June 12, 2018 (Tuesday, 6:30 AM)
"Samantha, what are you doing up?" Greg smiled at the girl as she approached the patio table with a huge yawn. He sipped his favorite morning drink, and until Samantha arrived, he was alone there. Clay was in the shower, and as far as he knew, the rest of the guys were having a lazy morning.
Samantha made a face and took a seat. "I smelled something weird out at my tent. It woke me up." She stretched and her back audibly popped. She looked over at her tent site. "Probably just some animal," Greg remembered that Samantha and Patrick both camped a bit when they were younger, and he appreciated her acceptance of the natural world.
"Probably." Greg smiled at her. "You want a ghetto mocha?"
Her nose wrinkled. "What's that?"
"Half coffee, half hot chocolate. I'll put some whipped cream on it too if you want."
Her face told him she was interested before her mouth did. "Ohhhh. I don't know about the coffee, but the rest sounds good."
Greg stood up. "You can try it. If you don't like it, we'll dump it out, and you can just have the hot chocolate. Sound good?"
She grinned and nodded.
Greg heated a pot of half milk and half water. Once it was hot he poured in a packet of hot chocolate and mixed it all up. Then the liquid went into a mug until it was half-full, and he brought it out to the table with a can of whipped cream in hand. Next, he put in coffee and topped it with the whipped cream.
Samantha smiled ear to ear as she took the mug from him. "Ohhh … that looks so good!" She gave it a tentative sip and ended up with some whipped cream on her dainty nose. Greg watched her face as she assessed the drink. She licked her lips, looked at him and grinned. "It IS good! Mmmm!" She went back to her drink.
Greg laughed. "I'm glad you like it, Samantha."
"Call me Sam." She wiped her nose, and her brown eyes sparkled in the early light.
"Sam it is, then." Greg leaned back in his chair, content with the morning and his company. The kids had to go back today, but not until later. And they planned to take their time and enjoy the day.
Greg then saw Elias and Orson. It appeared they walked from the direction of Orson's cabin. Orson smiled at the table and stopped to wave. Elias waited for him, and then the two continued across the campground. Greg watched as they approached the river trail and he stood up.
"Ah, I'm gonna go help Orson with …" he watched as Elias took one crutch from Orson, and he put his arm around Orson's waist. The black-haired man then put his arm around Elias' shoulders, and Greg saw them carefully start down the path.
Sam had also stood, and she openly gaped at them. "Elias!" She looked at Greg and motioned at the pair. "What … but …" Sam's mouth shut with a snap and her lip trembled. She turned back to watch Orson and Elias and put a hand over her mouth.
Greg watched as they disappeared down the path, Orson leaning on Elias. He smiled, and he took his seat. "Everything's fine, Sam." He took a drink of his coffee. "It's all fine."
Jeremy turned from his perch on the stone by the river. He smiled as Orson appeared with Elias as his "crutch." The blonde boy had a look of concentration on his face as he carefully helped the black-haired man to the beach.
"Thanks, Elias." Orson smiled at him as the boy handed him his other crutch.
The blonde nodded at him and gave Orson a little smile.
"Hi, guys." Jeremy closed his journal and shifted a bit so he could face the pair.
Elias gifted him with a tiny smile. "Hi, Mr. Adams." He looked at the river. "Will you share the river with us?"
"Well, of course. Plenty of river for all of us." Jeremy moved to the end of the rock and looked at Orson. The man nodded his thanks, and he carefully sat on the end of the stone. All the while, Elias watched him for any hint that he might need help.
'The wounded heal the wounded,' a subtle smile played on his lips as he watched them.
Once he was sure Orson was okay, Elias sat beside Orson, and the blonde boy sighed. It was the first time Jeremy had heard such a contented sound from him. They were all quiet for a time, simply watching the river.
"I don't want to leave," Elias said. His voice was soft but definite, and he stared out over the water.
Jeremy turned his head to look at him. "Well, your mom seems pretty happy to let you come camp." His face shifted to thoughtful. "Though, I won't be able to watch you as often as she'd allow you to come. And you've got to have a designated responsible adult here." Jeremy was sympathetic. "Sorry, buddy. I've got my other job to do too."
Elias' face dropped.
Orson cleared his throat. "Could I be responsible for him?"
Jeremy raised an eyebrow. "Ah, I'd have to clear it with Elias' mom." Jeremy looked back at the boy. "Would you be okay with that?"
Elias nodded quickly. "Yeah. She doesn't want me around. She'd be fine with it."
Jeremy watched Orson flinch at that, and the casual, assured way Elias said it. Orson set his jaw. "Well, I'd be fine to watch you, Elias. As many days as you want to be here. Okay?"
Elias looked at Orson with … Jeremy wasn't sure what it was. Something profound, grateful, and long-missed. It both pained him to see it, and it gave Jeremy hope for the boy. "Okay, Orson."
Orson put his arm around Elias' shoulders, and they went back to watching the river.
Jeremy opened his journal, and he began to tinker more with his song, “Just the Illusion”. 'It's not an illusion anymore. So where should it go next?' He nibbled on the eraser of his pencil, and let his mind think about the pleasant task.
That is until he was interrupted.
A strange "chuffing" sound came from upstream, and all of the guys looked up. A black bear stood on the edge of the water and eyed the group. It appeared to be over 200 lbs of fur, claws, and muscle. And it was close - only about 30 feet from them.
Jeremy scrambled to his feet. "Bear! Bear!"
Orson struggled to stand up. "Elias! Go! Get to a cabin! Go, go, go!"
Elias ignored him and helped Orson stand.
The bear's head moved back and forth as if scenting the wind. It took an unsure step toward the group and made the sound again. It was obviously an aggressive behavior. Jeremy was flabbergasted at the animal. He didn't think black bears were all that dangerous, particularly for groups of people. But this one was not acting normally.
He stepped in front of Orson and Elias. The bear outweighed him by 70 lbs, but he was the one of their bunch best equipped to deal with a threat.
And it looked as if he would have to. The bear lowered its head, its shoulders bunched, and it took two galloping steps as it began to charge.
"HEY!" Clay crashed onto the beach from the river trail, blackberry vines and grass streaming from him. He waved his arms in the air and continued to yell at the animal. The bear halted, only a dozen feet away, licked its chops and turned tail.
Jeremy watched, and his heart hammered in his chest as the animal ran back upstream. Soon it was out of sight. Greg ran down the path, a firearm in hand. He looked around.
"Everybody okay?" Greg looked worriedly at the group.
They all nodded, and Orson made a frustrated sound. "Elias! I told you to run!" He turned to the boy. "I'm fine! You should have run!"
Elias frowned and shook his head.
"I'm not sure that would have been a good idea anyway." Clay still looked the way the bear had gone. "That bear wasn't acting right. Elias splitting off may have caused it to chase him." The big man turned to the group. "Everybody up to the campground. Jeremy, make sure all our food is put away. We need to figure out why that bear was here and acting so aggressively."
Jeremy led Orson and Elias back up the trail. Again, Elias helped Orson navigate the path, and they were soon through.
All of the kids were up, and Mason had herded them into his cabin. He stood at the door, a machete in hand. When he saw Jeremy, he visibly exhaled in relief. "You guys okay?" His eyes shifted around, and he moved aside as Orson and Elias entered the cabin.
"I need to check around, make sure there's no food out." Jeremy started, and Mason caught his arm.
"There's none. It's all put away." He jerked his head toward the cabin. "Get inside." He took a look over his shoulder and dropped his voice so only Jeremy could hear. "Avery's pretty scared."
Jeremy looked inside the cabin and Patrick had Avery in his arms. The blonde boy was visibly frightened. Jeremy stepped inside and put a hand on Avery's back. "Hey. It's okay. We're all fine, Avery."
He looked at Jeremy. Patrick patted his back, and Avery released Patrick. Though he still stood right beside him.
"Why is it here?" Patrick asked. He shook his head. "It's weird. There's plenty of food for bears this time of year."
'Definitely a country kid,' Jeremy thought. He was about to answer Patrick but couldn't quite finish his thought.
"Oh! OH!" Samantha jumped up and down, her eyes wide. "Bear musk! That's what I smelled this morning at my tent!"
Jeremy was at a loss. He knew next to nothing about these sorts of things. "Uh, okay. So there's a bear … what? Marking its territory?"
Sam turned to him. "It could be. Or it could be a different bear. That's how bears say they're ready to mate. Maybe this bear is looking for the one who marked my tent site! My dad used to use bear musk when he went hunting." Sam looked meaningfully at him. "It drives other bears a little crazy."
Jeremy thought about the way the bear acted down at the river. "You might be onto something, Sam." They heard two voices then Greg and Clay reappeared from the river trail. "Let's see what the guys think."
They all gathered at the patio table, and Jeremy shared Sam's theory.
Clay rubbed his chin and nodded at Sam. "I think you're right. It's the season for breeding. And that was a male, down at the river." He shook his head. "But it is STRANGE we would have a female black bear, come deep into the camp, and mark your tent site. All these people smells around? It seems like it would have spooked her." He turned toward Sam's tent. "I'm going to go check it out. Let me borrow your piece, Greg."
Jeremy looked around at the kids. "Okay, guys and gal. I know it's early, but I think we should pack it up. We'll let Greg and Clay figure out what's going on but we need to get out of their hair."
There were disappointed faces as the kids worked, but there was also some relief mixed in as well. While the adults supervised and kept a watch the kids took down their tents.
Now armed, Clay walked all around Samantha's tent site, which was now empty thanks to the girl's fast work at tearing it down. As the kids loaded their things into Jeremy's car and Mason's truck, Clay's careful and practiced eye took in the grass and the surrounding foliage.
'No tracks.' This close, he could smell the scent of bear musk. Clay had never hunted bear, but he knew the tactics, and he knew the smell from his time out in the woods of Alabama.
The kids were on their way out of the campground and Clay took a moment to wave at them. He could see pure misery on poor little Elias' face as they pulled out onto the road, and he felt a bit of sympathy for the boy. 'I hope he at least had fun while he was here.' Clay went back to his work. And he took a look over at the patch of small trees and brush near the campsite. He stepped over and carefully began to examine the greenery.
"Anything?" Greg stood nearby. He had the machete in hand, and he kept a careful watch on the surroundings.
"Mainly what's NOT here." Clay walked in a slowly growing spiral. "I'm looking for bear tracks. I don't see any at all. There are just sneaker tracks here and there and a few boot prints." He stopped as soon as he said the words. His eyes shifted around as he thought.
"What?" Greg looked at him. "What is it?"
Clay turned his head. "Did anybody have on boots this weekend? Any of us?"
Greg's face went stony. "No." His eyes went down and looked at a boot track. It was imprinted clearly in the soft, loamy dirt beside a small tree near the campsite.
"And look at this." Clay stepped up beside Greg and pointed at an oily stain about 4' up on one of the small trees near the track. The scent from that mark was pungent. "A bear would have to be about … oh … 9' tall to mark a tree that high."
Greg's face changed, and Clay saw the anger. He realized the same thing Clay did.
"Who the fuck is spreading bear musk in our campground?"
Greg was not happy. Though he was incredibly glad to have Clay around. Clay was very knowledgeable when it came to woodlore, hunting, and all related matters.
"We need a masking odor. Something to cover this up." Clay pursed his lips in thought. "Otherwise our big boy will keep coming back, and maybe others too. And it’d be a shame to have to shoot him." He scratched his head. "Back home we'd boil black walnuts and use the oil from the husks to paint over it. But here we've gotta do something else."
Greg tried to push his anger aside and think. "Okay. So something smelly, but not something edible." He concentrated on a solution. "Hrmm. What about peppers? Bears wouldn't want to eat a jalapeno would they?"
He could tell Clay assessed the idea. "May wanna step it up to habanero. But yeah. That should do it. It'd mask the scent." He pulled out his phone. "I'll tell Mason to pick up a bunch in town."
An hour later Mason and Jeremy were back, and they had a big bag of peppers with them. The angry looking little things were bright - a warning about their contents.
A few minutes later Greg had their biggest pot on the ground near the Airstream, and they dumped in the peppers. He started smashing them with a stick until the fumes from the little fruits were too much. They had a blender, but Greg wasn’t sure they’d be able to use it again if they used it for the peppers. So they stuck with low tech. Clay rotated in, and he kept going even though his eyes streamed tears from the capsaicin.
Once he was finished, he stepped away and blinked. "That'll clear the sinuses!" He sniffed and wiped at his face.
While Clay recovered, Jeremy, pursed his lips in thought. "I still can't believe someone would do that." He shook his head. "Who would do that?"
Mason set his jaw. "A hater." He looked over at Greg. "I bet it was that ranger."
"Maybe, but we don't know anything yet. Other than SOMEONE put our campers in danger. And that's inexcusable." Greg felt the anger that still threatened to overwhelm him. The more he thought about it, the more he wanted to throttle whoever was responsible.
Clay put a hand on his shoulder. "Hey. We'll figure it out, Greg. And once we paint this stuff around, I doubt a bear would come anywhere close to our campground."
Greg still wore a frown, but he inhaled and tried to calm down. "Yeah. I know."
Before the guys got busy with the pepper juice, Greg took a pocket knife and carved off a little of the bark that was painted with the bear scent. That went into a plastic Ziplock bag. He stuck his nose in and made a face. It still had a funky, musky punch. Then he took pictures of the boot prints on his phone.
Finished, he stepped away from the area. "Okay, guys. Let's get this done."
Mason and Clay put on gloves from their first aid kit, and both pulled their shirts up over their noses. Then they rubbed the crushed peppers all over the tree that had the musk. After that was done, they also put some down at the river, and around the edges of the campground too.
After they washed up, all the men gathered back at the patio table. "Okay. I'm going to the ranger station in Gasquet." Greg held up the bag with the bark in it. "I'm gonna talk to our ranger buddy, and see if I can't get some answers."
Orson was thoughtful and quiet the whole time. "I'll go with you if you don't mind."
Greg nodded. "That's fine." He turned toward his truck. "Let's get it done."
The Smith River Recreation Area ranger station was located in Gasquet, a little town a few miles from Hiouchi and the campground.
This station was responsible for the Forest Service land near the river and the river itself. Greg knew that eventually, he would have to interact with the Forest Service, but he didn't expect a problem with a bear to be how it went.
He parked at the brown and green building, and then he got out of his truck. He waited for Orson and held the door for the man as he went into the building.
They walked up to a front desk. It was staffed by a pleasant woman who looked to be in her early 60s.
"Ranger Greene? Oh yes, I'll drum him up for you." The spry woman disappeared down a hallway that led into the building.
It wasn't long before she returned, Ranger Harry Greene in tow. When the man saw Greg, he noticed the ranger's eyes narrowed slightly. Nevertheless, he approached the pair. "Hello, gentlemen. What can I do for you?"
"I think we should probably speak in an office if you don't mind." Greg's gaze was intense, and his hazel eyes locked onto Harry's.
"Ah, okay. Sure. Come on back, guys."
They were led back into the facility and soon arrived at an office. It had a desk, two chairs, and a small bookshelf on one wall. The whole room had maps, water table measurements, rainfall records, and more. Harry pushed aside a spot at the desk. "Have a seat."
Greg motioned for Orson to sit and the younger man did so. Then Greg shut the door, and his eyes slid over to Harry. "I have a problem." He took out the sample of bark from his pocket. "Open this, and smell it."
The ranger looked dubiously at Greg. "Uh, okay." He took the plastic bag and opened it. Immediately the room filled with the smell of bear musk. He blinked, coughed once, and closed the bag. "What? Where did you get this?"
Harry's eyes widened. "Oh hell." His mouth worked. "Is … is everybody okay?"
"Yes." Greg carefully observed him. 'He didn't know.' Greg immediately reframed how he thought this conversation was going to go. "Someone marked a tree near one of our tent sites with bear musk. We had a visitor today. Male. Driven crazy by the scent." Greg leaned forward. "Would you happen to know why anybody would want to hurt a bunch of teenagers?"
Harry swallowed. "I … I don't know."
'You suspect though.' It was time for the next card. "Well, I'm about to go to the police. And I'm going to take my evidence," he held out his hand, and Harry grudgingly returned the bit of bark in the Ziplock, "and see if we can't figure out who the tracks we found belong to."
Harry lost some color. "Tracks?"
"Yup." Greg turned on his phone and flipped it around so the ranger could see it. He watched the man as his lips pressed together. It was an expression of fear and anger. His eyes met Greg's.
Harry let out a big sigh, and he sat back.
Greg took his phone and slipped it back into his pocket, and his eyes never left Harry's. "So, I take it you have a theory."
Orson smiled. "Well, that'd be good. Because I'm sure, the local news would love to hear how a bear almost killed a crippled cop in your jurisdiction. I bet that'd do pretty awful things to your camping revenues at the Smith River state parks."
Greg had to keep himself from staring at Orson in shock. Harry was doing enough of that for the both of them. After a moment, the ranger licked his lips. "Okay," he raised a shaking hand, "okay. Nobody needs to go telling anybody anything." He slowly put his hand on the desk. "What if I could promise it wouldn't happen again?" His eyes were desperate. "Please. I can make it better. But," he took a shaky breath, "if this could stay between us, I'd owe you."
Greg decided hardball was the way to go. "Who did it? You tell us, and if you tell me it won't happen again, then I'll take you at your word."
Harry looked down at the desk. He gave a long, tired sigh. "My son. I'm almost sure of it."
"Why?" Orson asked.
Harry shook his head. "That day I met your friends from Alabama … I ah … I said something when I was home about it." He looked pained. "And I said some things that may have given him some ideas."
"Oh?" Greg knew how this would end, but he wanted the man to wriggle on the hook a little longer. "What kind of things did you say?"
The man put his face in his hands. "Look, l just never thought he'd DO anything." His voice began to crack. "I complained about the … ah, the purpose of your camp. How we didn't need those kinds of people here."
"'THOSE kinds of people'?" Orson leaned forward. "THOSE kind of people are a little boy who isn't allowed to dress like a boy at home, but he can at our camp." He pushed his hands against his chair, and he slowly stood on his one leg. "THOSE kind of people are a skinny, hyperactive queer boy who can't find acceptance ANYWHERE else." Orson's voice slowly increased in volume. "THOSE PEOPLE are a brilliant tomboy of a girl who gets to explore her interests among those who understand her." He leaned over the desk on his arms. "THOSE people … are a sweet, damaged little boy, who has already been hurt and wounded by the world. And that camp is the only place he feels safe." Harry cast an intimidated glance at the black-haired man. Orson’s eyes were wild with anger. "If you can't keep your homophobic kid on a leash, then things will go badly for you and yours." He cocked his head. "Understand?"
Harry stared into his face and gulped. The man nodded, tiny, fast movements of his head.
"Good." Orson straightened up and grabbed his crutches. He opened the door and turned to Greg. "I'll be outside." He left the room.
Greg was almost as stunned as the ranger. But he too stood up. "So, make sure you hold up your end of the deal - no more problems from your boy, or ah …" Greg jerked his thumb out the door where Orson had just gone.
Harry nodded again, as pale as a sheet.
Greg left. He found Orson out at his truck. The man leaned against it, his head down. Greg put his hand on Orson's shoulder.
"Hey," Greg said quietly, "good job in there."
Orson looked up, and his eyes were still roiling pools of emotion. "Thanks." He blinked. "I had to get out of there." He took a breath and let it out. "I was about to do something crazy."
"Yeah, I think Harry was pretty convinced you were about to." Greg smiled at him. "Still, you did well." He clapped Orson on the back. "Let's head back home."
The two men got into the truck, and they started on the way back to the campground.
Elias sighed. His mom was out on another date and he was home alone again. He searched through the fridge for something edible. He found a jar of pickles, half of a leftover hamburger, and some chocolate milk just a tiny bit past its prime.
He gathered his meager dinner, and he sat in the living room on the ottoman. It was the cleanest thing in the apartment. He turned on the television. The only channel they could pick up lately was the local PBS station, so he watched the riveting account of the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory.
He had just finished his dinner and his milk when he heard a car door downstairs. He stood up to take his plate and the empty pickle jar to the kitchen sink, then the other car door slammed.
He stopped in his tracks between the living room and kitchen.
His mom's voice.
"Oh no." His eyes widened. "No no no." His voice was flat with dread. He turned and stood there and began to tremble in place.
The lock on the door turned, and his mother's voice laughed at some joke.
The door opened.
"Hi, Elias!" She sounded so happy. How could she be? She entered.
He was there.
His green eyes raked over Elias' thin, small frame.
Danny smiled, the expression lurid. "Ya miss me?"
Please let me know your thoughts on the chapter at the following email address link. Wayne Gray
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