I hope they don't come across the boys. I didn't like the look of them. They were hiding something
This couldn’t be happening. It just couldn’t be.
Avi opened his eyes the tiniest bit, forcing himself to keep breathing slow and steady as he peeked down between the branches. Immediately, a wave of dizziness overcame him at the sight of the ground so far below, and he gripped the bough he was sitting on tightly.
You’re not going to fall. You’re not going to fall.
He had to see what was going on below. It was the search party — it had to be; who else would be calling their names like that? But the three men from the criminal gang were right there — what would happen? Would they hurt the searchers — his father?
Avi peered down, worry overcoming his fear of heights. His stomach lurched.
Ta. He was right there, a few feet away, together with a group of volunteers wearing neon jackets. Ivan, Stefan, and Matt had stopped too — just beneath the tree they were in.
Avi felt sick. The rescue party had to arrive now? Just when they didn’t dare call out to them, or shout, or try to catch their attention? When three criminals (or rather, two — Matt, after all, had saved their lives...) were between them and their saviors?
He couldn’t communicate with Elchanan — couldn’t even see him further up in the tree — but he knew he was thinking the same thing. The men were dangerous, and if the boys made their appearance, with their knowledge of what was happening inside the forest, who knew what they might do?
Right now, though, the threesome were acting polite as could be.
“Good morning,” Ivan called out to the group as the search party neared.
“Pleasant day for hiking, huh?” Stefan added jovially.
The man in the lead approached, ducking beneath a low-hanging tree branch and nodding to the three men. “Hi, there, we’re actually not hiking today,” he said. He looked the men up and down. “We’re a search-and-rescue team, we’re looking for two missing boys, around 14 years old. Have you seen them perhaps?”
Stefan and Ivan exchanged quick glances, and then Stefan said, “Two boys? No, we haven’t.”
“It’s not really a children’s hike, is it?” Ivan commented. “I mean, you could be in here for days, this forest is so big. Not that we are,” he concluded quickly. “We’re just taking this trail.”
One of the men from the search party was studying the trail with deep interest. “I don’t think we’ve been on this path before,” he called suddenly. “I wonder if the boys found it and are following it? If so, they’d be sure to stick to it so they wouldn’t get lost again… where does the path start and end?” he asked Ivan.
“Uh — well, it starts back there,” Ivan said vaguely, gesturing with his hand. “And it ends, what, a few miles away?” He gestured to Matt. “You’ll have to ask him, he’s the guy who knows, we just follow him, don’t we, Stef?” He gave a forced, hearty laugh.
The man from the search party gave him a long, suspicious look. “Never mind. We’ll find it on our maps. Mordche, can you get our location coordinates?”
Mordche nodded. “Have a good day, then. Enjoy your hike. If you do come across the boys, or any sign of their whereabouts, you can call this number — it’s headquarters for the search.” He handed them a scrap of paper, and the group moved on slowly.
As they passed under the tree, Avi heard one of the search party’s men mutter, “I hope they don’t come across the boys. I didn’t like the look of them. They were hiding something.”
Mr. Shine had quickened his pace and was talking urgently to the man named Mordche. Avi leaned forward to watch his father, desperately willing him to stop, look up, sense his son watching him. But it was no use. The search party was pressing forward in the opposite direction, and the three criminals were still dawdling nearby.
Stefan pulled out a cigarette and began puffing clouds of smoke. “Well, that’s done it now,” he remarked. “Those boys could be miles away.”
Matt’s mouth twitched. “Who cares? We already decided what we’ll tell the Boss. Let’s just get back to him.”
“What are you so scared of, you?” Ivan sneered. “Think that search party is going to find us out? They would never guess what we’re actually doing here.”
“I don’t like that they’re all over this forest!” Matt snapped back. The encounter had clearly unnerved him, and Avi wondered whether it was something to do with his past. “I think we have to warn the Boss that this forest is crawling with search-and-rescue volunteers, some of whom might actually have brains! And what’s more, the police could be around, too. He needs to know what’s happening.”
Avi felt sure this was just an excuse. Matt was trying to lure the others away to let him and Elchanan complete their escape in peace. Did he know they were just above him, or was he simply trying to get Ivan and Stefan off the trail?
“What if the boys meet up with the search party?” Stefan asked suddenly. “They know — well, they know a lot, anyway. They’ll tell them all about—”
“That’s not our problem,” Ivan said sharply, cutting him off. “The boys are gone. There’s nothing we can do. As for the Boss…” He paused for a minute. “Fine. We’ll do what you said. He is not going to find out about the – escape. Here’s what happened: we took them to the river. We did as instructed. We came back. There’s a search party, fine, we’ll tell the Boss it may be worth lying low for a few days. But he doesn’t need to know about the boys – ever.” He glared around at the other two. “And you better put away that cigarette before you burn the forest down.”
Stefan muttered something incomprehensible and continued smoking.
“I think we should move on,” Matt said, sounding calmer. “We have a long way to go to the Boss’s cave. And I, for one, have no interest in meeting any more search parties. Or the police.”
Led by Matt, the three men left the trail and disappeared between the trees.
For five full minutes, Avi stayed completely still. Then, just as he was debating whether it was safe for him to call up to Elchanan, his friend clambered down beside him.
“They’re gone,” Elchanan said. His face was pale. “I think we can go down now.”
Despite his fear of heights, Avi found himself reluctant to leave the safety of the tree. What if the men were still nearby?
“Did you see where the search party is?” he asked Elchanan desperately, playing for time. “Do you think we can catch up with them?”
Elchanan bit his lip and looked away. “I was hoping we could… but I don’t think so. I tried to keep track of them, but they went out of my view pretty fast, and I’m almost sure I saw them leave the trail just beyond the cave entrance. There’s no way for us to know where they are now.”
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 885)
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