Monday, September 4
Immediately I know from the terror in the child’s scream that it is bad.
The crew and I are sitting in the Perfect Tow Vehicle at our campsite at Palisades Campground a few miles from Red Lodge, Montana.
My laptop is in my lap as I type out a blog post and arrange photos. Reggie lies quietly in his doggie bed next to me and Roger stares out the passenger window, waiting for squirrel activity, I suppose.
A terrible scream pierces my concentration.
I toss everything aside.
That’s a child!
“Oh, dear God, the MOOSE!”
I jump out of the PTV, shutting the door on the alarmed crew. I run up the lane toward the screams that emanate from the main campground.
Moose, bear, what is causing such terror? . . . .
The instant I round the bend in the road, a small boy runs toward me, still screaming in a panic, tears washing his cheeks.
“They le-eft me! They’re GONE!” he wails. “They dro-0ve off without me-e!”
The boy is somewhere between the ages of 5 and 7. He clutches an empty water bottle, the kind hikers take on trails.
I attempt to calm him with a steady, relaxed tone.
“Oh, no wonder you’re scared. Don’t worry, sweetie. We’ll get this figured out. Everything’s gonna’ be fine.”
The boy continues to sob, words breaking out in pieces.
“I was in … in the bathroom … when I came out … they were… they were gone…”
“It’ll be okay. It’ll be okay.”
I open my arms and he rushes into them. After a brief hug, he backs away.
Not yet deciding what to do, I suggest we look again.
Together we walk into the main campground. No one is there. No vehicles. No people. Just emptiness surrounded by woods.
I head toward our campsite and the boy walks with me.
No wonder he’s in a panic. Should we wait for them to come back? We need to do something! Take action. Sitting here waiting will be excruciating for this little guy. . ..
“Okay, here’s what we’re gonna’ do. There’s only one way into this place, right? If we go up that road, we won’t miss them coming back,” I explain. “That way you’ll be with them sooner.”
I need to be careful not to promise something that might not happen . . . .
“C’mon, we’ll get this all figured out. See my van? Inside are my two little dogs, Reggie and Roger. They’re both good dogs, wouldn’t hurt anybody, but they’re going to be excited to see you. Roger especially likes to jump around.”
We arrive at the passenger door.
Reggie and Roger bark and jump at the window.
“I’ll go inside first and hold them back while you climb into the seat, okay?”
Soon we’re rolling out of the campground, across the bridge, up through the woods, and between the open, grassy fields on both sides of Palisades Road.
I expect to see a car racing toward us at any moment, carrying frantic parents inside.
“You see, this is the way you came in, right?”
“Yeah.” He sniffles.
I ask him his name.
He tells me his name is Cade and he lives in Billings. (Billings is about 65 miles from where we are.)
I try to gain information from Cade in an easy, conversational way. I want a clearer picture of the situation. He explains that his mother, father, two brothers, one sister, and himself left Billings today for a ride to Red Lodge and they were going home afterward.
“It’s my mother’s birthday. That’s why we came here. She had her cake on September 3rd but her birthday is today.”
Surely we’ll see their car soon . . .
I glance over at Cade as we talk.
Obviously he’s well cared for. He’s very clean and his brown hair has received a cut recently, probably for school. His clothes are new or nearly new — a sleeveless top and shorts, good shoes.
I ask Cade his age.
Conversation helps him be calm.
“I’m six-going-on seven,” he replies. “I say six-going-on-seven because my birthday is in October.”
“Really?” I turn to him and smile. “My birthday’s in October, too!”
We exchange our dates. Cade points out, with a six-going-on-seven’s understanding of important reference points, that his birthday is closer to Halloween than mine is.
After this interlude of conversation, Cade starts to break down again.
“I told them I was going to the bathroom,” he whimpers.
“Well, people make mistakes. I’m just glad I was there to find you.”
“Yeah, because I’d be DEAD right now!” he blurts out.
Oh, the poor kid. It sucks to be six-going-on-seven and left behind, alone.
“Cade, I need you to do something. I don’t know what your car looks like. I — ”
“It’s red!” he interjects.
“Well, I still wouldn’t recognize it. I need you to watch for every car that comes our way. That way we won’t miss them. Could you do that job for me?”
By now we’ve passed the residential area on Palisades Road and are on West Fork Road.
Still no sign of Cade’s family.
This is strange. We should’ve seen them by now. How do two adults and three children not notice that a child is not with them? Even if the parents are distracted, maybe having an argument or something, it seems like one of the kids would pipe up with “Hey! Where’s Cade?” or “Mom! Dad! Cade’s not with us!!!”
We reach where West Fork Road ends at Route 212.
Now we’re riding the two miles into Red Lodge.
“Cade, do you know your phone number?”
“I don’t know my mother’s phone number but I think I know my dad’s.”
He calls out the numbers.
“Okay, that’s good. Here’s what we’re gonna’ do. My phone doesn’t work, so when we get to town, I’ll stop at the gas station, go inside, and call your dad.”
Cade pipes up cheerfully, “And if you don’t get him, YOU can drive me to my house!” He smiles at his idea. “I can show you how to get there!”
I park the PTV at the Sinclair station.
The nose of the PTV points toward the road. With pen and paper in hand, I ask Cade for his father’s phone number.
“Great. I need you to stay here with Reggie and Roger and I also need you to keep doing your job, okay? Keep an eye on the cars that go by. In the meantime I’ll go inside and call this number.”
Stepping down from the driver’s seat, I turn to Cade.
“What is your last name?”
“Does you father have the same last name?”
Inside the store a young man, looking barely out of his teens, stands behind the counter. He rings up the purchases of the lone customer.
The customer leaves.
“I have a strange situation and I need your help,” I begin. “I’m camping up at Palisades and this little boy — he’s out in my van — was left behind by his parents. If I could borrow a phone, I’ll call them and . . . .”
“Sure.” He grabs his phone and I give him the slip of paper with the number. He punches the numbers and hands me the phone. “It’s ringing.”
It rings several times before a man answers.
“Is this Mr. Lander?”
“Are you missing a child?”
What the heck? Yes? That’s it? No inflection. Not a trace of anguish, relief, the downward spiral from the natural panic of a parent who’s lost a child? No “Where is he?’ No “How is he?” No “Oh thank God!” Oh well, maybe he’s the strong and silent type or he’s in shock.
In the same flat tone he asks, “What’s your name?”
Huh? What? Does he think I’m calling for a ransom?
I give him my name and get down to business.
“We’re at the Sinclair station in Red Lodge. Do you know where that is?”
“How far out of town are you?”
“About ten minutes.”
“Cade and I will wait at the Sinclair station for you. We’re in a white Chevy van.”
I hand the phone to the young man listening from behind the counter.
“That was weird,” I say to myself.
“I don’t know. The guy didn’t sound right. He didn’t seem very . . . interested.”
I hand over the phone with a thank you.
“Do you think he’ll show up?” the young man asks with concern.
“I certainly hope so!” I respond, pushing on the door to return to Cade. “I certainly do hope so.”
To be continued . . .
NOTE: The names of the boy and his father used in this post are not their real names. I apologize for the cliffhanger. The post was becoming too long. — Sue
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