Friend or Foe

The guys stood motionless, listening. It was still too dark to see more than shadows in the early morning light. Then, the crunching sound of something moving through the jungle broke the silence.  Whatever was making that noise was coming their way, in a hurry. Hearts racing, eyes wide open, they braced themselves.

Two familiar barks and Bandit emerged from the dense vegetation sprinting at full speed. Jold dropped to his knees and reached out. Bandit leaped into his outstretched arms, nearly knocking him down, licking his face while wagging his tail. The looks of fear changed to relief as the gang gathered round Jold, hugging and petting Bandit. “You found us,” “good boy,” “Bandit will show us the way back,” “yeah, let’s get going.” 

Tali was the first to look up.  She nudged Ben, “we’ve got company.” Standing a few yards away were a dozen or so kids smiling from ear to ear.

“Where did they come from?” asked Willy.

“Not a clue,” answered Ben.

 They were dressed in loose fitting black shorts and tattered t-shirts. They wore sandals and several had grass hats. They all had brown skin, black hair and squinty eyes, kind of like Jold’s eyes.

They started talking among themselves, then giggled and pointed. It took a minute for the gang to realize the kids were pointing at Kate’s red hair. They inched in closer to get a better look. Kate stepped forward, took her baseball cap off and the scrunchy out of her ponytail. She leaned forward and let them touch her hair. 

Ben patted his chest, “I’m Ben.” Then, one at a time he put a hand on the shoulder of his friends. “This is Jold, Willy, Kate, and Tali. What are your names?” he asked.

The one who seemed to be the oldest began speaking, but not in a language that any of the gang understood. He continued talking while waving his hands, pointing and gesturing like someone playing charades, but to no avail. He reached for Ben’s arm. Ben pulled away. He reached out again, this time for Ben’s shirttail. He grabbed ahold and gave it a few tugs as he pointed. Bandit nipped at Ben’s pant leg, backed away, and barked. “He wants us to go with them,” said Jold.

“I think we should go,” said Tali. “Me too, they might be able to help us find our way back.” said Kate. Willy agreed, “Yeah, let’s go.”

Their leader walked away while motioning for them to follow. One of the younger boys took Tali’s hand and pulled. Another took Kate’s hand. She smiled at him, shrugged and started walking. Their smiles and giggles were so infectious they couldn’t help but like them. They were obviously at home in the jungle and seemed to know exactly where they were going. The gang had nothing to lose by going with them, they were lost.

The kids led them along a winding and heavily traveled path. Ben’s watch still read 12:15. He had no idea how long they had been walking, but his compass said they were headed east. Willy’s compass confirmed it, they were going east.

 “Hey Willy,” said Ben, I think we’re going the wrong way.” “Yeah, me too,” answered Willy. “We need to go west.”

 Ben was about to call a halt to their hike when they broke out of the jungle into the open. One quick scan and the hope that these kids would lead them to the plane evaporated. The winding path had not led them to a runway and there was no Shirley Ann. What they saw instead was a staircase of shallow ponds on the side of a hill.  Each one, about the size of a basketball court, was surrounded by small dikes about two feet tall.

Growing up in mountain country, they had seen acres of alfalfa fields. Several times a year the alfalfa is cut and dried, then baled for transport and stacking. It’s the perfect food for horses and cattle. These fields looked nothing like those in Colorado.

Men and women were working in the muddy ankle-deep water. Most were wearing a cone shaped grass hat and had a small bag hanging from their shoulder about waist height. They would reach into their bag for a handful of tall grass and plant it in the ground below the surface; leaving a few inches of the grass visible above the water. They kept the rows perfectly straight.

One boy was walking behind an ox, guiding the plow as the ox pulled. Another was out front guiding the ox with a rope attached to a nose ring. A woman was standing on a platform next to a waterwheel. As she walked in place the wheel turned. It reminded them of what they like to do at the mall, walk up the down escalator. She didn’t get anywhere but the wheel with the wooden buckets attached lifted the water from the canal and dumped it into the pond. It all seemed very primitive compared to the giant tractors at home. It wasn’t until later that the gang learned these were rice fields.

The excited kids that had brought them this far motioned for them to keep following.

“Should we keep going?” asked Tali. 

By then, work in the fields had stopped. All eyes were on these strange looking visitors. Bandit was already running along the dike behind the kids. He certainly wasn’t afraid.

“It’s okay,” said Jold, “Bandit’s telepathic. He would know if they were bad people.”

“I think they’re leading us to their village. I can see some huts on the other side of these ponds,” said Willy.

“I can see them too,” said Kate. “Maybe someone there can show us the way back to the plane.”

“Okay, let’s follow them,” said Ben.

On the other side was a small village. The huts were made from bamboo with thatched roofs. They had four strong corner posts supporting the roof and floor. The floors were smaller bamboo stalks, easier on the feet for walking. The walls were made of long bamboo shoots about as big around as a thumb and strapped together with cords. Doors and windows were nothing more than openings that had been cut into the walls. The entire house was raised about two feet off the ground and not much bigger than Kate’s bedroom.

In the center of the village was a fire pit. A huge pot was suspended above a blazing fire. Whatever was cooking in that pot  sure smelled good to five hungry sixth graders who hadn’t eaten in the last twenty-four hours.

The adults soon joined them; it must have been lunch time. They were chattering while motioning for everyone to sit on the crude benches around the fire pit. The gang followed their instructions. Then, one of the women scooped food from the pot and placed it in wooden bowls. She handed one to each of them.

“What do you think this is?” ask Willy.

“I know what it is,” said Jold. “We eat stuff like this at home all the time. It’s rice and fish. Smells good, huh?”

“How do we eat this?” asked Kate.

“Do what they’re doing,” said Tali.

No spoons or forks needed here. Using your fingertips, you grab a bit of rice mixed with a few pieces of fish and make a ball. Pop it in your mouth and chew. Don’t forget to blow first, it’s hot. Jold rolled his first one and gave it to Bandit. No one would go hungry on this day. They couldn’t understand a word, but these kind people made them feel like guests.

When the meal was finished, the village kids jumped up and waved for them to follow. They led the gang to a flat dry area next to the village about half the size of a tennis court. Each end had two sticks stuck in the ground about ten feet apart. One of the kids came running over with a soccer ball. If you looked closely, you could still see the name Wilson in faded black letters. The village kids divided them up. Ben and Tali went with one group; Willy, Jold and Kate with the other. After they faced off, the ball was tossed in the air and the game was on. Bandit played for both teams, barking and nipping at the ball. No rules and no one kept score as far as they could tell. They just cheered a lot when the ball was kicked between the sticks.

There were no bikes, skateboards, or video games. There were no closets or dressers, only a few pieces of clothing hanging from pegs in the huts. They seemed to have little more than what they were wearing. It was obvious that their infectious joy and happiness was not coming from what they possessed, it was coming from within.  

At sunset, the families came together around the fire pit. Ben took the opportunity to try and explain how they got there. He stood up, used his hand like an airplane and made an engine noise. He walked a couple of steps bringing his hand closer to the ground like a plane landing. Tali tried another way. She spread her arms while walking around the fire and made the same engine noise. Then she came in for a landing by sitting down on the ground. The village people laughed and clapped but didn’t seem to understand. Soon they brought out mats and laid them around the fire pit. One demonstrated what they were for by laying down and motioned for them to do the same. Then, they bowed and disappeared into their huts.

Ben moved the mats close. They huddled together. A layer of clouds hid the moon and stars from their view. The glow from the dying embers provided their only light. Sounds of the night jungle filled the air while fear swept over them like a thick cold fog. Another night away from their families and no idea how they would get home. Overcome by exhaustion, fear finally lost its battle with sleep.

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