A Little Camping Trip

By Michelle Pichette and Holly Cushing

Riley was working on some routine maintenance with Patterson in the Control Room after their latest mission. The cruise had been no big deal and Riley was feeling mellow and looking forward to a little bit of beach time. Well, he mostly was. He wasnít sure why, but lately heíd been feeling a little left out of things. When heíd first joined the crew of the Seaview a couple of years ago, he was right there when cool stuff happened. Somehow, after heíd been around for a while, he started to miss out on just about everything.

It wasnít like his friends had ditched him. In fact, he still did lots of things with Patterson and Kowalski when they were on leave. Some times he kicked back with some of the other guys from the boat, but mostly, when he wasnít doing his surfing thing, he spent time with Ski and Pat. They were cool guys, way cooler than any of his surfing buddies. "So, if you and Ski donít have any plans, why not come hang with me on the beach? Lots of babes in bikinis," Riley said. Usually women were enough incentive to get Kowalski and Patterson to go about anywhere, especially Kowalski.

Patterson was half under one of the panels and Riley could just barely see when he shook his head. "Stu, after last time, Skiís not going anywhere near your friends for a little while."

The comment made Riley feel a bit self-conscious, especially since heíd just been thinking that it would be totally awesome if he could get Ski and Pat as into surfing as he was. He hadnít had much success doing it so far and last time thereíd been a little bit of trouble. "That wasnít my fault. How could I know that Lisa and Eddie had hooked up while we were on that cruise?"

"Possibly by asking if she was still available before you steered Kowalski her way?" Pat suggested, then stuck his hand out toward Riley. "Hand me a seven eighths socket."

Riley reached into the toolbox, growing more embarrassed about the incident. There had been a little scuffle, no one had gotten hurt, and Kowalski, though heíd been a little angry about it at first, had dropped the matter pretty quickly, so Riley had almost forgotten it. Now he worried slightly that maybe Kowalski was still mad but wasnít saying anything to him for some reason. "Skiís not still ticked at me about it, is he?" he asked as he handed the socket to Pat.

"Letís just say heís gonna be a little leery about any women you introduce him to for a while. And I need seven eighths, not thirteen sixteenths," Pat told Riley with a crooked grin as he pulled himself out from beneath the panel, sat up, and gave the socket back to him.

Riley looked at the numbers on the side of the socket and sure enough it read 13/16. "You didnít even try it or look at the numbers or anything. How did you know it wasnít right? They all look the same to me."

Pat reached by him and took the socket he wanted, saying, "Stu, youíre mindís somewhere else. Why donít you just let me finish up?" With that he ducked back under the panel again.

"No, no. Iím with it now," Riley told him. He shook images of sharing the perfect wave with his best friends out of his head and turned back to the task at hand. He couldnít stay focused though, his good mood dragging his mind to more pleasurable ventures. He was about to ask Pat about the beach again, ready to promise that heíd make sure of the availability status of every woman on the beach before hitting the waves, when Kowalski and Chief Sharkey came through the aft entry way, arguing. That wasnít unusual. Ski and the Chief, though they would be the last people in the world to admit it, were very much alike and that led to them butting heads quite often. It was never serious and the arguments were usually forgotten in a matter of moments.

"Listen to this, Pat, and tell me if it isnít the most stupid thing youíve ever heard in your life," Ski said as they approached. Pat didnít get up, but pulled himself back from beneath the panel again and turned so he could look up at Ski and Sharkey from where he sat. Riley turned too. Whatever this was about, it promised to be more interesting than boat maintenance. "Admiral Starkeís assistant convinced the Admiral and the Skipper to do this male bonding thing in the woods this week. You know, the whole live off the land and bare your soul to each other while you howl at the moon new age stuff. Isnít that stupid?"

Riley glanced at Pat, wondering what heíd say. "Uh, have either of the Admiralís or the Skipper ever actually been camping or hunting before?" Pat asked. The expression on his face said that he sincerely doubted it and that it might be a cause for concern.

"Thatís why you two are going," Sharkey declared.

Ski nodded, looking annoyed. "Thatís the other part. Weíre supposed to be in on this whole thing. ĎAn opportunity to get to know each other better,í says Captain Leland."

"Whoís Captain Leland?" Riley asked.

"Captain Joseph Leland, Admiral Starkeís personal assistant," Sharkey told him. "And youíre going, too, Riley."

"Really? Great! I havenít been camping since I was a kid,"

Riley said, smiling. It all sounded like fun to him.

"Wait, wait. Itís late in the season. It could get cold in woods. That means a full pack with thermal sleeping gear and tents, plus hunting and fishing gear... All that stuff can get pretty heavy for anybody who isnít used to lugging it around. And you never answered me. Has anyone besides me and Ski ever been hunting?" Patterson asked, now beginning to look very troubled about the entire trip.

"No, not really. Admiral Starke said that he went on a safari in Africa a long time ago, but I donít think he personally ever shot anything other than a practice target," Sharkey told him. "But Captain Leland said heís been reading up on the subject and it all seems pretty simple to him." Sharkeyís tone was that of derision and he obviously didnít think much of Captain Lelandís research. "And before you start griping about it, we donít have a choice. Weíll all going, Admiralís orders. Iím not any more thrilled about this than you are. If God had intended us to sleep in the woods in tents, he wouldnít have invented architects. The thing that really bugs me is this Ďgetting to know youí crap. Sounds like real trouble to me."

"But we already know each other," Riley said. In fact, he probably knew the Chief, Ski, and Pat better than some members of his family.

"No, Riley, not us, the Brass. Weíre supposed to make like rank doesnít matter and pretend to be buddies for a week. If you ask me, Mister Morton was the smart one. He said that he had travel plans that he couldnít change and got off the base double quick," Kowalski said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder.

Patterson got a look on his face like he was going to say something, but Sharkey cut him off. "Donít get any ideas, Pat. Youíre going. When you finish up here, go home and get your camping gear together. Weíre all meeting here at seven a.m. sharp, got it?"

"Yeah, Chief, Iíve got it," Pat sighed.

"Good. Donít be late. Especially you, Riley," Sharkey said, then he made his way up to the nose of the ship.

"Doesnít this beat all," Kowalski grumbled as he sat on the floor next to Pat and Riley. "Now weíve gotta babysit the Brass for a week in the woods. Riley, tell me you were a Boy Scout or something and we donít have to look out for you every minute."

Riley grinned at him. "Nah, Iím better than a Boy Scout. Iím a beach bum. Liviní rough donít bother me and Iím pretty cool with the whole outdoors scene so long as nobody makes me shoot Bambi."

Pat grinned at him. "I donít think weíll have to resort to that."

"Yeah, but weíd better finish whatever you guys are working on here and get ready for this fiasco. You donít mind if Pat and I put together a pack for you, do you, Stu?" Ski asked.

"Nah, set me up. I am your camping apprentice. Fishingís cool. Do you think weíll be doing any fishing?" Riley asked. He was starting to get psyched up for camping instead of surfing and he didnít see the problem with everyone doing the buddy thing. He looked up to the Admiral and the Skipper and the Chief, and the thought that they wanted to get to know him better made him feel really good.

They finished up the maintenance that he and Patterson had started. It didnít take long, theyíd been nearly done anyway. First they hit Rileyís pad and let him grab some clothes, then they went to Kowalskiís place and grabbed some of his stuff, then they took off to Pattersonís apartment. They spread out a bunch of camping gear in his small living room, then started packing everything into the three large knapsacks they had. Riley watched all the proceedings and pitched in when he could, then he finally had to ask about something. "The Chief said something about hunting. Are we packing guns or rifles or something?"

"No, Stu," Pat said, shaking his head.

"No?" Riley asked, now getting really confused.

"No," Kowalski stated firmly. "Pat and I have both seen the wrong end of a gun way too often and we decided a long time ago that we werenít going to add to it in our off time. When we go hunting, we use bows. No oneís ever pulled my bow away from me and tried to use it on me and Iíve never heard of a bow going off accidentally."

"Wow! Cool! But... I donít know how to use a bow," Riley said, becoming a little disheartened. He didnít want to be a burden and it sounded to him as if Kowalski was expecting the rest of the camping party to be just that.

"Weíll give you a couple of quick lessons on sighting a bow tonight before we turn in, if you want to learn. And I bought a new bow last year. You can have my old one if you want, Stu," Patterson told him as he tightly rolled a blanket and put it into the pack in front of him.

"Thatíd be awesome. Thanks, Pat." Patterson just shrugged, continuing what he was doing. Riley looked around. Things were vanishing quickly into packs and soon the living room was clear and three large knapsacks stood in the middle of the room. Riley lifted one as Pat and Kowalski got the other two and moved them to behind the sofa. The pack wasnít exactly light and Riley finally understood Pattersonís comment about the weight of camping gear. "Heavy. Díya suppose that suppose weíre hiking very far tomorrow?" Riley commented as they put down their packs.

"Probably, but who knows? Pat, you mind if me and Stu crash here tonight so we can get an early start tomorrow? Stu, you donít mind the sofa, right?" Ski asked. Kowalski hadnít waited for Pat to answer, but he probably correctly assumed that Pat wouldnít have a problem with them staying. Ski and Pat spent most of their leave time together and Riley used to wonder why they didnít just share a pad. That was until he worked on the Seaview for about six months, living and working with over a hundred other men, having to share just about everything with them. It was then that he started to realize how good it was to have somewhere that was just his, some place where he could be alone for a little while and reassert his sense of self, even if it was just his one room apartment that he now kept.

Riley had always liked Pattersonís apartment. It was clean and homey and Pat never seemed to mind unexpected company, even when that company stayed the night. A year ago, when Patís dad had been killed, he and Kowalski and some other friends kind of took it in turn making sure that Patterson found himself with unexpected company whenever they were in port. It wasnít that Patterson ever acted bummed out, but heíd become quieter than normal, and that was pretty quiet. Kowalski organized the whole thing, mostly to make sure that Pat didnít get too many guys dropping by all at once. Riley, for his part, used to drag Pat off to a quiet beach somewhere and tried, unsuccessfully, to get him to try and ride a few waves. Pat would just sit on the beach and watch him surf and theyíd talk in the car on the way back, Riley doing most of the talking most of the time. Riley didnít mind. The Chief had always told him that he talked way too much for his own good, but when he started getting Pat to laugh at some of the bonehead things heíd done as a kid, Riley felt like heíd actually helped Pat feel better in his own small way, and that felt really, really good.

Ski got a blanket and pillow for him while Patterson taught Riley how to sight a bow. It didnít seem hard and Riley began to feel psyched for the trip again. "So, listen, Stu. Tomorrow, when the opportunity presents itself, one of us is going to push ahead and clear a camp, maybe scrounge up some dinner," Ski said as the lesson came to an end.

"I will," Pat volunteered before Ski could go any further.

Ski smiled at him. "Donít want to get stuck entertaining the Brass, huh? Okay, but next time, itís your turn. Anyway, Stu, I was thinking maybe you could go along with Pat and give him a hand. That sound okay to you?"

Riley nodded. "Sure thing, Ski, whatever you say. But what if the Chief doesnít want us taking off?"

"Iíll handle the Chief. We just want to make sure things go smooth on this trip, right guys?" Kowalski said.

Riley smiled, thinking that if anyone could Ďhandleí the Chief, Kowalski could. Ski had a knack for being able to get out of bad scenes without a scratch and most of the guys envied him that, especially the way people got dented on the Seaview. Riley, personally, looked up to the way Kowalski never lost his cool, no matter how crazy life got, and it got pretty nuts lately. It didnít matter whether aliens or intelligent plant life or spies or sea monsters were running amuck on the boat, Kowalski would usually find himself in the middle of things and he would always rise to the occasion. It wasnít hard to understand why the Admiral and the Skipper relied almost as heavily on Ski as they did on the Exec and the Chief. That in itself was about the biggest compliment a guy could hope to get.

They ordered in pizza and turned in early at Kowalskiís suggestion. Riley had always been able to fall asleep wherever he laid himself down and the next thing he knew he woke to the smell of breakfast cooking. He took a shower and shaved, not knowing when heíd get the chance to do it again, then had a nice, hearty breakfast of ham and eggs and hash browns and biscuits. No one ever starved at Pattersonís place, Riley thought as he polished off the last of the eggs, comfortably full once he did. Once the breakfast dishes were washed and put away, they carried the packs and bows down to Kowalskiís old Camaro and drove to the base to meet up with rest of the camping party. They were the first ones to arrive, but not by much, the Skipperís little, red Cobra pulling up shortly after they got there. They all got out of their cars to wait for the others to get to the Institute.

"Glad you made it, gentlemen," the skipper said with his usual winning smile. The Skipper, Lee Crane, was a great guy and the best Captain above or below the water that there would ever be, at least in Rileyís eyes. In fact, most of the guys would walk through fire for the Skipper, not that heíd ever ask them to. It was easy to see how he had made Captain so young, the Skipper not all that much older than the three men currently standing before him. Still, everyone was older than Riley, who had the sometimes uncomfortable distinction of being the youngest guy presently serving on the Seaview. Somehow, the Skipper made the jeans and heavy wool shirt he was wearing look like the height of fashion. No wonder all the babes fell for him, Riley thought with a little grin. "Should be an interesting trip."

"Yes, sir," Kowalski answered for the three of them, then glanced at the skipperís car. "Uh, sir, excuse me for asking, but didnít you bring your camping gear?" Riley looked at the Cobra now. The trunk probably wouldnít hold a pack the size of the oneís Kowalski and Patterson had put together and there was nothing visible in the car. Maybe Kowalski had been right about people needing to be looked after in the woods, even the Skipper.

"Ah, yes, camping gear. Admiral Starke is supplying that. Didnít the Chief tell you that when he told you about the trip?" the Skipper asked in return.

Kowalski glanced at Pat, who gave him a barely perceptible shake of his head. They did that all the time, neither of them needing to talk to know what the other was thinking. "Sir, I hope we wonít be stepping on anyoneís toes if we bring our own gear. Itís just that me and Pat do a lot of camping and weíre kind of used to our own stuff," Kowalski said, looking down a little. Now Riley understood what the look had been over. They didnít want to be stuck with whatever was in the packs being made up for them, but they didnít want to question the Skipper either.

"I donít see how that could be a problem, Kowalski," the Skipper said in a reassuring tone. "You have your own rifles too, then?"

"No, bows!" Riley replied before Kowalski could, unable to control his enthusiasm about the whole camping trip any longer. "Itís the coolest thing, sir. Pattersonís loaning me one of his bows, taught me how to aim and everything. Way less dangerous to people than guns, sir." The Captainís smile brightened a little, like heíd just said something funny, and Riley blushed, thinking that heíd already overdone the whole friendly chatter bit.

"Iím sure they are, Riley," the Skipper agreed with a soft laugh. "Iíve always wanted to give archery a try. Perhaps youíd indulge the Old Man with a few lessons if we get the chance this week, gentlemen. How long have you been hunting with bows?"

"A couple of years now, sir. Me, I mean. Pattersonís been using a bow since he was a kid," Kowalski replied, then grinned at Patterson. "Makes me look downright pathetic in comparison."

Pat gave the Skipper a sheepish look when he turned his attention to him. "Kowalskiís being generous, sir."

The Skipper smiled again and but didnít comment because another car was approaching. The sedan pulled along side the Skipperís car and Doctor Jamieson got out and walked over to them, smiling. "A good day for it," he commented with a sunny smile.

"I didnít you were coming, Doc," Ski said. He didnít sound entirely happy about the thought of it, which confused Riley. The Doc seemed like a pretty okay guy to him.

Doc gave him a stern look. "Youíre probably lucky I am, Kowalski, considering what always seems to happen when the Admiral pulls you particular people together to do something." Then he cracked a smile. "Besides, when Mister Morton excused himself and a spot opened up, I thought it might be my first opportunity in a good long while to do some fly fishing. The Admiral told me I could tag along, despite the fact that I know all of you far more intimately than youíre comfortable with."

Riley smiled now. The Doc sure did get to spend enough time with them in Sickbay, that was for sure. "Iím with you, Doc. I used to go fishing with my Dad. It was great."

Now, two more cars approached. One was the Admiralís sedan, which Chief Sharkey was currently at the wheel of. Riley had driven it on occasion, so he knew it pretty well. The other, one of those small, tourist type buses, probably was going to take them all to wherever they were going for their trip. Sure enough, Admiral Starke, who Riley recognized from the vidphone and a few appearances in the base, got off the bus as Admiral Nelson and the Chief were getting out of his car. He was followed off the bus by someone that Riley didnít know at all. He figured that it had to be the Captain Leland that Chief Sharkey had mentioned on the Bridge of the Seaview. He looked to be about midway between the Skipper and the Admiral in age, with blond hair and a slim build. Riley wasnít sure what it was, but just looking at the guy made him uneasy. He tried to shake off the feeling, but it refused to go away.

"Everyoneís here. Good, good," Admiral Nelson said. Riley wasnít used to seeing him out of uniform, the few times he had, the Admiral had always been in a suit. Now, as he stood there in hiking boots, blue jeans and a flannel shirt, pretty much what everyone else was wearing, Riley was a little thrown off. He wondered if the whole week was going to be like this and not just for him. "I was hoping weíd get an early start so we could get wherever weíre going before it got too dark. So, Jiggs, ready to tell us all where you planned to deposit us for our outing?"

Admiral Starke smiled. "For that, Iíll defer to Joe. This was his idea, but I thought it was a good one. Joe, why donít you take the floor and tell everyone about the trip?"

"Of course, Jiggs," Captain Leland said. When he did, something went all funny in Rileyís gut. Had he just called Admiral Starke by his first name? What, was this guy nuts? Captain Leland turned to the assembly and said, "Iíll keep this short so that we can get going, but what weíll be trying to do is improve our current working relationships by getting to know each other more intimately. By working together for basic living needs, supporting each other in an unhostile, yet secluded environment, we should all discover new things about each other and possibly even about ourselves. It will show us new ways to function as a team and should be a lot of fun."

"Uh, Captain Leland..." Patterson started, the same troubled look that had been on his face yesterday in the Control Room back with a vengeance.

"Joe," Leland corrected him quickly. "Thatís the other thing. Weíre all equals on this trip. No titles or pomp, just first names or nicknames. No one gives orders, weíre a team."

Pattersonís expression tightened and he didnít seem to know how to respond to what Leland had just told him. "You had a question, Pat?" Captain Crane asked him.

"Uh, no, thatís okay, sir," Pat replied, looking chagrined as he backed off. Suddenly, Pat was the center of attention, something Riley knew that Pat avoided at almost any cost. He wondered what Pat had been about to ask and he really hoped it wasnít anything too important.

"Lee, remember?" Leland corrected him.

"Uh, yeah, right," Pat murmured as he tried to blend with the nonexistent woodwork.

"Well, I have a question. Weíre supposed to be living off the land, hunting down our own food, stuff like that, right? I was just wondering what happens if we arenít the most successful hunters in the world? Do we starve or go home?" Sharkey asked. The Chief didnít look any more pleased with things than he had yesterday.

"Iím sure weíll do just fine... Frank, isnít it?" Leland asked.

Sharkey gave him a narrow look. "Francis," he corrected the man, though he looked none too pleased with the thought of Leland calling him that either.

"Francis, then. Everythingís ready in the bus. Shall we go?" Leland asked, motioning them toward the waiting vehicle. Everyone started moving in the direction he indicated except Ski and Pat, who moved to Kowalskiís car to get their backpacks and the Doc, who grabbed a small medical bag from his back seat. Riley followed his friends and got his pack and the bow Pat had given him and the three of them moved to the bus. "Whatís all that? Iíve made up packs for you, everything youíll need for our retreat," Leland said as he met them at the door. He blocked their path and Riley was pretty sure he wasnít going to let them get onto the bus with their things.

"Is there a problem, Captain Leland," the skipper asked from just behind him.

"Joe, and I planned this trip very carefully. We wonít need anything that I didnít pack and it looks like your men have a lot of unnecessary things," Leland said. He was beginning to sound a little put out.

Ski glanced at Pat, but his expression said that he wasnít going to budge on the matter. Before Ski could respond to Leland, the Skipper said, "Joe, I donít really see the problem with my men bringing the camping gear theyíre used to, do you? After all, theyíre carrying it. Itís not like they can complain if their packs are heavier than ours."

Joe looked a little unhappy about it, but he stepped aside, letting Kowalski past him. "Fine. We donít want to start things out on the wrong foot, I suppose. I know theyíre all the rage in the hunting set, but you arenít really serious about the bows, though, are you?"

"Sure are, Joe," Kowalski said as he moved up the steps. Pat didnít say a word, just moving past Leland as quick as he could. Riley smiled at him as he followed Pat and he was sure it took everything Leland had to return a thin lipped smile of his own. He took a seat next to the Chief and smiled at him, too.

"Chief, this is kind of way out. Am I supposed to really call you ĎFrancisí and the Admiral ĎHarryí or something?" he whispered, a little uneasy with the thought of doing that now that heíd said it aloud.

Sharkey gave him an unhappy look, but Riley didnít think the Chief was unhappy with him this time. "Letís just play this by ear, kid. Iím still wondering if everyoneís going to get out of this whole thing alive." Riley didnít entirely know what he meant by that, but he sat back as the busís door closed, waiting to see what would happen next.

Leland stood at the front of the bus as the driver pulled off. He started to explain about the physiological reasoning behind the trip. Most of what he was saying shot right over Rileyís head, but he wasnít into all that, so he wasnít really listening. Every so often, the Chief would huff or grumble something under his breath, which would temporarily rouse Riley from his daydreaming. He smiled, thinking that if anyone met their end this week, it would probably be at the Chiefís hands. Leland had only just stopped talking when the bus pulled to a halt. Riley glanced out the window to see they were in the woods somewhere. He was a little embarrassed about zoning out for almost the entire trip.

"So, now, is there anything that isnít clear to anyone?" Leland asked. There was silence in response and Leland clapped his hands together and rubbed them briskly together. "Letís hit the trail, then."

Riley stood up and retrieved his pack and bow, everyone else taking a pack from the back of the bus. Riley was the first to pass Leland as he exited, and Leland gave him a more sincere smile than earlier, saying, "We havenít met. Iím Joe."

Riley gave him another sunny grin. "Stuart. My budís call me Stu. So when do we get to go fishing?"

Leland laughed softly. "Soon." Riley got nudged from behind and he glanced back to see Kowalski urging him forward. Riley moved down the steps, hearing Leland saying, "I hope we didnít get off to too bad a start. Kowalski, right? I didnít catch your first name."

Riley glanced back again and saw the tight, controlled expression on Skiís face and wondered if he was going to hit Leland now or wait until the guy really ticked him off. "Richard," Ski said, then moved off the bus without further comment. "Remember, Stu. Stick with Pat, okay?" he said quietly as they waited for the others on the trail. Riley nodded silently, knowing that Ski was really concerned. Now Riley regretted not listening when Leland had been talking earlier, thinking maybe heíd missed something.

"Guyís hopeless," Pat commented as he joined them. "Goes on his first name kick, but he calls me ĎPatí as I walked past him."

Ski grinned and let out a short laugh. "He thinks your name is Pat Patterson? Who hates their kid that much?"

"Shouldnít you..." Riley started.

"No," Pat cut him off, then got a mischievous look on his face, something that Riley was just not used to seeing on Pat. "And donít you correct him either."

"Correct who about what?" Sharkey asked as he closed their circle. "Probably Leland. Look, I know this is going to take a lot of effort, but try to behave like grownups this week, okay? We donít want to embarrass the Skipper or the Admiral, right?"

"Of course not, Chief," Kowalski said. "Hey, weíre in this together."

"Thatís the spirit," Leland said, clapping Kowalski on the back as he came up behind them. Kowalski went from a level mood to grinding his teeth and the Chief made a calming motion with his hands, probably out of Lelandís view. "Shall we?" he asked, nodding toward the trail.

Nelson was shrugging on a backpack, but he also approached them, saying, "Patterson, Iíll understand if you want to go back to town. I didnít know weíd be camping here."

"Iím fine, sir," Pat replied with a shrug.

"Harry," Leland corrected him, then glanced to the Admiral. "Or do you prefer Harriman? And why would Pat want to leave us already?"

"Pat was involved in a kidnaping a few months back and he wound up here in Los Padres National Forest. He saved a little girl from a bunch of killers," the Skipper said, clapping Pat on the shoulder and giving him a warm smile. Riley smiled too. Pat had been a real hero, not that he didnít blush every time someone mentioned it, just like he was now. "However, being held captive somewhere can certainly color your outlook on the place."

"That was you? Harry, youíve cornered the market on heroes, havenít you?" Admiral Starke said with a broad smile, making Patís blush darken a little more.

"Itís fine... I mean, I donít mind, sir," Pat told the Skipper, still looking a little embarrassed about having attention called to him again.

"Lee," Leland reminded Pat firmly.

"Yeah, right," Pat said, but then fell silent.

"We should get going or weíre going to be hiking in the dark," Kowalski said.

"No, no, Iím sure we can reach the lake before dark, but youíre right, Richard. We should get going," Leland said, then took the lead, marching them up the path. Everyone found a place behind him, the Skipper taking up the rear of the line, probably to make sure they didnít lose anyone on the trail.

The hiking wasnít that bad, not to Riley anyway. The two Admirals started a good natured discussion about who they thought was going to win this yearís Superbowl and pretty soon, everyone had joined in. After two hours of debating the abilities of their favorite teams, Joe called for a rest break. As everyone started to drop their backpacks to the trail, Pat moved up the path a little further. Riley followed him, Kowalski giving him a nod and a wink as he passed him on the trail.

"Weíre only taking a fifteen minute rest, Pat, Stu. Arenít you going to sit down?" Joe asked. He had already taken a seat on his pack and was actually smiling when Pat drew even with him.

"Iím not really tired, actually. I think Iíll push on ahead and clear a camp for us up at the lake," he said.

Joeís face fell. "Weíre supposed to be working together on this trip to..."

"Iím not tired either. Iíll go help," Riley spoke up. He put a hand on Patís shoulder as he reached him. "No sense in having all kinds of junk to do when itís getting dark if a couple of us can get a jump on stuff, right?"

"Sounds good to me, so long as you boys arenít killing yourselves racing up there just to save us old men a little work," Admiral Nelson said.

"Itís no trouble, sir," Patterson replied before starting to head up the trail again.

"Harry!" Joe corrected him, beginning to sound a little perturbed about having to do it and probably the entire situation.

"Yeah. Right," Pat muttered and Riley choked back a laugh as they made tracks up the trail.

"Heís kind of a drag, huh?" Riley asked once they were a good distance up the path.

"Eh, heís just trying to look good in front of Admiral Starke by making us all look like we couldnít have made it through the week without him," Pat replied.

"Huh?"

"Werenít you listening on the bus, Stu?"

Riley looked down sheepishly. "Actually, no." Pat gave him a grin and matched his stride with Rileyís so they could walk side by side.

"You didnít miss much. He was going on about how this week was going to prove our relative worth to each other. Of course, he planned and packed everything, so guess who looks extra good if everything goes really well. Thatís why he didnít want us taking our own supplies and once Ski knew it for sure, it got him really mad. I told him it wasnít going to change anything as far as how the Skipper or the Admiral felt about us, so let Leland have his moment if thatís what he wants, but you know Ski. He doesnít exactly drop things easily."

"We could screw up some stuff, make him look bad," Riley said. He didnít like being used anymore than Kowalski seemed to.

Pat shook his head, reaching back to one of the side pouches of his backpack. "No, thatíd just hurt us or make us look like jerks. Itís not worth it, Stu. Forget about him and have some fun. Thatís what Iím going to do. Want some jerky?"

Riley grinned as he took the offered snack, saying, "I donít think Captain Leland would approve. We didnít hunt it down."

"I wonít tell if you donít," Pat said with little smile of his own just before starting on a piece of jerky himself.

They hiked up the trail for a few more hours, then took a short break and ate a little more jerky and some dried fruit before finishing the distance to the lake. Riley was actually glad when they reached a flat area overlooking the water and Pat dropped his pack to the ground. As he shrugged his own pack off, he felt aches in places that heíd never had aches before. Pat was pulling his bow and quiver loose and Riley had to admit to himself that he was impressed because Pat didnít look tired at all. "Now I know why they had Superman come from a farm, man," he commented as he stretched his back.

"Huh?" Pat said as he looked up at him.

"Nothing. So what do we do now?"

Pat smiled at him. "Feel like trying out hunting?"

Rileyís feet were sore and he was tired and he winced at Pat, asking, "Do we have to go far?"

"Nah. Weíre after small game. Something we can cook up pretty quickly. Iíve seen tons of squirrels while we were hiking and even a couple of rabbit holes," Pat said as he straightened with his bow and a quiver of arrows.

Riley grimaced. "Squirrels? Weíre gonna eat squirrels?"

"Sure. There are some nice fat ones up here and they taste..."

"Donít tell me, let me guess. Like chicken, right?"

Pat laughed softly. "I was going to say Ďpretty good if you cookíem right,í actually. Want to take a breather or get to it?"

"Iím okay. Can we just leave our packs here?"

"Sure. No oneíll bother them and weíre not going far."

"What about the camp? Weíre supposed to..."

"Weíll do that while dinnerís cooking. Come on, Stu," Pat said, nodding toward his bow. Riley retrieved it and followed Pat a little away from the clearing they were in. There were squirrels frolicking everywhere, which wasnít too strange because acorns were all over the ground, ripe and easy for the taking. Riley drew an arrow from his quiver and took aim on one of the little animals, reminding himself that it was just a real fuzzy rat as he did. He took a shot and missed by a good foot, but he wasnít totally unhappy when the squirrel scampered away. "Thatís okay, Stu," Pat told him, clapping his shoulder gently. "Youíll get the hang of it."

Riley nodded and they continued their hunt for another half an hour. Pat got a mess of squirrels, Riley losing count after the first six, and Riley didnít manage to touch one, but he was getting pretty close by the end. Pat gave him some pointers and didnít get down on him when he didnít actually contribute to the catch and that Riley gave him another squeamish look when he said that he was going to start cleaning the squirrels in his sack. "Iím going down to the lake to do the skinning and Iíll bring up some water. Tell you what, Stu, why donít you gather some firewood while Iím doing that? Hey, you could pick up some acorns and we can roast them too. Itíll make a nice surprise."

"Sure thing," Riley said, glad to be able to contribute, something to the meal. There were plenty of loose branches and sticks to gather right near the clearing and Riley had made a good sized pile by the time Pat got back.

"Okay, first we need to make a fire pit. Iíll do that. Stu, grab a branch and sweep the area so thereíll be a clean place for the tents, then you can help me with dinner. While itís cooking, weíll finish fixing up the camp."

Riley grabbed a pine branch and began sweeping the area out as Pat pulled a small spade from his pack and dug a shallow pit, then circled it with stones. He built up a fire and by the time it was burning well, Riley joined him and helped him spit the squirrel meat and start it cooking. Next, Pat started Riley on setting up the tent heíd stuffed into Rileyís pack and while Riley was spreading it, Pat tied a tarp up between some trees and dumped the water heíd carried up into it. Riley asked what he was doing, and Pat told him he was making a place for everyone to wash up in when they got in. Shortly after they got the tent pitched, Pat asked Riley to scrounge up just a little more firewood while he went to get some more water in the collapsible containers heíd brought. As it began to get dark, the two of them settled by the fire, the camp cleaned and ready for the rest of the party, dinner cooked and being kept warm by the fire, and acorns roasting. Riley was tired, but he felt good as he looked around, Pat confirming his good feeling by saying, "Good work, Stu. Couldnít have done it without you."

"You and Ski do this for fun?" Riley asked.

"Well, Ski and I donít exactly push ourselves and we donít have to hunt or set up camp for a group as big as this." Riley nodded, then rubbed his eyes. "Tired? Why donít you eat, Stu? I donít think the others will mind if we start without them." He leaned forward and took a skewer of meat for each of them. Riley ate, but he was so done in that barely tasted what he was eating. Still, he ate what Pat had given him and took seconds when they were offered. "See? Squirrelís not so bad, is it?" Pat asked as they finished up.

"I guess not. I canít believe you arenít tired, though. Is that why Superman came from Nebraska?" Riley asked because he knew that Pat had grown up on a farm in northern Nebraska.

Pat grinned. "Oh, was that what you were talking about earlier. Iím tired, Stu, but it wouldnít do much good grousing about it while we had work to do. And Superman was from Kansas. I always liked Batman, actually. Heís just a regular guy who worked hard to make himself the best physically and mentally. All the other superheroes, even the ones with all kinds of extraordinary abilities, they all respect him, and all the villains, even the really powerful ones, theyíre all afraid of him. Donít tell him, but thatís kind of like how I see the Admiral. We have all these powerful, strange stuff attacking us all the time, but the Admiral, he always out thinks them."

"Yeah. What about the Skipper? What superhero do you think heís like?"

Pat leaned back and seemed to think. "Well, maybe like Daredevil, except that heís not blind. What about Wildcat?"

"I donít think I know him."

"Heís another boxer, like Daredevil. A heavyweight champion that uses his fighting skills to combat crime."

"Wow, Pat. You know the coolest stuff."

Pat just shrugged. "One of my friends growing up, Dan, he was into comic books and his folks figured that at least he read something all the time, so they bought him a lot. He traded and worked to buy the rest and as soon as he got something new, heíd race on over to find me or Andy and weíd all read them. Now he has his own store in Omaha. You should see his collection."

"I used to like the Flash. Remember that show? I was so bummed when it got canceled. Him and Spider-Man, but thatís all kid stuff, huh?"

Pat shook his head, tossing another stick on the fire. "I donít know about that. There are so few real heroes. Even the President lies and cheats. Like my friend Dan says, you can count on comic book heroes to be noble, no matter what."

Riley nodded. "Yeah, and we work for guys thatíre just like Superheroes. Isnít that cool?"

"Absolutely. Thatís why I wouldnít want to work for anyone else."

"You know, Pat, youíre hip and laid back and way smart about all kinds of stuff. You oughta get married. Youíd make the worldís coolest dad." Riley hadnít actually meant to blurt that out, but when he saw a warm smile spreading on Patís face, he decided it wasnít a totally bad thing.

"I havenít met the worldís coolest mom yet and thatís sort of a requirement, but thanks. I think youíd make a pretty hip daddy-o, too." Riley felt himself blush a little and he looked at the fire, but he grinned again, hoping his someday kids would feel that way, too. "I wonder what happened to everyone. I would have thought that theyíd be here by now."

Riley looked up and back in the direction theyíd come from. It was getting quite dark now and he began to worry. "Could they have gotten lost or something? Maybe we oughta go look for them, huh?"

"No. Ski knows this area pretty well and theyíll be able to see the fire. Iím sure theyíll be here soon," Pat replied, but he didnít sound totally sure about it, and that made Riley unable to relax. He kept watching the trail while Pat built up the fire to make it even more visible. Finally, some time later, they were rewarded as Captain Leland came into view. Riley and Pat were half way to their feet when Kowalski and the Skipper came into view supporting the Admiral, who looked incredibly unhappy, from either side. "What happened? Is there..." Pat started, on his feet and up to them in an instant.

"Everythingís fine, Pat. The Admiral had a little accident, but heíll be fine," Doctor Jamieson said as he, the Chief, and Admiral Starke came up into the camp behind them.

"I was looking at the scenery and caught my foot in a root, then twisted my ankle when I fell," the Admiral explained a bit begrudgingly as the Skipper and Kowalski sat him by the fire.

"Sprained, you mean. I wanted him to go home, but since when do any of you people listen to me?" Jamieson asked no one in particular.

"Iíll be fine in the morning and we were more than halfway here when it happened. Iím just sorry I slowed everyone down as much as I did," Nelson said, then looked around the camp. "And thank goodness you boys decided to push on ahead to set up things here. It looks like youíve been hard at it. Is that dinner?"

"Yes, sir. Itís not much, but you all must be hungry and tired. Stu and I can pitch the other tents while you eat," Pat said quickly.

"We can do..." Captain Leland started.

"That would be really good of you, Pat. Thanks," Captain Crane said at he dropped his pack, all but falling with it. He and the rest of the group looked done in, probably because theyíd all taken turns helping Admiral Nelson to get to the camp.

"No problem, sir," Pat said, nodding Riley toward the discarded packs.

"ĎLeeí and Iíll take care of my own tent once Iíve washed up," Leland said. He sounded really ticked off about something, but Riley couldnít figure out why.

"You donít have to go to the Lake. See. Pat made a washing station here," Riley told Leland as he started to head in the direction of the lake, still wearing his pack. Riley indicated the tarp and Ski murmured his thanks to Pat as he and Sharkey went to wash up, the Skipper and Admiral Starke falling into line behind them. The Doc made a cold compress for the Admiralís swollen ankle and everyone ate after washing up. Riley helped Pat with the little one man pup tents as an exhausted silence fell over the camp. Pat managed to get Lelandís tent somehow and as he and Riley finished it up, Riley saw that all of the meat and most of the acorns were gone. Everyone seemed ready to fall asleep where they sat and Riley would have admitted to anyone who cared to ask that he was dead on his feet. "Iím wiped. Anyone mind if I turn it?" he asked, really hoping no one would.

"No, of course not, Stuart. Youíve earned a good nightís sleep, Iíd say," Nelson told him.

"Actually, I think we all should turn in. I think everyone has had a full day," the Doc said, then helped the Admiral to his feet. "Come on, Harry. Letís get you settled and Iíll prop up that leg a little."

Everyone said their goodnights and Riley crawled into the tent he was going to share with Pat and Ski. Ski came in long enough to set down a small lamp, then he asked if everyone was settled because he was going to put out the fire. Riley assumed that was why Pat hadnít come to bed, because he was helping Ski with the fire. Riley settled into his sleeping bag and soon it grew dark outside the tent. Just after it did, Ski and Pat joined him. "What a day," Ski whispered as he started to pull off his boots.

"Is the Admiral okay?" Riley asked, keeping his own voice quiet so he wouldnít bother anyone trying to get to sleep.

"Yeah. You guys didnít have to push on up here for us. We wouldíve come down tomorrow if you hadnít shown up tonight," Pat told Ski softly as he moved into his sleeping bag.

"Donít forget, Lelandís bus took us a good ways up that fire road. It would have been a whole lot longer back to civilization than to just come here. I just hope the Admiral can make the hike back down when the weekís up. He didnít say anything, but you could tell that ankle was hurting him pretty bad whenever he put any weight on it. I wanted to make him a stretcher, but he said that he wasnít going to be carried anywhere," Ski replied, turning out the lamp now that they were all in their sleeping bags. "Nothing but squirrel around, huh? I was hoping for your rabbit stew, Pat."

Pat chuckled softly. "Maybe tomorrow. I didnít think Iíd have time for it, then you guys got in late. Besides, you had all our cooking gear in your pack, remember?"

"Oh, yeah. Well, I thought we wouldnít be as far behind you as we were."

"Donít worry about it. It gave me and Stu a chance to eat and rest up a little. Stu, thanks again for coming up with me and giving me all that help."

"I didnít mind. It was even kind of fun."

"Iím glad you thought so."

"Yeah, Stu, maybe youíll want to come with us the next time we go camping," Ski said.

Riley smiled at being asked. "Maybe we could camp down on the beach, huh? We can hike up the coast and surf and camp."

"Surfing is tiring enough for me, thanks. That one time I went with you, boy, was I ever beat by the end of the day. You must be a superman to want to lug that heavy board for miles and then surf." Pat chuckled quietly again at Kowalskiís comment, Riley even laughing softly. "Whatís so funny?"

"Little joke. Remind me in the morning and Iíll tell you about it. Gínight Ski, Stu."

"Night Pat, Stu."

"Good night guys," Riley said, closing his eyes. He had to actually touch his eyelids to make sure they were closed because it was so dark out that shutting his eyes hadnít really made a difference. He drifted off to sleep, thinking how nice and peaceful it was here.

 

It was light out when Riley opened his eyes again. He could smell coffee and hear somebody talking and laughed quietly. He rubbed his face and rolled onto his side. Kowalski and Patterson were both up, so Riley stretched a little and then climbed out of the tent. Kowalski was sitting by the fire pit, drinking coffee, talking to Pat and the Doc. There was a frying pan of what looked like fish cooking and everyone held a metal cup. "Hey, Stu. Sleep okay?" Ski asked as he approached them.

"Like a baby. Why didnít you wake me up when you got up?" Stu asked as he sat by them. The Doc handed him a metal cup and Riley took the coffee with a small smile of thanks.

"Hey, I just got up myself. Doc and Pat were the early risers," Ski said. "They were already cooking breakfast by the time I got out here."

"We country boys canít help it, can we?" the Doc asked, giving Pat a good natured poke in the ribs. Pat only grinned.

"Do I smell coffee?" came the Admiralís voice from behind them. Pat and the Doc were up and helping him over to the fire almost before Riley finished turning around. Ski was holding a cup of coffee out to the Admiral as he was settled by the fire. "Fish? Now which of you gentlemen has been fishing already?" the Admiral asked after he had downed the entire cup and Ski was pouring him a second.

"Yes, as if I couldnít figure it out for myself," Leland said as he appeared by the fire. He was standing there with his arms crossed over his chest looking thoroughly annoyed. "Weíre supposed to be working together on this trip to get to know each other better. And coffee. Weíre also supposed to be living off the land."

"No need to be fanatics about it, is there?" the Admiral said, making a point of sipping his coffee right after he did.

Leland seemed to get a little flustered only to have Doc pipe up, "And I did learn a few things this morning while we were fishing. It seems Patterson and I both have seen a better than class two tornado up close and personal, we both prefer baseball to football, and we think that a good, homemade fly will work better than any bait going."

"Doc sure makes a good one. Out fished me by a long shot," Pat agreed as he picked up towel from next to him and pulled the skillet from over the fire. "And I never knew that Doc was from Oklahoma. Anyone ready for breakfast?"

"Hell, yes," Sharkey said as he stumbled into their swelling ranks. "Man, am I going to be glad to see a mattress again. I canít believe you two actually do this for fun."

Ski laughed softly, knowing the comment was half aimed at him. "Weíve had more practice, Chief."

"Francis," Leland corrected him, still sounding annoyed as he looked. "And this trip is going to be an utter waste of time if you and Pat keep doing everything for everyone, Richard."

Kowalski lowered his head, not because he was embarrassed, but because he was struggling to keep his own temper in check. Riley didnít blame him. Everyone had seemed to be in a fairly good mood until Leland started bringing them down. Pat had just put the frying pan back over the fire with some more fish, but he rose, handing out plates of fish to those assembled, saying, "Iím sorry if I was being... over zealous. I thought we were supposed to be having fun and I enjoy hunting and fishing and I thought if I took care of a some of the boring camp set up stuff, itíd be a nicer trip for all of us. Sorry."

"You donít have to apologize," Ski just about growled.

"Of course you donít," Starkeís firm voice confirmed. He and the Skipper came to complete the group at the fire pit. "And everyone appreciates how thoughtful youíve been, donít we, Joe?" Leland didnít look like he agreed, but he nodded. "But weíre all more than willing to pull our weight on our trip, so why donít you do a little relaxing today while we try to bring in some dinner?"

"Actually, he can stay with Harry and me at the lake," the Doc said with a smile. "Iím afraid Harryís ankle isnít up to tromping through the woods and Iíd like to get some more fishing in. The Admiral can soak his ankle in the lake and Pat can help me make sure he rests it. Would that make everyone happy?"

"Fine by me, Doc," Pat said, sitting down again between him and Ski.

Leland still looked unappeased, but he said, "Of course."

"Good. Any more coffee?" the Skipper asked as he and Admiral Starke sat down with them.

They all had breakfast and Riley went with the hunting party out into the woods. Spirits rose as the Skipper got everyone talking again, this time about fishing trips and best catches. All the while, though, Riley couldnít get into the conversation. He kept feeling uneasy, but it took him a long while to figure out why. About midday, when the group took a break from their unsuccessful efforts, Riley sat next to Kowalski and asked, "Are we doing something wrong? Pat and I saw tons of squirrels and stuff yesterday, but today itís like the woods are empty."

"I was noticing that too," Ski replied. "Itís almost like somethingís scared the game out this way. We might be kind of noisy to expect to see deer, but birds, smaller animals... They should usually wouldnít be this quiet."

"What would do that?" Riley asked, the nervous feeling he had intensifying when Ski confirmed that something wasnít right.

"Fire, but I donít see any smoke. And the skyís clear, so I donít think thereís an impending storm," Ski said, then rubbed the back of his neck. "I díknow, Stu. Maybe itís something..." He never got to finish his sentence because suddenly the entire world seemed to tremble. Trees creaked and groaned and Admiral Starke, who had been standing, was shaken off his feet. Riley looked around, amazed as he watched the earth around them buck and shimmy. Heíd seem minor earthquakes before, but seeing one out here in the wilderness was totally bizarre. "Shit," Kowalski breathed, then launched himself toward Leland. He barely tackled the man and pushed him a couple yards back before a large tree toppled where Leland had just been. Seconds later, everything stopped shaking and Riley slowly got back onto his feet.

"Sheesh, I hate those stupid things," Sharkey declared as he stood up. "Everyone okay? Kowalski? Captain Leland?"

"Weíre okay," Ski said as the two of them came around the fallen treeís roots. "No wonder the animals were so freaked out today. What was that, a five or a six?"

"Probably a five," the Skipper said. "Otherwise more trees would have come down."

"I thought I felt a tremor last night," Starke said. "I was so tired I thought I was imagining things. Thank goodness you were on your toes, Richard, or Iíd be looking for a new assistant."

"Yes... Ah... Thank you, Richard," Leland said, seeming a little at a loss as to how to respond to Ski having saved his life like he had.

Ski shrugged. "No big deal. You would have done the same. Should we head back to camp, make sure everythingís all right back there? I donít think thereís going to be much in the way of game after that shaking."

Leland began to look a little guilty. "That would mean going back empty handed."

"Thatís okay. The Doc and the Admiral probably caught plenty of fish," Riley said, giving him a big smile. It was meant to be reassuring, but Leland only blanched a little more. It was probably because of the stink heíd kicked up this morning, Riley thought.

"We can push on a little while longer. Iím sure that Harry, Peter, and Steven can make do just fine without us for a little while longer," Starke declared.

"Steven? Whoís Steven?" Leland asked, as they began to form their hiking order again.

"Patterson. Steven James Patterson," the Skipper said with an unaffected shrug.

"But everyone was calling him ĎPatí..." Leland started, then frowned again, muttering, "Short for Patterson. Ha, ha. Very funny. Why didnít he say anything?"

"Maybe because you were being such a tight ass," Ski whispered to Riley.

Riley choked down a laugh, only to have it turn to a gasp of surprise when the Chief said, "You could have tried asking him instead of coming down on him for making our lives easier. Heís a good kid and he works hard without griping, unlike some of the other bums Iíve been stuck with as crew mates over the years. You want to get to know him, try talking to him, to all of us, instead of tossing that psychology crap at us again and again." There was dead, shocked silence when he finished and the Chief looked over at the Skipper and said, begrudgingly, "Sorry, sir."

"Lee," the Skipper corrected him with a light laugh, and a sideways glance at Leland, "And we were all supposed to be able to speak our minds on this trip. I guess I should have expected you to remind us of that, Francis." The Chief shrugged and didnít say anything further. "Letís try this whole thing again from the start, shall we? I think this week can still be fun and a good learning experience if we let it. And we can start with seeing if we can scare up some dinner. Skipping lunch like we have, I personally am in the mood for some feasting."

Riley grinned and looked at Kowalski, who seemed to be loosening up a little. If the Skipper was willing to make a go of things, Ski sure wouldnít be the first one to back out. "I know a spot thatís usually pretty good for game, if no one minds me taking the lead," Ski offered.

"Thatís the spirit. Go right ahead, Richard," Leland said.

"I prefer Rick, actually, or Ski," Ski corrected him as he nodded them all after him with a grin. They hiked about another hour into a valley and Ski waved them to a stop and silence. "Somethingís in those bushes up there. A lot of tracks on the game trail, but I canít tell what came through most recently," he told them at a whisper.

"Thereís nothing dangerous in this forest, though, is there?" Starke asked quietly.

"Well, Pat and I have seen bears and cougars," Ski said. "Then thereís skunks and porcupines. Theyíre no fun. And wild pigs. They can get real nasty."

"So we spread out and surround it," the Chief said, pulling his rifle out.

"If itís a bear, just run. I donít think we have the fire power to take one down and somebody could get really hurt," Ski warned, his tone deadly serious.

"All right then. Everyone spread out and Iíll try to spook it out," the Skipper said, picking up a fair sized rock from the trail. Ski looked like he was going to argue with the Skipperís plan, but he shook his head and went along with things. Their hunting party formed a loose semicircle before the bushes in question, weapons at the ready. The Skipper pitched his rock into the bushes and there was a high pitched screech that made Riley wince. Out of the bushes exploded a good sized pig, which ran straight at Starke and bowled him over before anyone could take a shot. It ran willy-nilly, squealing all the while, rifles going off, bullets kicking up dirt all around it on the trail. Riley tried to follow the animal with his arrow, gave up, then took a wild shot just to be able to say heíd tried. To his utter surprise, his arrow buried itself behind the animalís shoulder and it shrieked and tripped to the ground. Two more arrows quickly hit the thrashing animal and it fell silent and went still.

"Great shot, Stu. I thought he was going to get away," Ski said, clapping him on the back as he moved past him to the downed pig. Riley was about to say it had been total luck, but then he heard a moan behind him. He turned to see Admiral Starke still sitting on the ground, wincing.

"Sir, are you all right?" Riley asked as he moved over to the Admiral only to find himself in a crowd.

"Stupid animal ran me over as if I wasnít there," Starke groaned, then gingerly rubbed his back. "At least he wonít be laughing to his friends about it tonight."

"Let me help you up," Leland said. He and Lee each took an arm, but as he started to get his feet under him, Starke grimaced and his left knee buckled.

"Damn, Harryís going to laugh his ass off about this," he said through clenched teeth as the two Captains lowered him back to the ground.

"Well, you did get in a few good jokes after he took his spill," the Skipper reminded him as they started rolling up his pant leg. There was already a good bruise forming on Starkeís leg and his knee was starting to swell. "Nothing looks broken, but weíd better get you back to camp and have the Doc look at it." With that, the Skipper looked at the rest of the group and said, "Joe and I will walk the Admiral back to camp. Can the three of you handle our pig? It looks pretty heavy."

"Sure thing, sir. You know the way back okay?" Ski asked.

"I think so," the Skipper replied as he and Leland helped the Admiral back up, this time supporting him much more firmly. "Weíll see you there." The three of them shuffled off, leaving the other three men standing and watching after them in silence.

"Two down, seven to go," the Chief grumbled once they were gone. "I wonder who buys it next."

Ski laughed and shook his head. "Aw, come on, Chief. Two stupid accidents doesnít mean a thing."

"Yeah, yeah. Keep saying that, Kowalski. At least you and Patterson know what the hell youíre doing out here. Mark my words, this trip was doomed from the start," the Chief said, then nodded to the pig. "So how do we get that thing back to camp. Itís gotta weigh a ton."

"No problem," Ski replied, shrugging off the light pack heíd been carrying. He pulled out a small axe and a coil of rope and in no time at all, the pigís legs were tied to a pole. "Stu, you took him down. You want to carry front or back?"

Riley blushed, saying, "I closed my eyes and shot. Iím just glad I hit the pig and not a person."

"Thatís why you keep both of your eyes opened when you discharge a weapon, kid," the Chief said, knocking him on the forehead with one knuckle.

"Lay off, Chief. Heís doing fine," Ski said. He took up the front of the pole and Riley took the back. They lifted it and Riley followed suit when Ski rested his end on his shoulder. "Weíve got ham for breakfast tomorrow," Ski said as they started off toward camp.

"And bacon. Too bad thereís no eggs," Riley sighed.

"Wrong time of year or we might have been able to scare up some pheasant or quail eggs," Ski replied.

"That sounds really disgusting," Sharkey said.

"They taste fine to me. Better than some of the chow I had in the Navy," Ski said.

"I hear you," Sharkey agreed.

"Iím not sorry I missed that stuff," Riley said. Heíd never served in the actual Navy, having only served a few months in the Navy Reserve before he found his way onto the Seaview.

"Trust me, neither of you kids have any idea. Heck, the Admiral could probably tell us all horror stories."

"Yeah, heís been at it forever, huh? Wonder if heíll ever retire," Riley commented.

"Not a chance," Ski and Sharkey said almost in unison.

Riley laughed and said, "You guys are a scream."

"And why is that?" Sharkey asked, sounding a little annoyed.

"You might as well be twins, youíre so in sync."

"Weíve just been working together a long time," Ski said.

"Sure, right. Iíve been around as long as the Chief and I donít think like either of you," Riley said.

"No one thinks like you, Riley. How many times have you thought about surfing since yesterday, even though weíre in the middle of a forest?" Chief Sharkey questioned him.

"I never stop thinking about surfing, just like Ski never stops thinking about women."

"Hey!"

"Give it a rest, Kowalski. Itís not like the whole boat doesnít know that," Sharkey said with a laugh.

"So, once we get this little piggy home, how do we make bacon out of him?" Riley asked to change the subject.

"Iím not sure about that. Pat and I havenít ever actually gone after wild pigs before this. I hope he knows how to butcher one or weíre gonna have to fake it," Ski said. "I hope he had a better day after we took off."

"Wouldnít count on it," Sharkey replied, shaking his head. "You know how cranky the Admiral gets when heís hurt and you know that the Doc is sure to have been hovering all day."

"Well, Admiral Starke can keep them company tomorrow. No way Iím letting Leland ditch Pat again, no matter whatís waiting for us when we get back to camp. I wouldnít wish two wounds Admirals on my worst enemy," Ski said.

The rest of the walk back to camp went pretty well. Ski got to talking about some movies that heíd been hoping would be added to the boatís film library. Riley kept pushing for Beach Blanket Bingo, even offering to donate his copy, but the Chief pretty much told him there was no way he was going to inflict that on the rest of the crew. When they got back to camp, the Admiral and the Doc were sitting on some logs by the fire, on which was cooking a fairly large pot, probably the one that had taken up the entire bottom of Kowalskiís pack on the hike up. No one else around. "Well, it looks like our hunters did pretty well today despite some shaking," Nelson said with a smile. Riley was a little surprised that the Admiral seemed to be in high spirits, especially after what Ski and the Chief had said on the trail.

"Arenít the others back yet, sir?" Ski asked.

"Didnít you all come back together?" the Doc asked in return.

"No. There was a little accident..." the Chief started.

"Hey! Nice peccary, guys," Patterson said as he walked back into camp carrying some fire wood. "Letís hang him for tonight and weíll roast him up tomorrow. What happened to..."

"Like I started to say," Sharkey interrupted him, giving him a scalding look. "We had this little accident..."

"I had the accident, you mean," Starke stated from behind them. Riley glanced over his shoulder, rather relieved to see the three missing officers shuffling up behind them. "How did you boys get ahead of us, Iíd like to know."

"I think I know a couple of short cuts," Kowalski admitted with a sheepish look.

"What happened?" Doc asked as the two Captains brought Starke over to the fire. Starke explained as the Doc looked over his leg, Nelson laughing when Starke described being run over by their future dinner. "At least I didnít get done in by a stationary object," Starke rebuffed Nelsonís show of humor.

"I swear that tree lifted its root on me," Nelson said.

"Well, youíre both sitting out the rest of this camping trip," Doc declared firmly. "And I reserve judgement as to whether youíre walking out of here or Iím sending whoeverís left standing down to the Ranger Station for help carrying you out."

"See, the Doc agrees with me," Sharkey muttered to Riley and Ski.

"Come on, Pat. This thing is getting heavy. Letís go find a good spot to hang it," Ski said, ignoring Sharkeyís comment.

"Here, Stu, Iíll take that. Itís the least I can do after you got us this fine animal in the first place," Leland said, taking Rileyís end of the pole from him.

"You shot the pig, Riley?" Doc asked, giving him an incredulous look.

"Ski finished him off," Riley said, then realized by Docís forming grin that he was being teased. "And Iím getting better with this William Tell gig. Nobody else even winged the thing before I..."

Ski and Pat were laughing as they left the clearing and Sharkey patted Riley on the shoulder, giving him a gentle shove toward the wash water, saying, "Go clean up, kid. You did okay today, so donít let this sawbones get to you."

A half hour later, everyone was washed and holding bowls or mugs of Patís rabbit stew. "This is wonderful," Starke sighed contentedly.

"Yeah, well, I set out the snares this morning before..." Pat started, giving Leland a sheepish look.

"Oh, donít worry about my cranky mood, Steven. I probably just didnít get enough sleep last night," Leland dismissed the half voiced apology. "Iím glad you didnít wait on us, especially since that pig is probably going to take a while to cook, even after the time itíll take to prepare."

"Where did you get the vegetables?" the Skipper asked.

"Freeze dried. They weigh next to nothing and donít take up much space in a pack," Ski answered for Pat. "Itís amazing how something that looks like multicolored raisins actually turns into something this good."

"Ski found them in this magazine a year or so back. Beats having to lug cans back and forth," Pat said as he sat back with his own bowl of stew.

"Weíre lucky to have a pair of such experienced woodsmen with us," Nelson commented. He looked smug, and Riley remembered the Chief saying that the Admiral had ordered Pat and Ski along with the group. That was the old, old man for you, one step ahead of everybody. "And our Doctor is quite the fisherman, it turns out. Must be something about being raised in the country."

"I grew up twenty miles north of Boston," Ski said. "It was a smallish town, I suppose, but nothing as rural as Patís home town. How many people live in Mills, Pat?"

"Few hundred, I guess, if you included the farms around it, like my uncleís," Pat replied with a shrug.

"I went out there one time with Pat. Itís quiet, like out here in the woods," Kowalski said. "And you can see the stars as clear as you can in the middle of the ocean because there are no city lights. No cable tv, no paved roads, no pizza delivery, but some the nicest people youíd ever want to meet live out there."

"Real pioneer country, aye?" Starke asked, with a smile. "I bet you played a lot of Cowboys and Indians when you were a boy."

Kowalski grimaced a little and Pat said, "No, sir. My best friend growing up, Andy Tenhorses, he wasnít real keen on that game."

"Ah. Sorry. I suppose that was very unpolitically correct of me," Starke said, looking a bit embarrassed.

Pat shook his head. "Thatís okay, sir. I think someone came up with all that Ďpolitically correctí nonsense because people donít know how to talk to each other any more. Most of it seems sort of silly to me."

"Well, thatís what we came on this trip for," Leland said. "To open the lines of communication."

"We communicate just fine, right guys?" Riley asked, looking to Ski and Pat for confirmation.

"When people can understand what the heck youíre saying, Riley," Sharkey said, then looked around the fire. "Heís behaving himself right now. Usually weíre buried in surfer lingo." The comment drew a few laughs, but Riley didnít mind.

"I meant more between the officers to the enlisted men," Leland said his face growing sober. "Thereís a huge gap between them that even in a situation like this, most of us arenít able to bridge it, even in a relaxed situation. A perfect example is Steven. You just called Admiral Starke Ďsirí twice, even though Iíve been reminding you this entire trip that weíre supposed to be using first names. Every time Iíve corrected you about it, before now, youíve sidestepped the issue. I can only imagine how uncomfortable today must have been for you, having to mind your manners around two officers all day."

Pat grinned and Admiral Nelson laughed, "Iím afraid we werenít minding our manners at all today. We spent the day seeing who knew the dirtiest joke."

"The Admiral won," Pat chuckled.

"I miss all the good stuff," Ski said, shaking his head. "Wait, did you tell the one about the tatoo parlor?"

Leland looked mortified, and quickly said, "Now letís stay on the subject. Steven, did you call the Admiral or the Doctor anything but Ďsirí or by their titles today?"

Pat shrugged. "No."

"But you had a good time today, right? Saw that Harry isnít always ĎAdmiral Nelsoní twenty four hours a day seven days a week, didnít you?" Pat didnít look entirely convinced, but he nodded with a shrug. "So youíre going to call him ĎHarryí now, right?" Pat glanced at Admiral Nelson and shook his head, at which the Skipper stifled a laugh. Leland began to look annoyed again. "What if I ordered you to call everyone by their first names for the rest of this camping trip?"

Pat grinned suddenly. "You canít, remember? Weíre all equals til weíre back on the bus."

Leland ran a hand down his face in frustration. "Oh, let it go, Joe. The boy doesnít have to if heís not comfortable with it," Starke stated, then shook his head at Admiral Nelson, "And I thought you ran a loose boat, Harry, and your men didnít have proper respect for you. I stand corrected."

"Weíre not exactly a Navy boat, Jiggs, but that doesnít mean that anarchy rules the Seaview," Nelson replied.

"Only occasionally," the Skipper amended as he helped himself to some more stew.

"Not on my watch!" Sharkey declared indignantly, which got about everyone laughing, everyone but Leland, who still looked downright unhappy about the way things were turning out. Riley didnít understand that at all. Everyone seemed to be getting along just fine. Patterson divided up the rest of the stew and moved the pot behind him to cool once it was empty.

"Joe, while everyoneís warmed up, why donít we start on that list of questions we were working on," Starke said once the laughing died down. "We sat down and came up with a list of things that we thought would not only make good topics of conversation, and would let us know a little more about our likes and dislikes and little insights into the personalities that make up our group here. No one has to talk about anything they donít want to, but these questions shouldnít make anyone uncomfortable. Tomorrow, weíre turn things over to someone else and they can ask anything theyíd like to know. Fair enough?"

Everyone agreed readily, and Leland seemed to relax a little again. "Okay then," he said, "The first question we came up with was what would be doing if you could be doing anything at all, besides what youíre currently doing, what would it be? And since I posed the question, Iíll answer it first. Iíve always wanted to be professional football player. I guess at my age, a coach would be more likely, but since weíre saying anything, Iíd like to be a Quarterback with a couple of Superbowl rings."

Starke leaned back and set aside his stew bowl. "Hmm. Iíve always wondered what it would be like to be a scientist like Harry, unraveling the mysteries of the universe. I think Iíd have gone up instead of down, out into space. What about you, Harry?"

"Well, I am afraid I am doing what Iíve always wanted to do. Building the Seaview has been my lifeís dream realized," Nelson said, then looked to the Skipper. "Lee?"

The Skipper smiled. "I donít know. Even after all the... problems Iíve encountered with ONI, I guess Iíve thought about being the American version of James Bond. Itís pretty silly, I suppose..."

"You mean you arenít?" Doc asked with a mischievous grin. "I swear, sometimes you behave as though you think you are James Bond, indestructible spy and playboy." Everyone had a little laugh at that, even the Skipper.

"Very funny, Doc," the Skipper said, but he looked as amused as everyone else.

"Remind me how funny it is the next time I patch you up after one of your little escapades," the Doc said with a grin. "And Iíve always wanted to be a doctor and Iím quite happy doing it where I am. Believe me, if I werenít, Iíd be long gone to some nice, safe, sane Naval hospital." He looked to Riley and said, "What about you, Stuart? Or should we bother asking?"

Riley couldnít help but let a huge smile light his face. "I would be the first ever Olympic Surfing Gold Medalist, and after the games, my awesome performance will spark a new interest in big budget surfing movies. Iíll star in the first one and record the soundtrack. Pat will shoot it, because I know he is like the best cameraman alive and Ski will star in it with me because all the babes love him. The Chief will direct because heíll make sure that itís done on schedule, maybe even ahead of time, and under budget. Then weíll all win Oscars, like even more than that lame Titanic flick." Riley looked around the fire, still smiling broadly, to see what everyone thought. There was a mix of amusement and stunned silence.

"Havenít ever thought about this before, have you, Riley?" the Chief said when he got around to looking at him. "Well, donít include me in your little fantasy and donít let me catch you at it when youíre supposed to be working."

"Aw, Chief, donít be like that. He did give you the Best Director Academy Award after all," Ski laughed out. The Chief gave him an icy look, but Ski hung his head between his knees as he rocked with laughter.

"So, Directing isnít your lifeís dream, Francis?" the Admiral asked, plainly struggling not to join Ski in helpless laughter.

The Chief elbowed Kowalski, who tried to pull himself back together, then said, "No. I thought about starting my own garage when I left the Navy. If weíre gonna be thinking big here, Iíve always thought it would be a great idea to start a chain of garages that repair cars for a fair price that a customer could get up front with no song and dance."

"I know Iíve wished that there was a place like that around a time or two," the Skipper said. "What about you, Kowalski?"

Kowalski cleared his throat, finally able to stop laughing, and said, "I like restoring old cars. Maybe Iíd do that out of the Chiefís garage."

"Not likely," the Chief muttered.

"Then I suppose me and Patíll have to start our own place," Ski said with another stifled laugh.

"Sure thing, if Iím not too busy filming Rileyís movie," Pat chuckled.

"Boy, Steven, youíre sure in demand," Leland commented. "It must be nice."

"Theyíre just being nice so they donít have to butcher their pig tomorrow."

"Thatís us. Forever taking advantage of your generous, farm boy nature," Ski said. "And I know what youíd do and I canít believe youíd want to." Rileyís interest was piqued, and from the looks of things, so was everyone elseís. Pat was quiet and mild mannered and Ski was making his dream job sound pretty scandalous.

"Itís not that bad," Pat commented.

"What?" Starke asked. "Whatís not that bad?"

Pat shrugged, saying, "I thought itíd be fun to run a Country/Western bar. You know, line dancing, square dancing, that sort of stuff. Ski just doesnít like country music."

The Chief slugged Ski in the arm. "Geez, you made me think he wanted to be a pimp or something." Pat turned scarlet and put a hand over his face and Kowalski started to laugh again. Pat was so shy that he barely spoke to women and everyone knew it. "Sorry, Pat," Sharkey apologized sincerely. Pat mumbled that it was okay, but he still looked mortified.

Starke cleared his throat, looking a little ashamed himself, which made Riley wonder what heíd been thinking. "Perhaps we should move onto the second question," he suggested. "I came up with this one. What was the most important thing that was ever said to you? For me it was a teacher of mine, Mister Borden, who told me I needed focus in my life. Believe it or not, I was a bit of a hell raiser when I was young, and after a particularly obnoxious prank, Mister Borden sat me down and read me the riot act. He told me about how unpleasant jail was and thatís where Iíd wind up if I kept going the way I was. ĎIím going to suggest to your father that he send you to a military academy,í he told me once he was through. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. I didnít think so at first, mind you, but now I wish I could thank Mister Borden for doing what he did."

"That explains inventive hazing you came up with for the underclassmen, Jiggs," Nelson said with a grin.

"Oh, you were just as bad, Harry, and you know it," Starke replied. "And you were a terror for the professors, too. They were afraid of him, you know, because they all knew he was more intelligent than they were."

"Ah, but not everyone would agree with you there," Nelson said. "As for me, it wasnít a single person saying something, but rather every person who ever told me that something I was planning couldnít be done. Iíve spent my life showing every naysayer that anything I dreamed I could do."

The skipper nodded. "And Iím sure weíd all agree that if there are any of those detractors left that they ought to have learned their lesson by now. Iím the exact opposite, I guess. My mother always told me, ĎLee, you can do anything you set your mind to. Never let anyone make you doubt that.í I never have."

"I have the medical reports to prove it," the Doc said with a grin.

"Now, Doc..."

The Doc spread his hands, saying, "Far be it from me to tell you not to go racing into danger when youíre already wounded. Iím only the lowly shipís patch up artist. What do I know?"

"Leeís just had the pleasure of your company too often, Jamie," Nelson said, with a smile.

"Hmm. Well, youíre all lucky that the most important thing anyone ever said to me was that Doctors Ďdo no harmí or Iíd knock some sense into the lot of you," the Doc warned, then he grinned, and added, "Not that knocking your thick heads together would do any good, I suppose." Everyone laughed again, probably because they knew what the Doctor was saying was true.

"I think the most important thing anyone ever said to me was when my wife tells me that she loved me," Leland said with a soft smile of his own. Riley hadnít thought to before, but when he looked now, he saw the Leland was wearing a wedding ring. He grinned and laughed, looking into the fire. "She also told me that Iím not very good at hearing when Iím wrong and I donít know how to relax. Iíve been trying to work on that, but I know Iím no where near a hundred percent on it."

"I think itís a problem most officers suffer from, so I wouldnít be too hard on myself," the Doc said. "Maybe the Seaviewís officers need to find themselves a good woman and settle down, then theyíll start taking care of themselves a little better."

Nelson rubbed the back of his neck, looking a bit flustered, and the Skipper smirked and said, "Got any prospective brides in mind, Doc?"

"I donít think you need any help in that quarter, Captain."

"I know a couple of babes that..."

"Riley!" the Chief cut him off quickly. "The Skipper doesnít need any help, especially not your help."

"Oh, I donít know. Riley certainly seems to bring some comely young ladies to the Institute picnics," the Skipper said.

"Nothing but the best, sir."

"Geez," Sharkey sighed. "Skipper, donít encourage him. He doesnít need it, trust me." The Skipper only laughed lightly and Sharkey gave Riley a warning look when he started to talk again. "I donít remember his name, but there was this fella that was on the first boat I served on that told me, ĎFind a good boat and a good Captain and stick with Ďem come hell or high water.í Itís worked for me so far."

"Why, thank you, Chief," the Admiral and the Skipper said almost as one, then they both laughed about it.

Riley leaned over to Sharkey and said, "Thatís way cool that you feel like that about us, Chief."

"About the Seaview, Riley."

"Yeah, sheís a terrific boat," Riley agreed and thought for a minute about what was the most important anyone had ever said to him was. He couldnít think of anything as earthshattering as what the others had been talking about, but everyone was looking at him so he figured heíd better come up with something to say. Finally, he smiled as he said, "I was working for this guy who did diving tours when I joined the Reserve. His dive boat was a dog and people complained about it all the time. After this bad trip, I got fed up and I told him he oughta do something about fixing some stuff up. He told me if I was so smart I could find a better boat to work on and he fired me. I got my job on the Seaview about a week later. Guess he was right, turns out."

"Again, thank you, Stuart," the Admiral said.

Riley beamed and looked past Sharkey to Kowalski, who looked like he was more than ready to go. "I was eighteen, thirty six hours into Hell Week, dead tired, pretty much frozen, and barely treading water. One of the other guys in our group had just almost drowned and was getting dragged out of the water, when I had decided I couldnít do it and was ready to wash myself out. Just as I was going tell Ďem to load me into the boat too, one of the other guys whispered to me, ĎDonít give up. You can do it.í I looked at him and he just nodded and gave me a grin, even though I could see his teeth chattering. Turns out, we were the only two that didnít wash out, so we got assigned off to separate teams. Before we parted company, though, I told him how much it meant to me, his sticking his neck out like that for me when we didnít really know each other."

"Heís lucky the officer in charge didnít hear him or you would have finished on your own. Usually they donít miss things like that," Starke said.

"Did you ever see him again?" Leland asked.

Ski glanced at Pat, who was chuckling about something. "We wound up serving together after all a few years down the road. Youíre up, motor mouth."

Pat nodded, then looked at the fire. "ĎStrive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts, but I will show you the most excellent way. If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.

ĎLove is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick tempered, it does not brood over injury. It does not rejoice in wrong doing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.

ĎIf there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing; if tongues, they will cease; if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing. For we know partially and we prophesy partially, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things. At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. So faith, hope, love remain, these three: but the greatest of these is love.í"

When Patís soft, deep voice finally stopped, everything was quiet, everyone was still. Riley rubbed his eyes, a little surprised that heíd gone bleary-eyed. He had been Altar boy growing up and he must have heard that bible passage a hundred times, but it had never hit him this way until now. "That was beautiful, man," he choked out, then cleared his throat.

"Yes, Patterson. Thank you," Admiral Nelson said after clearing his own throat.

Pat grew flustered as everyoneís attention focused on him. "Uh... Iíd better go clean the dishes before it gets too dark," he murmured, then grabbed the pot behind him and quickly vanished in the direction of the lake.

"Hey, wait up!" Ski said, then shrugged at the assembly and began to collect bowls and mugs. "Patís a little on the bashful side."

"A little? I think thatís the most Iíve ever heard him say, maybe more than he said all last year. Didnít know he had it in him," Sharkey said, smiling warmly.

Ski smiled back at him. "You think heís bad now. Should have seen him when we started SEAL training. The other guys thought he didnít talk at all. Be back in a couple minutes." Kowalski followed off after Pat at a much more sedate pace.

"Nice boys, Harry," Starke commented as he fished in his jacket pocket for something.

"Yes they are, Jiggs," Nelson agreed, then looked at the rest of his crew, "Present company included."

"I havenít been a boy for a long time, but thanks, Harry," the Doc said.

"Same goes," Sharkey agreed.

Finally, Starke pulled out a flask, lifting it to Nelson, "Hereís to you, Harry. I might question your personnel choices a little less often after this week." He took a belt and handed it towards Leland, who declined, then gave it to Nelson.

"Should have known youíd smuggle a little something along, Jiggs," Nelson said, then slipped a little and handed it to the Skipper.

The Skipper took a quick gulp and then raised an eyebrow. "Thatís smooth. What is that?" he asked as he handed the flask off to the Doc.

"Letís see if anyone can guess, and donít you squeal, Harry," Starke said with a smile.

The Doc smelled the flask then took a sip. "Mmm. Some kind of Cognac, I think."

"Close," Jiggs said.

The Doc took another little sip, then shrugged and handed the flask toward Riley, but he said, "No, thanks."

"You donít indulge, Stuart? Good for you," Starke told him.

"Nah, itís just that I wonít be twenty one for another couple months and the Chief told me if he ever caught me drinking before then, heíd kick my butt all the way to the Seaview and confine me to quarters when I wasnít on duty. Itís an awful long way back to the boat and I donít want to tire him out," Riley explained, as the Doc handed the flask off to the Chief.

"Thanks, kid. Appreciate it," the Chief said.

No one ever did figure out what was in the flask, but Starke said it was something called slivovitz. When Ski and Pat got back, everyone talked a good ways into the night. By the time they all turned in, everyone had just about laughed themselves out about one thing or another and a comfortable, pleasantly tired calm settled over their sleeping camp. Riley fell asleep thinking how totally awesome the rest of the trip was going to be if tonight was any indication.

 

The next morning, everyone got moving slowly. Ski fried up some ham for everyone for breakfast while Pat finished preparing the pig for cooking. It wasnít like the ham Riley was used to, but it wasnít bad. ĎGameyí was what the Doc called it, but everyone ate enough of it. By the time Pat got back to camp, it was after ten and he was looking a little tired. The Doc, who had wanted to come along on todayís hunting trip, suggested that Pat stay at camp with the two Admirals. Pat said that he was fine and wanted to get a little hunting in, but Riley was pretty sure that the mischievous comment of Starke about the Admirals having plenty to talk to him about was why he didnít stay. In the end, the Doc decided to stick around the camp to Ďkeep them from being their own worst enemiesí in their injured state.

The hunting was pretty sparse and Pat found some good sized bear tracks, so they headed back early, skirting the lake in case any deer had come down to water. When they were getting close to camp, a bird spooked out of the brush. It was a decent sized brown thing with a long tail. "What was that?" Riley asked.

"Pheasant," Ski replied, but he sounded less than impressed.

"Theyíre supposed to taste good, arenít they?" Leland asked.

"Yeah, but you have to pluck all the feathers, which takes forever, and Iím not sure itís worth the effort," Pat said. Heíd been a really good sport about cleaning everything everyone had caught so far, but Riley didnít blame him for not wanting to spend what was left of the day yanking feathers out of anything.

"Well, you can show me how and Iíll do it," Leland said, hefting his rifle. "Iíve always wanted to try pheasant."

"Okay, but donít say we didnít warn you," Ski said. He and the Chief were currently in the lead with the Skipper and Leland in the middle and Pat taking up the rear. Riley had fallen back a few times to hang with Pat, even though they hadnít done any talking. Despite the lack of luck that they seemed to be having hunting, the hiking was nice and it was pretty in the late fall forest. Riley was enjoying the clean, cool air and the good, if quiet, company.

Theyíd only gone a few yards when Leland came to a halt in the path, looking off to their left. "Something wrong?" the Skipper asked as he slowed a little.

"Ssh. I think I heard our pheasant dinner," Leland whispered back.

The Skipper shrugged and kept moving and Riley looked back to see that Pat had stopped when Leland had, maybe even backed up a little. "So, whatís the deal?" Riley asked as he approached him.

"Oh, I think heís right about the pheasant, but I donít want to be anywhere near his line of fire when that thing pops out," Pat whispered back, giving Riley a crooked grin.

"Right," Riley said slowly, taking another step back to pull even with Pat. They stood watching Leland, who scrounged up a rock like the Skipper had yesterday, and tossed it into the bushes. A flurry of feathers arced up from one of bushes between them, the pheasant heading up into the trees over head. Leland took a shot after it and must have hit a tree branch, because there was an odd crunching sound. Then something fell out of the tree. Riley watched it fall, not knowing what it was at first, then it hit the ground with another crunch. Pat murmured, "Aw, nuts." A black cloud rose from the crumpled form a few feet in front of them and Riley finally realized what it was, some sort of hive. It didnít matter what kind, because Riley knew for sure that Pat was totally allergic to stinging type insects and there was no way they werenít going to get stung.

Things seemed to move slower as the cloud spread. Pat turned toward move toward the lake, which was only a few yards away, and Riley decided to hurry him along, shoving him from behind. When the first bee stung him, Riley grabbed Patís shirt, just in case, thinking if Pat tripped or anything, heíd drag him into the water. Theyíd only taken a couple of steps when they were engulfed by the angry, buzzing cloud. Riley could hear Leland shout in indignation, but he didnít much care how the Captain was fairing as he and Pat slid down the bank and all but fell into the lake.

Riley knew heíd been stung at least a dozen times by the time he sank under the very cold water and the assault stopped. That wasnít good, because it meant Patterson probably wasnít any better off. What was worse was Pat went limp almost as soon as they went under and Riley had to improve his grip or risk losing him as the water soaked into their heavy clothes and started to pull them down. Riley kicked for the surface, or, at least what he thought was the surface, but when he didnít get back out into the air after some furious effort, he realized that heíd become disorientated somehow and didnít know which way was up. "Toward the sun, stupid," he told himself and he opened his eyes, remembering they were in fresh water. Just about then, someone grabbed the back of his shirt.

He was actually pretty happy to see the Chiefís face when he broke the surface. Ski and the Skipper were in the water taking Pat from him and pulling him toward shore. "Good thinking, Riley. Putting some distance between you and the bees," the Chief told him, and Riley realized his swimming had pushed him and Pat a good ways up the lake. The Chiefís face was grim. He knew about Pat, too, Riley thought as they stumbled once they hit dry land. He could hear the Skipper saying, "Heís not breathing. I think his heartís beating..."

"Heíll start breathing as soon as I give him this," Ski said. "But we have to pull out all the stingers first or it wonít work, all of them."

There was a tearing sound and Riley looked past the Chief, who was plucking a stinger out of his cheek. He winced, unable to stop shivering, and watched as Ski pulled off Patís shirt, searching for bees or stingers. "P...p..patís n...n...not m...m...moving," Riley said, his teeth refusing to stop chattering.

"Ski and the Skipperíll take care of him, kid. Heíll be okay," Sharkey assured him as he moved to block Rileyís view of the situation, but he didnít sound totally convinced of his own statement, so it didnít do much to comfort Riley. The Chief kept hunting down and scraping stingers out all the while.

"B...b...but..." Riley started, wanting to help somehow.

"Just you take it easy. The water was pretty cold, huh?" Sharkey said, plucking out another stinger. "I think thatís the last of them. Feel anymore?" Riley shook his head, just feeling numb and helpless. "Weíre not far from camp, so weíll get you warmed up in just a couple minutes, okay?"

Riley knew the Chief was trying to distract him, but he was too worried. "Thatís all of them, I think," the Skipper said.

"Okay. Here we go," Ski replied.

Sharkey turned to watch, clearing Rileyís view again. Ski had a needle in his hands and he jabbed it into Patís arm. Just as he had the Skipper said, "Wait! No, thereís one more here!" He moved his hand behind Patís ear and an instant later he had pulled the offending thing away. Ski had finished injecting Pat as he did.

"I couldnít stop once I started. Damn..." Ski swore, then started mouth to mouth on Pat. Riley shook his head, unable to speak even if he wanted to. This wasnít happening. Little tripping accidents, pigs bowling people over, stuff they could laugh about around the fire afterwards, that wasnít so bad, but they were supposed to be having fun. No one was supposed to get really hurt. No one was supposed to be dying. Just as he thought the worst, Ski stopped, pulling away from Pat, and water bubbled out of Patís mouth. Pat still didnít move, but he was breathing, which made Riley exhale the breath he didnít realize heíd been holding. "Itís okay. I think you got it in time," Ski sighed.

"Shouldnít he wake up?" Sharkey asked.

Ski looked a little worried. "I donít know. This only ever happened once before in front of me and he only got stung once by this wasp. He gave himself his injection and made like it was nothing to worry about when he caught his breath, but this... We should get him to the Doc. Whereís Leland?"

"Letís get Patterson back to camp and weíll worry about finding Leland then," the Skipper said. He and Kowalski picked up Pat and they started off toward camp without further comment.

Riley tried to get to his feet but he felt weak and dizzy and nearly fell over, the shivering getting worse when he moved. Sharkey caught him and pulled him up, saying, "Gotcha, kid. Iíve seen this before. The cold water hit you pretty bad because youíre so skinny. Itíll be okay. Letís go get you into some dry, warm clothes and put some hot coffee in you."

"I...Iím n..n...not..." Riley started to stutter out, stumbling along next to the Chief. He was so worried about Patterson that he flatly refused to be sick.

"Save it for somebody who doesnít know better. Geez, two down today. Weíd better call it quits before anything else happens, huh?" the Chief said. Riley nodded, just wanting everyone to be okay again.

They met the Doc half way back to camp. Apparently, Leland had run inland rather than to the lake and had gotten back to camp and told the others what had happened. The Doc hurried them back to the campsite and Ski and Patís big tent, getting both Pat and Riley out of their wet things and into dry clothing and their warm blankets and sleeping bags as quickly as possible. He checked Patterson over, then moved to Rileyís side, taking his pulse and looking in his eyes.

"The Chiefís making coffee. You drink as much as you can. Itíll help you to warm up," the Doc told Riley after finishing giving him the once over and rubbing a creme into where heíd been stung.

Riley was already feeling a little better, just being dry, but the coffee did sound pretty good. "Is Pat okay?" he asked meekly, grateful not to have to stutter it out.

"Heíll be fine, Riley," the Doc told him, patting him gently on the shoulder. "Iím going to talk to the others, tell them the two of you are going to live. You just rest and get warm."

Riley nodded and the Doc crawled back out of the tent. He heard the Admiral asking, "How are they?" almost as soon as the tent flap closed.

"Rileyís going to be fine. Mild hyperthermia. Weíll have to see what we can do about putting a little weight on that boy. Pattersonís in shock. I donít know if itís from the bees or from being stung, then being doused in cold water like that. Donít misunderstand, Riley probably saved his life, keeping him from being stung more than he was."

"Couldnít we give him the other dose of his bee medicine?" Ski asked.

"Iíd rather hold that in reserve in case things get worse."

"Itís my fault. I should have spotted that stinger when I checked him over the first time," the Skipper said. He sounded upset. Everyone did.

"No, it was mine. Stupid, stupid, stupid! I didnít know about the hive, or about Stevenís allergy," Leland said.

"Arguing about whoís to blame isnít helping anything. And he could snap out of it in five minutes and feel fine. Itís very hard to tell with allergic reactions like this. I think the best thing to do would be to get him to a hospital, have him seen to properly," the Doc told them in a calming voice.

"Fine. Iím heading to the Ranger Station then. I think I can make it to the nearest one in about fifteen hours. Youíve got plenty of food and water to hold you over. No one should leave the camp," Ski said. Riley could certainly understand why heíd added that last bit. The Chief was right, this whole trip had pretty much been a disaster waiting to happen.

"Iíll go with you," the Skipper said.

"Iím not taking any breaks along the way, sir, and Iím not taking the trail," Ski warned him.

"All the more reason to have backup. The way our luckís been running, youíll step on a sleeping rattler," the Skipper said.

A moment later, Ski ducked into the tent and grabbed his lantern. "Ski, Iím sorry I..." Riley started to apologize, not really knowing what he was going to apologize for entirely. He just knew he felt utterly miserable.

"Thereís nothing to be sorry for, Riley. Patís gonna be fine. You keep an eye on him for me until I get back, okay?" Ski said. Riley nodded and Ski gave him a thin smile. "Great. Hang tight. Be back as quick as I can."

"Be careful, Ski," Riley told him softly.

"Always am," Ski replied with a wink, then he ducked back out. Riley huddled in this sleeping bag, wishing Skiís wink had made him feel more secure.

A little while later, the Chief came into the tent, holding a steaming mug in one hand. "Feeling any better, Riley?" he asked quietly. Riley pushed himself up a little, nodding as he took the mug and the Chief frowned at him. "Whatís with the face? The Doc told you everything was gonna be okay, didnít he?"

"I heard what he said to you out there," Riley sighed before he started to drink the coffee.

"Then you know that Pat might wake up any time now. You donít think a couple stupid beesíre gonna take out one of us guys, do you? Now, if it had been giant bees from Neptune... then Iíd be worried." The Chief gave him a grin and the giant Neptune bees thing got to Riley and he couldnít help but grin back. "Thatís better. Look, next time someone comes up a harebrained idea like this, Iíll tellím to just forget it. Whatíre a bunch of sailors doing in the woods anyway?"

"Getting our butts kicked by Mother Nature," Riley said.

Sharkey grinned again, clapping Riley warmly on the shoulder. "You got that right, kid. You got that right."

Riley drank the entire cup of coffee and Sharkey left just long enough to bring him some more. By the time heíd downed the second cup, he didnít feel cold anymore, but he did feel spent. The Chief must have seen how heavy his eyes felt, because he told Riley to get some sleep. Riley didnít have the strength to argue about it, letting himself nod off in the gathering dark.

He felt like heíd just closed his eyes, when raised voices out in the camp roused him again. He couldnít make sense of things right away, vaguely hearing strange voices shouting angry words. Riley opened his eyes, but it was dark and he couldnít see much in the tent. He started to push himself up to see what was going on, when he heard the Admiral say, "Look, take what you want and go. Weíve got some injured men and..."

"Shut up, old man! Weíll take what we want all right, and someone to carry it," a harsh voice declared.

Suddenly the tent was all but ripped from over him and Riley found himself looking up into a scarred, angry looking face. A cruel smile lit the manís coarse features and Riley recoiled in spite of himself. "What have we here?" he sneered, then a hand snaked out and grabbed Riley by his hair and yanked him forward.

"Ow! Hey! Cut it..." Riley started to complain as he clawed at the hand on him. Before he could put up much of a fight, he got a knee in the stomach, knocking the wind out of him. He was dragged out by the fire and dumped onto the ground, his wrist bound roughly behind his back when he was.

"Aw, ainít he a pretty thang," someone drawled. "Donít messím up too much. I likeím pretty."

"Looks like we know Parsonsí vote for porter, huh?" another unfamiliar voice laughed.

Riley tried to right himself, but someone planted a foot firmly on his back, pinning him down. That was when the Doc shouted, "No! Please, leave him alone. Heís in shock, he canít possibly..."

There was the loud crack of a slap and then someone said, "I donít remember asking your opinion."

Pat got dumped next to Riley, still unconscious, and Riley watched helplessly as he was tied up as well. "Wakey, wakey," Parson said, and he kicked Pat hard in the stomach. Pat didnít react, which only seem to incense the man, who kicked him again and again with no better result.

"Stop it! The boyís sick! Youíll kill him!" Starke pleaded when the assault continued.

"Please," the Doc begged. "I can see youíre wounded. Iím a doctor. Iíll help you if youíll stop beating him." That brought a stop to things, and the foot eased off of Rileyís back.

"Youíre a sawbones? Huh, must not be very good if that fellaís in rough shape."

"He suffered a severe allergic reaction. I couldnít treat him properly here," the Doc said.

There was a moment of silence. "Letís see, seven of you, seven tents. But Iím betting a couple of you were sharing the big tent," the voice of what sounded to be the leader of the group stated. Riley felt a hot breath on the back of his neck and the same voice asked, "Been keepiní ya busy, ay, pretty boy? That why you were all tuckered out?" Riley felt himself darkened at just the suggestion of what the man was saying, and he would have spit in the manís eye if heíd been able. "Okay, Sawbones, but youíd better not try anything funny or blondie over there buys it."

The two men that had been standing over him and Pat moved away and Riley struggled to sit up and move to his friendís side. Fresh bruises were coming up on Patís face and Riley could only imagine all over his body and Riley wished Pat hadnít been out cold to start with. "Hang in there, Pat. I wonít letím hurt you anymore," Riley whispered, though he hadnít the foggiest idea how he would stop the men if they decided to. He looked out at the rest of the camp. Everyone was tied up, except the Doc, who probably had just been freed. Two men in some sort of prison uniforms were holding guns over the camp while a third sat before the Doc, having a wound on his arm seen to. The men were all big and mean looking, Riley not doubting that theyíd murder Patterson or any of them in a heartbeat.

When the Doc finished working on the wounded man, he was rebound and pushed over toward the other two armed men. "I ainít stupid enough to think youíd tell me the truth about when yer expecting company, so weíll just take what we want and git," the man whoíd just been bandaged said. He tore open the tents and rummaged through their contents, stuffing two packs with what was left of their food and water and blankets and anything else that caught his eye, their guns already piled on the far end of the camp, behind the two other men. The man picked up one of the packs and tied it onto the Docís back.

"You donít mind pitchiní in a little, do ya, sawbones? Didnít think so," the man laughed. "Now, whoís gonna carry the other one?" He walked along before the bound captives, then strolled over to Riley and smiled again, grabbing Riley by his hair and pulling him to his feet. "Come on, sweetheart," he sneered, shoving Riley over towards the Doc.

"Take me. Stuart just..." Leland said, struggling to his feet. The convict that had just been yanked Riley to his feet stormed over to him and punched him hard, sending the Captain quickly back to the ground, then he kicked him for good measure.

"Stuartís just tickled to come with us so that we donít feel the need to kill yíall before we go, ainít cha, Stuart?" he asked as he turned back to where Riley stood with his friends. Riley nodded, starting to pray that the convicts wouldnít hurt anyone else if he cooperated. The convict seemed satisfied and he tied the other pack onto Rileyís back while the other two convicts picked up the rifles. The weight of the pack squeezed his arms to his back and Riley knew that before long this was going to get painfully uncomfortable. "See? Nice, willing hostages. Hostages thatíre gonna be real dead if anyone comes after us. Get me?"

"We Ďget you,í" Sharkey snarled back. "But if you hurt the Doc or the kid..."

"Hurtím? No, no. The Docís gonna keep us healthy and Stuartís gonna be our best friend, ainít ya?" the man said, then he kissed Riley roughly on the mouth. Riley struggled, but the man held his head firmly with one hand until he was done. When he drew away, Riley coughed and spit, the manís foul breath all he could smell and taste. The convicts laughed loudly at him and he heard the Admiral warn Sharkey to calm down.

Still laughing, the convicts shoved Riley and Doc ahead of them onto the trail that theyíd taken up from the bus. Riley stumbled in the dark, but he somehow managed to stay on his feet. A flashlight pierced the night, but only barely, shadows still hiding roots and holes and Riley fell so many times that he lost count after a while. By the time morning began to dawn, Riley was sore all over and exhausted. One of the convicts pulled him off the trail, the others following. Not long into the trees, there was a small, opened area, and the convict pushed Riley to the ground. He didnít try to get up.

"Think theyíll follow us?" one of the convicts asked.

"Nah. They donít want us to snuff their pals. Weíll rest here a bit, then push on," came the leaderís voice.

Riley felt a hand roughly run through his hair. "Been a while, Ned. We got time for a little fun?" Parsons drawled and Riley shuddered.

"Leave the boy alone. He hasnít done anything to you," Doc protested. He sounded as bone weary as Riley felt.

"Letím rest for now, Parsons. Time enough for that after breakfast. Just take his pack offím for now," the lead convict, probably ĎNed,í said.

Riley was turned over and Parsons gave him a yellow toothed grin. "Hear that, red," Parson said sweetly to him as he untied the pack and took it from him. "Yer dessert."

"Strawberry blonde short cake," the other convict laughed and the three men started taking things out of the packs.

Riley looked to the Doc, who was sitting next to him, and the Doc whispered, "Donít let them get to you, Stuart. Theyíre only trying to scare you to keep you in line."

"Maybe," Riley muttered. "But if they try anything like... like what theyíre saying, Iím not gonna make it easy for them."

"Donít do anything crazy, Stuart. Help has got to be on the way," Doc told him. "We just have to hold on a little longer. Can you move your arms?"

Riley tried, only to wince. "Theyíre all pins and needles and my hands feel like theyíre huge. It kinda hurts to moveím."

"Try anyway. We need to get our circulation going again."

Riley nodded, but as he struggled to move, he watched their captors eating and his stomach rumbled. He was hungry and thirsty, but he wasnít going to hold out any hope of the convicts feeding them. To his surprise, after theyíd eaten, two of the convicts actually came over to him and the Doc and fed them scraps and let them have some water. It was better than nothing Riley thought with a sigh. Then after the convicts changed from their prison uniforms into some of the spare clothes theyíd stolen, Parsons came back over to stand before him again.

"Donít know why I bothered hitching up my trousers. Gonna be takiním down again in a minute. So, who you fancy first, red?" he asked, leering at him.

Riley fought down the fear growing in him, and he glowered at the man standing over him. "Coward. If my hands werenít tied Iíd..." Riley snarled.

"Ya donít want to fight us, Stuart," Ned said, moving next to Parsons, then stooping down before Riley and looking him in the eye, plainly trying to intimidate him. "See, if ya fight when we start with ya, weíd have ta mess ya up and it wouldnít change anythiní. So, why donícha just relax..." Ned reached out a hand and run it back along Rileyís hair, and thatís when Riley head-butted him. As he fell back, Riley struggled to his feet, meaning to ram Parsons. Parsons kicked his legs from under him, dumping him back onto the ground. "Donít say I didnít warn ya," Ned snarled as he loomed back over him, blood flowing from his nose, his face a mask of fury. Parsons and the other convict completed a circle around him, Parsons cracking his knuckles, plainly looking forward to what was about to happen.

Blows and kicks rained down on him from what seemed like every direction at once, but Riley refused to give up. He tried to fight back, to no avail, and soon lacked the strength to try, then he tried to curl into a ball to escape some of the beating, but it didnít really help. He could hear Doc begging the convicts to stop the whole time, but they didnít, not even when Riley heard a sickening snap and his left side sent white lightning strikes of pain through his entire body. His lungs burned when he breathed and just when he started thinking they were going to beat him to death, the blows stopped. Riley lay panting on the ground, the taste of blood in his mouth, knowing the little bit of a struggle heíd put up hadnít counted for anything. He just closed his eyes and forced himself not to shudder or cry out when he was grabbed by the hair and pulled upright again. Still, he closed his eyes, not wanting to see the cruel, smug faces that he knew were all around him.

"All right. I think Stuartís gotta little less vinegar iním now. Letís..." Ned started, then he suddenly let out a howl of agony. Riley was released and he managed somehow not to land on his left side and stay conscious. He opened his eyes as another scream joined Nedís and there was a gun shot. All three convicts were down, Ned with an arrow in his thigh and the nameless man with one in his shoulder, and Parsons was clinging to a bloody area on his arm.

Confused but suddenly feeling a little cheered, Riley relaxed on the ground, thinking Ski and the Skipper had come back and found him and the Doc somehow. He never expected the Admiral and the Chief to come into view a moment later, the Admiral holding Patís bow as he hobbled into view. Sharkey had a handgun and he was holding it on the fallen convicts. "We came as quick as we could. Sorry the party started without us."

"Admiral, for once Iím happy you donít listen to me," the Doc breathed as the Admiral cut him loose then they both moved to Rileyís side. "Riley..." Doc started worriedly, wiping a hand carefully across his face as the Admiral cut him loose.

"Did..." Riley wheezed out, then took a shaky, burning breath before trying again. "Did I holdím long enough, Sir?"

Nelson gave him an encouraging smile. "Just long enough, Riley. Thanks for letting us finish them off. Rest easy now."

The Doc examined him, but when he probed his side and Riley grimaced, holding back a cry of pain as everything spun and blurred. "Yes, Riley. You lie still. Weíre going to tie up these ruffians and then weíre going to get you to a hospital," Doc told him. Riley nodded silently, the small movement making his head spin worse. He felt like throwing up, like crying in relief and pain, but he just lay on the ground as the Admiral and the Doc rose and moved to the convicts. The Doc whispered to the Admiral about broken ribs and internal damage and not wanting to move him around too much when Sharkey sat next to him, still keeping his handgun trained on the convicts.

"Glad I stashed that gun somewhere safe when we got here. Never ignore a bad feeling about something, Riley, never. And who woulda ever thought the Admiral knew how to handle a bow?" Sharkey asked softly. Riley tried to answer, but he didnít for fear that he would start vomiting up if he did. If he barfed on the Chief, he knew heíd never hear the end of it. His head began to feel funny and everything got even more blurry and dim. Sharkey glanced back at him, giving him a worried look, and saying, "You just hang in there a little longer, kid. Weíll be home soon. Real soon. Stay with me, hear? Riley, stay with me." Sharkeyís words grew fainter, as if he were getting further away, and everything slowly went black. Somehow, it didnít scare Riley because the pain and the sick feeling were going away too.

 

When Riley woke up, he could feel someone gently holding his right hand. Slowly, consciousness reasserted itself and Riley began to feel bed sheets around him and plastic tubing running along his left arm. He opened his eyes and turned his head slightly to the right to see Patterson sitting by him, a gentle, relieved smile spreading over his face. "Hey, there," he said softly. "Had everybody pretty worried there for a while, Stu."

"Where..." Riley started to ask, but talking made his chest ache and the one word seemed to steal his breath.

"Easy, easy. One of your ribs scraped a lung when it got busted, Stu. The Doc said it was going to hurt like the dickens for a while, but youíre going to be just fine," Pat told him, his voice remaining soft and reassuring as he gently squeezed Rileyís hand, then released it. "The Chief explained what happened when you were in surgery. Heís around somewhere. He just went for coffee."

Riley caught his breath and looked at Pat again, realizing that he was dressed in pajamas and had an IV running to one arm. Riley slowly drew in a deep breath and said quietly, "Yíhad me worried sick when yídidnít wake up. Are yíokay, Steve?"

"Sure, fine. The doctors here just want to keep me over for a day or two to make sure. I came to in the helicopter that took us here, feeling kind of stupid. I mean, one ounce bee versus two hundred pound man and the bee wins. Pretty humiliating, huh?" Pat asked him with a smile.

Riley choked on a laugh, his chest really aching when he did. "Donít make me laugh, man. It hurts," Riley gasped out, but he couldnít stop smiling now that heíd started. He was just so happy that everything was all right again that he couldnít help himself.

"Sorry. Guess youíll want a new roommate now."

"No, course not," Riley told him. "Iím kinda glad I didnít wake up to a strange face after what happened."

"I donít know. Iíve got a pretty strange face," Pat said, making Riley laugh again. Riley cuffed him, thinking what Pat had said wasnít all that funny, but he still found himself clinging to his stomach as he giggled. Probably the medication he was on, Riley reasoned, thinking heíd have to ask what it was so that Doctor Jamieson could stock up for the next time he got hurt aboard the Seaview. Heck, it might even mellow out the Admiral and the Skipper.

"You oughta be in bed, Patterson," came Sharkeyís voice from the doorway. Pat and Riley both looked that way just as Sharkey and Kowalski came in, both of them smiling as they approached Rileyís bedside.

"Stu, good to have you back with us," Ski said.

"Had us worried, kid," Sharkey told him.

Riley grinned. "You never worry about anything, Chief."

Sharkey frowned, saying, "Yeah, well, I never saw anybodyís eyes just kind of go flat like yours did in the woods there. It was like somebody turned a light out in your head. Scared the living crap out of me, so donít ever do it again."

"Iíll sure try not to, Chief. Are the Admirals okay?"

Ski laughed softly. "Theyíll both be on crutches for a little while, but theyíll be fine. Doc Jamieson told the Old, old man that he was gonna confine him to Sick Bay if he caught him without his."

"Weíre lucky he came after us," Riley said, then gave Sharkey a sheepish look. "Thanks, Chief."

The Chief gently ruffled his hair. "Thatís okay, kid. Iím just glad it wasnít a wasted effort. Ski and I should go and you two should be resting. Was the doctor in while we were gone?"

"No, Chief," Pat replied.

"Well, geez, Pat, didnít you buzzím when Riley came to? You people are lost without me," Sharkey said, then he left the room, presumably to find the doctor. Ski laughed softly, then came around the bed to help Pat to his own. Pat didnít seem to need the help, but he let Ski do it anyway. Riley smiled softly. It was easy to see that they were good friends.

"So, Stu, are you totally off camping now or do you still want to come with us sometime when itíll just be the three of us?" Ski asked as Pat settled himself into bed.

"No more escaped prisoners?" Riley asked.

"Weíve never run into any before, so probably not," Ski replied with a smile.

"And I still donít have to shoot Bambi?" Riley questioned with a grin of his own.

"I donít think so," Pat answered with a soft laugh.

"Okay. Maybe Iíll give it one more try. But if I wind up in the hospital again, thatís it," Riley said. Everybody laughed at that, Riley really wishing he hadnít made the joke as his ribs burned in him. The doctor on call came in a moment later with Sharkey to find them all still laughing, but he didnít look at all amused. He berated Kowalski for getting his patients all worked up, then asked him and Sharkey to leave for the rest of the day. Riley said his good byes and watched them go, thinking he worked with the best bunch of guys anywhere. As the doctor began to examine him, he wondered if the Chief would ever try surfing.

 

 

The End