The sun had risen hours ago, and the chill of night had finally given way to a mild winter day here in the northeast where I call home. Gazing out the back window of the cruiser I watch as the tall evergreens, along with a mix of oaks and maples fly past us and disappear into the distance.
The fresh white powder that had fallen overnight gleams in the sunlight, which in turn makes my tired bloodshot eyes water. It had been a long night last night, our shift lasting much longer than normal.
“You still awake back there buddy,” Officer Anderson asked, glancing over his shoulder at me.
“Wide awake,” I barked back.
Officer Anderson is the best human that I know. Then again, I am not the most partial dog either. You see Benjamin Anderson is my partner on the County Search and Rescue Team, but more than that, he is my Dad when we are off duty.
I returned my attention to the scenery outside, but the wide-open spaces were gone. We were back in the village and almost home.
“Home,” I whispered to myself, then settled my head down on the seat, just so. From my new vantage point I could see all the familiar buildings come and go through the window on the side of the cruiser until I saw the patch of wide open sky that was the park.
I quickly sat up so I could get a peek at the large field. I was curious if any of my friends were out playing today, because rain or shine, or even snow, my Dad always plays tug then takes me for a walk to the park after shift, so I can calm down. To be honest it hasn’t been a lot of fun lately. Once Halloween came and went, most of my friends had stopped showing up at the park.
I felt the big vehicle slow down then turn left into our driveway. Officer Anderson eased the cruiser to a stop and shut the engine off, then turned to look at me.
“You wanna go to the park today or are you too tired,” he asked through the cage that separated us.
“Park it is then,” he responded.
I could tell he was pleased with my choice, because he hopped out of the vehicle and bounded to the back door to let me out. Together, we started down the street to the Community Park which was less than a block away.
It was just a hop, skip and jump before we passed a set of shrubs and three large dogs came into view.
A chocolate colored Labrador/Staffordshire mix with floppy ears was sitting in the snow, flanked on one side by a tall muscular golden retriever and on the other side by a slightly older tan dog that had a patch of black on her head that looked like Maleficent’s headpiece.
The brown dog with the floppy ears spotted me. She said something to her friends then lifted her paw and pointed at me. The other two swung their heads in my direction and stared for a moment.
“Dash,” the brown dog called out in a fit of excitement.
“It’s Dash, hey Dash,” the older tan dog stood to her feet and called out.
“Hey, my name is Lucas,” the golden retriever introduced himself as I drew closer.
“Nice to meet you Lucas,” I answered. His eyes went straight to the badge on my collar.
“Hi Cindee, how you been doing,” I asked the brown dog.
“Good and you,” she answered in that odd yet wonderful sing song accent she had picked up from her Mommy.
“Good,” I said with a weary smile.
“How are you Daisy,” I asked the older tan dog.
“Doing alright. You look tired, did you have a busy night,” Daisy asked, a little concerned by my rough appearance.
“It was a crazy night, bad accident up by the State Park,” I gave the abridged version.
“Wow, Oh Lucas, I forgot to tell you, Dash here is a Search and Rescue dog,” Cindee nodded in my direction as she filled the big golden retriever in.
I had never met Lucas before, but I knew that he was Cindee’s boyfriend. Like my Dad, Lucas’s father was a police officer, and Lucas had wanted to be a police dog, but he hadn’t passed the test. I was a little worried about how he would react to me, and I must confess, he seemed very cool.
“That is pawsome,” Lucas leapt to his feet and shook my paw.
“I don’t want to bother you, but it would be nice to hear about what you do,” the big golden retriever rambled on excitedly.
I looked over at Dad and he was busy talking about sports with Cindee’s daddy.
“It looks like I have a few minutes now, do you want to hear about last night,” I asked, nervously. I mean, I didn’t want to come across as pompous or anything.
“Would I,” Lucas hooted and plopped down next to me.
“Most definitely,” Cindee giggled and Daisy, who sat next to her, nodded her head furiously in agreement.
I sat down alongside my friends, took a deep breath, and thought back to last night.
The cruiser had been traveling slowly along the back roads of the State Park, winding its way through the forest, and climbing the mountains. It was the kind of evening that nobody should be out in. I held my breath every time Officer Anderson rounded a bend in the road because the cruiser would slide towards the embankments and he would have to fight to navigate his way back to the center of his lane.
I was missing the comfort of the office. We had been snug inside when nightfall had come, and along with it a stiff northerly breeze that caused the trees to bend and sway. The building would occasionally creak and groan setting my nerves all afire.
I had settled next to the fireplace and stared out the window. I could no longer see the clouds twinkling outside the big glass opening, but I knew they were still dancing behind the large puffy clouds that had gathered to block them out. It began with a few snowflakes flitting down from the sky, before long though, the snow had picked up considerably and visibility had all but vanished. That’s when the call came in that brought me to this moment in time, where I was slip sliding around on pavement in the middle of nowhere praying that I would survive the night.
“Oh my,” Officer Anderson moaned and began the process of slowing the vehicle down.
I sat bolt upright so I could see out the front window and what I saw was not good!
We rolled to a stop and exited the SUV. Lights were flashing everywhere. Red lights, blue lights, yellow lights … it was just a mass of glaring lights reflecting off the icy white landscape. In the middle of it all was a mangled car wrapped around a tree like a shiny blue metallic bow.
On the ground next to the car, lying face up, was an unconscious man, kneeling on the ground next to him was his wife, who sported a gash in her forehead, crying and pointing towards the woods where the faintest of outlines in the snow revealed a set of tiny shoe prints.
I couldn’t look anymore, so instead I shifted my focus to Officer Anderson, and I didn’t like what I saw there either. Even in the darkness with all of the different colors swirling around I could see that his face had turned grey and his eyes were fixed way off in the distance, as if he were looking into a different world.
“Officer Anderson,” I barked to get his attention.
Nothing. He wasn’t responding. I was worried. I had never seen this look on him before and it was filling my insides with huge butterflies.
“Dad,” I barked again.
He blinked and shook his head then knelt in front of me. He stared into my eyes and let his fingers run through my hair for a moment.
“This one is going to be difficult. Are you up for it Dash,” his voice calm and in control again, but his eye’s betrayed him and I knew he was not okay.
“Ready,” I shouted, but admittedly, I am not so sure if I am ready.
Officer Anderson rose to his feet and together we marched to the officer in charge.
Officer Drayden, the officer in charge, was a tall solidly built man. Confidence rolled off him in waves, and there was no hint of hesitation or emotion behind his voice or demeanor. Standing right next to him was Jiffy and his partner Officer Hanrahan, a young muscular woman with curly blonde hair.
Jiffy was an older hound dog, who was on the edge of retirement. We had worked and trained together many times. The older hound was a tracker, which complimented my style of training, which was much broader.
Officer Drayden didn’t really have any fresh clothing from the missing child, a two year old girl we would later find out, for us to sniff, so we made do with her car seat and a stuffed bear that had been left behind.
Both Jiffy and I took a couple of deep wiffs, then looked at each other. The resolve on Jiffy’s face helped to settle me down.
“Find it!” our officers called out.
Jiffy and I turned and headed towards the woods with our handlers trailing behind us. With his nose to the ground Jiffy was guided by, what to me looked like some magical force, but in reality, it was just the lost girls scent.
I followed behind the old hound, imitating his posture. I too could smell it, but I knew his sniffer was much better than mine. Every hundred feet or so, I would stop and raise my head and listen as intently as I could.
The only thing I could detect was the sound of snow crunching underneath feet. Officer Anderson was a little discouraged because we had only been at it for fifteen minutes and the driving snowstorm had covered over the child’s footprints leaving no visible sign behind for us to follow.
Deeper and deeper into the forest we went until we reached a spot where the scent seemed to be pulling Jiffy and I apart.
“The trail goes both ways doesn’t it,” Jiffy asked, sounding a little confused.
“It seems that way. It’s kind of like she split in half and walked two different directions,” I answered the old hound.
“You find something,” Officer Anderson asked kneeling down to look into my eyes.
I shook my head no.
His face had grown more ashen looking by the moment. The fake sense of hope that he had been wearing turned to dread momentarily, but as the situation began to sink in and he realized there was a problem with the scent, he was able to find a solution which helped him to regain his composure.
“We need to split up,” he called over to Officer Hanrahan, who nodded and began to lead Jiffy to the left.
“Good luck Jiffy,” I called out to my teammate as we navigated to the right and away from the hound and his handler.
“Same to you,” he barked back.
I watched as Jiffy disappeared from sight, put my nose to the ground and forged ahead.
“Stop,” Officer Anderson roared, but it was already too late.
The snow gave out from under us and we began to tumble down a steep ravine, slamming into saplings and shrubbery on our way down.
“Help, I can’t stop,” I howled, the bottom of the drop off rushing up to meet me blurred my vision.
I reached the bottom with a thud; Officer Anderson came crashing down behind me stopping suddenly when he smacked into an old hollowed out tree stump.
Officer Anderson rolled over onto his back with a groan. I struggled to my feet and dashed over to him.
“Are you okay Dad,” I asked looking down into his face.
He lay there silent for a minute before his eyes cracked open and he looked into my face.
“We are on duty Dash, it’s Officer Dad,” he said with laugh that quickly turned to a groan.
“I am fine, just need to sit here for a minute. Why don’t you see if you can hear anything,” his words shifting my focus back to the reason we are in the woods.
I took in the landscape around me. It was nothing more than a three hundred sixty-degree panorama of maples and oaks, their naked limbs stretched towards the dark starless sky.
Pristine wafer-thin crystal flakes meandered down from the murky celestial dome that was suspended above us until they softly touched down on the ground to form a frosty white blanket that covered the slumbering earth.
I couldn’t help but think that in another time under different circumstances that this perhaps would be the most beautiful thing I had seen in my life.
Following orders, I closed my eyes and focused on my surroundings. Everything was silent at first, but soon gave way to those sounds that we take for granted, that are happening in the background of our daily routines. We care so little about them that we don’t even take the time to acknowledge them, yet they are there none the less. I could feel the gentle breeze that was driving the snow, it was also causing the tree branches to crackle like the arthritic bones of a thousand ancient limbs. The steady rhythm of Officer Anderson’s breath going in and out, filled the air with the perpetual hum of life. Somewhere, hidden in this tempest came the musical tones of birds, singing a philosophical song about love and being. Most importantly, in some secret hidden place in the far-off distance was the faintest of whispers, so faint that it was almost drown out by the noise of a single snowflake lighting on a winter flower. It was the sound of child crying for her mommy.
I looked over my shoulder at Officer Anderson who was staggering to his feet, sore from the tumble, but driven to continue.
“Over this way,” I gently barked to alert him of my discovery.
“Find it,” he gave the command again.
I let my years of training take over, drowning out all the noise except for that tiny low voice crying out for its parent’s love.
We started off in a slow trudge, heading slightly to the right, picking our way through the tall trees. Our new path was taking us headlong into the wind. With stinging snow pelting us in the face we labored on into the dark of the moonless night. A heaviness weighed down on both Officer Anderson and I that fate was working against us. Yet if Officer Anderson could hear what I was hearing, he would be even more despondent. The crying was growing closer, but it was weakening at the same time. The child was fading away and we were running out of time.
We had been in the woods for three hours now and the radio that Officer Anderson carried with him squawked. We stopped for a minute and I took the opportunity to focus in a little more on the little girls muffled cries while he reported back with our position and an hourly update. The girl was close. So close, but she was no longer making any noise.
“Officer Anderson,” I barked at my handler.
“Just a minute Dash,” he hushed me.
I closed my eyes and tuned in for the little girl again. Still nothing.
“Officer Anderson,” I barked more urgently.
“What is it Dash,” he asked after signing off and putting the handheld away.
“We gotta go,” the urgency in my voice lit a fire inside of him.
I dashed off in the direction of where I thought I had heard the voice coming from before it went silent; Officer Anderson followed suit trying to keep up, but the depth of the snow slowed him down too much.
I stopped and looked over my shoulder at him, my eyes pleading with him to go faster.
“Find it Dash!” his voice urged me on.
“I will,” I promised with a bark, then turned and sprinted off leaving Officer Anderson behind.
I did my best to maintain course as I weaved a path between the large tree trunks that jutted from the earth and stretched owards the heavens. My lungs felt like they were about to burst, my breaths coming in rapid gasps.
Ahead of me a near perfect circular clearing opened, at the far end the wind had felled a tree and curled up in a ball against that fallen maple was a tiny human curled up into a ball.
The space was silent save the crackling of the branches overhead swaying in the breeze.
“I found her,” I howled with every fiber of my being.
The girl wasn’t startled. In fact, she didn’t even move. This scared me. I took a deep breath and bellowed again hoping that Officer Anderson was close by. I listened as my voice echoed and faded into the distance.
The wind had snapped a large branch off a tree. I looked up quickly to see which tree and found out in a hurry it was the one I was standing next to when a large section of timber brushed against my tail as it crashed to the ground.
I leapt to the side, started by the close call. Concerned, I slowly edged towards the girl until I was close enough to see her colorless face. Her eyes were closed, and I could tell she was still alive by the little puffs of mist that rose from her bluish lips.
Not wasting a moment I curled up close to her and together we waited for Officer Anderson, because if I knew anything at all, I knew that he would be running as fast as he could following the trail that I had left in the snow. Just for added measure, I howled at the top of my lungs again to give him some extra help.
Together, the girl and I sat huddled finding what little warmth we could while we waited. Thankfully, the wait for Officer Anderson was a short one, and soon all three of us were together and help was on the way.
“Wowwie,” Cindee barked joyously.
“You are a hero,” Daisy gushed.
“Daisy is right, you are a superhero, Dash,” Lucas added, wearing the biggest of smiles.
I could feel the heat rising to my face at all the accolades. Maybe I was a hero, maybe not. All I know is, I was just doing my job and I love my job.
“What happened to the people, are they okay,” Cindee asked.
“The medics said that they would all be okay, but the father and girl will need to spend a little time in the hospital,” I repeated what Dad had told me on the ride home.
“Thank goodness,” Cindee murmured what everyone else was thinking.
“How did you decide to become a search and rescue dog,” Lucas asked after a few moments of silece.
“That’s easy, I am a third-generation search and rescue dog. In fact, my grandfather was a celebrity because of this one search and rescue he had to do,” I tell the golden retriever, trying not to feel too proud.
“Can we hear your grandfather’s story,” Lucas asked enthusiastically.
“Yeah can we,” Daisy piles on.
“Ready to go Dash,” my Dad asks, patting me on top of my head.
“I guess that will have to be a story for another time,” my voice trails off.
With that we say our goodbyes and I am off to home and bed, but before passing the hedges and moving out of sight I turn to look at my friends and I think about my grandfather and his story.
“What a story it is,” I say to myself with a sly smile.
“What a story it is!”