by Elaine Faber
The Alaskan Adventure is the first place winner in our Father’s Day Mystery Short Story contest! You can enjoy all of the top 3 winners, plus a couple of extra ones we just had to publish too, in our Terrific Tales section.
“Buckle your seatbelts. We’re coming in for a landing.” As the seaplane descended, the tiny blue patch surrounded by green became a small lake, 200 miles from the nearest Alaska town.
George, feeling lightheaded, blew into a paper bag as the seaplane hit the water and skidded to a stop.
Danny pulled the plastic air valve on the inflatable raft. The bundle toppled through the cabin door, swooshed as it dropped six feet onto the lake and expanded into a viable craft sufficient to carry the hunters and their gear to dry land. Within minutes, the three men unloaded supplies, hunting gear, and the emergency two-way radio, their only means of communication with the outside world for the next four days until the plane returned.
George had saved all year to join Charlie and Danny’s annual trek into the Alaskan wilderness. He promised his wife he would be home before the weekend to celebrate Father’s Day with his elderly father. A neighborhood specialty restaurant offered to purchase any caribou he might kill. The sale would almost pay for George’s expensive vacation, with a few steaks left over for their freezer.
After an hour of haggling over the printed directions and much trial and error, the tents were finally set up and a campfire built. Patches of melting snow nearby was a reminder that spring came much later to the wildness than it did in the big city.
The exhausted hunters bedded down on the hard ground. George spent a fitful night, his imagination magnifying the sound of animals skittering through the underbrush. Just past dawn, the fearless hunters broke camp, donned their camouflage clothing, and departed on the first day of the big hunt.
George stumbled through the underbrush about fifty yards from Danny, rifle at the ready, trigger finger a-tingle. Adrenaline pumped courage into the mighty hunter, whose only previous encounter with a wild animal was a grey squirrel gathering nuts in Central Park. Having no desire to become separated from his mentor, he kept a close watch for Danny’s red-checked shirt.
Danny scanned the bushes for an unsuspecting caribou. Wuwwwaaahhh! Wuwwaahhh! He blew on a device, intended to convince a male caribou that his soul-mate was right around the next corner. Not exactly sporting, but apparently legal.
Just before noon, the sun glinted off something in the bushes. George stumbled on. Lord! A plane, half-buried in a tangle of underbrush. Traces of scorched metal suggested it had caught fire upon impact. “Hey guys! Over here! Come see what I found.”
George’s companions pulled the tangles away from the plane. Scratches on the door indicated where wild animals had tried in vain to breach the cabin. They pried open the door. The pilot’s skeletal remains lay sprawled across the instrument panel, hands still gripping the controls, his empty eye sockets staring through the cracked windshield. Fire had partially scorched the interior. From the condition of the skeleton and the tangled underbrush nearly covering the plane, the crash looked to be well over a year old.
“Must have gone down in a storm.” Danny ducked his head inside the cabin, shuddered and glanced around, his gaze resting upon a faded leather satchel. “What do you suppose this is?” He reached across the skeleton’s lap and hefted the satchel from the floor.
Hunting for a lovesick caribou lost its appeal with the discovery of the leather bag. The excited hunters dashed back to camp to reconnoiter their next move. Sitting around the campsite that night, one question led to another.
Where had the plane come from? The fire had obliterated the ID markings.
Who was the pilot and where did he get all the money? There were no personal effects in the plane to suggest its origin or the identity of the pilot.
Did they have to give back the money? Uhh…Who would ever know if they didn’t?
George expressed sorrow for the pilot’s family. Someone must be grieving the loss of their loved one.
Charlie chided George for being a namby-pamby. “For all you know, the guy stole the money and the insurance company’s already covered the loss. It’s ours! Finders-keepers! Losers-weepers!” He counted the cash and made three equal stacks.
Fingering his share of the money, temptation quickly overcame George’s guilty conscience about the pilot. $72,465. He could pay off his credit cards, take a vacation, and start saving for their kid’s college.
Danny fanned the bills. “We’ll go back in the morning and pull the brambles over the wreck. Somebody might come looking for it.” He turned away, unable to meet George’s disapproving gaze.
An unexpected storm rose up late in the afternoon. The men hunched over a campfire that sputtered and refused to burn. Thunder rolled and torrents of rain sluiced down, soaking through the tents, dripping onto their sleeping bags. Around 3:00 a.m., the men decided they’d had enough of Mother Nature.
“We passed a cave about a quarter mile from the plane,” Danny muttered. “Let’s take what we can carry and move into the cave. We can come back in the morning and get the rest.” He stuffed his share of the money inside his shirt.
Charlie crammed the radio inside the empty leather satchel. “It’ll stay dry in the bag.”
As the storm raged, the three soaked and miserable conspirators carried their guns, bedrolls, and the satchel into the mouth of the cave. Charlie found a few scraps of wood and built a fire. They stripped down to their underwear and spread their damp belongings around. Stretching out beside the fire, the men tried to catch a few winks, in hopes their clothing would be dry by morning.
Bats and vermin scuttled in and out making sleep difficult. George drew his cramped body into the fetal position and wrapped his arms around his legs. He dreamed of leering skeletons rising from the airplane, a bony hand stuffing wads of money down his throat, strangling him. It felt as though the night would never end. At last, the cave lightened as the sun crept up.
George’s eyes snapped open. What was that? He sat up. A dark lump at the rear of the cave, previously assumed to be rock?moved. A head appeared, its mouth open, sharp, jagged teeth snapping with rage. Great God. George shrieked, “It’s a mother bear with a cub! Run!”
His shriek woke Danny and Charlie. The three stumbled over each other and raced into the chilly dawn. Shivering in their underwear, they stopped thirty yards away to assess the situation.
“All our money is still in there,” Charlie grumbled.
“How will we get our clothes?” Danny danced and rubbed his arms.
George added, “Not to mention the radio and our guns!”
A roar from the back of the cave left the questions unanswered.
Charlie wrung his hands. “Danny. Go back and get our stuff. This is your fault. It was your stupid idea to sleep in the cave.”
Danny shook his head. “Oh, no! It was your brilliant idea to strip off our clothes and spread them around the fire.”
George stared at the ground. “It was all our faults. We’re being punished for stealing the money from the plane!”
“We got no food, no clothes, no money and no way to call for help. Someone’s got to go back in there. We’ll all freeze to death if we stay out here.” Leave it to Charlie to state the obvious.
“Just what do you suggest, mastermind?” Danny scowled at his partner in crime, beating his hands on his arms, trying to return the circulation.
“We’ll draw straws. Short straw goes in and gets the bear’s attention. The other two follow, grab the guns and shoot the bear. At least two of us have a chance to survive.” He gathered three dry weeds, snapped the top off one and leveled the three between chilled fingers. “George. You pick first.”
George reached out a trembling hand. He ran his finger over the three straws and then pulled back his hand. Choosing wrong meant he’d have to face the bear. He thought of his wife and child. They might be planning his funeral on Father’s Day instead of visiting his dad at the rest home. He reached out again and touched first one straw and then another.
“Draw one already,” Charlie snarled. “We haven’t got all day.”
George held up one finger, his conscience overcoming common sense. “Wait! No need to draw straws. I’ll go. I’ve got a plan. You guys follow me in. Don’t shoot the bear unless she attacks. She’s got a cub. I think I can keep her busy while you to grab our clothes, the radio and the guns.”
George pulled off his skivvies and undershirt, wrapped and tied them around the end of a stick. Naked as a jaybird and with goosebumps prickling his body, he tiptoed into the cave. Danny and Charlie, bent double, crept a few paces behind.
A roar came from the rear of the cave.
The clothing-wrapped stick burst into flames. George danced and waved the blazing underwear over his head. He flung his arms around as he rushed toward the bear. Startled by the blazing stick and a gyrating, naked man, the mother bear rose up on her hind feet and snarled. George hurled the blazing stick at the bear and screamed, “For the love of God, grab the gear and get out!” The bear dropped to the floor as the burning stick touched her foot. She lumbered forward.
George turned, grabbed his jacket and scrambled for the entrance. A roar and the sound of the scrabbling bear were close upon his bare feet as he raced, naked, into the sunshine.
“This way, George!” Danny yelled from the branches of a nearby tree. Charlie’s face appeared through the leaves further up. Apparently, with a crazed mother bear after them, they needed both hands to climb the tree, for as sure as God made little green apples, the rifles, radio and leather satchel lay abandoned on the ground.
George raced for the tree. Clutching the jacket in his teeth, he grabbed Danny’s hand. Danny hefted him onto a lower branch, just as the mother bear bore down on him.
George slipped on his jacket and rearranged his bare bottom on the sharp branch. “Don’t suppose you thought to grab my pants?”
Danny nodded toward the clothing scattered on the ground. “Sure did. Right down there. Help yourself.”
“That didn’t work so well, did it? So now what?” George pulled off a handful of leaves and tossed them at the bear. Wouldn’t he have a story to tell his son when he got home … if he ever got home …
“I guess we just sit here and wait for her to go away. At least you’ve got a jacket,” Charlie grumbled from the upper branch. “A lot of good it did to get our guns and then leave them on the ground.” He wrapped his arms around his chest and shivered.
“Stop complaining. At least you’re wearing skivvies …” George grimaced and shifted on the branch.
“Trade you my tee shirt and $10,000 for your jacket,” Danny muttered.
“Fat chance!” George pulled his coat down in the back, sliding several inches of the material beneath his bare bottom.
The sound of a plane rumbled in the distance. George looked up. Did they dare hope? The plane wasn’t due for three days. Why was it back so soon?
Sure enough, the plane dropped below the treeline and landed on the nearby lake. Hoping they could be heard a half-mile away, Danny and Charlie yelled until they were hoarse. Throughout their performance, the bear squatted at the foot of the tree. She occasionally reached up the trunk, preventing the scantily dressed hunters from climbing down.
At the sound of men crashing through the underbrush, the bear waddled back into the cave, brought out her baby and raced away before the crew came into view. Our heroes had hurriedly climbed down the tree, and were donning their clothes when the rescue crew came into sight.
“Hey, what’s going on here? Heh Heh! Funny way to hunt caribou, if you ask me,” the pilot chuckled.
Trying to explain amidst the rescuer team’s guffaws, George leaned down to pull on his pants. “There was this bear in the cave, see…and it chased us out, and we had to climb a tree?”
“Sure there was. Heh! Heh!” The search-and-rescue leader grinned. “That’s why you was naked up a tree, huh? Didn’t see no bear… Pilot reported a crash site near the lake and we formed a search party. Found us a missing drug lord’s plane.” His gaze settled on the leather satchel. “And, from the looks of this bag, you fellows found the stash from the sting operation that went bad.” He snapped open the lid, reached inside and pulled out the radio. “That’s odd. Should be full of money… Where’s the money?”
Charlie, Danny and George swapped anxious glances, and then all three started to talk at once.
Charlie raised his hand to silence his co-conspirators. “Here’s what happened. Money got all wet from the storm. We spread it around in the cave to dry out last night. It’s still in there.”
The rescue leader nodded. “I see. Mighty nice of you, going to so much trouble to dry it out. Any other fellows might have been tempted to not report the plane crash and keep the stolen money. I guess you planned to hand it over to the authorities, right?”
“You got that right.” Charlie slipped on his pants and yanked up the zipper. “We figured the money was hot. Being civic-minded and determined to help bring a thief to justice, and all, we were just getting ready to fire up the radio and report the plane crash, when we met up with this bear, see. So, what the chance there’s some kind of a reward?”
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