“Ma’am, there’s thousands of acres of woods in there. Where would we begin to look?”
“I know the path he’d take. I can take you there.”
Sheriff Cable straightened and closed his notepad. “Then let’s go take a look.”
“We should get Taylor.” Alistair looked around. “Where is he? I mean, where the hell are my sons?”
“Take it easy,” I admonished, embarrassed in front of the sheriff. “I know you have a headache, but so does Taylor. One of his bad ones. He can barely open his eyes. Let the medicine do its job. He’s no good in this condition.”
I could see the disappointment flare anew in Alistair’s eyes, but he kept his mouth tight and nodded in agreement. “Let’s go then,” he told Sheriff Cable. “We’re wasting daylight.”
The sheriff gathered a police search group and Alistair rallied the Old Captains. In any emergency on the water the Old Captains, a group of retired shrimp boat captains, would organize a search party of other captains and crew. They in turn alerted their families. This efficient system could activate the whole community in a short time. Quickly a group of fifteen gathered at the point of entry to the forest, within walking distance from my home, that for years I’d always used. It might have been an old logging trail back in the day, or used today by the foresters, I didn’t know. But it made for a wonderful pathway into the woods for my private foraging. On this mean and dank afternoon the temperature was beginning to fall. Not at all like the gloriously sunny afternoon when Miller and I had last walked this path together so filled with Christmas cheer. The circumstances were terribly different today, I thought with a shudder. No one had to remark on the urgency of the situation. Time was not on our side.
Soon the forest enveloped us. Our feet fell loudly on the dried leaves and twigs, crunching along the narrow path. We were encouraged by signs of the wagon’s wheels in the muddy parts of the path. Clearly we were on the right track, and knowing that spurred us on.
“There’s the wagon!” I shouted, spotting it in the distance. I ran to the small clearing where the red wagon sat abandoned. The rest of the party, all men, gathered near, some calling out Miller’s name, others searching the ground for tracks.
“Is that your ax?” asked Sheriff Cable, pointing to the one in the wagon.
“That’s it.” Alistair briskly nodded. He bent to look at the felled tree beside the wagon. Lifting the trunk, he tapped the bottom where sap oozed. “It couldn’t have been cut that long ago.”
“It still could’ve been hours,” replied Cable soberly.
Alistair let the trunk fall to the ground and straightened slowly. “I’ll pay the fine for my son cutting the tree without a permit.”
The sheriff looked off. “Cut tree? I see a fallen tree. I don’t see a cut tree.”
Hearing that, I vowed the sheriff would have my vote for as long as he ran for office.
“Looks like he went this way,” called out a deputy. He stood at the edge of the clearing, pointing farther into the woods.
The sheriff scratched his jaw. “Now tell me why he’d go off and leave the wagon and the tree?”
“An animal might’ve scared him,” offered Captain Morrison. “There’s all kind of wildlife in these woods.”
“If that were the case, wouldn’t he have grabbed the ax?” the sheriff asked.
“Couldn’t say,” Captain Morrison replied. “Like I said, he could’ve been scared.”
“Bill, could you come over here and bring your map? The rest of you, gather round.” The sheriff waved his big hand to call the others closer.
Bill Chambers was a forester called in to assist the search. Lean and deeply tanned, he quickly took a map from his inside pocket and spread it out on top of the wagon.
“Where’d you say we are, exactly?” the sheriff asked, drawing near to the wagon.
Bill bent over the map and studied it a few seconds, then pointed to a spot on the map. “Here.”
The sheriff bent and drew an X on the spot, then drew two circles around the X. “Now this inner circle is about three miles in diameter. This outer one is six miles. Fifty percent of lost hikers are found in this here inner circle.” He straightened and addressed the men. “Take a look and copy the circles on your own maps. Then let’s split up in teams and proceed outward to the three-mile points on the circle. Keep whistling and calling, make lots of noise so Miller can hear you. If you find him, call it in on the walkie-talkie we issued. Likely your phones won’t get reception in here. You can also blow on those whistles we gave y’all—three times. I’ll stay here and set off a flare gun. Hopefully with all this noise and commotion we’re making, he’ll find his way back to us. We’ll all meet back here in one hour. Four on the dot. It’ll start getting dark. I don’t want to have to send a search party for anyone else today. By nightfall, if we have to, we’ll turn it over to SAR. Okay?” Satisfied with the response, the sheriff turned to me. “Missus, you ought to return straight home.”
“No. I want to be here looking for him.”
“Now I know you do,” Cable said in a conciliatory voice. “But you need to be home in case your son finds his way back. We could be looking for him while he’s safe at home and watching the TV. That doesn’t make sense, does it? Why, he might be home already.”
I could see the sense in that. “You’ll call as soon as you find him?”
“Of course.” He looked at me, his brows raised over bright blue eyes. “That goes both ways, hear?”
I smiled, appreciating his optimism. I walked to Alistair and we hugged, sharing our fear, despair, and hope in that one embrace. Then, without another word, I turned and made my way back along the familiar path. As I walked, I thought how quickly life could change. How just yesterday we were all upset about such things as holiday trees, puppies, presents. This day brought into sharp focus how meaningless those things were and what really mattered in this short span of time we spend on earth.
Glancing up at the sky, I prayed with each step that when I returned home, I’d find Miller sitting at the kitchen table, as I often did, his face smiling up at me when he saw me, calling out hello.
I returned home to find my son at the kitchen table, but not Miller as I’d prayed.