“I think you guv’ment boys are wastin’ your time,” Sheriff Rabe—a short fireplug of a woman—declared as she, Agent Two, and I walked up the muddy path to the Hogem Logging site. The camp was little more than a few timber huts located in the forested hills between Placerville and Pioneerville, two Idaho burgs so close to being ghost towns that you’d need a Ouija board to find them on a map.
The sheriff pulled up her collar and clapped her shoulders to chase away the chill. Fortunately, Agent Two—Buster “Ace” Freeman—and I had dressed for the November weather. The overpowering scent of pines and fresh-cut logs made my nose tingle.
“We got this feller dead to rights,” Rabe continued. “Ain’t too surprisin’ when a man in an isolated job like this goes nuts and takes it out on a co-worker.”
“So, you get a lot of beheadings around here?” I asked, straight-faced.
The sheriff leaned against a chest-high wood pile at the edge of the encampment and laughed. “I like you, Agent Ray. You’re funny. No, we don’t get many beheadings. I expect that’s what brought you guv’ment types out here?”
“That and the missing persons reports,” Ace put in.
“Three lumberjacks vanished and one decapitated…” I mused. “Any of those folks—or that misplaced skull—turn up yet?”
Rabe shook her head. “Not so far. But like I told you on the phone: you boys are welcome to waste some taxpayer dollars pokin’ around. We got Al Howland dead to rights, drenched in the victim’s blood. He’s safely behind bars, and even though he’s babbling like a madman, we figure he’ll settle down and confess everything, soon enough. He and the dead man worked together for years, and everybody knows there was no love lost between ’em.”
She paused and stared at the muddy path for a moment.
“Damn these suckers… I hate ’em!” She ground a half-inch-long brown insect into the damp pine needles with the toe of her boot. She sneered, and her breath blew out as wispy clouds climbing into the cold late afternoon air.
Ace nodded appreciatively. “I hate cockroaches, too.”
“These ain’t roaches, city feller. They’re earwigs.” The sheriff picked up her toe and the bug, unperturbed by her attempt to kill it, scuttled under the woodpile. “Dang things!” She kicked the heap in annoyance.
“Are they dangerous?” I asked. The insect appeared to have pincers on both ends.
Rabe waved a stubby hand. “Nah. But they get into everything, and they’ll eat about anything they get into—including police reports. What they seem to like most, though, is wet wood.” She gave the log pile another kick, and three more of the critters fell out. They tried to scamper back to safety while she attempted to crush them.
“So, they don’t crawl into your ears—despite the name?” Ace asked.
The sheriff laughed heartily. “Don’t believe everything you hear, Agent Buster. I suppose they might, if someone was stupid enough to stick their head in a nest of them. Come to think of it, maybe that’s what made Howland go buggy…” She laughed again.
Ace and I exchanged a worried glance. The US Science Bureau had never had a giant ant report from this far north or west, but with missing people and a decapitated victim, it seemed likely that our perpetual nemesis might have moved into a new stomping ground.
“Look who’s here,” Rabe announced. She pointed to a heavily bearded man, dressed in traditional lumberjack jeans and red plaid, hiking up the trail. “About dang time you got here, Crotty!”
“Yeah, yeah. Keep your shirt on, Sheriff,” the man replied. He had a rifle slung across his shoulder. “These the men who want to see where Jake died?”
Rabe nodded. “All the way from Washington, D.C.”
“Fess Crotty.” He had a very firm handshake.
“Agent Ray and Agent Buster,” I said. “We’ll grab our gear and hopefully get this done before dark.”
“Only if you’re fast hikers,” Crotty replied.
The sheriff laughed and sauntered toward her squad car, parked at the bottom of the steep hill. “You boys have fun. I’ll meander back to the station and get that confession out of Mr. Howland.” She sounded confident.
“I doubt that,” Crotty mumbled.
“Oh?” Ace said. “How come?”
Crotty’s eyes narrowed. “’Cause Howland’s nuts. Been raving about monsters ever since he stumbled out of the woods covered in blood. Left a trail to Jake’s body that a blind man coulda followed. C’mon. Time’s wasting.”
Ace and I quickly fetched our Colt 911s and other equipment from the car we’d rented after Ace flew us into Boise. We brought along our M3 submachine guns, just in case this did turn out to be another giant ant case.
“What’s with the Tommy Guns? You guys expecting to fight gangsters?” Crotty asked with a chuckle. He eyed our greasers suspiciously as we hiked into the woods. Despite the chill, the air felt close and humid because of the towering pines.
“We like to be prepared,” I replied.
“Reports of some nasty grizzlies not too far north of here,” Ace added.
Crotty nodded as if that made sense and kept trudging across the hilly terrain.
“You think Howland killed that guy?” I asked him. “You think he’s responsible for those missing loggers, too?”
“I’m not saying he is, and I’m not saying he ain’t,” the lumberjack replied. “But there’s been plenty of other weird stuff going on around here.”
Ace arched his eyebrows. “Like what? Strange lights in the sky?”
“Nah. None of that flying saucer guff. But one of those missing men… His tent was all torn up, but no sign of him, like he got carried off. Search party couldn’t find any tracks, though. And near where we found Jake, a whole stand of trees’d been cut down—but not by any saw… Like Paul Bunyan took an ax to ’em.”
“Eager beavers, maybe?” Ace joked.
Crotty chuckled and shook his head. “I’d buy your grizzly theory, Agent Buster, maybe… But not about them felled trees.”
“Mighty strange,” I admitted. The look that Ace shot me said we were both thinking the same thing: Ants. We checked that our M3s were ready for action, just in case.
“Look there now…” Crotty pointed to a hundred-yard swath of felled pines ahead. The trees, many more than a foot wide, appeared healthy—aside from looking like pick up sticks scattered over the hillside.
“Is that where you found the dead man?” I asked.
“Nah. This fall is new. Where we found Jake is on the other side of it.”
“You figure we should climb over that stack?” Ace asked.
“Nope,” Crotty replied. “Too dangerous. We’ll head uphill and around it. Don’t want to be caught downslope if any of those logs shake loose.”
I gazed at the jumbled trees. They looked like the fringe of a giant bird nest, at least five yards tall. I checked the sky, remembering the agency’s recent “thunderbird” encounter, but I didn’t spot anything. “What do you think caused this? Landslide?”
“Dunno. Could be.” Crotty strolled past the massive, tangled thatch of pines as though he didn’t have a care in the world. I guess lumberjacks are made of stern stuff, because Ace and I were glancing around like nervous kittens.
Ace stopped suddenly. “Did you hear that?”
Crotty and I paused in our tracks, too. “Hear what?” we asked.
Then I noticed something: a strange, low crunching sound… and hissing, like the air being let out of a car’s tires.
Crotty turned and peered into the gathering darkness, his back to the big wood pile. “I don’t hear… Aaaaa—!”
He died in mid-sentence, his head snipped off as if by an invisible guillotine.
Ace and I backed away from the tumbling skull, blindly firing our grease guns at the broken lumber as we went.
“What in…?!” my partner asked.
“Who knows? Just keep shooting.”
We did, as the huge timber pile lurched, and out of it crawled an earwig the size of a Studebaker. Blood dripped from its mandibles and its gigantic rear pincers arched high, ready to strike. The giant insect’s forest-brown coloration had given it perfect camouflage amid the felled wood.
Ace swore, and I probably did, too.
But we’d fought big bugs before, so concentrated fire from our M3s quickly turned the monster’s head into fragments of exoskeleton and sticky pulp.
The beast died twitching, and then disintegrated into a familiar, foul-smelling green goo that quickly evaporated—just like the ants did.
But naturally, there couldn’t be just one monster.
“It’s a nest!” Ace swapped in another clip as more logs tumbled toward us, and another pair of gigantic insects emerged from the pile.
“Take ’em out!” I ordered, though we really didn’t have any other choice. It was either kill these things or be killed ourselves.
Good thing we’d brought plenty of ammo. Also a good thing that the earwigs’ armor wasn’t as tough as the carapace of your average giant ant.
Ace and I worked like a top strike team, exterminating the enemy, then advancing and wiping out more. A few furious minutes left our clips exhausted, but only a single bug remaining—a small one, barely larger than a Great Dane, cornered in the back of the nest.
Ace drew his Colt. “I got this.”
“Lookout!” I cried. Both of us hit the dirt as the final earwig sprang into the air and, with an ear-splitting whir, shot over our heads into the gathering darkness.
My partner looked at me, incredulous. “Did you know they had wings?”
“Hell no. I guess that’s another job for you and Agent 13 to mop up.”
Ace grinned and shook his head. “If our boys on the ground can find and flush them out, my P51 and Lucy’s Banshee will bring ’em down PDQ.”
“We’ll call the army about that as soon as we get back to the car.”
“Yeah,” Ace agreed. “But what are we gonna tell the Sheriff did all this?”
I wiped the sweat from my forehead. “Looks like you were right about those berserk grizzly bears.”
This episode is dedicated to the late, great Bert I. Gordon, creator of so many giant creature movies that people called him Mr. BIG, and not just because of his initials. He passed away at the venerable age of 100 in March 2023. In his films we got Earth-destroying titanic spiders, amazing colossal men, and many, many more world-threatening monsters, including a titanic duck. Thanks, Bert. Your work continues to inspire us all.
About “Timberland Terror”
When pondering what kind of giant creatures to use in Atomic Tales, bugs are always a good choice. Sure, we’ve had titanic bird creatures, and a yeti, and a glob, etc., but insects and arachnids seem to invoke a primal fear in humans (like snakes), probably because their anatomy is so alien to our own. Thus, in the movies, we get giant tarantulas, praying mantises, bees, wasps, and even grasshoppers!
Given all that, earwigs seemed a natural for one of our stories. I’ve been fascinated with the nasty-looking-but-harmless critters since I was a child; they look like a tiny monster with two front ends. On their heads, they have long pair of antenna (and smaller pair of pincers), and in the back they have huge set of pincers. These beasties can get you coming and going.
Plus, they have that weird and scary name: EARwig. In real life they very seldom (though not never) get into people’s ears, but in the imagination… They’re hungry diminutive predators that craw into your ear canal and then burrow into your brain to feed and lay their eggs. Happily, that is not the case. (If you get one in your ear, the internet has good tips on getting it out—don’t use tweezers!)
And yes, they can fly, though thank God they seldom do. When I find one in my house, I usually scoop it up and usher it outside, no problem. But earwigs still look menacing.
Especially when you make them the size of a Studebaker. Did you think we’d have an invasion of normal-sized bugs in Atomic Tales?
As usual, I have some tribute names in this story. Sheriff Rabe is named for my dear friend Jean Rabe, who is also a great author. Her Piper Blackwell series, about a twenty-something small-town sheriff in Indiana, is my favorite set of mysteries going. So, Jean gets a sheriff in this story named for her, as well as a main character named after Piper in my serialized novel Monster Shark on a Nude Beach.
The other tributes this time out come from THEM!, the best giant bug movie ever. Fess Crotty and Alan Howland are named for actor Fess Parker, who plays Alan Crotty in the movie, and Olin Howland, who sings “Make me a sergeant in charge of the booze” as the character Jensen.
Both the towns mentioned in the story are real. They were once mining towns, but Placerville now has a population of fewer than fifty, while Pioneerville is an actual ghost town.