The two other men besides Gus, I’ll call them Carl and Jack – since that was their names. Jack, he was the tall one, was sitting down by the fire, one shoe off, scraping something from between his toes with a really big knife. He looked up when Gus pulled (practically dragged) me into camp.
“What’s this?” Jack asked. He sheathed his knife, stood, then limped to where Gus and I were standing. Gus pulled me in front of him, kind of hugged hard from behind, then squeezed my face with one gnarled and wrinkly hand.
“Found him at the last site when I went back for Gertie,” Gus said. “He’s a good one, right?”
Gertie? I thought. He named his knife Gertie. I really had to try hard not to laugh. I’m incredibly happy I didn’t. Jack grabbed a good portion of my arm, grunted, then patted my belly.
“I did good, right?” Gus said.
Jack grunted again.
“He’s smaller than the last one,” Jack said. Then he went back to the pit, sat, and resumed scraping his toes.
Gus seemed kind of upset by his partner’s comment. He pushed me over to where Jack was sitting. Then, his hand still scrunching my cheeks towards my nose said, “Maybe so, Jack. But he’s taller than the last one!” Jack sighed, put the knife down again, then looked up at Gus.
“Fine,” he said. “You did good. Can I finish what I’m trying to do, now?”
“Yippie!” Gus yelled. He jumped up and down, finally letting me go. Well, threw me to the ground is more accurate. I hit the dirt, then didn’t dare move. “I knew it!” Gus yelled. “I friggin knew I did…”
Then Gus paused, looked around the camp. Then, he looked back at Jack, who was busy scraping the toes of his other foot. “Hey,” Gus said. “Where the heck’s Carl?” Jack shrugged, lifted the blade of his knife to his nose, then winced.
“Limpin round out there somewhere,” Jack said, gesturing with his knife towards the forest. “Getting more wood for tonight, I guess. Idiot rolled his ankle on the way down. There wasn’t a snap, so I didn’t do him. Anyways, it’s a good thing you came across this rabbit. I decided to make camp early – and I hadn’t even thought about supper yet.”
Gus laughed (loud), then grabbed me by the hair, picked me off the dirt.
“Whatcha want me to do with him?” He asked. Jack considered for a moment – looking around the camp.
“Tie him to that tree over there,” Jack said, pointing to a tall, thick tree next to the edge of the forest. Then, he picked up a small red pack from between his legs – dug through it, then pulled out a length of rope. “Use this,” he said, throwing it to Gus.
A few minutes later, I was tied to the tree round my middle, both hands bound in front of me.
Jack sent Gus out into the woods to find whomever Carl was. Gus returned not too long after, dragging Carl (who was limping bad) pretty much the same way he dragged me down the hill. I saw this, and still – kind of saw none of it. The whole time leading up to nightfall, I was absorbed by my own thoughts. Remembering not only the words I’d heard, but the order they were spoken. “I did good, right” Gus had said. “He’s smaller than the last one,” Jack had said. “He’s a good one; right?” Gus had said.” “I didn’t have to do him,” Jack had said. Holy hot potato, I thought. They’re going to eat me!
By the time the sun went down, the trio of what, I already thought of as cannibal hicks had their fire going well. I was happy for that – even though it didn’t do me much good, tied to a tree on the perimeter of camp – too far from the lifesaving flames. They were laughing and joking. And at some point, Carl (Okay – the three-toothed-one) pulled out what looked like a jar of some kind, but it was different than the jars Ma had. This jar was rally tall, and skinny, and had actual typed words on the label.
“Y’all want some… Bacardi?” Carl asked his buddies. He unscrewed the gold top, put the edge of the jar to his lips, took a giant drink. “Found this down the hill yonder. It was stashed under a root.” Then he held it out towards Jack. But Jack waved it away.
“Hell na!” Jack said.” “How you know what that piss is?” Carl turned the long jar in his hand, read the label, pointed at it.
“Says right here,” he said. “Puerto Rican Rum. “It’s rum, guys.”
Jack peered at Carl suspiciously.
“You sure it says that?” He asked. “What the hell is Puerto Rico anyways?”
“Yup,” Carl said. “Says it right her on the label. And I do believe that Puerto Rico was one of the great nations.” Jack looked doubtful, but in the end, he reached his hand out.
“Give it here.”
Carl passed the jar – Jack snatched it – sniffed inside, held it up against the light of the fire, turning it back and forth. Then, after a few dozen seconds or so, he took a drink.
“Yup,” he said. “That’s rum alright.
He went to hand the jar back to Carl, but when Carl tried to grab it, Jack pulled it back. “Get any for yourself?” Carl looked pretty darn mad. He stood fast. Started pacing around the fire.
“Now, that’s just wrong,” Carl said. “I found that hooch, fair and square. You know I did, Jack. It’s mine.”
I watched all of this with genuine interest, but also never forgetting to listen to the sounds of the forest as the sun was setting. I’d already heard a few far-off rattles by then, and they were getting closer.
“Fine!” Jack yelled. “Here, Ya big baby!” He threw the jar at Carl, who caught it – but barely. “But you better share it. We haven’t come across hooch like that since that Daniels stuff a few months ago.” Then he sat back down, started rubbing his belly. “I’m hungry,” he said – this time to Gus. “We got any Ricky-Rick left?”
“I’ll check,” Gus said, and scampered off.
“Just a little!” Gus announced, approaching the fire pit. “But then…” turning to look dead at me, “we always have the skinny one.”
At that, Jack stood, unsheathed his absurdly long knife, and said, “Why the hell not? May as well get our bellies full before our long walk tomorrow.” He came at me – knife in hand – but I couldn’t worry about that. My mind was on the rattling sounds coming from behind me.