Troop 83 (p. 1)

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Mr. Andrews's once-white S-10 pickup jolted to a stop at the back door of Zion Lutheran Church at exactly 10:00 a.m.

"Just on time," he said, taking the key from the ignition. "So far, so good."

In the grassy area adjoining the church, a dozen junior-high aged boys were dodging among a scattering of backpacks, rolled sleeping bags, and duffels. An old tennis ball flew from hand to hand to the high stone wall of the church. Jason Tengstrand leaned against that wall, his face barely visible between a red hat with "CORNELL" stitched in white on it and a glossy copy of Introduction to Mineralogy.

"Hi, Jason."

Jason looked up, then waved once.

"I'm glad you could come on such short notice. The boys were really looking forward to this campout."

Jason shrugged. "What else do I have to do with my October break?"

That wasn't quite the attitude that Mr. Andrews had been hoping for. But the Boy Scouts required that at least two adults go along on every trip. And when McCloskey's dad canceled just a week ago, it had been too late for any of the other boys' parents to change their schedules and come along. Luckily, Jason hadn't made any plans. Mr. Andrews hoped that snafu hadn't jinxed the weekend.

"When was the last time you went camping?"

"With the Scouts? ... Not since spring of tenth grade."

Mr. Andrews nodded. "Time to dust off the old Scout memories."

"A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent," recited Jason.

A shout of "Yo, lard butt!" drew Mr. Andrews's attention to the churchyard. A chubby seventh grader wearing a Dennis Rodman jersey had one arm crooked around the neck of a blond kid about half his size.

"McCloskey, let him go," ordered Mr. Andrews.

"But he hit me in the face with a tennis ball!" McCloskey held the scruffy weapon aloft.

"It's the rules of the game," said Eric Cardano, prying McCloskey's arm from around his throat. McCloskey gaped and looked to the other Scouts for support.

"Give us the ball back, porky," snapped a spiky-haired boy in a Tommy Hilfiger shirt.

Mr. Andrews turned to Jason. "Can you keep an eye on these guys while I bring the cooler up from downstairs?"

Jason nodded and looked back at Introduction to Mineralogy.

"McCloskey, stop hogging the ball!"

"Why, you wanna hit me with it again?"

Descending the steps to the small room that Zion Lutheran had given Troop 83, Mr. Andrews resolved not to let stupid fights like McCloskey and Cardano's ruin the weekend. Hopefully, once they got out into the woods, everybody would leave whatever things they fought over back in Slate Hill.

Thick muscles won from years as a telephone lineman allowed Mr. Andrews to heave the cooler up from the floor easily. Of course, those muscles wouldn't be wrestling with much phone cable for a while. A quirk of union seniority rules that he still didn't understand had put Mr. Andrews on the list to be downsized from Slate Hill Communications just a month past.

Mr. Andrews wondered what his son's troop was up to that weekend. That is, if his son had even rejoined the Boy Scouts after he and his mother moved to Allentown. Without his father looking over his shoulder, Scouting might have become a lower priority in the boy's life.

Mr. Andrews returned to the churchyard just as McCloskey shouted two violent expletives.

"Jason, what's going on?"

"I don't know."

Mr. Andrews dropped the cooler into the back of his truck. "Cardano, give McCloskey back his flashlight. And McCloskey, I don't want to see you using that light except in an emergency. This is a wilderness survival campout. No electronics."

McCloskey scowled as he snatched his heavy-duty flashlight from Cardano and stuffed it into his green duffel. Mr. Andrews sighed. He hoped he had done a better job raising his own son than McCloskey and Cardano's parents seemed to have done. Of course, that was out of his hands now. He wished he could trust his son's mother to do a good job.

"Jason, start bringing the gear over here."

Jason tucked his book into the top pocket of his tall red North Face backpack and hoisted the pack onto one shoulder.

"Troop gear first, then personal gear. Jason, you used to be in Scouts. You should know that."

Jason dropped his pack and seized a battered blue footlocker stenciled with the words "TROOP 83 -- SLATE HILL."

"There we go." Mr. Andrews helped Jason hoist the footlocker, which clanked loudly from the axes and saws inside, into the truck. "And go tell Cardano to put down his sleeping bag and help us with the rest of the food."

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