Saturday, September 8, 2012

Man Cave, Chapter 5

- Chapter 5

LC Cooper

Copyright LC Cooper, © 2012
Published by LC Cooper at Smashwords

Cover image, "Scary Cave #7," courtesy of
Cover Tartan texture © 2012 love textures

Smashwords Edition, License Notes
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return it to and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.

Fishing was never a challenge for Eric and me. As a matter of fact, there were many times during our camping trips that we either lost or forgot fishing poles, tackle, or some other necessity. When it happened, or whenever we decided to make wagers, Eric and I became experts at improvising fishing techniques that always caught fish. This time was no exception.
Abandoning our plan to continue on a southern path parallel to the road, and thus, into the more treacherous mountainside, we moved west – to the lake. The decision brought us to the water's edge by the next morning. Far from the road, we realized Sammy would never think we'd deviate from the path toward freedom.
Eric and I dropped noiselessly into the cool and clean water. I unwrapped my shirt from my head and peeled its caked-on blood from my forehead. Then, I gently doused the gaping wound with handfuls of water. As long as I avoided infection, just getting the gash cleansed greatly improved its chances for completely healing. With my fingernails, I scraped away clumps of dried mud and grit from my hair and body. I stripped the rest of my clothes off and rinsed and cleaned the rest of my body as well.
Eric's ribs hurt so much that he needed my help with removing his shirt. The few buttons weren't the problem. He couldn't raise his left arm or turn without grimacing in pain. I suspected he had some fractured ribs. His pain and the damage seemed too extensive to be a muscle strain.
I helped him remove the rest of his clothes and rinsed everything out while he sat atop a flat rock at the water's edge. Meekly and mildly ashamed at being so helpless, Eric overdid the frequent thank you's to the point that I asked him to shut up and think of a way to catch us some food.
This section of the lake was unremarkable. We didn't see patches of weeds or structures that would improve the likelihood of our catching fish. From the shallows, I ventured further out into the water, noticing a sharp, but not steep, slope. Also, the temperature of the water became colder at the place where the bottom's slope changed. I swept my feet back and forth in the muck, rummaging until I hit pay-dirt.
"Mussels!" I exclaimed. "I'm standing within a bed of mussels, Eric!" Without waiting for his reply, I flipped upside down into the water, groping and probing until I bumped against one of the inverted mollusks. Wishing I had my pants on so I could stuff my pockets with them, I scooped up as many of the mussels as I could carry in my folded arms and hurried back to where Eric sat. I gently set the treasure on the rocky slab. We both grinned and chuckled.
"We may end up surviving, after all," Eric mused. "I'd hug you or give you a high five, but …"
"Say no more," I playfully chided. "After all our years spent camping together, hugging butt-naked was never one of those things I imagined we'd do."
After another shared laugh, I reached for my drying pants and shoved my hand into a pocket. Withdrawing some sharp rocks, I went to work splitting open the mussels.
"Good thinking, stuffing a bunch of rock shards into your pockets before we left the road," Eric remarked.
"Thanks. Without weapons or any tools, these rock fragments were the best thing I could come up with," I replied with a shrug.
"Your ingenuity has saved us."
"Hey, don't give me all the credit. It was your idea to move to the lake."
I jammed a thin, wedge-shaped rock between the lips of a mussel's two halves and pried it open. Without thinking twice, I handed the shelled morsel to Eric, who greedily sucked down the blob of protein, fats, and rich calories. "Not bad," he said with a grin.
I shucked another and gulped down the amazingly delicious contents. Never a fan of raw shellfish, starvation certainly eliminated my pickiness. Back into the chilly water I dove, harvesting dozens more mussels before our stomachs were satisfied.
The semi-empty shells were tossed into the water near a large patch of surface algae. We hoped this tactic would draw hungry fish closer to land, and thus, to us by daybreak. Catfish and other bottom-feeders weren't glamorous, but they sure were just as tasty as the more exotic lake species. Whatever came to breakfast, Eric and I would be ready to snap them up. I gathered another armful of mollusks and penned them within a stone corral that I formed in the lake's shallows. These would be used as fish bait.
Although full from our feast of mollusks, we knew better than to doze the night away. We fought off our bodies' protests for rest, choosing to spend much of the evening hours fashioning fishing hooks and lines. Limited to small tasks because of his fractured ribs, Eric assumed the duty of making fishing hooks from the shards of mollusk shells. I cracked several shells with a hand-sized rock. Some of the resulting pieces became extremely sturdy hooks and spear tips. I spent much of the evening peeling thin strips of bark from saplings. These strands, then, became the binding around segments of rock and shell to make hooks and barbed tips. Eric and I sacrificed our shoelaces so I could make two sets of fishing line, which I then secured to our homemade hooks.
We didn't bother with making fishing poles. Years ago, we learned to lay flat on our stomachs on the shoreline, which made it difficult for fish to see us. We'd toss our baited hooks into the water and draw the line snug. The other end of the shoelace-fishing line was tied around and behind the second knuckle of an index finger.
Although we hadn't needed to use these techniques in quite a while, we remembered that patience was critical for success. In the pre-dawn light, our first couple of attempts snagged, but did not catch, fish. The hungry buggers stole our bait of raw mollusk meat, but threw off the hooks. However, the scent of food must have made a horde of catfish insane because they attacked our makeshift hooks as fast as we could throw them into the water. In three hours, we caught twenty-nine adolescent and two adult catfish. The only reason we stopped catching fish was that we ran out of bait.
We kept on catching fish because we did not intend on staying in that spot. So, after catching all the fish we could handle, I got on with the task of gutting and cleaning them. So many fish would soon spoil, so we decided to smoke and dry them atop a fire. Catfish "jerky" would be an easy-to-carry high-protein staple for days to come.
Eric and I were well suited for surviving in these conditions. Starting a fire might have been a frantic concern for amateurs, but all it took for us was for me to gather a pile of wood scraps that became our fire's tinder. I handed Eric my pair of eyeglasses and got back to preparing our fish. Although quite sore, Eric was able to clear a patch of ground behind our large, flat boulder. The boulder not only acted as a windbreak, but it also hid the flames from a waterfront view – a precautionary step we took in case Sammy was on the lake or searching the shore using binoculars. It helped that the wind always blew from the north, from where Manton sat. This meant Sammy would never be able to smell whatever we cooked.
To get our catfish cooking, Eric pushed our pile of tinder into a pyramid shape. He rotated my glasses until sunlight brightened the tinder. Continual movements and slight adjustments focused the sunlight into a beam the size of a tiny pin prick. Within five minutes, smokey wisps rose from the pile. A few minutes later, we had a roaring fire. Eric handed me back my glasses as I handed him the first of the fish filets.
These he skewered and held over the flames. We gobbled down four filets each before damping the fire so that it produced more smoke. We certainly didn’t want to generate a load of smoke because doing so would make it very easy for Sammy to find us. I spent quite a bit of time fanning the smoke so it would disperse. A morning fog helped absorb the visible puffs of smoke that escaped my fanning.
By dusk, we had smoked all the filets to the point that they would be preserved for a few days. If the sun remained loyal, we would then further dry as many of the filets as possible to preserve them even longer by laying them out on flat boulders while Eric and I rested. After a week, we believed we could prepare enough food to last another two weeks, if rationed. The hole dried up where we caught so many fish, so we turned our attention to a cove just south of our campsite. This is when we discovered the old cabin. Some might have called it a godsend,, but for us, it became a near-death experience.
While tramping through the cove's waterfront brush, we pushed into a thicket choked with kudzu vines. What I thought was a boulder was actually wood – a board. As such, Eric and I excitedly, but gingerly pushed aside a few handfuls of the vines to reveal a wall of a modestly-sized fishing cabin. After dozens of years of neglect, the long-abandoned shack wasn't much to look at. Afraid to expose the cabin's lake-facing front, we kept the kudzu intact, pushing open a hole through it that we could crawl into so we could open the shack's door without being visible.
My heart raced with eager anticipation of what treasures we'd find inside. I gave the jammed door a hard shove. It came off its hinges and crumbled apart as I held onto its wooden handle. We grimaced, hesitating to see what we'd discover inside. Treasure was far from my mind.
After my initial euphoria at finding the cabin, as we now suspected, the place was empty. Long-dead weeds laid atop pried-loose floorboards. Most of the ceiling was gone; a large section of it had caved in and rested on the floor.
"No hope of staying dry or warm in this dump," I muttered.
"Yeah, and these beams," Eric added as he dug a fingernail into the rotted surface of one, "aren't good enough for firewood."
"You don't suppose Sammy killed off the guy who used to live here, do you?"
Eric shrugged. "Wouldn't surprise me, but it's such a small place, I doubt anyone lived here. It's similar to the ice-fishing shacks we were in up north. Also, the perimeter of this one must be nearly  four hundred square feet – much larger than any fishing shack you and I have ever been inside."
"I thought the same thing," I replied as I glanced out the hole cut in the side as a window. "The view's terrific. Maybe whoever built this place did it because of the location." I turned to see Eric studying the corners where the walls meet the ceiling.
"Just wondering if we can reset the fallen planks onto the frame up there so we have a roof." He leaned his right palm against one of the corner posts as he continued to look up. "Oh, crap!" he exclaimed as the post gave way. Brittle wallboards crumbled and fell as I yanked him by his right arm away from the wreckage.
Coughing through the dust, I said, "I think we need to give up on this shack. I'd be afraid to stay in it because it's so unstable. Also, did you notice how hot it is in here compared to outside? I think we'd be more comfortable sleeping out in the open."
"Yeah, I agree," sighed Eric. "I was hoping this was a place where we could recuperate – a home base of sorts."
"Let's scrounge around outside. Maybe they left a refuse pile we can comb through."
Sure enough, about where we expected it to be, we found a very broken down pile of trash. Animals had been through it over the years. All that remained were shreds of paper, plastic, glass, and the occasional scrap of metal, cans and their pull-tabs. Eric found glass fragments from some old soda bottles.
"This place must have been abandoned back in the 70s," Eric mused. "There aren't any plastic jugs, trash bags, and stuff we'd expect to find that was made over the last thirty years."
"In a way, I'm glad to know that. It means that whoever had this cabin abandoned it long before Sammy infected the area."
"Well, well," Eric said as his shoe made a hollow echo when he walked across a corner of the dumpsite. "What have we here? Adam, give me a hand, would you? I still can't bend down or dig."
"I'm on it," I enthusiastically said. Reality said that whatever was buried beneath Eric's foot was probably nothing more than an old wooden crate, but my emotions got the best of me. "Buried treasure, I hope." I said with a grin. I dropped to my knees and dug like a dog going after a buried bone.
The rotted lid caved in as I cleared a layer of small rocks off of it. I shook my head in disgust after peering down into the hole. I shoved my hand in, rummaged around, and pulled up a small plastic bottle. Shaking it while holding it up between my eyes and the afternoon sun, I saw the broken-down goo that used to be either suntan lotion or mosquito repellant slosh around inside the bottle.
"Next," Eric muttered while shaking his head. "I've got a bad feeling about this."
"I'd be willing to bet this is what's left of a camper's discarded survival kit or that the box once contained supplies that the cabin's owner kept hidden when he wasn't staying here."
Ruined matches and discolored, melted candles came out next, followed by a rotted deck of playing cards. A small metal tin contained the rusted remains of a handful of fishing flies. I was about to give up in frustration when my hand brushed against something soft. Instinctively, I yanked my hand out, thinking I had made contact with some underground beast.
"Give me a break, will you, Adam? You know there's nothing spooky down there."
"Just wasn't expecting something soft within this pile of junk." I bravely shoved my hand back into the cavern's maw, hoping sharp teeth didn't amputate my hand. I steeled my nerves and yanked out a flat rectangle.
"An oilskin pouch?" I muttered, flipping the discolored hide while I looked for an opening. I finally slid a fingernail along a side until I found a slight gap in the material. Running my nail along it, the fused protective pouch gave way. Whatever was inside hadn't seen the light of day for probably forty years.
"Hmm," Eric remarked, "open it up and I'll bet you'll find an old survey map of the area. Whoever had this fishing shack probably followed the map to find good fishing spots and to find his way back to this cove."
Not surprising, Eric was right. Gingerly, I unfolded the archaic map. Yellowed from use and years underground, the fragile paper crackled and rattled, but thanks to the protective properties of its oilskin cocoon, the map proved easy to open.
"Perfect!" I exclaimed as I laid it out on the ground between Eric and me. Excitedly, I used my finger to trace the outline of the lake and then tapped on the squiggles that represented the mountain range at the bottom of the map. "We're not so far from the mountains, Eric, see?"
"I'm more drawn to the lake's outline. As I already said, and this map reinforces, we won't survive a hike through the mountains. Look further down the map. Do you see a pass? I don't. Also, look at the mountain's elevation. We'd die from altitude sickness and dehydration long before we'd reach its summit."
"Sammy isn't so stupid," I grumbled. "He picked out his location for Manton because it's inescapable … except via the main road, which, by the way, isn't on the map. Apparently, Sammy built the road …"
"Wouldn't surprise me, then, if the approach to the mountains are mined and loaded with booby traps," Eric interjected. "The good news is that, from what I see of the topography, this cove and surrounding area are protected by several bluffs and ravines between here and where the road probably is. This means Sammy can't get to us from the road or by using something like an ATV. He's in no physical condition to hike back here either."
"Which means it's also impassable to us," I groused, taking in Eric's physical condition. He still had to nurse his left side because of the cracked ribs. A sling made from his shirt kept his left arm and shoulder immobile so the ribs could heal. I dropped my head because of our sad reality; We weren't leaving here alive. I scowled and then spat, "There's no way out of here."
"Oh yes there is, old buddy," Eric said as he raised an eyebrow.
I didn’t care to know, but I suspected what he might be thinking. Instead of asking, I shoved my hand back down into the broken box and rummaged around for anything that might be of value. Beneath where the map had been resting, I pulled out a small oval picture frame. The chemicals from the old Polaroid photo had long faded. Curious to see if there was any writing on the reverse side of the photo, I opened the clasps at the edge of the frame and slid out the metal backplate. Whoever or whatever was in the photo was forever lost, but the key taped to the back of the picture wasn't.
"It's a key to a lock box," I said as my heart skipped a beat. "I bet there's one buried around here. It might contain weapons and gear that can help us."
"Hold your horses, sport. Read what's written below the key," urged Eric.
I read aloud the dainty scribble as best I could:

You will always be the key to my heart. Thank you for sharing such a lovely home with me. The cove is a breathtaking harbor, as was our deep bond. Treasure what we had, miss me, but please don't be bitter for what we cannot control. Once reunited, together forever we shall remain.


Eric sighed, and I let my arm go lax. The framed note slid out of my hand and dropped onto a bed of soft, decaying leaves. "Don't get your hopes up, Adam, on actually finding treasure. The key could be a metaphor," Eric said. "Do you really think anyone would leave valuables behind in a worn-out shack like this," he said as he pointed a thumb at the building's dilapidated remains.
"The place was important to whoever lived here." I stood to add drama to the emotion I was feeling, as if we were drawn to this shack and its cryptic message. "I think we were supposed to find this. Who do you suppose Daphne was? What if it wasn't real, but written to throw off anyone, like us, who might find the key one day? Wouldn't it be cool if there was something valuable buried around here?
"I see your point, but I still think you're making too much out of this," Eric said straight-faced. His sourness, though, turned into a grin. He knew I wasn't about to let go of our mystery until we turned over every stone and pried up every board. "Oh, what the heck. Let's look for your buried treasure. If nothing else, doing so will help kill the afternoon and give us a distraction."
"I'm all for that," I mumbled in agreement, and then perked up, saying, "After all, we won't know if we don't try to find whatever might be hidden." I paused and looked around the old dump. "I've got an idea," I said. "Follow me."
I hurried to the shack and pried away two of the smaller and thinner wallboards. I held onto one and gave the other to Eric. "First, we tamp the ground with these," I said as I acted out lifting the board up and down onto the ground. "Start first around natural hiding places such as boulders and bases of trees. If we don't find anything, then we follow a grid pattern and tamp along in parallel. If there's anything in the ground, we're sure to find it. A dulled echo of a slight thud is the signature we're listening for."
"How did you come up with this system?"
"From watching one of those survivor shows. This technique helped one guy find an amulet that kept him in the game."
I'm glad you're confident," Eric said. "Honestly, Adam, what do you hope to find?"
"As we already discussed, a distraction from this lunacy, if nothing else, Eric. Play along, would you? Even if we don't find anything, the time to think may help us develop some next steps. We're still in the summer months and all is fine for now, but once things begin to cool off and fall approaches, we're screwed. We have no cover, no clothes, and no meaningful shelter. All the mussels and fish in the world won't protect us from dying of hypothermia. If we don't find a magical lock box, then we'd better get thinking."
"Oh, well, since you laid it out like that …" His voice trailed off.
Stupidly, I blew our diversion with too much heavy detail about our dire chances of survival. A worried look on his face proved I dampened Eric's mood. We trudged off in search of treasure.
Unfortunately, Eric was right. All the stomping and tamping produced nothing. As dusk approached, Eric said he was giving up. He tossed his plank at the kudzu-covered shack. The impact caused more wallboards to crack and crumble. It was a pathetic site.
Something gleaming caught my attention. When all else was coated in dust and decayed matter, the last thing I expected to find was something reflecting the sun's rays. I walked up to a weed-choked corner of the cabin and bent down. Peeking from within the mass was a section of polished stone.
My pace quickened at the thought that I might have found our hidden treasure. I yanked the weeds out of the ground and brushed away handfuls of dirt and decomposing leaves. Doing so revealed a very small granite block.
"Eric, come quickly! I found something!" I hollered. Eric had wandered back to our campsite, about 200 yards north of where I stood, so I wasn't sure if he heard me. I yelled the same message again and this time, he walked as fast as he could to where I was squatting behind the shack.
"Did you find it – the buried treasure, I mean?" Eric anxiously asked. He was wheezing because his cracked ribs weren't allowing him to take the deep breaths needed to clear his lungs. In the back of my mind, I prayed that Eric did not come down with pneumonia. It would be a killer out here in the forest.
"Um, probably not, but it does appear that I found Daphne. This here's her tombstone," I said as I gently tapped a corner of the highly-polished gray, black, and white block.
"Well, it seems we found someone's buried treasure all right. Too bad it was the guy's love," Eric said, sad to have come to that realization. "You're not going to dig up her grave, are you?" Eric asked with a concerned look on his face.
"No, I guess not. I'm not a grave robber. Besides," I added as I bent down to wipe away the rest of the debris off a top corner of the tombstone, "beyond desecrating her grave, what good could come from digging up her remains? It's not likely anything important or of value to you and me would be in the grave with her."
Eric agreed, and then said, "If nothing else, it was nice of you to clean up her gravesite."
"Thanks. The way I look at it is whoever loved Daphne hasn't been here in a long time. That fact is a sad testament in of itself. I did it out of respect for what the two of them shared."
"Wow, Adam, that's a pretty mature thing for you to say. Never thought I'd hear something like that out of your mouth."
"Humph, I'll take that as a compliment, I guess," I grumbled. "Gotta admit, finding Daphne dampened my desire to look much longer for any treasure. I'll make a couple more passes before the sun sets, but after that, I'm giving up on finding buried treasure."
"Okay, sounds like a plan. Anyway, thanks for showing me Daphne's grave. Ends the day with a balance. This old shack used to be someone's home and not just a place to fish. Adds some character and personality to the place, you know? If circumstances were different, I'd probably buy this piece of land and fix up the cabin."
"Once we get out of this mess and return home, you could bring Natasha out here and share with her all you've learned about camping and living in the wilderness. This cabin could become quite a romantic getaway for the two of you."
"I like the way you think, Adam. Hey, did you notice you mentioned believing we'll survive this nightmare? Good on you! Shows you have confidence in us and our chances of surviving."
"Yeah," I said with a smile, "it surprised me, too." I didn't used to be an optimist. It's strange how we react when enduring an insane amount of stress.
Eric and I chatted a bit longer, then he ambled back to our campsite. Not long after, I, too, gave up. I decided to watch the sunset, but didn't feel like walking back to our camp yet. I looked overhead. The hearty tree that I was leaning against had a couple of branches that crossed over each other, making for a natural seat. I thought it would be a great place to sit and watch the sun set, so I climbed up and settled in.
That's when I saw the camera.

~~ * * ~~

I didn't actually see a camera as much as I heard it. The distinctive "clack" of plastic tapping against plastic, though lost in the crunches and chatters at ground level, was very easy to hear ten feet up in a tree. What I heard sounded like a broken gear spinning. A gentle breeze shifted a branch out of the way, and I saw a small beam of red light. My first reaction was to panic because I thought the red light was coming from a laser scope – like one you'd find attached to a sniper's rifle. I readied myself to leap but then realized the light was coming from a LED atop a small white box. That's when it dawned on me that it must be a camera Sammy placed up in a tree to help track escapees from Manton. Thankfully, the thing was pointed away from me, but was pointing directly at the remains of the fishing shack.
"Shit!" I thought. "Sammy knows exactly where we are." I scrambled down the tree and snuck over to stand beneath the camera. I watched it struggle to swivel on its mount. I was relieved to see that it was indeed stuck. If it hadn't been, Eric's and my campsite would have been clearly in view of the camera.
"We're going to have company," I breathlessly said to Eric as soon as I was within earshot of him. To stay out of view of the camera, I followed the shoreline back to our campsite, but about thirty feet inland. I went as fast as I could, but thorny brush and unstable footing slowed me down. It was after dusk before I completed the two-hundred-yard hike.
Eric swiveled his head around, nervously scanning the area for a sign of trouble. I pointed to the left of the fishing shack and said, "Sammy stuck a camera up in the tree there. It's pointed at the cove and the fishing shack."
"How did you find it? Oh, that doesn't matter - Is it working?"
"From what I can tell, the red light on top of it is on, so we have to assume the stupid thing caught us screwing around at the shack."
"Why haven't we seen or heard Sammy yet?" Eric scanned both the trees and lake, as I was also doing, as we talked. "I can't believe he had a change of heart and gave up trying to kill us."
"Yeah, right. I believe he's not checked the camera monitors yet today. Once in his control room, probably when he's shutting down everything for the night, he'll review whatever his cameras captured during the day."
"Which means he probably has hidden motion detectors near the cameras so they turn on when something passes within view, which makes sense. The cameras must run on batteries."
"Looks like we need to cover our tracks here and move the campsite further inland, at least out of view of anyone on the lake, There is no doubt in my mind that at daybreak, Sammy will raze this area. What a damn waist," Eric mumbled. "You and I spend our lives appreciating nature while Sammy thrives on destroying life. Take a last good look around, Adam. You can bet it won't look the same tomorrow." He walked toward me and said, Hand me the map, would you?"
After studying the map, Eric mumbled, "There's only one way out." I didn't understand, but I wasn't ready to deal with whatever was the scenario Eric had envisioned.
We used the last remaining rays of sunlight to cover up and clean off any tell-tale signs of our campsite. We worked into dark, and kept it dark. There wasn't a campfire to help us because we were certain Sammy was scanning the lake's shores for signs of life.
Too worried to sleep or rest, I practiced throwing homemade spears while Eric chiseled spear tips and notched shafts. We joked about our prehistoric conditions, but something had changed within us. We were terrified, but at the same time, calm. I imagine this was the way General Custer felt on his last day at Little Big Horn.
As dawn approached, I pointed to a number of lodges and waterfront homes that dotted the hills surrounding the lake. "Do you realize that since we set up camp here, not one of those homes has been lit up or has shown any activity?"
"Yeah, I noticed it, too. Sammy said he bought a few of them, but I don't believe anyone's alive in any of the others. I wouldn't be surprised if Sammy rigged every one of them with cameras or explosives."
"I doubt there would have been anything of value left behind either, like a truck, weapons, fuel, or food."
"Any food is probably poisoned," Eric huffed as he chucked a pebble into the still lake-water. "There's no point in believing we'd find a working phone or useful supplies."
Just as Eric completed saying, "I came to the same conclusion," we heard a buzzing sound that seemed to originate from up the lake. Not comprehending what was making the odd, high-pitched noise, we scanned the trees for a beehive. Then, I saw the shimmer on the lake.
"Get down … into the shelter now!" I hissed as I pointed to the object. Eric didn't need to be told twice. He instantly realized what was racing toward us. He crouched behind our large boulder on the shore. I frantically searched for any exposed materials or signs of our presence, grabbed the two reclining spears, and dropped down beside Eric. Thankfully, Eric and I remained true to our design - nothing man-made seemed to be visible. The rock windbreaks on both sides of our boulder provided shelter which, especially critical now, kept us hidden.
The screeching, full-throttle whine of the outboard motor grew louder. Neither Eric or I dared poke our head out to take a look. We knew it was Sammy once again searching for us. He must have killed off the driver of the pickup truck we had heard before Sammy's shotgun assault on us a day ago. With the guy bubbling within the acetone froth, Sammy had resumed searching for us. I was furious for making it so easy to find us. His damn camera showed him exactly where we were. I couldn't believe we'd been so careless. I was scared to death that we were about to pay the ultimate price for our ignorance.
My heart jumped when I heard the engine's motor throttle back to idle. Small waves swirled over the rocky shoreline and lapped at our legs and forearms. Being overtaken by the cool water was irritating, but we remained crouched and unmoving behind our bouldered shelter. I hoped it was large enough to conceal us completely. I imagined Sammy was scanning the shoreline with those amazing Leica Duovid binoculars I messed around with on his Carver yacht. I was furious that I was cowering in three inches of water while an insane murderer was prowling and trolling for us. Knowing better, I so much wish I had my hands on an AA-12 shotgun. I envisioned leaping up, throwing the thing to my shoulder, and vaporizing Sammy in his speedboat.
Startled, I felt a hand grasp my tricep. Eric sensed my tensing up and grabbed my arm to distract me from making any noise. I relaxed and changed my thoughts, but my heart continued to pound from fear and rage.
"Come out, you bastards!" screamed Sammy through the bullhorn he carried. "you had no right to be here! You desecrated my … this was my home – our home!"
We heard a series of clicks and thunks, and then it went silent, as if Sammy was trying to listen for us crashing through the brush to get away from him.
"I will catch you, you hear me! And when I do, there won't be any mercy!" he shrieked. "Surrender now!" To punctuate his threat, Sammy unleashed several rounds of grenades from his AA-12 shotgun. Their "whump, whump, whump," cadence was immediately followed by the flash and thunder of explosives tearing through the beauty within the cove.
Startled, with each shell's release, I crouched further until I lied flat in the murky water, as did Eric.
"I couldn't save her!" Sammy growled through the bullhorn, and then screamed it again. "I couldn't save her! You jackasses ruined everything!" Sammy opened fire on the poor fishing shack and its surrounding vegetation. Nothing was spared the torturous chaos of his hellish vengeance.
Thankfully, the cove was more than two-hundred yards further south along the shore from where we were hiding. The arc of the AA-12's shotgun spray fell short of us; However, several errant chunks of shrapnel swarmed and then buzzed by overhead, convincing us to burrow even deeper into any available crevice.
I swallowed hard when I realized that Sammy might see us if he steered his boat into the cove and looked to his left. Instead, though, his focus remained on the cove and the fishing shack. By the end of his furious attack, he must have been spent because it sounded like the sounds of sobbing were coming through the bullhorn.
While lying in the muck, a thought came to me that if Eric and I were to survive, now that Sammy knew we were still alive, we'd need to stay away from the lake during the daylight hours. We'd only harvest mussels and catch fish during the pre-dawn and immediately after sunset. If he didn't do so already, Sammy would probably lace the nearby shoreline with hidden cameras. It was imperative that Eric and I moved back into the woods – remaining near the lake, but out of sight. Thinking back, it was stupid of us to assume we weren't risking being discovered living out in the open. I suppose we got caught up in the euphoria of having survived our escape that we believed we were smarter than Sammy. We were wrong – nearly dead wrong.
A tumbling, crashing tree limb startled Sammy. He reacted by swiveling the shotgun around to point it straight at us. Hidden behind our fire's stone windbreak, I realized we were staring right down the barrel of that insidious weapon. Two quick bursts decimated the falling tree limb, terrified birds, and the dense undergrowth. Because of this, Sammy must have believed we were up in the trees, then, because he poured dozens of rounds into the tree tops to our left. We heard soft plops and mild ricochets as the pellets and shrapnel lost momentum and fell harmlessly into the water twenty feet away from where we hid.
"He doesn't really know where we are!" I excitedly thought as hope swelled in my heart and head. Eric frantically tapped my arm to remind me to stay focused and remain calm.
Apparently satisfied that he softened the area enough, Sammy steered his boat in a broad arc in order to be parallel with the shoreline. The water was shallow, less than eighteen inches deep for almost twenty yards. I hoped he wouldn't risk grounding his boat and getting stranded. The reef-like rocky shore helped keep Sammy at bay. He passed by us, yelling into his bullhorn. The AA-12 came to life again when he startled a flock of finches that settled to roost just moments before. They carried on within a tree directly behind and above us.
Apparently, Sammy anticipated the finches' desperate flight path because we heard two quick bursts of the shotgun, but the sound seemed to be out over the water. I believed he took aim and obliterated the birds because he was frustrated that he wasn't sure if Eric and I were still alive. After another five minutes of coasting at idle and peppering the shoreline with shrapnel, Sammy jammed the motor's throttle wide-open. Soon, the fishing boat disappeared into a tiny, noisy dot, moving in the direction of Manton.
Eric and I exhaled deeply, but neither of us jubilantly leapt to our feet. Instead, white-knuckled and with achingly-tight muscles, we remained prone until the buzzing of the angry motor was no longer heard.
"Let's get to a safer spot inland," Eric resignedly whispered. "As if this crap wasn't bad enough, we now have to be afraid of cameras watching us." Seeing all the green mists of vaporized bushes and leaves elicited an affirmative nod from me. Mentally drained, I was in no mood to talk after having survived another of Sammy's vicious attacks.
"I've had enough of that son-of-a-bitch," growled Eric as he began to stand up. I saw him drop onto his knees as he stifled a scream. I gasped in horror. He reached back to find his backside was covered in blood and more was oozing out a shredded hole where a pocket had once been. Eric cried out and, pushing past the pain, stuffed his fingers into the remnants of the pocket. He shakily pulled out the tattered and blood-smeared remains of his two family photos. He plopped onto his left side, lowered his head to rest on the sand, and sobbed.
Although I wasn't stupid or insensitive enough to interrupt with a pep-talk, Eric was very much wounded and we were out in the open and exposed. His wound needed immediate attention.
"It's okay, buddy," I lied. "Seems to be a flesh wound," I unconvincingly mumbled as I poured fresh water onto the wound to clear away the blood so I could see the extent of the damage. With the help of a reflection of sunlight, I saw the tiny shard of steel near the surface of his skin.
"We're in luck, Eric," I said with relief. "Your butt's torn up a bit, but the shrapnel buzz-sawed across your backside. It's cut open pretty good, but not deep. I suspect you'll be fine after the blood scabs and dries." I didn't warn him before flicking the jagged metal projectile out of his skin. It tugged at first, as if trying to remain buried. Eric hollered slightly, but seemed relieved once the bur was gone.
I took off his jeans and underwear and helped him over to a large, flat stone a few feet further inland. Then, I positioned him so he was lying down flat on his stomach. This allowed the direct sunlight and breeze to dry the wound. I stood nearby, fanning away flies attracted to the gash.
Eric was quiet as he lay there. Occasionally, he raised the tattered photos to his eyes and stared at what was left of them. He sniffled, and then said, "I'm sick of this shit, Adam."
"Yeah, sure, we both are."
"No, I'm serious. I've had enough of that twisted freak. I'm tired of living afraid, hungry, and exhausted. We live like …" Eric balled up a fist and pounded it on the rock to add emphasis to his frustration, "animals while he gets rich off of those he murders." Eric winced from a spasm of pain, then hissed, "It's over, Adam. This shit is over. Time to get on with living."
Inside, I applauded Eric's brave speech and posturing, but they contradicted the message his prone, naked, broken, emaciated and bleeding body conveyed. This polarity diluted my hope in succeeding.
"I vote we stick around for a couple of days, build up our strength a bit more, and hightail it into the southern mountain range. Sammy isn't physically able to follow us into the rocky hills at the base, let alone make his way through the steep faces and uneven summits of these kinds of mountains. Remember the town we drove past in that valley? I'm almost certain we could make it there in a week or so."
Eric shot me a dirty look. "We don't have enough food to make the entire hike. We'd run out in a couple of days. The best path is to stay near the lake."
"But the lake stops at the hill and then circles back around to …"
"Uh huh …"
"Oh, for God's sake, Eric, are you insane? There's no way in this world you can convince me to return to Manton. Look, it's noble and all to want to go and kill the guy so we can be heroes, but have you seen yourself lately? I mean, you're lying on a rock, butt naked from the waist down, while I shoo away flies that are dive-bombing your rear end. It's a sick joke to think we have the ability and muscle to take down that demented and, need I remind you, very well-armed sicko. We need to get far away from here as soon as you're able to walk."
My fear was that Sammy suspected we were still alive and hiding in this area. This meant he'd probably return with a vehicle that could be offloaded from a flat-bottomed airboat, one that could navigate the rocky shoreline and track us into the forest. With Eric likely out of commission, between his fractured ribs and wounded rear-end, our plan to survive may have taken a new direction – one with even less hope for survival.
There would be some time to make decisions, I believed, once we made it to safety within the mountains. It wasn't realistic to cook up some hare-brained sneak attack armed with nothing more than some sharp stones and sticks. I conjured up the image of two cave men tossing spears at a fortress made of steel and coated with weapons. I wondered if Eric  was not only delusional, but might be despondent and suicidal.
He studied my face for a moment and then raised the shredded photos so I could see them. "Tell it to my wife and kids, Adam. Tell them how we chose to die in the mountains instead of fighting to return to our lives."
For once, I was speechless.
Eric went on. "The way I see it, Sammy is irrational and acts on instinct and emotion instead of applying logic and some detective work. We can use his desperation against him."
I lightly shook my head in disbelief, able to say nothing more than, "I'll think about it, Eric. I got some work to do before we can move to a safer place. Stay put while I gather up our stuff and cover our tracks."
"Like I'm going anywhere," he mumbled.
I turned to face him and said, "Do me a favor – please stop thinking, at least for the moment. I'm still reeling from this latest kick in the head." I threw my hands up in frustration and stomped away, aiming for the remnants of our shot up campsite.
I doused our sleeping area with muddy water to dissipate any imprints we created. I covered evidence of the rest of our presence with leaves, brush, and dirt. I stuffed my pockets with fishing tackle, barbs, spearheads, fishing hooks, and then wrapped all of our dried fish within my shirt.
Within an hour, a suitable scab formed on Eric's butt, and he was gingerly testing its durability while attempting to sit up and stand. Seeing me coming toward him, he offered to carry our dried fish and some of our tools within his left arm's sling. Eric decided to remain naked to let the wound continue to air out and to avoid the abrasive pain of denim on raw skin.
He slid his left arm over my shoulder and we hobbled into a break within the underbrush. The shoreline was once again empty. I looked one last time behind me. Under better circumstances, this must have been an amazing place to live. I sadly shook my head as I absorbed all the images of death and destruction that Sammy wrought.
I watched as ripped-bare blotches of vaporized green patina fell gently to blanket the dead and dying. I looked to the sun for warmth and serenity, but its mottled features proved it had lost control of the day; its sooty gray-blue replacement was of little comfort to the wounded animals and plant life. mixed with the broken browns and fleshy tans were sap-fueled reds and oranges as trees were consumed in the writhing flames. As I, too, turned my back on the injured forest, I remember feeling miserable – sadly powerless.
"What a tragedy," I said to Eric," In his quest to use plastination to preserve the living, Sammy justified destroying the very essence he was powerless to preserve."

* * * * *

Look for Chapter 6 (the conclusion), the epilogue, and my author's notes (where I add links and details behind my thoughts and inspirations).

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