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(Previous scene, click here).
Down the hall, the phone was ringing.
Pastor Tom Roland hurried out of the rest room, zipping up his khakis, and headed toward the church office. Never fails. Every time I don’t carry the phone…
From down the hall, he heard the answering machine pick up—his own voice, “Thank you for calling Heritage Church…”
He rounded the corner into the office just in time for the beep.
“Tom? Are you there? Pick up…”
It was Tom’s wife, Ruth, and she sounded stressed. Over their 22-year marriage he had learned to read the sound of his wife’s mood in the way she said his name at the beginning of a phone call. She always started the call the same way: Tom? As though she wasn’t sure it was really him. Her inflection invariably revealed what she was thinking or how she was feeling. Happy, frustrated, mad, sad, each came out in that first syllable. Today it was worry.
He grabbed the phone and turned off the answering machine.
“Hi, honey! What’s up?”
“Jeremy isn’t home yet.”
Pastor Roland glanced at the clock above the door—a little after four. “He didn’t call?”
He knew it was a stupid question. If Jeremy had called, Ruth would have said so. And there was no point in asking if she had tried to call him; he knew that she would have already done that and that he hadn’t answered, which is why she was on the phone at this moment sounding worried.
The fact was, Jeremy nearly always—no, always—called. He was just a good kid that way. He was what many would call a mature 19 year-old. He had always been “old for his age” but after he graduated from high school and started community college he had become positively reliable, so it was strange that he hadn’t called, particularly when they had insisted he take the cell phone so he could call home as soon as he was back in range, and because he knew they would worry about his safety on a two day ride into the back country.
Jeremy was out horse camping with Alex, a childhood friend. Alex was a year younger than Jeremy, but had been out of school for longer. He had dropped out sometime during his sophomore year having spent ninth grade living the part of an “at-risk youth.” All of this was to the distress of his parents who were members of the Roland’s previous church. They had asked if Tom and Ruth would look after Alex while they went on a Caribbean cruise, an award that Alex’ dad had won for being the top salesman in his region. They thought that their prodigal son would be less likely to get into trouble in Dutch Ford. More than that, they hoped that Alex’ friendship with Jeremy—mature and dependable Jeremy—might divert their son from pursuing some relationships that they knew to be “unhealthy.” In their conversation with the Rolands, they said they would enjoy their vacation a lot more knowing Alex was away from the trouble he was all too eager to look for when he was at home in Portland. Alex had not been unwilling. He liked Jeremy Roland in spite of their differences—yet another indication of Jeremy’s winning outlook on life.
The boys hung out for a couple of days, and then arranged to borrow a horse from Hank Landen, the sublimely generous and affable senior elder at Heritage Baptist who had a ranch and kept a few horses, including Jeremy’s horse, Pluto. The boys hitched the double horse trailer (also Hank’s) to Tom Roland’s aged but dependable Blazer, loaded up Pluto and Bonny (the friendliest horse on the planet, according to Hank. The perfect horse for a tenderfoot like Alex.) and headed out for an over-nighter in the national forest. They were to pack in, spend the night and ride back out the following morning, planning to get home around three at the absolute latest.
That was the plan. But it was now 4:22—no boys, no call, and the Rolands were getting worried. It would be dark soon . . .
(To be continued …)