“We’re battle buddies,” I told him, then pulled back and stood. “Now let’s finish this. Thor, where’s Miller? Find Miller,” I commanded.
Thor was ready to act and made a curt woof. He walked a few feet to the north, sniffing the air, turned around, then came to stand again in front of me. His brown eyes were alert and intense. He woofed. He walked again down the path, then stopped to look at me as though to say, Hurry up!
“Good dog.” I adjusted the pack on my back. I pointed. “Find Miller.”
Thor took off with a lurch down the path. He knew where he was going. I paced fast to keep up with him as he thrashed his way through the woods. We hadn’t gone far when he approached what looked to me like a burned-out hull of an ancient oak tree, so broad at the base a boy could hide in there. Then I saw the red scarf and I fist-pumped the air. Even in the dimming light the cherry red couldn’t be missed. Smart boy, I thought to myself with pride.
I ran to the base of the great tree and pushed back the pine branches that covered the opening. Some of them had already been knocked down, no doubt by Thor when he leaped out. I leaned inside the cave-like space. It smelled of pine and mold, and though the light was dim, I saw Miller lying on a floor of pine needles. His eyes were closed, and for a moment I was afraid I was too late. I reached out to shake his shoulder gently.
“Miller,” I said, loud enough to wake him.
To my eternal relief, his eyelids fluttered and then opened. His blue eyes met mine with a sleepy stupor, then widened with surprise. In a flash he leaped up and wrapped his arms around me, holding tight.
“I knew you’d find me,” he exclaimed over and over, crying in relief. “I knew you’d be the one to find me.”
I hugged him, not ashamed of my tears. When Miller pulled back, he was smiling, but I could see tears in his eyes, as well. And something more. Something far more compelling. I saw the pride that used to gleam in Miller’s eyes when he looked at his big brother. I’d earned it.
And that, I knew, was the best Christmas present I could have hoped for.
I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to every-body! A happy New Year to all the world!
—Scrooge, A Christmas Carol
The snow was collecting on the forest floor and along the tree branches, making the woods appear like a winter wonderland in the beam of my flashlight. We walked for some time in silence, listening to our footfalls crunching, with our breaths creating plumes of vapor in the cold air. I looked beside me often, checking on Miller. I worried that he was too tired. Frostbitten. We had no choice but to push on.
Suddenly I caught a whiff of something burning. I stopped and sniffed the air. I knew a moment’s excitement and quickly reached into my pack to pull out my whistle. I blew it three times, the shrill sound piercing the quiet. Thor looked up at me, his ears twitching. Then I waited.
Not a minute later I heard an answering three blasts from a whistle.
“Over there!” I shouted to Miller, pointing.
We both felt propelled by adrenaline. Miller was tired, but his nap had given him the endurance to plow on. I blew my whistle again. Again we got a response. Picking up the pace, I followed the direction of the sound through the maze of trees, faith and my compass guiding me. Before too long we heard a mass of footsteps approaching, a chorus of sound after so much silence. Suddenly a group of men burst through the trees, headed by my father.
“Miller!” he shouted. He was wrapped in his heavy navy peacoat, a fur hat, thick gloves. His cheeks were ruddy, this time from the cold, and his blue eyes shone bright in the light of my flashlight.
“Daddy!” Miller called out, and ran forward into our father’s arms.
Dad lowered to his knees in the snow and encircled my brother in his arms, his face buried in Miller’s shoulder.
“My boy,” he said in a choked voice.
No one missed the unspeakable joy and relief the Captain was feeling at finding his son. A few men stood watching with tears in their eyes. Others came to me to slap my back and congratulate me for finding the boy.
“Good job, Taylor.”
“That’s a Marine for you!”
“Where was he?”
“How’d you find him?”
I didn’t notice their questions. I could not move. My father lifted his head and his gaze sought me out. When he found me, he looked straight into my eyes, held them, and nodded in gratitude. Then he rose and strode toward me with his hand out. I moved forward and took it, feeling the strength in it. But this time he pulled me against his chest and wrapped his free arm around me and firmly patted my back.
“Thank you,” he said, his gruff voice shaking. “I’m proud of you, Son. Never forget that, no matter what. I love you.”
We walked into the house to an uproar of cheers. I stood near the entrance, stunned. It seemed to me most of the town was crowded into our house. It was déjà vu of my welcome-home party—was it less than a month ago? It felt so much longer in light of all that had happened.
“Miller!” Mama raced through the crowd directly to Miller and held him so long and so tight I thought he was going to pass out. But he held her just as tight.
“Don’t you ever do that again!” she said without a trace of anger.
“Oh, Mama, I didn’t know if I was ever going to get back home. But Taylor found me!” His eyes glistened. “I knew he would.”
“Yes, baby, I knew he would, too!” She kissed him twice more, grinning wide. Then she rose and came to me, and this time her movements were slow. Her eyes were flooded with tears as she reached up to cup my face in her hands. She stood and looked into my eyes for the longest time. I basked in the pride and the love in my mother’s gaze. All others around us seemed to disappear. At length, Mama said softly, “Thank you.”
My chest swelled. To me, it felt as if she’d shouted it off the rooftop. “I promised you,” I told her.
She hugged me and I caught scent of her perfume, the same she always wore. I would never smell that scent without thinking of my mother.
People were jostling us now, crowding in to slap my back, congratulate me. Smiling faces surrounded us, men, women, and children, tears in their eyes. Old Sheriff Cable was surrounded by people slapping his back and shaking his hand, telling him he was sheriff for life. He grinned and bore it with his usual good humor. The Old Captains beamed in the attention, fiercely proud of the role they’d played in the rescue. This was their town, after all. Forester Bill, the deputy, and other policemen were besieged with plates overflowing with food. A mug of beer was thrust in my hand. I raised it in a silent toast and drank thirstily. The joy in the room could not be contained. It was infectious. Each and every one came to hug the rescuers, then they began hugging each other, tears coursing down their faces, shouting out, “This was a Christmas miracle!”