James was depressed, sick in bed with a bad cold. Shuddering with chills, he drew the blanket around him, and flipped a switch. The police scanner crackled, punctuating the air with bursts of codes and terse, rapid-fire broadcasts. Heavy rains brought a flurry of calls to the dispatch center, and his brain automatically translated the codes used by the local police force, where he volunteered his time and assistance.
Suddenly, the scanner crackled with a broadcast urgent enough to spring James from his sickbed. He dressed swiftly.
His wife, Christine appeared in the doorway. “What are you doing? You have a terrible cold . . . get back in bed!”
“I’ve got to go . . . there’s a child missing . . . lost in Green Swamp.”
Horror registered on her face. She ran to the kitchen and began filling his knapsack with snacks and a thermos of coffee, as James loaded his horse, Leo, into the trailer. His German Shepherd, King, leaped into the truck. Even with a heavy rainfall, a dog will pick up a clue that a human might miss.
Green Swamp, the name given to 560,000 acres of Florida backcountry, spans several counties. A favorite destination for wildlife enthusiasts, the hunting preserve is still a dangerous, treacherous place, with hidden thickets, hammocks, scrub, pockets of dark water and other desolate, forbidding areas that are inaccessible except by foot or horseback. Deadly animals are ever-present. The advantage is theirs . . . this is their natural habitat.
Lost people, bewildered and afraid, wander the wilderness, desperately seeking help. A tree or rock may look familiar, but changing light patterns play vicious tricks on the eyes. Shadows lengthen, and the sun is often obscured by foliage or weather.
Search parties are launched with urgency. Commanders divide the swamp into grids for searchers to comb. James checked in and grabbed a walkie-talkie. King sniffed the little girl’s sweater. “Her name is Gina,” said the tearful mother. “She’s only six.”
James guided Leo through their assigned section. King followed a short clip behind, as they skirted fallen trees and stepped through cypress ponds and muck. Raindrop jewels dangled from the sticky strands of a massive spider web, spanning a four foot distance between two pines. James shuddered. The spider was the size of a man’s fist.
The first rule of the swamp is, “pay attention or pay the price.” It’s a deceptively beautiful place of awe-inspiring sights and sounds. Deer tiptoe through thickets. Raccoon families play under trees. The air is filled with bird calls. The wind sighs through the pines. Even a seasoned woodsman can become distracted, and fail to see the warning signs.
With each passing hour, the threat of dehydration, exposure and injury increases for victims and searchers. Gina had been missing for two hours.
James surveyed anything that could possibly hide a small child, seeking shelter from the rain. He called her name until he was hoarse. Sometimes, he heard other searchers calling as their sections intersected with his.
His head cold worsened and a thick coating of mucus descended upon his lungs. Spasms of hacking coughs threatened to tear his chest apart. Sipping coffee, he pressed on. Filled with urgency and fear, he ignored his own discomfort. It would soon be nightfall.
Seized with a severe coughing spasm, he painfully dismounted and doubled-up until the hacking waves passed. It was then that he realized King was gazing upward into a line of trees.
“What is it, boy?”
King trotted to a cypress tree and began barking.
Attached to the tree, was a hunter’s tree stand, a small ladder leading to a platform several feet above the ground. Gasping for breath, James began climbing, praying with every step, ignoring the pain in his chest, spurned on by hope.
Gasping, he finally reached the top of the rungs, and peered over the rim of the platform. The sight before him almost caused him to drop the walkie-talkie to the ground below.
Lying there, nestled upon the platform, was a little angel, her tiny body curled around a teddy bear.
Choking with emotion, James gripped the radio. “I found her! She’s alive!” Tears streamed down his face as joyful responses from all over the swamp were broadcasted in return.
Somewhere, deep in the swamp, a songbird raised its voice heavenward . . .
(This piece is dedicated to my father and grandfather, who bravely searched the wilderness for lost children, and rescued three).
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