Chapter 24 ~ I’ll Be Strong
Brad and Grace stood in front of the rustic, log building in front of them. a sign post n front said, Ranger Station. An olive colored four wheel drive was parked on the side of the building. A symbol on the side read, “US Forestry Service. Brad assumed the four-wheel drive belonged to the Ranger. He walked up to the door and didn’t bother knocking He twisted the nob and walked in. Grace followed, a half-step behind.
Brad noticed a long counter with a desk behind it. On top of the counter was a map of Big Elk State Park covered with a glass top. A series of photographs of wildlife in the park hung on the station walls. There were photos of mountain lions, coyotes, feral pigs, black bears, eagles, red tale hawks, and a variety of poisonous snakes. Off to their right stood a large rack filled with brochures and maps.
Brad called, “Hello?”
A door behind the desk opened. A thin man, a head shorter than Brad, dressed in khaki colored pants and shirts, wearing a khaki colored ball cap stepped out. On the right front pocket of his shirt was a name plate that read, Todd Stone. On the left side of his shirt in cursive were the words US Forestry Ranger. “Can I help you,” said the Ranger.
Grace spoke up, ” Matt is missing. He’s my son. You’ve got to help. I’m afraid something terrible has happened to him.”
The Ranger looked at both Brad and Grace. He said, “You’re Matt’s parents?”
Grace said, “I’m his mother, Brad’s a friend. We went to town for coffee. We invited Matt. He wanted to stay home. Brad thinks he went hiking.”
“How long has he been gone?” said the Ranger.
“I don’t know. I don’t know when he left. We were gone about two and half hours.”
The Ranger gave half a smile, “Two and a half hours isn’t much time, Ma’am. It’s not unusual for folks to be gone on hikes for six hours or more. I can’t count the number of moms who’ve come in here worrying about their teenagers who went off hiking. We’ve never lost one.”
“He’s not a teenager. He’s eleven years old,” said Grace with an edge to her voice.
Brad eyes could have burned a hole in the ranger’s skull. The ranger averted Brad’s gaze and looked directly at Grace, and said, “Could he have gone swimming? I don’t want to think something happened to him in the lake, but you never know. We have to think of all possibilities.”
“We all swam this morning. Matt is an accomplished swimmer. He would never have a problem in the water. We checked with Jane and Larry in the cabin next to mine. They came with us. They didn’t see Matt either. Can you do something, anything? Can you call a helicopter search, call for a search party, use search dogs. Do something, please,” Grace pleaded.
The ranger shrugged, gestured with his hands and give her his best hangdog expression and said, “Ma’am, I’m sorry. I can’t help you. It’s against regulations to start a search unless someone is missing for at least 12 hours. I’m required to follow policy. I understand your anxiety. I’d feel the same way if it were my son, but I can’t help you until the morning. Do you have any idea which trail he may have taken? We have four trailheads. All of them are closed right now, but it’s really easy to slip under the bar and hike the trail. Lots of folks do it.” The ranger gestures to the four trails on the map that lie on the counter.
Brad knew the ranger’s gestures were as empty as his words. He tugged on Grace’s arm and said, “Grace, let’s go. We’re not going to get anything done here. We’ll be back at dawn if Matt hasn’t returned.” Brad turned away from the ranger and headed for the door. Grace followed Brad out the door.
As soon as the door closed behind them, Grace placed her hand on Brad’s arm, “Brad, what are we going to do? I don’t want to wait until morning.”
Brad turned around. He put both of his hands on Grace’s shoulders and looked into her eyes, “I am not waiting. I’m going after him. I want you to stay here in case Matt shows up. If he doesn’t show up and I haven’t come back, go to the Ranger station at dawn and refuse to leave until they put out a search team. Take a piece of Matt’s clothes for them to give to the search dogs. I also want you to call the Sheriff’s office.”
“Do you think you’ll find him before dark, Brad?” Grace’s eyes were filled with tears.
“The only thing I’ll promise you Grace is that I won’t come back until I find Matt or you call me and tell me Matt returned safely. Please don’t leave the cabin area. I don’t want to worry about two people. I’ll give you cell number to my extension cell phone. If you can’t reach me, I’m out of cell service. I think I’ll be okay. I’ll text you number before I leave.”
Grace put her arms around Bard, and said, “Please, Brad. Please find Matt. I can’t lose him.”
Brad stepped back and placed a hand on each of her upper arms, and looked into her brown eyes, and said, “Grace, it’s time for strength. Together we can deal with whatever we have to face. Don’t allow yourself to think about what ifs, they’ll only take you down a road that is counterproductive to helping Matt. Let’s only think about what we can do right now. What I can do is to use my training to search for Matt. You can check with all the other people who are staying here. Maybe they saw Matt. If you get any information, text it to me. Don’t get into a fight with the ranger or anyone else. We have one concern only, to find Matt.”
Grace looked into Brad’s eyes, “I’ll be strong. Thank you, Brad.”
Brad, nodded, smiled, and said, “I’m making a quick stop in my cabin. I have to change. There are a few things in my truck I’ll want to take along and then I’ll be gone.”
Brad turned and ran toward his cabin. Grace stood there watching him and wondered what she would have done without him helping her. Grace closed her eyes and repeated prayers she learned as a child. Each prayer ended with a petition for Matt’s safe return.