Jamie, you’re here” and without any thought she fell to her knees grabbing the dog and pulling its face into hers. “Jamie, Oh Jamie, you came” and clinging desperately to the dog Sarah wept. A bewildered look flashed across the Vickie’s face as she watched the scene unfold before her.
Hearing her and Jamie’s name coming from this little girl, as though they were old friends puzzled Vickie. Looking directly at the Sheriff as he crossed over to her, she lifted her shoulders questioningly. He seemed as surprised as she was at the reaction they had all witnessed. They both looked at the father, who also seemed confused and cautious. Instead of speaking they all waited quietly hoping Sarah would respond naturally to their unspoken questions.
For some time Sarah held tightly to the dog who seemed to be gently soothing her broken spirit minute by minute. In time her sobbing slowed to quiet weeping, and eventually to silent rain drop like tears flitting down her cheeks and into the dog’s soft brown coat. Finally, with great effort, the little girl pulled away from the dog’s neck and looked up at Vickie. “I knew you would come” she said, “You said you would come if any of us ever needed you, and we need you now.”
“I wanted to tell Ben about all the things you taught us in school last week, but when I got home I found him in my bedroom with a pile of sand that he had dumped out of his dumb dump truck all over my floor. I was so mad at him that I didn’t tell him anything. I’m so sorry, I didn’t tell him and now he is lost and it’s all my fault, it’s all my fault” her voice faded away and she bent her face back into Jamie’s coat, her body jerking painfully as she tried to breath through the tears. Vickie’s heart felt as though it was about to burst. She remembered the day this little girl was talking about. She had spoken to the 3rd thru 6th grades at a Safety Days Assembly.
After her demonstration with Jamie showing the children how the dogs can find them when they are lost, she had opened it up for questions. The children asked many questions that Vickie had been asked before. She had answered all the questions quickly and precisely because the end of the assembly was drawing near but the final question, asked by a quiet little blond girl from the middle of the room required a solid promise from her. The girl’s soft voice inquired of Vickie,
“What if no one comes to find you, what do you do then?” Waiting until the room was still and making sure everyone was listening Vickie solidly fixed her eyes on the girl and said deliberately, “I can assure each and every one of you that if you are ever lost, someone will come looking for you. I, or someone just like me will come.” It was a bold promise, but one she knew would be fulfilled, because Vickie knew that there were special people out there, everywhere, who would leave their families, jobs and homes on the spur of the moment when the call came.
Vickie told them again of the people who train for this daily, who gives up much of their spare time to learn the skills necessary to be able to come out in any weather, at any time, in any terrain, in order to help find a missing person. “So don’t ever worry about that, just remember to “Stay In One Place” don’t wander around. Wait for us; we’ll be there as soon as we possibly can. I promise.” And now, this little girl who sat desperately clinging to Jamie had been in that assembly had heard her promise and had believed her.
Vickie had never felt so scared in her whole life. This little girl counted on, no expected fully, that now because she and Jamie were there, her brother would be found. “What have I done?” she thought as all the doubts and concerns about herself and Jamie surfaced in her mind. “How could I have been so bold as to make such a promise?” Tears began creeping into the corners of her eyes and she looked pleadingly to the sheriff who had been watching intently. With an understanding nod, he kneeled down beside the child and took one of her hands in his. “I sure am glad to see the search dogs too” he commented. “When ever someone is lost, I like to have everyone I can possibly get to come and help me.
If you look around you can see that many many people care about you and your brother.” He pointed to all the people who were preparing to head out in search of Ben. “What we need now is for you and your daddy to show us where Ben’s pajamas are so that Jamie and Vickie can get started searching.” Impressed by the big mans gentle approach to the little girl, Vickie said a silent prayer of thanks for his help. She had been so stunned by all that had passed between them in the last few minutes that she was unable to act. This man greatly impressed her with his ability to handle the moment. “I remember,” Sarah said as she jumped up and headed toward the tent where Bens sleeping bag and pillow had been taken before they left this morning. “Jamie needs Ben’s pajamas so she can tell what he smells like!” “Then, even if there are other people in front of her, she can still pick out Bens track. Isn’t that right?” She looked back at Vickie.
Not waiting for an answer she ran into the tent and disappeared from sight. They could hear her ruffling around inside the tent and knew she was looking for Bens pajamas. “Do you want me to stop her?” the sheriff turned to Vickie. “Won’t it compromise the scent article if she touches it?” When possible, dog teams like to have the scent article, which is an article of clothing belonging to the missing person, to be untouched by anyone else who might be on the mountain or in the search area. That way they can be sure that the dog will not confuse the smells. But Vickie had great faith in Jamies’s abilities to discriminate so she was not too concerned. “We can have Sarah introduce the pajamas to Jamie” she responded to the sheriff. “If we do it that way I’m sure Jamie will know what we expect and who she will be searching for.
She is already familiar with Sarah and knows she is safe.” Sarah lifted the tent flap and ducked low as she came out into the open. She hurried over to the group holding Bens pajamas tightly in her arms. Vickie would have preferred she not hold them so closely to her body but was not about to chastise her at a time like this. Reaching out, Sarah presented the clothing to Vickie who quickly put up her hands with both palms facing the girl and said, “Wouldn’t you like to show them to Jamie? You could do my job. Do you remember how I did it at the Safety Fair?” A big smile slid across Sarah’s lips as she contemplated this offer. Sarah remembered how Jamie danced with excitement when Vickie held the scent article which was a sock, in her hands and said “Do you want to go to work?”
Jamie could barely contain herself; she wanted the scent article so bad. Then Vickie let her smell it and even take it in her mouth. Jamie grabbed the offered sock in her teeth, then shook her head and spun around in circles. Everyone laughed while Vickie explained what Jamie was doing. “When she does this, she is taking your smell and memorizing it in her head, her nose and her mouth.” “Can I really?” Sarah exclaimed. “You bet” Vickie answered. “Go ahead and give it to her now so we can start looking for Ben.” Sarah timidly walked over to Jamie holding the pajamas out in front of her at arms length. Jamie stood and shuffled her four paws excitedly in the dirt beneath them.
Slowly and delicately the girl stepped closer and closer to the waiting dog. Both of them were enjoying the game, both holding their breath waiting for the moment of contact. As they met, girl with arms extended, dog with dancing feet, Sarah relinquished her gift into the dogs reaching mouth saying, “want to go to work?” Then she burst into a bout of giggles as Jamie bounded and shook from head to paw and for a moment everyone smiled. For a moment the happiness of a child and the antics of a dog balanced out the pain, but only for a moment.
The water in the stream looked inviting to Ben. He was so thirsty. His lips were cracked and dry, they felt like they were twice as big as normal and his tongue seemed like it had turned into a ball of cotton. He wanted a drink of water so bad he could almost taste it. The cool refreshing feel of it flowing through his battered lips, over his puffy tongue and down his hot dry throat. Just one sip of water, that was all he needed and it looked so clean and pure, just one long sip. He leaned down and cupped his little hands in the creek hoping to catch enough of the precious liquid to make it to his waiting mouth. Then he remembered that his mom and dad had told him, “You must never drink from a creek or lake."
The water may look ok but some of the times there are tiny little things that can make you sick. That is why we always carry water with us when we go hiking.” Thinking about what his parents had told him and looking at the sweet wet fluid running at his feet, Ben found himself in a quandary. He had always tried to do what his mom and dad told him to do, but he was so thirsty. It would feel so good, just one little sip. Could one little sip of water make him sick he wondered. One little tiny slurp. Just enough to quench his thirst, enough to stop the painful dryness that was eating at his throat. The battle in his head lasted only a few seconds more before he decided that he would have to dis-obey his parents this time, his need for water was greater than his wish to do what he was told.
He reached down with his cupped hands again and began to vigorously transfer the icy drink from creek to mouth. It felt so good that it almost hurt. He had never tasted water this good before in his whole life. His hands weren’t able to hold enough of the water to really help and so Ben leaned into the stream, placing both hands through it until they reached a rock that lay beneath the surface. It reached almost up to his elbows as it ran around his arms and it was very cold, but it was also inviting. The water was calling Ben. Pursing his lips he began drinking, taking in large gulps of the heavenly gift. It was so good he couldn’t stop. Ben drank and drank until he felt he could hold no more of it in his stomach, throat and mouth.
He began feeling better and deciding he had had enough he pushed away from the rocks with his hands. But instead of pushing he found his hands slipping. His little fingers were too cold to steady himself and they lurched forward causing Ben to loose his balance. One hand lodged between the rocks twisting his wrist as he fell forward. Throwing his other arm out and in front of him Ben was able to keep his face from hitting a big jagged rock that was in his path but not able to keep his chest and back from becoming submerged in the creek. With a cry of pain and shock he jerked his twisted wrist from its trap and even though it hurt more than he had ever imagined something could, he used it to help steady him before he was completely submerged.
Using both his injured hand and his good hand he pushed again at the creek bottom and carefully worked his way out of the water and back onto the embankment.
Jamie had been able to pick up Bens track immediately and Vickie was relieved. There was so much pain back there, they both needed to get away from it and there was no better way to escape such need and sorrow than to be in their beloved mountains. There was something healing about being out in the woods, moving at your own pace, breathing the untainted air, escaping the turbulent hustle and bustle of the everyday city life that she had to face when working. Even Jamie, who was so patient and loving with the little girl that clung relentlessly to her while Vickie asked the father more questions, seemed grateful to be off and working.
More often than not, Vickie would have to drag Jamie away from the children, but today she seemed relieved. When ever Vickie could get away for a few days, she and Jamie along with some other K-9 teams would head to the High Uintahs. These were some of the most rugged mountains in the United States. The vast wilderness areas were visited by around 2 million people a year, yet 80 % of the forests and surrounding cliffs and towering mountains are rarely seen by the visitors.
Only the toughest, healthiest and most determined of back country hikers would ever see the places she and Jamie had seen. Pristine, wild, uncontaminated area’s inhabited by the native bear and mountain lion who ruled its territory. Many of whom have never seen or experienced the ruthless nature of mankind and their destructive behavior. Vickie and others like her knew and understood these mountains. She honored their majesty and respected the natural balance that was maintained in the remote areas. Yet as much as she loved and esteemed these giants she also feared them. For even the most skilled back-country wanderer could find themselves in deadly peril in less than a moment.
As simple as a mis-calculated step to the right or left on the ridges would end your life seconds later as you plunged hundreds of feet over an undefined precipice. The wildlife itself, could decide on a whim that you were an unwanted invader, trespassing through their terrain. Then there was the weather. In the High Uintahs the temperatures could go from 80 degrees to 30 degrees in a few hours. Clear skies can change to brooding grey clouds filled with rain and then snow in minutes. But more threatening than rain and snow was the bone chilling lightning that thundered across the mountains obliterating trees and rocks when it made contact with the earth.
There was nothing more terrifying to VIckie than when the sky turned black with a cloud layer that was intermixed with the earth itself, then the ear shattering blast as bolts of electricity pounded the earth around her. She had heard them say that at least two people were struck by lightning in these mountains every year. Just last year a whole family had been hit in their campsite and several people in that group had died. A shiver coursed through her spine as she thought about the lightning and its deadly power. She looked up into the blue sky and said another silent prayer thanking the Lord for the cloudless day. Then looking to the southern horizon her step faltered as she noticed and single dark cloud hovering over Bald Mountain.
Ben didn’t know how long he had been lying there. He did know that he was cold thought, very very cold. The echo of his teeth loudly chomping together uncontrollably reverberated through him making his jaws and head hurt. As he lay there curled in a tight ball he felt his hands start to shake and was surprised when the movement convulsed into a stinging quiver that passed relentlessly through his whole body. Frightened by his lack of control he wrapped his wiggling hands around his knees pulling them in closer to his chest. Holding himself as tightly as he possibly could, he hoped to stop the trembling feeling that had possessed him. Although there were no more tears, he still felt as though he was crying when he whimpered again like an injured puppy looking for solace from the closest living thing. Comfort that was not going to come because no one was there. “Mommy” Ben softly moaned. “Mommy”
Somewhere a mile or so away Ben’s mother felt a sharp knifelike jab at her heart. It was so piercing, so painful, that she doubled over grabbing at her chest sucking in her breath and holding it. Without breathing she held deathly still waiting for the pain to subside. “Ben” she sobbed. “Ben”
“Hurry Vickie, Hurry” Jamie’s thoughts pushed the message to her two legged partner. “Little boy is scared, Hurry, little boy is hurt. I smell blood. Faster, Vickie we must go Faster” Jamie had picked up Bens track a while ago and was quickly retracing the boy’s movements as he went off the beaten path and into the deep woods.
If Jamie could have talked she would have told Vickie when the boy had started running because he was afraid of something. She would have told VIckie that the boy had stumbled here or been bitten by a tree over there. But she couldn’t talk; she would have to depend on the special link they shared. The bond that taught them to trust each other, to rely on one another even if they couldn’t communicate like regular people. “Over here” Jamie implied with a sudden jolt and change of direction. “Over here”
With her nose to the ground, Jamie lead Vickie to a large pine tree who’s richly laden bows reached out then downward almost touching the soft pine-needle carpet in the soil below. Jamie worked her way through the low branches and disappeared from sight. Vickie felt a hint of hope. Would it be this easy? Would she find the boy huddled beneath the great tree, waiting to be rescued? She followed Jamie into the tree. Holding the heavy bows above her head, she hunched down and burrowed in to the dark shelter underneath.
Squinting her eyes and waiting for them to adjust to the darker environment she held her breath optimistically. “Here, the boy stayed here.” Jamie waited impatiently by the base of the great tree. “Can’t you smell it VIckie, he was here,” But Jamie knew immediately that she didn’t smell it, that Vickie didn’t know for sure that the boy had been here. After all, she was just a human and humans aren’t nearly as good at smelling things as dogs are. Jamie could smell the disappointment in Vickie and tried as hard as she could to send the message that Ben had been here, that he had stayed here for a while, and that he was ok when he was here. Afraid but ok.
How could she tell her friend that Ben had been ok a few hours ago and that meant there was hope. Vickie watched the dog paw at the ground around the tree, sniff it again and again, then look deep into her eyes. She knew the dog was trying to tell her something but the frustration she felt in not finding Ben here was keeping her from understanding Jamie. Kneeling down she released her back pack and laid her head on her hands as her elbows balanced on her folded knees. The clock was ticking.
The boy had been missing for more than eight hours now and night would be creeping in on them soon. She wondered how the little boy would handle the darkness, the loneliness, the cold. She knew that the temperatures, even on a warm day could drop 20 degrees during the night and sometimes, especially in the fall, they could drop below zero. Would this 6 year old boy be smart or alert enough to know that he must seek shelter and somehow keep himself as warm and dry as possible?
A distant boom brought her back from her thoughts. “What was that girl?” she asked, looking at Jamie who had tilted her head and was staring towards the eastern side of the sheltered area. The low rumbling sound came again a few seconds later as a flash of light sprinkled gently in between the clustered pine needles lighting the sanctuary like the crystal that hung in her kitchen window. The sound was some distance away but surprisingly she felt a slight rolling sensation from the earth rumble beneath her. Sliding forward she peered out from under the branches toward the east... The small grey cloud had been swallowed up by an immense black shadow that flowed from the top of Bald Mountain westward engulfing everything in its path. It had only been 30 minutes ago that it was just a speck in the sky.
A flash of light shot from the horrendous monster splitting into two different directions as it raced towards its target. Upon contact another roar exploded towards her and she felt as though she could almost discern a change in the very air around her. She heard Jamie make a meek attempt at a bark and turned to look into her friends face. The dog had moved so close to Vickie that you would not be able to slip a piece of paper between them. She had been so involved with the storm that was encroaching, she had not even noticed Jamie slink up beside her. Jamie had always been a confident companion, taking the lead when something or someone unfamiliar approached them. But like Vickie, she had her weaknesses too; lightning and especially thunder were on the top of her list.
Sarah had been silently brooding about the big black cloud that she had been watching as it advanced towards them over the last 30 or so minutes. She heard the thunder and watched the lightning as it would skip from place to place across the mountains. At home, safe in her room, she had always enjoyed it when the storms would become so active that the house shook. Most of her friends were afraid of the noise and the flashing lights but Sarah loved it. She loved the smell in the wind as it filtered the scent of electricity and rain through the screen window above her bed.
The neighbors just off from her bedroom had a big light in their back yard that they left on all the time and it was like a night light in her room. The Sycamore tree that stood between their properties would block parts of the light out leaving shadowed leaf patterns on the wall by the door. When the wind blew, it would create a parade of indistinct ghostly characters that would scurry across her walls. She would fall asleep while imagining all kinds of adventures they might be having as she pretended to join them in their race. Oh yes, she loved stormy weather when she was at home, but here in these mountains, the mountains that held her little brother prisoner, keeping him away from his family through confusion and fear.
She felt no joy at the sight of its coming, dread and apprehension consumed her as she tried to guess what the tumultuous beast before her would do to Ben. Ben was always running in to mom and dad when the rains began. The lightning and thunder would send him diving under the sheets between them shaking uncontrollably. When there was a really bad explosion, he would cry in fear, being sure the end of the world was at hand. Mom would hold him close and Dad would promise him everything would be ok.
There would be no one to comfort him today. “Please Heavenly Father” Sarah whispered to the one she knew was always there. “Please help Ben not to be afraid and Please let Vickie and Jamie find him soon.” A drop of rain fell, landing dead center on the tip of her nose. One drop, then another.
“It would be best if you came back with me” the sheriff told Ben and Sarah’s mother. “I promise I will have one of my men waiting here for as long as it takes.” He had been trying to convince her to go back to their camp for the last 20 minutes but she had been determined to stay and wait for her sons return. “I need to be here, in case Ben finds his way back to the trail” she had said, “I can’t leave, I can’t”. She was weak from nausea and fear and her body shook violently. He feared she would soon go into shock and they would have to forcibly take her back to the command post and get her under medical supervision.
Most people didn’t realize how difficult his job was when there was a search. He wished he was a searcher at times like this and not the commander. The searchers came to the scene, got their assignments of areas to be covered and then left. Their work was hard and their days were long, they came home bone tired but knew they had done what was expected of them. Then they went home or to their sleeping quarters, got good nights sleep and were back again the next day to start all over.
The Commander was required to stay at the Command Post and deal with the news media, individual searchers and their needs, strategizing, and the most difficult part, taking care of the families of the missing person. Convincing this terrified mother that she must leave her post was the most difficult thing Craig had ever had to do. She was so determined to stay, she knew he would come back to this spot and if she wasn’t there, well “what would he do?” she asked. His heart was breaking as he thought of the poor woman at his side. In all the searches for missing people that he had been on, it was the sorrow of the families that was hardest to watch. And there was nothing more agonizing and painful to experience than what the family of a missing child would be subjected to. Finally he just walked up to her and with a fatherly compassion he put his arm around her shoulder gently leading her one small step at a time down the trail. “Sarah and your husband need you too” he remarked. “We can handle it here, you need to go back and be with them”. Head bent down, eyes half closed the woman let him maneuver her down the winding path. He was grateful for her stupor as they walked.
Hopefully she was unaware of the darkness that was approaching from the east and he prayed she had not noticed the brilliant white lights that were darting across the cliffs behind them.
“Please Heavenly Father, help my family find me.” The words were whispered through the tiny hands that were cupped around the little boy’s mouth as he tried to warm them with his breath. He was still cold but he wasn’t shaking anymore. He was still scared but he didn’t feel like crying anymore either. He was just kind of there. Kind of like he wasn’t there, but he was there. He didn’t know how to explain how he felt, but it really didn’t matter any way.
He had fallen asleep by the side of the creek a little while ago and was awakened by the drizzling rain. It was trickling over his eyelids then pooling in the little dimple that appeared in his cheek when he would smile or tighten his mouth in dismay. He lay there for a few minutes enjoying the feeling but then there was a great flash of light that shot across the sky and Ben decided it was time to get moving. He tried to get up but found that his arms and legs were too weak to do much. He was getting wetter and wetter by the minute so he knew he had to do something. Just above him, up the hill a little bit, were two big rocks leaning against each other and it looked like there was a space between them that he might be able to fit in to.
A place that would protect him from the rain and cold like the big tree had protected him from the monster earlier in the day. Summoning all the strength that was buried deep within him, he slowly made his way up to the rocks. The numbness in his legs and feet made it difficult, but the rain that was coming faster and harder helped propel him along. Reaching the two big boulders he found the hole between them was tall enough for him to walk into without having to even bending down.
The inside the hole was dark at first and his eyes took some time to adjust. But with each bolt of lightning that darted out from the clouds above, Ben was able to imprint portions of the cave into his mind and he soon knew all about it. On his right he remembered from the last burst of white light, an area that had looked dry so he went that way. The walls got smaller and smaller around him and soon he was crouching down, and then crawling to the small cubby hole. The ground beneath him was soft as he curled into the spot; it was almost comfortable, like a cozy little corner where he could rest for just a minute. Curled up so tightly that there was little difference between where his head and his knees were, he no longer looked human. “Please Heavenly Father” the little boy muttered weakly. “Please help my family find me.” “Please, I’m so tired; I just want to go home.”
Moments passed and the little boy became very still. So small, so helpless, he had taken on the appearance of a forest land creature that was slumbering or already in hibernation for the season. He realized he didn’t feel cold now, just sleepy. Very sleepy. The little boy could barely keep his eyes open. “I am very tired” he thought, “I’ll just rest for a little bit.” And then he drifted off into a deep sleep. A sleep that he might never wake up from, but he no longer cared.
“Command Post, this is SR 92, Do you copy?” Vickie paused, waiting for a reply from Sheriff Bunn. “Command Post, this is SR 92 Do You Copy?” The radio made a half-hearted attempt at responding with raspy far away voices that she couldn’t fully understand. She thought she could make out the words “Seek Shelter” “Dangerous” and “Weather” but she wasn’t sure.
Frustrated she placed the radio back in its chest harness. The new radios that the unit had just purchased were working wonderfully in every other place they had searched accept for here. She didn’t know if it was the sheer cliffs that surrounded her or if it was just too far away for the signals to reach her but there had been limited contact with the base for over an hour. Another flash of lightning with an earth shaking crash and ear splitting boom hit almost all at the same time. It was getting so much closer now; the worst of the storm was probably within a mile from her and clearly would be on top of her in minutes.
It wasn’t wise to be out, this far into the back-country without communications available and the smart thing would be to turn around right now and go back, especially because it had started raining about 20 minutes ago. It would not be prudent to continue searching when the weather was clearly going to go from bad to worse. She should stop now and retrace her steps back to the command post.
On second thought, if she returned to the Base she would be heading right into the worst of the storm, she needed to seek shelter, a safe place from the furious and deadly monster that was so near now. That would be the smart thing to do, the common sense thing, but her heart was in charge now and her heart was in turmoil as she thought of this little boy waiting out there for someone to come and find him. He would be trusting, that the adults of his world, who had always promised little children that “Everything would be OK”, would locate him before it was too late.
The sinister black film poised above her was spewing the rain out of its slimy portals now. Everything around her was taking on grisly shapes of demented imaginary creatures of the night. Vickie knew her mind was slipping into its inventive state and that soon she would think she could even see Big-foot running through the trees. “Get a hold of yourself” she laughed nervously as she looked over at Jamie, her ever constant hold on reality.
The dog was eyeing her knowingly, perhaps because she could detect the scent of fear in her partner or perhaps she was having the same thoughts and feelings. Taking this moment of visual contact, K-9 and human reached out mentally to the other and eagerly accepted the offered strength of will. A flicker of new determination welled up inside of each of them as they again began pushing through the drenching rain. Jamie seemed to be completely involved in her work irregardless of the climactic attempts to slow her down.
Her head was down, nose almost touching the ground as she suddenly picked up her pace and bolted down the hill. Vickie had a surge of hope spring into her heart, she knew when Jamie was tracking and even with the heavy rains, it was clear she was on a hot track. Picking up her own speed she followed the dog downward. The thick underbrush made the going difficult but Vickie had to move quickly through it if she wanted to keep Jamie in view. Snapping branches reached for her face and hands as she passed, while rocks and deadfall tried to impede her pace by pinching and trapping her feet as she stumbled through the craggy precipitous terrain.
Breaking through to an open area, Vickie almost slipped right into the stream that ran along the bottom of the hill. She stopped inches short of the water where she found Jamie circling an area sniffing the ground intently. Disappointment flooded her body when she, after looking around carefully, could see no sign of the boy. She had been so sure this was it. Jamie had given her every indication that the boy would be here.
Exhausted and disheartened Vickie collapsed on the ground beside her dog. Tears filled her eyes and flowed down her cheeks blending with the rain that fell upon her face. Her heart broke as she realized how cold it had become and she knew, the child would not live through the night. The little boy would succumb to the elements, become hypothermic, slipping into a deep sleep that he would never awaken from. She began to weep, sniffling in great bouts of air causing her to hic-up, then expelling low moaning grunts (different description needed here, grunts not very feminine.)
The angry sky accompanied her pain by adding more madness, as it sent another vicious missile of light, propelling it to the earth’s surface. Its target, an old half dead pine tree that jutted above the other smaller trees in the forest. With loathsome power it pounded the base of the great tree with such force that it was obliterated. With most of its foundation and life support gone, the great beacon of the forest leaned its great weight on surrounding trees then breaking all in its path, toppled to the ground.
A luminous light surrounded the spot where the great tree had once stood and it seemed that everything around her became motionless and quiet. The ensuing stillness was deafening to Vickie and it seemed that time had stopped. The protecting care of this sentinel of the forest would be a great loss and it would take many years before the damage would be replaced as the wilderness began to reclaim itself.
Craig stood under the shelter of the canopy next to the command post trailer. He watched the young family huddled together as they stared impatiently at the trailhead before them. He too, found himself looking there every few seconds, hoping someone; anyone would break out into the open, carrying a small child. The storm had become so intense that he had tried to contact all the searchers and warn them of the oncoming deluge. Those he could reach were cautioned to take shelter immediately and wait out the worst of the storm in safety. “Find an overhanging cliff if you can, at the very least, lie low to the ground.
His big concern was for the dog handlers. It is a known fact that animals can attract lightning and it has been suggested that through the attraction, the energy will seek out the closest standing thing, which in this case would be a handler. He had reached most of the dog teams but was unable to get through to Vickie and her dog Jamie. There was too much static to be sure that she had understood his message and he had to depend on the fact that she was a proven wilderness survivor.
He liked this girl, she and her teams were never pushy or arrogant when they came on scene. They never tried to tell you how to do your job. They just waited patiently for their assignments, and then were off. “I hope you are somewhere safe” he thought as he pictured the two of them out in the field. “I hope you are ok.” This was not just the concern of a sheriff for his crew; this was the concern of a friend.
The whole thing was exhausting. “Too many times” he thought, “I’ve done this too many times. How much can a guy be expected to take?” He had been on hundreds of searches in his career as a deputy, but only about two years ago had he been placed in charge of them for the county. It was a formidable responsibility requiring endless amounts of patience and skill. The commander must make all the final decisions in respect to the search itself, keep track of all the searchers, making sure they do not become victims themselves, do interviews with the local papers and news-stations and many other jobs.
The most difficult of all of his duties though, is dealing with the families of the missing. There is so much raw emotion involved there. So much pain and suffering. It is almost impossible to remain un-affected by their pain. Most people see him as a calm, controlled individual who seems to have no feelings or emotions. Little do they know how his nights are endless with worry and concern, his days full of life and death choices that could haunt him for the rest of his life. “Why?” he wondered, “would anyone want this job, why did he?”
The dazzling illuminations all around her brought her back to the moment. “Must get to shelter” Vickie reprimanded herself. “For your own safety, you must get to shelter.” It was decided! No more searching for the lost boy, not for a little while anyway. She would be no good to the child if she were killed by a lightning strike, and who would take care of Jamie if she were dead? Getting her balance she stood up and looked around for a place to hide from the fury that was quickly surrounding her.
The cloud cover was so dense and close to the ground that she couldn’t see two feet in front of her. The rain was sadistically pelting her and it felt like thousands of little needles beating through her gear and onto her flesh. Confusion and fear were beginning to set in as she turned to check on how Jamie was doing. The dog was not even interested in Vickie and her pain; she was suddenly focused on something uphill from them.
Thinking the dog might disappear into the storm, Vickie reached out to her. Her intent was to put a leash on Jamie incase she should become startled by the storm and run, but as she leaned down to grab her, the dog took off up the hill. “Jamie, Stop!” Vickie screamed, but her shriek was lost in the fog like mist before her. “Jamie.” Clambering up the slippery side of the embankment, she tried to guess which way the dog had gone. “Jamie, come back here.”
She demanded, hoping the dog could here. Lurching forward, then slipping backwards she slowly advanced up the hill until she could finally see the dog. She was feeling a tinge of anger towards the dog for bolting from her and causing her to be concerned at this time. She was about to chastise Jamie verbally, really let her know how mad she was, when she saw the cave entrance the dog was standing by.
Had Jamie known or understood the need to seek safety, or had the dog alerted on a mountain lion that would be waiting for them inside. The decision of weather to go in or not was made instantaneously as an explosion of light and electricity rocked the earth beneath her. Both dog and handler jumped into the cave, preferring possible death by a cat to certain death from lightning.
After the flash of light that had temporarily blinded her, Vickie had to wait a few seconds for her eyes to adjust to the blackness of the chamber. She listened for the threatening rumble made by a cat who had been disturbed by an invading human but no sound came so she settled in and removed her pack. Vickie could hear Jamie pawing at the ground and whining at something over in the far corner but it was still to dark for her to make out even the dogs form so she riffled through her pack for her flashlight. “Jamie, Come over here” Vickie commanded as her hands wrapped around the flashlight and she pulled it out. “Jamie, Come.”
A sudden uneasiness settled upon her. She had the distinct feeling that they were not alone as she gripped the flashlight, placing her finger on the button that would fill the room with light. Fearing the worst, yet not wanting to wait any longer, she pushed the button and blinked in pain as the cave reflected its surroundings under the influence of the gleaming brightness. After a few seconds she started to make out Jamie’s form at the far side of the cavern. As she stared and her eyes adjusted she noticed a powder bluish lump in the dirt at Jamie’s side.
Not sure what it could be, she got to her knees and moved closer. She caught her breath, startled by a slight almost invisible movement from the heap. Waiting and staring intently, Vickie waited to see if it moved again or if it had been her imagination. Jamie pawed again gently at the lump, then leaned down and nuzzled at it with her nose just like she had done to Vickie that morning when she had tried to wake her up.
A sudden tightness gripped at Vickie’s heart as the realization of what this was came to her. She quickly broke the distance between herself and Jamie, bumping her head painfully on the ceiling of the cave. Ignoring the strike to her skull she reached past Jamie and pulled the unresponsive child into her arms. “Ben” she cried, “Ben honey, can you hear me?”
She gently ran the back of her hand down his cold and clammy face stopping at the base of his neck and feeling for the carotid artery. Tears of joy erupted from her eyes as she felt the faint but solid pulse under her fingers. He was still alive. She found it hard to breathe as she continued to examine the motionless figure. His shirt was soaked and dripping, his color was pale if almost grey, both of which would be signs of hypothermia setting in. There didn’t appear to be any open wounds to worry about although there was a dried up splotch of blood on his forehead.
She immediately stripped off the wet shirt he was wearing, then removed her coat and heavy cover over her t-shirt. Dressing the boy in the oversized sweat shirt and then wrapping him snuggly in her coat she sat back against the big stone that sheltered them and began softly talking to the child. “It’s OK Ben, everything is going to be alright.”
She surprised herself at how soothing and relaxed her voice sounded. Emotions she didn’t feel at the moment but was sure would bring peace to the child if only he could hear her. “As soon as it quits raining, I’m going to take you back to your family.” “they will be so excited to see you again, so you just stay with me Ben, Stay with me.” “Father please, don’t let this little boy die, please,” the silent prayer echoed in her mind.
She pulled her radio from the harness and tried to reach another searcher, or the command post. She knew it was hopeless, but she had to try. She needed medical assistance for Ben as soon as possible. “Dam this storm” she caught herself saying with a venomous spew. And then remembering the child in her arms she softened her fierce anger to, “Darn it Ben, I wish it would stop raining so we can get you back home.”
Jamie had watched Vickie thoughtfully over the last few minutes, then seeing that her friend could do no more than sit and hold the child, Jamie moved in closer working her way on top of Vickie’s outstretched legs. Then she gently lay down cuddling in as close to the child as she could get, pressing the little boy tightly between herself and Vickie.
Bewildered Vickie watched Jamie moving towards them. Understanding came when the big warm hearted dog lay on top of her legs and sandwiched the child between them. Jamie was using her own body heat to help warm Bens depleting temperature.
She had heard about dogs doing that in a storm during winter but she never once thought that it was instinctual; she just figured they had been commanded to do it. “Jamie” she said lovingly, “Your amazing girl.” In all the excitement, she had forgotten all about the wonderful partner that brought her here. She had not even acknowledged the dog for finding Ben. “You did it girl, You did it. You found Ben.”
She reached over the child and affectionately rubbed the top of the dogs nose. “And for that, my friend, steak will be on the menu for dinner. And I’ll take the next two days off of work and we will do something special. Something that will be for just the two of us. OK?”
Jamie tilted her head towards Vickie and winked comically. At least she thought it was a wink. The two shared another moment as they looked into each others eyes; a warm rush of calmness filled the space between them. There’s was a unique partnership. The body between dog and handler made a sudden jerk as the sounds of the storm outside the cave shook its walls. Looking down Vickie watched as two little eyelids slowly opened revealing the hazy blue eyes that were hidden beneath them. A smile worked its way across her face as she lightly called Bens name.
Torrents of rain had fallen for over an hour and the lightning and thunder had pelted the earth for even longer. Sarah was beyond scared, she was petrified. Ben would surely be dead by now. He could never live through something like this, he is too little. He doesn’t have mom and dad there to tell him that everything will be ok. “Scared to death” had new meaning for her now. Everyone around her had a defeated look in their eyes.
They tried not to look at her and her family for fear they would see the hopelessness that trailed in behind them. But Sarah had noticed, she knew. She felt their sadness, she saw it in the way they walked and talked. They were different tonight as they came off the mountain, not the same happy groups that had started out this afternoon.
The storm had left behind its tale of death and no one wanted to be the ones to tell her parents that all hope had diminished with the passing rains. Sarah noticed two of the searchers come out of the woods with dogs and ran over to them hoping to find out about Vickie and Jamie. “Sorry” the tall man with the blood hound said, “We lost touch with Vickie almost three hours ago, she was having trouble with the reception on her radio.” He tried to be hopeful adding, “But don’t you worry Sarah, Vickie is a smart search dog handler I know and she will be back soon.”
Not knowing what else he could say to help the little girl, he turned and headed into the base camp, leaving her standing alone as a ray of sunlight peeked through the receding clouds then disappeared as the sun dipped below the horizon. As she turned to go back to join her mother and father, Sarah paused, listening. She thought she had heard someone calling out. Everyone else was at the base turning in their reports for the day and talking amongst themselves so no one would have heard anything. “Hello the camp” “We need some help here.”
A voice shouted from up the trail. This time she heard it and recognized its owner. Sarah ran to the trail head hollering, “Vickie, Vickie, are you OK?” “Where are You?” All the commotion had brought the sheriff and other searchers to the trail head on the run. They looked questioningly down at Sarah who rambled off “It’s Vickie and she says she needs help. I think she is on the trail coming here.” The men started to run down the trail towards the sounds when Jamie bounced out in front of them and with great delight headed to her friend the blood hound, Copper.
Just a few feet behind her came Vickie who seemed to be struggling under the heavy weight of her back pack and something she was carrying in her arms. No not something, Sarah thought with excitement, someone. Without waiting another second Sarah hurtled past all the men that were trying to get to Vickie. She plunged through the trees and branches that stood between her and the exhausted woman crying, “Ben, you found him, didn’t you. Ben!”
Seeing the child running towards her and knowing what must be going on in her mind, Vickie knelt down to one knee and opened the top of her jacket exposing the tuft of brown hair on Ben’s head. Sarah stopped just in time to keep from knocking Vickie and Ben over and holding her breath she tenderly touched her little brothers sleeping form. “Is he dead?” she asked fearfully. “No honey” Vickie responded, “but he does need to be taken to a hospital right away.”
Sarah looked panicked. “Don’t worry, I am sure he will be ok, it is just a precaution, you know, just to be sure.” Vickie looked up and finding the sheriffs eyes she nodded gravely, sending a message of the urgency she felt for the child’s health. He nodded knowingly and turned back to the command post to arrange transportation. Not willing to give up her bundle for the time being, Vickie was helped up by two men and then accompanied back along the trail with Sarah at her side.
Turning down the last twist in the trail she looked up and saw two people staring unbelievingly at her. The man and woman looked ghostly white and seemed to be unable to move. “I think he will be ok” Vickie said as she unfolded the child from the coat that surrounded him and held him out to them. The woman still afraid of what she might see, turned her eyes slowly from Vickie’s face, to the face of the unconscious child that she held in her arms.
Gripping her husband desperately she collapsed to the ground at Vickie’s feet and wept uncontrollably. The father gingerly stepped forward and took Ben into his arms, then knelt beside his wife. Sarah joined them on the ground and the three of them held tightly closing a circle of love around the little boy. With tears flowing freely down their cheeks, Vickie and the others walked away.
ONE WEEK LATER
“Throw it, come on, hurry throw it.” Jamie tried to force her thoughts to the child. “That’s what kids do, you throw it, I run after it, pounce on it, grab it in my mouth, run back to you and release it, and then you throw it again.” The boy leaned down and picked up the ball. “That’s it, you got it, now throw it.” Jamie was bouncing from side to side lowered in a doggy bow, hoping the child would hurry.
Ben laughed as he teased the dog some more, then threw the ball as far as he could. Rushing past the patio on the trail of the bouncing ball, passing the mother, father and the little girl Sarah, the dog gave a quick nod to her best friend Vickie, and then swooped down with practiced ease on the moving object before her.
Biting down, she gripped the sphere in her teeth and slid to a stop. Turning back she faced the waiting boy in a half crouched position then pushing off she launched herself towards him at a dead run Jamie curled her lips into a doggy smile as she ran thinking, “Yep, its great day to be a dog.”
This story was written during the fall of 2004. It was a time when thousands of people responded to a families request for help. Young Garret Bardsley had been fishing with his father and fellow Scouts when he slipped into the lake and got his feet wet. Camp was only a few hundred yards away so Garrets Father suggested they go back to camp and change his shoes.
Garret told his father he wanted to go back by himself and assured him he knew the way. Camp was only a hundred yards or so through the trees, along a small footpath. Garrets father watched as his son walked back into the trees and out of sight. Garret has not been seen since.
As one of hundreds of professional searchers and thousands of family, friends, and strangers, I walked the trail that Garret walked. I climbed the mountains Garret climbed to get to his camp I scaled the cliffs we fear he scaled. I felt the pain and fear others felt at the frustration of finding nothing after months of searching.
I know personally of two dog handlers that have walked over three hundred miles in their efforts to find this young man. I hurt as thousands do for the family of young Garret. This is dedicated to the families of all the missing children.