Darla M. Poulos
"We’re not lost," testily replied Lee Crane, pushing down on the accelerator for emphasis. The four-wheel drive pickup sped up, spewing gravel over the narrow road. Trees sped by in a blur of yellow, red and orange colors.
Chip Morton heavily sighed while consulting the worn, hand-written map for the sixth time. Bringing his bright blue eyes up from the paper, he seriously said, "You know it wouldn’t have hurt us to have stopped at that Mom and Pop’s station ten miles back." He looked back down at the dog-eared map, reading the directions again. "It’s possible, after all this time, the landmarks could have changed."
Lee slammed on the brakes, making the truck fishtail on the loose gravel. Puffs of dirt rolled in front of the stopped pick-up. A deer, standing by a thicket, darted back into the forest. "Let me see that map," he griped, practically snatching it out of Morton’s hand.
Chip hid a smile, turning his head to look out the window. Trees as far as I can see. Sparse foliage covered both sides of the hilly road. Autumn is definitely at her peak. Black squirrels climbed the trees, flying from branch to branch. They were in a race to gather food for the long winter ahead of them. "Hmm," mused Chip out loud. In the end, they’ll forget where they put it all. A small herd of deer, consisting of a male and two females, tentatively strode out of the woods a half mile up the road. Their noses sniffed the air as they peered in the direction of the truck. The headlights of the pickup made their eyes glimmer in the dawn. They were hesitant to cross the road. Deer always move at dawn and dusk recalled Chip, from his boyhood days of camping trips with his father.
"Lee, look up," whispered Chip in awe, unmoving, for fear of scaring them away.
Studying the map, the captain brought his dark head up in time to see the deer leap across the roadway with the male in the lead. "Wow, look at the rack on that buck, it must be at least an eight-pointer."
"Is that all you can see, Lee?" asked Chip, disgusted. "I mean, what about the beauty of the animal?"
Lee shrugged his shoulders, flatly stating, "It’s a beauty all right. It’d look real nice mounted over my fireplace mantle. Too bad we don’t have a rifle."
"You couldn’t use it anyways, deer season doesn’t start for another two weeks. Blast it Lee, didn’t you notice how magnificent that deer really was? How strong and powerful? Why, he must be the prince of the forest?"
"Prince of the forest?" questioned Lee, holding in a laugh. "I’ll tell you what I think he’s good for…steak, grilled to perfection. A nice rare, juicy, venison steak that melts in your mouth."
"Yuck, venison tastes terrible. It’s way too wild for me. Besides, it’d be an awful waste to kill an animal like that."
"Venison is delicious, if cooked right."
"Yeah, right," mumbled Chip, under his breath. "Well, thank goodness, we’re on a fishing trip and not a hunting trip, if we ever get there, that is." Glancing at the map, Lee held against the steering wheel he asked, "Figure out where we are yet?"
"Well, lets see. We drove six miles out of town, then turned right at the burned out house that was no longer there. Luckily, you spotted the scorch marks on what’s left of the foundation." He gave Chip a brief smirk. "We headed five miles up the road and turned left at the huge maple tree we couldn’t miss. Then, we were supposed to drive until we found three giant tree stumps just inside an old wooden split fence with a sign that said private property, keep out." Lee stopped his spiel casually looking around. "Have you seen any fence, I haven’t seen any fence?"
"Maybe, they tore it down. It’s been years since the admiral has been here," grumbled Chip, catching sight of a raccoon and her family, scurrying along the wood’s edge, eyeing them suspiciously. He smiled at the little bandit faces, as they hurried to keep up with their mother. "Or maybe, we turned at the wrong maple tree. I still think it was the one that’d been hit by lightening. After all, it looked twice the size, even split in two."
"Look, it shouldn’t matter. According to the way this is drawn, all these roads intercept each other, in one way or another. If it wasn’t for this big forest, it’d be a straight shot to the lake." Lee held the map up and pointed. "Okay, this is north and the lake is in this direction. We’re headed west, for the sun is rising in the east. So, we need to make a right at the next turn, then another right to double back to the road we must have missed."
"Lee, you’re guessing. Why don’t we just turn around and backtrack to the main highway?"
"Why? I know where we’re going," grinned the captain, lifting his foot off the brake and hitting the gas. The truck started off, spewing gravel behind it. They drove a few miles and made a right at the next turn, leading to a dead end in the middle of the woods. After a groan from both men, Lee backtracked to the road, turning at the next right, still convinced he knew where he was going. "All we have to do is get around these woods and we’ll find the trail that leads to the cabin. It can’t be that difficult."
"That’s the whole problem, Lee. The trail, or so-called driveway, is within these woods. What we need to do is find the marked entrance and to do that, we need to double back."
"I’m not doubling back! It’s too far! So, just calm down, we’ll find it," crouched the captain, taking another right. The road noticeably narrowed and he smugly smiled. "See, this has to be one of the trails that leads to the main driveway." The path wound around and around, leading to another narrow road. "Blast!"
"Now, which way, Sherlock?"
"Admit it. We’re lost."
"No, we’re not!"
Feeling thwarted, but unwilling to give in, Lee turned to the right and stepped on the gas. Dust flew from behind the wheels as he traveled further down the road and took a sharp curve.
"Look out!" shouted Chip, as a deer and a wave of colored trees came at him. Around spun the hapless pickup, spitting up dust, dirt and gravel with great tearing noises coming from beneath it. An unattended coffee cup, sitting in its holder, along with the morning paper on the dashboard, came flying at Chip to land in his lap. As if in slow motion, the truck slid off the road, coming to a stop with a sudden jolt.
Fifteen seconds later, in a quavering voice, "Chip, you all right?"
"Once…my heart quits racing and my hands stop shaking, I’ll," he deeply swallowed, "I’ll be fine." He looked around outside the truck’s window and noticed they were now facing the other way. Smelling burnt rubber and seeing smoke coming from underneath the front end, he yelled, "Lee, cut the engine!" A moment later the deafening noise of the truck, minus a muffler, was shut off.
Both men got out of the truck. Chip stepped down on top of a downed tree. Odd, I don’t remember the truck hitting a tree. Wouldn’t I have noticed that? Walking around to where his commander was, he heard a low moan.
"Lee, are you all right?"
"I’m fine!" snapped his captain, inspecting the damage to the truck and feeling sick.
Ignoring his skipper’s surly mood, Chip gave a low whistle. The muffler was lying beside the truck with bits and pieces of torn metal scattered about, leaving little to the imagination of what the under carriage must look like. "Wow, how are you, ah…going to explain this to the admiral?"
"Hell, if I know! Damn, the moose anyways, why’d it have to stop in the middle of the road?" complained Lee, getting down on his hands and knees to look under the truck. He hoped it looked worse than it was. Glancing quickly down the length, he stifled a moan.
"Lee, I hate to tell you this, but it wasn’t a moose. It was a buck, a giant ten-point buck. Michigan doesn’t have many moose in their woods, only deer and other animals…like bears. They’re the bear capital of the country."
"Blast it, Chip. I saw it and it was a moose, as large as a house!" shouted Lee frustrated, wiggling the hanger that used to hold the muffler in place. How am I going to explain this to the admiral?
"Beg to differ with you, Lee," argued Chip, knowing his statements were falling on deaf ears. Maybe, he really thinks it was a moose, but I know different. After all he’s a city guy and I’m a country boy.
Wanting a second opinion, Lee called out. "Chip, get down here."
Chip reluctantly dropped down to his knees and had a look. The log was clearly wedged between the two front wheels, with the axle bent by the right front tire, accounting for the rubber smell and smoke. With the truck in gear, the tire had rubbed quite a notch into the tree. The undercarriage was full of gouges with the drive shaft loose at the U joint. He gave another low whistle.
"You’re cooked," he said with a smirk, getting up and rubbing the dirt off his hands. The orange stain from the wet leaves refused to leave his hands, so he wiped them on his jeans. He heard another low moan. "Cheer up, Lee. The admiral can take the money out of your paycheck…for the next ten years." He heard a growl from under the truck. "I assume, the rental agency has insurance on the truck." He didn’t think it would be that bad. They’d have to pay a wrecker to haul it out of here and back to Traverse City.
The fishing trip had been an unexpected side venture. The Seaview was in the New London shipyard being refitted. All had gone according to schedule, except one major component in the reactor had to be re-ordered. The men recently returned from a rough mission, involving the delivery of an old Gato class submarine to a museum. Of course, nothing had gone as planned and Nelson felt they all needed a little time to recuperate. The crew received an extra week of liberty. Heather, Lee’s wife, went with her godfather, Chief Sharkey to his parent’s house in New York. The senior staff, including Doc back from a medical convention in New York, joined them at the last minute, went to Michigan. Nelson had access to an old cabin on a lake in the northern part of the state. After the fishing trip, Chip and Lee were to meet Melonie Stark Morton at Sharkey’s and then go to a dinner and Broadway play.
Thinking about that dinner, reminded Chip of why they weren’t with Nelson and Doc in the first place. They’d gone ahead in their own rented vehicle and were to meet them at the cabin. Jeez, if it hadn’t been for my hungry stomach demanding breakfast…we wouldn’t be lost in the northern woods. How ironic, thought Chip, we’re just southwest of where we disappeared earlier in the old sub… His thoughts were cut off when Lee climbed out from under the truck.
"Drat, it’s toast! We’re going to have to walk the rest of the way to the cabin."
Seeing his skipper’s worried frown, Chip encouraged, "No big deal, Lee. We can follow the trail. I’m sure it leads to the lake." He opened the cab’s door, grabbing his jacket. After slipping it on, he checked the inside pocket, making sure his candy bars were all in place. Then, he grabbed Lee’s jacket, handed it to him and asked, "Is there anything you want?"
"Hmm, the admiral was stopping along the way to buy the food, so all we have is the luggage. I suspect he was relieved we didn’t accompany him," Lee gave him a sly glance and half smiled for the first time. "You’d probably have bought the store out. Better grab the flashlight. I supposed we don’t have any matches?"
Not taking offense to the crack Lee made regarding his stomach, Chip asked, "Nervous, Lee?" Hiding his grin, he retrieved the requested flashlight and handed it to his commander. "There’s no matches and since neither of us smoke…" There wasn’t much else to take. They hadn’t planned on getting lost. He grabbed the worn map and stuffed it in his pocket. "We don’t even have any water," he muttered, under his breath." Getting no comment from Lee, he continued on. " No problem, there’s always fresh streams."
Lee stood silently by only half hearing Chip’s mumbled statements, thinking about which direction to head. Finally, Chip’s first question sunk in and he shrugged his shoulders. "Nervous? Me? What’s there to be nervous about? I’ve been on ONI missions, in jungles, ten times worse than this." I hated them all. "We’re just going for a walk in the woods."
Chip watched his unflappable commander glance around the forest. Inwardly chuckling, he said, "Well, we’re even then. I’ve gone camping dozens of times. Do you have your boy scout knife?" At his skipper’s affirmative nod, Chip produced his from his pocket and showed it to him. It was a long, slender knife with a worn, silver bear emblem attached to an ivory colored handle. "This was my father’s. He gave it to me when I was eighteen."
Lee carefully took the knife, examining it closely. He pulled the stainless steel blade out of the contoured handle. Running his fingers reverently along its edge, he tested its sharpness, nicking himself in the process. "Damn," he swore a bit red faced, "that’s sharp." He handed it back to his exec, sucking on the injured digit.
"It should be. You never know when you’re going to need it," wryly said Chip, reverently running his fingers over the smooth handle. He closed the knife, pocketing it in his pants with his brow furrowed.
Lee, catching the expression on his friend’s face said, "It means a lot to you, doesn’t it?"
Chip reached over and slammed the truck’s door. "Yeah, I’ll have to tell you the story behind it some day." With that, he started walking down the narrow road. Lee fell in beside him, sensing now wasn’t the time to push for the tale.
They walked in companionable silence, each man lost in his own thoughts. Lee was thinking up excuses, to tell the admiral about the moose that stopped their truck dead in its tracks. Well, hell, so I swerved to avoid the moose. I know a good driver never swerves for an animal, especially on a dirt road. How many times have I heard, it’s better to hit the animal, rather than lose control of your vehicle or crash it into a tree? Dozens! We could’ve been killed or seriously injured. So, why did I swerve?
Chip, totally oblivious to his skipper’s thoughts, reminisced about old camping and hiking trips with his father and brothers. As they walked deeper into the woods, he took in his surroundings with a feeling of nostalgia and a keen sense of being one with nature. His father taught him well the unwritten laws of the forest and he was truly enjoying himself.
The narrow road lead deeper into the woods and the men kept on its path. Lee figured it’d eventually lead to the main driveway. Chip wasn’t so sure. Being familiar with forests, he figured it to be an old snowmobile or dirt bike trail, which wound throughout the trees. The unmarked trails often intercepted each other and went on for miles.
The woods were alive with the sights, sounds and smells of nature. Chip could see little tan chipmunks with racing stripes down their backs at play, running through the leaves. They chased each other in a game of tag. A redheaded woodpecker tapped a tune above them in the trees, with morning doves cooing and blue jays squawking over breakfast. Being only dawn, the nocturnal animals hadn’t taken to their dens or nests yet. An occasional bat swooped from tree to tree, catching mosquitoes, as a white snow owl hooted and a streak of red fur pounced on a careless rabbit. Chip halted in mid stride, silently holding his hand up to Lee to stop his movement. Quietly pointing, both men watched the antics of a sly, white tipped, tail red fox carrying prey back to its den. A huge black crow scolded him, from an elm tree branch, as if asking, "Where’s mine?"
Hearing the teasing of the big black birds, Chip asked, "Do you want a candy bar?" Resuming their walk down the dirt road, Chip was working up an appetite. The road had become harder to follow with the fallen multicolored leaves scattered over the ground, gradually narrowing into a trail. The leaves and foliage were dense in spots with small, scattered baby trees cropping up at odd places, where the road was once blazed. It was apparent, even if they had the truck, they’d be forced to turn around.
"No thanks, Chip…You might want to hang onto those for a while," hedged the captain, looking a bit chagrined. He watched a porcupine rub his quills against a tree and wondered if they really shot those things at uncanny enemies.
"Why? Are we lost?"
Sputtering loudly and scaring a bat in the process, Lee growled, "No, we’re not lost!" The bat flew overhead and he yelled, "Watch out!" as he threw his hands over his head.
Chip burst out into laughter, watching the reaction of his scowling commander.
"What’s so funny?"
"You! The bat wasn’t going to attack you and land in your curly mop. That’s an old wives tale just like being blind as a bat. They have good eyesight and their radar is as excellent as Seaview’s. He was probably zeroing in on a few dozen mosquitoes. Did you know they eat about 600 of them in an hours time?"
"No, I didn’t know that and I suppose porcupines don’t shoot quills either."
Chip let out a small chuckle and said, "As a matter of fact, they don’t. There are over 30,000 quills on an adult porcupine. If an enemy, mainly the fisher, which is part of the weasel family, gets to close, the porky slaps him with his tail, driving in dozens of quills."
Amazed, Lee said, "I didn’t remember you being so into nature before."
"My father often took my brothers and I camping when we were growing up." Chip buried his hand in the front pocket of his jeans and unconsciously felt for the knife. Drawing comfort from it, he went on, "Dad taught us a lot about nature."
"Like what?" asked Lee, only half interested. If nothing else, it’ll pass the time.
"Well, let’s see," murmured Chip, looking around, trudging up the path. Looking over to his right, he pointed to the first thing he saw, "Lee, look over by that fallen tree." It was only three feet away. "What do you see?"
"A fallen tree with dead branches and broken limbs all over." He heard a disgusted groan from his XO.
"Is that all you can see, Lee?" inquired Chip, somewhat put off. The land is teaming with wildlife. How can he miss it?
Lee looked closer to appease his exec’s ruffled feathers. "Well, now that you mention it, there are leaves bunched up at one end of the log." Feeling proud of himself, he went on in greater detail. "Let’s see, there’s black and white fur on the edges of the twigs and rotted leaves with moldy grass sticking out of the entrance. A nice warm den for some little animal." Curious, he walked over to the log, bent over and peeked inside. The sun was now high in the sky with its rays shining directly into the entrance of the hollow log. Little beady eyes of something dark stared back at him, accompanied by an odd smell.
Chip patted himself on the back for getting his friend to even take a passive interest in nature. From his inner coat pocket, he took out a peanut candy bar, covered in honey nut nougat. He unwrapped the bar, stuffing the papers in his jean pockets. He was about to take a bite, when he got a whiff of a telling scent as his captain leaned towards the log.
In a stern voice, Chip warned, "Lee, I wouldn’t advise putting my head down there."
"Why? I want to see what’s in here. This is obviously a home to…something…" His voice trailed off, echoing in the log. Lee wanted to show Chip that he wasn’t nervous about nature and that he too appreciated the great outdoors. He turned on the flashlight. Shining it into the dark cavity, his head immediately popped up with a look of sheer horror on his face. A moment later, a couple of furry black and white striped, four-legged creatures, disturbed by his voice, wandered outside their den.
"Skunks," murmured Chip, still holding his candy bar to his mouth, losing the taste for it when he inhaled the strong odor of the animals.
In a strangled whisper, the captain ordered, "Chip! Do something!" The two stinky critters, no bigger than a cat, walked around the now very nervous man. Being affectionate animals, they rubbed their sides against and in between his legs. Lee looked helplessly up at Chip, his hazel eyes shooting promises of retribution crossed with a look of total panic.
Chip urgently advised in a low calm whisper, "Don’t make any sudden moves! What ever you do, don’t scare them! They won’t spray unless you scare them!" The phrase hanging a man out to dry suddenly crossed his mind and he had to stifle a chuckle in spite of the circumstances.
"Can I just pick them up by the tail?" desperately whispered Lee, repulsed at the idea.
"No!" quickly countered Chip, in a flat, even voice. "That’s a fallacy. They’ll squirt you for sure." Chip saw a tail hesitantly rise from the skunk standing beside his skipper. The other one was cautiously trying to sit on his tennis shoe. "Lee, relax! Your tenseness is frightening them."
Lee looked down, instantly clamping a hand over his nose and mouth. Talk about clearing the sinuses. He felt the skunk change positions on his foot, causing him to hold his breath, while the other one sniffed the air. How can he smell anything?
"Skunks like nuts. I’ll…ah…try this," anxiously faltered Chip, breaking bits off his peanut bar and throwing them on the ground by the skunks. He slowly stepped away from the direction of their tails. He knew the consequences if they were to get sprayed. Blast, I’d have to burn my favorite fishing jacket along with my clothes. Nothing, he knew of, would get a skunk’s odor out.
The skunk standing beside Lee, took an avid interest in Chip’s peace offering. He slowly approached the meager snack, sniffed it, and daintily picked at the nuts. The plan was working…sort of. The other skunk got up and stretched, rubbing its behind against Lee’s ankle. To his shock, he felt a warm trickle soak his sock and go into his shoe. Talk about insult, silently fumed the captain. Wanting more than anything to boot the black oversize weasel into the next forest, he didn’t dare. Instead, he forced himself to relax and act like it was an every day occurrence for a skunk to be stuck on his foot.
Chip threw out a few more chunks of nougat in the hopes of enticing the other skunk off Lee’s foot. The too friendly animal stood up and took a tentative step towards the food, when suddenly it raised its tail. Chip glanced up at his captain’s horrified expression, but realized he wasn’t looking at the skunk. He was about to ask his commander what was wrong, when he heard a grunt behind him.
Slowly, ever so slowly, Chip turned around and came face to face with a big, black bear not more than a few yards away. He swallowed convulsively, while his heart pounded in his ears.
"Shit!" choked out both men, instantly realizing this new danger.
Instinctively, both men wanted to run, skunks or no skunks, but Chip got a grip on his scattered thoughts. Now’s not the time to panic, Morton, he told himself. The lessons from his father were well ingrained into his soul. In his sternest voice he softly commanded. "Lee, don’t move! Whatever you do, don’t move!"
"As if I could," bit out the rankled captain. The skunk had backed up to his leg again and rooted on his foot with the other one taking aim from the other side. Getting a bird’s eye view, he figured they weren’t going to come out of this smelling like a rose.
The six foot black, shaggy haired bear lifted his long snout into the air. Chip realized they were upwind of him. In his mind, he tried to remember if the black bears were the ones you stayed still with and could easily frighten away. The brown bears are the ones you play possum with or is it the other way around? You can’t run from bears either. They can run up to 35 mph, even up hill. Another fallacy, all bears can climb trees. That’s not true, black bears can climb trees, but brown bears can’t. That’s it...
Feeling less afraid, Chip watched the rounded ear, beady eyed, giant, teddy bear apprehensively approach them. He was blowing air through his nose and making grunting noises as he zeroed in on them. Black bears are usually shy around humans. We must not be too far from a lake or campground. This bear seems use to humans. If we could just get down wind of him, we’d be okay. Belatedly, he recalled the candy bar in his hand. I wonder if this is what’s attracting him?
Knowing bears like honey and nuts, Chip stole a quick peek over his shoulder, noticing his wide-eyed skipper dubiously eyeing the skunks. The skunks were at full attention now and time had run out for all of them. "Lee, get ready to walk quickly towards the north." He forced himself to casually bring his hand up and back to throw the wasted food. Blast, that was my favorite candy bar, too.
Lee had a feeling he wasn’t going to like what Chip had planned. Even I know you don’t feed the bears. The bear hesitantly approached Chip, who was holding the candy bar high in the air. The grunting beast came within six feet of the XO and Lee witnessed the little stink-pots moving to their front feet, tipping their bodies up with their noses pointed to the ground.
Oh, no, this is it! wildly thought Lee, his heart pounding an irregular rhythm. He watched Chip throw the snack at the bear’s feet. I hope this giant, 500 lb grizzly won’t take offense at Chip’s sudden actions. For in the captain’s mind it was a huge grizzly and not a smaller black bear. The skunks took offense instead. Seeing their tasty dinner, heading to a bigger beast of prey, they got even in a hurry. Each skunk blasted the bear and everything around it in a spray, once, twice, then three times. Whew, talk about vapor lock, absently reflected Lee, still breathing through his hand and backing up into the direction Chip had ordered him to go. In a fog of stink, he could feel the mist of the spray settle over him.
Chip heard the skunks, blasting off their perfume two more times. He knew they could spray about twelve feet and quickly jumped out of the way. Unfortunately, he failed to take in the fall out effects of the spray and a sudden wind gust. "Damn!" he cussed in a low angry tone, wanting to swear to the heavens. He covered his face with his hand, coughing into it. The smell was beyond imagination. For a few moments, he thought he was going to stop breathing entirely. Staggering in Lee’s direction, he could see through tearing eyes, his commander had fared no better than he.
Both men unsteadily walked away from the whole sorry mess, hearing the bear clacking his teeth in fright. Occasionally glancing backwards, making sure the unlikely trio wasn’t following them, the men stealthily made their way deeper into the forest.
"All right, Daniel Boone, where are we headed now?" grumpily sniped Lee, wiping his face with a handkerchief he’d pulled from his pocket. He couldn’t get the foul taste out of his mouth or the smell out of his nose. He wondered how long it took to get used to one’s own scent.
"One thing’s for sure," stated Chip, feeling less than exuberant, "Nothing is going to bother us now."
"That’s an understatement, don’t you think?" crouched the captain. "The admiral’s not going to believe the mess you’ve gotten us into."
"Me?" inquired Chip, indignant. "It was you who swerved to miss the deer. Where’d you learn to drive anyways? Any 16 year old knows enough not to swerve, his car when an animal is in the road." He couldn’t believe he’d just said that, but his patience was at an end. He was worried. They were lost in a forest. Yes, they both had survival training, Lee even more than him, being an ONI agent and all. But still, he felt it was his responsibility to get them out. I’m the camper. It’s supposed to be second nature. Isn’t that what my father said? On top of all that, I fed a bear. Everyone knows you don’t feed the bears. What if he comes after us for more? With that thought in mind, he carefully looked around.
"Darn it, Chip! I can’t help it…that…that moose just leaped out in front of me! I didn’t even see it until we were on top of it"
"If you hadn’t been so bullheaded and stopped to ask for directions, we would not be lost and you wouldn’t have almost hit the deer. And it was a deer, Lee! A nice 10 point buck any hunter would die for!"
"We did almost die and we’re not lost!" shouted Lee, venting his frustration. I’m an ONI agent. I’m well trained and know all about survival techniques and yet, I’ve made nothing but a mess of it. Pull yourself together, Crane. There’s a way out of here, keep a level head. All is not lost. He grinned at his own thoughts.
Seeing the ghost of a grin on his friend’s face, Chip annoyed, asked, "What’s so funny?"
Lee shrugged his shoulders, his anger lessening, even if he did smell like a dung heap and remarked, "Look Chip, its my fault."
Chip gently cut him off, "No, Lee, it’s mine…" He heard a deep sigh from his commander and chuckled. "This is a no win situation, Lee."
The captain immediately got the point. "50 – 50. We’re even. Agreed?" asked the Captain, extending his hand.
"Agreed," said Chip relieved, shaking his hand.
"All right, then. Let’s get out of here."
The reality of the situation was sinking in. They really were lost and a hungry bear wasn’t too far back. Will it come looking for more food? The wind is blowing from the southwest, carrying our scent away from the big bear, but will the skunk smell linger and be easy to track? Will the bear want more candy? Chip knew bears loved sweet things and he’d broken all the rules in this instance. The question that nagged him was, Will the bear ignore the skunk smell and pay them another visit?
Pulling out the old map from his pocket, Chip with Lee studied it as they walked. "I think we should keep going north. The lake has to be huge and we’ll probably run right into it," stated Chip.
"I agree, if we find the lake. We’ll sooner or later find the cabin. After all, it’s on the lake. Maybe Nelson and Doc will even be out looking for us."
Both men glanced down at their watches. They’ve been lost almost two hours now. "Humph, maybe not," replied Chip in a wooden voice, pocketing the map once again. He took out his knife and opened it up, walking over to a tree. Marking a large notch in the bark, he simply stated, "Just in case someone comes looking for us or we…ah…get lost."
Lee automatically defended, "We’re not lost…just…misplaced." A loud thumping sound was heard to the left of them. Both men held their breath and anxiously scanned the trees. A rustling was heard through the undergrowth and a moment later, two bucks came running from its cover.
"Up a tree, Lee! Now!" Lee didn’t question just obeyed, finding the nearest branch and clamored up it.
The two male deer warily circled each other, heads down and feet pawing the dirt. Both had a large set of antlers and Chip thought one looked like the deer Lee swerved to avoid hitting. Grunts came from within their throats, as they bashed heads over and over again, making a horrible noise.
"What are they doing?"
"It’s…ah, rutting season, Lee. Both bucks are very territorial right now. I once saw a man get head butted by those sharp antlers. It wasn’t a pretty sight. He had been attacked just walking into their thicket. Normally, it’s not that way. Most of the time they are very tame creatures and afraid of humans."
Lee avidly watched the fight and a few moments later Chip nudged him and pointed towards the undergrowth. "See, there, the doe is watching."
Lee followed his exec’s directions and noticed a small deer. "Short isn’t she? You sure she’s not a baby?"
Chip chuckled, "No, she’s not a fawn. Most deer are short, the average about two to three feet at the shoulder or less; some are bigger in the north. Without the rack, these bucks only weight about 200 pounds."
Lee nodded he understood, quietly saying, "Then, it had to be a moose I swerved for." Chip, just rolled his eyes.
Blood was freely flowing from both buck’s heads, as another round of charging and head butting took place. The deer fought, using all the space below and totally oblivious to the men in the tree. Chip figured the skunk’s scent was hiding that fact. Lee could see why Chip had him climb the tree. One gouge with those sharp points from the antlers would rent a man’s flesh in two. They crashed up against the tree, making it vibrate more than once. The animals seemed to be fighting to the death, when all of a sudden, one made a break for it. The other followed in hot pursuit with the doe running behind.
"Well, don’t that beat all," exclaimed Lee, astounded. "I would have liked to see the outcome."
"No, you wouldn’t," grunted Chip, climbing down from the tree. Lee soon followed and they started off again, but not before Chip took a careful look around. He didn’t know how to explain it, but something just wasn’t quite right. The forest had grown quiet.
They walked another hour, telling jokes and swapping stories. Chip told about the camping trips with his family and Lee told about some of his ONI adventures that Chip hadn’t been privy too. From time to time, both men checked the trees, making sure the moss was on the north side and they were headed in the right direction. Chip notched every so many trees, blazing a trail just in case the admiral had found the truck and was looking for them. An occasional bird from above, often gave fair warning the men or skunks were coming. Still, it bothered Chip to no peaceful end, that the normal noises of the forest were curiously absent.
Stopping, yet again, Lee asked, "Chip, what’s up? What are you looking for?" He looked around not knowing what he was searching for.
Not taking his eyes off the trees of beech, oak, pine and maple, Chip suspiciously replied, "I don’t know exactly. The forest is too quiet…something’s wrong."
Lee, now fully alert, also looked around again not seeing anything out of the ordinary. Would I know it if I saw it? "Chip, it’s not the bear is it? I mean…" he put his hand up to the back of his neck and swatted off an insect of some sort. "You did feed the bear."
"I’ve thought of that too. They are known as the black ghosts of the forest. Some people can be in the woods for years and never see them." Chip glanced around the woods again. Then, tried to reassure his captain. "Hmm, it’s probably nothing, but you never know. Just keep your eyes and ears open."
They started off once more, walking more cautiously, their eyes taking in every little nuance. Not an animal could be seen, though both men felt them watching…maybe following. They wandered into a small clearing with a large, wide stream running along its perimeters. According to the map, they had reached the wetlands. Both men wearily crouched down and scooped up the pure, fresh water, cupping it with their hands and taking a drink. It was cold, refreshing and tasted wonderful to their dry mouths. After drinking their fill, they sat down and reclined on their elbows, while taking in the beauty of Mother Nature. Autumn was in her high glory with bright colors rioting as far as the men could see. Multiple colored leaves generously littered the ground, covering rocks, fallen logs and rotted tree trunks.
Again, Chip was disturbed. Where are all the animals? This place should be full of little critters. Our smell can’t be that bad? Can it? Strange, I barely notice it now. It must be true; man can’t smell his own scent.
Lee, gazing off in the distance, observed a humongous, ancient, hollowed out fallen tree trunk. "Chip, how big do you think that old log is?"
Chip followed where Lee indicated with his hand and found the downed tree. It was half hidden in the thicket and looked like it had been struck by lightening years ago. "You must have a thing for logs, Lee," he chuckled. "Let’s see, it must be about twenty-five feet in length and three feet in diameter, maybe four. I can’t see the other end, but I imagine all sorts of creatures live in it too." He witnessed a shudder pass through his captain and heartily chuckled. Relaxing, he asked, "You…ah, want to have a look?"
"Ah, that’s too bad. I just thought, you might like…"
Two shotgun blasts, in quick succession, interrupted his play.
"What the hell was that?" asked Lee, getting up and starting in the direction of the shots. Chip fell in beside him with a feeling of uneasiness. They crossed over the huge log, directly in their path and started through the thicket that was beyond it. They could hear the low hum of voices, as they walked. Another set of rifle shots went off about five hundred yards away. Coming to a dense grove of conifers, Lee first, with Chip behind him, started working their way through the trees. Barely catching sight of the men through the thick evergreens, Lee was about to make his presence known, when Chip jumped him, covered his mouth and knocked him to the ground.
Lee, on his stomach with his face in the dirt and a body on his back, instantly fought to get free, thinking someone must have attacked them. He felt the hand tighten on his mouth then heard the furious whisper of his exec next to his ear, "Lee, be still. Poachers!" That got his attention. Turning his head and looking up at Chip’s desperate face, shaking his head he understood. Chip let go and moved off to his side, staying on his belly. It had taken him awhile, but he finally put it all together. The quietness of the forest, no animals at the watering hole, the rifles, it all added up to one thing…
"Are you sure? How do you know?" asked Lee in a low, tight voice. He, more than anything, wanted to ask for directions on how to get out of these woods or the very least, where the lake was. He finally admitted to himself that they were lost.
"Because rifle season doesn’t start for another two weeks and we’re in a deeryard," urgently murmured Chip, his stomach turning over. He’d heard enough about poachers to make his hair curl.
Satisfied, Lee said, "Let’s take a peek." Carefully, they crept up under the lower branches of the pine trees and moved aside the thick grass on the ground. They could plainly hear the conversation of the men and see a clear view of their camp, making their stomachs turn.
There, in the center of the camp, laid five dead deer. One was completely gutted and a man was hanging it up by the neck on a strong tree branch to dry. Another buck was stretched out on the ground, his rack of twelve points, digging into the dirt. Lee vaguely remembered the comment he’d made to Chip about the fireplace mantle and felt disgusted. The other male deer were in various stages of dress. Beyond the camp, a third man was pulling a dead deer by its antlers towards them with his rifle still smoking.
"Ugh, what is that smell?" asked a bearded, barrel chested man dressed in filthy, bloody jeans and an old plaid coat, squatting down beside one of the dead animals. His greasy hair was tied back in a ponytail and he was sharpening his knife on a rough stone. He reminded Chip of some old bad guy in a good western.
"Don’t know, Bill, don’t care," said a tall, skinny blonde man, stirring the campfire. A coffee pot was boiling, leaking steam out the spout.
Bill yelled to the man dragging in the dead deer. "Hey George, you seen any varmints around here?"
The men all sniffed the air, looking in Chip and Lee’s direction. "It’s coming from over there," stated another man, sitting by an elm tree, in a ragged blue jean jacket and a hunting cap, loading ammunition into his rifle. He finished putting the bullets in and pulled back the hammer, at the same time aiming at a low spot in the pine tree. "Damn varmints!" he yelled, pulling the trigger.
The bullet slammed into the tree trunk next to Chip, making him involuntarily jump. He hoped the hunter wouldn’t notice. Fat chance.
His theory proved correct. "Something’s out there!" yelled the man with the tattered jacket. He let loose another bullet, which nicked the ground, spewing up dirt in Chip’s face. He froze.
"Dad cum it, Jake! Cut it out, if it’s a stinky varmint, we don’t want the whole camp reeking like dead skunks," yelled the man named George, dragging the deer into camp. He dropped the head beside the fire, then moved beside Jake with the rifle.
Meanwhile, the blonde man, also having seen the movement, left the campfire and circled around the outside of the camp. When he almost reached the thicket where Jake had started shooting the pine tree, the man named Bill started singing. "Dead skunk in the middle of the road…"
Lee and Chip started crawling backwards out from under the evergreen tree and were met with the sound of a gun being cocked. Quickly turning around, they came face to face with a double-barreled shotgun and a cold voice said, "Pugh! You boys need a bath!"
"On your feet!" ordered Jake, coming up to them from the camp. He pushed his hat back on his head with the rifle tip. "Well, what do we have here? Smells like those varmints got the best of you two." He cackled at his own joke, wiping a grubby hand on his dirty pants.
Chip and Lee, in spite of the skunk scent, could smell his unwashed ripe body odor. Lee replied smartly back, "Well, at least we have an excuse. What’s yours?"
A crack across the face with the rifle butt was his answer. The force of the assault knocked Lee to the ground where he laid there dazed, holding his jaw, unconsciously moving it to see if it worked. Chip jumped in immediately, only to be brought up short with a blow between his shoulder blades, knocking him also to the ground beside Lee. The breath had been knocked out of him and a rifle was aimed squarely between his blue eyes. Having no choice, he stayed put.
"You boys had better mind your manners," drawled Jake, spitting out a wad of tobacco juice. It landed on Chip’s hand, making him want to vomit. "Sneaking in here like the Department of Natural Resources, spying on us…hunters." The other two men snickered, while Bill sang the reframe to a Dead Skunk…again.
"All right, on your feet and no tricks this time or I’ll let Charlie here plug you with some holes," leered Jake, directing them up with his rifle. The gun never wavered and Chip with Lee could see he was all business. "George, search the boys here. Let’s just see who they are." Then, to the men, "Put your hands in the air, where I can see them."
With a rifle aimed in front and a shotgun at their backs, both men reluctantly did as bid. George held his breath against the skunk odor, silently grabbing the flashlight out of Lee’s hand and threw it by the fire. Next, he padded Lee down, grabbing his wallet out of his back pocket, opened it and immediately pulled the money out. "Look’ee here. The man’s got money. Thank you, Mr…" he stopped talking, looking for his I D, fumbling through the wallet. Finding it, he said "Crane. Lee B Crane…" finding his Navy I D, he marveled, "Excuse me. Commander Lee B Crane," looking up he seriously asked, "You’re in the Navy, huh?"
Lee didn’t give him the satisfaction of an answer, just a hard scowl that spoke volumes.
"Real hard ass, I bet." He turned to Chip and repeated the procedure, finding the candy bars in his jacket pocket.
"Umm, the boy’s been holding out on us," guffawed Jake, watching from the sidelines. George pocketed the junk food, took another deep breath away from the skunk smell and grabbed Chip’s wallet. "Lt. Commander, Chip Morton…what kind of name is Chip?" he ridiculed, making all the poachers laugh.
Chip gave him his best exec poker-faced stare. His money was lifted from his wallet and the billfold was thrust back in his face along with Lee’s. Chip took both wallets and thrust them in his front coat pocket. The search stopped there and Chip was relieved they missed his father’s knife.
Jake took the money and pocketed it in his own coat pocket while George said. "I was in the Navy once." He received no response from the seamen, so went on irritated. "I made it all the way up to petty officer 2nd class and got busted for starting a fire, albeit was by accident. The Captain didn’t believe me, so I spent some time in the brig." He coldly eyed both commanders, becoming angry when they didn’t flinch. He took out a cigarette and put it in his mouth, asking for a match. Jake handed him a packet from the local Mom and Pop store. Striking the match cover, he lit the match and brought it up to his cigarette. Then dropped the lighted match on the ground, as he puffed on his cigarette. The match had gone out on the way to the ground much to Chip’s relief, but then the man with an odd glow to his eyes, dropped the lighted cigarette, starting a small fire.
"You bastard!" yelled Lee as he and Chip immediately stamped the fire out with their feet. The poachers all roared with laughter, making fun of their efforts. The laughter died out when the skunk odor practically over powered them with the men’s movements.
"Damn! That smell, its enough to bowl you over," griped George, stepping back out of the line of fire.
Tell me about, sarcastically thought Chip, trying to stay down wind of the poachers. It wasn’t easy with the shotgun pointed at his back. They smell like old shoes and sweaty socks covered with blood. I wonder how long it’s been since they took a dip?
"Yeah," agreed Charlie, the blonde, "What are we going to do with these two?" He leered menacingly at the Seaview men. "Burying them six feet under wouldn’t be a bad idea."
The men guffawed and George still laughing, replied, "Well, we could put them out of their misery." His expression took on a cold new meaning, making the officers invisibly shudder. He lit a new match and slowly dropped it to the ground, never batting an eyelash. Once again, the breeze blew it out before it touched the dry leaves. The sun was directly overhead, now having burned off any excess dew. That and a dry fall season made the forest extremely vulnerable to fire.
"What are you saying, George?" asked Jake, considering his options, "You want us to kill these good ole sailor boys?" He spat on the ground again.
"I don’t rightly care what you do, I hated the Navy." Another match followed the last one. Again it went out.
A deep sigh from Jake, "I’ve done a lot of stuff in my time, but I’m not a murdering man," bluntly stated Jake, tightening his grip on the rifle.
"Why don’t you just let us go?" asked Lee, seeing his chance with Jake. Laughter followed that statement. Lee angrily waited for it to die down and pushed his point of view. "Look, we’re lost in these woods and it’ll take us a long time to find where we’re going."
"Lost, in the woods?" echoed George. Bill started singing ‘Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road…’ stretching the commanders nerves to an all time peak of tautness. Chip could see Lee’s temper was ready to blow and was itching for a fight. The problem was, it wouldn’t be a fair fight and Lee would probably land up dead. He had to do something, now, before it was to late…
The decision was taken out of his hands when Jake considered Lee’s words. "Letting them go would work after we get our work done."
"No!" heatedly contested George, giving the commanders another hostile look. "They can identify us to the DNR!"
"We’re not from around here, they have no idea who we are! It’s one thing to kill stupid deer, but another to kill innocent men!"
"I hate sailors, especially commanders!" growled George, stomping over to the fire. "Shut up Bill and quit singing that damn song!"
Bill grinned and went right on singing, infuriating the man further. George was about to take a swing at Bill when Jake shot the rifle in the air. "Enough!" he bellowed. The camp became instantly quiet. "Bill, what do you say, we haven’t got your vote yet?"
Lee and Chip both tensed at the question. If Bill sided with the other two, it could be the end of the trail.
"I say, stash’em somewhere safe until we’re done with business. We can use them for insurance if the DNR shows up. I have four more deer to gut yet and don’t want any more interruptions. Besides, they stink." Having said his piece, he went back to humming Dead Skunk…
Jake rubbed the rifle tip against his face as if in deep thought. "You boys really lost?"
Lee reluctantly nodded and Chip quickly agreed. "We a swerved to miss a moose and straddled a log," added Lee, hoping to convince him of the truth.
The poachers all roared at the explanation. "Man, you must be a greenhorn, there are NO moose in this here forest." Another round of laughter was heard and Jake said, "Come on, I have just the spot for you two." He led the way, with the skinny man bringing up the rear, holding the shotgun to the commander’s backs.
Jake took them back to the stream where the big log was that Lee had pointed out earlier. "Get in there and stay put. Remember, Charlie here would like to shoot you as well as look at you."
"Ya mean I have to stay here?" griped the blonde.
"Fraid so, you’ve got first watch." He turned to the officers, "In!" Chip reluctantly bent down and crawled into the musky, dark log with an apprehensive Lee following. Chip sensing his skipper’s trepidation and feeling miserable himself, sarcastically mumbled, "Home sweet home. It can’t get any worse than this. We already smell despicable."
A few seconds later they heard Jake giving Charlie final orders, "Keep your eyes on these varmints. Don’t shoot them unless you have too. Understand?"
There was a muffled, "Yeah, I understand."
Jake stalked back to camp. The blonde sat down across from them under a tree with his shotgun pointed directly at them.
"He still hasn’t fallen asleep," complained Lee, for the third time, peeking out a small hole in the wood. The ancient log was riddled with holes and cracks, allowing pinpoints of lights to peek through. "And that shotgun, he has pointed at us, is making me nervous. One twitch with an itchy finger and we’ve had it."
Chip was thinking along the same lines as he looked down towards the other end of the long log. A small shard of light gleamed in the darkness. The dead tree trunk was big enough for them to easily crawl through flat on their bellies. His back ached where the rifle butt had hit him. His eyes, long grown accustomed to the shadows, took in their surroundings. There was a multitude of evidence verifying the facts that various creatures were living there. Bugs, rabbit pellets and mice droppings, lots of mice droppings, yuck! I hate mice! Glancing down the long semi dark length, the light teased him at the other end. He could hear bees buzzing somewhere in the log and wondered what else had made its home here. He hoped, whatever it was, that it had vacated upon their entrance.
"Lee, do you recall what was at the other end of this log on the outside?"
"No, why?" he automatically cast his eyes to the other end, taking a greater interest in the light. It was small, but…jagged. He couldn’t wait to get out. Beetles were crawling over his hands and he swore he had ants in his shoes. With my luck, it’ll be the red ants.
A sigh came from Chip, as he swatted at a mosquito on his forehead. "I might as well find out." Resigned to the fact, he started crawling through the semidarkness towards the light.
Lee gazed outside again, noticing the skinny, blonde man fidgeting with the shotgun. Hell, I’d rather keep company with a skunk then get blasted to smithereens, accident or not. He didn’t trust the man holding the shotgun and decided to join his friend. Chip was now ten feet down the log, speaking softly he said, "Chip, I’m behind you."
"Watch out, there’s a few surprises along the way and whatever you do, don’t swat at the bees. If you kill even one bee, a chemical is given off and the rest will attack."
Bees? Funny, I didn’t even hear them. Now that Chip had brought it to his attention, he heard them loud and clear. Dreading the surprises his XO spoke of, the captain grumbled, "Okay, Dr. Dolittle." Lee started carefully negotiating his way. He felt something furry and soft under his hands and the skunks immediately came to mind. "How come I can’t smell the skunk odor?" A small creature with tiny feet went scurrying across his hand, heading the other way. He instantly reacted by pulling his hand back closer to his body. Rats, I hate this!
Chip chuckled and shot back, "I’m afraid, we’ve become used to the smell. Skunks can’t smell their own scent, you know."
"Hmm, figures." Lee crawled a bit further, feeling grass like stuff mixed with something hard. "Must be mud or something else. Heck, I’m not going there," he muttered. His knee hit something sharp, it stung, and he softly cursed. A little further, his hand landed in the middle of something soft and gushy. Dead animal…maybe half eaten… food for later, passed through his mind, while mumbling to himself, "I couldn’t be lucky, it being just nuts or something...normal."
"You say something, Lee?"
"No, just ran into something sharp, felt like a twig. Crunched like one too." The bees were buzzing loud in his ears and he wondered how large the nest was. He could actually feel them brushing against his face, neck and hands, giving him the creeps, as he carefully inched his way by. His knee stung and he could feel it swelling. Chip’s words came back to haunt him and the bee’s humming increased in his mind.
"Chip," he said with a hint of desperation in his voice, "Is there a way out of here?" A bee flew by his face. He swatted at it in spite of Chip’s warning.
Hearing an anxious tone in his skipper’s voice, Chip reassured, "Yes, there’s a briar bush at the end. I’m cutting it apart now." He hesitated hearing the increase of bee activity. "Lee, what did you do to bother the bees?" Cutting faster, the thorns gouged him, tearing into his hands, leaving deep scratches.
Defensively, Lee swatted at another bee and said, "Nothing, I must have crawled by their nest. Where is it anyways? I can hear and feel them, but couldn’t see it in the shadows."
"The nest is probably inside the wood," responded Chip, attacking the thick vines, slowly making a path. Blood ran freely from some of the scratches and puncture wounds on his hands and fingers. The bee’s increased activity bothered him. "Lee, are you sure you didn’t do anything to disturb the bees?" He felt the pressure of his captain leaning against his legs, practically on top of him.
"I told you, I didn’t, but one stung me. I can feel my knee swelling." He absently rubbed it, watching Chip work. "Chip, your hands, here let me take over."
"Can’t Lee, there’s no room. I’m almost through." A bee landed on his neck and he instinctively shrugged his shoulder against it. Lee spied the big yellow jacket and waved it off. Unfortunately, it had other ideas and didn’t like being threatened. The bee plunged its stinger deep into Chip’s neck.
"Ouch!" gasped Chip, remembering at the last second to be quiet or he’d alert their guard. "Get it off," he furiously choked out. Other bees were making their presence known, flying quickly around both men.
Lee, feeling queasy, picked the bee up with his forefinger and thumb. The soft body squished inward with its wings fluttering against his hand. The bee got loose, stinging him in the thumb. "Damn, it stung me!"
"Hornets can sting multiple times, their ovipositor doesn’t come off," remarked Chip, trying to get his mind off what he knew was coming. We’ve got to get out of here, now! He cut the last few vines.
"The what?" asked Lee exasperated, not catching what his XO was talking about and waving his hand at the bees. For his trouble, he received a couple more bee stings, one on his wrist and another in his bruised cheek. "Damn it, Chip they’re not hornets! They’re yellow jackets, huge and angry!" They were starting to swarm and both men suddenly knew real panic.
"Same family, Lee," replied Chip, in a dead calm voice, belying his own anxiety. He was through. Hanging on to the knife, he grimaced as a bee landed on his other hand, angrily stinging him. He flicked it off with the pocketknife. "Come on, Lee, let’s go!"
Heedless of what was on the other side of the briar patch, both men tore through the thorns, ripping their clothes, receiving many lacerations all over their body. There wasn’t time to be careful, with the swarm of ticked-off and angry bees right behind them. In defense of their home, they stung the men again and again.
Just as the men burst out of the log, an angry roar was heard. Chip immediately noticed the guard’s full attention was directed toward the hunting camp. The blonde man was on his feet with his back turned towards them. Taking advantage of the situation, Chip snuck up from behind, jumping the errant man at the last second, as Lee grabbed the shotgun. Chip wrestled with him, getting in a couple quick punches before Lee ended it, by giving the guard a quick whack to the head, knocking the man out. Miraculously, the bees traveled no further than the briar patch.
The roar intensified, followed by excited voices and shouting.
"What do you think that’s all about?" asked Lee, in a hoarse voice. His throat felt tight and scratchy. The bee stings, along with the lacerations from the bushes, stung and he itched all over.
Catching his breath, Chip was thinking the same thing as he stood up, leaving the guard sprawled on the ground. "I don’t know, it’s not like a bear to come this close to a man, what alone a group of men. Maybe he smells the dead deer. They have a keen sense of smell."
"Want to find out or get out of here?" asked Crane, clearing his throat. He then coughed a couple of times, drawing Chip’s concern.
"You all right?" asked Chip, observing his skipper closer. "You look a little blotchy and I’m not talking about the bruise on your cheek either."
"I’m…" cough, cough, swallowing hard, "I’m fine. Let’s…go," wheezed Lee, annoyed with himself. "It’s just…" cough "…the bee’s pollen and being in that disgusting log." He started for the camp, heading into the tall thicket.
Warning bells went off in Chip’s mind as he realized what was happening. Walking with the captain, he quietly asked, "Lee, are you allergic to bees?"
"No, why," asked the captain, swallowing and silently questioning himself. "Come to think of it, I can’t remember getting stung for some time," he replied absently, coming abreast to the pine trees. They carefully encircled the camp, making sure the breeze was downwind of the site this time.
But, you have been stung before?" insistently whispered Chip, not happy with what he was hearing from his skipper or the camp. The bear growled and clacked its teeth. The XO knew it was afraid. Something’s wrong in more ways than one.
"On a couple ONI missions, when I was in the jungle," remarked Lee, in an equally low voice. He softly cleared his throat, again. "Chip, maybe we’d better get out of here, while we still can." He swallowed convulsively, not letting Chip see the worry in his eyes. What’s wrong with me? Could it be a reaction? How many times did I get stung? He mentally counted four or more times. Truth was, he didn’t know, it felt like a dozen.
Another loud roar rent the forest only a few feet from them. Both men crouched down under a thick pine tree with low branches. The thicket’s tall grass kept them hidden from view. They could plainly see a black bear on the edge of camp, standing on its back feet, advancing on the men. The three poachers were scattered around the camp and in their hands were Chip’s half eaten nutty candy bars, along with the fresh carcasses of the dead deer.
The rifles were all leaning against one tree close to the Seaview men and Jake was slowly inching his way towards them. Both men knew what was going to happen once Jake reached the guns. Chip, not willing for that to happen, urgently murmured, "Cover me. I’m going for the rifles."
Holding up the shotgun, he stole from the guard, Lee nodded, cocking both barrels. Knowing, his friend’s respect for nature, the captain half anticipated the XO’s reaction to the current situation. Well, hell, I hate to see the beast get killed over a candy bar. Besides, a lone shotgun will not hold off a bear and three men. If Chip can reach those rifles before the men, the bear could have a fighting chance. On top of that, I can only shoot two men without reloading. I don’t have any extra ammunition. Chip would have to take the third man down. But, that would leave all of us vulnerable with the bear. What if he became enraged and attacked, instead of running? It’s too risky. Chip must reach those rifles first.
Chip leaped out of the thicket from under the pine tree and quickly made his way to the rifles in the hopes of not enraging the bear further. The smell from the dead deer’s blood was all around them and he figured the scent was playing havoc with the bear’s natural instincts. What alone, the smell of honey roasted nuts.
Lee started to announce his presence with a yell in the men’s direction to hold it right there, when he got caught in a coughing jag, making it easy for Jake to reach the guns before Chip.
Jake snatched up a rifle and pointed it at Chip, who was only two feet from him. "I’ll waste him, boy, if you don’t put that shotgun down."
Not letting the man bully him, Lee bit out in his best command voice, "The hell I will! You’ll be dead meat first!" His face bore the expression of a man used to being in command. "Now, put the gun down!" Lee had the double-barreled shotgun pointed directly between Jake’s eyes. If it went off, there’d be nothing left of the man’s head.
Jake could see that he meant business, but he was an old pro at reading his prey and briefly wondered if the captain had it in him to kill. It became a stand off between them. Which one of us will pull the trigger first? Would the captain risk his exec’s life? How far can I bluff him? Service men, especially officers are trained to react…
The bear advanced, growling deep in its throat. Jake jerked the rifle up towards the bear, giving Chip his chance to pounce on the poacher. Furious now, Chip pummeled him, for all he was worth, showing Jake exactly what this boy was made of.
Lee, on the sidelines covered the other two, whom were steadily approaching the fighting men. "I wouldn’t if I were you," warned Lee, pointing the shotgun in their direction, at the same time, keeping a leery eye on the menacing bear, pacing on the sidelines.
Suddenly, two successive shots were fired from the other side of the camp, scaring the bear back into the woods. "DNR! Drop your weapon or pay the price!" yelled a uniformed officer from the Department of Natural Resources. He was followed by two other DNR men, wearing orange vests, along with the sheriff of the county and a couple of his men. A truck pulled up, west, of the site a few yards away on a hidden trail.
Lee carefully laid the shotgun on the ground. Then put his hands up, maintaining his position. Chip got one last punch in, before two officers from the county pulled him off the hapless poacher. They cast him up against a tree, cuffed him and patted him down, taking out both wallets and his pocketknife. Lee soon found himself up against the tree being searched, protesting, "We’re not with those guys."
"Yeah, buddy, that’s what they all say," flatly smirked one of the DNR men. He was tall, lean and heavily tanned, lauding to the fact he spent a lot of time outdoors. "Whew, you two tangled with a skunk, I see," commented the forest ranger, trying to stay down wind of him. He took out his handcuffs and quickly applied them, then pushed Lee next to Chip. "Now, be good while my partner here reads you your rights."
Lee started to protest but was cut off from another fit of coughing. Wheezing, he croaked out in a gravely voice, "Look, we got lost in the woods and stumbled upon…" cough, hack, cough, cough…
The ranger with steel gray eyes and a thick, well-trimmed mustache, studied him and Chip critically, taking in their too light, soiled, torn clothes. He carefully observed the welts, bee stings, lacerations and of course, the skunk smell, firmly coming to the conclusion these men were not at home in the woods. Further more, he didn’t think they could be with a rough and tumble outfit like Jake and his men. A dazed, fourth man was being herded to the camp by a sheriff’s deputy, where he joined his fellow lowlifes. Jake was sitting up now, with his hands cuffed behind him, spitting blood out of his mouth. He had a fat lip with a swollen eye, turning an odd shade of blue mixed with purple.
A moment later, the sheriff who’d been going through all their wallets, stepped up to the ranger and stated, "These two, Crane and Morton, I met their admiral. He’s been looking for them. I stopped by the Starke cabin, seeing smoke coming out of the chimney, thinking Renee and Jiggs were up and found Harry Nelson instead. He’s an old buddy of Jiggs’s from his early Navy days." He handed their ID to the DNR officer, who intently read them over.
The sheriff continued, turning down his chattering hand radio. "Well, this Nelson fellow, stated a few of the landmarks were different since he was last up. As you know, the big old house where Pike meets Trout road burned, and was torn down. The giant maple tree was hit by lightening and the entrance that once sported a wooden fence is now devoid of same." The big, barrel shaped officer grinned at the blonde’s look of consternation and caught a sheepish expression on the dark haired man. "He…ah…figured, they might have some trouble finding the place and asked if I would be so kind, as to keep my eye open for a black rental truck with plates from Traverse City." He jerked his thumb back towards the way Lee and Chip had come. "I believe, that’s the truck back there."
The ranger sighed, ordering, "Release these two." Turning to the Seaview men. "You mind telling me how you landed up here and what happened to you?" Wrinkling his nose and slightly shaking his head, he crossed his arms clearly anticipating the story.
Their wrists released, Lee immediately went to scratching, as Chip told the story. Lee’s whole body itched from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet. He couldn’t stop scratching. Not only that, but he couldn’t stop wheezing, his chest felt tight, as did his throat. Blotches had broken out on his skin, irritated by the scratching and he couldn’t stop coughing. The harder he coughed, the harder it was to breathe.
Chip realized what was happening about the same time the officers did. "I think he’s having an allergic reaction to the bees, even though, he denies being allergic to them!"
"I’ll second that, bring him over to the truck," quickly ordered the DNR officer. "I have an Epi pen in the first aid-kit." Chip and the sheriff grabbed Lee by the forearms, escorting him over to the truck much to his protests.
"I can walk on my own," grumbled the captain between coughs.
"Yeah, we know, Lee, but you’re getting help anyways," countered Chip, following the officer.
The DNR officer pulled the tailgate down. While the men lifted Lee on to it, the ranger pulled the medical kit out of the cab. Placing it on the tailgate, he quickly opened it and grabbed the sealed Epinephrine auto-injector pen. Ripping off the plastic tape and opening the plastic seal, he pulled the pen out of a yellow plastic case. Next, he pulled the gray cap off the end. Chip made a bigger hole in Lee’s ripped jeans as the DNR officer placed the black tip, housing the needle against his outer thigh.
"This is going to sting a bit, so don’t move," cautioned the officer, as he pushed on the injector pen.
Lee nodded and braced for the worst, feeling pressure and a sharp prick, as the needle entered his leg. A moan passed by his lips, in spite of him gritting his teeth, which was hard to do with a swollen jaw. A few seconds passed, then the needle was pulled out. His heart started racing and an alarming, tremble rushed through his body.
"I feel…weird," wheezed the captain, trying not to be alarmed.
"I bet you do, that’s the drug working," assured the sheriff. He then described the symptoms and Lee nodded. "Jeff, you got some Benadryl in that kit?"
"Sure do, " stated the ranger, going through the box. He found the pills in question, took out the box and punched out two capsules from the plastic insert. He then went to the cab and reached in for his thermos of coffee sitting on the seat. Coming back to the rear of the truck with the thermos, he uncapped it and poured out a warm cup of brew, handing it with the pills to Lee.
"What are these for?" questioned the captain in a shaky voice, swallowing the pills before he got an answer and chasing them down with the cup of coffee. Surprisingly, it tasted good.
"Benadryl, it’ll slow down your heart rate due to the effects of the Epi. It’ll also help reduce the itch and swelling." Looking at Chip, the sheriff said, "We need to get him to a doctor, pronto!"
Chip interceded, "Sheriff, just get us to Adm. Nelson. He has our sub’s doctor with him."
"Fair enough, I’ll get my car," replied the Sheriff, starting to walk away.
"Here, take my truck, the keys are in the ignition. It’s not that far. You two weren’t far from the main drive, well maybe a mile off or two," explained the ranger, hopping up on the truck bed. He pulled Lee to the back of the cab with Chip’s help. Chip sat down next to his friend. The officer jumped down from the truck, grabbing the first aid kit and thermos, as the sheriff started the engine, then shifted into gear.
"Good luck!" was the last thing the men heard, as the sheriff took off, guiding them through the woods. Chip noticed none of the beauty of the woods now, only deep concern for his friend. Lee looked awful with the purple, swollen bruise on his jaw, extending up to his cheek, where a bee sting marked the middle of it. He was folded up, leaning against the cab of the truck, shivering. Not knowing what else to do, Chip took off his jacket and put it around his commander’s shoulders. Lending what comfort he could, Chip pulled his friend up against him and held him in place, as the truck bounced along, hurrying to their destination. We’re lucky, thought Chip, Yellow jackets are the fiercest of the insect family and we could have been stung over 100 times. What would’ve happened to Lee then?
When they pulled into the cabin’s yard a few minutes later, enough time had elapsed for the medicine to work its miracle. Lee was feeling much better, albeit tired from the Benadryl, a well-known side effect. An anxious Sheriff Cowling, jumped out of the truck and met Nelson and Doc at the front door.
"Admiral, your men were lost in the woods and got stung by bees! One’s having an allergic reaction! We gave him a shot of Epinephrine for the anaphylaxis shock he was sliding into."
"Which one?" asked Doc, instantly concerned as he and Nelson quickly ran up to the truck, getting a whiff of the men in the process. The admiral was totally appalled at the sight of his officers.
"The one called Crane!"
Doc was speechless for about thirty seconds, using the time to count the respirations of each man. 18 for Lee and 16 for Chip, good respirations. His medical eye scrutinized both of their abused bodies. Contusions, abrasions, bee stings, welts, lacerations, and that’s what I can see. Blast, I hate to think what’s under their clothes. A sore Chip, moving slowly helped Lee get shakily to his feet. Both men walked unsteadily to the back end of the truck. Once they reached the tailgate, Doc ordered, in a no nonsense tone of voice, "Sit!" Too his amazement, both men did.
Nelson relaxed a bit, seeing his officers moving without too much trouble. As the medical officer started his exam, the admiral quickly went into the cabin and retrieved Doc’s medical bag.
"Any trouble breathing, Lee?" asked Doc, putting his stethoscope in his ears. He placed the round, chromed disc against the captain’s muscular chest, intently listening for any diminished breath sounds.
Lee responded with a negative shake of the head.
After several moments of moving the disc around in various areas of Lee’s chest and back, Doc ordered, "Take in a deep breath and hold it." A few seconds ticked by. "Again." A few more moments, then "Again." Satisfied with the skipper’s lung sounds, he inquired, "Wheezing? Difficulty swallowing?"
"No," came the response.
"No?" interrupted Chip. "Ten minutes ago, you could hardly speak a full sentence, without gasping for air."
Lee gave Chip and Doc a rebellious look, grumbling, "For a short time I was having some trouble, but I’m better now."
"Let me be the judge of that," flatly stated Doc, inconspicuously watching him swallow. He reached into his bag and took out a tongue depressor. "Open wide."
Lee did as bid, while the other men looked on, concern lining their faces.
"Good, some redness, but no swelling. I see the Epi worked its magic." Glancing at the sheriff, standing idly by, Doc queried, "The swelling has reduced considerably. Did you give him some Benadryl also?"
"Yes, sir, we did." Then, the sheriff relayed what he and the rangers had witnessed at the camp. Surprise and shock registered on all the senior staff’s faces by the time the story was finished.
Lee sarcastically spit out, "You mean to tell us… you were there BEFORE… they put us in that…that bee infested log?" His anger knew no limits. "The stuff we crawled through…the vermin…the…the bugs not to even mention the danger of getting our heads blown off by that shotgun…." He was so angry he couldn’t finish the thought. Besides, the medicine was dulling his senses.
The lawman defended himself by saying, "Sorry fellows, I found your truck stuck on that tree limb and had followed your trail till you veered off the path. I figured you were heading north, so I doubled back to the main road and came in the back way. That’s when I saw the poacher’s trucks and got out to investigate. I just came across the both of you when they smelled…your…ah…scent."
Chip jumped in now equally teed off. "You mean, you saw those poachers accost us and did nothing about it?"
"Look, guys, I had no choice!" expressed the lawman, frustrated. "They had a gun aimed at you front and back. There was only one of me and four of them. I had to call for backup. That’s procedure. I know, you understand about rules and regulations, being Navy men and all." He gave them a look that dared them to contradict him. Getting a nod from Nelson, he went on. "Besides, it’s very possible by making myself known, I would have gotten you both killed in the crossfire and I wasn’t will’in to take that chance."
During the heated debate, Doc had managed to get his commanders shirts off them and have a fair look at the damage to their bodies. It wasn’t as bad as he first surmised. Chip has an ugly bruise between his shoulder blades and needs an X-ray, but he seems to be moving both arms equally well. The same goes with Lee’s jaw, no problem there, he thought, listening to the heated conversation. The red, raised welts Lee had been peppered with were fading. Doc silently counted eleven bee stings between them, with Lee getting the most.
Doc asked, "Any bee stings on the legs?"
Lee tiredly replied, "I got a couple on the ankle and one in my knee."
Chip, turning a bit red, "Ah…I got one on my behind and I’m not showing you."
"Well," exclaimed Doc to Nelson, "they look worse than they are. A little soap and water will go a long ways. Then, I can properly treat and dress their wounds. I’ll give both of them some acetaminophen for the pain, so it can start working." He looked directly at his moody captain. "As for the skipper, I’ll put him on some steroids for the next three days. That’ll take care of any reoccurring problems with the bee stings." He gave a wry smile and remarked off handedly to Nelson, "It’ll also make him hungry."
Nelson instantly got the point, knowing the effects of steroids cause weight gain. And here we all conspired outrageously to get him to eat…
The men, thinking the exam was over, moved together to get off the truck. Their actions instantly brought back another problem of a different nature.
"Pugh," muttered the admiral. "You two mess with a pole-cat?" He smelled it earlier, but in his anxiety for his men, put it aside. He moved to the side of the truck away from the skunk scent.
"Yes, admiral, you could say that," confirmed Lee, self-conscious of the smell and his appearance.
Chip, not any happier than Lee, somberly said, "I’ll flip you for the first shower."
"Hold it," commanded the admiral, bringing up his hand. "Neither of you are stepping foot inside that cabin." At their shocked, crest fallen faces, he added, "Soap and water is not going to get rid of that smell. That’s Butney and I only know one recipe that will get it out."
"What might that be, sir?" asked Chip, with hope in his voice. I might not have to destroy my favorite fishing jacket.
The admiral lit a cigarette, thinking. "Hmm, let’s see…Doc, how much Hydrogen Peroxide do you have?"
"Well, I guess that means we have to go to the store. We’re going to need a liter for each of these men, along with a box of sodium bicarbonate and a couple of dashes of dishwasher soap."
"Dishwasher soap?" queried the sheriff.
"Yes," grinned Nelson, with a twinkle in his eyes. "It’ll bring the Butney or skunk spray to the surface and the other two chemicals will destroy it."
"You mean good old tomato juice won’t do it?" asked the astounded lawman.
Crane testily, "If he says it will work. It will work!"
Nelson put a hand on his captain’s arm, easily calming him. "Ah, Lee. It’s a beautiful day, so why don’t you and Chip relax and do some fishing off the dock? While you’re busy with that, I can run into the Mom & Pop store for the supplies we’ll need to get rid of your…ah…cologne?" He tried not to snicker, but it escaped before he could stifle it. In doing so, the chuckle broke the tension surrounding all the men.
Feeling like he let the men down, the sheriff volunteered to get the supplies and medicine. While he was gone, Doc treated and cleaned his commander’s wounds the best he could. Afterwards, they all sat around the dock fishing. Chip cast his baited line into the deep, crystal clear, aqua blue water and breathed a sigh of pleasure. The rounded lake was beautiful and serene with the trees dressed in their fall costumes. Nelson and Doc added their lines in the hopes of catching a few more fish for dinner. Lee, sitting in a reclining lawn chair on the dock, was soon asleep from the effects of the Benadryl and the warm sun. Chip slowly trolled the fishing line towards him and caught a five-pound trout. His success spurred Nelson and Doc on to a competition, as he told them the entire story of being lost in the woods.
"You mean to tell me, Lee thinks he swerved to miss a moose?" Laughter was heard across the lake.
Later, the sheriff dropped the requested items off, wishing them all good luck on the rest of their stay. The DNR officer brought their luggage by and reported the truck was being towed to a garage in Traverse City. He unobtrusively as possible counted the fish, making sure they hadn’t exceeded the limit. Lastly, he gave them back their pocket- knives and wallets with the money he’d found in Jake’s jacket. The sheriff had filled him in on the scene he had witnessed when the Seaview men had first been captured while exchanging vehicles.
Nelson got an old wooden tub out from the shed behind the cabin. He filled it with water adding one liter of peroxide, a quarter cup of baking soda and a dash of dishwasher soap. Lee pulled rank and got in first, washing from head to toe, in the cold water. After the initial bath, the admiral handed him a bar of real soap, ordering him inside to a hot shower. Chip was given the same treatment, washing his jacket as he cleaned himself. Too his astonishment, the smell came out of his coat.
Hours later, sitting around the campfire, cooking their fish, the men enjoyed a few beers and swapped old fishing and camping stories. Chip pulled his father’s knife out, thankful when the DNR officer returned it in the afternoon. Lee, seeing the knife, kindly asked, "Chip, you feel like telling that story?"
"My great, great grandfather received this knife as a gift from a Chippewa Indian on his 18th birthday. They were blood brothers and very close. A story came with the knife handed down from the ancestors of the land. In a nutshell, a promise was extracted that he would always respect the land. Never use the knife against another person. And always carry it with pride and honor." He pointed to the handle. "The bear represents the land, courage and strength. It’s been handed down from father to son from that time on and always on his eighteen-birthday. Of course, the blade has been replaced a few times throughout the years." Chip stopped and swallowed, lovingly fingering the knife. "It was my father’s last gift to me before he died at the end of that season. I miss him more than I can say, even after all this time."
Lee understood and simply said, "I’m sorry Chip, about your father." He patted him on the shoulder. "At least, you had the privilege of knowing your father and wonderful memories of him. As you know, I never knew mine." Lee got up to grab another beer, while Chip looked up into the star-studded sky, wondering about Lee’s past and his mysterious visit to Ford Island. *
A short time later, the fire died down and Chip went over to the woodpile, where he startled a possum. He shooed the rodent off the wood and the animal rolled over in fright and played possum. Picking up a piece of wood, he heard a rustle in the dry, fallen leaves of the forest. A peculiar odor wafted through the trees, making his eyes water. A moment later, he caught sight of a furry black and white striped animal, walking behind the woodpile. Oh no, not again, thought Chip, dropping a piece of wood on his foot. Hearing the noise, the animal’s tail came up…
Lee hearing strange noises coming from the woodpile got up to investigate. He found Chip standing motionless, leaning against the woodpile and holding his foot. His eyes widened in horror, seeing the critter at his XO’s feet. Trying not to scare the little stink bomb, he slowly backed up and tripped over the dead possum. The furry, black and white striped face beast came over to take a look and Lee thought he was doomed.
Chip seeing his commander flat on this back, with eyes as wide as saucers, burst into laughter. Getting, a I’ll get even with you, look from his discomforted friend, Chip slipped on his poker face and calmly reassured, "Lee, it’s okay. The fat little animal is only a badger!"
* From A Step Back, By Darla M Poulos.