"Buckle your seatbelts. We're coming in for a landing." As the sea-plane descended, the tiny blue streak surrounded by green trees rushed upward and became a small lake, 200 miles from civilization.
George, lightheaded, blew into a paper bag as the sea-plane hit the water and skidded to a stop. "Look out, Alaska caribou, here we come!"
Charlie opened the door.
Danny pulled the plastic air valve on the rubber raft. The bundle toppled through the door, swooshed as it dropped into the water and expanded into the rubber raft. Within minutes, the three men were ashore unloading supplies, hunting gear and a two-way radio, now the only means of communication with the outside world. They were to radio for the plane to return in four days.
George had saved all year to join Charlie and Danny's annual trek into the Alaskan wilderness. If they were lucky enough to bag a caribou, the sale of George's share to a neighborhood specialty restaurant would almost pay for his trip, with a few steaks left over for his own freezer. That is, if they didn't drown in a river or shoot each other in the process. The extent of George's hunting prowess was at the county fair carnival − where he won a stuffed bunny.
Before dawn, the fearless hunters and George, broke camp and were hiking through the woods.
Wuwwwaaahhh! Wuwwaahhh! Danny blew some kind of a device, intended to convince a male caribou he'd met his soul mate. Not exactly sporting, but apparently legal.
Having no desire to get separated from his guide, George stumbled through the underbrush about 100 yards away from Danny. The sun glinted off something up ahead. He stumbled on. Lord! A plane, half buried in a tangle of underbrush, and covered with patches of melting snow. The scorched metal showed evidence of burning upon impact. "Hey guys! Over here!"
George's companions crunched back through the underbrush, pulled away the tangles and pried open the door. Claw marks in the paint suggested wild animals had tried in vain to breach the cabin. The skeletal remains of the pilot lay sprawled against the steering wheel. From the condition of the skeleton, the crash was well over a year old.
"What the−" Charlie ducked his head inside, reached past the skeleton and pulled out a leather satchel.
"What'd ya find?" Danny leaned his gun against the wheel. "Looks like he might have gone down in a storm."
Charlie slit open the top of the satchel and reached inside. "Hey, guys!" His eyes bugged out. "It's full of cash. Lots of it! Looks like this guy bought our lottery ticket and we won the whole she-bang!"
Hunting a love-sick caribou took a back seat to the sudden excitement generated by the contents of the leather bag. Sitting around the campsite that night, questions were asked.
Question: Where did the plane come from? Answer: Who knows? The fire had obliterated the plane's identifying marks.
Question: Who was the pilot and where did he get all the money? Answer: All luggage and personal effects had burned in the crash.
Question: Would they have to give back the money? Answer: Who would they give it to and who's gonna make us?
George was filled with concern for the legal owners of the money and sympathetic toward the pilot's family. Charlie and Danny glossed over George's concerns. He finally gave in when Charlie divided the cash into three piles, each containing $72,465, and laid it at his feet.
Danny fanned the bills. "We'd better call back in the morning and pull the brambles back over the wreck. Somebody might come looking for it." He turned away, unable to meet disapproving George's gaze.
George thought of all the bills he could pay with the windfall, but he still worried. How could they take the money, walk away and not tell anyone about the body?
An unexpected storm settled that night on the camp. Thunder rolled and torrents of rain sluiced down, leaving the campsite ankle deep in mud. The men hunched over a sputtering campfire that refused to burn. Danny muttered, "We passed a cave about a quarter mile from the plane. Let's break camp and move. At least it's dry."
As the storm raged, the three damp and miserable conspirators carried their gear into the mouth of the cave. With all their clothes and gear soaked, the men built a fire and stripped down to their underwear. They spread their clothes, bedrolls and foodstuff around, in hopes it would dry during the night.
Bats and vermin scuttled in and out of the cave making sleep difficult. Cramped and cold, George dreamed of a leering skeleton rising from the airplane, its bony hand reaching for his throat. He drew his body into the fetal position and wrapped his arms around his legs. The endless night began to lighten as the sun crept over the hillside.
George's eyes snapped open. What was that? He sat up. A dark lump at the rear of the cave previously assumed to be a rock − moved. Its head appeared. Great God "It's a mother bear with a cub! Run!"
George's shriek woke Danny and Charlie. The three stumbled into the chilly dawn. Shivering in their underwear, they stopped a hundred yards from the mouth of the cave to assess the situation.
A roar from the back of the cave was their answering reply.
"Danny. Go back and get our stuff." Charlie rubbed his arms. "It was your stupid idea to sleep in the cave."
Danny shook his head. "It was your brilliant idea to strip off our clothes and spread them around the cave."
"It was both your ideas to steal the money from the plane!" Guilt-ridden, George stared at the ground.
"No food, no clothes, no money and no way to call for help. Someone's got to go back in there. We'll all be dead-meat if we stay out here. We'll freeze to death." Charlie stated the obvious.
"Just what do you suggest, mastermind Charlie?" Danny scowled at his partner in crime.
"There's only one thing to do. We'll draw straws. Short straw goes in and draws off the bear. The other two will follow, grab our guns and shoot the bear. At least two of us have a chance to survive." Charlie's eyes grew cold and hard. Camaraderie flung to the four winds. Friends, no more. It was every man for himself.
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. 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 two 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.
George rushed to the fire where embers still glowed, inserted the end of his stick. Would the make-shift torch catch fire and blaze long enough for the guys to grab the gear? 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.
She reached her front paws up the tree, and then sat on the leather bag. Saliva dripped from her mouth. Murder flashed in her eyes.
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 tree line 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 it 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's the chance there's some kind of a reward?"