EARLY in the morning, when the dew was still fresh on the grass and the mist was sweeping through the mountains, a small boy would slowly make his way across the paddock, edging forward on his hands and knees.
Lying down quietly beside the sleeping horse, he would put his arms around him and whisper: "It's all right, mate, everything's all right, it's only me".
The miniature horse scared easily, so the boy woke him the same way every morning, crawling across the paddock to soothe him with gentle words of comfort.
That boy was Daniel Morcombe.
There are many things about Daniel – like his deep love of animals – that the public doesn't know.
How he had a great, big belly laugh that started deep down in his tummy before exploding in bubbles of pure joy; how he loved playing tricks on his dad; and how nothing, absolutely nothing, could make his eyes light up like a big plate of his mum's home-made lasagne.
But there is a photo of Daniel that the public has come to know all too well.
It's the one that appears in newspapers, on pizza boxes, on posters and milk cartons – the one that tells us that Daniel, with his mop of black hair, enormous grin and blue-green eyes, got up one morning, set off for the shops, and vanished into thin air.
Daniel disappeared on the afternoon of December 7 last year, just before his 14th birthday, abducted from a bus stop near his Palmwoods home by one or two men thought to be driving a blue sedan.
Next month it will be a year since Daniel was taken, a year that is etched in the sorrow on the faces of his parents Denise and Bruce, who have come to believe that their boy is gone for ever.
But the Daniel they know is not the boy in the posters, the kid who people shake their heads about, but the boy behind that photo, the one who loved a joke, who loved to make things and loved spending time with his brothers – scheming, dreaming, laughing, fighting and shouting, as brothers everywhere do.
Every Wednesday night without fail Daniel could be found in the kitchen with his twin brother Bradley cooking their specialty for the family – spaghetti bolognaise.
"They were," Denise recalls, "like two old men in the kitchen every Wednesday, standing over the stove, arguing over who was putting too much garlic in or who was cooking the onions."
Dan and Brad, Brad and Dan, born minutes apart, friends for ever, so often together that one of their younger cousins called them "DanielBradley" because she thought they were the same person.
The twins came into the world on December 19, 1989, born eight weeks early and whisked straight into intensive care – two very yellow, jaundiced boys who were determined, as Bruce says, to make it.
"We never had any doubt that they'd pull through, that we'd get them safely home," he says softly.
With older brother Dean, now 17, the family was complete and Daniel grew up on the rural property on the Sunshine Coast, attending Mountain Creek State School, taking in the fresh country air, taking care of his animals, and letting his family know how much he loved them.
Never a kid to express himself verbally, not always good with words, instead Dan, as his family call him, chose to show them the way he felt.
In a small laneway on the way home from school each day, he'd pick fresh flowers for his mum, leaving perfect white camellias on the kitchen bench, where he knew she would be sure to see them.
"He loved to give us little presents," Denise smiles. "The week before he disappeared he bought two of those novelty pens filled with lollies, he kept one for himself and gave me the other.
"Not too long after he gave it to me, he came up to me and said, 'Mum, are you going to eat those lollies?' "
Sometimes, Daniel's good intentions got him into strife, like the time he and Bradley made a swimming pool for their baby ducks, digging a deep hole in the ground, putting in a huge plastic container of water – and cutting the main irrigation pipe to the pump house in the process.
"I told them to wait for me before they did it," Bruce says, shaking his head, "but they just went ahead and did it, the little buggers.
"They got in a bit of strife that day, I can tell you."
But for the most part, Daniel was a kid who didn't get into too much trouble, quiet around people he didn't know – Denise says he used to stay in his room when there were visitors "until the food came out" – secure within the family he loved to horse around with and playing tricks on his ever-patient dad.
"World championship wrestling – the three boys on the floor and Dan, strong as an ox, pinning his brothers down, that was always a lot of fun," Bruce says. "Dan wasn't tall but he was strong – and bloody determined.
"He loved a joke too. You know the old shaving cream pie trick?
| YOU CAN SHINE A LIGHT ON MYSTERY
NEXT Sunday The Sunday Mail and Channel 7 will give you a chance to help solve the Daniel Morcombe mystery.
As the one-year anniversary of Daniel's disappearance approaches, Seven News will present a one-hour special – Finding Daniel – to "shine some light" on the case.
The program will allow Queenslanders to show their support for the Morcombe family – and express their outrage about crimes against children – by simply switching on a porch or torch light.
Seven's cameras will direct-broadcast this community event as the Morcombes see lights across the southeast being illuminated for Daniel.
The Sunday Mail is calling on its readers to back the move and there will be more details in next week's paper.
Seven News presenter Rod Young will host the prime-time broadcast from Queensland police headquarters in Brisbane.
Fellow newsreader Kay McGrath will also present an exclusive report after spending days with the Morcombe family.
His parents, Denise and Bruce, as well as twin brother Bradley and older brother Dean, have allowed Seven News into their lives and their home as they prepare for a public "goodbye" to Daniel on the Sunshine Coast on December 7.
The Morcombes not only want to find Daniel, but prevent other Queensland families from suffering the same tragedy at the hands of abductors. "They're not sick, they're evil," Mrs Morcombe said. "And they've got to be found so they don't do this to someone else."
Three months in the making, Finding Daniel will take viewers inside the Queensland Forensic Biology Laboratory to review scientific evidence central to the case and inside the investigation's crime centre to meet the detectives striving for a breakthrough.
• Finding Daniel, 6.30pm next Sunday on Channel 7
"Well, Dan loved that one – I mean you knew what it was, but you had to eat it, you know, play along."
Then there was the time Daniel and Bradley met their mum after work to get a ride home, having earlier caught the bus to the local shopping centre.
Hopping up and down on their feet, urging their mum to "hurry up, hurry up", and acting, Denise says, highly suspiciously. When she got home she found the reason – a big fish tank smuggled into the boot of the car, complete with goldfish.
But behind the childhood mischief there was a softness about Daniel. It was the same softness Denise felt the first time she cradled him in her arms, and felt his perfect, baby breath against her skin.
It was the same softness that saw him quietly creep into her room when the house was dark and a little boy needed comfort.
"Until he was about 11 years old, Dan used to come into our room late at night," Bruce said.
"He wouldn't get into the bed with us, wouldn't wake us, but he would wrap himself up in an old bedspread and there he'd be in the morning.
"He always lay down on Denise's side, I guess he just wanted to be close to his mother."
When he was smaller still, Daniel's best friend was "Old Bear", a teddy bear he would never go anywhere without, and a bear Denise says was washed, sewed and stitched up so many times, he looked like he'd been in a war zone.
Denise found Old Bear not so long ago, hidden in a tin in Daniel's room by a kid who knew that adulthood was beckoning, but was not quite ready to let childhood slip away.
At the time of his disappearance Daniel was growing up, enjoying high school, growing closer to his elder brother Dean, and thinking about becoming a vet.
But all that seemed a long way away – mostly he just wanted to be with his family and his animals, feeding his miniature horse, Bullet, his favourite peanut butter and carrot sandwiches each morning and talking to his Nanna in Melbourne every Sunday night.
"The boys love their Nanna and every Sunday at 7 o'clock they'd ring her and fight over who got to talk to her first," Denise said.
For some reason their Nanna rang on the Sunday morning Dan disappeared, so she was the last one to hear his laugh.
"He had a great laugh, it started in his belly and sort of shook all the way up," says Denise. These days, their Palmwoods home is strangely quiet, and Daniel's deep belly laugh no longer signals his arrival home.
There are no white camellias left for Denise on the bench, no little gifts left under her pillow, but everywhere they look, breathe and touch is Daniel.
"Dan had already made me my Christmas card for last year, before he was taken," Denise says.
"He loved Christmas, loved giving presents even more than getting them, and I found his card for me with a hand-drawn Christmas tree on it.
"I also found a note in his drawer of what he wanted to buy me for my birthday."
It says "Large tub of Nivea Creme".
Daniel's own birthday is next month, a day that will be for his family – as all their days are now – filled with a hollow, desperate aching for their boy.
The Morcombes know that someone, somewhere knows what happened to Daniel. And they also know that person might be too scared, too confused or too ashamed to tell what they know. But they believe that it is time for that person to find the last bit of courage they have, the last shred of decency, and come forward.
It is time, the Morcombes believe, to help a family torn apart – time to let two brothers honour their best mate, and time for a mother to provide a safe resting place for her son, if not beside her bed, then deep inside her heart.
It is time to bring a little boy home.
• If you know anything about Daniel's disappearance, please telephone or send an e-mail: Crime Stoppers: 1800 333 000; email@example.com
• Website for Daniel: www.danielmorcombe.com.au
• Reward: A $250,000 reward – the highest ever in Queensland – for information which leads to the apprehension and conviction of the person or persons responsible for the suspected abduction and murder of Daniel James Morcombe was posted in October.
• Indemnity from prosecution: An appropriate indemnity from prosecution will be recommended for any accomplice, not being the person who committed the crime, who first gives such information.