They were off the trail now. A week on the easier terrain, getting acclimated, making sure they were at peak fitness, before climbing into the hills.
“You know it’s five days since we saw another person,” Face called, from his rearguard position. “And a week since we saw a woman,” he added, in a dark tone.
“Get used to it,” Hannibal said. “The fewer people we see the better. The fewer people to remember us.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Face had heard this mantra too many times already. But even he couldn’t find too much to complain about at the moment. The terrain was rough, but hardly arduous enough to bother them. The sky was blue, the vegetation lush. Billy scampered ahead exploring and running back periodically for a pat on the head. Okay, the sun was pretty hot, but Face had a hat on, so couldn’t even complain Hannibal was causing him to bake his brain.
Up front on point, BA did have a grievance though and called back over his shoulder. “Ain’t it time we stopped for lunch?”
“It’s not even noon yet,” Hannibal said.
“Yeah, and we was up at dawn, ’cause of that raccoon.”
“That was a bear,” Face said. “I saw it.”
Billy had woken them with furious barking, and they’d run from their tents to find something vanishing into the darkness with the dog chasing it off. When Billy came back to the camp a moment later, Face could swear the dog had a smug smile.
“It was not a bear,” Hannibal said, “We’re not in bear territory yet.”
“What do you mean, yet?” BA said, scowling back at him.
Hannibal manoeuvred around a rock, while Billy scrambled over the top of it and ran on to BA, who took something from his pocket and passed it down to the dog. Face grinned. Good thing Billy was getting lots of exercise, or he’d be fat as a pig, with all the treats he got from the big guy.
“Okay, guys, Hannibal said. “Let’s have another riddle.” Face and BA groaned in unison.
“Nothing about tigers or guys who can only tell lies,” BA said.
“Nope, no tigers. Right, you boys listening?”
“Yes, Dad.” They chorused it and grinned. Hannibal ignored that.
“There’s a farmer, going to market. He has a bag of grain, a chicken and a fox.”
“A fox?” Face frowned, and moved to catch up to Hannibal and walk side by side.
“Yeah, a fox. Now…”
“What’s a farmer doing with a fox? Wouldn’t he just shoot a fox? Why is he taking it to market?”
Hannibal glared at him. “Okay, then it’s a dog. Yeah, I think that’s right. It’s a dog.”
BA dropped back to walk on Hannibal’s other side. “He’s going to market with one chicken?”
“One chicken? That’s not going to earn him very much. Wouldn’t he have lots of chickens?”
“Good point, BA.” Face nodded and hid a grin at the annoyed expression on Hannibal’s face.
“It doesn’t matter. If you insist, he’s coming home from market and he bought a chicken.”
“And some grain,” BA said.
“And some grain.”
“And a dog,” Face put in.
“No, he didn’t, he already had the dog. Look it doesn’t matter!”
Face smiled to himself again. A couple of days ago, Hannibal had started with coming up with riddles and puzzles to keep them occupied. And Face and BA were making sure he regretted it, while getting the maximum possible entertainment out of it themselves.
“I dunno though,” BA said. “He went all the way to the market and just bought the one chicken? Why not buy a bunch?”
“Yeah, sounds suspicious to me,” Face said, nodding. “I think he stole the chicken.”
“Yeah,” BA agreed. “He could have used the grain to lay down a trail to lure it.”
“Guys!” Hannibal looked at them, an almost pleading expression in his eyes. “Look, you’re not cops trying to break down his story! Knock it off and let me get to the riddle part!”
“You mean there’s more?” Face said, innocently. Hannibal glared at him.
“Yes, there’s more. And by the way, you’re doing it again. Both of you.”
“Doing what?” Face asked.
“Marching! Walking in step anyway.”
Face and BA both faltered, looking down at their feet. They couldn’t break the habit. Left right left right, all together.
“We might as well have our uniforms on.” Hannibal said. “Anybody who saw us would peg us as soldiers on sight. Loosen up, just…. stroll.”
“Stroll,” Face said. They walked on in silence for a while, Face and BA concentrating hard on their feet and each other’s feet. After a moment Face spoke.
“Great, now I’ve forgotten how to walk.” So strange. Trying to concentrate on something instinctive made it almost impossible to do.
“Don’t think about it,” Hannibal said, “Just let go and stroll. Now, can I go on with the riddle?”
“Can we stop for lunch yet?” BA asked.
“After you solve the riddle. Right. This man, farmer, thief, whatever, he has a chicken, a dog and a sack of grain. How he obtained them is outside the scope of this investigation.” He glared to emphasise that last point. “Now he comes to a river and the only way to cross is by rowing over in a boat. But he can’t fit the chicken the dog and the grain into the boat.”
“Small boat.” Face looked up from his boots, trying to let “strolling” come naturally.
“Yes, Face,” Hannibal sounded determined not to let them sidetrack him again. “It’s a very small boat. He can only carry one of the items at a time.”
“Can you call an animal an item?” Face mused.
“Shut up. He has to make more than one trip. But he has a problem – if he rows over with the dog and leaves the chicken and the grain together, the chicken will eat the grain. But if he takes the grain and leaves the dog and chicken, the dog will kill the chicken.”
“How big is this chicken?” Face asked, frowning.
“What does that matter?”
“Well it would have to either be a very big chicken or a very small bag of grain for him to worry about the chicken eating all of it. Can’t he just accept a losing a little of the grain?”
“No he can’t!”
“Sorry,” Face said, not sorry at all. He caught BA’s eye and winked. Going very well so far. By the time they were done Hannibal wouldn’t know what day of the week it was. Come to think of it, what day of the week was it?
“Couldn’t the dog just swim over?” BA asked. “Dogs can swim good, look how much he enjoyed himself in that river the other day.” He nodded at Billy, scouting ahead of them.
Catch us a rabbit, little guy, Face thought, starting to feel as hungry as BA. The dog was a pretty good rabbit catcher. And an excellent rabbit retriever after the team shot them.
“Look, guys, it’s a riddle!” Hannibal said, exasperated. “It’s not a hard-hitting documentary. It’s a logic problem – will you stop trying to apply the real world to it?”
“Couldn’t the chicken just fly over?” Face said, actually starting to think about the puzzle now.
“Chickens can’t fly!” BA said and snorted with laughter.
“Of course chickens can fly!” Face protested. “They’re birds aren’t they?”
“So are penguins!”
“Hannibal!” Face appealed to arbitration from the expert.
“Technically, yeah, chickens can fly,” Hannibal said. Face smiled smugly.
“Then how come the ones on farms don’t just fly away?” BA demanded, scowling at Face.
“Because they can fly, but not very well, or very far. And why fly away from some place where you’re being fed regularly and have a nice warm bed to sleep in?” They went silent for a moment and Face and BA exchanged a glance.
“Yeah, be nuts to do something like that,” BA muttered.
“Okay then.” Hannibal looked at them. “What’s the answer? How is he going to get all three across the river without the dog eating the chicken, or the chicken eating the grain?”
“Well…” Face frowned in concentration. “He could take the chicken, ’cause the dog won’t eat the grain, then he comes back and brings across… No, wait, then he’d have to leave the dog or the grain with the chicken while he made the last pickup.”
“He could leave the grain behind,” BA said. “Abandon it, I mean. Can always buy more grain, but if he loses the chicken, no more eggs. Or if he leaves the dog… well, whatever his dog does, guards the farm or kill rats, he’d lose more in the end. Yeah. I’d leave the grain. Is that the answer?”
“No, BA,” Hannibal said. “Or, I guess it’s one answer, if it was a question about something else. But for this riddle, he needs to get them all across the river.” Face knew he meant if it was about sacrifice – what you’re willing to lose now to prevent worse loss later.
“Can we stop for lunch?” Face asked. “All this talk about chicken and grain is making me really hungry.”
Hannibal showed some mercy then. He stopped and glanced around, nodding, approving this as a stopping off point. “Okay, but I want the answer from you guys after we eat.”
“I’ll just start this letter while we stop for some lunch. I hope the food in the VA is okay. Hospital food – how good can it be? But after Army food, I guess it’s a gourmet feast.
“Hannibal has BA and me going crazy with riddles and enigmas and guessing games. I think he thinks he has to keep us occupied or we’ll wander off or something.
“You’d probably get the answers to them quicker than us. Your mind works the same way as Hannibal’s. Then again your answer to getting the dog and the chicken and the grain over the river is probably “hire a chopper”.
“Okay, food’s on.”
Murdock ate his lunch in his room. He preferred that, where he could eat without having to keep a watch out for anyone coming to try and take it from him.
Old habits. One bite for him, one for the handkerchief he had open on his lap. They couldn’t see that from the door. Safe.
One bite for him. One for the handkerchief. Then once he finished – lick the plate, don’t waste a morsel – wrap up the handkerchief and put it in his pocket while the staff came and took away the lunch tray. Smile at them, nice smile. They don’t suspect a thing.
He climbed into bed, sheet up over his head so they couldn’t see him, and reached under his pillow to pull out the roll of toilet paper he’d liberated from the bathroom. Retrieving the handkerchief from his pocket, he opened it and laid it flat.
Then he took squares of toilet paper and made small parcels of each scrap of food. Bread and vegetables. Lick the gravy off them, so it doesn’t soak through. Good, nice and neat. He wrapped the small parcels back in the handkerchief.
Cautious, listening first, then pulling the sheet down to look, checking the door again. Still closed. Nobody looking in the hatch. A shadow crossed it when someone passed outside. Voices. Laughter sometimes. Sometimes a yell or even a scream. Though the screams came more often at night.
Murdock slid off the bed and ducked underneath it. A hospital bed was a miraculous contraption, and it had a lot of nooks and crannies underneath, ready to bite the fingers of the unwary. But also ready to conceal tiny paper-wrapped parcels.
He secreted a few of them. He’d be able to reach them without even getting off the bed. Smart plan. But a smart plan not to put all the eggs in one basket either. He slid under the bed and out the other side and scooted across the floor to sit against the wall by the door. A chest of drawers stood beside him and he slid open a bottom drawer, put in a food scrap, began to work his way up the cabinet. Not every drawer, too obvious. And not every other drawer. Try to be random, no pattern.
“What are you doing?” Face asked, crouching beside him. The only other man awake in their cage.
“Filling the larder,” Murdock said, glancing around to check for guards. He showed Face the little parcels wrapped in leaves. Face nodded. Understood of course – they’d done this often enough. He almost ate the scrap with his eyes, Murdock thought. The whole meal they just had was barely half what a grown man would call a light snack, but despite that they still they had to think about what would happen if they got nothing at all tomorrow, or the day after that, or the day after that.
“Keep watch,” Murdock said. Concealing food like this was against the camp’s rules of course. That rulebook must be a hell of a weighty tome. Though maybe it was a three ring binder, so they could add in more pages when they made up some new rule. All punishment, of course, applied retroactively.
Face watched the guards as Murdock hid the scraps, inside and outside the cage. Never more then half an arm’s length away. Easily grabbed.
While he slid one parcel between a couple of rocks, he hoped he’d wrapped the thick leaves tight enough to keep the bugs off. Not nice to find it full of… things when you unwrapped it later. Sometimes you ate it anyway. Told yourself that at least it gave you some protein.
Face kept glancing away from the guards and watching him. Couldn’t blame him. Food. Hard to concentrate on anything else. Impossible. All the times he’d ever been hungry before this meant nothing. Hell, they were pleasant memories. Coming home from school as a teenager, taller every day, Grandma used to complain, and always hungry however much lunch he ate. Or the times he went out exploring all day and came home hungry enough to eat a horse.
So different. Hunger that you knew would soon be satisfied with a big, delicious meal wasn’t hardship, more a kind of exquisite anticipation. Not like this mind-destroying, desolate emptiness.
Face turned back to watching the guards, while Murdock hid the rest of the scraps. Wardrobe, yes, that works, in the pockets of clothes. A piece on top. He wanted some tape. Taping packets to the undersides of furniture would work.
“Murdock,” Face said, from where he stood spying out of the hatch, the light outlining the jutting bones of his emaciated frame. He was fading away. Clothes hung loose where he’d once filled them out in nurse-pleasing ways.
He was fading away. Murdock could see the door and the hatch through his now translucent form. Before he vanished altogether, he spoke. A whisper. More a breeze than a voice.
“A storm’s building.”
Face lay in his tent, the door flap tied open and doodling on the back of his letter to Murdock. Dog. Chicken. Grain. Boat. Man. River.
“He has to take the chicken across first, right?” he called out across the campsite.
“Maybe,” Hannibal called back.
The three tents were up, forming a small triangle. They’d had a fire, but sudden rain had seen to that and the team decided to make camp early that day. Now they all lay in their tents, a gloomy mood pervading the site. Hannibal had a cigar, it’s smoke drifting out of the tent flap. BA had his head down on his forearms, maybe asleep, Face couldn’t tell. Billy didn’t seem to mind the rain much. He’d definitely swim across the river in this damn puzzle, Face thought. And back again.
Back again. Face stared at the paper. Back again. He started to draw long arrows across the paper and muttered to himself. Then he grinned.
“I’ve got it!”
Face’s yell made BA look up, and rest his chin on his arms. The cloud of smoke cleared from Hannibal’s tent flap as he took out the cigar.
“Let’s have it,” Hannibal said.
“Okay. Farmer takes the chicken across first, leaving the dog with the grain. He rows back over and picks up the dog.”
“That ain’t gonna work,” BA said.
“Ah ha, yes it does,” Face said, crowing a bit. “Because he drops the dog off, then brings the chicken back when he rows back to get the grain. He leaves the chicken there and takes the grain over the river. He leaves the grain with the dog and then finally rows back and picks up the chicken.”
Hannibal grinned. “You’re excused washing up duty for two nights, Face.”
“Wait, you never said he could bring stuff back,” BA protested.
“I never said he couldn’t. Why wouldn’t he be able to?”
BA grumbled without any actual words, glaring at Face, who tried to control his smug expression. No sense in provoking BA enough to make him come out into the rain and knock Face’s tent over. Erecting a tent in the rain didn’t come high on Face’s Fun Things To Do list.
“How about another one?” Hannibal asked, and went on before they could protest. “Okay, a king had three daughters.”
“I like this one better already,” Face said. “Are they — Holy crap!”
Lightning flashed across the sky. The thunderclap that followed instantly made all of then flinch and duck down even flatter on the ground. Billy started to bark furiously. The rain grew heavier. If it had been a million dripping faucets before, now the faucets were opened up all the way. Face pulled his head further back into the tent.
“Cloudburst,” Hannibal called above the noise of the rain. “Common enough around here.”
“Oh man, that was louder’n that shell that nearly…” BA stopped and shuddered.
Face knew the shell he meant. He didn’t want to think about that one any more than BA did. But missiles came to mind though as a small, hairy one headed straight at him. Spooked by the thunder, and the rain finally more than he could stand, Billy hurtled for the shelter of Face’s tent.
“No, wait!” Face tried to field Billy, but the dog shot past him and inside. And then it did what all wet dogs do when they get somewhere dry.
“No!” Face howled as Billy shook the water from his coat, flinging it on every inch of Face’s tent, belongings and person.
Outside he could hear Hannibal and BA roaring with laughter, for which, he decided, they’d pay heavily later. For now though he had a wet dog to deal with. Face grabbed a towel and Billy and wrapped the towel around the squirming dog. Just lovely, drying off a dog with his own personal bath towel. If he got fleas he was blaming Hannibal.
“Keep still!” Face pleaded as Billy struggled to get away from the brisk rubdown, doubtless thinking another good shake would deal with the wet fur just fine. “Keep still!” But Billy shot out of the towel, escaped Face’s arms, and rammed into the pole at the front flap.
The tent collapsed.
Man and dog howled in perfect harmony.
“Billy is sulking and won’t come near my tent. Some nerve, since he was the one who knocked the tent over! He’s sleeping in BA’s tonight, because it’s still raining out there, though. Not as heavy as that cloudburst earlier.
“Now that was a sight to see. It’s like the ocean fell out of the sky. If it’s still raining tomorrow I’d prefer to stay here for another night, but Hannibal likes to keep us moving, not staying in one spot too long. I don’t know what his beef is. Who’s going to spot us here in the middle of nowhere? Maybe he’s worried about spy satellites.”
Are they watching? Murdock slid out of bed on the side away from the door. Nobody looking through the hatch, but they could have other ways. Hidden cameras. Or the people in the wall – maybe they reported in?
Got to take the chance. He’d been out of his room that afternoon for a session with the doctor. After that they’d even taken him outside for a walk in the fresh air, which had been nice, the sun on his face, breeze in his hair. But he hated to leave the room unguarded. Anybody could go poking around.
Crouching under the bed, he checked the food parcels one by one, in each of the places he’d concealed them. Now he worried about his memory. How reliable was it? Squirrels came to his thoughts. They hid away nuts for the winter and then found them months later, didn’t they? He must be smarter than a squirrel.
Did they really remember though? Maybe they came out of hibernating and looked around and thought “that’s a good place to hide nuts. If I was hiding nuts, I’d hide one there. Well whaddya know – there’s a nut here.”
Murdock’s fingers touched a wrapped parcel inside a slot in the bed frame.
“Are they all still there?” BA asked him.
“I think so.”
“Don’t think, man, you gotta know.”
“I know, I know.” Hard to concentrate when you’re hungry. Strange though. He wasn’t hungry. Why not? He’d been hungry for so long and now he wasn’t. Not hurting either. Almost like he wasn’t in the camp any more.
“You’re not in the camp, you dummy.”
“Then why am I saving scraps of food?”
“Cos you nuts.”
“Go to bed.”
Murdock obeyed, climbing back into bed, under BA’s stern glare. Ah, yes. Now he remembered. They’d come in a little while ago and given him a pill to help him sleep. BA started to fade, just as Face had. Gaunt and grey already, just as he had been in the camp, now he became translucent and his final word drifted softly across as Murdock began to fall into the darkness.