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Down the Mysterly River
By Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2011 William T. Willingham
All rights reserved.
Wolves and Badgers and Thrilling Boy Detective Stories
Max the Wolf was a wolf in exactly the same way that foothills are made up of real feet and a tiger shark is part tiger, which is to say, not at all. Max was in fact a boy, between twelve and thirteen years old, and entirely human. He was dressed in a Boy Scout uniform. His loose cotton shirt and shorts were a light greenish tan in color, as were the knee-high stockings that rose out of the weathered brown leather hiking boots he wore. Many brightly colored cloth badges, of every odd shape and size, were sewn onto the front of his shirt. More badges were sewn onto the breasts and back of the dusty red jacket he wore zippered halfway up over his shirt. A blue and white triangle of cloth was draped around his neck, its tightly rolled end points connected in front by a neckerchief slide, deftly hand-carved into the shape of a gray wolf's head, its fierce jaws open to reveal white fangs.
Max had blue eyes and fair skin, lightly dusted with freckles. He had a wild mop of brown hair that he frequently had to brush out of his eyes. Usually his hair was restrained by his cap, but he seemed to have lost his cap recently, though he couldn't exactly recall where.
Now that Max thought about it, not only could he not remember how he'd lost his cap, he couldn't recall where he was or how he'd arrived there. This was troubling for many reasons. In all the years he'd been a member of Troop 496, Chief Seattle Council, in the countless hikes and camping trips he'd enjoyed, and the many adventures he'd had, Max the Wolf had never once been lost. He was a wizard with map and compass and had earned his Orienteering merit badge while still a Tenderfoot Scout. And he'd never suffered a loss of memory, nor even the briefest moment of blackout.
And yet here he found himself walking down the slope of a hill, in the midst of a great forest of mixed broadleaf and evergreen, or so at least it appeared from his limited vantage place. As he walked he passed in and out of the shade of the leafy canopy high overhead. To any observer, and there was at least one, the infrequent pockets of undiluted golden sunlight made Max seem to suddenly shine brightly, like a character in a painting, before he stepped once more into the subdued, heavily filtered light of deep green shadow. The enclosed world was alive with the usual sounds of a forest. Birds sang and bugs chattered to each other from their many hidden enclaves. Many foresty scents drifted on the cool, soft breeze.
"Well, Max, it seems you've landed yourself in another adventure," the boy said out loud, even though there didn't appear to be anyone on hand to talk to.
"At the beginning of the mystery," he continued, "the best way to isolate what you don't know is to first take stock of everything you do know." This was one of Max's five most important rules of detection. Reciting it helped him to order his thoughts and prepare his mind for the coming investigation. "First, I am in the middle of a forest I don't recognize, though it is so much like the familiar forests of the Pacific Northwest, I'll assume I'm still in that general area, until evidence suggests otherwise. Second, I don't know how I got here." He ticked each point off on his fingers as he mentioned it.
"Judging by what I can see of the sky," he said, counting a third finger, "it's about midday and not likely to rain any time soon, so I'm in no immediate danger of exposure. I can't hear traffic sounds, so I must be at least a few miles from any well-traveled road."
Now that he was back in a detecting frame of mind, the uneasiness brought about by his initial confusion began to fade. Max was seldom if ever fearful, not even during the Mystery of the Gruesome Grizzly, but he'd never suffered a loss of his mental faculties before. No matter what, he'd always been able to trust his ability to reason, until now. Talking out loud in such an odd situation comforted him just enough to help keep the unfamiliar traces of panic at bay.
"I must have been involved in some Scouting activity," he continued as he strolled downhill, "because I'm in uniform. If our Troop was on a camping trip I'd have a backpack, or at least a canteen for a day hike. But I could've lost those along with my hat."
As soon as he thought of his possibly missing backpack, Max checked his pockets for his Lost Kit, which an experienced Scout always carried apart from his backpack, just in case he ever became separated from the rest of his gear in the wild. He found his Lost Kit in his left front pants pocket, exactly where it was supposed to be. Inside a small watertight cylinder were a dozen strike-anywhere matches, a candle, a roll of fishing line with two hooks, a few bandages in sterile wrappings, and a needle and thread. A length of heavier twine was wrapped around the outside of the plastic cylinder, since it didn't need to be protected from the elements.
Along with his Boy Scout knife, which he discovered safely in his right front pants pocket, he had the minimum basic tools necessary for a resourceful Scout to survive in all but the most extreme sort of wilderness. Since he was in the habit of carrying his knife and Lost Kit during all Scouting activities, even those which took place in the middle of civilization, their presence in his pockets shed no light on the unresolved question of whether or not he was on a day hike or overnight camping trip prior to his memory loss.
The bandages in his Lost Kit reminded him that most cases of memory loss were caused by injury, or some other serious trauma. So, mentally criticizing himself for not thinking of it sooner, he stopped walking long enough to give himself as thorough a physical examination as his situation allowed. It didn't take long. His head seemed free of lumps, cuts, or tender spots. He suffered no headache or dizziness. Moving down his body, he discovered no broken bones, or serious cuts. In fact he couldn't even find superficial cuts, scrapes, or the kind of minor scratches and insect bites anyone picks up after spending a reasonable amount of time in the woods. "So the evidence suggests," he said, "wherever I am, I haven't been here long.
"If I was on a hike and became separated from my Troop, there's a pretty good chance some of them might be nearby, looking for me." Standing still and quiet in the great woods, he listened for human sounds. Any search party would be blowing on loud whistles or actively calling out his name, not only to find him, but also to aid themselves in not becoming separated from each other. Losing additional members of the search party was always the greatest danger in any rescue operation. He decided to put off calling out himself. For now, he reasoned, it was more important to listen.
He could hear all manner of birdsong, but failed to recognize any. Identifying individual birdcalls was never his strong point; not like his patrol mate Danny Underbrink, who could tell a hundred different birds by their song alone. Max did better with plants. Unfortunately the many varieties of tree and shrub he could immediately identify were common to all western forests.
After a few minutes of more thorough investigation, he found some mushrooms nestled in the shady roots of a large spruce tree. He recognized them as a type called Bulbous Cort, which were common to the mountainous forests of the Pacific Northwest, though not entirely exclusive to them. It was enough though to add support to his original theory that he wasn't far from the woodlands regularly explored by his Troop.
As bad off as he was, at least it was unlikely he'd been spirited away to some remote corner of the world. In the adventure he called the Mystery of the Cautious Kidnappers, he and Taffy Clark had been taken as far as Canada's remote Northern Territories before he could effect their escape.
Because the Bulbous Cort mushroom ripened only between September and October, Max was able to deduce what time of year it was, which suddenly struck him as the strangest aspect of the mystery so far. No matter how much he'd forgotten of recent events, he should still be able to remember the month, or at least the general time of year.
"You can't blank out entire seasons, can you?" Try as he may, he couldn't even pin down what his last specific memory was. Though he could recall just about every detail of each one of his adventures, and even fit them in the right chronological order, there seemed to be a big blank between the end of his last adventure and the moment he realized he was walking through these woods.
At this point the panicky feeling threatened to well up inside him again, and it was only by a great effort of will he was able to force it back into submission. It was time, he thought, to quit worrying and go back to solving specific problems. "Figure out enough of the small details, and the big mystery will solve itself." That was another of his famous first five rules of detection.
Even though the sun was still high in the sky, promising that there were still several hours of reliable daylight left, Max decided to make some plans, in case it turned out he truly was on his own, and he'd be spending the night in the woods. He turned slowly in place, in two complete circles, looking up and down, from the forest floor to the branches high above him. He could detect no break in the trees and underbrush that might indicate a possible clearing, where he could expect to find a less obstructed view of his location. The next best thing was to head back up the hill he'd been walking down, until he found a clearing or reached the hilltop, where he could climb one of the taller trees to see what he could see.
The disadvantage of going uphill, beyond the obvious fact that it was harder than walking downhill, was that he'd tend to be walking away from most sources of fresh water. He'd need to find some water before he settled down for the night, but he had some time before that became the first priority. He'd listen while he hiked. On hillsides any water would tend to be in motion, and moving water made noise.
Having decided on his immediate objective, Max removed his jacket and, draping it over one shoulder, set out at a brisk pace up the steep slope of the hillside. Before he had gone very far, while passing through a particularly dense area of underbrush between two black cottonwood trees, he was surprised by a gruff voice from under a leafy bush.
"I don't think either of us would like it if you stepped on me," the voice said.
Startled, Max stepped back a couple of paces, until he was well clear of the bushes. In almost no time at all a squat and furry form came out from under the very same bush, waddling a bit from side to side as it walked on four short legs. The stout creature was nearly twenty inches from nose to tail, and, except for its elongated snout, it was almost as wide as it was long. In a mostly white face, two dark stripes of fur ran from its black nose, one across each eye, to taper off just beyond the back of its head. An additional dark patch of fur colored each cheek. In a very striking pattern, the dark and white lines flowed back along its coat, gradually shading into a uniform gray along the way, turning brownish just before the bristly fur entirely ran out of creature to cover. Max recognized it instantly as a very large example of the species Taxidea taxus, or in plain language, a badger.
Max looked back and forth between the badger and the bush it had just emerged from, hoping to get a look at who'd spoken, all the while wondering what odd sort of fellow would share space under a bush with a badger.
"You might want to be a touch more careful to look where you're going," the badger said, provoking a yawlp of astonishment from Max. It was the same gruff voice he'd just heard. There was no one else in the bush.
"You talked!" Max said. He backed another full step down the hill, careful not to take his eyes off the impossible creature.
"Well, why shouldn't I?" the badger said. "You were already talking so much, it seemed impolite not to join the conversation." The creature shuffled forward a little bit as he talked. As he did, Max stepped back each time, keeping a uniform distance between them.
"But badgers can't talk!" Max said.
"Of course we can. We talk all the time. Back in my old sett it was everything I could do to get my wife and cubs to shut up long enough to hear myself think. Of course, this is the first time one of you fire callers ever answered back. For all of your endless jabbering, this is the only time one of you said anything I can understand."
This time the badger didn't shuffle forward on his stubby legs, perhaps because in doing so he would have backed the poor fire caller right into a tangle of devil's club behind him. Their multitudes of two-inch needles were bad enough on a badger's thick coat. Against a fire caller's soft unfurred hide they'd be torture. Instead the creature huffed and snorted and rocked from side to side all the while clawing absentmindedly at the dirt in front of him. It seemed to Max a very badgerly thing to do.
Suddenly all evidence of surprise and fear at such an unusual encounter vanished from Max's face, to be replaced by a wide grin that burped out several solitary chuckles, before they connected into a more proper and delighted stream of laughter that lasted for some moments. Max didn't back up any more. In fact he boldly knelt down in the spongy carpet of dead leaves and pine needles to get a better look at his new companion.
"Do badgers amuse you, fella, or are you just some sort of kook?"
"Neither," Max said, once he was able to get control of his laughter. "I'm simply relieved to have finally solved this particular mystery. I should have suspected it before. The clues were all there. Not knowing what time of year it is should have been a dead giveaway. But the sensations of my environment were so detailed and consistent with reality, the obvious answer never occurred to me, until now. I'm in the middle of a very enjoyable dream. I'm going to regret waking up from this one."
"I hate to interrupt your good mood," the badger said, "and Brock knows I've had some crazy dreams of my own, but I don't think this is one of them."
"Of course you wouldn't think so," Max replied, "because you aren't the one dreaming. You're just a character in mine."
"Nope," the badger said. "I doubt that very much. Though you and I have both landed in a strange place, I don't think it's the land of dreams. I know the smell of that country like I know the scent of my own beloved missus in the dark of our den, and this ain't it. This land smells all wrong. Not in a bad way, precisely, but foreign-like."
"Where are we then?" Max said, his broad smile fading only a little.
"I think we're in the afterlife, young fire caller," the badger said in a voice gone quiet and sober. "My best guess is that you and me are stone-cold dead."CHAPTER 2
Flights and Fights and Campfire Tales
McTavish the Monster was on the run again. Given the darkness of the night and the density of the woods, with all of its myriad hidey-holes, he could easily have escaped the hunter, if the hunter were on his own. Humans, for all their amazing tools and other wonders, were dull things and easy to outwit. But the two black hounds were another story. Dogs could sniff anyone out of even the most hidden lair, so the only way for McTavish to escape this time was to run and dodge and run some more.
McTavish was getting tired though. If it were only a single dog on his tail, he would have turned to fight long ago. Killing a big bad dog wasn't so hard as all that, even a well-trained hunting dog. More than one hound's ghost was currently whimpering in some foul canine Hell because it had been foolhardy enough to pick a fight with him. But a dog and its master were impossible for even a crafty old fighter like McTavish to beat. And when the hunter had two dogs? Well, that was nothing short of unfair.
Excerpted from Down the Mysterly River by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham. Copyright © 2011 William T. Willingham. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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