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.
The Pine Barrens
Crypto, Outback and Low-Light walked cautiously along the hunter's trail that led from the edge of the Piney Lakes Campground out to one of a number of bare-bones hunting lodges that had been established well beyond the edges of civilization for the sportsmen that visited the area.
Because old habits never die, the men walked silently in a standard military manner. The only sound other than their short breaths and the soft crunch of their boots on the ground was the occasional sniffle or comment from one to the others. The men walked in a slight zigzag pattern, which was a common tactical movement to avoid being bushwhacked in ambushes, and they kept about thirty feet between each other. They were close enough to hear a whispered warning and to cover one another, but far enough to not get taken down all at once.
Crypto had taken the point, checking the trail map against his walking pace and a military-grade lensatic compass that he kept pointing directly north to maintain his bearings. Low-Light was in the middle, having taken the first leg of the walk on point, and Outback brought up the rear, expecting to take over from Crypto when they stopped for a water break or to relieve themselves.
The rising sun was still low over the horizon. It was glowing in a bright red-orange while it climbed higher into the morning sky. The sunlight backlit the taller trees, making the long, well-foliaged trunks look like natural spires that stabbed into the blue sky majestically over the Joes.
Crypto paused in his steps to withdraw a plastic Army canteen that hung from his combat webbing. Just as he slung his Remington 870 over the same shoulder where he was carrying his M-4A1 carbine, the Lieutenant detected a rustling sound ahead, slightly off the trail.
Deciding to forego the sip of water, Crypto unslung both weapons and lowered them quietly onto the ground. He snapped his fingers to get Low-Light's attention and then flashed his open palm to indicate the silent signal for "halt".
The thrashing sound increased in pace, and Crypto brought his fingers up to point at his eyes, in the signal for "I'm looking". He picked up the M-4A1 and caught Low-Light in the corner of his eye bringing the Light Fifty AMR up to his shoulder.
Crypto crept forward silently, his finger lightly resting on the rifle's trigger. When he was roughly thirty meters from the sound, it was moving off to his left, near a curve in the trail. The naval officer pulled back slowly on the charging handle of the rifle and returned it to its start position without making a sound. He also flipped the safety to burst fire, and twisted left to look for a target.
The rustling became a pounding, and a figure burst onto the trail a few feet from Crypto. It stood erect, running into view on two spindly legs with broad and heavy feet like the cross between a large bird's foot and a cow's hoof of heavy bone and cartilage. What could be classified as arms were attached to broad, muscular wings shaped like a bat's, and the main body was roughly four to five feet of thin serpentine muscle and skeleton, covered in a thin layer of fur or feathers. The head was oblong and looked like it could belong to a horse, topped with thin horn-like bony appendages above its ears.
Crypto yelped in surprise and his combat instincts clenched his trigger finger tight before his brain even took a second to think. The M-4A1 barked angrily at nearly point-blank range and danced in Crypto's firm combat grip.
When he engaged the creature that looked exactly like what had hovered over his head the night before, the bullets almost hung in mid-air for a heartbeat. Crypto felt like time had slowed to a nearly imperceptible pace. When the stream of bullets should have impacted somewhere on the creature's body, they instead passed right through the body and chopped at the underbrush at the edge of the trail.
There was no blood. No torn flesh. The rifle fire did nothing to the creature, which turned and looked right at Crypto with burning yellow eyes. Both the Joe and the creature were out of sight of Low-Light and Outback's position because of the curve in the trail and heavy brush.
In response to the weapon fire, a loud, deafening wail filled the air, causing Crypto's ears to burn with pain. He reached up to cover his ears, dropping the assault rifle to the ground and pinching his eyes tightly shut. The noise penetrated to his very soul and beyond, filling him with sensations of fear and pain.
Crypto's ears rang so badly that Low-Light had to shake him by the shoulder to get him to open his eyes. When he did, the sergeant almost got punched squarely in the face by Crypto's instinctive karate defensive strike.
The ringing and penetrating scream feeling subsided in a few moments, and Crypto panted loudly to catch his breath. "Did- did you two see it?" Crypto asked.
"See what?" Low-Light asked. "We came around when you fired your weapon and found you hunched over!"
"It- it was the devil," Crypto muttered slowly. "It was right here, in front of my face, staring at me with dark yellow eyes. I shot right into it point-blank."
"There was nothing here when we rounded the corner," Outback insisted. "Nothing flew or ran away from our view."
"Wait a sec," Low-Light said, pointing to the ground where a fresh set of telltale tracks led onto the dirt trail and stopped abruptly. "He's right. It was here. Somehow it showed itself to him but was gone by the time we got here. And we were none the wiser. How the hell can an animal or anything resembling one move that fast?"
"I dunno," Outback said. "But I'm getting a bit antsy myself. Maybe we should turn back."
"No!" Crypto said, in a near shouting tone. "This damn thing is a menace! It killed one of those civilians at the campsite! I say we get to the lodge and see if it comes a-sniffing once more. Then we try to blow its head off!"
The two Joes almost dropped their jaws at the news of the tourist's death. "Then let's kill the sucker," Low-Light said, patting the Barrett AMR.
It took fifteen minutes of tactical marching to get to the rickety shelter that classified as a hunting lodge. It was mainly a cover from the elements, camouflaged within a cluster of saplings that would provide a hide for a shooter right along one of the migratory runs that the deer and other game animals followed religiously every year.
The Joes settled in quickly, posting Low-Light on guard while the others unpacked MRE's for the three to eat as a snack and a means to forget the fact they were all worried about the devil's ability to kill. With a quick dose of water from a small brook that the game animals drank from while following their run, the salt-chemical heaters were in action once more.
No sooner had the men begun to spread out in their lodge, the ear-splitting wail began again. Low-Light took mere moments to scan the surroundings and then brought the Barrett AMR up to his shoulder. "Contact! Six o'clock high, and he's closing!" Low-Light called out.
Crypto and Outback leveled their weapons just as Low-Light's AMR barked once in its hellish blasting report. Within the span of a few short breaths, Low-Light had six heavy, half-inch steel jacketed rounds flying through the air.
The bullets all struck the flying creature in the head and right wing, knocking it off its balance in the air. Losing the natural lift in even beating of the wings, the devil rolled and then pitched down towards the earth. When it disappeared beyond the tree line, there was a crash and the sound of eerie rolling thunder. Then silence.
Crypto got to his feet and pointed his compass at the source of the crashing sound. "Come on, let's go find the corpse," he said. While he hoisted his rifle onto his right shoulder, a buzzing sound came from his pocket.
The officer reached into his pocket and pulled out the Tactical Data Communicator, or TDC, which was about the size of a contemporary flip phone. "Crypto here," he said abruptly.
"Didn't you forget something?" said an annoyed voice on the other end of the cellular connection.
Crypto moaned about having forgotten to make the call to Takedown that was promised before the Joes left. "I'm sorry, Claudia. We're out in the sticks right now." His voice seemed nervous and edgy, and Claudia knew him well enough to be able to interpret when he was trying to hide something.
"What's going on down there?" she asked as an open-ended question. "How are Outback and Low-Light?"
"We're just stomping around the woods," Crypto replied, maintaining his curt tone. "We have to get moving or the deer we just bagged might get up and split!" Crypto was sure he didn't want to let on that he saw an apparition right out of local folklore.
"Okay," Takedown said with a sigh. "I'll just leave you boys to your testosterone-fueled party trip down there. Remember, no stuffed animal heads!"
"Gotcha," Crypto said and then hung the TDC up. He turned to Low-Light and Outback. "Let's get this creepy bastard but good. Move it out!"
Meanwhile, in Brooklyn
Takedown hung up the barracks telephone with a sigh and shook her head in wonderment about why Crypto was being so evasive on the call. She leaned against the wall next to the phone bank and slid slowly to the floor where she sat thinking. A hand drifted through the long strand of her hair unconsciously while she thought about her feeling of danger.
As Takedown sat on the floor and pondered, Chaser, a Marine drill instructor, happened along the hallway and stopped at the house phones. A muscular, well-proportioned female, Chaser was dressed in a form-fitting, olive green USMC tee-shirt and rather short, crimson red PT shorts. The clothing certainly accentuated the positive about Chaser's figure, and she was a sight for any red-blooded single male on base.
"You're up early, Takedown," Chaser said with a smile, in her sultry Southern drawl. "Feel like running the PT course with the early risers this morning? Duke's looking for someone to beat in a foot race!"
"Sorry, Sarge," Claudia replied, "I'm not really up to it this morning. To be truthful, I'm kinda concerned about Crypto's trip to the Pine Barrens. There's just something about them being down there that gives me the willies."
"Well, if something comes up, Specialist, you come and let me know," Chaser said. "We can go see for ourselves what the deal is down there."
"I'll keep that in mind, Sarge," Claudia said with a nod. "Thanks."
The Pine Barrens
The woods got thicker and thicker as Crypto, Low-Light and Outback blazed a path for themselves off the main trails in the direction of where Low-Light had punched holes in the flying apparition and it had gone into the trees.
"I think I see a clearing ahead, Crypto," Low-Light reported, raising his fist in the air to signal his teammates to slow their approach. Soft clicks from each of the men's rifles indicated that they were ready for anything.
Crypto motioned for the men to approach, as they fanned out with about twenty feet of separation. The officer crouched, completely still, behind a fallen tree trunk and listened for a moment, while his eyes darted to and fro looking for threats.
When he was satisfied that the creature wasn't thrashing about the clearing in anger and looking to kill another person, Crypto got onto his feet and planted the soles of his boots where he could get good traction. He raised his right hand and counted to three with his fingers. On three, he spun his fist in the air and pointed to the clearing.
The Joes charged into the clearing and stopped dead at the edge of it. The only reason that the clearing existed at all nestled in the thick forest was that the creature was brought down and charred or smashed aside everything before it. Felled trees and skinny saplings had been bent outward with such force that they snapped almost cleanly despite having trunk girths of more than a foot each.
It was as if a tiny sun had flared up instantly in the middle of the woods. All of the trees facing the clearing were charred to black, gritty charcoal. There was no grass or loose ground cover; it had been all scorched to nothingness. Out in the epicenter of the clearing, near a particularly large stump that had been upturned and nearly thrown across the ground, a completely burned and elongated body shape lay crumpled on the ground.
Crypto approached the remnants of the body cautiously, with his M-4A1 trained on the thin body of the creature. It appeared to be face down, with its black, bat-like wings spread over its body like a shroud. By all appearances, it looked up close like the numerous sketches and descriptions that folklorists and devil hunters had captured in print.
"Phew," Outback said with a whistle. "That creep is FUBAR for sure."
"So you'd like to believe," Crypto added, poking the carbine's barrel into the charred mess. "Over three hundred years of sightings, there have been several accounts of remains and strange impacts where extreme heat affected the area. Yet the devil came back. At least we can get outta here without running the risk of seeing it again. Or, so the legends say."
Low-Light was visibly shaken at how the creature defied logic and even physical science, how its abilities were sometimes contrary not to popular knowledge but from one sighting to the next. "I think we need to just get the hell back to the hunting lodge, get this test over with, skip the animal shooting, and go back to base. Cobra is a vacation compared to this vacation!"
"Okay," Crypto replied. "Let's hike it back to the lodge. Maybe we can take a few deer or some varmints while we fight off the boredom."
The hike back through the heavy woods to the main trail and hunting lodge was uneventful. By the time they returned to the camouflaged hide, the sun was much higher in the sky, but the piercing rays of sunlight did little to dispel the cool temperatures within the windswept woods.
The men settled into the lodge, taking a few minutes with a long machete to cut down some dead branches from older oak trees and fronds of green brush to make a patch over a large hole in the lodge's thatched roof.
With the temporary repairs completed, the Joes reinforced the weather resistance of the top cover by erecting their tent inside the lodge, along one entire wall, setting that space apart for sleeping. Crypto cleared out some discarded stones and ashes from the deep fire pit that was dug in the center of the lodge, replacing them with freshly scrounged dry twigs, kindling and larger pieces of logs for when they lit their afternoon cooking fire.
Outback and Low-Light unpacked the Hexamine camp stove and lit one fuel tablet, which was enough to heat up some water for instant coffee. The survivalist had scooped up a few quarts' worth of water in a flexible water bladder, from a babbling brook of clean spring water close by, and the men were quick to have a metal canteen cup filled and atop the blue flame of the Hexamine fuel tablet.
All three men stirred when the sound of crashing and heavy hoof beats sounded outside the lodge. Crypto was first to reach the observation slit built into the wall of the lodge that faced the main trail, and the officer brought one of the Remington 870's up to his shoulder. He peered through the rifle scope for a few seconds, scanning the trail, and then centered it on a shape that had stopped outside.
A large adult deer, somewhere between a seven and ten-point buck, had bowed its head at the babbling brook alongside the trail and was slurping up mouthfuls of cool, clear water.
"What's out there, Crypto?" Low-Light asked as he crawled up to the officer, who was as still as a statue and holding his Remington ready to fire.
"Shh!" Crypto whispered gruffly. "There's a buck out there drinking, maybe twenty to thirty yards away, by the brook. I'm gonna bag it."
"Go for it, El-Tee," Low-Light said, nodding. Crypto's rifle cracked once, and the officer shifted his weight backwards to compensate for the recoil. The 150-grain, steel-jacketed hunting round ripped through the deer's flesh right above its shoulder blade, and scared the animal into plodding forward painfully down the trail towards a hiding place.
"Damn!" Crypto swore. "I only clipped it!" He worked the bolt of the Remington with lightning speed, chambering a second deadly round. The deer tried to run, but was hampered by the bullet already embedded in its shoulder that was making it tough to move its powerful front legs.
The Remington fired again, as Outback loaded his hunting rifle and handed it to Low-Light. Crypto's second shot scored a direct hit in the back of the deer's head, cutting its spine off from its brain. The animal lost motor functions nearly instantly, and fell to the ground in spasms.
"That one got him!" Crypto exclaimed happily, setting his rifle down and reaching for a Ka-Bar combat knife. "Come on, Outback, you need to show me how to dress the venison! We'll eat in style tonight!"
With Low-Light covering from the lodge, Outback and Crypto scurried to the dying deer, who was still struggling to cling onto its life with every painful breath and effort. Outback used his survival knife to put the deer out of its misery but was almost gored when the animal desperately swung its antlers around to defend itself.
Outback and Crypto spent about two and a half hours dressing, bleeding and carving the usable meat from the deer before burying the carcass in a denser area of the woods behind the lodge. The usable meat was placed in large Ziploc bags for safe keeping until they were ready to cook it. All told, they had carved up a good twenty pounds of venison meat from the deer before hauling the rest off the trail.
The Pine Barrens
The Joes had packed the deer meat from the morning's kill safely away in one of their rucksacks, and laid it in the shadiest area of the hunting lodge in case the day actually got much warmer as it progressed. They spent some time digging out a waste trench behind the lodge, for relieving themselves, and then just hung around, relaxing on their sleeping bags or taking turns observing the animal trails silently through binoculars or a rifle scope.
Outback had pulled a tattered copy of a paperback novel about Mack Bolan, a favorite literary "man of action", out of his kit and leaned against a wall of the lodge to read it under a beam of sunlight. He smiled brightly under his full beard and moustache when he caught up to a particularly enjoyable segment of the story.
Crypto had decided to take a constitutional, so with Low-Light at the "window" of the lodge and Outback reading his novel, he stepped out the back of the lodge into the light of the day. The officer worked his way around the walls of the lodge to the waste trench, where he relieved himself, and then decided to sit on a boulder that was on the edge of the trail and take in his surroundings.
The sun shone warmly on his face, as he looked up through the towering pines into the clean, blue sky. The trickling sound of the nearby freshwater brook and chirping from birds alighting in the highest tree branches almost lulled Crypto to sleep.
Just as his eyes became heavy, Crypto heard two light thuds on the ground, not far from where he leaned back on the boulder. The thuds were followed by the sound of sniffing. When Crypto turned his head to look in the direction of the sounds, there was nothing to be seen.
Ignoring the sounds, Crypto pulled the brim of his camouflage field cap down slightly to shield his eyes from the sun. And then he heard the all-too-familiar wail.
The wail registered in Crypto's head like a blaring alarm aboard ship. It sparked him into immediate action. He rolled off the boulder and dropped into a combat ready stance. Realizing that the only weapon he had to defend himself was his Ka-Bar combat knife, the officer still charged stoically around the lodge, readying the sharp blade.
The Jersey Devil was standing over the pit the Joes dug to bury the deer carcass, sniffing the air. Its fiery eyes scanned its surroundings before the head dipped into the animal's grave and ripped out organs from it that the Joes left behind. When Crypto caught sight of the creature, it had ripped the throat out of the deer and was contentedly munching on it.
Outback and Low-Light didn't believe the wail had sounded so close. They thought at first that they were hearing ringing in their ears from the last encounter with the Devil. They heard Crypto shouting at the creature that all of them had seen it dead. When Crypto's words registered, the men leapt into action, carrying their heavy hardware out of the lodge.
Crypto drew his Ka-Bar and approached the creature. Up close, it smelled beyond disgusting, carrying the scents of death three hundred years in the making. It turned its fiery yellow eyes in his direction and wailed once more, to warn him back. Defiant, Crypto charged at the devil, brandishing his combat knife, and shouting his battle cry, "YO, JOE!"
The devil dropped the deer parts that it had picked up in its spindly arms, and it displayed the blood-coated limbs. Its mouth burst forth another bone-chilling wail and its eyes burned when Crypto connected with it, slashing and thrusting with his knife.
Outback and Low-Light charged out of the lodge with weapons raised and scanned the area behind the lodge. When they spotted the devil, it looked like the creature was about to shroud itself with its broad wings. Low-Light dropped to one knee and put a fresh 12.7 x 99 mm round in the Barrett AMR. As his well-trained finger tightened around the rifle's trigger, Outback broke his concentration.
"Low-Light, don't shoot!" Outback yelled, chucking the sniper on the shoulder. "Crypto's fighting with it!" The two men kept their rifles up, and watched while Crypto swung his knife angrily at the beast.
After a few moments of stabbing and grappling, the devil wailed again and flapped its wings enough to send a blast of air and clouds of dust in Outback and Low-Light's direction. It took wing instantly and flew off, leaving Crypto lying on the ground.
Outback dropped his Remington 870 onto the ground and kneeled next to his comrade, who was mumbling incoherently for a few seconds. "We already killed you, you beast," Crypto repeated over and over.
"It's Specialist Selkirk, Crypto," Outback said, shaking the officer's face for a moment. Crypto blinked twice and then his eyes flashed with recognition.
"We killed it, Outback, and it returned," Crypto said after taking a deep breath to regain his composure. He raised the Ka-Bar and studied the old patches of dried deer blood that had stained the steel blade in patches of crimson. "I stabbed at it. I felt the knife go into flesh or bone. But look at this - there's no fresh blood on the blade."
"This thing defies all logic, El-Tee," Low-Light said, stepping to Crypto's side and resting a hand on his shoulder. "What we need to do is keep our own wits. We can't afford to go crazy over this. Your refusal to accept its existence is going to make you an obsessed, certified Section Eight."
"You're right, Low-Light," Crypto said with a nod, allowing his buddies to raise him into a sitting position. "But it came back for a reason. We must be on guard."