A young boy is caught shoplifting and is offered the choice of 8 months hard labour or taking part in a new reality TV show. Having never been on TV, this is his preferred option. The show is an elimination show but unknown to the public who watch every night and interact via social media 24 hours a day, the show is not what it seems. When the boys learn the true meaning of the word ‘elimination’, everything changes.
Aimed at readers aged 11-14, The Elements is a novel very much in need of an agent and a publisher and quite possibly a sympathetic editor – three things that have so far proven impossible to find. Rather than let the words sleep forever in a folder on my desktop, they’re being serialised at Plain Or Pan.
I appreciate you’re not quite the intended demographic for the book, but it’d be great if you could read it through the same eyes that first landed on a 2 Tone sleeve or a Topical Times Football Book. Positive comments welcome. Any and all offers of publication will be considered.
All previous chapters of The Elements can be found here.
by Craig McAllister
Chapter 12 (part 2)
All three boys fell asleep. They were sheltered and safe from the weather and found it very easy to drift off. So asleep were they, they failed to stir when a family of squirrels approached cautiously, before scurrying away into the dense undergrowth. So asleep were they, they failed to stir when a crow squawked and flapped suddenly in the treetops directly above them, startled by the man and Cameron who’d taken up position nearby. The three boys were well within firing range and the man’s trigger finger was itchy. He was a fair man, but he was getting impatient. So asleep were they, the man and Cameron began to wonder in whispered voices if they shouldn’t wake them up themselves. They yielded, rationalising that big game hunters needed to be patient.
Connor dreamed of home. He was at his kitchen table, his father sitting opposite. His mum had a slice of toast in her hand that she hadn’t yet bitten into. It hung limply from her hand, drenched in yellowy butter, half a second from a slow collapse. She was angrily waving a football magazine in Connor’s face. In his dream, Connor couldn’t hear what his mum was saying, but he knew how upset she was with him. His dad stood behind his mum, one hand on her shoulder, the other covering rifling his hair in frustration. Connor now realised that the kitchen table was covered in magazines to the point where none of the varnished wood of the table-top could be seen underneath. Suddenly Mr Szczęsny appeared in the kitchen, walking through the same multicoloured strips that separated his shop from the little storeroom where the police officers had spoken to Connor. Mr Szczęsny was shaking his head at Connor and throwing magazines at him until quickly there was a mound of magazines piled accusingly in front of him. As they collapsed under the frictionless hold of their glossy covers and began tumbling onto the floor, Connor woke up with a gasping start. Confused, he looked around and immediately remembered where he was and why he was here. The other two boys slept nearby, Stephen still wearing his backpack, was curled into a foetal position and out for the count. Rhys lay flat out and motionless save the slow and steady rise and fall of his chest. Connor scratched, rubbed stray pine needles from his face and automatically reached for his phone. As he photographed his two sleeping teammates and updated his profiles, he heard the sharp snap of a twig. Or, maybe he hadn’t. He sat for a moment, telling himself he must have imagined it. He turned his attention back to his phone.
Nearby, under cover of the luscious undergrowth, the man elbowed Cameron and nodded encouragingly at him. It was his turn to “freak the boy Stewart out.” Cameron coughed. A low, quiet, throat-clearing cough, but a recognisable human cough all the same.
Connor’s heart missed a beat. He froze. It had been a snap. And now a cough! Someone was nearby. Maybe it was one of the other teams. As he tried to convince himself that somehow, a team had wandered so off-course they were now travelling to the flag in the same direction as them, there was another snap of twigs, followed closely by a rustling in the bushes. His adrenalin kicked in, but he had no idea what to do. Scrambling on all fours, still wearing his backpack like a giant, petrified tortoise, he reached Rhys and kicked his feet.
“Rhys! Rhys!” he hissed, quietly but loud. “Rhys!”
Rhys stirred, turned on his side and, with a wet smacking sound from his lips, went back to sleep.
“Rhys! Rhys, man! Wake up! I think there’s someone there!” He kicked him again and moved to Stephen.
From between bushes and bracken and low-hanging branches, the man and Cameron watched, supressing their laughs as Cameron repeated his actions at Stephen. The man rustled the undergrowth in front of him and made a hooting, owl-like noise.
By now Connor was beside himself with fear. Stephen had stirred immediately but wasn’t yet properly awake. Connor shook him by the shoulders and stage-whispered in his ear.
“Stephen! Wake up! Stephen, please! There’s someone out there! Listen!” He shook him again and Stephen sat up, rubbing his eyes and squinting as Connor came into focus.
The man and Cameron, watching everything from their hideout, took it all in. “Patience, Cameron, patience!” said the man under his breath.
“Stephen, man!” Connor whispered, eyes like saucers. “I heard a cough. Noises! Twigs snapping! And the bush shaking! Someone’s hiding nearby!”
“What?!” said Stephen in surprise.
“Shhh! Just wait and listen.”
They waited and listened. There were no further sounds. For now.
“You’re imagining it, mate,” said Stephen in a normal voice. “We’ve been out here walking all day and your mind has started playing tricks on you. You just need a decent sleep, that’s all.”
Connor considered this. He’d been having that weird dream when he woke up. Maybe it was all imagined after all. Maybe he…
This time it was Stephen who lost his cool.
“F…Woah!” The two boys were on Rhys in a shot, shaking him awake.
“Rhys! Rhys! Wake up, for God’s sake! Someone’s hiding in the bushes!”
Rhys was awake quickly this time and sat bolt upright. He was suddenly instantly alert.
“Just wait,” said Connor. “And listen.”
In the undergrowth, the man nudged Cameron. He coughed again.
The three boys looked in surprise at one another, none of them exactly sure of what to do. Rhys turned this way and that, trying to establish where the cough had come from. Stephen and Connor looked at one another for some sort of reassurance. There was another snap of a twig, quickly followed by more rustling of the bushes. Rhys stood up and walked in the direction of the noise.
“Rhys! Rhys! Don’t be daft!” hissed Connor loudly. But Rhys ignored him.
“Whoever’s there, make yourself known, please.” His voice was assured and confident. As an extra measure, he raised his hands in the universally recognised ‘I come in peace’ manner.
Deep in the undergrowth, thirty or so yards away, the man, bored of this game, keen to show off in front of his protégé and take things up a notch, cocked and loaded his rifle. The loud click that emanated from it was unmistakable. Rhys froze in his tracks. Stephen sat rigid with fear. Connor thought he might wet himself. The man took aim at a tree above and beyond Rhys’s left shoulder. He squeezed the trigger and instantly the bullet fired from the chamber with a loud airy crack. By the time the bullet had lodged itself in the tree behind Rhys, the three boys were scattering frantically through the forest. The man offloaded another bullet. And another. Each shot was designed to scare rather than kill, and, boy, was it working. Involuntary strangulated yelps rose from the three boys’ throats as the bullets whizzed past them and landed with a woody thunk in the nearby pines. They ran together, in the same direction, faster than they had any right to run with their heavy backpacks on.
The man spoke to Cameron, louder this time.
“Aim for Stewart, but don’t kill him. Aim to maim!”
Cameron stood under cover of the undergrowth, legs apart, the barrel of his gun pointing firmly towards the running boys. With one eye squinted shut he carefully followed Stewart’s crazed path and, when confident of a clear shot, squeezed the trigger.
The metal clang of bullet against metal informed Connor he’d been very lucky. He didn’t know it yet, but the bullet had put a hole clean through the pot that dangled freely from the bottom of his backpack. Without the pot there, he may well have been shot on the behind. The three boys ran on, faces scratched by low-hanging pine branches, ankles turned on uneven ground, arms flailing wildly in front of them, clearing nature’s objects that hindered their frantic escape.
The man took aim for one last shot and fired lazily into the trees beyond the three terrified boys.
“Leave them for now, eh, Cameron. We’ll see them again before they reach the flag.”
The man and Cameron stood, watching as the boys ran off and out of sight. Never once did they look back and never once did they stop until they were certain that the gunfire had ceased. Coming out from their hiding place, the man and Cameron surveyed the abandoned scene. A water bottle and a phone lay lonely amongst the brown pine needles. The man picked it up and instantly recognised the familiar dinks and scratches on its case. He had Stewart’s phone once again. He put it into his pocket, unsure yet of how best he could use it to manipulate events. He tossed the water bottle to Cameron and the pair of them headed back to the jeep.
Half a mile away, the boys lay sprawled on the ground. They were worried that they’d been tracked here, too scared to talk, too scared to breathe, even. Connor was convinced his beating heart could be heard by the others. They lay in terrified silence, looking back in the direction from where they’d just come. It was a good twenty minutes or so before any of them dared speak.
“I think they’ve gone,” whispered Connor.
“I hope so,” replied Stephen.
“Who were they?” wondered Connor aloud.
“Probably snipers,” said Rhys. “I bet there’ll be others as we get closer to the flag.”
Connor’s heart sank even lower at the thought. Stephen looked nonplussed. The three sat up and huddled closer together. Connor and Stephen greedily glugged down water.
“Any chance of a slug, anyone? I think I’ve left my water bottle behind,” said Rhys.
Connor handed his bottle to Rhys and watched as his teammate did his best to take a drink without pressing his lips to the bottle before handing it back with a thanks. As they so often did, they instinctively reached for their phones. As the other two opened their social accounts, Connor patted first one pocket, then another, then back again.
“I’ve lost my phone! I don’t believe it! I’ve lost my phone.” He felt physically sick. The others barely looked up from their screens.
“It’ll be in a pocket, surely,” said Rhys. “We left in a hurry back there. You’ve probably stuck it in a different pocket without thinking.”
Connor knew differently though and, annoyed at his blasé reaction, instantly wished he hadn’t given Rhys the drink of water. He frisked through the pockets of his trousers and jacket, even his rucksack too, but he knew he wasn’t going to find it. He cast his mind back. He’d had his phone out. He’d been taking pictures of the others sleeping, he’d heard the noises, he’d wakened the others, all hell had broken loose and somewhere in the melee he’d lost his phone. His first thought was that he should go back for it but, for one, he’d never find it and, two, the gunman might still be there, or worse, making his way towards them. The thought of having no phone – again – was the worst possible thought. Connor sat, a black mood enveloping him, with nothing to do but keep watch for the rogue gunman and look at the other two swiping freely through their phones.
“Where even are we?” he asked to no-one in particular.
“Dunno,” admitted Rhys. “I think we’re off the track though. We’ll need to find it again.”
“I’ve been looking at the others,” said Stephen, “but neither team has uploaded anything since the last time we looked. Let’s check where we are though, eh?”
Connor’s enthusiasm for the task had waned but he retrieved the map from his rucksack and Rhys went through the process of checking their coordinates on his phone. He checked back and forth between phone and map until he was certain of where they were.
“We’re here,” he said, circling the map. “We were here when the gunman – or gunmen, perhaps – opened fire on us. We haven’t strayed too far from the route, to be honest. It shouldn’t be too difficult to get back on track.”
Connor’s heart sank once more at the thought there might have been more than one gunman. He was sure Rhys had just said this for effect – and if he had it had worked – but there was no way of knowing for sure.
“How far have we walked now?” asked Stephen. “We must be more than halfway by now.”
Rhys studied the map, plotting their current location with the felt pen.
“We’ve done, let’s see…” He whispered quietly to himself as he counted the miles. “Eight, four, four….two….uh-huh….then three…and two there……I reckon we’ve walked twenty three miles, although we’re maybe a mile off the route. So, yeah, I think we’re at least halfway. Well done team!”
Between the tree-tops, Connor could see the sky deepening to an indigo blue. One or two stars were already shining. Dusk was falling.
“Would this be a good place to stop for the night?” he suggested, hoping the others would say yes.
“I think we should get back on track first, before it gets too dark,” offered Rhys. “It’d be good to find a river spot too. We can wash our feet in it, maybe even use it to drink or cook with if we’re too far from a water station. If we leave now, we should be able to pick up the path in fifteen minutes or so. That’s doable, even if we are shattered.”
“But what about the gunman, gunmen?” asked Stephen.
“Nah. They’ve gone, mate. They’ve gone. C’mon, let’s go.”
So, once more the trio got on the move, more careful with their footing in the failing light, still nervously checking behind to see if they were being followed or not. They picked up their route again, stopped to check for any nearby water stations – “this way!” ascertained Rhys and they walked grudgingly for a further twenty minutes. They arrived in the twilight at a clearing. A stream made itself known between the trees. Stephen and Connor left Rhys to find the water station and, with great effort, went about setting up their tents.
Stephen gathered kindling and set up a small fire in the middle between the three tents. The three sat, drinking from shared bottles and eating through their supplies. Connor had somewhat grudgingly loaned his ‘Juicebox’ to Rhys and Stephen. Their phones fully charged, there was no likelihood of dying phones midway through the next day. Uploads were made to social media and, once finished, Stephen passed his phone to Connor.
“Here y’are, mate. Log in and you can update your profiles.”
This gesture lifted Connor’s spirits somewhat and he enjoyed getting back online, reading comments and checking out the others’ statuses. Team positions were checked, and it was agreed that all teams had stopped for the night. Rhys wanted to discuss strategies and tactics, but the others were unreceptive to serious talk such as this. It would have to wait until the morning. A good night’s sleep was required, but in the event, none of the boys slept particularly well. Connor drifted in and out of dreams, waking with a start and convincing himself that he could hear things in the dark. There would be woodland creatures somewhere out there, but he thought it best to try not to imagine what might lurk beyond the canvas walls. The glowing embers of the fire might help to keep unwanted animals away, he reasoned, but maybe not gunmen.
He awoke properly at 6am and exited his tent. The fire was no more than an ashen charcoaled spot on the ground. The others were still in their tents. Stephen was snoring loudly. Connor stood tall, stretched, and scratched the back of his thigh. It hadn’t been a great sleep, but he felt alright, all things considered. The early morning sun came through the pines in hazy shafts of light. It was misty, womb-like and quite magical. He wandered over to investigate the stream that ran through the trees. As he sat lost in thought, he became aware of a small kingfisher, bright blue and orange, sitting on a low-hanging branch over the water. He was quite sure the bird could see him too, yet it hadn’t flown away. Connor was scared to move, lest the bird flew off, and wished he’d had his phone to take a picture. He was cruelly reminded then that he’d left his phone behind yesterday and for a brief moment his mood turned for the worse. Watching the bird lifted his spirits though. It opened its wings, preened its feathers and then majestically darted to the water, its wings tucked close to its body. Connor waited in anticipation for it to reappear from the water with a fish in its beak but when it bobbed back to the surface, it had nothing. It flapped its wings, took off once more and flew further downstream where it continued preening itself again. Connor watched it happily until the kingfisher flew off for good.
He busied himself with the cooking gear. He’d make a breakfast of some sort for the others, probably a cup-a-soup with a tin mug of tea and a cereal bar on the side. Looking at the bullet hole in the pot that had been hanging from his rucksack when they’d escaped the gunman (or gunmen, he internally corrected), he replayed the scene in his head. It was the most terrifying event to happen to him in his young life and, with only half this journey gone, and another four Elements events ahead of him, he began to wonder if he’d see his next birthday.
Intentionally noisy, Connor hoped that by clanging pots and rustling wrappers, the others might stir themselves awake. He was filling the kettle with water when Stephen appeared. By the time it was boiling, Rhys had joined them. The three sat around Connor’s makeshift kitchen, Rhys and Stephen watching as he poured three tomato cup-a-soups from the one good pan they had left.
“Here y’are, everyone. Tomato soup. The perfect breakfast!”
The three slurped the soup and Connor was congratulated on his improvised culinary skills. Rhys wanted to get down to the serious business of strategy and so over cups of strong black the three once more weighed up the pros and cons of a long walk with long break against shorter bursts with shorter breaks. They all agreed that they should walk for as long as possible, or at least until something – no-one wanted to hint at what that ‘something’ might be – hindered their progress. Checking the socials, it looked as though the other teams hadn’t yet stirred. Stephen leaned over with a ‘hur hur hur’ and showed Connor a repeating meme of Harrison chasing after a tumbling map. The comments below were interesting.
There were loads, all lambasting Harrison. Was this good news for everyone else? Did it mean that if Harrison’s team came last, he would be voted out for being the most inept, or would the public chose to keep him in because he was entertaining for all the wrong reasons? The three debated this. You couldn’t second-guess the public, theorised Rhys, and they all agreed to focus on coming first, or at least, not last, in this task.
They packed up, cleaned up, refilled their water bottles and doublechecked they’d left nothing behind before setting off. They strode with a spring in their step, smug at the thought of the other two teams still sleeping and either gaining on Grayson’s lot, perhaps even extending their lead over the both of them. It certainly looked to be a two-horse race between them and Grayson’s team for first place, but things might change yet. Another ambush from a gunman, for example, wouldn’t help anyone’s progress. Allowing for breaks and fatigue, Rhys had calculated they’d get to the flag by late afternoon, sometime between four and five. That seemed a long way off, but when he showed them how far they’d come and how many water stations were behind them compared to how many they had still to get to, it helped make the journey seem shorter. Zimmerman’s class really had been good for instilling a positive mental attitude and it was proving invaluable in the conditions.
The going was much like the day before, with tall pines blocking out the sun and a carpet of fallen needles cushioning their feet as they walked. After an hour or so, the group had thinned out into a fragile line of three, again headed by Rhys and again with Stephen at the back. It began to rain too, infrequent light drops at first before eventually becoming heavier. It dropped through the trees, drenched their hair and dripped down the back of their necks. It was futile to consider drying themselves until the rain had definitely abated and there was no point in stopping until then. A not unpleasant musty smell rose from the forest floor and, cold and miserable, the boys plodded onwards. They ascended tree-covered hillsides, slipped carefully down the other side, fought their way through impenetrable bramble bushes and crops of thistles – proper big, purple, jaggy ones – as they ate up the miles.
Around midday the rain eased off and the boys finally took a break. Connor took off his jacket and hung it to drip-dry from the branch of one of the trees, a move that was copied by the others. He towelled himself dry with a spare t-shirt, relieved on opening to note that his backpack had remained waterproof. He sat eating a packet of dried fruit and chewed as the sweet strawberries and apricots bled life into his dry mouth.
“The others are on the move,” said Rhys. “There are lots of photos and clips up on their socials.”
Stephen spread the map on the forest floor and Rhys began plotting points on it.
“This is us, round about here,” he said, inking a circle. “We’ve got about 10 miles left to go. We’ve come about three quarters of the way. It’s not far now. Grayson’s team is about….”
He checked his phone then the map.
He drew a circle and wrote a capital ‘G’ inside it.
“By my working out, they’ve got about 12 miles to go. We’re a wee bit ahead of them, but not by much. Harrison’s team are…”
He checked his phone again.
“…about here. He drew a circle, adding a capital ‘H’ inside it. They’re further behind. I reckon they’ve still got the best part of 16 miles to go. It’s between us and Grayson’s lot for first place. As long as we don’t muck anything up, we should be safe from elimination.”
The boys walked on, upbeat and positive, determined not to drop their lead. Trees, streams and open marshland came and went quickly as the miles melted away. By early afternoon there was a sense that they were going to do it, they were going to finish first and nothing would get in their way.
A few miles away, sitting in their jeep, the man and Cameron listened in to Rhy’s conversation and plotted their next intervention. They had settled themselves less than half a mile from the tall, red flag. Even from this distance it was unmissable. If they’d followed their maps correctly, the teams would have no trouble in locating it. At the base of the hill where the flag fluttered, Cameron had covered each of three pits dug by a digger, making it look to the unwitting eye as if nothing untoward had happened there. Then, they’d both climbed the pines using the rope ladder that had been installed for them and took up position in a camouflaged treehouse. Looking down, it reminded the man very much of the viewing tower on the training ground. They’d had plenty of practice there with rubber bullets. Today he and Cameron busied themselves by loading live ammo into their high range shotguns. They went back and forth, up and down the rope ladder, carrying all the ammunition and artillery that they needed. The man’s target was Stewart, but from this position they’d have a clear view of all teams approaching the flag. It would either be Stewart’s team from the south or Anderson’s team from the west who arrived first. He hoped very much that, should Harrison’s team finish last, the boy himself was kept in the process. But that was to worry about later. Right now, they were armed and ready for any team who reached the flag first. All they had to do was wait it out until nearer the time, leave the comfy seats of the jeep and climb up into the treehouse and spot themselves some moving targets.
By three in the afternoon, they were down to the last four and a half miles. They agreed on a short break to allow for refuelling ahead of, as Rhys called it, ‘the final push’.
“Look at the map,” pointed out Rhys. “This is the last water station on our route. We’re expected to finish soon.”
The others crowded around the map, marvelling at the water stations and stopping points they’d left far behind on their journey. It had been a truly phenomenal walk, from the team bonding and improvised cooking to the kingfisher and the serious issue of being attacked by a sniper, a quite remarkable adventure for boys barely in their teens, or, in Connor’s case, not yet there. As they ruminated on this, Stephen had been checking their rivals’ media feeds and Rhys was aghast to discover that Grayson’s team was somehow nearer the flag than they were.
“I don’t understand! I don’t think I’ve made an error with my calculations, but it is possible, I suppose. Maybe they’ve found a shortcut. Or maybe it’s been all downhill for them.”
“Or maybe no-one’s popped up and shot them yet,” volunteered Connor. “Either way, if we want to be first, we need to get a move on. Pack up, clear up and move out!”
Within two minutes they were pounding the path again, focus and fire in their eyes. The land ahead curved steeply upwards, bordered by yet more pines. It took concerted effort to reach the top without stopping but when they did, the boys allowed themselves a 360 degree view of the landscape that stretched out in all directions.
“Look! There!” said Stephen excitedly. “Is that the flag?!?”
The others followed his finger to the horizon where, flapping briskly in the wind was a flag on a tall pole. From here it was impossible to identify as ‘their flag’ but Rhys, with the sat nav app opened on his phone confirmed that it was.
“Woo-hoo! Yeeeeeeah!” shouted Stephen, quickly followed by the others.
Back in the jeep, the man jumped angrily in his seat as the unexpected piercing shriek split through his earpiece. This had him in a rage and he couldn’t wait to take it out on the unsuspecting victims.
Connor dug his heels into the side of the hill and ran down, in spite of the backpack and aches and pains, carefree and full of life. They were near the end, so close that they could for the first time see it. From somewhere he suddenly had a second wind and a renewed strength in his legs. With the others right behind him, they jogged onwards, towards the flag, towards Grayson’s team, towards trouble.
From the opposite direction, Grayson and his team had also spotted the flag. Burgess had seen it first, much to the annoyance of Fowler who, as the team had discovered over the course of the two days, had to be first with everything. With unobstructed views – there was a heavy clump of pines on the horizon where the man and Cameron would shortly be, but with wide, open marshland between them and the flag, they too started running. They also sensed victory.
The man and Cameron shimmied their way up the rope ladder and into the treehouse.
Connor led his group onwards. They laughed as they ran. Edgy, excited, expectant.
Grayson and his team closed in on the flag. It was half a mile away at most, the most beautiful site any of them had seen in months.
“Remember,” said the man to Cameron. “Aim below the knee! Aim to maim, is that clear?” Cameron responded with a thumbs up, his left eye already peering in anticipation through his rifle’s sight.
“That’s the flag,” shouted Rhys excitedly, still running. “It’s red. And it’s got a black Elements logo on it. Can you see it?”
“Aye! replied Stephen, picking up the pace.
Grayson and his team were near the foot of the hill now, coming at the flag from a different angle to the others. They were going to be first, they knew they were. As they reached the foot of the hill though, the ground beneath them suddenly gave way and they went tumbling into one of the holes that had been dug out earlier that day. It was a shallow hole, not quite two metres deep, and they landed on a bed of straw, but the surprise paralysed them.
In their treehouse, the man and Cameron roared with laughter at the sudden disappearance of Grayson’s team. With them out of the running for the moment, they turned their attentions to “that boy Stewart’s lot”.
They too had reached the foot of the hill, with Stephen a good few steps ahead. Without warning, he too vanished below ground level, screaming as his backpack caught on the lip of the hole and jerked him back in an awkward ragdolling movement as he tumbled inwards. As Connor and Rhys skidded to a halt, Stephen screamed more than one expletive. He lay on his back in a trench that was about eight metres wide. He groaned in pain, still wearing his backpack which he’d landed on. Straw and bits of grass and earth covered his body in places, and he looked to be bleeding from his elbow.
“Watch your footing!” shouted Rhys to Connor as he stepped forward for a closer look. “You don’t know where the trap starts!” Connor froze, looking carefully at the ground to see where it had been tampered with. Between the groans from Stephen below, he could hear the flap of the flag in the wind. They were so close…
In the other hole, the three boys asked one another if they were OK. There were no injuries it seemed, but they were sore, and getting out of the hole would be a challenge. As Grayson jumped up to pull on the lip of the hole, the ground gave way again, pulling clumps of the soil and grass away in his hands.
“D’you have a good view of the boys?” inquired the man.
“Yes, both of them,” came the answer.
“Below the knees, remember. Below the knees. On my say-so, fire at Campbell. Stewart is mine.”
“Copy,” said Cameron.
Connor could see that the ground had been disturbed. It stretched either side of the hole Stephen was in by several metres on each side. If they could get him out quickly, they could make their way around the edge of the hole and then get up the hill to the flag. He was just about to suggest this when the first bullet whizzed into the ground near his foot. Instinctively, both boys hit the ground. By the second and third bullets they were face down, terrified once more. There was nowhere to hide except in the hole where Stephen was.
Back in the other hole, Grayson was alert to the new sounds. “Surely that’s not gunshots?” he asked the others. They stopped trying to get out and listened. Crack! Crack! Crack! Goodness! It was.
“Are they firing at us?!?” shouted Burgess to no-one in particular. “Are they?!?”
Cameron and the man were expert marksmen, but rather far away. Their shots were close and terrifying, but they failed to hit their intended targets. Connor and Rhys shouted to one another between the gunshots.
Crack! Crack! Crack!
“I think we should get in the hole alongside Stephen,” shouted Connor.
Crack! Crack! Crack!
“No way! We’ll never get back out. We need to distract the gunmen somehow. Give them a target to aim for while the other gets up the hill and snatches the flag.”
Crack! Crack! Crack!
Connor processed this plan, quickly working out what was happening. He was supposed to be the gunmnen’s target while Rhys ran up the hill and won the flag? I don’t think so!
“No way, mate! No way! I’m not being a target for anyone. Get in the hole. Sit it out until the other team have the flag. We’ll be second. I’m happy with that.”
“Well, I’m not,” shouted back Rhys, and he was off and running up the hill.
The man kept his aim on Stewart. He fired a couple close to him, letting him know he was still there then turned to Cameron.
“Follow him. Let him reach the flag. As he gets to it, shoot him.”
“Below the knee?”
“You can’t help it if you misfire though, can you?” The man looked at him knowingly before returning his eye to the immobile Connor on the ground.
In the other hole, Grayson was holding onto Fowler’s ankles. He’d volunteered to peer over the top of the wall and work out what was happening. There were gunshots all right, but they were trained exclusively on the other side of the hill.
“I think it’s safe….listen to me! The guns are firing at something, someone else on the other side of the hill. It might be another team, I dunno, but I can’t see anyone. It’s worth the risk, I think. If you can punt me back up, I’ll help you both out.”
Grayson’s team set about getting themselves out of the hole.
As they did so, Connor was flopping himself into the hole beside Stephen. He intended to stay there until being told it was safe to come out. Rhys though was running for his life up the hill. In the angle of the hill, the top of the flag had disappeared for a few seconds, but it reappeared, closer than ever, flapping wildly in the wind. It was almost within touching distance.
Cameron kept his rifle trained on Rhys’s shoulder.
By now, Fowler had emerged from the other hole and, satisfied that the bullets weren’t intended for them, had begun hauling out his teammates, Grayson first and then finally Burgess. The three of them charged their way up the hill, six eyes on the prize. They weren’t even aware that the gunfire had ceased.
Rhys made it to the top of the hill first – Crack! Crack! Crack! – but just as he stood up, he heard the clatter of the swinging metal pots that dangled from the other boys’ backpacks and was dismayed to see three heads appear on the opposite side. Crack! The four boys ran like hell towards the flag and, even though Rhys had a hold of the rope that would lower the flag, the other three had no qualms in wrestling it from him.
As the boys scrapped violently, Cameron in the tree house struggled to find a decent view of Rhys. He fired a wild shot – Crack! – that flew above the boys’ heads. It was enough to make them momentarily stop. In the gap of opportunity, Rhys once again had the rope, and the flag which had been halfway down the pole was now at head height. At once he was submerged by the other team’s limbs. He was kicked, punched and scratched in a frenzied attack that was so unlike any of the boys who were dishing it out.
Crack! Crack! Crack!
As Grayson and Burgess continued to beat Rhys, Fowler triumphantly unhooked the flag and was rewarded – Crack! – with a stray shot from Cameron to the shin. He howled in pain, and crumpled to the ground, dropping the prized flag. Before any of his other teammates had had the foresight to cease battering their opponent and grab a hold of it, the flag was swept onto the side of the hill.
Rhys had to get away from this battering. The two boys on top of him were more interested in harming him than retrieving the flag. Rhys kicked back, wriggled, scratched, bit one of the two at one point. This caused the bitten boy to roll aside in shocked pain and when he did, he saw the flag blowing horizontally across the side of the hill. As Grayson held Rhys down on the ground, the pair of them watched as Burgess chased after the flag and caught it.
The game was up.
The two boys fell aside. Burgess appeared draped in the flag and he and Grayson hugged an embrace before going to check on the injured Fowler.
Rhys was distraught. All the effort, all the bravery, all counted for nothing. He’d had the flag in his hand! If Stephen hadn’t fallen into the hole, they’d have won. He lay back, unaware from his position that the man and Cameron were bouncing across the open ground towards them in their jeep. He was alerted to the fact when he heard the megaphone burst into life.
“Contestants! The game is over! We have a winning team!”
In their hole, Stephen and Connor sat upright.
“Congratulations to Fowler, Burgess and Anderson for an excellent display of teamwork and skill. Commiserations to Campbell, McPherson and Stewart. You were very unlucky not to have won. We await the arrival of Harrison, Reilly and Alan. They may be some time yet. We will make sure the six of you here just now get some food and shelter for the moment. When the others return we will begin our journey back to Kimble.”
The man paused for effect.
“By vehicle, just to be clear. By vehicle!”
Stephen and Connor flopped back into the straw and waited for someone to get them out.
(more to follow in the future)