"Come on Star. Get into the truck." Most women my age don't own a pickup truck, but with my volunteer work, it's necessary.
I open the door for my dog, and he hops right in. I chuckle. Poor thing. He doesn't know if we're going to the park or the vet, and yet he hops in every time without prompting. Ignorance is bliss, I suppose.
I load our gear into the truck, including a couple of teddy bears. Just in case. As I get into the driver's seat, I try to prepare myself mentally. This is going to be a difficult, long, and tiring day. I just hope we are up to it.
I drive to the assigned location, and put Star's Search and Rescue vest on him. His demeanor instantly changes. He knows what that vest means. He considers it a game, yet he seems to know it is a game with potentially grave consequences.
The leader divides the handlers into groups, and within our smaller groups, we are each given an assigned area. A paper bag with a small shirt inside is passed around, and I let Star sniff.
His demeanor changes once again, an odd combination of seriousness and playfulness that I can't quite describe. He knows we are searching for a child this time.
"Let's go, Star."
He sniffs the air, and starts trotting, tugging on the leash while occasionally looking back to make sure I am following his lead.
Star leads me deeper and deeper into the woods, and my hopes for a successful outcome start to dwindle.
There's no way a child could survive this long in these woods, is there, Lord? As Star continues to lead the way, I poor out my heart to God.
Lord, please let us find this one. We've had too many failures lately. And every time it opens up new wounds. Lord, I never want another family to go through what we did with little Abigail. The anticipation, then the terrible news.... Lord, please spare Noah's family from the same fate.
I had first gotten involved with Search and Rescue as a way to honor Abigail and a way to share my story with others. Whenever we get a call, I wonder about the circumstances behind the lost child. Did he just wander away while no one was watching? Did both parents think the other was watching him? Some people are instantly going to blame the parents. "If they had been watching, this would have never happened," they say. Ha! I wonder how many of them have tried to keep up with an active five year old in the woods.
The leash suddenly goes taut, bringing me out of my musings.
Star pulls on the leash, and looks back at me with a silly grin on his face. "You gonna follow me, or not?" he seems to ask.
My hear rate quickens. He's found the scent. I let go of the leash to give Star more freedom. He knows the routine, and won't let me out of his sight for long.
"Noah?" I cry out. "Noah. Can you hear me?
I hear Star's bark and run to follow. "Noah? Noah!"
Other search groups notice and join us.
I follow Star's leading. And then...
"No, Lord," I cry aloud. "Please let Star be mistaken. Let it be something else..."
But deep in my heart I know. Star has picked up the stench of death. His "death signal" is rarely mistaken, especially with children. Things had started out so promisingly....
I radio in our location, along with the grim news.
The dogs narrow in on one area, and then I see it. A shoe. Star sniffs at it, walks a bit, and lies down. Underneath his paw, I see a small foot.
"He... he's found him." My voice cracks as I make the announcement. The other searches call their dogs back, walk by, and squeeze my shoulder. Star keeps vigil by the child, and I know not to call him back yet. He needs this comfort. Yes, he found Noah, and has won "the game," But I'm sure Star knows more than I give him credit for.
Soon, others take over. Star walks back to me, whimpering. As they take Noah away, I put one of the bears into his limp hands. The other I lay by the tree where we found him.
A memorial to one more child who has left us too soon.
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