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.
Piney Lakes Campground
Buena, New Jersey
Day One, 1900 hours
The three Joes had taken their time pitching their one-man advanced survival pup tents and arranging their campsite right to minimize overnight chills due to the gently blowing winds through the tall pines. A roaring fire, stoked with pie slices of sections of giant tree trunks, was situated in the tent site's center, bordered by a fire pit of dirt and large stones.
One of Outback's "never leave home without it" metal canteen cups hung over the fire, boiling up enough water to make a round of instant coffee for the men, while cold water, poured into a salt-chemical solution and set to one side, automatically cooked the specially packed Meals, Ready To Eat (MRE) and brought them up to a safe temperature for consumption.
Between the three Joes, seeing the new salt-chemical heating pads and the new MRE packs was a godsend when they considered that in the battle zone, one would be lucky to have a nice roaring campfire and hot water for cooking, drinking coffee or getting clean. Between the three camping Joes alone, they had to have spent several years' worth of time on missions where they never bathed or had hot food between their deployment and their return to base.
"I hope Cookie doesn't get jealous when he catches wind of this new MRE kit," Crypto joked, taking a forkful of steaming roast beef tips in gravy up to his lips for a taste. "This stuff might just rival his chow hall cooking after all. With a little of Roadblock's gourmet magic, we could eat in tip-top style out in the bad boonies."
Outback and Low-Light laughed as they also ate from kits of roast beef tips and gravy, with steaming rice on the side, a tube of preserved fruit gelatin and a HOOAH energy bar each for a midnight snack. The remainder of the kits, such as Kool-Aid packets, small candies, unused condiments and personal convenience gear like soap, disposable razors and single-use shampoos, had already been pouched in their ALICE rucksacks for safe keeping.
Outback studied each of the items in the new MRE kit and jotted notes into a small steno book that he carried along for the trip. "It's nice to see these extras in the food packs," he remarked to no one in particular. "But the vets will be likely to dump them anyway, to save weight in the field. It was smart to compartmentalize everything though. At least someone could squirrel the goodies in their footlockers for another day."
"The only thing missing from one of these things would be a hot looking French maid to turn down our sleeping bags every night," Low-Light said quietly, his serious tone hiding the fact that he was also joking. "Then every night would be like staying at the Hilton."
As the men ate and swapped war stories, the wind turned cold and howled through the tall pines. The trees around the campground swayed back and forth and the Joes all slid closer to the fire to catch some of its welcome heat for themselves.
"What do you guys think?" Crypto asked, shivering despite the proximity of the hot fire. "Should we combine the pup tents into the multi-combination the instructions said was possible? We could conserve our solid fuel and share one emergency camp stove with the Hexamine tabs."
"That's a good idea," Outback replied, hugging his BDU shirt and combat-worn M-65 field jacket tightly around his neck. As he and Low-Light busied themselves combining the small pup tents into a bigger three-man shelter, Crypto unpacked the portable camp stove and a supply of waterproof matches and Hexamine solid fuel tablets. The camp stove was specially designed to emit heat as a radiant heater or cooking device with the turn of a vent lever.
Right before the Joes decided to retire for the night, the fire had burned down to its last glowing coals, and the men decided to conserve their remaining wood for breakfast time. As they slipped into their common shelter and zipped up their sleeping bags, Crypto lit a safety match and touched it to the lighting hole in the camp stove, which he had fueled with an eight-hour supply of Hexamine fuel tablets. Between the sleeping bags and the camp stove, the men hoped to stay toasty warm in the inhospitable Pine Barrens night.
The Hexamine stove burned with a blue-to-orange glow, casting a small amount of light from inside the fuel chamber. Beams of light from the full moon spilling through the trees and the red hot glowing coals from the campfire took care of the remaining illumination. But the Joes didn't intend to stay awake any longer. By 2200 hours, all three were fast asleep.
The wind continued to howl through the night hours, until a piercing shriek carried across the distance. It was a sustained sound, higher in pitch than the air moving through the trees.
Low-Light, the lightest sleeper of the group, woke up with a start. He reached for one of the Remington 870's that had been stacked neatly inside the tent for safe keeping. The military hardware was locked up in the truck by Crypto before they had settled in. Snapping on a G.I. angle-head flashlight, Low-Light scanned the tent cautiously and then looked for moving shadows outside.
"Did you guys hear that sound?" Low-Light whispered roughly. "Guys?"
Crypto woke up next, or at least was semi-conscious when he felt Low-Light scramble for the hunting rifle and flashlight. "It was the wind, Low-Light. It's been howlin' all night."
"No, El-Tee," Low-Light whispered. "This was somethin' different. There was a wail... a scream, maybe... but as sure as death and taxes, it was eerie. It sounded like a predatory animal, but nothin' like I've ever heard out in the sticks."
Outback opened his eyes cautiously and rubbed them. "What's all this about?" he asked softly.
"Low-Light heard a noise," Crypto said. "Just the wind, I'll bet. Get back to your forty winks."
"Like hell! 'It's just the wind', you say?" Low-Light asserted, cradling the Remington in his arms. "Someone should take watch and re-light the fire. Maybe the light or heat of the burning campfire will drive whatever's making that wild noise away."
"You wanna do it, go ahead," Outback said in a muffled whisper. "It's just a cold night, and there's no Cobra around. We don't have to be on alert for this trip, or pull guard duty." The survival expert rolled in his sleeping bag and looked up at the support rods for the tent. "Wake us up when you've put the coffee and powdered eggs on."
Low-Light's childhood fear of the dark had been overcome to the point where he was almost one with the night. And as a warrior of the night, he knew that when sight wasn't useful, other senses had to warn him of approaching danger. His ears were telling his combat sixth sense that something was amiss. So he kept his eyes open and clutched the Remington tightly against his body, working the well-oiled bolt once to put a round in the chamber before he was comfortable enough to slip back into his sleeping bag.
About five minutes had passed, with the wind still noisily whipping through the woods and Low-Light keeping one eye open, alert for trouble. Darkness slowly overtook the evening light as clouds obscured the moon and it began to wane in the sky. The unearthly wail began again, but sounded closer, and its pitch and volume increased, as if the source was moving inexorably closer to the campground.
Outback heard the wail in his slumber and woke up, turning in his sleeping bag to see that Low-Light was already alert and sitting up.
"So, now you learn not to dispute my ears, eh, Outback?" Low-Light whispered.
"Okay, okay," Outback replied. "I'm not worthy of your sixth sense. Pass me a rifle and jab Crypto when you do."
Crypto woke to the wail as well and growled, "Who's gonna jab whom, Outback?"
Low-Light handed around the Remingtons and all three Joes listened intently while they loaded the rifles with high-powered, steel-jacketed ammo. "Sounds like it's coming closer," the sniper remarked.
"This is for the birds," Crypto replied. "But if it'll make you ladies feel any better, I'll go to the truck and break out the M-4 and the sniper rifle. That way, we can take down this boogey man with gusto."
Crypto handed his rifle to Outback and accepted the keys to the Ford's storage box from Low-Light. Turning aside the entry flap of the tent and holding his snow-white ECWCS jacket liner tightly around his body, Crypto darted out of the tent and let the wind blow the flap shut.
The sound did come across as eerie, Crypto thought while he walked the twenty steps to the pickup truck. And it was much creepier when it didn't have to pass through the waterproof, stuffing-lined tent walls. The wind was crisp and the black silhouettes of the pine trees rocked back and forth as it blew.
The wailing could have been a stray dog howling, or a pack of predatory birds caught in the windy night, Crypto surmised, seeing nothing out of the ordinary when he took a detailed three hundred sixty degree sweep across the sky with his eyes. Flicking on his G.I. flashlight, Crypto shook his head about the ludicrous story of the Jersey Devil.
The Naval Intel officer reached the pickup and lowered the tailgate. Climbing into the bed, he fumbled for the key to the storage box and accidentally dropped his flashlight onto the plastic bed liner with a muffled clang. As he reached into the bed to retrieve it, Crypto felt the hairs on his neck stand up on end, and his own well-honed combat senses screamed out in his head that there was danger close by.
Snatching up the flashlight into his glove, Crypto returned to working the padlock that secured the storage box. Finally releasing the hasp, Crypto reached inside and pulled out the 'light-fifty' sniper rifle and slung it over his shoulder. Then he leaned in further and withdrew the Colt carbine, loading it smoothly with a 30-round box magazine and charging the weapon before it was fully out in the open.
Crypto heard a throbbing sound in the air above him, and felt the breeze change from across the ground to a sensation as if someone had turned on a ceiling fan above his neck. The wail had stopped a few seconds before, but he hadn't registered the change in noise level in his head yet.
Meanwhile, in the tent, Outback and Low-Light had settled down for a moment and stared at the tent flap that Crypto had exited. The wind still whipped and howled, but it was oddly quieter since the wail wasn't outside anymore.
"Did that horrible noise stop, Low-Light?" Outback asked. "I can't believe my ears."
"I think so," the sniper replied. "But where's Crypto gone? He should've been back by now, shouldn't he?"
"Yeah," Outback replied, "unless there really is a Jersey Devil and it got him. Let's take a peek outside."
Outback peeled aside the tent flap and Low-Light peered out into the night. He could see a pinprick of light moving around the bed of the pickup and correctly assumed that it was Crypto drawing the military weapons. But another dark and ominous shape caught his well-trained eye.
Although it seemed to melt right in and out of the darkness, the object hung in the air about fifty feet above Crypto and the pickup truck. Its dark shape undulated smoothly and seemed to change form while it moved and flapped broad, angular wings to stay in its hovering position.
Low-Light showed no emotion, even though he was thunderstruck at the sight. Outback poked his eyes out of the tent and gasped when he saw the shape in the air, doing its nocturnal aerial ballet.
"Damn, it's right over Crypto!" the survivalist exclaimed, raising his Remington 870. "Let's scare it off!"
"Crypto! Heads up, El-Tee!" Low-Light shouted out in warning, as he and Outback brought their hunting rifles up to their shoulders and cooked off two or three rounds each in rapid succession.
Crypto heard Low-Light's warning but looked towards the tent instead of up. When he saw the two Joes with rifles pointed skyward, he pinched his eyes shut to protect his night vision while his ears registered the rifle fire.
POW! POW! POW! POW! POW!
The wail returned, but at a different pitch and so close it made all three Joes' ears burn and ring. Crypto looked up finally to see the dark shape hovering over him. Broad wings flapped in the night, connected to a skinny body but he couldn't discern the color. What appeared to be a head was pointed right at him, and a pair of glowing red eyes stared in his direction, as if sizing him up.
Crypto went into his natural combat and survival instinct, raising the M-4A1 carbine and flicking off the safety catch on its right side. He slipped his index finger into the trigger guard in less than a heartbeat and softly massaged the trigger, shooting off controlled three-round bursts.
PUNCH! PUNCH! PUNCH!
PUNCH! PUNCH! PUNCH!
POW! POW! POW! POW!
All three Joes were firing into the air, and the creature screamed out with an ear-splitting roar, rolling and undulating over and under its own body, twisting like a very flexible serpent before it took wing and flew off over the trees. The wailing subsided after the shadow had disappeared from view.
"Crypto, are you okay?" Outback exclaimed, rolling out of the tent into a combat crouch and scanning the sky carefully with his eyes. Crypto nodded to Outback that he was uninjured from the really close encounter with the shadowy creature.
"What the bloody blue blazes was that?" Low-Light shouted from the tent, scrambling out towards the truck with his rifle aimed skyward.
"God only knows," Crypto replied, as he looked down at his hands. They shook despite the fact that he was still holding onto the M-4A1 carbine with white-knuckled tightness. "Just you guys pray it doesn't come back."
Piney Lakes Campground
Buena, New Jersey
Day Two, 0500 hours
The Joes didn't even realize they had fallen back to sleep when a small battery-powered alarm in the tent began to chime. Having been alert to danger since the brush with the shadowy creature in the middle of the night, all three men woke with a start, scrambling with their weapons until they realized that the noise was their wake up call.
Outback climbed out of the tent first, stretching and pulling his ECWCS over-jacket around his body. He blinked the sleep out of his eyes and looked around to get his bearings, trying to find the shack that housed the restrooms and camp showers.
The camp ground was as quiet and desolate as before. The Air Stream camper and Lincoln were still parked in their places, and a column of smoke rose from the direction of the owner's office, although the squat wooden building was out of sight behind a thick grove of spreading oak and pine trees.
As Outback walked past the truck and the ring of large stones that formed their fire pit from the night before, he noticed that for some reason, the hot coals had been churned about before fully cooling. As they cooled overnight, they had been compacted into the ground, and a number of strange, crow's foot-like shapes were visible, much like a set of animal tracks.
Low-Light left the tent carrying some survival matches and some breakfast MRE packages, while Crypto slid out of his sleeping bag to retrieve a toothbrush and toothpaste. Crypto left the military weapons hidden in the tent and slung his Remington over a shoulder when he stepped out of the shelter.
"Hey, guys, what do you make of this?" Outback asked, poking at the well-formed tracks with a twig. "Looks like footprints from a big bird. I can't figure how something could have walked across red hot campfire coals and leave such distinct tracks behind."
Low-Light walked over not so much to satisfy his curiosity than to light a cooking fire for breakfast. But when he saw the tracks, he was equally shocked. "Damned if I know, Outback," the sniper replied. "But we need to light some logs there for breakfast so we can hat up and get into the sticks today."
Crypto didn't even bother looking at the tracks. He made a bee-line for the comfort station and selected the cleanest-looking shower stall. All of the clean-up and toilet facilities in the rickety structure were in some degree of disrepair, or were nearly consumed by cobwebs that had to be drawn aside in order to use the sink or shower stall. He made the most of the situation and got to take care of some basic hygiene, before bundling up his gear and going back to the campsite.
When Crypto emerged from the comfort station, he could see Deputy Barrish's white Crown Victoria police interceptor rolling into the campground with its lights flashing. The owner was standing outside his office, sadly shaking his head. Crypto ran back to the campsite to tell Outback and Low-Light that the law had arrived.
Low-Light had the cooking fire crackling again and was heating up water for the packets of instant oatmeal that Outback dug out from one of their field packs. As Crypto returned to the camp, he sat on a large rock with a sigh, smoothing out his camouflage battle dress pants and zipping up his over-white jacket.
"Guys, the Deputy Sheriff is back," the officer reported.
"Shit," Outback replied. "Do you reckon someone called them when you cooked off that semi-auto fire? Or maybe just in response to all our shooting at that shadow thing last night?"
"I don't know," Crypto replied. "But just to be on the safe side, if we do brazen this cop deal out, let's be sure to take the military weapons into the sticks with us. I'd hate for that hick deputy to go and break into the truck to find our mini-arsenal of goodies."
Outback laughed for a moment, trying to lighten his mood. "Don't tell me you packed a few grenades and LAW rockets to go blasting game animals with, Crypto. There IS such a thing as overkill out here!"
"Don't kid about the weapons, Selkirk," Crypto said. "You know Duke might dress the three of us down if we get busted by the cops because they think we've been up to something un-cool with this hardware." The officer accepted a canteen cup full of Quaker Instant oatmeal and sniffed at the steaming hot cereal. "Why don't you two break camp and I'll sniff around the office to see what's up. They might not screw with the ranking officer so much."
The men took about ten minutes to eat and then Crypto strutted off for the campground office. The lieutenant opened up the entrance door with a tired creak coming from the wooden portal. He entered the office and saw the owner's wife standing behind the main counter. She looked haggard, as if she hadn't slept a wink all night.
"Good morning, ma'am," Crypto said. "I'm with the guys renting your tent site."
"Oh," the wife replied. "Thank God you're safe. Marvin didn't tell me much about you other than he had rented a tent site to some Army boys on a hunting trip."
"Why are you relieved that the three of us were safe?" Crypto asked innocently, not volunteering anything about the shadowy encounter in the middle of the night. "What happened around here?"
"Well, we think we were visited by the Jersey Devil," Marvin's wife replied cautiously. "You may think we're just a bunch of crazy hicks, but there's no disputin' when that hellish beast comes out of hiding to pay us local folks a visit."
The old lady took a drag from a dirty coffee mug and tried to shake the fatigue out of her eyes. She also lit a cigarette and held it to her lips with two shaky fingers. "Those tourists from Florida were supposed to check out this morning early and asked Marvin to come 'round and help 'em with directions out to the Cape May Ferry. He went to see their trailer, and it was ripped wide open, peeled like an onion. The poor guy had an anxiety attack, and his wife is dead. That's why Deputy Barrish is here." The lady dragged a long puff on her Marlboro Light and tapped out some ashes in a plastic ashtray. "Didn't you guys all hear that damn wail late last night?"
"Yeah, we thought it was just the wind making weird echoes in our tent," Crypto fibbed. "I don't think we saw much of anything."
"Well, if you want to talk to Marvin, he and the Deputy are over at those tourists' Air Stream," the owner's wife stated. "We're waitin' on the ambulance from the volunteer rescue squad to run the folks out to Vineland to get looked over."
"Thanks, ma'am," Crypto said, quietly exiting the office.
Marvin shook his head, as he and Deputy Barrish looked at the Air Stream camper. The bare aircraft metal surface had been peeled open like the outer layer of an onion, as if it was only made of paper. "A-yep, the damn Jersey Devil's back again. I guess we all need to go to the church and make our peace with the Man Upstairs so this thing will see fit to take off real quick."
"Have you checked in on the Army boys that came in yesterday?" Barrish asked. "I hope the Devil didn't decide to carry them off during its visit."
"Nope," Marvin replied. "Can't say I've checked on them, but the comfort station's water pump kicked in a few minutes ago. They must be still around."
"Good morning, fellas," Crypto said from behind the men, looking up as he approached. His jaw nearly dropped when his eyes registered what the other men were looking at. "Wow, Marvin, your missus wasn't kidding. It kind of looks like their propane stove in that trailer went up in smoke."
"It was the devil," Marvin said, while Deputy Barrish nodded his agreement. "I don't suggest you stick around. Honestly. You may think I'm crazy, but this is proof positive that it's back again."
"The guy who owned the trailer is lying in the back of my cruiser until the ambulance arrives," Deputy Barrish added. "And I wouldn't go poking around in there. The guy's almost a vegetable because he watched the devil rip his wife's throat out. It's not a pretty sight in there."
"For all the accounts that I have read up on," Crypto stated, "it never touched a human being. All the mutilations were animals. It kind of seems out of pattern, doesn't it?"
"Not at all," Barrish replied. "There were two mysterious child abductions along the edge of the Barrens this past summer. Both of them used to like to duck off into the woods and start fires. One of them was even fined for starting a small-scale forest fire near one of the Air Force's bombing ranges."
The deputy pointed to some oddly-shaped tracks embedded in the dirt. They looked like a cross between cloven hooves and large bird claws. "You try to tell me those tracks belong to any animal you've ever seen before, Soldier-boy."
"I'm a Lieutenant in the Navy actually," Crypto replied. "But you do have me there. Those are some of the weirdest animal tracks I've seen."
"Those tracks belong to the devil, for sure," Marvin asserted.
"I still don't think I believe in all this stuff," Crypto said. "But I was going to let you know that we were heading off to the hunting lodge you gave us the trail map to last night. We'll spend the night there testing our gear and be back for our final night in the campground. Don't let anything happen to our truck while we're gone, 'kay?"
"What with this whole business, I can't make any guarantees," Marvin replied sullenly, his voice taking on a pitch of fear.
"Deputy, what are the theories behind this devil?" Crypto asked. "What seems to be the motivation behind its attacks?"
"There are too many theories that conveniently fit the different categories of sightings that it's hard to lock any one down as correct," Barrish replied, stringing out a line of yellow barrier tape around the Air Stream. "But when it came to the kids, the local followers of the Devil legend claimed that it was simply protecting the natural environment of the Barrens. But that doesn't really explain why it would take on this trailer, at least on the surface."
"So if I said I thought my group also saw the devil, you would believe me?" Crypto asked absently. His question made the deputy's eyebrows rise.
"I sure would," he said. "It would corroborate the cause of this whole thing."
"I was asking rhetorically," Crypto said, deciding not to give the details of the sighting he, Outback and Low-Light had. "But it's nice to know there's someone who wouldn't think we were crazy if we reported a sighting." The officer turned on his heel and started for the tent site, so that he could help Outback and Low-Light break the camping gear down into pack-sized loads. "We're heading into the woods. See you tomorrow night."
"Don't take any chances out there, and stay together," Deputy Barrish warned coolly.
As Crypto walked away from Marvin and Deputy Barrish, the men caught the flashing lights of the local volunteer ambulance squad's rig approaching where the police cruiser was parked. "Marvin, you reckon we're gonna see those Army yahoos again?" Barrish asked, spitting a wad from his mouth onto one of the devil footprints in the soil.
"Can't rightly say, Jay," Marvin replied. "For their sakes, I hope so."