Episode 42 - You cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hounds

Tomorrow, 1700 hours at Penn’s Cave. Come alone. - read the note. I could not believe my eyes. Ben had successfully infiltrated Base Camp undetected, leaving a note inside my sleeping bag. The message was written in the back of the same piece of paper I left for him, at Loess Hills. I quickly managed to burn the note, right after I read it, without putting a hole in my tent’s liner. - He’s alive! - I thought to myself. I spent the rest of the night trying to conceive a plan, in order to meet Ben the next evening. Unfortunately, I didn’t come up with anything decent. The next day came; Roy and I were scheduled for the afternoon pond patrols. I brought along a backpack full of supplies meant for Ben. I pretended I was bringing tools to service Argo3. It worked like a charm. It was about 1600 hours and I still had no idea on how to make it to the cave. I had to loose Roy first. I was starting to get ready for a fake maintenance of the mini-sub, when we heard a rifle shot echoing over the mountains. Atop the trees, I could see birds scattering, disclosing the location where the shot came from: The Penn’s Cave. It had to be Ben. I could only hope. Perfect. I got on the radio and contact the sarge: - Sir! Permission to investigate suspicious activity around the Abrams River! We heard a gun shot 2 Clicks (Km) away, over. - It took him a while to respond but he finally gave me authorization to investigate. - It must be a hunter or so. Try not get shot Corporal. Radio me with a situation report as soon as possible. Carry on, over and out. - the Sergeant replied. Penn’s Cave is one of the country's most complex caves sitting below 17,381 acres of grass prairie and ponderosa pine forest. The cave’s located about a kilometer south from the Abrams River, just at the border of Beacon Hill State Park. Working as a ground recon unit, I served as the point man, leading us all the way to the river. - The wooden bridge is to far from here, do you think we can cross the water walking behind this cascade? - I asked Roy. He seemed a little apprehensive, but he agreed with me. We followed a narrow rock ledge towards the waterfall, as we watched our step. With late rainfall during this July, the water seemed to be running faster. We kept walking as the “steep descent of water” grew bigger in front of us. Besides getting our left shoulders soaked, we managed to cross to the other side unharmed. - C’mon Roy! Could you move a little faster? - I whispered. Roy was having a hard time following me. I could’ve totally left him behind, but I opted to wait for him. We walked the remaining kilometer in full surveillance mode. - There’s nothing around here! Are you sure this is the place? - Roy asked me. I tried to look concerned. – We better check the cave, just to be certain - I replied. He nodded. As we approached the cave’s entryway I could smell the putrid scent of urine and fesses left by local bats. - Holly crap! It stinks around here! - said Roy holding his nose while we stood in front of the cave’s mouth. I looked around for foot prints but found instead a bullet shell. It was definitely from Ben’s sniper rifle. Carefully, I used my boot to cover the shell with dirt, keeping it out of Roy’s sight. I had to do something, my watch marked exactly 1655 hours. - Listen, you stay here at the cave’s mouth. I’m going in. - I told Roy without hesitating. Roy looked at me like I was breaking the rules. And indeed I was. The sarge had stated back when Dan disappeared: “No man should roam the Mulberry Ridge alone”. He tried to argue with me but I let him have the best of me: - Listen pal, I know we are friends and all, but in this situation…I’m the Corporal and you are the Private. I hope you know how military hierarchy works. You stay here…and I’ll go in, understand? If I’m not back in 45 min. radio the sarge, get it? – Aye… Sir…- said Roy frustrated. I couldn’t waste any more time. I fastened the straps of the backpack and started my descent to the cave. Penn’s Cave is well known by its intricate succession of tunnels. Even the most experienced “caving” enthusiasts could get easily lost. Not me though. Ben had lit a small fire at the end of one of the tunnels. All I had to do was to follow the light. - You’re late! What took you so long? - said a little voice coming from my left. - Over here fool! – I walked another 10 feet, turned around and almost lost it all. Sitting on a rock, a bearded Ben waved at me. His uniform was filthy and full of holes. I tried to get closer for a proper greeting, but Ben seemed a little uncomfortable with his own appearance. I used my backpack as a seat and we talked about random stuff for a while. - Listen, Ben. I have some information that I think you should know. - I told him. Ben nodded. He scratched his beard and surprised me with his reply: - I already know, John. I heard Dr. Johnson speaking on his radio while you were up at Loess Hills. I was shocked. - I knew that blond bastard was involved some how…wait…wait…You’re saying you’ve been around all this time? - I asked outraged. He smiled and sat a little closer to me. - Yep! In fact, I was by the pond this afternoon with you and Roy. I noticed you were having a hard time getting over here. - said Ben while putting more wood in the fire pit. He then managed to tell me about Dr. Johnson’s radio calls to a certain Dr. Ivanov. We talked about my unauthorized visit to the hospital, my visit to Dr. Ivanov’s office and the X- ray. As we talked, I noticed his beard was covering a large amount of facial scabs. His hands were now covered with small red bumps as well. - What in the hell is happening to you, man? - I asked Ben almost mad. We stood in silence for a minute or so. - John, whatever happens, I’m staying here. We need to find out more about this little operation the US Army has here! Till then, I’ll be watching your back, as long as you watch mine. - Ben told me with strength in his voice. I then managed to empty my backpack and gave Ben some supplies. - Got any ammo? - he asked me eagerly. - All I got is my M9 Beretta - I replied as I passed the gun to him. He quickly grabbed the pistol and checked it for aim and grip. - How about a radio? Can you spare me one? Ben asked me eagerly again. It was going to be hard to explain to Sergeant Palmer where all my gear went. But it was worth the risk. I reached inside of one of the small pockets of the backpack and gave Ben my brand new radio transmitter. - Let’s keep in touch - I suggested. Channel 13 on a non-military frequency. - We worked out the radio details and we said goodbye. It was painful to leave him behind in that kind of state. On my way out of the cave, Roy was still sitting at the cave’s mouth smoking cigarettes. I yelled that the cave was secure to avoid being shot by a surprised Roy. On our way back, after speaking to the sarge on the radio, Roy looked at me and asked: - Harris? What’s wrong? Why the nervous face? Did you see a ghost in the cave?

by Corporal John Harris, July 12, 2006