SILVER HAWK'S REVENGE
Hey, Bart! Top this!”
At the sound of my name, I looked upstream and saw Jason, one of my fellow campers, standing in the middle of the river, grinning from ear to ear. He raised his arm, proudly displaying his latest catch—a beautiful, shiny rainbow trout that had to be at least fifteen inches long.
“Shoot,” I cussed under my breath as I started reeling in my line.
“Guess that about does it,” Caden called from a few yards downriver. “Time’s up. That should be plenty for supper, anyway.”
“Sure is,” Troy said, already cleaning his fish behind us on the bank. “And it looks like Bart drew KP duty tonight.”
KP—alias Kitchen Patrol—meant I got stuck with cleaning up after supper. By losing the contest, I inherited the dubious privilege of tidying up the cooking and eating area and washing all the dishes, pots, and pans while the rest played in their tents or sat around the campfire. That wouldn’t have been so bad if we'd at least had a Coleman stove to heat water on. Mr. Allred, our leader, had decided that we were going to really rough it. We had spent the whole first day of camp lashing together makeshift picnic tables, cooking tripods, and all the basics. The second day we had built a rope bridge across the river. That was fun enough. By the third day, we were finally settled into fishing, hiking, and having a regular good time. Things went fine until I made a hasty bet with the guys about how good a fisherman I was—having visited my California cousins so often. I didn’t realize there was so much difference between fresh-water fishing and the deep-sea stuff.
I gathered up my gear, retrieved my one and only skinny six-inch fish, and headed for camp.
“Hey, Bart,” Lance said, “is that the five-foot tuna fish you promised? Or is it a shark?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I muttered. “Go ahead, rub it in.”
Once we had arrived back at camp and properly cleaned our fish, Mr. McLean, our assistant advisor, kindly reminded us of the dreaded second part of the bet—the Marine-style fish decapitation. Delbert McLean was a celebrated—and anything but humble—ex-marine, and had been making a big deal all week about the way a “real man” takes care of a fish.
So we had made a wager: In addition to KP duty, the one who caught the shortest fish got to try out Mr. McLean’s technique.
“Okay, Elderberry,” he said, grabbing Jason’s record-setting fish off the table, “choose your weapon.”
I checked out the array of disgusting-looking fish, made a sour face, and tried to duck out of camp. The guys caught me from behind. “Oh, no you don’t,” one of them said. “We’ve been waiting all day for this.”
Reluctantly, I picked up my own scrawny fish gingerly by the gills. Everybody gathered around in a tight circle.
“Now watch closely,” Mr. McLean said with obvious delight. “Here’s the way it’s done. First you grab the fish firmly with both hands.” He grabbed his fish and squeezed so hard I thought it would pop. I grabbed mine firmly, too. “It’s a lot more fun when they’re still wiggling around,” he said, laughing. “Then you stick it in your mouth . . .” He stuck the fish’s head in his mouth and, with one quick, bone-chilling crunch, bit down hard and twisted. “. . . and bite off the head,” he said, after pulling the severed fish head out of his mouth with two fingers.
The guys all hooted and hollered. “Okay, Bart!” “Go for it!” “Be a man!”
I looked around in panic. Surely they don’t really expect me to do this, I thought desperately. The looks on everyone’s faces convinced me that I was doomed. I had no choice.
“You can do it, Bart,” Mr. McLean encouraged. “Nothing to it.”
Tentatively, I brought the fish up to eye level. The smell just about brought up my lunch. I hesitated. My hands started shaking, and my knees suddenly felt weak.
“What’s the matter?” one of the guys taunted in a sissy voice. “Can’t handle it?”
That did it. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. The sooner I start, the sooner I finish, I decided. Then, in one quick motion, I stuck the fish two inches into my mouth and bit down as fast and as hard as I could, crunching through bones and scales and everything. My gag reflexes kicked in immediately, and I spat the whole mess out into the fire. Everybody laughed as I wiped my sour mouth with my sleeve.
Mr. McLean looked real disappointed. “Oh, man, Bart. You let the head fall in the fire.”
“So, now you can’t finish the job.”
“What job?” I asked nervously.
“You’re supposed to . . .” He stuck his fish head back in his mouth. His cheeks collapsed and puckered, and his eyes squeezed shut as he made a tremendous sucking noise. Then he removed the head and swallowed, very big and exaggerated. “. . . suck out the eyeballs!” he said triumphantly, smacking his lips. Even some of the more aggressive of the bunch looked a little green around the gills after that.
I was a basket case for the next couple of hours. I hardly noticed the KP duty, and, needless to say, I did not eat any fish for supper.
Just as I was storing away the last of the kitchen gear, it began to rain, and I beat a trail for the tent. Actually, it wasn’t a tent at all. It was a huge teepee, made of authentic buckskins. It was so big that eight of us could sleep in it with plenty of room for our gear. Mr. McLean owned two of them, and the other seven members of our Explorer post slept with him in the other one. Gratefully, I had been assigned to Mr. Allred’s teepee, so I didn’t have to endure Mr. McLean’s endless military stories and horrendous singing.
We had set up our camp in a really nice meadow near Silver Lake, at an altitude of somewhere around ten thousand feet. The teepees were too big to put up close to the trees, so they sat right in the middle of the meadow, about thirty feet apart, where they soaked up every ray of sunshine. As it turned out, though, that wasn’t so bad. Since it was barely the first week of June, it was plenty chilly up there. On the north side of the hills in the shade there was still snow on the ground—a perfect place to refrigerate our perishable food.
As I stepped in through the small, round opening, I saw that the nightly card games were well underway. I flopped down on my sleeping bag next to Curtis. He was busy reading a book by flashlight, as usual—a practice that had earned him relentless harassment from the rest of the group. They couldn’t understand why anyone would want to even touch a book a mere two weeks after being released from the prison of the school system. Summer was short enough as it was. But none of them were really good friends with Curtis, anyway. They were all too interested in girls and partying. Curtis was just too serious all the time. It didn’t help that his dad made his living as a mortician. Curtis’ house was actually the back half of the mortuary—not exactly a cool place for guys and girls to hang out and have fun.
But I liked Curtis, and we got along pretty well. He was much more capable of carrying on a meaningful, intelligent conversation than any of the others, and was the closest friend I had in my Orem neighborhood.
Not as close a friend, though, as Paul Bishop had been when I lived in Payson. Paul and I had been the best of friends since Kindergarten, and we had shared a lot of growing up together. But Payson was too far away to carry on any kind of ongoing friendship, and after my family moved to Orem at the end of my sophomore year, we only saw each other on rare occasions.
On the other hand, after being in Orem for a whole year, I was still treated as the newcomer by most everybody. That was why they all got so much satisfaction out of seeing me get stuck with Mr. McLean’s fish head business.
“What are you reading?” I asked quietly.
“He better be studying up on how to win at cards,” said one of the guys. “We just cleaned him out.” They all laughed and resumed their noisy game.
“Sorry,” I whispered sympathetically.
“Sorry about the fish,” Curtis whispered back. “That was the grossest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I can’t believe you did that.”
“I didn’t really have much choice, did I?”
“I would have hiked all the way home before I ever did anything like that.”
“Well, believe me, I thought about it. But it wasn’t all that bad.”
Curtis went back to his reading. I lay back on my pillow and stared at the steep, sloping sides of the teepee and listened to the rain. I wondered what it must have been like being an Indian and living in teepees every day of their lives—hunting for food and braving the weather. I’d only been gone three days, and I already missed my laptop, smartphone, and Wii . . . and, of course, Mom’s meals. Nothing like a little camping trip to make a guy appreciate the little things, I thought to myself. I smiled and closed my eyes.
Suddenly, without any warning at all, the entire teepee lit up in a blinding flash of brilliant white light, accompanied not even a millisecond later by a deafening, earsplitting explosion that lasted several seconds. Cards and flashlights flew in all directions, and we all yelled and scrambled around going nowhere. The whole teepee bulged inward from the air shock, and we sensed more than heard the crackling and snapping and sizzling of millions of volts of electricity being discharged into the air all around us, causing the hair on our arms and heads to stand straight up. Finally, a big heat wave rushed through like a blast in the face from a freshly opened oven door. Marcus screamed and yanked the metal chain from around his neck, and Carson pulled his pocketknife from his pocket and dropped it like a hot potato on the ground, blowing on his burned fingers.
As fast as it came, it was over, and the thunder rolled slowly away over the mountains. As if on cue, the rain came down with a vengeance.
We all lay sprawled out on our sleeping bags like flattened bowling pins, hearts pounding, not daring to breathe.
“What in the heck was that?!” someone finally asked.
“We’ve been hit by lightning!” someone else whispered hoarsely.
“That wasn’t lightning! That was a bomb! We’re being attacked!”
“Get out of town.”
“You guys okay?” someone yelled from the other teepee.
“Yeah, we’re fine,” we yelled back.
Nobody bothered gathering up the cards. We all just lay there propped up on our elbows, staring at the poles and skins of the teepee and wondering if we were going to get hit again.
“We’re sitting ducks out here in the middle of this meadow,” someone said after a minute.
“Come on,” another said, faking bravery. “Lightning never strikes the same place twice.”
“That’s what you think,” Curtis answered.
“That’s what he hopes,” I said.
Just then the tent lit up again, and we were jolted by another tremendous explosion, slightly after the lightning and ever so slightly less intense than the first one.
“Holy schmoly!” I yelled amidst everyone else’s expletives.
Twenty seconds later the third one hit, followed by another and another, approximately every ten or fifteen seconds. Each one was slightly farther away than the last, until finally they were distant enough that we could count a whole two seconds between lightning and thunder. After about twenty minutes, the rain let up to a light drizzle.
“I’m going out and look around,” one of the guys said, grabbing a lantern. “You girls can stay here if you want.”
Nothing like a little peer pressure to get everyone going. We all started looking for shoes and jackets. I donned my plastic rain jacket, grabbed my mini-mag flashlight, and joined them outside.
The first ones out went straight to the kitchen area. “Everything looks okay over here,” they yelled back.
Mr. Allred and his son, Jimmy, who had been in the other teepee, dashed directly to the vehicles. “Thank goodness,” Jimmy said with relief.
“Good heck! Take a look at this!”
We all gathered around where Lance and Jason were shining their lights, and stared in disbelief. There, exactly centered between the two teepees, not thirty feet from where we had been sitting, was a big black circle about ten feet in diameter. Every single leaf, twig, or blade of grass that had ever been there was vaporized, and the rocks and dirt were burnt pitch black several inches deep. If it hadn’t been for the pouring rain immediately afterwards, we would have had a raging brush fire on our hands.
“We could’ve been killed,” someone said in a hushed voice. “It’s a miracle we didn’t get killed.”
As we were standing there around the circle, contemplating our close call, we heard a truck’s engine approaching and soon saw lights coming up through the trees. Before we hardly had time to take notice, a mini-van raced past on the muddy road across the meadow and continued helter-skelter up the mountain.
“What an idiot—driving like that in this weather,” someone remarked.
Then we heard another engine and sprinted toward the road to see who was coming. Before we got there, a white Blazer dashed by, bouncing wildly on the pitted road. We were just able to make out the star on the mud-splattered door.
“That looks like a sheriff,” Lance said. “You think he’s chasing the other guy?”
A pickup truck and another four-wheel drive, both pulling trailers, came racing by not far behind.
“Those are Search and Rescue guys,” Curtis said excitedly. “I wonder what’s going on.”
We had finally reached the road and flagged down the last truck by jumping around like crazy people in the middle of the road. Visibility was so poor that he just about ran us over.
“What’s the problem?” he yelled angrily, rolling down his window.
“Nothing. We’re fine,” Mr. McLean answered. “We just wondered what in the heck’s going on.”
“There’s a little girl lost in the hills somewhere up by the lake,” he explained. “Her family’s been looking for her for hours.”
“You’re kidding,” Troy said. “In this storm?”
“Is there anything we can do?” asked Mr. Allred.
“I don’t think—”
“We’re an Explorer post . . . from Orem,” Caden said. “We’ve been camping up here for years. Most of us know these hills better than our own backyards.”
“We can help search,” piped in someone.
“Yeah,” we all said in unison.
He considered this for a minute. “Okay,” he said, looking back and forth from Mr. McLean to Mr. Allred. “Bring your guys up to the lake as soon as you can get them ready. Dress warm and dry . . . and bring plenty of lights and spare batteries. It could be a long night.”
We all smiled in the darkness. Some of the guys high-fived each other.
“Just remember,” he said to our leaders, “you’re responsible for these guys.” He rolled up the window and spun off up the road.
“You heard him, men!” barked Mr. McLean, suddenly all Marine. “Fall out! Move it! Move it!”
As we were running back to camp, we heard another vehicle approaching and turned in time to see a white Suburban whip past with the word SHERIFF painted on the side.
“Now that one was a real sheriff,” Curtis said.
Back in the teepee, I peeled off the rain slick, put on my coat, and pulled the jacket back over. I added another pair of socks, but didn’t have any waterproof boots to wear, so I put my hiking boots back on. Then I grabbed a set of spare AA batteries and shoved them in my pocket. I wished I had some gloves, but I didn’t know it was going to be so cold when I packed for camp. By the time I got out to the trucks, most of the guys were there already. Mr. Allred was busy unhooking the trailer from his Jeep Cherokee, and Mr. McLean had his Montero running and ready.
“Come on, you guys,” he yelled from the driver’s seat. “Get a move on!”
The last ones finally came running.
The drive up to the lake was only about five miles from our camp, but it took us nearly thirty minutes to get there. The road was slick and muddy, and Mr. Allred slid off it after only a couple of minutes. Since we didn’t have a chain or a towrope, we had to push it out the hard way, leaving us all splattered with mud and nearly soaked through.