Three Joes go out into the back woods of New Jersey for a hunting trip, and end up facing a three hundred year old legend up close.
G.I. Joe Detachment "New York"
28 October, 2003
Day One, 0700 hours
The small dining hall in the Joe Team's underground operations center was abuzz with the chatter of the detachment's permanently-assigned troops and personnel from the Joes' support organizations as they crowded around the few available tables to attempt to devour their morning chow. At a small, round table in the farthest corner of the space, Crypto, Takedown, Low-Light and Outback sat quietly talking among themselves.
"... Look, Claudia, it's not going to be that bad," Crypto was saying to Takedown, the team's Combat Search and Rescue medic, who also happened to be his girlfriend. "People do it all the time, especially around these months. The hunting down in the Pine Barrens is phenomenal. The animals are all out fattening up for winter, since the brown bears have gone to hibernation already. There's all sorts of game for the bagging."
"I don't like the idea of you taking off and being totally out of touch for a three-day hunting trip," Sergeant Claudia "Takedown" Pearl replied, shifting in her seat as she studied Crypto with her thoughtful brown eyes. She waved her hand across the table at Sergeant Cooper "Low-Light" MacBride, the team's premier sniper, and Specialist-4 Stuart "Outback" Selkirk, the renowned Army survival instructor. "I don't care if it's going to be the three of you, even. This whole 'roughing it' idea just doesn't fly."
"Would it make you feel better if we signed out a couple of TDC's from the signals hermit and made 'Lover-Boy' call in every twelve hours?" Low-Light joked, nudging Outback in the ribs as the pair of veteran Joes chuckled.
"Don't try to make jokes, MacBride," Takedown growled. "They may be bad for your health."
"Listen, Takedown," Outback said. "There's absolutely nothing to worry about. We're really going because the Army Soldier Systems Command sent over some new cold weather and field camping gear for me to test. So I got Duke's permission to take a few sets out into the field and give them a torture test. Crypto suggested playing the tour guide and running us down to the Pine Barrens, since that was a great open space to go tramping around in to perform the test. If the shit doesn't work, I promise to make sure these two city folks come back alive."
Low-Light glared at Outback. "Hey there, Selkirk; watch who you're calling a city folk! I just might decide to fall asleep at night and forget to scare off the big bad animals with my big bad rifle!"
Crypto turned to face Takedown once more, and said, "Claudia. I promise there'll be no shenanigans and we won't get lost. It's just for three days."
Takedown ignored the mock pleading looks Outback and Low-Light were making on their faces and nodded. "Okay, I guess. It's not like I could stop you anyway. I'll miss you, and I'll worry about you. But I guess I can find something to do around here until you get back."
Crypto gave Outback and Low-Light a dirty look and the two men understood the signal. They excused themselves hastily and left the table as Crypto took Claudia's hands into his.
"I'll miss you too, Claudia," Crypto said quietly, in a tone that was barely able to compete with the din of the dining hall. "It'll be nothing, I assure you."
Takedown leaned closer and gave Crypto a peck on the lips. But her mouth turned down at the corners. "Fine. But don't you dare try to bring something back to hang on the wall in your quarters. If I see a stuffed animal head hanging up after you get back, I promise that I will kick your silly ass once and for all."
"Okay, boss, no taxidermy," Crypto replied with a smile. He picked up his breakfast and stood up to leave the table. Brushing a warm palm across Takedown's cheek, he excused himself and headed to the Supply area to draw his set of test gear.
Day One, 1500 hours
Just off State Highway 54, Buena, New Jersey
Low-Light's POV, a Ford F-250 Crew Cab, short bed pickup truck, was a comfortable ride for the three Joes as they expectantly ended their three and a half hour trek from Brooklyn down to the depths of the New Jersey Pine Barrens.
The state highway that the truck traveled along was a ribbon of asphalt, divided into two lanes by a double yellow painted line right down the center. It was barely wide enough for two tractor-trailers to pass each other without them going into the soft shoulder and kicking up clouds of dust. Low-Light's plain blue Ford handled the road just fine, and the sniper was brazenly driving the vehicle down the highway at well over the posted limit.
"Hey, Low-Light, slow down!" Outback said from the back seat where he had been napping. "You're going to miss the campground!"
"I've got it all under control!" Low-Light asserted, glancing left and right for the sign to the Piney Lakes campground. Crypto was also watching the road for a telltale sign from his spot next to Low-Light. The Navy Lieutenant took a drag from a can of Yo Joe Cola before pointing excitedly to the side of the road.
"There!" Crypto nearly shouted. "Bang a right into that dirt trail!"
Low-Light slammed on the brakes and wheeled the Ford into the cleared gravel trail that marked the entrance to Piney Lakes. He also just barely missed a county sheriff's deputy parked alongside the highway in his cruiser, who flashed on his emergency lights and flagged down the pickup.
"Aw, shit," Outback swore. "Now, see what you've done? I told you not to speed 'round here. I'll bet we're gonna make that cop's monthly quota of tickets in one shot. You'd better hope that county cop's a lady and you can smile your way out."
"Put a sock in it, Outback," Low-Light replied, pulling his truck off to the edge of the trail and shifting it into park. He shut off the engine and waited patiently while the deputy climbed out of his cruiser and walked over, one hand resting on his service automatic and the other holding up a slim nightstick.
The deputy rapped gently on Low-Light's window with the nightstick and the Joe sniper rolled down the power window. "Sorry about that wild turn, deputy. The entrance came up sooner than we expected."
The deputy looked the men over and noticed that all three wore military-issue camouflage BDU's. "It's okay," he said. "I'm sure you'll remember for next time that the speed limit is only fifty miles an hour down this here stretch. You soldiers down for a bit of hunting?"
"That's right," Crypto answered, reaching into a folder and withdrawing three laminated forms. "We got our licenses from one of the registered bait and tackle shops in Hammonton before coming down. We're also going to be testing some new Army development gear."
The deputy sheriff accepted the hunting licenses and gave them a perfunctory glance. "These are in order. Are you carrying bows or firearms out into the Barrens?"
"Firearms," Crypto replied. "The three rifles are on the rack back there with Mister Selkirk."
Deputy Barrish rubbed his chin and looked at the well-polished Remington 870 cal-.30-06 hunting rifles with Unertl match-grade shooting scopes. "Those are some nice pieces. Are you carrying them loaded?"
Crypto produced a full box of Winchester .30-06 deer hunting rounds and passed them across to Barrish. "We know the law, deputy," he said. "The long arms are empty and here's the ammo. They were far enough apart to pass muster." Even though the Joes operated much like the Army's Delta Force, fully authorized to travel anywhere armed and ready to fight, it was better to keep up appearances and follow the local laws.
"Okay," Barrish said, nodding. "You boys be careful out there. I've had a few reports of late-hibernating bears visiting campsites at night for scraps of food..." The deputy raised his sunglasses and chuckled to himself. "And then, there's always the devil."
"Devil?" Outback asked, while Low-Light simply blinked in the deputy's direction. "What devil?"
The deputy smiled, much like a local would when stringing along a tourist with some folklore. "You know, the Jersey Devil. It's a crazy lookin' creature that's been seen roaming 'round these parts for some three hundred years."
"Thank you, deputy," Crypto said, nudging Low-Light to get the truck moving.
The deputy touched his baseball cap and nodded. "You all be safe out there, 'kay?"
Once Low-Light had the truck in gear and moving down the campground's entrance trail once more, Outback chucked Crypto on the shoulder. "What is this about the Jersey Devil, El-Tee?"
"It's folklore, plain and simple, Outback," Crypto replied. "I don't believe it, and neither should you two. You both know much more about things that go bump in the night."
Low-Light nodded at Crypto's words. "You're damn right, sir. Damn right."
A few more minutes passed as the Joes drove deeper into the woods and away from the state highway. Eventually they came upon a nearly-deserted campground, where a neatly-painted brown sign read "Piney Lakes Campground - Hunting Parties Welcome - Free Overnight Parking." Low-Light brought the Ford pickup to the small cabin at the entrance of the campground and shut off the engine.
"Okay, here we are," the sniper reported. "I can't wait to get my legs stretched and out in a deer blind."
"It's a bit late to do any hunting today," Crypto suggested. "But I'm sure we could pitch our tents and give them a test here tonight."
"Yeah, I guess so," Low-Light grumbled, shifting the pickup into park and leaning back in the driver's seat. "Somebody go check us in. I'm bushed."
The campground appeared to be rather desolate. The usual mix of camper sites with utility hookups and bare-bones tenting areas littered the property, strategically linked to dirt trails and arranged around the giant spreading pines that had been around much longer than the human visitors.
Human visitors seemed to also be pretty rare, since only one camper site with hookups was occupied by an old aluminum Air Stream trailer and a late 80's model Lincoln sedan, both with matching Florida license plates. Crypto took in the entire area in seconds, his wary eyes scanning each and every detail out of habit. Once his brain registered that all was clear, the naval officer climbed out of the pickup and headed for the campground's office.
The combination office and campground general sundries shop was neatly painted in a dull brown finish, to match the signage at the entrance. It doubled as the residence of the campground's owner, and a thin column of gray smoke rose from a vented, sheet steel chimney box set high upon the roof.
As Crypto opened the front door and entered the office, a small bell that hung by the entrance tinkled to warn the owner of a visitor. The only other sounds in the place were the whirring of a compressor for a coin-operated soda machine and the occasional creak of the floorboards when Crypto stepped across them. Dust hung from some neglected shelves, and the owner's idea of a sundries shop was really a handful of small toiletries, paper products, and snacks that looked like they were there since the campground was opened, all sitting neatly arrayed on a folding card table.
Within seconds, a disheveled man in his mid-fifties pushed his way through a door that was marked "Private". He wore faded brown corduroys and a thick flannel shirt, and his wrinkled face held a pair of dark, ominous eyes that could stare right through someone if they weren't careful.
"Hi, there!" Crypto called out across the room. "I'm here to check in for the hunting and camping package?"
"Howdy there, young feller," the owner said with a yawn. "Ya'll are the so-jer boys what called me from New Yawk City, right?"
"That's us," Crypto replied, walking over to the owner's counter and displaying the three hunting licenses the Joes had obtained. "Our paperwork is in order, and we'd like a tent site close to the facilities. We'll also be locking up one vehicle here until we get back from our trip into the woods."
"That's no problem, sonny-boy," the man said, pointing a wrinkled and shaky finger at the licenses. "The tenting package for three nights is twenty semolians, cash money up front."
Crypto fished out his wallet and produced a twenty for the campground owner and set it on the wooden counter. "You're not doing much business for this time of the season, eh, old timer?"
"Ah reckon," the owner replied, pulling out a hand receipt and filling it out as proof of Crypto's payment. "Most of the sportsmen packed it in early this year, and some of the locals that like to go tear-assing through the woods all year 'round are overseas wit' the Army right now. Ain't much in these parts 'cept me, some retirees from Florida who're passin' through, and the devil..."
Crypto shook his head. "The devil, you say? I take it you mean the same screwy legend that Deputy Barrish told us about out on the highway, right?"
"The same, young man," the owner replied with a nod. "Deputy Barrish has gone out to investigate at least two sightings this month. We've been telling the visitors to keep a sharp lookout for strange things goin' on at night."
"Do you realize how crazy you sound, telling adults your tall tales about the Jersey Devil?" Crypto asked. He knew about the legend just from growing up in New Jersey, but he'd heard worse legends too, such as a mythical Asian beast from the Philippines called the asuwang, which would steal babies from their cradles and devour them. "Jeez, guy, come off the touristy bullshit, okay?"
"You like to make a lot of jokes about the devil, for a Jersey boy," the owner said in a warning tone. "You had best watch your ass out in those barrens. It would be a shame if you didn't come back."
"You got your twenty bucks cash money, slick," Crypto replied, stuffing his wallet back into a cargo pocket in his camouflage BDU's. He made a point to show off the small Navy SEAL qualification badge that was embroidered in silver thread and sewn to his uniform's left breast pocket. "You can lay off the horseshit any time. My buddies and I aren't your average tourists. We don't believe in that supernatural crap. Just you make sure that my pal's nice pickup truck doesn't get a scratch on it while we're humpin' through the boonies out there."
"We shall see, young 'un," the owner said, wagging his spindly finger at Crypto. "We shall see."
Outback and Low-Light had already unloaded their gear from the back of the Ford, and Crypto's equipment was piled in a neat stack next to the others' along the pickup's tailgate when the officer exited the check-in office. "We've got the tent site right next to the showers and restroom, two hundred yards down the trail by that brown outbuilding."
Low-Light nodded and shifted the Ford into gear, slowly navigating the campground's main vehicle trail until the men found the spot. As Outback and Low-Light retrieved the three Remington hunting rifles from the gun rack in the truck's cab, Crypto hauled out a gun case that he had stashed under a blanket in the truck bed before leaving base.
"What 'choo got there, El-Tee?" Low-Light asked, tossing Outback the boxes of Winchester ammo for the rifles.
Crypto unzipped the gun case and withdrew a Barrett Next Generation .50 caliber Anti-Materiel Rifle and a Colt M-4A1 special operations carbine. A plain canvas sack that was also in the truck stored several magazines of ammunition for the military-grade weaponry. "Call it a little bear insurance, and an unfair advantage," Crypto replied. "I signed them out so that I could get a little practice in with them. I mean, who's gonna complain out here if I cook off a little automatic weapons fire or blast hell outta some dead tree stumps?"
Outback and Low-Light chuckled with Crypto as he checked the weapons. "You never go somewhere unprepared do you, El-Tee?" Outback remarked.
"I learned that bad habit from you guys," Crypto shot back with a smile. "Let's pitch camp and get to testing some of those new Army MRE's those jokers in USASSC supplied. So long as they don't taste like Cookie's kitchen scraps, they should pass with me!"