“Dude, you’re only happy when you’re complaining. It’s probably why Jazz dumped you. You just need to be a little more like me, a real mellow fellow.”
“Ouch! Jasmine wasn’t my type anyway. She digs guys with nothing more than vanity muscles, subterranean IQ's, and hot air. Chase Hunt is a prime example. Even the guy’s name screams “country club prestige to make up for a tiny—”
“I get it.”
“I’m just saying, it’s getting darker, we’re out of jerky, and I’m exhausted. My phone is dead, and we didn’t exactly leave a trail of croutons back to the car,” Marty Gildon said, trying to sound less whiny.
Kane Young stopped, holding his hand up to silence Marty before he launched into another “woe is me” tirade.
“What?” Marty looked at him, then swiveled his head around, peeking through the dense foliage.
“I thought I heard something.” Kane kept his hand up while he strained to listen, but whatever he thought he heard had scampered off. Marty was right, though he’d never admit it. The darkness was coming on fast, and they were a bit lost. Lucky for them, Kane always carried an emergency snack and bottle of water. He never told Marty because the guy would have plowed his way through it hours ago.
“Look,” Kane turned to his friend, “I know you’re afraid of the dark, and we are in Bigfoot country. You can hold my hand if you want.” Kane’s shoulders shook as he burst into laughter.
“Ah, kiss my ass,” Marty retorted, slapping away Kane’s proffered hand.
“Okay, maybe we are a bit turned around, but it’s not dire. We can hunker down and hit it again in the morning. One night in nature won’t kill us. Give me your lighter and I’ll make a fire. It’ll help keep the critters away.”
Marty let out an audible sigh, looking like a dejected child.
“Here,” Kane said, reaching into his bag and pulling out a small dry sack and tossed it to Marty. “You get half the water, and I’ll even give you the first pick between the trail mix, the protein bar, or the animal crackers.”
“Animal crackers? Are you five years old?” Marty smirked. “I’ll give it to ya. You come through in a pinch!”
“Just because I’m good looking doesn’t mean I’m dumb,” Kane said.
Marty knelt and began to rummage through the sack. His eyes met the prize as he pulled out the cookies.
“Hang on. Let’s put in a little more mileage before lights out. The sun is setting over there,” Kane was pointing to their left now. “The sign at the trailhead said it leads to North Bluff. If that’s the case, we traveled north before taking your little…adventure route, I believe you called it,” he said, throwing Marty a scowl. “So, we should be able to head back the way we came by keeping the setting sun to our right. We just need to make sure it’s at 90 degrees to us.”
“Well alright then, Ernest Shackleton, lead us on to glory,” Marty quipped, waving his hand forward, then stood and brushed some loose soil from his knee.
Thirty minutes and several scrapes later, Kane’s hand shot out, nearly knocking the wind out of Marty in an effort to stop him. He looked back sharply and held a finger to his lips, the universal sign for “quiet.” Marty’s eyebrows raised, annoyed at the abrupt halt, but knew better than to shoot his mouth off in the moment.
Kane first picked up on the smell of burning cedar. The second was a flicker of light ahead. Kane waved Marty to hang back for a moment. Once he knew Marty fully understood, he crept forward slowly, taking great care to watch his footing and step only on exposed soil patches or beds of green pine needles. God only knows who they were, and he didn’t need to get shot by some hunter mistaking him for a deer, or whatever the hell they hunted out here.
Creeping around like a mouse, Kane approached a small clearing. Keeping to the growing shadows along the edges, he could see a blazing fire at the center. A large tripod campfire stand stood over it with an equally large cast iron Dutch oven suspended from a chain.
“No, Winslow ain’t gonna like it one bit, but that’s just too damn bad,” a man barked as he stepped into the clearing, followed by another man and a woman. Kane quickly ducked behind the trunk of the tree. “Our track record is good. There’s nothing to do because there’s nothing wrong,” came the woman’s voice. “We keep on going and it’s business as usual. That asshole’s making all the money anyway while we manage all the hard work.”
After a few moments of silence, Kane risked a peek around the tree. The three were now seated on small logs scattered around the clearing. The first man reached over and picked up a ladle that lay near the fire. With a hooked iron rod, he snagged the pot’s lid and pulled it off in one quick motion before the heat from the fire could singe the hair off his hands. Leaning over a little, the man gave the contents a stir. Whatever was cooking smelt heavenly. Kane’s stomach began growling with hunger.
“BOO!” a voice whispered behind Kane’s right ear.
Kane slipped and fell forward, scraping the bark from the tree trunk, and landed in the bush beside it. The jig was up after that racket.
A man stepped forward, grinning from ear to ear, and offered his hand to Kane. Adrenaline was coursing through his veins as he tried to reorient himself.
“Come on pal.” The man’s hand was still extended to help Kane up. “Sorry about that. I hate being scared, but I love doing it to others, ha-ha!”
The three sitting fireside were now on their feet looking in the direction of Kane and the other man as he hauled himself up. None of them reached for either of the two guns Kane noticed leaning against two far logs. He was thankful it hadn’t come to that.
“Everyone, gather around and come see the woodland nymph I found!” the man shouted as he helped Kane dust his back off and the two approached the fire.
The other three were dead silent with dark eyes and blank looks plastered on their faces. They looked as though they had swapped heads with clothing store mannequins. It creeped Kane out more than a little.
“I was hoping our friend here was a leprechaun. We’d be rolling in a pot of gold right now and drinks would be on me if that were the case.”
“Pot of gold?” one of the other men finally said, “I wouldn’t know what you buying drinks would look like!” All four now burst into laughter.
“Come on in, amigo, the water’s fine,” the man said as he stepped past Kane and slapped him on the shoulder. The two walked into the clearing and everyone resumed sitting.
“My name is Hood, Robin Hood,” the man spoke eloquently while holding a hand to his chest, “and this is my band of merry men.”
The woman cleared her throat loudly and threw the man a sour look.
“Sorry, merry band of men and women. We’re all-inclusive.”
The woman looked satisfied with the answer.
“Well now,” Kane began with an easy smile, “imagine my luck running into Robin of Locksley and the whole crew. If this is your Sherwood Forest, I don’t suppose you would know which way ye olde parking lot is located, would ya? My boy scouting skills are failing me, and, of course, I left my sextant at home.”
“Ah, no problem,” said the man who snuck up on Kane. “I’ll tell you what. We all enjoy hosting, so why don’t you sit and have a bite with us. Dinner’s almost ready, and we happen to have a bottle of bourbon laying around somewhere. I’ll point you in the right direction if you still want to head out afterward. You’re welcome to crash here with us until first light. You got a flashlight?”
Kane shook his head no. “We never intended to stay out this long.”
“Whoops!” Kane looked to the darkened forest. “Yo, Marty! Are you still meandering around out there, or have you been turned into a pile of bear crap by now?”
Everyone followed Kane’s gaze. A tall man stepped out from the tree line and raised a hand in hello.
“Greetings,” Marty said with a slight bow.
“Everyone, this is Marty. Marty, this is everyone.”
The four strangers stood from the logs again. “My apologies. We haven’t been properly introduced.” The first man stuck his hand out to Kane who shook it, then to Marty. “I’m Winslow Hardwin. The two fellas over there are Marshall and “Sweet Willy.” You know, like the Van Halen Song “Big Bad Bill is Sweet Willy Now.” Marshall waved and Willy threw a ragged salute. “Our Maid Marian there is Sahara, like the desert on account of her dry personality.” The others laughed while the woman kicked Winslow in the leg playfully. “Pull up a chair and stay a while.”
Willy walked over to a pile of equipment and retrieved an old kerosene lantern. He lit it and set it between Kane and Marty so everyone could see a little better.”
“What are you fellas up to out here,” Winslow started.
“Day hiking, which has turned into overnight camping.” Marty piped in.
Winslow shook his head up and down in understanding.
“How about you folks?” Kane asked.
“Yeah, pretty much the same,” Marshall said, with a hesitant tone. The look on his and Sahara’s faces said something cagey might be going on.
“Oh, come now, Marshall,” Winslow said, looking at Marshall, then back to the two men. “What’s a little honesty among friends? Besides, you two look like trustworthy fellas.”
Marty shrugged. “I like to think we are. We’re a couple of steel traps. Besides, no one ever wants to hear our stories anyway.”
“Correction,” Kane looked at Marty, “no one wants to hear YOUR stories.” This elicited another round of laughter from everyone, including Marty.
“Well, we’re just simple farmers,” Winslow said with that same Cheshire Cat grin, this time his mouth looked like it held twice as many teeth.
“Farmers?” Kane questioned him. “Out here in the middle of the woods, which furthermore, is the middle of nowhere?”
“We’re big on privacy,” Willy chirped.
“Gotcha,” said Marty. “What are you farming if you don’t mind me asking? Truffles and mushrooms? The soil seems hospitable for it out here.”
Winslow looked to Marty and tossed him a small round object he fished from a pack near his feet. Marty caught it and held it up to the light for a closer look.
“What is this, some sort of ugly onion?” He handed it to Kane after turning it around in his hands a few times.
Kane took the object and looked at it closely. It was about the size of a golf ball, green, and had a ring of tiny flowers budding on the top. It looked familiar, like he had seen it somewhere before, but it was eluding him. “Can’t say I’ve—”
Kane stopped as he was about to hand the plant back to Winslow. Movies. He saw this before in the movies, or maybe it was TV. “Is this a poppy?”
“Very good,” Winslow said, smiling at the two men. “Yes, it is. But you fellas need to keep that under your hats. We’re just out here trying to make a living like everyone else.”
“Shit,” Kane thought to himself. “Shit, shit, shit…” He could see Marty was now thinking the same thing. Of all the places to be, they had stumbled upon an opium grow operation.
“Well,” Kane looked over at Marty as a cold chill ran up his spine, “it’s a good thing we’re quiet fellows and don’t care to make a racket. We’d hate to intrude any more than we already have and should be on our way. We do appreciate your hospitality though.” Kane stood up and Marty followed suit.
“Hang on guys. We’re not bad people, and this isn’t the movies. Dinner is ready, so you are welcome to have a bite with us. If you still want to head out afterward, so be it.”
The two men looked at each other again. “Play it cool” Kane thought to himself, “just play it cool.” He and Marty both carried hunting knives for emergencies and could have them out in a flash. The two sat back down.
“Well, we appreciate the offer greatly. Trust us when we say, “mum’s the word.” We’ve done plenty over the years to keep us tight lipped,” Marty gave a nervous chuckle. “So what’cha got cookin?”
“A family recipe passed down from our mama and her mama’s mama,” said Saraha, who was now standing and walking toward the iron pot with the ladle.
“Oh yeah, we’re all family,” Willy chimed in. “We like to keep it tight.”
“Hey, nothing’s more important than family,” Kane threw out. “So, a generational recipe. It sure smells good.”
You boys aren’t vegetarians, are you?” Sahara said, smiling at the two like a spider approaching a couple of flies in her web.
“Swims, flies, or walks, we eat it all!” Marty blurted out.
“Oh good!” Marshall reached back for some bowls near their pile of gear. “Tonight is special. Call it a celebration of sorts.” Marshall then pulled out a bottle of bourbon and some tin camping mugs. “Hope you boys like long-pig.”
“Ah, the other white meat.” Marty was now looking like a hungry hyena.
Sahara dipped the ladle into the pot and dumped the stew into a bowl. She handed it to Marty before reaching to serve another for Kane.
“Long-pig… Now where did he hear that one from?” Kane thought hard to himself. It sounded vaguely familiar.
Looks like the wheels are spinning there, Kane. Let me shed a little light here. “Early on,” Winslow explained, “merchant vessels encountered indigenous tribes of the Pacific Islands. Reports said the tribe’s people consumed something they referred to as “long-pig” to supplement a vegetable diet.”
“Uh huh. So, this is like Polynesian stewed pork?”
“Something like that,” Willy said, smiling unnervingly now.
Kane began poking around the stew inconspicuously, trying not to draw attention.
Marty already had a spoon full in his mouth and was reaching for another.
“What’s in this?” Marty gasped as a second mouthful had almost reached his lips. “It looks like a damn fingertip!”
Kane looked up from his bowl. Shock was plastered on Marty’s face as he scooped more stew up, finding more of the same inch-long chunks with fingernails on the tips.
Kane began picking his way around only to come across his own horrifying discovery; a big toe…
“What kind of fresh hell is this!” he yelled out, looking at the three sitting around the campfire, now noticing Marshall held a rifle in his hands.
“Easy, boys. Just be cool and it’ll all be over soon.” Marshall said, racking a cartridge into the chamber of the rifle. The sound of the slide snapped Kane out of his temporary shock.
That’s where he heard it before, Sophomore history class. Mr. Ames had casually explained “long-pig” was a native term for human flesh. “Cannibals” hit him like a punch in the head. He would have laughed it off had there not been body parts in his dinner.
“Yes,” Winslow went on, “the phalanges are some of the tastiest bits when cooked low and slow. It just so happens that you fellas stumbled here and brought a few more for us.”
Everyone was standing now. Four against two, and at least one firearm was now in play.
“Look, we don’t care what the hell you are doing up here, and we sure don’t give a damn about your preferences in cuisine. We’re just gonna—”
“Shut up,” Willy snapped, stepping closer as he drew a wicked looking knife from a thigh sheath.
“We’re sorry guys, well, not really, but you can’t look a gift horse in the mouth when fresh meat comes along. You know, we gotta eat too.” Sahara’s maniacal looking face was accented by the shadows cast from the firelight.
Kane looked at Marty. Their packs were too far away to grab and make a break for it. They’d have to leave them behind. He gave his friend a barely perceptible nod toward the forest.
Marty dropped his bowl and bolted for the darkness. Kane reached to his left for the old rusty kerosene lantern as he turned to run. In one quick motion, he pitched it behind him in a wide ark. The glass lamp shattered, dousing a six-foot area in flaming fuel. The surrounding forest erupted in flames, aided by the tinder-dry pine needles that aided their escape. He prayed it would slow any pursuit from the nuts he knew would come soon enough. It was nearly pitch black, but Kane vaulted over fallen logs the best he could.
“Come on, man!” Marty called to Kane from just a few paces ahead.
A shot rang out, missing the two as a small tree limb near their heads exploded in a shower of splinters. Kane could now see the little red tracing dot of a laser sight.
A second shot rang out and Kane heard a heavy thud.
“Marty!” he whispered as he continued running. “Marty, where the hell are you?”
Stopping a moment to catch his breath and locate which direction Marty had gone, he continued to whisper as loudly as he dared for his friend.
Kane never heard the third shot as he was pitched forward, his world diminishing into inky blackness, a final whisper for Marty to run drifting from his lips.