THE SAGA ENDED in the mid-afternoon. I’ll never forget those three days. The strain I saw in the eyes of the entire search party I felt to my core and as time ran out, depression set in.
Three long and wearing days packed with disappointment and danger and heroic effort. It started on Sunday. Sheriff Jeff Golder’s strong voice called to the assembled volunteers.
“Find the child! Find Mirabelle!”
We’d set out. The tough minded sheriff of Boulder County knew the mountains as did most of us. He kept the worry out of his voice, but as a father, we knew he felt the need for the search to succeed as much as anyone in the small community of Pine Brook Hill.
That morning we’d assembled in the rugged foothills above Boulder City at over sixty-five hundred feet.
He’d briefed us. Three year old Mirabelle Daws wandered from her home on the morning of October seventh. Her mom had tripped and fallen in her kitchen. She’d hit her head on a table and knocked herself out. Mirabelle evidently came in from the playroom and saw her mother on the floor bleeding. She didn’t know how to work her parents’ telephone, so she went looking for somebody to tell.
The sheriff said when Martha came to and discovered Mirabelle missing she checked the house and grounds. No Mirabelle. Panicked, she ran down the driveway, calling. No answer. At White Horse Circle she hollered in both directions. She knew her neighbors all worked in Boulder daily.
“She ran back and called me,” the sheriff finished. “Martha, you have something to say.”
“Mirabelle is wearing a yellow sun suit with a short-sleeved white undershirt. She can pull on shoes and her green ones are gone, so she’d have put them on. She knows how I feel about going outside without shoes.” We heard a catch in her voice.
The Sheriff said the weather people predicted a cold front would come through early Tuesday. Sunday’s extraordinary weather, mild beyond the character of the season offered us false hope. We knew in our hearts it couldn’t last. Nonetheless, we felt confident we’d find the child before any bad stuff set in.
Mirabelle’s dad, on a business trip, couldn’t be reached. The sheriff put out a call for volunteers immediately, but it took several hours to get the search team together.
The foothills above the mid-sized home-rule city of Boulder were rocky and desolate with cliffs and pitfalls, and wild animals roamed there.
I’d been on searches before and I knew the quicker we found her the better. The survival window waned toward hopelessness too soon in a child search. We knew that Bobcats and Pumas abounded and Grizzly bears roamed the hills north and southwest of nearby Fourmile Canyon.
Sheriff Golder and two of his deputies along with thirteen volunteers incorporated into posse’s organized as groups of four were each headed by someone with search experience. One in each group carried two hundred feet of good hemp line. The others carried knapsacks with food for several days and medical supplies, along with hopefully unneeded pitons and rock hammers.
The beautiful wilderness that lived so close began at the edge of every property cut from it. We human interlopers, when push came to shove and for all the damage and trouble we’d brought with our species, hadn’t made much of a mark on primitive Earth, not out here in Colorado.
The group I headed had Charlie Straw, a Ute Indian I’d known growing up and glad to have as a friend, Herb Woodhouse, co-owner of Boulder Feed and Grain, Dwayne Shaw, a local handyman and me, Rick Paul. I shouldered my thirty-ought-six. You didn’t go far from civilization without that kind of protection. The others went armed, too.
All of us were fit and anxious to get going. It’s not like we’re betting people, but we hoped to find her first. It would feel good.
My group headed northeast from the bottom of Mirabelle’s driveway, cut through a couple of adjoining properties and headed along the ridge. We had good seeing for the most part, but had to watch our feet for rattlers and other footfall dangers. Short, gnarled trees and shrubs clung to the rocky ground and places where a small child could hide or disappear from view slowed us down, but we had to be thorough.
The girl’s mother had tearfully told us that Mirabelle prided on her independence and that she liked the trait, but had to keep an extra eye on her because of it. Viewing the territory in front of us, I wouldn’t believe a three-year-old would trek here, but you never knew, so we had to do it all.
Cells didn’t work in the area, but we had short range radios to keep in touch with the Sheriff. We kept a measured pace, making sweeps back and forth from a predetermined sight-line, trying to miss nothing, calling out repeatedly…and the hours dragged on.
Dwayne spooked a big Mama cat, but it slunk away, so we guessed it had no babies nearby. Scared Dwayne more than the cat. At four p.m. I called a halt.
“Mark the spot on your maps. We have to head back. Sun’s gonna be down by the time we get back to White Horse Circle; too dangerous at night. We’ll start again in the morning.”
Charlie said nothing; I’d expect that. Dwayne nodded, too tired to speak. Herb mentioned he ought to check on the store before he went home to his wife.
“Your partner can do that, Herb,” I said.
We met the other searchers at the head of Mirabelle’s driveway. The rest were there before us, tired and disappointed. They shared stories and compared search maps.
Sheriff Golder said, “Y’all up for it in the morning?”
We said yes. Now we could hear worry in the sheriff’s voice.
“Okay men; here, 6 a.m.”
Monday arrived, mirrored the first and already hope began to dim. Martha had reached her husband and he’d be flying in from Des Moines in the mid-afternoon. She had developed bags under her eyes. I caught the weatherman on TV before I left my house. He said thirty degree drop overnight with thunderstorms across the front.
My heart sank. With the weather balmy last night, independent-minded Mirabelle could have crawled into a pocket of tufted grass and would likely be okay, but the turn of the weather could be deadly. We had to find her today. She had to be hungry and the picture that crossed my eyes brought water to their edges. I thought about my two boys at home, one only two years older than Mirabelle.
“C’mon men. Let’s get it done,” I said to my crew.
We finished the second day like the first, except as we headed back from our new search area we watched thunderheads begin to pile over the Rocky’s. We huddled together near our cars to hear “No luck; try again tomorrow.”
One of the men in another search group said out of the mother’s hearing, “Sheriff, the girl’s dead. Must be! We’ve combed everything.”
Sheriff Golder flashed back at him. “Jed, no talk like that! There’s a chance. We’ve got to try again tomorrow. I’m not giving up. Think you would if it was your boy?”
“No, ‘course not. Sorry, Sheriff. Just tired.”
“We all are, Jed.”
During the night the front swept over the territory and the temperature plunged. Hard rain on my roof, the wind, lightning and thunder told me Mirabelle’s chances took another dive. How could she live through that?
Dejected volunteers appeared at 6 a.m. The sheriff had to pump us up. Everyone’s unbidden and silent thought mirrored Jed’s from last night, not a good sign.
My group headed into another sector farther down the mountain toward Fourmile Canyon. The mountains shed water in their own time and the lingering rivulets spoke to us as we descended. Rocks were slippery, the slope steeper and the going got tougher. The men were silent. No banter today.
We stopped to eat and recover some energy around noon and then began again, thinking about the sheriff’s answer to Jed’s comment. We wore heavier clothes today. Our packs chafed. Then with the sun in the west, Herb stepped into something and called out, “Need a hand here.”
Charlie responded and helped Herb get his foot out of a crack between the rocks. Then, while Herb sat and rubbed his foot out, Charlie looked around and spied a dark, almost circular cave under a slight overhang.
He investigated and, “Hai! Over here!” he called.
We came a-running. The cave went back a few feet. Inside a little girl in a yellow sun suit lay curled up. He said she appeared lifeless. Charlie reached in and with the gentlest touch, gathered the little bundle in his arms.
“She’s breathing.” He took off his jacket and wrapped her in it.
A whoop went up. I keyed my radio and got the sheriff. I said, “Rick here. We’ve found her. She’s alive. We’re heading back. Get an ambulance up there pronto.”
Congratulations all around. Mama had to wait for the hospital doctor to finish his inspection. Diagnosis? Exposure and dehydration, but fluids, rest and a lot of love fixed her up. And what did Mirabelle have to say?
“I got losted, Mama. A big pussycat showed me a cave and he lay down with me when it got cold. He had nice fur.”