The Little Pipsqueak
© 2012-2014 Matthew Templar
Thanks again to RCN for his editing wizardry. It makes for a smoother read.
This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
This story is copyrighted by Matthew Templar, all rights reserved. Distribution, including but not limited to: posting on internet sites, newsgroups, or message boards, or in book form (either as a whole or part of a compilation), or on CD, DVD or any other electronic media, is expressly prohibited without the author's written consent.
"Ouch! Ow! Hey, stop that!"
I didn't recognize the voice but Jeffy did, sitting straight up in his sleeping bag.
I had no idea what time it was but it was still very dark out on our first night. I could just tell Jeffy's features inside the tent.
"That's Connor, Pop," said Jeffy. "Oh my God, they are coming to get us!"
He was crawling over to me, right over Elliot's legs.
"Hey! What's going on? Jeffy, stop it!"
By that time Jeffy was on my bag, shivering.
Connor was Dan's nephew and sounded like he was getting attacked by something or someone.
But the next thing we heard was Bill, Dan's brother and Connor's dad, yelling too, "Ouch. Damn it, what is that? Ow! Man, what is biting us?"
I grabbed the lamp in our tent and handed the one hanging just outside our tent to Jeffy, who was right on my heels as we rushed over to the farthest site to see what was going on.
"Dad, they're little ants! Ouch! Get 'em offa me! Ouch!"
George Curtin came up with a huge flashlight, took one look and, turning, said, "Kaye packed some insect spray. I'll get it."
Another minute, which several of us spent slapping the little varmints off of Bill and Connor, and George was back with a big can of spray.
"Turn your backs to me so I don't get it in your faces, then hold up your arms."
With that said, he began spraying both of the Perkins.
"Take off your shirt, Connor, so I can get this on your skin."
Connor must have been in too much pain to be shy because, within seconds, his shirt was flying off his shoulders and his shorts were at his ankles. He was soon turning into the spray so it got all of him.
Bill wasn't wearing a shirt but he only pulled his sleep shorts out, took the spray from George and sprayed a hefty amount inside, front and back.
The next task was getting their gear covered with spray. George sprayed as we shook out each piece and held it up.
"Don't lay it back down there. Everyone, as we finish spraying and shaking things out, take their gear over to the campsite on the other side of our tent. That site isn't being used yet."
Very efficient, right? After all, I was their leader. Brother!
I think George used up most of the spray can going after the source of the ants, which was right under where Bill and Connor had laid their sleeping bags. Since they had no tarp or tent, the ants were free to crawl up to find out who was laying on their home. They obviously didn't take kindly to intruders, but their anger got the best of them as a result of Kaye including the bug spray with the Curtin boys' gear.
"We have an extra tarp that we can lay down before putting your sleeping bags on the ground. It should keep you drier, Bill, and maybe less of an appetizer to critters."
"Thanks, Tim. I appreciate it. All we wanted to do was enjoy really being in the outdoors with nothing over us. I didn't think about not protecting our backsides too," Bill said as he checked out Connor to make sure he was free from his new little friends.
"Dad, can I please pull up my shorts?" asked a blushing Connor. He was much relieved when his dad said yes.
We only needed to spend a few minutes, first making a place for the guys to sleep that was ant free, and next, making sure there was no immediate threat of retaliation from anymore six-legged critters. I suggested that we worry about moving the rest of their gear in the morning.
About that time I noticed a couple of our men slowly walking several yards toward the opposite end of the campgrounds, which was probably a football field's length away. They stood and strained as though they were trying to listen to something.
"Matias," Dan said in a stage whisper, "Can you understand what they're saying?"
I started to walk over there and Matias came up beside me and walked with me.
I could finally hear the murmur of men's voices. Once in a while they would escalate. Otherwise they talked in a normal volume.
"Do you think it's Spanish, Matias?" asked Dan.
"I think it's a dialect of Spanish. Let's see."
He walked a few yards closer to the sounds.
"South America somewhere," he said after listening for a minute. "I had an amigo, a friend from down there and, while he was a bit hard to understand at first, I had no trouble picking it up after several weeks. Some of their words are different. This could be from his country."
"What country was it, Papa?" asked Jose, who came up to stand beside him.
Matias wrapped his arm around his son's shoulders.
"Do you remember my friend, Paco, Jose? He stayed with us for a few months."
"Si, yes, but he was very frightened all the time. That part I remember."
"Yes, he was. He feared the police because of where he came from, as well as gangs that threatened many of his people. Guatemala, I think he said once, but only once would he tell me. Men," he said, turning to the group of us standing a few feet away, "I think these people may be from there, or trying to speak to people from there."
He went back to concentrating for a few minutes, though the voices weren't always loud enough for us to hear. He slowly walked toward the voices with his son close to him. They became indistinct in the darkness and overgrown bushes that divided the campsites for several minutes. Finally they came back to where we were waiting.
"Oo-oo," said Jose, chuckling into his hand.
"Yes, Jose, not very nice talking. They use a lot of swear words," Matias told us, looking around us to see if the other boys were listening. "Seems they are very upset at some people, like maybe they were traveling with. Oh, someone must have wanted to walk away.
"I could only hear two men talking except I think I heard some crying. They were getting louder and angrier with every sentence. It sounded like they were scolding someone. I could have sworn I heard a slap or two, también, I mean, also. It sounded like they're telling someone to stay put. Then, just now I heard them get really angry at someone. I heard mumbling during that time but it sounded a lot farther away. The men were shouting again at someone.
"Wait, they say these people owe them. It doesn't sound like they are friends or relatives. Oh, now they are very angry. Uh, oh. It sounds like they are packing up and leaving. And they seem to be speaking in just Spanish. They sound like they're from Mexico. It sounds very familiar to me."
We distinctly heard two doors slam and the squeal of a bad engine starting up, finally.
"But doesn't that sound like the car or whatever that drove in here late this evening? They're already leaving?" asked Bill, scratching his side.
"Let's move away in case they come by this way," Lenny suggested.
"Good idea, Lenny. Good night, everybody or, good morning, really, again."
Within a minute we heard the raspy engine of the vehicle driving on the circle of our spaces, but on the opposite side, heading toward the entrance. Dan ran over in time to see that it was a relatively old van that had more primer on it than the dark paint. He couldn't tell what color it was because of the darkness.
Someone said it was 3 o'clock by the time we'd all settled down again. My guys crawled back into our tent, all five of us. Just as I was pulling my sleeping bag up around my cold shoulders I heard Elliot.
"Terrorists? Gang members? Good grief."
"Ya never know, ya know," his brother said.
Then, "Dad, why are all you guys up? What's all the talkin' about?" asked a very sleepy sounding pipsqueak from inside his warm sleeping bag.
"I'll tell you in the morning after we all wake up, AJ. Can you go back to . . ."
But his heavy breathing drowned out my last words.
"Ah, to be young again," crooned Jeffy. "Ouch! Hey, El."
It never fails when I camp. I wake up practically wet. I think I keep myself too warm all night. Iraq was no problem because I kept very little on me, even if it was cold out. The boys tried to make their sleep last as long as they could before they got cold and also had to relieve themselves.
"Br-r-r-r," said Stewart when he and the other boys returned from the bathrooms. "I hope it warms up."
All the boys were hugging themselves and scrunching down as though conserving the heat of their bodies.
"We'll be having breakfast real soon," Lenny said, standing over the blazing fire pit at his site, enjoying a mug of coffee.
"Guys, now that you're back, go over and brush your teeth and wash your hands and faces. The warm water will feel good."
"Thanks, Dad," said AJ, ducking into our tent to retrieve his gear, as did the other boys gathered their stuff.
There was juice for them when they got back but they were getting bored waiting for their first meal of the day. So, I decided to provide a little distraction.
"Okay, guys, this is what you do: Take the sticks we gathered and wrap a piece of aluminum foil around the end."
I was busy showing the kids how to cook biscuits over the campfire. It's not like we had access to a microwave or anything. Besides, they needed to learn how to survive in the wild. Right?
"That's it. Cover it down to this far with the foil," I instructed my young students, showing them the one I'd prepared beforehand.
"Like this, Dad?"
"Pretty good, AJ. We want to cover the stick so it doesn't burn before the biscuit cooks."
A couple of the older kids helped the younger ones, but they pretty much did a good job. As we were doing that, the men were working away to prepare breakfast. Some of the boys were just getting up.
"Okay, now, I'm going to open up a can of biscuits and show you how to wrap the dough around the stick."
Except for sticking to my hands a little bit and scaring the sh . . . scaring me to death when it POPPED! open because it was warm, I think I did a good job of getting it to stick to the stick.
"What are you guys up to, Mr. McGill?" asked Jose, Enrique's brother, who had just come out of his tent and was rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.
"We're making camper's biscuits but with canned biscuits. It's just too convenient."
By that time several of the adults were looking over our shoulders to see what was going on. Most had steaming mugs of coffee and I'm sure they were wondering if they'd have to wait on finishing breakfast until the biscuits were done.
"Um, Tim?" said George as I started to hand each boy a rolled out piece of biscuit dough from the cardboard cans.
"Hold on a minute, George, until I get these guys set up."
"Well, okay but . . ."
After a couple of minutes and a few accidents resulting in pine-needle-covered dough, the boys had something on their sticks partially resembling what I'd showed them. We probably ended up going through two cans of biscuits before we got dough on each boy's stick.
"Now we carefully hold the stick over the fire and make sure it's not too close or the dough will burn before it cooks inside. You can also rest the stick against the side, if you can find a place, as long as it's just far enough away so it doesn't burn."
I set mine against the side of the outside grill that had a nice bed of hot coals ready to make the boys a treat and give them some positive self-esteem.
"But, Tim, I, uh," said George again.
I liked the guy but he was beginning to get to me. I just wanted to get the kids set up, then we could talk.
Denver's biscuit slinked off of his stick and fell into the fire. He looked like he was going to be heartbroken until I said he could have mine. But the fire from his burning biscuit set off a couple of others until their owners grabbed the sticks and blew out the flames, saving them from blackened disaster. Unfortunately, to a man, each boy that grabbed his stick knocked another one either into the flames or off the grill and onto the ground.
"Okay, guys, we may be having them for lunch instead but it's kinda fun, huh?"
It might have been too early in the morning without any nourishment for my young cooks because I didn't get the applause I thought I deserved. Ha!
"Mr. McGill," asked Brad, holding his stick over the flames, "Is this really how they do it on camping trips?"
"Well, sure it is. Sometimes you have to be patient and start over but . . ."
"Um, Tim, could I show you something?" asked George of me, tapping my shoulder.
"Okay, but after . . ."
"No, Tim. I think you'll want to see this now," insisted George.
'Man, what great timing,' was all I could think.
Even so, I got up and walked over to his site where he pointed out that he had a . . . camping oven set over his grill. He opened it to show me about a dozen biscuits that were almost ready to come out of the oven. Then he pointed to a pan covered with a towel that evidently was filled with more freshly baked biscuits.
"Oh," was all I could say. After a minute I looked up at him and asked, "Kaye again?"
So, needless to say, we enjoyed plenty of perfectly golden brown biscuits as part of our first breakfast at camp and the boys couldn't have been happier, smiling through the honey and butter running down their faces.
When one of the boys tripped over the rod and reels leaning against one of the trucks it reminded the boys that they all wanted to go fishing. Both Lenny and his brother were raised with fishing poles in their hands, they said, and were willing to get the kids started.
The rest of the men decided to take a look at our set up to see if we could maximize its potential to serve us all in the best possible way. Since we had experience, one night's worth, the first thing we did was make sure there weren't any more ant villages lurking around.
As we were working, it was clear that several of the older boys weren't into fishing just then.
"Pop, there aren't enough poles to go around and we think it's kinda boring," Jeffy said. "Can we go explore if we like tell you which way we're going and end up back here before we go in another direction?"
"Jeffy, I think that's a great idea. I'm proud of you for thinking of it."
Jeffy beamed so I reached out and gave him a hug. As I did I saw Elliot rolling his eyes and pointing to Connor, who was also smiling and shaking his head in disbelief.
Jeffy happened to turn in time to see the others' display.
"Okay, maybe it wasn't quite like my idea, but I agreed."
"Well, I glad you all came to a consensus about what you should do. It makes us all feel safer."
With that, the boys started on their hike. When they were a few yards from the campsites I yelled at them.
They all turned around to see what they'd done to deserve . . . And that was when they must have realized what they'd done. To a man they slowly walked back with their heads down.
Connor looked up and said, "I suppose we need to say where we plan on going, huh?"
"Ha, ha. As long as you made the promise I think that'd be a great idea."
So, after telling us where they planned to go, which was basically pointing to the far end of the campsite, they took off again. The three oldest boys, Joshua, Ralph and Tyler, tagged along, but stayed back a ways, talking.
I observed how Tyler, Ralph and Joshua all seemed to get along. They were in their own world, much of the time, talking or walking around, with the two boys explaining things to Tyler, then listening as Tyler would tell them things from his perspective. I didn't get to hear much of what was said but I was always intrigued by Tyler's facial expressions at something the other two guys told him, then his intense look of concentration as he would tell them something. Sometimes the other guys would look in awe of what he said and sometimes they'd laugh in reaction to his comments.
I walked down to the river with the other dads to see how our fresh fish dinner was progressing. I noticed that the river got wider and we walked far enough to see that it was dammed up aways down from the boys' fishing spot. That explained how they could stock it.
The first thing we heard as we approached was a cackle of laughter from the boys. As we came into the clearing that was little more than a few feet deep and several yards along the river bank and was about a foot above the river, we saw two of our young fishermen trying to unravel their poles that had got caught up together somehow.
"You guys, I don't think you're supposed to catch each other. I thought you were going to catch fish."
All of the boys laughed, even AJ and Melvin who were the tangled anglers.
"Da-ad, we been tryin' but the fish don't like us, except one that Denver caught," AJ told us.
"Yeah," said an excited Denver. "I caught the only one so far."
"Yes, you did, Denver," Lenny said. "But the hook was practically bigger than the fish so we decided to throw him back and catch him next year, huh?"
"Yeah," said Denver smiling at us all.
About then, Melvin and AJ had their poles untangled and were getting help from Bill to bait their hooks before they tried their luck again.
Melvin actually made a nice cast that went quite aways from the bank. AJ watched and said he thought he could cast his farther than Mel did.
AJ got right up to the edge of the bank and brought his pole way back, almost to the ground to swing it up and over his head like Mel. The determination on his face, his tongue barely sticking out of his mouth, was priceless.
"AJ, I think you're too close to the bank. If it gives way . . ." I warned him.
Then he cast the pole as hard as he could, sending the line quite far out, but the momentum caused him to step just a half step closer and . . . sure enough, the bank gave way and AJ had cast himself into the cold river.
I think we all screamed and ran toward him, imagining AJ being swept away by the fast current of the raging river!
"Grab him! Grab him!" I yelled.
Then we watched as he sat right down in about six inches of water, his legs sticking straight out in front of him. The next scream came from him.
"Ye-e-o-o-we-e-e-e! It's so co-o-o-o-ld!"
Dan and I reached down and pulled him out. He still had hold of his pole, luckily.
"It was a nice cast, AJ," mentioned Lenny.
Bill took the fishing pole from his hand as we tried to get the layer of mud and silt off of his butt and the back of his legs.
"AJ, just take off your pants and we'll wash them in the river, then let them dry. Or you can come back to the camp, shower and change," I suggested.
Far be it for AJ to be shy. He just stripped down to his Spiderman undies and handed his jeans to me. I rinsed them out and laid them on a bush behind their fishing spot. He grabbed up his pole and actually felt a tug!
"What do I do? What do I do?" he asked, looking around for advice.
"Just give it a good tug and start reeling it in," instructed Lenny.
"Umpf!" he said as he pulled back really hard and started to reel. "Hey, I can feel it squirmin' around out there. Wow, it's really pullin'!"
"You must have a big one, AJ," said Bill.
Just then Jose's pole gave him a tug and he got almost as excited as AJ, gave his pole a sharp tug and also started to haul in his prize.
All the kids had to gather around the two boys until they could see their catches flopping around in the water. Lenny had a net in his hand and scooped up Jose's fish. It was quite a good catch. Jose couldn't have looked any prouder.
AJ was trying to back up and pull his pole up and forgot to continue to reel it in until Bill reminded him. Finally he got his catch to shore and Lenny scooped it up as well.
"Wow, AJ, that looks to be the biggest so far," announced Bill. "Nice job."
Jose and AJ held up their prizes next to each other and it looked like AJ's was a little longer than Jose's.
"But, Jose, it looks like yours is fatter. We might get a few more bites out of it," said Lenny, patting both boys on the back. "I think you're both the winners so far."
"Wait! We're gonna eat my fish? Do we have to kill it?"
"That's why they stock the river, AJ. These fish are made for eating. I'll bet you'll really enjoy them," I told my son.
"Well, okay, I guess," he said reluctantly.
"Did you think he was going to be your pet fish?" asked Melvin, smiling.
"I don't know. I just never thought about eatin' him."
"Okay, let's see if we can get these lines back in the water and see if we'll have enough for lunch, dinner or just hors d'oeuvres."
The two boys that just caught fish reluctantly gave up their poles to two other kids who cast them as far as they could.
No one caught anything while we stood watching. After a few minutes a few of us started to walk around the drive that made up our circle, then walked over to the far circle to see what it was like.
If you've seen one overgrown campsite, you've seen them all, I guess. I couldn't understand how Wilbur and his wife made any income, though I assumed they were only hired to manage the place.
Looking around at the second circle of campsites, it looked like there was no one renting any of the spaces except one single wide trailer about a quarter of the way around the circle. It looked like it had been there since Adam and Eve. It also didn't look like it could have been inhabited and hadn't been for years, though, considering the rest of the place, it may have had occupants. However, closer inspection showed several old aluminum beams propped up against the front door, having fallen from the rotten carport in front of it.
We supposed where the van had parked and looked around the area to see if they left any trash or anything dangerous, like drug paraphernalia. I mentioned that they hadn't stayed long enough to leave anything.
"Yes, but it sounded like they might have left whoever was riding with them," said Dan. "Where do you suppose they are?"
George answered him, saying, "Perhaps halfway to the city by now."
The whole park was bordered on one side by the river that the kids were fishing in. As we observed everything, it was obvious that the place could be developed into something very nice, if not something very special. It was just run down and overgrown - majorly.
I remembered that there was another small barn-like building near the front office building as we came to the park and talked with Wilbur when he was fixing the rake. There was another such building situated between where the two circles met at the midway point of the park. It, like the other buildings, had seen better days. Much better.
There didn't seem to be anything of interest nearby except lots of forest surrounding the campground. At the other end of the second circle was still another building housing more restrooms and showers. The inside was at least as bad as ours was before it was cleaned, maybe worse since it looked like no one normally came that far into the campground. I decided to ask Wilbur to clean it up, as well, in case we needed it.
Right before lunch, and then throughout most of the rest of the day, one or two of the adults was showing the kids how to make do in a camping situation, like building a fire.
"Don't you have to rub two sticks together over some little twigs or something?" asked Jeffy.
"Yeah, Dad, how did you do it when you were over there fighting?" asked AJ of me.
"Well, times have changed since the cowboys and Indians. When we were out overnight we rarely even lit a fire. Most of our MREs . . . um, meals ready to eat, were already cooked so we ate them as is. We didn't want smoke to show the enemy where we were."
"And when we were at the base," added Lenny, "We had a mess set up that had almost everything you could imagine in a large kitchen like in a restaurant. It was just in a big tent sometimes, sometimes it was in an old building. Mostly we had it pretty good foodwise."
"Okay, so none of you know how to light a fire?" asked Elliot while stifling a chuckle.
"Of course we do, funny guy," answered George. Then he pulled out a Bic lighter, lit a wad of newspaper he had brought and stuck it under the grill at the campsite where we were standing.
"Hey! Is that fair?" asked Jeffy. "Don'tcha hafta light it like in the survival books and stuff?"
"Nope. We're not here to learn how to rough it. We're here to co-mingle, co-habitate, co-operate and put a co-bash on all that he-man junk. Ha!" George was really a card.
It seemed as though if a lighter meant the kids, and the adults, for that matter, could eat a lot sooner for all of our 'convenience', the better life was at camp.
"Okay, so what is for lunch, leaders of us kids?" asked Elliot.
The only fish the young ones caught were the two we witnessed, besides Denver's little throw back guppy. So, it was sandwiches, fresh veggies and chips for us all.
"What! You don't even need a fire for that!" laughed Connor.
"Yes, but now you'll know how to build one for our dinner," Lenny told them.
We started a production line to make the plethora of sandwiches we needed to keep the boys off of our backs until dinner. We used one of the picnic tables at one site to make the sandwiches while a couple other guys carried over another picnic table to join with the one next to the site where we were building. It turned into the norm for our days there; prepare the meal at the one table and all of us eat at the two tables close by. Actually, we had to add another one for all of us to fit.
Lunch was a madhouse by the time we had all the kids seated. Luckily, Coach Pendergrass decided to pull back a plate of the sandwiches, one of veggies and a bag of chips or I'm sure the men would have gone hungry.
"I had two brothers that would have just as soon taken a life rather than give up a meal. Well, at least it seemed like that to me, the punk of the family."
We all looked at the buff man and could hardly believe he was ever a punk, but he must have felt like one to his older siblings.
I was amazed at how well the simple meal was accepted by everyone. I think we could have thrown a log in front of the hungry bunch and they would have been happy to gnaw on it for a while, considering the appetites they'd all built up in the great outdoors and after running around half the day.
"Okay, the rule is, he who cooks, cleans not. That means, thems that don't, do the dishes. Got it?"
Denver, sitting next to where I was standing, pulled on my sleeve and told me, "Uncle Tim, you talk funny sometimes." Then he turned to AJ, sitting next to him. "Your dad talks funny sometimes, but so does mine." Then he turned to Dan and gave him a huge smile.
"But, Dad," said Stewart, sitting on the other side of AJ, "There's just paper plates and paper napkins."
"Yes, and they need to be thrown away or burned. Plus, the knives and such we used to make the sandwiches need to be washed."
"Mr. Curtin, the guys and I'll do the knives and stuff. I wouldn't want to see the kids get cut or something," offered Joshua, pointing to Tyler and Ralph as well."
So it took about two minutes for the kids to take the used paper to the fire pit next to us and wait for George's Bic to light the fire. As he was about to light the pile of paper, his son, Liam, spoke up.
"Um, Dad, could I learn to light the fire?" Then he chuckled as did the rest of the boys standing nearby.
"Very funny, wise guy," said his dad, throwing the lighter at him.
After the blaze had died down, the next activity was suggested.
"Pop, Pop, can we go hiking on that trail over there," asked Elliot, pointing to the opposite side of the campgrounds from the river. Then he pointed back and forth between Enrique and him, indicating the two of them.
I think I heard Matias gasp. It might have been me, until I came up with a quick compromise that wouldn't go over well with the two young lovers at all.
"Well, I don't see the trail you're pointing to but I'll bet we can all use the exercise after that great meal, huh, guys?" I asked the rest of the crowd.
"But, Pop," whined my oldest.
"Sorry, Elliot. I'm sure there will be time later to sit with each other, just not too far from camp, please."
They looked disappointed, but I'll have to give them credit, it only lasted for a few minutes after which they joined in the fun of the rest of us blazing a trail into the unknown. I kid you not. The trail, believe it or not, was as overgrown as the rest of the place. If the path itself hadn't been packed down after years of use, we never would have found our way. With much whacking away and pruning we made our way quite a ways up on the winding path until, after about an hour, we came out onto a huge bluff that overlooked the whole valley where we were camped, the winding river and forests, in every direction. It really was breathtaking.
"I'll bet this would be an excellent place for watching the stars at night, Dad," mentioned Stewart's older brother, Liam.
"Yes, it would, Son. We may need to come back sometime with our telescope, though we're pretty fortunate to have relatively clear skies not too far from the city in which we live."
"Tim, thank you for bringing us to such a wonderful place," said Tyler. "Really, thanks to all of you men for suggesting it. I've never seen such beauty in our world, well, because . . ." He stopped before going any further. His eyes were misting over but he was still captivated by the majestic beauty as were we all.
AJ walked to him and put his hand around Tyler's waist, which got him a warm hug and a nervous chuckle from his friend. The other boys soon followed AJ's lead. It was heartwarming to see how much they all cared for their friend, even the boys that weren't around when we found Tyler, got into the act. I was pretty sure that they'd hear the stories from the others before the day was out.
We finally started to look for a continuation of the trail but found none. It must have been the destination of the trail.
"Pop, when we get back, we're gonna look for more trails, okay?" asked Jeffy.
"Sure. That's a great idea."
The middle of the circle in which our spaces were was pretty flat and the boys came up with a few Frisbees to toss around. Some of the boys went back to fishing and came up with a couple more good-sized fish, enough to give each of the boys a taste and maybe even us dads. Those activities kept them occupied until right before dinner.
"Guys, gather 'round," I called to them.
I counted noses when they all came running. Even the three older boys sauntered over, not wanting to miss anything, I suppose.
There were Elliot, Enrique, AJ, Denver, Melvin, Stewart, Liam, Connor, and Jose, along with Ralph, Joshua and Tyler.
"Boys, there's a stink in the air and it's you," I proclaimed.
I got an insult from some of the kids and some complaints from the others.
"I'm kidding, but if you think about it, no one has had a shower since we got here yesterday morning. I think you need to get a change of clothes and a towel, soap and stuff and each go take a shower. That shower room should hold you all. If you do it now, while the sun is out, you won't have to freeze in the morning or go to bed with wet hair. Whaddya say?"
Some kids were for it, most weren't too excited, all were accepting, at least.
Lenny approached and said, "Tim, Bill and I are going to go ask Wilbur to clean the other restroom. That way we'll be sure to have enough hot water if we decide to take showers at the same time. Remember, us dads need to clean up too."
I was just about to thank him for suggesting it when George walked up.
"Tim, we're missing someone," said George. "I came up with one short. Oh, it's Jeffy. Where's Jeffy?"
I looked at the tail ends of the kids leaving and realized he was right; I'd totally missed the boy.
I turned around to see if he was just standing around somewhere, spacing out, but he wasn't in sight.
"You don't suppose he found another trail, by himself? I thought I asked that they go together if they took off." I'll have to admit that I was a little peeved and a lot worried.
As I suspected, there was major chaos as the boys plowed into their bags for their needed clean clothes, towels, soap and shampoo. I let my two, minus Jeffy, scavenge for a few minutes before I went in to help. Soon, they had what they needed, including flip flops, and started toward the clean shower room.
I was getting very concerned that Jeffy was nowhere to be seen. I told the guys that I was going to go looking for him. Joshua asked if he could accompany me and Ralph said that Tyler and he would check in the other direction.
I must have been mumbling to myself because Joshua asked if I was okay.
"I don't know how much you know of the boys' adventure not long ago. Both he and Elliot and their friend were kidnapped by Elliot's parents."
"Yes, the guys told me in great detail. Oh, so this has to be difficult for you. I'm sure he's just off to think by himself someplace."
"I hope so. Still, I'm upset that he's blatantly disobeyed my rule of staying with someone. I find it hard to believe that he would do that, especially after what happened."
"Well, I'll bet he has an explanation, sir. He really is a good kid," Joshua said, trying to assure me.
I agreed with him but it did little to ease my concern that something had happened to him.
We walked around one side of both circles and met up with Ralph and Tyler.
"Um, Tim, we didn't see him over here," Tyler told me. "Would you like us to search another area?"
"No. Thanks, guys. I can't believe he just walked away. I know he was in good spirits. He's never had any reason to disappear and certainly not after being afraid of bears."
Ralph and Joshua chuckled at that. Tyler nodded his head.
When we got back to the campsites the guys said they were going to go take showers too. The other boys had started to return. AJ and Devin looked like they didn't use their towels. Their clothes were stuck to them. As they approached, AJ pointed to our tent.
"Hey, Jeffy, you better hurry or the hot water will be gone."
I turned to see Jeffy duck into our tent. Before I got to it he was coming out with just his towel.
"Don't you think you're going to need soap, some clean clothes and your flip flops?" I asked him.
He came to an abrupt stop in front of me, red-faced.
"Um, oh, yeah, I, uh, guess so," he said, with pink cheeks, dropping his head and turning back toward the tent.
I was right on his heels.
"We need to talk, young man. But I'll wait until you've showered. Meet me at our table and I'll have a drink for you."
"You . . .? For me?" he gulped. His face turned a deeper shade of red.
"Jeffy, nothing will take away my love for you, but you will do well to work on your attempts to build my respect."
"Oh, um, yeah, well . . . Okay." And he was off.
I found out that Lenny and Bill found him by the front buildings as they were returning from talking to Wilbur.
AJ came up as I was walking over to get Jeffy a drink from one of the coolers.
"Dad, are you really mad at Jeffy? Are you gonna, um, punish him or something?"
"It may be 'or something' AJ. It also may be a punishment of sorts, but you all know that I've never, ever raised a hand at you. I don't think there is anything I can think of that would call for that."
"That's cuzza you're the best, huh?" he said, putting his arm around my waist.
"Well, if I'm the best, I think I need some more courses on teaching kids to obey to not worry us oldsters."
"Oh, yeah. He prob'ly was just doing somethin', doncha s'pose?"
I sat on the picnic bench next to the cooler and wrapped both arms around my pipsqueak.
"I supposes bunches, little guy, but I can't imagine that it would supersede telling me where he was all that time."
"It means . . ."
"Ooh, ooh, wait!" he said and ran off around the bushes dividing our spot from the next one. In a couple of minutes he came back out of breath.
"Whew! I had to run all the way to the shower room. It means take the place of (a person or thing previously in authority or use)."
"Hee hee. Yup."
"So, taking the place of the authority of my rule was not a good thing. Do you understand?"
"Yup. He coulda got hurt and we never woulda known it."
"Exactly. As an example, that's right on."
As AJ walked away, I suppose, assured that his brother would live through my interrogation of him, I felt a wave of nausea pass through me. Oh, it wasn't something I ate. It was knowing that this had happened in some form not too long before. There is nothing like the feeling of losing my grip on something so precious, like a part of my family. I felt that I'd failed Jeffy in some way that he wasn't instilled with the sense of danger or immediacy of what he had done.
I dropped my head into my hands and thought about what I would say to him.
It seemed like it was only a few minutes before I saw two wet feet in flip flops standing in front of me.
"Pop? You okay?" asked Jeffy.
"Wha . . .? Uh, no, actually, Jeffy, I'm not. Sit down and let's talk. Oh, if you want a drink they're in this cooler."
He opened the cooler and got a can of orange soda and sat down next to me.
"Jeffy, I want to apologize for today, for this whole time here, so far."
"You? Want to apol . . . Um, how come? I thought I . . .?"
"Oh, we'll get to that, but there probably wouldn't have been that if I had the skills needed to be able to get through to you how important that rule was about not being alone. I could never deal with something happening to you, to any of you boys. You're my life."
"But, Pop, I wasn't alone," he blurted out, turning to face me. "Oh, um, well, I mean. Oh, heck. Yeah, I was with someone, but I suppose I shouldn't have been."
"What? Jeffy, we did a head count and everyone was here except you."
"Oh, yeah, but this guy wasn't from our group."
"Oh, great." I was not the least bit relieved by hearing that revelation. "Just who were you with then?"
'Be calm, Tim, be calm,' I said to myself.
"Um, it was, oh, it was the guy in the office's nephew. Yeah, that's what he said."
"Okay, I'm confused. Start from the beginning, please."
End of Chapter Sixty-one