“Who’s our first volunteer for bear patrol?” Mitch asked.
Huddled next to the fire eating mushy baked beans out of a tin plate, I exchanged covert glances with my fellow rookie scouts. None of the four of them looked anxious to volunteer. They kept their faces buried in their food bowls.
Mitch snorted. “So much for Helpful, eh Joe?”
Joe barked a laugh. “Untrustworthy lot we got here, looks like.”
Mitch stood up and stalked around the fire, tapping at our plates with a long, spindly stick. “No one wants the first shift? It’s the safest one, you know. The big bears don’t come out until later at night.”
“There aren’t really bears out there, are they?” Mac Johnson asked.
Mitch crouched down next to the newbie scout. “How ’bout you go on up the hill and check, volunteer?”
“Stupid!” Danny hissed under his breath at his brother.
“And take your brother Danny with you,” Mitch said. “Four eyes are better than two.”
“The bears’ll appreciate the extra food,” Joe said.
“Remember,” Mitch said, addressing everyone around the campfire, “no sudden movements, no loud noises, and absolutely no flashlights. You make a ruckus while on lookout or turn on a bright light, you’re sure to anger any bears foraging for a late night snack.”
“And then you’ll be a late night snack,” Joe said.
We watched as Mac and Danny departed, escorted by Mitch. When they’d walked out of earshot, Charlie turned to Joe and said, “This is a joke, right? An initiation rite? There aren’t any bears up that hill. If there were, they wouldn’t bother us.”
Joe’s typical grin faded. “You think this is a joke? Tell that to Mitch when he comes back. Ask him how he got that scar on his face.”
The remaining scouts around the campfire exchanged nervous glances. We’d all seen the angry scar on Mitch’s forehead, but none of us had worked up the gumption to ask about it.
Kyle blurted, “That was from a bear?”
Joe gave Kyle a long stare before nodding. “Not just any bear. Angry Levi. A black bear that escaped the circus and lives in the mountains just north of here. Before winter comes, he likes to raid campsites for food. Fatten up before hibernation. Hates humans. Mitch was on bear patrol during his first camping trip, and he thought he heard something in the woods nearby. Turned on his flashlight to look, and Angry Levi clawed him in the face for his trouble. Mitch is lucky to be alive.”
“That’s not true,” Charlie said.
“It is true,” Mitch said, returning to the campfire. “My brother, Harold, would tell you the same story, if he wasn’t puking his guts out in the latrine right now.”
As if on cue, we heard the sound of loud retching come from the latrines.
No one said anything for a while. I finished my plate of beans, still wondering if there were really dangerous bears up in the hills, or if Mitch and Joe were just teasing the new scouts. On a bright, sunny day, I’d say it was all a joke. But in the gathering gloom, crazy circus bears seemed all too possible.
A loud crashing noise preceded the thunder of two pairs of running feet. Everyone jumped up from our seats, dinner plates clattering as Mac and Danny charged into the circle, panicked and out of breath.
“Bear!” Mac wheezed.
“Seriously?” Charlie said.
Danny nodded, trying to catch his breath. “Big. Rustling around near the trees. I could see its fur. It wandered off—”
“—And we ran!” Mac said.
Mitch reached over and cuffed Mac across the head. “Running could get you killed, stupid!” He pointed at Charlie and Kyle. “You two, come with me.” Without another word, Mitch trudged back up the hill. Reluctantly, Charlie and his companion followed.
Ten minutes later, all three of them came running back into camp, looking terrified.
“It’s huge!” Charlie exclaimed.
“It brushed against my leg!” Kyle said.
“Is it?” Joe asked Mitch.
Mitch looked panicked. “I think so.” They both turned to me.
“What?” I squeaked.
“Angry Levi is out there,” Mitch said. “We need you go to up the hill and keep watch. Tell us if he’s heading towards camp.”
“By myself?” I asked. I looked to my fellow recruits. None of them were budging from the fire. I stood up, hunched my shoulders, and started my trudge up the hill. The light from the fire faded quickly behind me, and within seconds I was engulfed by the darkness of the woods. I stumbled to the top of the hill and found a tree to lean against. I pulled my jacket up around my ears and tried to stay perfectly still.
I heard the rustling. I stopped breathing. Off to my left, something was moving through the dead leaves. Breathing heavily. Moving closer.
I wanted to run, but my legs wouldn’t work. A glint of moonlight revealed baleful yellow eyes staring at me. It was Levi. He looked hungry.
I closed my eyes and hunched against the tree. I willed my heart to stop clattering so loudly in my chest. The creature’s fetid breath wafted over me. I stayed perfectly still, pressed tightly against the tree trunk, face scrunched closed.
I heard the creature begin to move away. I braced to make my escape towards camp, but before I ran, I risked reaching into my jacket pocket and pulling out my penlight. It was a reckless act, but I couldn’t resist. I wanted to see the creature before I fled.
I flicked on a beam of light and played it over the nearby leaves.
And saw a pair of blue jeans crawling away from me. Harold, wearing a bear head mask, snuffling and grunting as he departed.
Furious, I kicked him in the ass as hard as I could. Then I ran back to camp, stifling laughter.
“Did you see him?” Mac asked, eyes wide.
I tried to look properly scared. “Yup.”