When the huge man with the two guns finally spoke, it seemed like the entire forest exhaled
Elchanan couldn’t remember ever feeling the beat of his pulse before. He stood completely still, every nerve in his body tight and alert. For a moment, he couldn’t even breathe.
Then he collected himself and appraised the situation. Here they were, he and Avi, just barely concealed by the towering trees and the shadows. One wrong move would give them away. They couldn’t risk communicating, couldn’t make a sound.
And one thing was very obvious: There would be no getting back to the starting point of the trail tonight.
Something brushed his shoulder, startling him, and Elchanan struck out reflexively, his arm hitting Avi in the stomach.
“Ouch!” Avi whisper-yelped. Elchanan mouthed, “Sorry,” and then placed a finger on his lips, eyes sending urgent warning signals. Avi nodded, tight-lipped. “Let’s turn around, let’s go,” he breathed into Elchanan’s ear.
Elchanan glanced into the clearing. There were now around a dozen men standing at attention around the campfire, not speaking. The leader — Elchanan assumed those two guns meant he was the boss — paced before them, back and forth. An atmosphere of tense anticipation seemed to hang over the entire area.
“Wait,” he whispered to Avi, the word barely audible above the rustle of the wind in the trees. “One minute.”
It didn’t make sense to run away again, back up the trail they’d just struggled along twice already. No, they had to gather information, figure out what was going on, and then see if there was a way to circumvent this latest danger to get out of the forest before morning.
When the huge man with the two guns finally spoke, it seemed like the entire forest exhaled.
“We have done well today, men,” he said, his English fluent but laced with a foreign accent. “All is proceeding according to plan. Tomorrow, you will receive further instructions. As for tonight…” He stopped, looked the men up and down, and frowned suddenly. “Tonight, we will need two of you to be on guard out here, and one to guard the… valuables… in the supplies tent.”
He gazed into the fire, thinking. “Gregor, Thomas, and Matt. You’ll take guard duty tonight.”
A thin, young man stepped out of the line. “But, if you’ll excuse me, sir, I took guard duty last—”
“No buts!” roared the leader, and his voice was frighteningly loud, echoing in the depths of the forest. “You’ll do what I say or you’ll live to regret it!”
Avi jumped in shock, knocking Elchanan almost off his feet, and Elchanan only just held back a cry of surprise. He grabbed Avi’s wrist and the two of them ran.
At first they ran straight ahead, back along the trail, and then Elchanan took a deep breath and plunged off the path, into the darkness between two trees. They had to hide themselves. If the gang would hear them, try to follow… he didn’t want to imagine what might happen.
Avi stumbled blindly after him. They dodged tree trunks and narrowly missed falling into a deep ditch in the ground. In the bobbing light of his flashlight, Elchanan saw what looked like a narrow footpath to their right.
He wrenched apart branches of brambly bushes, crashing through the undergrowth, and finally slowing to a jog along the narrow path.
“Wait… stop,” Avi panted. He bent over almost double, hands on his knees, wheezing to catch his breath. “I think… we’re far enough.” He straightened and grimaced. “That was… some hike.”
Elchanan looked over at Avi. In the dim light of the flashlights, he saw that Avi’s T-shirt was ripped, his sneakers were oozing with mud, hands and face scratched by branches. It was hard to recognize the great Avi Shine beneath it all.
It took a few minutes for his breathing to slow again. His heart was still thudding, pumping adrenaline through his veins.
“That… was crazy,” he said, shaking his head. They were sitting on the ground now, the thin trail twisting out of sight behind them. “What do you think those men were up to?”
“Nothing legal, from the looks of it,” Avi said, grimly.
Elchanan hugged his knees. “I wish we had a way to call the police.”
“I wish we had a way out of this forest,” Avi retorted.
“Yeah, that too.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes. Now that they weren’t running, Elchanan suddenly felt exhausted.
“Where are we?” Avi asked, craning his head and looking around. “We’re not on the path we were on before. Are we?”
Elchanan shrugged. “I have no idea. We’re on some sort of trail, but I didn’t want to stay on that path in case the men would come after us…”
Avi stared at him in horror. “Wait, so we’re just — you weren’t following anything? Do you even know which direction we came from?”
“Um, if you remember, we were running for our lives over there,” Elchanan pointed out drily. “I wasn’t exactly going to pull out a map and a compass, y’know.”
“So you don’t know where we are.”
“No, I don’t.” Irritation flared inside him. “I was just trying to get us out of there, okay? Why didn’t you keep track of which direction we were going in if it mattered that much to you?”
“I was following you!” Avi shot back. “I thought you knew where you were going!” He scrabbled in his knapsack for the map, then crumpled it in his hand. “Very nice that we’ve managed to get away from the men there. We’re totally, completely lost!”
He threw the map away in disgust. “This is totally useless to us now. And this forest, it’s huge, how will anyone ever find us now? We don’t have food, we don’t have where to sleep, we need to get out of here…”
“They’ll find us, okay?” Elchanan wriggled around to lean against a tree trunk. The roots made it hard for him to find a comfortable position, and he finally gave up, standing up and stretching before continuing to speak. “They’ll send a search party. We have food. We can probably even find our way back to the main path — in the morning, once it’s light.”
The sun had long since set. Beyond the glow of the flashlights, the darkness was impenetrable.
Avi turned away from him. Elchanan sighed, bent down, and picked up the map. He wasn’t sure what they would do with it, but it couldn’t hurt to hold onto it. He stowed it in his knapsack.
He took a step or two in the direction from which they came, testing the ground with his foot so he shouldn’t fall. It was a no-go. Even if they could use the flashlights to walk, they’d never be able to retrace their steps in the darkness.
“We need to conserve the batteries.” Avi spoke suddenly from behind him. “The flashlights. They’re already getting dim. We should probably switch them off while we’re not walking anywhere.”
Elchanan conceded the point. He switched off his flashlight, and Avi took a deep breath before reluctantly flicking the switch of his, too.
Instantly, everything was swallowed up by the pitch darkness.
“Elchanan,” Avi whispered. “Those men look really dangerous.”
“Yeah,” Elchanan said, staring into the blackness. It was impossible to see a thing.
“I’m just thinking…” Avi continued. “The search parties. They’re going to follow the path we took into the forest. What’s going to happen… if they meet those men before they find us?”
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 875)
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