Authors: W.C. Hoffman
For the boys, killing their enemy was no different than killing a deer. Anything that ensures you live to see the next day. Survival is all that mattered; survival was all that was taught.
Uncle had made sure they could survive on their own. Both boys were skilled in all facets of the outdoors. Hunting and fishing with equipment they made by hand. Bows carved from saplings and cedar arrows, which adorned turkey-feather fletching and sharpened stone points. Dead fall and pit traps also were regularly used on everything from squirrels and deer to the occasional black bear. There was not an animal in the world they could not track, hunt, bait, trap, kill, clean and eat.
“If it moves, it's food,” Uncle often would say.
Uncle had also taught each boy how to garden and live off the land. Tomatoes, potatoes, beans, squash and even pumpkins were grown from seed each year. Every crop was preserved for the winter months and fiercely defended against wildlife invaders. An eight-foot wide, eight-foot deep pit trap surrounded the entire three-acre garden. Leaving the garden only accessible by foot bridges that had to be lowered by hand. It took the three of them two full springs and summers to dig it. However, it provided them not only with crop security but many unlucky deer and bears fell into the pit each season. Tomek and Drake quickly learned that prey in a trap is easier to kill than hunting it in the wild.
Once they reached age 10, the duties were split with each boy swapping jobs the next year. One spent the year working the garden and gathering supplies while the other tended to the traps and hunted. The following year the roles would be switched. Uncle knew he would soon be leaving this world and Uncle knew the twins would be okay with the world. What Uncle could never have known was if the world would be okay with the twins.
he roof needs new moss and thatch,” Tomek said, yawning from inside his bunk.
“Have fun with that,” Drake replied. “I have about 40 traps to check and we still have that venison hanging, waiting to be butchered.”
Tomek grew annoyed with his brother in the years that Drake was hunting. It was Tomek’s favorite job and he loved every minute of it.
“You do understand that if we don’t get the roof completely mossed over and some more field grass growing on top of us the entire house will be visible?”
Tomek’s sarcastic tone was evident, but was met with a heavier dose of snark.
“You should probably get out of bed, then, and get to it. You know, the roof is very important Tomek.” Drake smirked while rolling over.
“You think?” Tomek replied, keeping the sarcasm at a high level.
“All the time. You should try it now and then. It won’t kill ya,” Drake said with his head buried into the soft pillow laughing.
The truth is both of them knew that today, the roof was important. Going down from three workers to two did make it harder on the boys until they eventually realized exactly how many supplies Uncle required just for himself. Scaling back on their food production, weapons and other supplies allowed them time to work on the things that mattered. Today it was the roof.
The cabin was a simple, one-room design with built-in defenses. It nested into the hillside on three sides and when the roof was properly camouflaged, the small cabin was virtually invisible to anyone beyond thirty yards away. Even the door was carved from a massive oak that had been struck by lightning several years before. It looked like a solid piece that lay on the ground, but was hollow and swung open on wooden hinges. Uncle had built it this way. His design relied on the hill for protection in the harsh winter and cooler underground temps in the summer.
Not only was their home adequate protection from the weather and casual flyovers, it was also rigged to be the ideal stronghold. Over the years they had dug a simple tunnel system that led to a room draped in rocks from floor to ceiling. This room happened to be downhill from the main living area and was dug directly under the river. Uncle used this room as both the kitchen and furnace. A simple stove was crafted from the existing rock edge and the chimney pipe ran up and into the river. This allowed them to cook inside and heat the cabin undetected.
Uncle had designed the special chimney pipe with a one-way valve on the end. The smoke would be released underwater and never become airborne. The wood stove also did a remarkable job at radiating upwards and heating the rest of the home. The main living area was small, but comfortable. Wood-crafted floors with loose limestone gravel near the door that would alert them when someone walked in, no matter where they were located within the depths of the tunnel system.
Uncle and the twins had frequently layered the walls and ceilings with birch bark over the years. The white tone of the bark gathered and reflected light from their torch lamps and combined with a natural mineral derived from gypsum called alabaster, which was taken from the river muck. The interior had fireproof, concrete-like consistency. The naturally formed walls held back the hill's dirt walls and was strong enough to hang the handmade counters and pantries they had built. Above the door on the inside of the cabin hung a framed Band-Aid.
“No single part of the Band-Aid can do the job alone,” Uncle often told the boys. “Three parts must work together, okay?” Uncle lowered his voice. “The two sides can stick together and hold on. However, if they are joined by the middle piece, then they can not only hold on, but they can hold on together and heal. Three parts make it strong and give it reason to hold on.” The boys were not surprised when a Band-Aid reference made it into their life lessons as “Band-Aid” was Uncle’s nickname growing up as a young teen. As it was told to them by Uncle the nickname had been earned for all the hours he spent working as a medic on his father’s ambulance.
Table, chairs, pantries, cupboards, weapon racks and beds rounded out the rest of the cabin's charm. It was all they needed. It was home.
The charm, however, was deceiving. What was built to help survive and hide was also built to kill. Multiple passages were dug that led to deep pitfall traps. They had covered the holes in the ground with ferns camouflaging the 12-foot drop onto razor-sharp spikes. The food supplies also were rigged to kill, if needed. A system was devised by Uncle that would punish anyone who happened across the cabin and decided to raid their stash. A simple storage mantra of
After 5, Stay Alive
was taught to the boys. This meant the first five items on the shelves had been tainted.
Uncle taught the boys about how people had become lazy on the outside and could not produce or supply their own food. They had been trained by society to grab the first thing on the shelf in a store. Tomek and Drake were taught these things about people. They were taught tendencies and baiting techniques about everything, especially humans. The
After 5, Stay Alive
rule meant the boys ate the stored food starting from the back of their supplies.
Uncle’s favorite elixir of toxin was readily available in the Michigan woods. A combination of a semi-tall, white, capped mushroom he referred to as “the Death Angel,” along with a sweet-smelling dark berry called Nightshade. The mushrooms were not abundant in their area, but when they encountered it, they collected as much as they could carry. Luckily, a little bit went a long way in terms of their intended uses for it. Eating just a sliver of the mushrooms would promptly shut down the liver, kidneys and stomach organs. In less than two hours, death. Uncle knew the process could be accelerated if it directly entered one's bloodstream.
Nightshade is a tall and bushy plant that grows abundantly throughout their home riverside area. The flowers grow in long clusters and the berries are purple, black and are flat. The entire plant is poisonous, particularly the roots. The boys knew all too well the damage the poison could do.
Uncle had taught the boys to mix the Nightshade into a stew with river water and boil overnight. The sugars in the berries would caramelize and the chemicals would draw out of the fungi, leaving them with a sappy substance of pure, natural, chemical death. The boys remembered clearly seeing it put to use the first time. It was important to Uncle that they learn this lesson firsthand.
Uncle had gone to using this type of poison on each of his arrow tips after shooting an elk one day, many years before, and watching the arrow shaft penetrate deep into the bull's shoulder plate. The bull had taken off and made it closer to civilization than Uncle had liked. As good of a tracker as Uncle was, even he knew he could not find the elk after the shot. He was sure he mortally wounded the prize bull but could not risk tracking it into the small nearby town.
“Taking a life for no reason is wrong,” Uncle preached after each kill. He vowed to never again lose an animal he had wounded. “If you take a life, you must make reason of it in order to release the dead's soul.”
To make the poison's effectiveness clear to the twins, Uncle trapped a deer in a trail noose designed to hold its prey but not kill it. The boys walked upon her slowly as she thrashed and jumped, trying unsuccessfully to flee the confines of her prison. Uncle struck the deer with a sap-dipped dart from his blowgun in her rear hind quarter.
The doe spun around and dropped to her knees. Looking directly at them, she lay on her side where they could see her chest rise and fall with each breath. Then it happened. Less than three minutes had passed. The Nightshade had instantly frozen her nervous system, as it was designed by nature to do. The toxins brought her to the ground where the Death Angel shut down her organs and she died laying there, staring at the boys.
Those three were the last thing she saw. Uncle often dreamed about that doe. Only in his vivid dreams, the deer could talk. The dream always had the same ending just before he awoke. The doe stops fighting, draws her last breath, looks to him at that moment of death with two spotted fawns behind her and says,
t echoed throughout the valley at daybreak and jolted the boys awake. The clear, crisp rifle blast was unmistakable and not far away. Tomek was first to his feet, bow in hand and quiver on his back. Drake was not far behind with a belt full of throwing knives and his spear. Both boys were ready for battle, clutching their favorite tools of war. As the second shot rang out, they knew the exact location of the trespasser.
“It came from the orchard near the overgrown section near mid-hill,” Drake said.
“Probably a wandering hunter,” Tomek guessed.
This was not the first time they had been close to strangers in their area. At least a few times each year, a group of outdoorsman or two would float by on the river. They would often just hide and wait them out. If they were seen, a simple wave was all that was needed. The boys had dressed in army fatigue camouflage every day of their lives. Added to this was a mixture of torn burlap and natural plant life. The boys could drop to the ground and vanish at any point, on any day of the year. To any passerby they were just a part of the landscape. This is how Uncle taught them to be. However this time was different. Uncle was not there.
As the hollowed-out tree door opened, both of them knew the situation was worse than they had thought. Both boys looked out to the river and saw it at the same time. The aluminum canoe shimmered in what was left of the past night’s moon. Whomever was shooting had landed and beached 40 yards from their front door.
How did this happen without them waking? Had they been found? Who was shooting? Drake looked at Tomek and for the first time saw a change in his brother’s eyes. Tomek’s rage was nothing new. Uncle had seen it in him as well and never corrected it. Tomek was taught to use it as a weapon.
Trying to calm his brother, Drake made sure Tomek would not be in direct contact with the shooter.
“You take the blossom ridge and come down from the hilltop,” Drake planned. “I will walk up the river edge and flank to the west.” Tomek agreed.
Both boys had their strengths. When it came to brute strength, agility and marksmanship, Tomek was Uncle’s killing machine. Drake was just as deadly with his knives, but was much more calculated, tactical and could easily outsmart and trap his way into and out of situations. Uncle knew this from the day Drake escaped the hospital and met him at the big pine.
As they separated, Drake walked along the river's edge, utilizing the sound of the babbling river to hide his footsteps. He quickly knew what awaited him downriver as he spotted the dead deer alone on the bank from 50 yards away.
Recognizing the drop from the hillside down to the bank and the path it must've taken before it expired, he knew the hunter was either still on his way down the hill or walking upstream to find a place to safely climb down and retrieve the game. Either way, Drake had time to set up a quick blind utilizing some driftwood and the outcropping rock formation. From his spot he would be invisible to anyone coming up to the deer from any location. Drake sat, patiently waiting for his prey to take the bait.
Tomek quickly stalked his way through the orchard on top of the ridge. Using the height of the ridge to look down upon the valley gave him a great advantage. The gleam caught his eye. An empty .308 shell casing that was still wet with the morning dew was in front of him. Next to it was the hunter's pack and a small area of matted-down grass.
“This is the spot where he killed my deer,” Tomek uttered to himself. With an arrow knocked, he walked in the hunter’s steps. With each step he fought the racing of his heart and could feel the tightness in his fingers upon the bowstring. Tomek could not remember the last time he had the excitement, the nerves and the adrenaline of a true hunt.
Tomek worked downhill and was now not only on the hunter's trail but had picked up the injured deer’s blood trail and spoor. Tomek would be the first of the boys to see the invader. A tall man who seemed to be about 10 years older than the boys, wearing camouflage pants and a black over blue flannel shirt. The intruder also adorned a bright orange vest that allowed Tomek to keep his distance but easily see him through the brush. Tomek laughed to himself about the hunter’s attire and immediately considered him a lesser outdoorsman and barely even human.