"You wanna do what!?" cried Tanya Jones.
"I said we could spend our final weekend on North Sentenal Island," replied her boyfriend, Bob "Bubba" Willis. He paid the Indian barmaid for the four beers at the table.
"I heard you the first time. Your dumbass idea just caught me by surprise, that's all."
"Wait," said Billy Atkins. "What's North Sentenal Island?"
Billy's fiancée, Anna Patel, said, "North Sentenal Island is about 30 miles south of Port Blair. By government decree, it is protected land and is strictly off-limits. The Indian Navy patrols the seaway and prohibits any approach closer than three nautical miles.
"The island is completely untouched by modern civilization. Its primitive inhabitants of pygmies drive-off any outsiders who invade their island, using spears and arrows."
"Holy crap, that's awesome! Let's go, Babe," exclaimed Billy.
"Excuuuse me!" Tanya said. "What part of 'pygmies slaughtering outsiders' did you not understand? A missionary got murdered there by these savages, just for preaching the Bible to them. Don't you read the papers? As a pre-med student, I can't begin to tell you all the potential diseases and injuries you'd be exposed to."
Bubba said, "Look. We're four American exchange students in India on our final week in-country. This is our last chance to do something truly unforgettable before going home. Sure, we could join the boring class picnic celebration this weekend. But I say we go out with a bang."
Billy chimed in. "I vote for a memorable weekend, too! Bubba and I can acquire rifles in town for protection."
Tanya stared at Anna. "You're not seriously considering this, Anna, are you?"
"Well, my major IS anthropology. This adventure appeals to my interests and professional curiosity. Besides, I can go as the resident expert on indigenous tribal behavior to help keep us safe."
The trio looked at Tanya, who eventually rolled her eyes and sighed in surrender. "OK, beam me up, Scotty. Let's hold hands and jump off the cliff together."
They all raised their drinks in a toast.
The night was warm. A faint mist surrounded the shore. The moonlight shone everything in a silvery cast, making their arrival on North Sentenal Island appear surreal.
"Wow," observed Billy. "This is paradise!"
"It is so beautiful," Anna said.
"Shhhh!" warned Bubba. "Keep quiet."
Tanya said, "Guys, help me hide our canoe under these branches and palm leaves."
They trudged through the jungle and gathered at the base of a large, steep hill. Anna quietly said, "Let us review the plan again. The fisherman, Simar, who helped smuggle us past the Indian patrol boats with his small trawler, will return to rendezvous with us offshore in two days at midnight. Also, I exchanged phone numbers with Simar for any emergencies.
"We will keep to the high ground to observe the villagers from afar by wielding binoculars and record these events using our videocam's telephoto lens. That should minimize the danger of encountering any pigmies face-to-face. If worse comes to worst, Billy and Bubba have their rifles for self-defense. Do not wander alone. Stay in pairs. Remember, we absolutely can NOT interfere with the villagers in any way.
"Questions?" Silence. "Good. Bubba, lead us up the hill."
The following day was drizzly and tropical. The group had found a small cave in the hillside, which they used as their shelter and base camp. The hill overlooked the villagers' compound far below. The students were able to covertly watch and record the pygmies as they went about their daily life.
Billy swung from his hammock. "This is soooo cool!"
"You know," Tanya said, "I had my doubts when we started, but I'm glad I came along! Even the constant sprinkles add a certain mystique to the place."
Bubba adjusted the rifle slung across his back. "It feels like we've traveled 10,000 years back in time."
Anna closed her eyes. "I feel it, too. It is definitely magical." She tilted back her head and stuck out her tongue to catch the raindrops.
That night, the rain stopped, but the sweltering heat returned. After sharing a bongful of medicinal pot that Tanya had "acquired" from the university's med lab, the group succumbed to the intoxicating weed and aura of the island. Bubba and Tanya made love on their sleeping bags in the cave, while Billy and Anna did likewise on the jungle floor. As Billy had predicted, it was memorable.
The next morning, the students sat eating a breakfast of peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, corn chips, and root beer under the returning drizzle. They said nothing, each was totally content and savored every minute of this journey together.
Suddenly, a high-pitched scream pierced the hillside, making the group jump in surprise.
Tanya said, "What the freak!?"
Both men unslung their rifles. "Stay here!" commanded Bubba, as the pair raced into the jungle.
The women huddled nervously together, eyes frantically searching for danger.
A sharp crack of gunfire sounded. Then another. A third shot.
Now in abject fear, the women desperately held each other and shouted their friends' names, dreading the worst.
Soon both men appeared through the tree line and approached the camp. Bubba was carrying a third person.
"We heard the gunfire," shouted Anna. She gave Billy a tight hug, "It scared us half to death. What on Earth happened? And who's that with you?"
"No worries," said Bubba. "We're both fine. We saw this villager, a small pigmy boy, surrounded by a pack of wild dogs. When the dogs attacked, we couldn't just stand by and watch him get torn to pieces." He handed the injured boy to Tanya. "Can you please see what you can do for him?"
As Tanya carried the pygmy boy inside the cave for first aid, Anna confronted Bubba.
"Bubba, I told you when we first started that we absolutely could not interfere with the villagers in any way. IN. ANY. WAY. The repercussions could be catastrophic for both them and us."
Bubba stared incredulously at Anna. "If we would've done nothing, the boy would've died. That sounds pretty freakin' catastrophic to me."
"Bubba... you have a big heart, and we love you for that. But in this instance, inserting ourselves into this situation is not wise. We cannot interact with these people!"
Bubba shook his head in disgust. He walked twenty paces away to smoke a cigarette.
Billy kissed Anna, then shrugged his shoulders at her. "Don't worry, Babe. I'll see if I can calm him down."
"The boy has some deep, nasty bites on his right arm and both legs," Tanya told the group. "I gave him antibiotics for infections and codeine for the pain. However, here's the thing: he cannot walk, so he cannot make it back to his village. Once we're gone tonight, the pack of wild dogs is almost sure to pick up his scent of blood again.
Anna said, "So what are you proposing?"
"I'm proposing nothing. I'm merely stating a fact: this child will die if left here alone. Bubba saved him. So it goes without saying that Bubba is ultimately responsible for the boy's life." She stared pointedly at Bubba.
Bubba weighed all the options and took in a deep breath, "We return him to the village."
"No, we cannot do that!" Anna said. "I am the only certified anthropologist here. In my professional opinion, we MUST leave the boy here. If he dies, then that's how it was meant to be. I know it sounds callous, but it is not for us to change that. We are not even supposed to be here in the first place, remember?"
"But we ARE here," countered Bubba. "I say we put it to a vote. All those in favor of taking the boy back to his village, raise your hand." Bubba held up his own hand.
Tanya, after a short hesitation, raised hers.
Billy glanced at Bubba, then stared apologetically at his fiancée, Anna. "Sorry, Babe," his hand went up. "The pygmies may be savages, but I AM NOT. I won't have the boy's death on my conscience."
Anna closed her eyes and shook in helpless frustration.
Tanya volunteered to carry the child, who was wide awake by this time. He was talkative, and constantly licked Tanya's hand like a stray puppy, grateful to be rescued by the newcomers.
By mid-afternoon, the group had arrived at the village. Scores of pygmies surrounded them at a safe distance, pointing at them and talking excitedly amongst themselves in their native tongue. None stood taller than five feet. Some carried bows, spears, and other weapons, but so far, they exhibited no hostile action.
Anna was repeatedly cautioning the group, "Keep calm. No sudden movements. Show no fear."
Near the center of the village, the group abruptly stopped. They were dismayed to see their canoe here, leaning up against the tallest of the grass huts.
"Aw, crap!" Anna swore. "Guys, we need to trade the boy for our canoe."
Several elaborately decorated villagers, led by a bearded and elderly pygmy adorned in colorful body paint and bone jewelry, emerged from the large hut.
All of the villagers instantly fell silent and bowed their heads. The pygmy chief approached the group alone until he stood before Tanya and the boy. In pygmy-speak, he addressed the boy and they held a short exchange.
The chief then extended his arms toward Tanya. After Tanya glanced toward Anna, who nodded her head, she handed the boy to the village leader. He smiled and cradled the boy in his arms. As he'd done with Tanya, the boy eagerly licked the chief's hands. The chief gave the child to one of the mothers.
Anna stepped forward and bowed. She repeatedly pointed to the canoe then at herself, until the meaning was clear. The pygmy leader spoke a command. Several villagers retrieved the canoe and lay it down at the feet of the four students.
Anna said, "Everyone, bow." The others anxiously followed suit with open relief on their faces. The chief nodded. He turned and walked back toward his hut. The crowd of villagers resumed their chatter as the students quickly picked up the canoe to leave.
Anna's cellphone suddenly started to ring Blondie's song, "Call Me." Everyone in the village froze. The pygmy leader slowly turned his head back to the group, his face filled with hatred. Eyes wide, Anna said, "Oh, crap. RUN!"
"Go!" ordered Bubba. "I'll cover you." Bubba raised the rifle into the air and fired twice, scattering the villagers helter-kelter through the rain and confusion. His friends, seeing their chance, raced out of the village and made it safely into the jungle.
Bubba sprinted to catch up to the group, then stopped dead in his tracks. More than a dozen archers barred his escape. Bubba shot two more rounds into the air. This time the pygmies stood their ground. In a fluid motion, they nocked their tiny arrows and let loose their volley. At least half found their mark. Bubba fell to his knees. He raised his rifle and dropped three archers before he ran out of ammo. The pygmies quickly advanced on him. They surrounded Bubba on all sides and let loose a second volley. All of them struck their target this time.
The three with the canoe hurried desperately to the beachhead. Billy, his rifle at the ready, ran slightly ahead. Anne carried the front of the boat, and Tanya the stern.
All of a sudden, Billy shouted in surprise as he fell six feet into a booby-trapped hole camouflaged by twigs and leaves. His shout was abruptly cut-off as his falling body was met by dozens of long, sharpened, bamboo spikes sticking up from the ground. Anna cried in despair and tried to climb into the hole with her dead fiancé.
"He's gone, Anna!" Tanya dragged her away from the hole. "C'mon, we've got to keep moving!" The two picked the canoe up over their heads and continued their race to freedom.
Within sight of the beachhead, a pack of wild dogs caught their trail and ran in pursuit. Tanya was carrying the back of the canoe, she was the first to encounter the pack. Three large dogs pulled her down as she dropped her end of the craft. The full weight of the boat was too heavy for Anna alone. She fell forward, sending the inside of the boat plummeting on top of her. Fortunately, it covered and protected her from the rest of the dogs. Inches away, on the other side of the canoe, she heard Tanya's shrieks intermingled with the wild dogs' ferocious growls. Anna covered her ears and screamed.
Inside the upside-down canoe, Anna realized she was very close to the water. She pushed forward the boat foot by foot, dragging it in starts and stops slowly along the beach. She could hear the wild dogs trying in vain to reach her through the craft the entire way.
Gradually, she felt the sand getting wet beneath her. Then the tide as she advanced the canoe further and further into the water. No sound of dogs anymore; they remained onshore. When the water was deep enough, she flipped the boat right-side up, then jumped inside. She untied the paddles, put them in the water, and rowed away from shore as fast as she could.
It was dark by the time Anna stopped rowing. Like clockwork, the rain ended, and the sweltering humidity returned. All of the day's tragedies caught up to her. She dropped her head into her hands and wept uncontrollably.
At some point, Anna came to her senses and took stock of her options. She opened her cellphone and called Simar, the fisherman who had smuggled them onto the island, for help. No answer. Her phone had a message. She pressed the playback button and listened.
A spotlight from a nearby craft unexpectedly turned its blinding lights on her. The Indian sailors manning the boat's railings pointed and anxiously shouted at her.
Anna stood and waved both arms at the Naval patrol boat, grateful to be alive despite all that had happened.
A volley of arrows struck Anna on the right side; a second volley hit her on the left. The sailors stopped their shouts of warning. The Indian commander swore under his breath as Anna's lifeless body pitched forward. Into the spotlight glided two boats full of pygmy archers.
"Anna, this is Simar. I hope this phone call finds you well. I will be unable to make our rendezvous tonight. The authorities have confiscated my fishing trawler and arrested me for helping you onto the island. You need to take the canoe and turn yourselves into the first Naval vessel you meet. They have been ordered to be on the lookout for your boat.
"The government officials said that if you remain on the island and something happens, their protocol is strict non-interference with the pygmy tribe. The Navy is prohibited from offering any assistance for your team until you're aboard their vessel. I urge you to leave the island ASAP. Good luck and God speed."
The two small canoes slowly circled about and headed leisurely back to the island. One of the villagers, an elderly pygmy adorned in body paint and bone jewelry, looked back at the Naval commander. He smirked with satisfaction as his boat gently glided out of the Navy's spotlight.
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