The Search Party

by Mary Joyce Capps

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    Eddie’s heart thumped with fear as the small group of Scouts huddled in the cold rain listening to instructions. They were told to fan out and search ravines, thickets, and the narrow creek for an elderly man who had wandered away from a nursing home early the day before.

    Why do they call it a search party, Eddie wondered as he listened. A party is fun, but there’s nothing fun about this!

    “The man is feeble and may have lost his coat and shoes by now,” the leader continued. “He could be lying somewhere too weak to call out for help. We’re working against time in such wet weather. That’s why we asked your troop to help. Let’s get started!”

    The boys quickly fanned out as they had been told to do. At first they were careful to keep each other in sight, but as Eddie moved from side to side searching clumps of shrubs and waist-high weeds, he suddenly found himself alone.

    Hiking a rugged trail with a group is fun, he thought as he struggled along, but this is hard work.

    Sometimes there was a ditch on his right and a thicket on his left, and Eddie had to search both. With all the zigging and zagging, several holes had been snagged in his poncho, and his clothing felt wet and cold as it clung to his body. His pant legs were caked with mud, and each boot seemed to weigh five pounds.

    Finally Eddie sat on a damp log to rest and clean his boots. At first he was just plain tired of the whole thing. Then he began to think about the old man who had been out in the storm for more than twenty-four hours. Suddenly Eddie was ashamed of thinking only about himself and hurrying to get the search over so he could go home where he would be warm and dry.

    “I really didn’t look very carefully along the creek back there because of the thorns and mud,” he admitted to himself. Eddie shuddered at the thought that in his hurry he might not have seen the old man lying out in the storm.

    Eddie shifted his pack, picked up a heavy stick to use as a staff, and started to backtrack along the slippery rocks that lined both sides of the narrow stream. His legs ached with fatigue as stones slipped and rolled under his muddy boots, but he was grateful for the support they gave his ankles. He wondered if the old man had good shoes or had left the home wearing only light slippers.

    Now all the boy could think about was that someone was lost out in the storm. As he rounded a curve, there was a flash of red and his heart began to pound.

    Racing on down the creek, he saw a man huddled under a rock ledge on the other side! Eddie’s first thought was to shout for help. But then he realized that, if startled, the man under the ledge might fall and be hurt or try to run away.

    Suddenly Eddie remembered the owl hoot signals his troop had learned. Three hoots wouldn’t mean anything to the others, but they would bring one of the Scouts.

    Climbing the slippery bank to the trail, Eddie backtracked a few hundred feet and signaled. There was no answer to the first two calls, but when his straining ears caught a faint answering “whoo” after the third call, he walked back to where he could watch the man and give low signals to guide the others to the spot.

    The old man rolled over once. Then he sat up and listened to the owl calls.

    Soon another mud-streaked Scout appeared in the ravine. Signaling him to remain silent, Eddie hurried down the slope as quietly as he could and explained that he had found the lost man.

    “Hurry and bring help,” Eddie said, “but don’t start shouting for help until you’re far enough away so he won’t hear you. We’ll have to be careful not to scare him or he might try to run away.”

    When he was alone again, Eddie crossed the creek and started toward the elderly man. Whistling and splashing along in the shallow water, he pretended to be surprised when he saw someone huddled on the overhanging ledge. “Hi!” he called. “Would you like to share my lunch?”

    When Eddie took sandwiches and a thermos bottle out of his pack, he saw that hunger and eagerness replaced the fright in the faded blue eyes. But the old man remained silent as he reached out a trembling hand to accept the food and milk. Eddie took a blanket from his pack and draped it around the frail figure.

    There was plenty of food, but Eddie had such a lump in his throat that he could hardly choke down even half of a sandwich. All he could think about was how he had almost gone on and left the poor old man.

    “I went for a walk and got lost,” the man explained after he had finished eating. Then he pulled the blanket around himself like a tired child and fell asleep.

    Almost before he knew it, Eddie was surrounded by other searchers who were eager to help. Soon the men in charge carried the old man away on a stretcher, and Eddie breathed a sigh of relief.

    It was still storming and he was wet and cold and tired, but somehow Eddie felt so warm and good that it seemed almost as if the sun were shining!

    Illustrated by Larry Winborg