Another piece of good luck came farther up the trail. I found an empty plastic water bottle. I picked it up and put it in my pack. At least Miller had had the good sense to bring water, I thought. I figured Miller had been outdoors for at least seven hours. Most of the day the weather had been near forty degrees, a blessing. But on checking my temperature gauge, I saw the weather was nearing freezing as night was going to fall. Unbelievably, the weather reports predicted snow. I could imagine how many families were excited at the prospect of a white Christmas, so rare in these parts. For me, it was a complication. The snow would cover up any tracks. I looked up past the regal, tall longleaf pines to the small square of sky visible above.
A snowflake landed on my face.
People were coming over to the house in droves, dropping off food. My table was groaning under the generous offerings. I looked around at the ten women who’d stayed with me to help ready the food for the search party, to tidy the house, and to keep me company. It was already half past four o’clock. I still hadn’t received word from Sheriff Cable, but knew they’d be calling off the search soon. And not long after that the sun would set.
My boy must be getting real cold now, I thought with a shiver. And frightened.
I walked alone to the rear window of my kitchen, crossed my arms, and stared out into the shadows. Across my yard my neighbor’s Christmas lights sparkled along her fence line like countless brilliant stars in the fog. Looking up, I couldn’t make out any stars behind the thick cloud covering. Then I gasped.
“It’s snowing!” I exclaimed.
The women in the room stopped what they were doing, and with high-pitched exclamations, they hurried to gather at the window and marvel at the rare sight of snow in McClellanville.
“The last time it snowed was the Christmas after Hurricane Hugo,” Della said in her raspy voice. “December twenty-fifth, 1989.” Della was eighty-six years old, as thin as a rail with a shock of white hair always worn in a bun. Della could still tell you the date and time of every significant event in the town of McClellanville.
“It’s so pretty,” remarked someone with awe, putting her hand on the glass.
“It’ll make it hard to track,” said Melissa Rogers, the town’s manager. Someone quickly hushed her and looked meaningfully at me. Melissa was not one to be hushed. “Just saying,” she said with a curt nod.
I didn’t need to be told the snow wasn’t helping the situation. I’d prayed all afternoon for the snow to hold off until after my boy was found. As I watched the gentle flakes fall soundlessly to the earth, I fought off despair. I couldn’t give up hope, I told myself. I had to keep believing. Believe that Taylor would find Miller. I had to keep praying that my sons would return home.
The snow was falling steadily now, big fat flakes, the kind children liked to catch on their tongues. I wondered if Miller was sticking his tongue out now, doing just that. This might be the first snow he’d ever seen, and the thought made me smile.
I shook my head. I couldn’t get distracted. I took a deep breath and stretched. My muscles were tired; I was out of shape. But at least my migraine was gone. Looking down at the ground, I saw the snow was beginning to stick. That would cover the tracks. I was running out of time. I was losing the trail. I felt panic stir and had to fight it off.
“Dear God,” I said, my words catching in the wind. I paused and bowed my head. I was too ashamed to pray. It had been too long a time. I had seen so much horror, witnessed the heartless cruelty of man to one another, and denied God’s existence. What good were churches, I’d thought, if they inspired war? Instead I’d settled on the notion that all there was in this life was the here and now.
But here in the great woods I felt I was standing in God’s cathedral. The beauty and power of his creation were both intimidating and inspiring. I was insignificant in the greater universe. Who was I to doubt if God cared about the smallest of insects hiding under the moss? Or these giant longleaf pines that towered like great pillars to the sky? I needed only to pray that He’d take pity on this one miserable, sinful, and lonely creature.
“Please,” I said aloud, my voice piercing the deep hush of a forest snowfall, “I’m not asking for me. I’m asking for Miller. Help me to focus and be the Marine I once was. If You can do that, then I know I can find my brother.”
Bringing up my head, I looked around to get my bearings and collect my thoughts. I knew enough about hypothermia to know that Miler wasn’t near death. Unless he was wet, and there was no reason he should be, he had time. If he had his wits, he’d hunker down somewhere to keep warm. Miller was a smart kid. He knew the woods. Still, I was glad he had Thor with him.
According to my map, I was nearing the edge of the six-mile perimeter. But which direction had Miller moved in? I sensed I was close. That was the secret in the arsenal of the best trackers. Their intuition. I pulled out a whistle from my pack and blew it three times. The shrill sound echoed in the woods, sending birds fluttering and crying out. Again I blew. A moment later I cupped my hands around my mouth and called out, “Thor!” I counted to ten and shouted the dog’s name again. “Thor!”
I went still and listened. Around me the fat flakes swirled soundlessly in the crisp wintry air. I waited. Suddenly I heard a sound in the distance. I held my breath and lifted my cap past my ears. There it was again! A distinct bark.
“Thor!” I shouted again. “Thor!” I called, my heart pounding.
From the north I heard a great thundering, like a deer running. Turning, I saw a large black shape emerge from the woods. A dog . . . I lowered to my knees and opened my arms. Thor came running, eyes fixed, making a beeline for me.
“Thor!” I called again, and my dog was in my arms, whimpering with joy at finding me, licking my face, leaping like a puppy, behaving as though he’d not seen me in over a year. I didn’t know if I deserved such a welcome, but I felt the same at finding him.
I held his head in my palms, and Thor immediately calmed. We stared at each other, me and this stoic, loyal, brave-hearted dog. As I looked into his soulful eyes, I realized that this great animal had heard my call and come, not because he had to, but because he wanted to. He had faith in me. In my decisions. In my leadership. I saw shining in his eyes trust and more, respect.
In that moment, standing in the cathedral of trees, we bonded. Man and dog, we were partners. I vowed that I would protect him, as I knew he would protect me.