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November 2009

The Lost Boy of the Ozarks

After three decades of silence, a reporter reveals the story he was afraid to write.
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“The exact date that Ukiah walked into the woods is still disputed,” the paper said. “What is beyond doubt–from school records, from tax rolls and from birth and death certificates–is that after his eighth birthday, there was never a documented sighting of him again.”

According to the yellowing paper, some stories said he didn’t even make it to the woods. One account had him dying at home of pneumonia. Another legend had him bleeding to death from wounds suffered at his father’s bullwhip. The most grisly account presented Ukiah, mad from hunger, suffocating and then cutting up and eating his baby sister, then being chased into the woods by his mother, who hung herself from a weeping sumac tree that very night.

I heard a clattering noise from the counter and looked down. My hands were shaking again. I dropped my fork and continued reading.

“Why such a gruesome and apparently pointless narrative has endured for so long,” wrote the nameless author of the paper, “and why it still pops up from time to time, is a mystery greater than the fate of Ukiah himself.”

I stuck the paper back in the book and walked back to the hotel. Had the insane librarian dropped the book off? Was the waitress playing a joke on me? Back at the hotel, BC informed me that a woman named Sissy had called me five times this morning, that it was urgent I call her back.

I walked up the steps to my room and started making notes for my mood piece. Maybe I would use the strange sounds in the woods. “The eerie moans have haunted visitors to this area for decades,” I wrote. That was probably true. I described the flapjacks, “friendly, hearty, reassuring fare that offers stark contrast to the terrible mystery that occurred down by the river and through the woods.” I had a lot, but I needed more. I knew that if I didn’t spend a night in the woods, I’d be back on the animal beat faster than someone could say “Pork chop city for the trick pig.” I didn’t plan to call Sissy back until I’d returned from the wilderness and my piece was ready.

I walked back down to the desk, asked BC where I could hire a guide to take me camping.

“I can do it today,” he told me.

An hour later, a little after noon, we drove toward the librarian’s house. After 20 minutes, just when I wondered with a chill whether he was taking me back to the chattering thing by the ash pit, BC jerked his wheel and we lurched left and into the undergrowth. Dark branches whipped the windshield and I might have squealed, or screamed, because BC said, “Hold on now.” We drove another 30 minutes, though “drove” isn’t the right word, because most of the time we were bumping and lurching. We stopped long after we had left anything that anyone might refer to as a road. The air was thick and sour, and all around was a low insect whine. This was way too much mood.

I got out and sunk to my shins in muck. BC reached into the bed of his pickup and grabbed two backpacks.

“Here,” he said, throwing one at me. “Put this on.”

We walked for at least two hours. We walked up muddy hills and across streams, and we walked through patches of witch hazel and clouds of blackflies. We stopped at a treeless patch of dirt, a rough circle surrounded by closely packed dogwood and maple trees.

“I’ll set up camp here,” BC said. “Why don’t you relax?”

I sat down heavily.

“I’m thirsty,” I said.

“I got something,” BC said. “But first we gotta eat. It’s dangerous to be hungry out here.”

I vaguely remembered reading that people could live a long time without food, that in fact it was riskier to be thirsty. But BC seemed to know what he was doing, so I leaned on my backpack, and the next thing I knew, BC was shaking my shoulder and it was dark. He had a fire going, was stirring two cans with a stick.

“Grub’s ready,” he said.

“What’s that sound?” I asked. The rhythm was a woodpecker’s, but the tone more human. It sounded like the Huh-huh-huh at the librarian’s house, but now it said, “Duh-duh-duh-Doe, duh-duh-duh-Doe.” It came from deep in the woods, from the direction we had hiked in from. Is this what sobriety was like? Was I going to be hearing that damned noise as long as I didn’t drink?

BC looked at me and snickered.

“Lots of sounds in the woods, boy,” he said. “Here, eat up.” He thrust a can of pork and beans at me.

I didn’t like how he had called me “boy,” but I was ravenous. I hadn’t realized how ravenous until I smelled the pork and beans. I ate until my stomach hurt.

“Can we have some water now?” I asked. I couldn’t remember ever being so thirsty.

“Got something better,” BC said, and thrust a plastic bottle filled with yellowish liquid into my hand. “Take a pull on this, you won’t worry about no mountain sounds.”

I took a drink and spat it out.

“I don’t drink alcohol anymore,” I said.

“Better start,” BC said.

I was angry for just a moment. He didn’t know any better. And I was thirsty. And no one ever needed to know about tonight. It was just me and BC and the noise, the Duh-duh-duh-Doe. Maybe a couple of swigs would make it shut up. I took a pull from the bottle and suddenly the woods seemed safer and softer. I took another pull and another, and I decided that life was good, and the Ozarks were a rugged but wonderful place, and that I would definitely ask the blue-eyed waitress out on a date when I had flapjacks tomorrow. I resolved that Beatrice and I might make a life together. I decided that we deserved a life together. I had another pull and the Duh-duh-duh-Doe turned into a scream, a relentless, urgent scream, but I couldn’t be bothered with it. Why had I ever stopped drinking? Every swig made me more relaxed, and happy, and I was definitely a boozer again, and I wondered why I had ever thought I wasn’t a boozer and I took another pull and I was going to clap BC on the back and thank him for being such a good hotel manager, and faithful guide, for being my friend, and then I passed out.

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