Montana Sky

by Rick Beck

Chapter 2


Kodak sat on the sand, nursing his sore shoulder and arm, as he regained his strength. It was his most serious injury besides a knot on his forehead. They'd crashed in shallow water within a hundred yards of the beach. Once he realized he couldn't get the dead pilot out of the plane after the crash, he mostly floated on the water that carried him to shore. He would have to wait and gain enough strength to return for whatever he could salvage.

All his equipment had been wrapped in waterproof packaging before being loaded on the first leg of the journey. His film was similarly wrapped to assure it remained dry, even if dropped in water. The crash wasn't what came to mind when Kodak was told his equipment could be dropped in water and remain dry. His experience definitely changed what being dropped in water might mean.

The pilot spotted the island as the plane's engines began to sputter. He'd turned the craft hard to the left. apparently intending to use the beach as a landing strip, only the final sputter from the engines came a few hundred yards off shore. The plane tilted left just as it impacted the water. Kodak was stunned for some time after the crash but he couldn't be sure for how long.

That's all Kodak remembered about the crash. He was more stunned than having any permanent serious injury from the impact. The cool Pacific waters filling his side of the plane revived him. The pilot's side was submerged, tilted downward.

Kodak's first instinct told him to free the pilot but by the time he finally loosed himself from his constraints, there was no way the pilot could still be alive. If Kodak didn't get out of the plane fast, he'd drown too. Somehow getting his door open with his left hand, because his right arm had no feeling in it, he let himself float out on the water as the cabin of the plane slipped beneath the surface. The right wing was still out of the water for a time, allowing him to steady himself to regain his senses before attempting to make it to shore.

With his right arm still useless, he let the action of the waves carry him toward shore. Standing to test his legs, he walked the final few yards, collapsing on the beach from exhaustion. He slept on the sand. This was a blur of details he put together, once he thought back on the crash and his escape from the sinking plane.

The plane ended up just inside a small lagoon that protected the beach from the ocean, except sometimes at high tide, the ocean and the lagoon became one. At low tide Kodak found he could walk to within 50 yards of the wreckage in placid, knee-deep water.

He felt too lucky to be alive to have regrets, but sitting alone on that tiny strip of beach, he understood his decision to take the job also separated him from the friend he depended upon to keep his life in balance.

This separation reminded him of when the army took Taz away, during what was supposed to be a congressional reception to honor him. This was different and yet, every bit as hard on Kodak, as that separation. He was glad to be alive. He wasn't so glad to be facing an uncertain future alone.

Touring the States with Taz as the hero and he as his photographer, had them depending on one another. That they spent all their time together for over a year before Taz's breakdown had made his absence more significant. It was a necessary separation, but none-the-less a crushing one for Kodak.

Before Taz's breakdown, soldiers told Kodak trouble was coming.

" Taking a man like Taz out of combat and away from the men he's protecting, even if you put him in front of a friendly audience, won't end well."

Kodak learned what they meant. One instant they'd been stranded in the jungle in the midst of the enemy, and the next minute it was ticker tape and steak dinners. All of this because Kodak's first exposure to battle meant taking pictures at a time when he was more scared then he'd ever been. Taking pictures defeated his fear.

Those pictures captured a hero in action. Once published, Taz's story was told and the army finally had a heroic face to put on the Vietnam war. It was a stroke of genius, but their hero needed time to decompress. The army didn't have time. Taz was immediately speaking about his tour of duty in Vietnam.

The tail of the plane was visible for the first two days. It slipped below the surface as the wreckage settled on the third day, reappearing the next morning. Kodak knew the plane couldn't be seen from the water and probably not from the air unless someone was looking straight down into the lagoon from above.

The island was larger than it first appeared as they approached it from the air. He'd found a fresh water spring the first day, not far off the beach. The water ran down from someplace above. The fruit and coconuts seemed endless. Two important resources were no more than a few minutes away.

The tricky part of a coconut was the husk; if you could find a way through the thick fiber outer protection, the nut was yours for the taking. This was where the machete mounted on the inside of the passenger door of the plane came in handy. It made short work of getting to the inner nut and Kodak piled up a dozen at a time to open later.

Kodak developed different techniques to open the coconuts, making a small hole in the nut to drink the liquid and a larger hole to pick out the coconut's meat. The machete and various stones gave him the tools to allow him to make the opening he wanted.

Sitting on the narrow beach he spent time watching the plane's tail section appear sometime in the morning and disappear later in the day. He didn't know the time but it gave him an idea of how long he'd have to get anything useful out of the plane.

Being well fed and getting the feeling back in his right arm, it took him until the third day to start planning to reach the wreckage when the tide was at its lowest, which would mean the least distance to swim. The following morning, right after the tail section came into view, he set out to retrieve his camera equipment first.

He entertained the idea of bringing the body of the pilot in for burial. He decided leaving it strapped in the plane was best. At least there would be a body to recover if someone came upon the island one day. He wasn't certain something wouldn't dig up what he buried.

The first thing he needed to do was break open the crate that contained the camera equipment. His camera case with camera was carefully wrapped separately in its own plastic to keep it out of the weather on days when it stormed during his island shoot. He was happy to have it back in his hands.

Several unexplored islands near the end of the Marshall Island chain were of interest to Nature magazine. They'd been left to establish an ecology without the influence of man for over a hundred years. Being as small as six miles long and two miles wide, they couldn't sustain human habitation for many or for long.

Volcanic activity and the increasing size of storms in the region made such islands less than ideal for habitation. Being relatively forgotten and a bit too far for native islanders to access without a major effort, nature had been left to set its own course.

Nature magazine wanted Kodak to capture on film what that meant to the monkeys, birds, and reptiles native to the island. The editor of the magazine had seen some of Kodak's pictures of the jungles of Vietnam and he was sure he'd found the photographer he wanted. It took him some time to track him down.

Kodak was eager to photograph the colorful birds and spirited monkeys that were abundant. He'd picked out a spot on the beach to watch island life before he could retrieve his camera equipment. It gave him time to make a plan to keep busy. This wasn't the island he was going to but it had all the features he expected to find there.

The monkeys and birds were more curious about him, while the reptiles were less than thrilled by the invader that spelled danger to them. Kodak kept his distance for the first few days to let the island life become accustomed to the latest arrival.

Alone, left to his own devices, he'd encounter danger, because no place came without some kind of danger. Big fish weren't a great threat because the mouth of the lagoon was in the shallows and he figured he was safe from sharks and such, but that didn't mean he wouldn't be vigilant. There was always a chance of something deadly coming into the lagoon when the ocean got angry and overtook it.

He wanted to establish a camp as quickly as he was able, and see about protecting himself from snakes and the larger lizards that stood off some distance down the beach to watch him from time to time. These were scary critters, making Kodak feel like he'd been dropped into the middle of a prehistoric movie location, complete with dinosaurs.

It was the third day before he felt strong enough to start stripping the plane. Opening the crate to retrieve his camera and some film was all he could do the first day. He was exhausted by the time he pushed his tree trunk back to shore.

This chore was made more stressful because he hadn't yet learned to ignore the pilot. At first half of his focus went to looking at the corpse and how best to avoid looking at it. Even having seen war, death unnerved him and the pilot was very dead.

Cutting his first visit short, after getting the crate with his camera equipment open, made it easier on him. He still wasn't strong enough to make a major effort, and until he was he'd go slow.

The following day he went with the idea of retrieving his suitcase. Once again, it wasn't too much of a strain on his sore body. He hung out his clothing, except for the soft brim hat, letting it dry on his head, cutting the impact of the hot tropical sun.

Most of the fifth day was spent going back and forth to the plane as low tide came and went. Exhaustion was no longer a factor. He wasn't too tired to regain his strength after a short rest. Then he made another dive. There were a lot of things he could use and it was on this day he decided to get it done without further delay.

He stretched his right arm, testing its strength. It felt stronger and for the first time he was sure there was no damage beyond the serious bruises that made life miserable for the first few days. The warm water and regular exercise proved to be the best medicine.

His right side was one big bruise but the bruising had begun to lose its uglier colors. His arm's soreness reminded him to take it easy and not rush. By the sixth and seventh days he'd begun to enjoy the daily trips to the plane.

By this time Kodak talked to the pilot as he searched the plane for one more useful item, holding his breath longer on each dive. He didn't look at the body and wasn't able to call him by name, but he felt no presence. He talked to the only person in his world, and a week after he'd begun diving on the wreckage, everything that was of value to his survival was on shore.

He was sitting on the beach holding his knees, one day after the diving was done, when the top of the tail of the plane, all that was visible of the plane by then, did a slow motion turn. The plane slipped below the surface to settle on the bottom of the lagoon. The tail section never appeared above the waterline again.

Kodak knew how lucky he was to be alive. Had the plane settled to the bottom on the first day, he'd never have been able to retrieve anything. There was some comfort to seeing the tail sticking out of the water at some time during the day, but less and less of it was visible each time. There was no particular feeling of loss once it was gone for good.

It was what it was and he'd survived for a reason. It made no sense that he survived the crash to be eaten by a lizard later. That didn't mean it couldn't happen. He would do his best to see it didn't, so he could be around to see how it all turned out. Until then, he wanted to take pictures, stay busy, until he figured out what came next.

By the end of the first week on the island Kodak had walked the beach in both directions, as far as he could go. It was then he turned his focus to moving up and away from the beach. He was building his camp just inside the tree line for the time being, collecting and storing a few days of food. Once this was taken care of, he had time to explore and photograph the island's creatures and landscapes.

He wanted to be able to negotiate the high ground in case of a serious storm. So far every day had been warm and sunny, but this was the South Pacific and known for intense storms. He needed a secondary camp that offered protection during such an event.

He waited to begin his trek upward until he was sure he was able. On his first day of climbing toward the top of the island, he left the camera safely hung in the branches of a tree too small for monkey shines to dislodge it. For extra safety he hung the sleeveless green fatigue jacket, which Taz had given him in Vietnam, over the camera case. It was suspended five feet off the ground.

His main mission was to explore and blaze the easiest trail possible to the top. He doubted there would be time to take many pictures and once he had an idea of what he was dealing with, he could go back with the camera to capture whatever he discovered.

He was forced to change course a few times. The machete came in handy against the thick undergrowth, but even that became useless against the more dense parts of the jungle. Any idea of clearing a direct route to the top was soon abandoned.

Once he crossed the stream that fed the pool of fresh water, he tried to stay close to it, but this too ended with him crossing it and then crossing back over it to find some easy going. He spent time hacking into what looked like easier passage, only to have it turn impassable, forcing him to backtrack to the stream one more time.

As he climbed that first day, he made sure he always knew where the beach was. He'd seen the entire island from the air the day of the crash. It didn't look all that formidable at first glance, but the intense undergrowth made going tough. He spent a lot of time keeping the stream within reach, knowing that it went straight toward the beach below, where it emptied out into the lagoon.

The island environment reminded him of Vietnam and that got him thinking about his friend Taz, as he made one false start and then another. Maybe because he was allowing his mind to drift he became confused, but he was always able to locate the stream in short order. He was unable to clear his way far enough to lose the sound of the water cascading downward. He stopped to listen every couple of minutes to be sure.

He was hot, drenched in sweat, and he was sure he was attracting every insect on the island. He made enough noise to alert everything to his presence. After a couple of hours or more, he calculated he was no more than a half mile from the beach. Looking upward told him nothing about how far there was to go.

He was ready to quit. It was hopeless and he thought he could find his way back the next day by way of what he'd cleared the first day, only it was a series of dead ends. He'd start earlier tomorrow before it got so hot. He couldn't remember it cooling off since he'd been there.

There were no signs that men had been there before. All he'd seen was undergrowth and more undergrowth during his aborted climb. The beach showed no sign of anyone ever being on it before. He made a point of keeping his eyes open to see some sign of a fire being built. If men had been here, they'd need to build a fire for cooking food.

It was possible someone might live on the far side of the island but with the thickness of the underbrush, they'd never made an attempt to come visit his beach, which was more than odd. No, Kodak decided, he was the only man there.

Could this be one of the unexplored islands? Did anyone know it was here? Had it been created by volcanic eruption or did it surface during a storm? Then, how did the animals get here? Noah perhaps?

Kodak didn't know there might be uncharted places left on earth. Everything could be seen from space. Maybe he'd discovered this island? He and his pilot. He could name the island after the pilot if that was the case. If he only remembered his name.

They shook hands and exchanged names when they first met. The pilot had helped to load Kodak's gear into the tail section of the plane. The pilot knew where he was going and if he thought there was any danger in flying straight out into the Pacific, he'd not shown any sign of fear.

This was all arranged by Nature magazine. Kodak didn't think to question the pilot's plan or even look at the map of his route. He seemed to know what he was doing. He wore aviator's glasses and a World War II bomber jacket that was well worn. What else did Kodak need to see for him to trust his pilot? It wasn't his fault the engines failed, but the failure was the death of him, and only by dumb luck had Kodak survived.

Kodak was standing in the stream when he realized he was daydreaming again. Kodak walked down the stream and was back at his camp in no time. He felt suspiciously like he'd wasted an otherwise nice afternoon. There had to be an easier way to get to the top of that island; but instead of worrying about it he decided he'd take a swim, eat, and figure out tomorrow's plan once he'd cooled down.

Before he knew it, it was tomorrow, and he went back to blazing a trail to the top of the island. The sweat and discomfort of his sore muscles made him stop for rest more often the second day. He'd put on his sneakers instead of his heavier climbing boots, and once stymied for the second or third time, he decided to climb by way of the stream. He might never make it if he had to chop his way to the top.

The jungle thinned out as he got toward the top. Once there he stood on a football field size bare spot. He calculated by the cut of the very top, this was a volcanic island and the undergrowth had returned after the last eruption.

The indentions and craters were consistent with what he'd think a long ago dead volcano might look like. It was uneven and rocky in the center, but the jungle was thin enough to negotiate three hundred and sixty degrees around the barren center of the island's top.

When he got to a place that gave him a view of three sides of the island, he located the lagoon and knew the shadow close to the mouth of the lagoon was the plane a few feet below the surface.

He was sorry he didn't bring his camera, but he'd be back. He hadn't seen that much wildlife. He'd heard the rustling in the brush and there were bird sounds in the distance, but as he climbed it went silent, or at least he didn't hear much in the way of animal sounds.

As loud as he was crashing through the undergrowth, the animals were no doubt cautious of some danger that may come with the invader. Had they seen men before? Had they learned to fear them?

He could see how the peninsulas of sand came around to almost touch beneath the lush green waters, the opening into the lagoon being no more than a few yards wide. The lagoon appeared calm. There were other areas that came with large waves beating against a rocky coast. It was a scenic perch with no sign of inhabitants.

He looked for other places that might be hospitable, but the rest of the island moved sharply upward, away from the water. The lagoon was cradled inside one of the natural turns of the shoreline. If you didn't know what you were looking for, it would be easy to miss. Kodak searched the horizon for any sign of ships or planes. He was alone. The only plane was at the bottom of the lagoon and he was the only man.

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