The search had been going on for days. Every morning, just after dawn, the rangers gathered at headquarters to strategize the new day’s increasingly desperate efforts. Youthful and fit, with muscles knotted from daily workouts and weapons training, the group bristled with purpose and controlled aggression. This is what they were trained for, and they were good at it. Each ranger had a job to do: some on foot with tracking dogs sniffing for scent, some in the rescue helicopter with thermal imaging scopes flying over the forest, others in the patrol boat with high-powered binoculars scanning the cliffs.
They were all becoming uneasy with the failure of their efforts. The team leader reminded them that maybe the hiker wasn’t missing at all, had purposefully disappeared, and would be found with his girlfriend in a motel room miles away, fake IDs on the nightstand. Not a ranger in the room believed him. Each was sure that if they could just get out of this damn meeting and get to it, they could find the kid. But the leader’s talk kept them from taking the failure to find the boy personally, and without really thinking about it, they were glad he said it. There would be time enough if the search went badly to examine what more they could have done, if they could have somehow saved him.
Henry, as usual, was leaning his tall, lean frame against the door jamb. Rather than enter, he preferred to loiter at the edge. He needed to know how the search was going, but at twice, sometimes three times, the age of most of these guys, he preferred to stay out of the amped-up excitement and dreams of heroism that filled the room. It wasn’t that he didn’t admire them, with their energy and advanced training and high-tech devices. Many a hiker could have been saved in his day if they’d had some of these gadgets. But he’d done this too long, seen too much heartache, had learned that sometimes no matter how hard you tried, the unthinkable came to pass.
Finally the day’s search area was defined, assignments were handed out, and the group broke up and rushed for their vehicles. Henry swung himself out of their way, his right shoulder never leaving the door jamb. They pushed past him, barely noticing the old cowboy as they stepped over the pointed toes of his boots.
Henry swung back to face the team leader, took a few bowlegged steps into the room.
“Time’s dwindling, Kevin.”
The team leader, almost as tall as Henry, looked straight into Henry’s worried blue eyes. Kevin wasn’t quite so green as his men nor quite so wise as his friend. But his years in search and rescue had moved him from the raw excitement of his team not some small distance along the difficult road in Henry’s direction.
“There’s still time, Henry. Nights haven’t been too cold, there’s water to be found. You’ve brought some back living, lost longer than this.”
“I know it. Just think you ought to be preparing your guys a little for the possibility.”
“Tonight is forecast to be below freezing. We’ve got one last good day of search, didn’t want to dampen their spirits. If we don’t find him today, I’ll talk to them tomorrow. You got Huck ready?”
“I’m heading to the ranch now. I’ll have him brushed, fed, and watered within the hour. Equipment’s already set to go. He knows the drill; he can feel it. He’s been ready since Tuesday, doesn’t understand why we haven’t ridden out before this.”
“I’m thinking that with the high tide coming in this afternoon, if we find the kid down along the bluffs only the horses will be able to get down there. You going to take Daisy? She was always a good, steady ambulance.”
“She’s 24, Kevin, and none too sure-footed any longer. That cliff trail is really treacherous, but the younger horses are too skittish to trust with this. I’ll bring her on lead, but if there’s a chance for a helicopter lift, it might be easier on everybody. Including Daisy.”
“Take her. We’ll make the choice when we come to it.”
Henry pushed his sweat-stained cap up on his forehead, leaned over the desk, put a warm grip on Kevin’s shoulder, caught his eyes.
“You’ve run a good search, Kevin. Nobody could have done any better.”
Kevin tilted his head a bit, not quite ready to accept the compliment.
“That means a lot coming from you. I’ll try to remember it when the questions start flying.”
“It’ll pass. Always does. Your men know the truth; journalists be damned.”
Henry left his young friend standing at his desk, looking at the maps laid out in front of him, listening to the radio chatter coming from the communications room as his rangers began reporting in.
Henry drove his muddy red pickup truck up the hill and around the circular driveway that encompassed the old farmhouse. The horses recognized the sound, and gathered at the fence closest to his parking space. He went over and greeted each one with their special touch – a caress of Outlaw’s one black ear, a scratch under Huck’s angular jaw, a pat of Daisy’s starred forehead. They’d been together, some of them, for over twenty years, helping to patrol the trails, and of course, find lost hikers year-round.
But their days here were numbered, just like Henry’s. When he was forced to retire next year, they would be too. They’ll be looked after but bored, Henry thought. Just like me. We’re all just too old to keep.
“Any news, Henry?” Jane, the ranch hand, walked up alongside of him, shovel for mucking out the stalls still in her leather-gloved hand. She knew he didn’t like to talk much, ever, and even less the last few days. She could see that this search was getting to him, more than others, and she wanted to make sure he was OK.
“Nope. They’re focusing everybody on the area around Pelican Bluff. Think he could have been trapped by the tide, tried to scramble up the cliff and injured himself. It’s a long way from where he started, but he’s young, he could easily have gotten that far.”
“I don’t ever remember a search for a solo hiker so young.”
“Neither do I. Kids are usually with kids and they nudge each other into taking risks. This one doesn’t feel right to me.”
He turned away and looked into the distance. Jane watched the side of his face closely, afraid to say anything else and stop his talking completely. She saw his jaw clench and relax, then stay clenched under his uncombed white beard. His eye suddenly glistened with moisture.
He gave his head a shake. “Got to get to it. Call could come at any time. Thanks for coming in early and starting the chores.” Henry touched the back of Jane’s hand as he turned toward the tack room. “I’ll be working on Huck and Daisy, if you wouldn’t mind looking after the rest?”
“Sure thing, Henry. I’ll take care of it.”
The day passed long and fretful, as any day would with dread woven through it. The temperature dropped every hour and the wind began kicking up, but the sky stayed clear. It would be below freezing that night for sure, even at the beaches. Henry kept the horses gently moving around the pasture, but when his tension rose, he left them and went back into the tack room, cleaned some bits or oiled some reins, until he was calm again, not wanting them to catch its scent.
Finally just after 3:30 his radio crackled to life. It was Kevin. The boat had spotted something in a crevice just south of Pelican Bluff. The afternoon light was shining on something bright blue – like the sweatshirt the boy was thought to be wearing. The incoming tide was already too high for the boat to come ashore or the helicopter to land.
“Huck and Daisy and I will go. We can be there before dark. I’ll report in when I’ve found him.”
“Listen, Henry. It will be almost sunset when you get there. Just do what you can for him overnight, don’t try to bring him out in the dark. Too dangerous for all of you.”
“Yep. Stand by. You should hear from me by 6:00.”
Jane was already bringing Huck and Daisy into the corral. Together they saddled Huck, loaded Daisy with the supplies: basic camping gear, food, lights, carabiners and ropes, medical supplies, blankets, body bag. In less than 15 minutes, Henry was sitting atop Huck, with Daisy tied behind, and with a simple nod to Jane, Henry headed up the trail.
The light was already dim in the forest, but these three knew the trail well. Upon reaching the open, golden grassland on the other side of the ridge, the sun warmed all their shoulders and the little party picked up the pace as they moved south and then west down the easy slope toward the bluffs. He could already hear the waves roaring along the twenty miles of beach below. Well back from the top of the cliff, Henry dismounted and walked cautiously to the unstable edge. Huck and Daisy remained stationary; these were horses trained to their work. It was difficult for Henry to make out exactly which crevice might hold the boy, they were deep in shadow from this angle, but the setting sun shone hard and bright on the cliff face, sharpening the details of the narrow trail, making the footing easier.
Slowly, with Henry on foot, leading Huck by the reins and Daisy still tied to Huck, the three made their cautious way down the loose rock face. Once he heard Daisy stumble, but felt no pull on the reins. She must have righted herself. Good girl, Henry thought, but didn’t say anything lest he disrupt the horses’ concentration. At the bottom there were only five or six feet of sand between the base of the cliff and tips of the waves – but high tide had just passed. There were no worries on that front.
He again left the horses where they stood, and went to search amongst the piles of rock tumbled down onto the beach and in the fissures between. In the third fissure, he saw it – the bright blue the boat had seen, and the body that still wore it. The boy seemed to be sitting comfortably, back braced against the cliff face, knees pulled up to his chest inside his sweatshirt, arms loosely wrapped around them, hands inside the sweatshirt’s front pouch. If it weren’t for the head lolling awkwardly to one side, no one would have known that anything was wrong. But Henry knew. He’d been right to be uneasy. Walking up to the boy, he reached down to the exposed neck to check, as required, for a pulse, and found none. Then he reached into the pouch of the sweatshirt and found what he feared: three bottles of pills, empty.
Holding the bottles in his hand, he dropped to sit down next to the boy. Thirteen. All through the search he’d hoped he’d been wrong about the feeling in his stomach. Even if the boy had died from a fall, it would have been better than this. Thirteen. How could life be so bleak as to kill yourself so young? The sun, just starting to touch the ocean horizon, snaked its rays through the crevice to them, lighting the tears on Henry’s face and uselessly warming the boy’s.
Reaching over, Henry righted the boy’s head, brushed the long brown bangs off of his face. So young. No hint of beard, plenty of pimples. The boy had been dead for a day or two. Rigor mortis had passed, but the cold had kept him from starting to decompose. There was no point in trying to move him now, he was high enough up on the beach to stay dry where he sat, and luckily no scavengers had yet found him. Henry would keep any away who came as he sat silent vigil through the cold night.
Henry went back out to the horses, pulled out the radio.
“I’ve located the boy, Kevin. He’s been dead a couple of days. Suicide. I’ll stand watch tonight. I’ll bring him out on Daisy in the morning, no need for the helicopter.”
Henry unpacked and unsaddled the horses, set a picket to keep them close in case of mountain lions. He pulled out a blanket for himself, a bottle of water, but left the body bag behind. He would share the night with the boy uncovered. Let him be seen by the heavens.
Henry wrapped the blanket around himself, settled onto the sand, leaned back against the cliff, and gently placed a hand on the boy’s knee. The sun had set; it was full dark now; there had been only a fleeting, winter twilight. The constellations danced bright in the frigid sky, their light shining opalescent on the white crests of the breaking waves at their feet.