Morning Ground

He knew where he was but he was lost. As if snared inside a deep hole, Skelton thought, fumbling in his pocket for his cigarette lighter. Hurriedly he snapped it on, held it above his head, and peered into the black woods at the base of the dormant volcano.

“Anyone here?” he hollered for the third time but all he heard was a breeze drifting gently through the trees.

He was used to being alone even when he was surrounded by several other people. Scarcely remembering his parents who perished in a car accident when he was seven years old, he had been raised by various relatives, including his maternal grandmother in whose garage he had lived the past year and a half. Even so, he was rather perturbed, sure that when Aaron Shields, the new Search Dog commander, rang him earlier this evening he told him to report to the south side of Spirit Peak. That was nearly thirty-five minutes ago, he calculated, and still no one else was here. There was no way he should be the first one to arrive since there were at least three other volunteers who lived closer to the volcano than he did.

“Is anyone here?” he called once more then snapped his lighter shut in frustration.

For a moment he considered driving around to the north side of the volcano, though he was positive this was where he was supposed to be; it was the side he was told to go to the last time he was called out to Spirit Peak. Tiredly, he slumped against the side of his antique Saab, figuring he would give his new boss another five minutes before he left to find a telephone to call him.

The first emergency call he had received this month, he fumed, and he couldn’t find whoever was in trouble, couldn’t even locate any members of his outfit. Christ Almighty, he railed, smacking himself on the forehead. He suspected a climber was stranded on some rocks somewhere, that was the usual reason he was called out to the volcano when the weather got warmer. Climbers from all over the region descended on Spirit Peak around about now to test their technical skills on its challenging surfaces. Most were quite proficient but there were always a few who had no business trying to climb up here, their level of competency not much more advanced than being able to climb on top of the roof of their homes. He would not be a bit surprised if one of those novices was out here tonight.

Skelton had been a member of the Search Dogs for nearly fourteen months and had participated in over a dozen rescue operations. Slim as a milk straw, his arms and legs ribbed with muscle, he resembled many of the other people involved in the rescue organization, which included not only friends but brothers and cousins and even fathers and sons, a ragtag fraternity that spanned three generations. Nearly twenty-five years ago, a father reported his daughter missing on the volcano and, immediately, dozens of people in the area came together to search for her. After a day and a half, she was found, dazed and breathing faintly, with a broken ankle, at the bottom of a narrow ravine on the north side of the volcano, apparently having slipped from a ledge above the ravine. A couple of neighbors suggested that everyone involved in the search keep in touch and exchange telephone numbers so they would be able to act quickly the next time someone in the neighborhood got in similar trouble. Consequently this loose knit arrangement evolved into the highly skilled Search Dogs outfit, which was designed primarily to serve the region east of the Persimmon River. This included not only Spirit Peak but numerous lakes and parks and streams that often proved troublesome to people.

He was really too busy to continue in the outfit, Skelton thought, glancing again at his watch. He was enrolled in three classes at the local community college and washed dishes twenty-eight hours a week in a pizza parlor owned by one of his uncles. He just didn’t have as much time to spare as he had when he first joined the Search Dogs. The only reason he stayed in it, he knew, was because of Hedges and Murcer whose company he enjoyed. If they ever left, so would he, in a heartbeat.

A red pickup rattled over the rise and, hearing it, Skelton immediately turned around and squinted at the glaring headlights. It was Eddie Isles, one of the volunteers who lived in close proximity to the volcano.

“You the first one here?” Isles barked as he sprang out of his truck.

Skelton nodded. “The first and only one until now.”

“Where is everyone?”

“That’s what I’d like to know. I’ve been waiting here almost ten minutes. I thought maybe I misunderstood where I was supposed to be.”

“Who called you?”

“Shields.”

“He called me, too, about half an hour ago, and said to meet him here on the south side.”

“Did he say what the problem was?”

“No, but I figured somebody was either stranded on some ledge or had fallen off one. Those are the usual reasons why we’re called out here, aren’t they?”

Skelton tersely nodded, staring past Isles at the crescent of stars that pocked a corner of the sky across the river.

“How long did you plan on waiting here?”

Before Skelton got a chance to answer, three more cars came over the rise and swerved past the picnic grounds and pulled up beside him and Isles. The Bamberger brothers were in the first car, Doyle Hedges in the second, and behind them in his forest green station wagon was Aaron Shields. At once, Skelton and Isles hurried over to their new commander, ignoring the greetings of their colleagues, eager to find out why he had called them out here tonight.

“How’s everyone doing?” Shields asked as he lumbered out of his station wagon. “Everyone feeling alert and ready to get down to business?”

“What kind of business?” Skelton asked, perplexed as ever.

Grinning faintly, Shields quickly surveyed the five men gathered before him, checking to see if everyone was there he had called this evening. “Other than Murcer,” he said, with irritation, “everyone is here who was called.”

“Murcer’s never on time,” Hedges reminded him, “but if he got your message, he’ll be here.”

“He got it all right,” Shields snapped. “And if he wants to continue to be involved with this organization, he better start being on time. Now that I’ve been put in charge here, things are going to run a lot more tightly and, I believe, smoothly around here. And those of you who don’t like it, well, as a friend of mine used to say, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

“Shouldn’t we be looking after who’s ever in trouble on this damn mountain?” one of the Bambergers interjected impatiently. “I mean, that’s why we’re out here, isn’t it?”

“You’re here because I told you to be here,” he said acidulously, glaring at both of the Bambergers.

Wrinkling his forehead, Skelton folded his long arms across his bony chest. “I don’t understand, Aaron. Aren’t we out here to help someone?”

“No, not strictly speaking.”

“What?” Hedges shrieked, his gray eyes crinkling in anger. “Are you telling us this is a false alarm?”

He sighed, jingling the change in his pocket. “I wanted to see how long it took you folks to respond to an emergency call,” he admitted.

“You can’t be serious, Aaron?” Hedges said, incredulous.

“I wanted to see if everyone responded within half an hour of receiving my call, and everyone did except for Murcer.” The nickels and dimes and quarters continued to jingle in his pants pocket. “It was kind of a drill, if you like.”

Isles was beside himself, he was so furious. “I, for one, don’t like it one damn bit,” he snarled, jabbing his purplish thumbs inside his belt. “We all know you were in the Marines for six years, Aaron, but don’t for a minute think you can treat us like a bunch of goddamn recruits. That kind of thing won’t cut it here.”

Hedges agreed with him. “We’re not some ragass malcontents who have to be motivated to do something. We’re all volunteers who are willing to take serious risks in order to help folks who are in some kind of trouble.”

“It can never hurt to practice,” Shields said lamely.

“Christ, man, we sometimes get two and three calls a week during the spring and summer,” one of the Bambergers claimed heatedly. “We don’t need to be wasting our time drilling like a scout den. All of us have been involved in at least ten rescues. We’re as alert and prepared as anyone, including Marines, I can assure you.”

“You pull this crap again,” Isles snorted, “and you’ll be the one out of this outfit, not any of us.”

Pricks, Shields thought to himself as he got back into his station wagon, that’s what all of them are, ungrateful pricks. He had moved to Portsmouth less than a year ago, had only been a member of the Search Dogs for a few months, so he didn’t know any of these people very well and doubted after tonight if he wished to know them any better. A couple of months ago, Tim Calhoun retired after fourteen years as commander, and Shields was asked to take over his duties because no one else was interested in the position. He accepted, though somewhat reluctantly because his time was already pretty well occupied, because he thought he could make a contribution to the organization but now he was not so sure. Fortunately, he only agreed to serve as commander for a year then someone else would assume the responsibility and all the grief that came with the position.

Isles switched on the engine of his pickup, released the emergency brake, and raced past the others, his face still creased in agitation.

“You tell Murcer if he’s ever late to a real emergency on my watch, he may as well not bother to show up at all because that will be the last one he’ll ever be called for.”

“Tell him yourself, you jerk,” one of the Bambergers muttered under his breath.

“I’ll tell him,” Skelton said.

Shields beeped his horn then spun out of some gravel and pulled away, his left turn signal flashing aimlessly.

~

Wade Murcer arrived nearly ten minutes after Shields left, racing his rickety Peugeot so fast that when he applied his brakes the car skidded several feet in the loose gravel. His lank red hair was a mess, with tufts sticking out in every direction, his amiable green eyes were soft and distracted as if he were half asleep. Under his field jacket he had on one of the garish Tahitian shirts that he was required to wear at the place where he tended bar five nights a week. It was so wrinkled that he appeared to have slept in it.

“You guys already handle everything here?” he asked Skelton and Hedges, the only ones who had bothered to stick around and wait for him.

“You’re late,” Hedges scolded him.

“Yeah, so what? It doesn’t look like you needed me after all.”

“Shields is really pissed at you, Wade,” Skelton advised him. “He said if you’re late again, you’re out of the outfit.”

“He’s always making threats like that.”

“He means it this time, brother.”

Murcer snickered, dragging a hand through his hair. “So what did I miss tonight?”

“Not a damn thing.”

“What do you mean?”

“It was a false alarm,” Hedges told him. “A drill, according to Shields, because he wanted to check our readiness or response time or some such nonsense.”

“Is he serious, Kirby?”

Skelton nodded. “No one was in any trouble. It was just Shields flexing his authority.”

“When he called me he sounded as if someone were near death.”

“It was all make-believe.”

Shaking his head, Murcer stretched his arms and leaned against the side of his car. “Not even Shields can be that stupid, can he?”

“Of course he can,” Hedges snapped.

“Well, one thing’s for sure,” Murcer sighed. “That jerk will never get hemorrhoids because he’s such a perfect asshole.”

“We let him know what we thought of his little exercise,” Hedges continued, “and I don’t think he’ll be trying that kind of thing again.”

“Let’s hope so.” He paused a moment, scratching a scab on his lower lip. “So what are you guys waiting around here for?”

“To let you know what happened, my man,” Hedges said, sitting down on a cedar stump and pulling a silver flask of tequila out of his jacket. “What are friends for, right?”

“Right as rain.”

He took a swig of tequila and handed the flask to Skelton. “And besides, we’re too wide awake to go back home now.”

Nodding in agreement, Skelton passed the flask to Murcer and kneaded his eyes with his knuckles.

“Shields is just about the last person I’d ‘ve thought would be put in charge of the Dogs,” Murcer said, after taking a large swallow of tequila.

“No one else wanted the position except Shields,” Skelton reminded him. “So we have no one to blame but ourselves.”

“I just pray we can survive his time in power.”

“Speaking of surviving,” Hedges interrupted, screwing the cap back on his flask, “don’t forget we’re scheduled to climb Mount Andrews the weekend after next.”

“Has it been a year already since we last went up there?” Murcer said, surprised.

“It has, believe it or not.”

Five and a half years ago, Glenn Gerritt, a longtime volunteer in the Search Dogs, was reported missing on the treacherous north slope, and for three days an extensive search was conducted for him and the young woman accompanying him but not a trace of them was ever found. A few months later, when the weather conditions were not so hostile, other searches were mounted by the Search Dogs, again without success, and in two weeks another search would be undertaken. Only a few volunteers had agreed to make the climb this time but Thurman for one was determined to discover the remains of the person who, more than anyone, had been his mentor in the outfit. There were very few promises he had made to himself that he had kept but this one he would he was sure.

“Is our new commander going on the climb?” Murcer asked, fingering the corners of his bristling mustache. “Because if he is, you can count me out.”

“I doubt if he even knows about it. As of now, there will be the three of us, and maybe two or three others.”

“You honestly think we’ll find him up there after all this time?” Skelton asked emphatically.

He shrugged. “If I didn’t, I guess I wouldn’t be going back up, would I now?”

“I guess not.”

Murcer picked up a pinecone and lazily tossed it against the side of a tree, skeptical as Skelton that they would find any trace of the missing climbers. He was sure this would be the last time he would be making the climb and hoped that he could finally convince Hedges of the futility of continuing the search. But he knew how obstinate his friend could be at times, unwilling to quit whatever he was doing until he had achieved something for his efforts.

~

Sipping some tequila, Hedges suddenly swerved around and looked up at the steep volcano. “You hear that?”

“I didn’t hear anything,” Murcer said, puzzled. “Did you, Kirby?”

“No.”

“It sounded like a cry.”

“It was probably a crow or something.”

His face was taut with suspicion. “I wonder if someone’s up there,” he said urgently, “if someone’s in any trouble.”

Murcer snorted in frustration. “Don’t be ridiculous, Doyle. No one’s up there.”

“If our new commander can pretend there was an emergency tonight, why can’t we?”

“What’re you talking about?” Skelton snapped, turning his back to the volcano.

“I propose we go up there and see if we can find anyone,” he said, grinning mischievously. “The first one to the top gets a bottle of black Jamaican rum.”

Murcer groaned. “You’re not serious, are you?”

“Of course I am.” He slowly rose to his feet and twisted a crick out of his neck. “We came out here to rescue somebody so we might as well get to work, even if it’s only a ghost up there.”

“I can’t believe you, Doyle,” Skelton said in exasperation. “This is crazy. This is just ridiculous.”

Murcer agreed. “I think it’s time we call it a night.”

“Come on,” he urged, after making sure all the doors of his car were locked. “Let’s go up there.”

“You’re certifiable.”

“It’ll do us good,” he insisted, “get our blood circulating. Make us feel we’ve accomplished something tonight.”

“Go home, Doyle.”

“Ready?”

“This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of,” Skelton complained.

“On your mark.”

“Stupid.”

“Get set.”

“Stupid, stupid, stupid.”

“Go!”

At once, Murcer charged into the lead and started up the narrow cedar chip trail that wound to the summit of the volcano. His red hair flew behind him, stiff as a pennant, his arms churned. The ground was soft and slippery from the heavy rain showers of the past two nights, making traction difficult in places. He was half a stride in front, then a full one, then he began to labor and watched as his friends raced past him. He struggled to keep pace with them but couldn’t, his lungs seemingly stocked with white hot stones.

“You’re done, Wade,” Hedges gasped, laughing loudly. “There’s a foot-long fork in your back.”

Suddenly, over his left shoulder, Skelton noticed the moon through the trees, a pale crescent in a charcoal black sky. When he was a youngster, he recalled, walking home late at night, he would make-believe the moon was following him and race it to the front door before it caught up with him. It was the eye of something awful, he had convinced himself, a furious eye that seemed as menacing as a closed fist. He looked away then turned back, concerned that it was gaining on him. Anxiously he picked up the pace, despite the twinge in his left calf. He may not be able to catch Hedges, who was quick as a panther, but he was not going to be caught by the moon, as if still afraid what might happen to him if that should occur.

A raccoon sprang from a bush as Hedges raced by it, and, startled, he stumbled and nearly lost his balance, a tree root scraping his right knee. But he recovered and continued on, cursing his carelessness. He ran as hard as ever, his teeth rattling in his head, and clambered up the steep trail as if there really were someone in distress ahead of him. He would be the first one on the summit, he was sure of it, knowing how slow and cautious his friends were, and would win the bottle of Jamaican rum. Later he would share it with them of course, as he shared so many other things, because Murcer and Skelton were his two closest friends, though they had known one another only a few years.

Author Bio: T. R. Healy was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest and is the author of a collection of stories, “A Time of Times.”

Photo by Lyndse Ballew on Unsplash.

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