I puffed out some air, then talked aloud to Thor, hoping he’d find comfort in the sound of my voice. Plus, it helped me, too, like I wasn’t all alone in these big woods.
“We’ve been doing this all wrong. We need to stay put. We’re getting tired walking around and have to conserve our energy. First we need to find shelter.”
Thor followed me, sniffing the ground as I searched for someplace I could keep warm. A few yards off I spied a huge oak tree that looked like it had been struck by lightning. It was fried. The whole top was blown off and lay on the forest floor. It must’ve happened a long time ago because the inside of the trunk was completely hollow. It looked like some kind of cave, perfect for hiding in. I approached the mouth of the trunk slowly, afraid some critter might be hiding in there. Bears, large cats, snakes, and other unfriendly animals lived in these woods, and they’d be looking for shelter, too. But to my luck, the trunk was empty, save for spiders. A pine branch with needles was perfect for sweeping it out, then I added more soft pine branches to make a floor. I looked for a few more large pine branches to close us in and keep the cold out.
When I was satisfied I’d made a decent shelter, I pulled the red scarf from around my neck and tied it to a skinny sprout tree near my fort like a flag. At least if someone was looking for me, they wouldn’t walk past me. I wished I knew what time it was. But it had to be getting late. The temperature was dropping as the sky darkened. I could feel something happening in the clouds, but it felt too cold for rain. I sure hoped it didn’t rain. My toes felt real cold, too. I tossed my backpack into the shelter, then crawled in. The wood was burned and moldy, and it smelled musty inside the trunk. But the pine needles were pretty comfortable. All in all, it wasn’t too bad, I thought.
“Come on in, Thor!”
Thor wasn’t sure he wanted to come in to the cramped, dark space. He stood stubbornly at the entrance, legs wide and his big eyes staring at me with doubt. But I sweet-talked him and eventually he squeezed in beside me. It was right cozy in the dark space, like a cave. There was just enough room for me and Thor if he put his head on my lap. I was pleased I’d created such a nice fort; my Scout master would have been proud of me. But my pride was short-lived when I considered what a dope I was to get lost in the first place. And worse, how I’d not bothered to write a note telling anyone where I was going. Who’d be looking for me? I wondered.
“At least we have each other, don’t we?” I gave Thor a squeeze.
His body warmth was comforting and I patted his head, hoping he was reassured. I figured if we could sleep here tonight, we could start looking for a way home tomorrow. I reached out to place the extra pine branches in front of our fort, closing us in. Once done, there wasn’t a breath of wind. In the dim confines of our fort I heard my stomach rumble and realized it had been a long time since my snack. I wished I’d packed a proper lunch. I pulled everything I had left in my backpack out and divvied up the food. As Thor and I ate the remaining nuts, I wondered what Mama was planning for Christmas Eve dinner. It was usually a picnic before the fireplace, under the Christmas tree—thick sausages, pickled shrimp, chunks of cheddar cheese, Mama’s biscuits, maybe some hot soup. Wine for the grown-ups, soda for me. Mama called it her fun dinner before her feast on Christmas. I missed Mama so much. I almost wept I was so hungry.
Light was fading. I packed my trash in my backpack and leaned back against the rotting wood, so tired I didn’t care if there was a spider. I thought about the Christmas tree I had cut down and had left behind.
“You shouldn’t of run off like that.” Thor had to face the truth. It was his fault we got lost. “Now who is going to bring home the Christmas tree?”
Thor whined and looked at me with uncomprehending eyes. I couldn’t stay mad at him. He didn’t ask me to run after him, after all.
“Well, maybe we’ll find it tomorrow on our way home. Yeah, in the morning we’ll see our tracks and probably pass right by that tree. Then we’ll drag it home, same as we planned.”
That thought gave me some comfort. I was feeling warmer in the cramped space of my fort. Thor was like a space heater and he snored when he slept, louder even than my daddy. I felt my lids lower and I yawned wide, feeling the fatigue of the day’s walking. I laid my head against the dog’s velvety fur. Now there was nothing left for us but to wait. And pray.
“Good Spirit,” he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: “Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!”
—Scrooge, A Christmas Carol
Any hint of blue had leached out of the sky by the time I entered the Marion National Forest. Not a hint of sunlight was behind the graying clouds. I followed my mother’s now well-worn path at a brisk pace, picking up at least a dozen footprints. I slowed when I spied Sheriff Cable in the distance beside what looked like my brother’s wagon. I figured this was their ground zero. I didn’t need the sheriff giving me directions, so I detoured, stealthily going east to the three-mile perimeter. I used my compass to guide me while I kept my eyes peeled for any sign of broken twigs, dog or human prints, anything. My guess was that if Miller had run off from his wagon and ax, he was chasing Thor. Thor could cover a lot of distance without taking a breath, so if Miller had run after him, plus walked for another couple hours, he more than likely was in the six-mile radius. That’s where I headed first.
The woods swallowed me whole. In all directions the sights were the same to an unskilled eye. I was trained to see the minutiae, however. Bent branches, broken twigs. Pine needles when dry didn’t bend when you stepped on them, they broke. At last I got my first break. I followed a narrow path where the moss was smashed, leaving prints much like on a thick carpet. I crouched low to the ground to read the signs. My heart beat faster when I found footprints in the pine needles and leaves. I rose and followed the trail for several more yards, then I spied a bit of black nylon caught on the end of a branch. I rubbed the fabric between my fingers. No doubt in my mind it came from Miller’s parka. I lifted my head and sniffed the air in the faint hope I might catch the scent of smoke. I caught nothing but the crisp scent of pine and the pungent odor of molding leaves.
I wasn’t disheartened. The darkening sky, the lowering temperatures, did not discourage me. I’d been through worse. I was a trained Marine. I had a mission. I felt stronger and sharper witted now that I had a purpose. I could use my skills again for the first time in months. I shifted the bag on my shoulders and kept going.