The small farmhouse appeared dreamlike in the predawn Florida mist that enveloped it and the surrounding swamplands. A large white ibis resting atop a darkened tree shape started at the sound of a screen door banging closed. A young girl ran from the farmhouse toward an as yet invisible landing on the edge of the swamp. She was crying and carrying a large doll with a broken right leg.
Cassie Gunnerson climbed into one of three wooden boats, untethered the rope that secured it to the pier, and shoved off into the gray silence. Using a long pole, she pushed with angry, tearful grunts against the soggy bottom of the shallow water.
The ibis blinked its eye, and the eleven-year-old girl was gone, swallowed up by the mist.
It wasn’t long before Cassie’s twelve-year-old brother, Nathan, and their parents, were up and searching for her. “We got in a fight, Pa,” Nathan sheepishly admitted as he and his parents scoured the mangrove thickets on the outer edge of the field. No one bothered to call to Cassie because she had been born deaf. “Cassie dropped the spyglass you gave me into the water yesterday while we were fishing, because …” Nathan’s voice trailed.
“Because why?” his father gently but firmly probed.
“Well,” Nathan continued somewhat hesitantly, “I guess because I cut her line. And that’s because,” he added defensively, “she kept splashing her feet in the water and scaring away the fish!”
“You haven’t told us why she ran off,” Nathan’s mother prompted him.
Nathan’s eyes fell, then lifted slowly. “I really liked that spyglass.” His look shifted to his father’s, hoping to find some kind of sympathy. But what he saw was deepening concern. “With it I could see things in the marsh nobody knew were there,” Nathan continued. “Little things like cooties and skater bugs and cucumber beetles and potter wasps and …” Anger festered inside Nathan as he tried to justify what he was about to say. “I broke Cassie’s doll,” he declared, “because of what she did to my spyglass!”
“Do you realize how long your sister saved for that doll?” Nathan’s mother questioned sternly. “How much it meant to her?”
“I guess about as much as my spyglass,” Nathan retorted.
Father rested his hands on the boy’s shoulders. “Do two wrongs make a right?”
Nathan’s mother stared toward the swamp. “Cassie’s boat is gone!”
The swamp was deep, a maze of twisting waterways in a jungle of trees and vines. What made matters worse was Cassie’s being deaf. She couldn’t hear them call for her.
Father rested a calming hand on his wife’s arm. He turned to Nathan. “Son, I’ll take my boat; you take yours. I’ll carry my rifle; you take my Colt Dragoon. Whichever one of us finds Cassie first will fire three shots, is that understood?”
Father’s eyes focused on Mother. “You stay near the house, in case Cassie shows up here first. Grandpa Sawyer’s pepperbox pistol is in the root cellar. If she does come here, fire three rounds to let us know.”
Nathan navigated his small boat through the lily-pad-laden backwater with his long pole. His eyes scanned the densely brushed islands and the countless waterways between the huge cypress trees for any sign of his sister’s boat. To his right, on some goldenrod that protruded above a log wrapped with Spanish moss, he observed a tiger swallowtail butterfly. To his left, a harmless rat snake rested in the fold of a dead tree. Directly above him on an old, dilapidated walkway that spanned two small islands, a gray squirrel chattered loudly and shook its bushy tail at him. And less than fifty yards in front of Nathan a sandhill crane waded looking for food. The young boy found himself thinking that he would gladly trade all these wondrous sights for a glimpse of his younger sister.
The boat scraped against hidden roots of cypress trees and groaned like Nathan’s conscience. He gazed into the smooth, glassy water and stared at his reflection. Then he disrupted his image with a swish of the pole—he didn’t like what he saw.
The thrashing of brushwood on one of the nearby small islands caused him to lift his eyes with a start. There, in a little clearing high atop dry ground, Nathan witnessed two male white-tailed deer contending with each other. They pushed against each other with their heads and curved antlers. Finally the fight ended when one of them tired and ran away. “I guess Cassie got tired of fighting and ran away, too,” Nathan muttered. “It was a stupid argument,” he added as he continued on down the winding, watery corridor. “Why do people who love each other fight so much? And what if something’s happened to Cassie and I didn’t tell her I was sorry!” Nathan’s pace quickened, scanning the shadows with unblinking scrutiny.
Nathan searched all day, meandering in and out of a maze of waterways. He was a few miles from home when it started to rain. He steered his little boat under the protection of an overhanging tree limb. His eyes welled up. He hadn’t heard any gunshots. Cassie hadn’t been found, nor had she returned home. He gazed through the gray curtain of falling rain. “Cassie!” he screamed, knowing full well that she couldn’t have heard him even if she was sitting right beside him. He bowed his head and beseeched his Heavenly Father to help him find his sister. He knew that Heavenly Father could hear him even through the pounding rain.
A few moments later the rain stopped as quickly as it had started, and Nathan continued his search. A great horned owl stared out of the mossy shadows with its bright yellow eyes and hooted as the little boat moved quietly by.
A short time later Nathan’s dugout floated into a clearing. He felt prompted to stop and listen. He heard someone whimpering! Rapidly poling toward the sound, he saw a small boat harbored along the shore of an island. Then he saw Cassie. She was sitting in a patch of goldenrod, her face soiled and drawn, her hair tangled. She looked very lost and very frightened. Relief washed over Nathan.
A moment later Nathan was standing before his sister. She was relieved to see him, but her reaction was dulled by leftover hurt. He glanced at the broken doll in Cassie’s boat, then at a paint-root plant in a tuft of grass. He picked some seeds from it and crushed them on a smooth rock. He dabbed his index finger in orange dye from the seeds and wrote “I love you” on Cassie’s arm. After a long look at her arm, then at Nathan, Cassie leaned forward and hugged her brother.
Smiling through his tears, he took his father’s Colt Dragoon from his boat and fired three rounds skyward.