“The Bugman” by Russell Doyle from “Millhaven’s Tales of Wonder” Complete and Free!

If you enjoy this story, be sure to check out the other stories in “Millhaven’s Tales of Wonder.

He tried to remain silent as he made his way through the field of amber grass.  The hot sun had baked the grass into a brittle, dry sea of brown.  He stayed low to the ground, trying to keep hidden in the thigh-high grass.  He had been stalking his prey since early morning – it was past noon, now.  There was a slight breeze, which did little to alleviate the heat, and the cicadas droned from somewhere nearby.

He inched his way along the ground, maintaining a concerted focus on his task.  He couldn’t afford to let his mind wander.  There was too much riding on this hunt.  He was beginning to have his doubts.  He had been assured this desolate place was home to his prey.  He couldn’t imagine finding a water source in this dry and dusty place.  He was now beginning to think he had been had.  It may be a wild goose chase he was on, but even if there was the slimmest chance of locating his elusive prey, he had to take it.

The sun gleamed off something in the distance.  Could the sun be reflecting off a pool of water?  He could only hope.  He decided the risk of being seen was worth it and stood to get a better look.  He raised his field binoculars – a brand-spanking-new pair of Vortex Optics Razor 10×42 binoculars.  He was proud of the acquisition.  They were the best binoculars he had ever owned.  It took some convincing of his wife to drop a grand on a set of field binoculars – they were comfortable, but not wealthy.  He kept on day and night, trying to convince her of the value of the gear in his work.  Eventually she capitulated, more out of exhaustion than a winning argument by him. 

Through his new binoculars, he discovered the sun was not reflecting off water, but was instead, reflecting off chrome and glass.  He had stumbled upon an old automobile junkyard.  He was baffled.  There should be no manmade anything out here, in the brush.  He was miles from the last gas station sign and some distance further from the actual station and he was well off the paved state routes.  He had taken a maze of old, overgrown dirt roads to get to this place.  If not for the well-worn hand-drawn map he had discovered at the university library, he would never have attempted to find his way out here.

Dejected, the hunter gave up his stealthy ways and marched through the sunbaked grasses toward the junkyard.  He mumbled to himself as he walked.  He paid little attention, as he was lost in an argument with himself.  He covered the ground at a quick pace.  He failed to notice the singing birds which had accompanied him much of the day were now gone.  Only the cicada buzz remained.

He found the glass windshield and chrome frame which had caught his eye from across the field.  He then noticed it was merely the beginning of an enormous automobile graveyard.  Rusted, destroyed cars filled his line of sight.  As far as he could see was junked car after junked car.  Some were piled on others, forming walls and barriers.

He cursed to himself.  He picked up a dusty rock and threw it into the windshield of the first car he had seen.  The windshield of the brown 1982 Camaro shattered.  The sound of breaking glass filled the valley.  The sudden eruption of noise, silenced the cicadas for a brief time.  The hunter shook his head, ashamed of what he had just done.  Even with no witnesses to his vandalism, his face reddened.  He had never let his temper get the best of him before, he wasn’t going to let his present disappointment change that.

He climbed onto the hood of the Camaro, then up to the roof.  He shielded his eyes from the hot sun as he scanned the horizon.  Nothing but wrecked cars.  He took up his binoculars and scanned the area for any signs of a stream.  He doubted a stream would be flowing through the middle of this metallic carnage, but he had to look.

The cicada buzz returned as he looked, systematically over the area from his perch atop the Camaro.  Just as he was about to give up and turn back, admitting defeat again, he saw what may have been a small stream.  His heart leapt into his throat.  Maybe not all was lost.  If there was a flowing stream, however small it may be, there was still a chance to find his elusive quarry.

He leapt down, onto the hood of the car, and then onto the ground.  He gathered up his backpack and headed toward the possible stream.  His pace increased as his excitement grew.  Soon, he found himself on the side of a very small stream…if one could even call the flowing trickle a stream.  He used some rocks to make an arrow pointing the way he had come.  It shouldn’t have been too much trouble to find his way back the way he had come, but the boy scout in him was always cautious when he was out in nature.  He followed the trickle upstream, hoping to find its source. 

After no further than a quarter of a mile, the intrepid hunter found the source of the water – a rusted pipe protruding from a small hillside.  There was a ten to twelve-inch deep pool at the base of the hill, into which water from the pipe flowed.  At first the man was disappointed to find a man-made water source.  He concluded it must have been some sort of oddly constructed well at some point in the past.  As this thought sank in, he became more excited.  The water was flowing freely from the pipe from some underground source, which meant it was likely a natural spring.  This improved the odds of finding his supposedly extinct quarry.

He dropped his backpack to the ground and began sorting the tools of his trade: vials, forceps, specimen containers, labels, thermometer, ruler, vinyl gloves (he hated the latex variety), ethyl alcohol, ethyl acetate, and his trusty 35mm camera.  The hunter was set to get down to business.

The small pool proved to be a treasure trove of specimens.  He discovered viable populations of Agabus disintegrates and Thermonectus marmoratus, as well as the larvae from Archilestes grandis and Paltothemis lineatipes.  His excitement over the number of insects found in the tiny stream was tempered by disappointment he had yet to find the goal of his quest: Heterelmis stephani (Stephan’s Riffle Beetle).  The species was declared extinct in 2016, but he had not been convinced.  His colleagues told him he was in denial, but he was convinced he could find an untouched population somewhere out here.

The beetle was only known to populate two streams outside of Tucson, both of which had been degraded or destroyed.  The last one had been seen in 1993, but it wasn’t officially declared extinct until 2016.  He was convinced there could be more streams in which the beetle called home. He had staked his reputation as an entomologist on it. 

He spent much of the afternoon collecting aquatic insects to preserve, but he was growing more and more dejected at the prospects of finding his beetle.  The distracted hunter should have taken notice of the unusual amount of insect activity, not only in the small stream, but in the junkyard, itself.  He had been brushing away flies, midges, gnats from his face, along with sweeping ants, crickets, grasshoppers and ticks from his specimen containers. 

The frustration was about to win out when the unimaginable happened.  As he inspected the running water near the rusted pipe, he saw it.  He could barely contain his excitement.  His hand shook as he used his magnifying glass to get a closer look.  It was unmistakable.  He had found a new population of Heterelmis stephani.  He couldn’t risk collecting samples of a supposed extinct species.  He had to get proof by other methods.  He used his 35mm camera to take picture after picture of the small colony of Stephan’s Riffle Beetle. 

He was not a religious man, but he thanked God for this discovery as he brushed a moth from his face.  It was then he noticed them – dozens of moths of many species had landed on the bank of the small stream.  They appeared to surround him.  He had never heard of such a phenomenon ever occurring before.  He continued to take pictures as the mass of moths continued to grow. 

Once he was satisfied with the pictures he had taken, he decided it was time to leave, while he still had daylight to find his way back.  He collected his gear and was astonished by the mass of ants swarming his backpack.  He couldn’t understand the behavior, as there was no food in the pack.  As he shook the pack he was stunned to realize the ant horde was not of one colony.  He took note of ants from at least seven species.

As much as he loved insects, all he wanted now was to get out of that junkyard.  Once the pack was free of most of the ants, he packed his gear and headed back downstream, the way he had come.  As he walked, the cricket chirping had become a near deafening roar.  He came to the spot he was sure he made his rock arrow, but it wasn’t there.  Instead, the rocks appeared to have been moved.  A mass of ladybugs was crawling all over the rocks.  The entomologist knew the beetles didn’t have the awareness or strength to move the rocks.

He knew this was the place where he had turned along the stream.  He turned and headed back toward the rusted, brown Camaro.  He wandered, taking note of the grasshoppers, which seemed to follow him.  He tried to laugh at himself and chalk it up to paranoia, but something wasn’t right.  There were too many insects in the region.  He couldn’t think of a single natural reason for the overabundance of insect activity, or the lack of insectivores.  He hadn’t seen or heard a bird since entering the junkyard and the stream held no amphibian life that he saw.

He was relieved to find some recognizable automobiles on his way back to the entrance.  He knew he was on the right path and right around the next corner would be the 1982 brown Camaro he had first encountered.  He breathed a sigh of relief.  He turned the corner and almost walked into a silver El Camino blocking the path.

He climbed the car to get a view of his place in the maze.  He saw the remains of the Camaro, but he was further away from it than when he was at the stream.  He had somehow walked the opposite direction.  He was afraid, but at least now he knew where he was.  He climbed down and started for the Camaro.  He was now swatting away swarms of dragonflies and damselflies.  He never knew these species to swarm like they were. 

He quickened his pace.  He just wanted out.  After several minutes of frantically walking toward the Camaro, he realized he should have come to it by now.  He climbed an old, skeletal Cadillac to get his bearings.  He was stunned to find no trace of the Camaro.  He turned to look and saw the wrecked automobile behind him.  Somehow, he had missed it again. 

The sun was setting, and he didn’t want to get caught here in the dark.  He’d never find his way once the sun completely set.  He climbed off the Cadillac and made for the Camaro at a jog.  He stopped every few yards, climbed atop a car and checked his position.  He didn’t want to make the same mistake and pass the way out again.

The Camaro got closer every time he checked his position.  He was starting to relax.  The sky was filled with beautiful pinks, oranges, and reds.  On his last check, the Camaro was right around the next grouping of cars.  He was home-free.

He climbed down, turned the corner and fell to his knees.  The 1982 brown Camaro was there, but the entrance was not.  He had followed the wrong Camaro.  He was lost.  He got to his feet and noticed a pile of something next to the old Camaro.  He approached, in the dusky light, trying to make out what it was. 

Once he was close enough, he froze with fear.  It was a human skeleton, bleached white by the sun.  The remains had been there for some time.  The clothing had deteriorated, and he noticed a wasp nest in the hollow chest cavity. 

He fought back tears and looked out beyond the Camaro, into the field and realized it was filled with similar skeletal remains.  It appeared to be a graveyard, in which none of the corpses were buried.  Dozens of bodies were strewn over the terrain, in varying states of decay.  Most were of the sun-bleached bone variety, but others looked fresher.  The scientist fell to his knees and wept.

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