MACKVILLE — Randall Chesser, a 7-year-old autistic boy who was found this week after being missing for 45 hours, now refers to the episode as the time he "went hunting."
For the 500 or more volunteers and emergency workers who scoured hills, creeks and fields, it was a hunting trip they won't soon forget. Fortunately, the story had a happy ending.
After spending a couple days at Kosair Children's Hospital in Louisville to be treated for dehydration, Randall returned home Thursday.
On Friday, his first full day back in Washington County, he went shopping in Springfield with his aunt Lewellyn Chesser. Upon returning to her home in Mackville, Randall wrapped himself in a faded quilt and snuggled in her lap on the front porch.
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"Cold," he said.
"I don't know if it was a hunting trip, but I know he won't do it by himself any time soon," Lewellyn Chesser said. "Somebody is going to hold his hand."
Randall is not a particularly talkative child — he will repeat a word that someone else says, such as "home" or "momma" — so details about what he went through before two Mercer County firefighters found him aren't known. It is known that he experienced a rainstorm Sunday night into Monday morning, and that he was found near a creek about 3 miles from the home of his parents, Darren and Beverly Chesser.
But Beverly Chesser said they have not been able to glean much more about Randall's "hunting trip."
"Darren has asked him, 'What all did you see?' And he'd say 'Rabbits.' But as far as going into details, he's not ready for that," Beverly Chesser said.
How he disappeared so quickly on Sept. 24 also is a mystery, but Beverly Chesser said she now thinks that Randall followed the family cat, Tiger, into the woods and then got lost.
"I certainly believe he followed the cat because he's been trying to get his hands on him for a while," Beverly Chesser said. "He wanted Tiger, but Tiger didn't want him."
Beverly, Darren and Randall's 14-year-old brother, Ezra; 12-year-old sister, Tracy; and 14-year-old cousin, Chanse, called into the woods for Randall.
After several hours of fruitless searching, they called the Washington County sheriff's office, which notified state police.
From there, Willisburg residents launched an extensive search on foot, on horseback and by all-terrain vehicles, helicopters and airplanes. School bus loads of volunteers went to sites within a 3-mile radius of the boy's home. Hundreds of volunteers looked for him in thickets and fields for two days.
Finally, on Monday afternoon, Mercer County firefighters Chris Goodlett and Monte Kelly found Randall lying near a creek.
Beverly Chesser said she learned the news when someone shouted "They found him!" from the road that passes her home outside Willisburg.
"And when I heard that — there were people here on the porch — I didn't care who it was, I didn't care if I knocked them down — I parted them," she said.
Soon a state trooper whisked her and Darren in a cruiser to the Lebanon-Springfield Airport, where a helicopter landed to fly Randall to the Louisville hospital.
Before Randall was taken from an ambulance to the chopper, he told his mother, "Momma, I wanna go home!" She explained to him that he had to be checked out first.
In Louisville, the boy was found to be relatively unscathed. A blister inside his lip, a scraped knee and a scratch on his forehead near the hairline all indicated that he might have fallen. He also was weak and dehydrated.
"Other than that, he was fine," Beverly Chesser said.
Randall soon feasted on chicken nuggets, pork chops, mashed potatoes, corn, rolls and pizza during his hospital stay. "Anything he wanted, he pretty much got," Beverly Chesser said.
When firefighter Chris Goodlett called the hospital room, she said she "told him how much I appreciated him."
And when Randall took the phone, he told Goodlett, "Thank you for finding me."
By Wednesday, color returned to Randall's complexion, and he and his dad were pillow-fighting and rough-housing.
Since returning home, Randall has not been out of anyone's sight. And he has been on the minds of people outside his family. A Nelson County retailer sent a certificate to the Chessers entitling Randall to a new pair of boots with spurs — a tribute to the footwear Randall wore when he was found. Others have offered to buy him cowboy outfits.
Next week, Randall will receive a tracking bracelet that will monitor his whereabouts with global positioning system technology, said his aunt Lewellyn Chesser.
In the meantime, the family hopes to return to a regular routine. Randall will probably return to class at North Washington Elementary School on Monday.
Beverly Chesser said she wants to thank all those who took the time and effort to look for her son. She indicated that she was overwhelmed by the community's concern.
"When you look out your front door and you see a school bus loaded with adults and children, too, ..." she said, trailing off with emotion.
All in all, Randall has been unfazed by the attention. Beverly Chesser can't say the same.
"It's put more gray hairs on my head," she said. "I tell you what, I'm going to have to have two dyes to dye my hair."