'The paths of destiny are not always straight. We go down the wrong path, we get lost, we turn back. It doesn't matter which path you start on, all that matters is that you have made a start.'
- Unknown -
Extract from Chapter 3: Torches in the valley
Returning home Habby finds that Manana is still missing. Troubled by the day’s events, he wastes no time in deciding to start a search. Habby asks his fellow Gypsies for help to find his daughter. Tired and wary as they are, everyone is eager to assist.
Loretta, who had listened to the exchange from the back of the wagon, walked up and gently took Anito’s hand. She gently led her over to the bed in the corner, sat her down and placed a hot cup of mint tea in her hand. She would comfort her friend, but there was not a lot that the woman could really do; it was up to the men now.
Outside the caravan, the noise level indicated that some of the search parties were beginning to arrive and assemble at the centre. Habby nodded to his wife and Loretta, his eyes conveying his message of determination, picking up both the flask of tea and Mañana's shawl, both he and Paco exited through the door.
Once outside, Habby looked towards the assembling volunteers who had once more started to gather around the fire. As had been previously arranged, the volunteers had already divided into five separate groups of ten men each.
Accompanying each group, and straining on their short leashes, were dogs, picked specifically for their hunting and tracking abilities. In addition to the dogs, two pack mules loaded with supplies of food, drink, blankets, and spare firebrands were needed, along with a fast horse, in case messages were to be sent. Nobody knew how long the search was going to take, but thinking it best to prepare for any eventuality, they thought it best to err on the side of caution. It was also for this reason that the majority of volunteers had come well armed, each carrying their own preferred weapons.
Habby’s turned his attention to the dogs and, as if sensing the sombre mood of the occasion, the canines had grown unusually quiet and subdued. Approaching the handlers, who held the dogs securely in check with a short length of braided hemp rope, he offered the shawl given by Anito, to him. This was an item of clothing worn no more than 6 hours ago by his daughter, the scent would be fresh and virtually uncontaminated. Taking it reverently, the first handler held it to the nose of his dog who eagerly sniffed it. When he was satisfied that his hound had familiarised itself with the scent, he passed it back to Habby. So the procedure continued until all ten animals had familiarised itself with the scent.
Taking the shawl back from the last handler, Habby packed it in the satchel that also contained the hot jug of tea from Loretta. Tying closed the bag, he slung it across his shoulders and moved away from the fire. Near the exit of the inner ring, a small barrel containing olive oil had been placed next to the corridor.
Alongside the barrel, a stack of makeshift torches rested on an improvised table. Made from metre lengths of olive tree branches, the tops had strips of flax and hemp wrapped around them, bound tightly together with copper wire. Habby removed one of the firebrands from the table and dipped the end with the bound strips of materials into the barrel of olive oil. He left it for a few minutes then slowly rotated the torch in the oil to ensure the oil penetrated the bound material. At the edge of the same table, furthest away from the barrel, a small clay bowl containing already ignited oil was burning. Removing his torch from the oil, he placed the impregnated end into the bowl where it caught light immediately.
Carrying his flaming brand, Habby took one more look at his fellow searchers. 'Let’s go,' he said.
One by one, each member of the party took a torch, following the same procedure as Habby. Waiting till all members of the search party held aloft their flaming brands, Habby started walking ahead, out of the inner circle and through the corridor, stopping only when he reached the outer ring. Waiting for his fellow searches to join him, he once more removed the shawl, and for the second time offered it to the dog handlers. Knowing what was expected from them, the dogs once again eagerly sniffed the shawl, now straining at their leases to be gone.
The handlers gave the command and let the dogs off their leashes. Mañana’s trail was not difficult for the dogs to find and almost immediately, the dogs picked up her scent. With excited yapping and barking, they set off and followed the now familiar odour.
It didn't take long for the searchers to become as excited as the dogs and, what was supposed to be five orderly parties, soon became one big mass, as the groups intermingled in pursuit of the dogs. Torches held high, fifty men with grim and determined faces left the camp and followed the dogs towards the Silbido pass. Dogs barking and yelping, mules braying and the searchers themselves already shouting out the name of the missing child repeatedly, the search party moved further away from the camp.
In the villages closest to the camp, people stirred as the din of the Gypsies broke the stillness of the late evening. Some inhabitants, especially those closest to the encampment, left the warmth of their hearths to see what the commotion could be about. All they could see from afar was a noisy torch lit procession winding its way along the valley floor. They wandered at what this activity at the Gitano camp could be about, but seeing the direction the torches were moving, they realised that it was not likely to involve them. There would be time enough tomorrow to find out what the cause was they thought and returned either to their warm fires or beds.
Anito, who had left the comfort of her friend’s house, stood outside with the remaining Gypsies, watching the searchers leave the camp and head further into the valley. She was in no doubt that they would find her child. What worried her, was why she was missing. She prayed the answer would be a simple one.