The High Cliffs of Russia

Dutch moved the bottle of Bacardi back to his lips, runnels of tears falling from his cheeks. I pried the half-empty bottle out of his clenched hand. I propped it back into a cleft between two nearby rocks.

“Stop blubbering and get back out there,” I pointed toward the direction he had crawled in from. “Go on, we’ve got to have some warmth no matter what you’ve done, or might have done.” Dutch looked at me in shock, wiped his cheeks and got back to his hands and knees. He gave a quick glance over to Don before disappearing into the bracken.

“What the hell?” Don blurted, eyeing the Bacardi bottle. “He just admitted that he’d sabotaged the ship and you send him away before he can say anything else?” I cooled to his words but waited until his upraised hands sank back to the needle bed. I replied to him, in my best ‘Mission Commander’ voice.

“We’ve got to survive here for God knows how long. Let’s pay attention to that mission first. You take the knife. Go cut some of those smaller branches for protection from the wind.” I shuddered from the cold, as another draft of icy damp air penetrated through to our camp. Our wet clothes had to be dried, and quickly, or our energy would begin to bleed away.

“What about a shot from that bottle?” Don replied, without moving. I took the bottle in my hand, held it up, and drank down four long swallows. The Bacardi burned, but I didn’t cough. The fire of it revived me instantly. I handed the bottle over.

“I don’t drink,” I said. Don mumbled without smiling, carefully cleaned the top with the palm of one hand, and then rubbed it on his sleeve, before drinking. When he brought the bottle back down there were only a couple of inches of liquid left in it. He handed it back.

“What if he doesn’t say another word about the anchor?” he asked.

I poured the rest of the rum onto the pile of dead dry needles I’d assembled for my fire pit base. Then I set it aside. I had plenty of experience in survival situations. One rule was to discard nothing. The prime rule, however, was to stop and think. Survival usually depended upon clear rational thought. More people died from bad decisions than from any other reasons, when lost in the bush. We were not lost, but we were completely cut off for an undetermined time. Don made no move to follow my previous instructions.

“Botany Bay, you want to lead this expedition?” I inquired. He shook his head. I sighed. “Alright, but this is the last explanation I give until you do your part. We’re trapped on a small remote island in the Bering Sea. What is the likelihood that Dutch is not going to tell us even more than we want to hear before we get off?”   He warmed to that, and then took the knife I had stuck into the ground in front of him. He crawled away.

Within two hours of both men going out to perform their assignments we had a very comfortable fire going, clothing mounted on sticks around it, and a windbreak of intertwined pine branches encircling us. It was late in the day, according to my Breguet. I looked at the bezel of the expensive dive watch, turned to allow for the passage of eight hours, and dropped my arm back.

“We’ll sleep when the clothes are dry,” I stated, then turned the steaming pieces once again. I sat back. Dutch appeared to be ready to fall asleep or pass out at any minute. Don was fully alert, although strange comical in only his undershirt and boxer shorts. We had the tops of our dry suits thrown over our shoulders. A warm fire heated only one side of a person at a time. Dutch had his undershirt on but leaned against the thick trunk of our sheltering pine.

I pointed at him.

“What about the anchor?” I asked. I put my hand down, then, took a stick and poked the hot coals of our fire, not looking at Dutch. I waited in silence reflecting on just how great it was to have gasoline and 80 proof booze as accelerants.

“I can’t go in,” Dutch forced out. I waited again, but he said no more.

“Why can’t you go in?” I eventually asked, with some exasperation.

Words rushed from the man, “Immigration is waiting for me. I don’t have papers. I had forged papers. They know. They’re waiting in port for us to land.” I focused on the man, little more than a huge boy.

“In Russia? They’re waiting for you in Russia?” I could not believe what I was hearing. “Who the hell is waiting in Russia for you? We don’t need a Visa. The ship pays off the Commissar, and that’s it!” I tossed my stick into the fire to illustrate my disbelief. It threw bright sparks up as it hit. I had to quickly brush little hot embers from our drying clothes.

“Russia?” Don said. “Who said that we’re going to Russia?”

My mouth gaped wide.

“We aren’t going to Russia?” I asked, weakly, beginning to reflect again that I had thrown my lot in with the expedition ship from hell, wherein normal physics did not apply. Don found my unease humorous.

“No, but the world is round, we’ll eventually get there, but first we go to the Pribilofs further down South.” He pointed towards the direction from which we had come in on the Zodiac. “It’s just our tradition,” he offered, by way of logical explanation. I shook my head and turned to Dutch. “So, you think immigration is waiting for you in the Pribilofs, wherever the hell they are?” I grilled Dutch.

“Yeah,” Dutch replied. “Got a radio message from St. Paul, the town there, on one of the islands.” I thought long and hard about his motivation.

“And you believed by slipping the anchor, at just the right spot, you’d run the ship on the rocks and everything would be okay?” I held up my hands in wonderment.

“Yeah,” he responded. “They’d get us all off and take us to the mainland. There’d be nobody there. Nobody who knew about my papers, anyway.” I just shook my head in utter disbelief.

“Who are you? Forest Gump? Like immigration doesn’t have radios? Like they wouldn’t know we’d wrecked and be waiting? Like they wouldn’t figure out that only one guy aboard had a likely motive for pulling such idiocy?” I pointed out in the general direction of the anchor float we’d surfaced. Dutch simply wagged his own head slowly from side to side, his inebriation evident. I was afraid he’d start to cry again. I rotated the clothing on our vertical sticks before speaking. “Here’s the deal. I have business in Russia. Important business. I also have certain powers with immigration. The kind of powers that will allow you to get a permanent Visa instantly. I’m presuming that the Pribilof Islands are in the United States.” I stopped to think

“You’d help me?” Dutch said, plaintively.

“For a price,” I said.

Dutch deflated a little. “What’s the price? I don’t have any money at all.”

I snickered. “I don’t want money. That I have. I want you to become an assistant in my ‘business’ enterprise. You do what I tell you. And I don’t want you drinking another drop until the “Lindy” picks us up if you’ve got more stashed. When we hit Provideniya, no drinking there either. That’s it.” I finished and sized him up.

“That’s it? That’s all? For a permanent Visa to the United States?” Dutch responded, in disbelief. “I’ll do it, whatever it is,” he said, with very little delay. After a few seconds, he went on. “What about the Pribilofs and the immigration guys?” he asked. I snickered a second time.

“Leave them to me when we get there.”

“So we’re back to who the hell are you, really?” Don chimed in. I killed the question with silence. So he turned to Dutch.

“I’d be careful Dutch. He’s probably going in to get a nuclear warhead or something like that.” Don had tried the back door, but with the same result. But Dutch replied in a nanosecond.

“I don’t care what he’s after. I’m in. If they send me back to Easter Island I’m a dead man walking. I’ll be a nothing for the rest of my life.” Don stared first at Dutch, then back at me. His expression changed. My brow furrowed, as I x-rayed him.

“Why that look, Don, is there somebody else in immigration trouble?” Don grimaced ruefully back at me.

“The Basque?” I theorized.

Don spoke in a voice almost too quiet to hear. “You need two assistants?” I looked at Don, then back at Dutch, then at Don again. We laughed together. We laughed for a full minute.

“Alright, it’s a deal,” I agreed, holding out my hand. Dutch took it but Don held back, his head going up to the side like he was listening to something faint in the distance.

“Winds changed. Which means the current has changed. Which means the surf’s changed.”

I took my hand back from Dutch’s huge grasp.

“So…” I said, tentatively.

“The Zodiac,” Don declared. “We never pulled it up. That’s no thousand-dollar item. We need to check it. Give me my clothes.” We moved fast, dressing, and then feeding the fire so it would be burning when we returned. In single file, on our hands and knees, we followed Don’s lead back through the bracken. We were establishing a hole-like path, I recognized. The needles were soft and pliable beneath our drumming hands and knees, but occasionally wet. We’d have to dry out our clothes again upon our return.

Don reached the edge of the cliff first, stuck his head over, and then promptly pulled it back. He held out one hand.

“Stay down, we’ve got company.” I tried to move forward, but he held me back. “Russians,” he warned, emphatically in a whisper.

“Don,” I said, patiently, “we’re eight hundred feet up with the wind in our faces. You can talk. Now what the hell difference is it to us who’s down there. Let’s accept their offer to assist us.” I liked my own conclusion. Don shook his head, and then Dutch shook his, which gave me a sinking feeling.

“Alright, give it to me…” I said and waited for an answer that I knew I did not want to hear.

“These little islands are in Russia, not the United States. Five years ago some idiot American intelligence agents infiltrated the Russian coast from one of these islands. The Russkies were irate. Now here we are. There are no identification marks on that Zodiac down there. It’s the black Zodiac we never got around to putting the ship’s name on. Get my drift?” My eyes got wide. We were in more trouble than I would ever have considered.

“What kind of Russians are down there?” I asked, a bit more subdued. I eased carefully to the edge of the escarpment and peeked over. A mile offshore sat a white fishing trawler. A small boat from the trawler had landed below. A few men in crummy sailor-type clothes worked through the rocks to the bottom of the riprap pile we had ascended. I watched them get back in their own small skiff. They beat their way out through the now larger surf.

“Damn,” Don said, they didn’t try to take the Zodiac.” He turned to face me. “They couldn’t have missed our tracks. They didn’t take the valuable boat because they’re afraid we’re up here, armed, and watching them, or because they’ve already radioed the Russian Navy and the big guys are on their way here.”

All three of us lay there and thought. I looked back over. The small boat had reached the trawler. It was taken up quickly. The ship was underway in less than a minute. Don and Dutch both closed their eyes at the same time. Their expressions were not good.

“You got any pull with Russian immigration?” Dutch asked.

We made it back through the rabbit hole channel to our makeshift camp.

“We’ve got to sleep,” I insisted. “It doesn’t matter what’s coming, or who’s coming. We have to be in shape to meet whatever it is or whoever they are. In the morning we’ll haul the radio out and start calling. Maybe the “World Discoverer” will be close enough to hear.” Don laid back, his clothes drying on him, steam coming up from the side that was facing the fire.

“If they come back,” he said, calmly. I rolled over on the bed of soft but prickly pine needles. “Oh, he’ll be back. That Nazi Borman will come for his anchor. That’s a lock. And Yemaya doesn’t leave her charges to die in the wilderness, either.” I preferred that thought. I wondered how Yemaya’s charges did die, just before I dropped off into a deep sleep.

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