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For the next thirty minutes, the four of them “play” their way down the trail—swinging on grape vines, pushing one another into pools of water while crossing the creek, throwing acorns at each other—until they finally reach a deserted road. The road runs east and west, dividing the woods in half, with grass and weeds growing up between two dirt lanes. The road rarely, if ever gets used.

“Should we follow the road?” Robbie asks.

Alec puts both hands on his hips and glares at Robbie. “Why would we want to do that? We’re heading north so we follow the trail. And we need to hurry up; the sun will be down in an hour.”

A few minutes later Robbie makes an announcement. “I need to take a leak.”

“Well, there are plenty of trees around, so go ahead. We won’t watch.” The other three converse while Robbie runs off into the woods. He’s known to have a nervous bladder, so he moves deep into the trees, away from prying eyes.

Dougie shouts after him, “Hurry up Robbie. And watch out for rattlers.”

When a good amount of time has gone by, and Robbie hasn’t rejoined the group, Dougie yells for him. “Robbie, hurry up. What’s takin’ you so long? All you had to do was piss.”

“Yeah, hurry up dumb ass. We don’t have all day.” Alec picks up a rock and throws it in the direction they last saw Robbie.

Jason, now concerned, says, “Let’s go find him. He better not be horsing around or he’s dead meat.”

Fifty yards off the trail Jason stumbles upon Robbie on the opposite side of a large oak tree. “Hey guys. Come over here. I’ve found him, but something’s wrong.”

They all run to the slumped figure beneath the tree and as they gather around, they notice his eyes closed. They also observe a flow of blood oozing from his right temple and down his cheek.

“Is he dead?” Alec asks.

Dougie bends over the body. “No, he’s still breathin’.”

Jason gently shakes Robbie.

Robbie’s eyes open slowly and Alec says, “What happened? Why is your head bleeding?”

Not fully cognizant, he mutters, “I don’t know. I was standing there taking a leak and I heard a crack and then a sharp pain on the side of my head. That’s all I remember.”

Jason lifts the hair covering Robbie’s temple and finds a huge welt, with a small hole in the center. There appears to be an object under the skin, and Jason attempts to squeeze the unknown item back out of the hole.

Robbie jerks his head away. “Damn. That hurts.” He reaches up and gingerly runs his fingers along the side of his head. “There’s something in there all right.”

“I know it hurts, but we’ve got to get it out. You don’t want to go to the hospital do you?”

A sharp crack immediately follows an explosion of bark from the tree above their heads. At first, not sure what just happened, the boys are frozen in place, but then Alec says, “Somebody’s shooting at us. Get down on the ground… get behind a tree.” They all four dive to safety behind the trunk of a massive oak. Huddled together behind the tree, the boys, breathing heavily, try to calm their racing hearts.

Jason motions for quiet. “Sit still and listen.”

A squirrel running through a pile of fallen leaves creates the only sound.

“Who do you think it is?” whispers Robbie.

Jason shrugs. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s an accident.”

Alec waves both hands and frowns. “An accident? Come on Jason. No way.”

“Maybe they’re hunting and don’t even know we’re here.” Jason doesn’t believe his own speculation, but he prefers not to jump to conclusions and to give others the benefit of the doubt.

Dougie yells out, “Hey, you better stop shootin’ at us or we’re goin’ to the cops.” At first silence, then faint laughter echoes from deep in the darkened woods.

Alec says, “All right, we have two choices. We can run or go on the offensive.” He surveys the surrounding woods and points to a spot on the other side of a ravine. “Over there are a bunch of hedge apples scattered on the ground. Let’s all grab an armful and start throwing them in their direction. We might scare them out.”

Robbie says, “Hedge apples? Yeah right. What good will they do? They’ll just shoot at us again.”

“They’re going to shoot at us no matter what we do. I would just as soon see one of these hedge apples smashing their faces. That might even things up.” Alec crawls to the tree and gathers ammunition. Dougie and Jason move on hands and knees toward the hedge apples, while Robbie stays behind the tree, not altogether with it at this point.

Once they’ve supplied themselves with ammunition, all four boys spread out in a line and sprint in the direction from where they heard the shot. Shouting like warriors, they hurl the large, green apples, until their supply dwindles to only a few pieces. A lone figure bolts from behind a tree and runs in the opposite direction. Robbie winds up, as if he stands on the pitching mound, and hurls one of the remaining apples at the fleeing figure. Bam, he nails him square in the back. The man drops to his knees with a loud moan.

Robbie’s face and neck have turned a scarlet red and his voice trembles. “It’s Stubby Winston. Shit!”

Stepping out from behind a second tree, Stubby’s brother Lightning fires his weapon. The sound of projectiles ricocheting off the ground and surrounding foliage causes the four boys to drop their ammo and flee. They dive for cover behind the same oak tree.

Jason says, “It’s the Winston brothers and they’re not messing around. We need to get out of here fast.” More blood has seeped from Robbie’s wound. “How’s your head?”

“It’s throbbing, but it won’t slow me down.”

With darkness now becoming their ally, the boys help Robbie to his feet and scamper back to the trail. They run north and eventually arrive at the wood’s edge. They then sprint the remaining fifty yards across the open field and arrive at the intersection of Hickory and Jefferson.

Bent over and catching their breaths at the street corner, a loud plink on the metal STOP sign above their heads startles them. Jason falls to the ground, followed by Robbie and Alec.

Alec says, “Come on guys. Let’s ditch it across the street and hide next to the house over there.” Alec takes off and Robbie and Jason follow.

Huddled next to the house, they peek around the corner and glance across the street. Instead of following them to safety, Dougie walks back toward the woods. With his hunting knife brandished in front of him, he taunts the unseen assailants hidden somewhere back in the stand of trees.

“Why don’t you come on out and show your faces? I’ll kick your asses. I’ll cut you ‘til you bleed like stuck pigs, you damn pussies.”

Jason mutters, “Whoa, Dougie.” But rather than leave him out there humiliated, he calls him back. “Dougie, get over here. You’re target practice standing out there.” All three frantically wave their arms to get his attention.

Dougie finally turns back to them, but before taking a step, he drops to one knee, reaches for his back and grimaces in pain. With shots ricocheting on the ground around him, he quickly gathers himself, regains his feet, and stumbles to safety.

When he joins the others, he drops down on all fours, moaning in pain.

“Where’d you get hit?” Jason kneels down and offers assistance.

Dougie points to his lower back. A spot of blood the size of a silver dollar stains his shirt. Jason raises the shirt to Dougie’s shoulders and the boys gather in close to survey the damage.

Alec says, “Damn, that’s gross.”

A large red and purple welt has formed on Dougie’s back, with a small amount of blood trickling from the wound. The “bullet” or whatever they fired from the gun remains a mystery.

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