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To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour.

 - Winston Churchill

Chapter Three

Cricket Creek

Taylor Martin and his brother Ed were hiking up Cricket Creek Trail, as they had done so many times in the past. True to its name, Cricket Creek Trail generally followed the path of a little meandering watercourse that the locals called Cricket Creek. The creek was of little use to anyone. It was so narrow that a boy could stand with one foot on each bank. It was far too shallow for a boat, and Taylor had never heard of anyone catching a fish there.

Taylor was eleven, and his brother was nine. One of the big advantages to living out in the country was that their parents were generally able to let the boys do as they pleased. Taylor often brought his little 22 rifle along, a cherished gift received on his tenth birthday. Today the boys were unarmed, though not by choice. One of Taylor’s great joys in life was to go out in the woods with a couple boxes of ammunition and plink tin cans. Sadly, prudence had given way to enthusiasm, and he had used up the whole carton of cartridges his dad had gotten him for the month.  

It was late in the summer, and the boys only had another two weeks of vacation before the drudgery of school began again. Like most of their school mates, Taylor and Ed saw little need for school. They would both farm, as their father had done. Everything they needed to know, they would learn from him.

The woods here were thick and close, so that humidity and heat seemed to be captured and held. This was one of the advantages of camping and hiking so late in the summer. It was cooler than it had been just a month ago, especially at night. They found themselves a good camp site, which wasn’t easy. There had been lots of rain lately, and the ground here was pretty badly eroded in some places.

Ed being the younger brother, usually got stuck doing the scut work. It wasn’t fair; but like most little brothers, Ed had gotten used to it. Taylor wasn’t as bad a big brother as those of some of the kids Ed knew from school.  Taylor would usually let Ed hold his prized rifle, and from time to time he would even let Ed shoot it. He always stuck up for Ed when bigger kids picked on him.

So Ed started driving tent states, while Taylor began to hunt around for firewood, and for stones to build a fire ring. Their mom had packed them some marshmallows and hot dogs for the fire, as well as buns, and a thermos full of chocolate milk. Most of the afternoon remained, so that they had plenty of time to settle into their camp before nightfall.

As Taylor gathered his bits of wood and kindling, he could hear the steady thump, thump, thump, of Ed pounding in the stakes for the tent. Suddenly there was a pause, and Ed muttered, “What in the world?”

Taylor shook his head. Ed was a good kid, and a decent little brother; but sometimes he could be a trial. Taylor suspected Ed had once again misjudged, hit off center, and bent up another tent stake.

“Oh Lord. Oh Lord! Oh my God.” There was something in the pitch of Ed’s voice that made the hair on the back of Taylor’s head stand up.

“Ed? Ed, what’s going on?”

Taylor quickly headed over to where his brother had been pitching the tent, and then began to run. Suddenly he was frightened. He found the tent partially spread out on the ground, with a few of the stakes already set. His brother was gone; but Taylor could hear him crashing blindly through the woods, not even bothering to get back on the trail. Ed did not scare easily. Taylor suddenly wished he had his rifle with him. He hadn’t heard the growls of a bear, or any indication of any other dangerous animal. Yet something had thrown quite a scare into Ed.

Taylor ran after his brother, and finally caught up to him. He grabbed Ed around the shoulders, and tried to calm him down. Ed started to yell, and struggled furiously, while Taylor shouted, “Ed, it’s me. Relax, and tell me what happened.”

Ed swung around and punched his brother so hard that Taylor saw stars and almost fell down. Taylor was surprised, though soon enough he turned angry. Who would have known that his little brother could hit so hard? Ed had disappeared somewhere up the trail, and from the sound of it was making pretty good progress towards getting home. When Taylor caught back up to Ed there would be hell to pay. Right now, catching up would be a real challenge. What had gotten into Ed?

Taylor rubbed his jaw, and trudged back down the trail. There would be no camping tonight; but he wanted to get the tent packed up and get everything back home. Arriving back at their campsite, Taylor began to pull up the tent stakes, and roll the tent back up. He had just about finished putting the tent back in its bag, when he noticed something stunk. If some big animal crawled off to die here, this wouldn’t have been such a good place to camp anyway.

He shook his head over his brother’s sudden panic. Ed could be such a little kid sometimes. They had both seen dead and partially decomposed animals before. It was unpleasant and kind of creepy, but nothing to go running through the woods in a panic over.  Taylor was curious as to what had died, so he sniffed around a bit.

Looking near where the first stake had been driven in, he saw something that froze him in his tracks. There was a partially decomposed human hand sticking up out of the ground. It had a ring on one of the fingers. A partially frayed and worn cuff showed, just about where the hand emerged from the ground. Ed must have uncovered it while brushing away the leaves to plant the stake.

Taylor felt his whole body tense up, and suddenly realized that it was rather cold and kind of dark here in the deep woods, even during the middle of the afternoon. He had long ago grown used to the multitude of rustlings, calls, snaps, and other sounds peculiar to the woods. Normally they passed without notice; but now each competed for his attention. He looked around feeling a presence, as if he were being watched.

He knew there couldn’t really be anyone there, yet his nerves tingled. Someone had left this body, and tried to bury it. If this was a murder or some kind of foul play, it wouldn’t do to be caught here. Taylor slowly and stiffly stood up, afraid to look either right or left. There were lots of campfire stories about men who haunted these woods. Taylor had always laughed at these stories; but he once more wished he had brought his gun. There were the usual scary stories about maniacs escaped from prison or from mental institutions; but there were also the half-true stories about men with stills, or little pot farms. These were people who were very protective about their property and privacy.

 If this man had been murdered and the body buried here in the woods, perhaps the murderer would come back to check. Taylor had heard that criminals always returned to the scene of the crime. It would be a prudent thing to, what with all the rain that had fallen lately. A smart murderer might want to come and check up on the body he had buried here.

Taylor turned back towards the trail, making a special effort to remain quiet. He looked down to see eyeless sockets staring at him; but they weren’t completely eyeless. There remained little bits of eyelid, sunken and clinging to the edges of the sockets, partially concealing the black goo and insects nestled within. The skull seemed to be grinning up at him through lips that were torn, partially dried, and pulled back into a mocking grimace.

Five minutes latter Taylor came running through the woods, panting and terrified. Perhaps his catching up with his brother was not so unlikely after all. Taylor had screamed like a little girl when he discovered the partially uncovered skull. Thank goodness there was no one to hear. Bursting out of the woods, and into the open fields bordering home, he saw his brother, no longer so far ahead. As he ran headlong through the fields, he suddenly found it in his heart to forgive his brother for hitting him.