The grassy ravine was deep and moist and the boy nestled himself against a large, moss-mottled boulder that reminded him of the shape and color of the baby elephant he had seen at the San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park in Escondido two weeks earlier. The sun had gone down an hour ago but there was still enough light to see the trees and the outline of the forest. He could hear the low, thudding ‘thop-thop-thop’ of a helicopter somewhere in the distance. He had seen a lot of helicopters over his neighborhood. They were as interesting as birthday party balloons that floated away and got small in the sky but no more so.
A crescent moon was rising over the edge of the ravine and the boy lifted his hand reaching out to touch it. He felt the cold wind envelope him and thought nothing of it. He was content and he leaned back resting his head on a tuft on grass and let the breeze brush across his sweat-glistened forehead and his mop of blond hair. He had been running for two hours but was not exhausted. Just relaxed now. He stared up at the stars that began to appear in the sky. He stretched his legs and pushed his toes and the scratched up soles of his feet into the wet blades of grass. He was happy. He was very happy.
“What d’ya got, Angelo? Over.” The crackling voice came over Sergeant Angelo Battaglia’s earphones.
“I got nothing, Cap,” Angelo shouted back and then tapped the thermal imaging display in the cockpit of the chopper, “I got a feeling our little buddy has stopped running and is taking a rest somewhere. Doesn’t make my job easy especially if he’s behind a tree or a rock. Have the bloodhounds arrived? Over.”
There was a pause.
“Uh…that’s a negative, “Captain Mueller responded, “They’re stuck in traffic on the 5 Freeway. Could be another couple of hours before they get here. I just told the dad. He’s telling ‘Mom’ now. Not good.” Mueller paused again, “Do what you can. Over.”
“Copy that.” Angelo looked at the chopper pilot and spun his finger in the air to signal another lap around the section of the Cleveland National Forest that they had staked out where they thought the boy might be, based on the last sighting.
As the chopper banked they could see the flashing lights of a dozen or so Orange County sheriff’s cars and police cruisers that had been scrambled from Mission Viejo, San Juan Capistrano, Rancho Santa Margarita, and Lake Elsinor, as well as, ranger’s pickups, and other cars and SUVs from neighbors of the boy who had joined in the search, all parked near an access road off the now barricaded Ortega Highway where a motorist had earlier reported he had seen a boy running through the trees near the highway. When he had pulled his car over, the boy was gone. That was more than an hour ago. Angelo could see the waving flashlights of a search party that had taken instructions from Mueller and were starting to work their way into the darkening forest.
Some of the police and deputies carried rifles on the off-chance that they might encounter a pack of coyotes or a mountain lion and a few shuddered as they moved deeper into the trees when their imaginations painted a grisly picture of what they might find. It had been five hours since Bradley’s mother had reported him missing and the search had been underway for almost four and a half hours and had spread over a twenty-mile radius and it was getting darker by the minute.
When a sheriff’s deputy had first come to their home, she had shown him how her son had popped off the living room window screen that was twisted and bent resting in the planter below. She had been in the laundry room for only three minutes and when she emerged her son had disappeared. She and some of the neighbors had searched through the neighborhood to no avail.
She leaned against the kitchen counter for support and was shaking uncontrollably, trying to answer the deputy’s questions as quickly as he asked them. This was the ninth time Bradley had eloped. He was ten years old. He was severely Autistic and speech challenged meaning that most of the time you could ask him questions until you were blue in the face and get nothing in return, even though everyone suspected he understood most of what you were saying.
The deputy looked at the boy’s mother.
“What was he wearing?”
“Khaki shorts and a dark blue T-shirt.”
The deputy wrote it down in his notepad.
“No. He was barefoot.”
The deputy looked up from his note pad to Bradley’s mother, “Then he couldn’t have gotten far.”
She stopped shaking and looked up at the deputy, her eyes already red from crying and said slowly, firmly and deliberately, “You have no idea.”
Bradley felt drowsy. He was cold and instinctively wrapped his arms around himself and turned on his side in a fetal position. The images of the forest – flashing past low-hanging oak tree branches, jumping over exposed roots, over logs, over rocks, leaping over streams played out in his mind over and over again, just like when he sped through scenes on his Disney DVDs on fast-forward then went back to the beginning and did it all over again; the obsessive behavior referred to as ‘stimming’. Bradley’s body quivered slightly from the cold yet he relaxed more. His breathing calmed. His pulse slowed. His eyes closed.
The large cat had hunched in the space of two boulders and had a bead on a rabbit that was nibbling on some grass about ten yards away when she heard something. Bradley had yawned. The cat sat up and the rabbit raced away into the forest. The cat didn’t care. It wanted to know where that noise had come from. It sounded like an animal of some sort – an animal larger than a rabbit. She was an adult mountain lion, fully-grown and large for her size and she was hunting alone. She worked her way around one of the boulders that had acted as her cover from the rabbit and jumped on top of it. The ravine zigzagged down the hill below her. She grimaced, opening her mouth slightly to see if she could catch the scent of the animal that had made the noise. The faint odor from Bradley’s scent glands was enough to trigger the cat’s powerful vomeronasal organ behind her front teeth. There was something out there all right, but what kind of animal was it? She had never smelled one like this before. And even though it was dark, the cat’s acute vision could make out most of the detail along the slope of the ravine. She thought she heard another sound. A rustling sound. Her ears pricked up and then flattened. She fixed her gaze on another large boulder about seventy yards away and squinted, focusing on it, isolating it, staring at nothing else but the boulder. Whatever the animal was, it was behind that boulder. She slowly and stealthily dropped the weight of her 120 pound body down from her perch landing first on her thick padded front paws then her strong rear legs and cautiously worked her way to the edge of the ravine.
‘Damn!’ the man muttered as he watched the chopper pass overhead under the cover of a large oak. He sat down at the base of the tree pushing his rifle that was strapped over his shoulder to his back as he did so.
He saw some lights in the distance on the hillside above the ravine and raised his binoculars. ‘People with flashlights? What the – -?’
As he lowered the binoculars he thought he had spotted something and raised them once more. By a large boulder, was what looked to be the figure of a young boy curled up on the slope of the ravine. He looked like he was sleeping. Well that explains the flashlights in the distance, he thought. Then he looked up and followed the sheriff’s chopper as it circled around again in his direction, it’s spotlight dancing on the edges of the ravine.
The chopper widened its area of coverage.
“I got something. It’s faint.” Angelo’s voice was being picked by several of the deputies and policeman who had fanned out in amongst the trees.
There was a hiss on the open microphone and then, “Damn. It’s gone. Probably a bobcat or a rabbit or something.” Angelo signaled to the pilot to hover and directed the thermal imaging camera at the dark long, jagged scar that cut through a hillside below. He looked down into the ravine.
The cat moved slowly through the tall grass of the ravine. Its heat signature appeared on the monitor in the chopper. The pilot nudged Angelo who had been looking out of the chopper’s window down into the ravine and then tapped the monitor to get his attention. Angelo winced.
Mueller and the other deputies and police stopped in their tracks, listening to Angelo’s voice over their respective radios.
“It’s not the kid. What is it? It’s moving really slow.” There was a pause. “Holy crap! We’ve got a lion in the ravine about 200 yards due west/southwest from your position and it’s stalking something. We’re going lower to try and spook it,” as Angelo gestured to the pilot to do so.
The cat stopped and squinted up in the glare of the chopper’s spotlight as it descended but she didn’t move. The chopper hovered about 100 feet above the nearest edge of the ravine. There was still another 40 feet to the base of the ravine where the cat was crouching motionless and there wasn’t a flat surface large enough for the chopper to land on and getting closer to the trees at the forest’s edge wasn’t safe either.
“This cat is stubborn or very hungry. C’mon folks let’s get a move on down here! You should be able to see where we’re hovering,” Angelo shouted into his microphone as he glanced to his right and saw the beams of flashlights dancing through the trees in the distance but still a hundred yards away as everyone raced toward the ravine.
Bradley opened his eyes. He had heard the chopper and felt the blast from its blades and saw that everything around him was lit up. He got to his feet and looked over the top edge of the boulder and into the air. He didn’t wave. He simply studied the helicopter almost as though time was standing still.
The lioness turned her attention from the chopper and saw the boy’s head. She hunched down in the grass and shifted her haunches from side to side.
“Shit! Shit!” Angelo shouted into his microphone.
Bradley continued to stare at the chopper and wondered what it was doing. He moved out into the open and in front of the boulder to get a better look at it. The cat raced forward and leapt in the air with its front paws outstretched reaching for the boy. The blast and echo of the rifle was muffled by the sound of the chopper. As the cat fell to the ground, the claws of its left paw had scraped against the boy’s torso and the force of the strike pushed Bradley to the ground. Bradley propped himself on his elbows and stared at the mountain lion next to him then calmly got to his feet. He looked down at the large cat and his eyebrow raised slightly. He leaned forward studying the animal as it lay on the ground and noticed small frothing bubbles of blood and mucus form around its muzzle.
Suddenly a pair of arms wrapped around the boy lifting him off the ground and swinging him away from the cat. The sheriff’s deputy noticed the cat had stopped breathing and he turned to the boy and crouched down. He held the boy’s arms and looked into his eyes.
“You okay, Bradley?”
The boy didn’t respond. He smiled slightly. But said nothing.
“Yeah, you’re okay.” The deputy said as he lifted the dark blue T-shirt and examined the scratches across the boy’s stomach. They weren’t deep and there were just a few small beads of blood but nothing serious. The deputy looked up at the chopper and gave Angelo a thumbs-up. The chopper continued to hover as more deputies and the rest of the search party started to line up along the edge of the ravine.
At the turnout from Ortega Highway, Bradley’s mother raced to him and smothered him with kisses, her tears moistening his cheeks. His father took his turn to do the same. The boy’s minor scratches were cleaned up with anti-septic and Bradley’s parents felt that an awaiting ambulance was unnecessary.
As the deputies began to hike back through the trees and return to their vehicles, Captain Mueller asked each of them who had taken out the mountain lion. One-by-one each deputy shook their heads and then they all stopped and looked at one another perplexed. No one had stepped forward to take the credit for the kill.
The captain pushed in the button on his handheld radio.
“Yes, Cap.” Angelo replied as the chopper continued to hover over the animal’s carcass watching one of the forest rangers put another shot into the big cat’s head to make sure it was dead.
“Who shot the mountain lion?”
“Beats me, Captain. Wasn’t us.”
“Well, nobody’s taking credit for it down here either.”
“Whaddya, thinking, Cap?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m thinkin’. What do you think I’m thinkin’?”
“You think maybe somebody we don’t know shot that cat?”
“Yeah, maybe a poacher who doesn’t want us to know he’s in there. Yeah, dammit that’s what I’m thinkin’,” Mueller replied.
“I guess we’re going to start another search, eh Cap?” There was a long pause. Then Angelo added, “What do you want us to do? Over.” He noticed the pilot point to his fuel gage.
“Well, hell. I’ve got an armed guy out there. Probably with a rifle and who knows what else. It’s dark. I’ve got exhausted deputies and if this guy’s a wacko…a good backwoodsman or both…somebody could get hurt. Over.”
“Cap? What do you want to do? We’re starting to run a little low on fuel up here.” Angelo said.
“You better gas up and get back here. We’ll get the civilians out of here. We’ll give our shooter the idea we’re heading out. Then we’ll head back in. Over.”
“Copy that. Over.”
“And Angelo…Good work finding the boy. Over.”
“Well, the cat helped…but…sure, copy that.” Angelo replied as the helicopter banked and turned northwest toward John Wayne Airport.
From his child’s car seat in the right backseat of his parents’ car, Bradley watched the blinking lights of the chopper get smaller in the night sky and put his small hand on the car’s window to try and touch it.
Author’s note: The preceding story is a work of fiction but inspired by some true incidents. Elopement is the term used to describe when an Autistic child, adult or someone suffering from Alzheimer’s wanders from home or a care facility.
Story previously published on Ricochet.com