The Road I'm On Is Dark
“Okay, Han, I won’t give up!” Jed got up off the floor and resumed hollering and pounding on the door. He was unsure of how long he’d been going at it, but it seemed like hours! His throat was burning, his voice raspy. He didn’t need to see to know his hands were torn and bleeding. He paused in his efforts to escape and let his head rest against the wooden door that separated him from freedom and listened to the silence.
When he let it get quiet, that was when the other noises came to taunt him. Jed wasn’t sure if he really wanted to know what the noises were; maybe he was better off not knowing. But worse than what his imagination conjured up in regards to the noises, was when there was only silence. That was when Jed had time to think.
That was also when the trapped boy first smelled the smoke.
“Okay, Kid, I’m gonna flatten you for real this time - but first, I’ve gotta find you!” Heyes was growing more worried, and more frustrated by the minute, but so far, no one else had noticed that Jed was missing. Miss Menius had inquired about him as she passed by and Heyes had told her he was washing up, hoping she didn’t stop by again. As he looked around the room, he found Danny Bailey staring at him, eyeing him with a speculative expression. When their eyes met, a big smirking smile appeared on the bully’s face.
Now that’s mighty strange, Heyes mused. Wonder what that’s all about?
Supper drew to an end and still there was no sign of Jed. Heyes knew something was very wrong. He had hardly touched his own supper; his concern over his cousin’s whereabouts had pushed food into a far corner of his mind. As the minutes ticked slowly by and he had time to think things over, Heyes realized that he was sitting alone. Not alone only because of Jed’s absence, but also because Jamie was conspicuously missing, too.
“Come to think of it, I haven’t seen the girl at all today!” Okay, that settled it - something strange was definitely going on! Heyes half-rose and scanned the dining room until his eyes came to rest on the solitary figure that sat hunched down at the end of the next table with a dejected look upon her face. He picked up his cup and bowl and crossed the distance that separated them. Once there he dropped down on the wooden bench beside her.
“Hiya, Jamie,” he greeted her. “How come you’re sitting way over here all by yourself?”
The girl continued to stare down at her bowl, pushing the food around idly with her spoon. She remained silent.
“What’s wrong? You mad at me?”
That got a reaction. “Me - mad at you?” The spoon dropped from her hand and she spun around on the bench to face Heyes. “I jus’ figured ya wouldn’t want me to sit with ya - that maybe ya were mad at me, too....” Jamie dropped his gaze and stared down at the floor. After a moment she added in a whisper, “Like Jed.”
“Oh, is Jed mad at you?” Heyes strove to keep his tone casual. Now he was getting somewhere.
“Guess so...” Jamie mumbled and heaved a dramatic sigh. “He told me to quit botherin’ him an’ to go away an’ leave him alone!”
Heyes could not only see the hurt, anger and confusion on the girl’s face, he could hear it in her voice. He wrapped an arm around her shoulder and gave his friend a reassuring hug. “Aw, you know how Jed gets sometimes; I bet he didn’t really mean it.” He waited a moment before asking his next question. “So, when did he say that to you?”
Jamie sighed again. “This afternoon; said he was studyin’.” She raised her eyes to look at him as she added, “See, I sneaked up on him, real nice an’ quiet-like,” she boasted proudly. “He was sittin’ in that big chair in the hall, ya know, the old one by the clock?”
“Well, guess he got mad ‘cos I scared him.” Her smile disappeared and her eyes clouded over. “An’ that’s when he told me to go away!” She folded her arms across her chest. “So I did, an’ I ain’t seen him since!”
“Neither have I, and you know what?” Heyes leaned closer to Jamie and added quietly, “I’m starting to get a bit concerned. You know Jed - he never misses a meal.”
Jamie nodded and began to worry her bottom lip between her teeth. “Uh, Han?” she said tentatively.
“Hmm?” Heyes looked down at her.
“I...” Jamie sighed. “Well, I kinda got mad at Jed, too. Told him I never, ever wanted to see him again!” She looked into her friend’s face. “Han, do ya think… maybe somethin’ bad’s happened to Jed?” she asked in a small voice. “Maybe ’cos of what I said to him?”
Seeing the moisture beginning to pool in her eyes, Heyes pulled her against him for another hug. “No way! I imagine he’s off playing somewhere, probably lost track of time -”
Jamie pulled herself free and scrambled off the bench. “You’re jus’ sayin’ that! It’s all my fault - I never should’ve said such a mean thing to him an’ now you’re gonna be mad at me, too!” She turned and ran out of the dining room before Heyes could do more than put out a hand to stop her.
With an exasperated sigh as he watched her disappear from sight. “I’ll have to deal with you later.” The scant information the girl had given him hadn’t helped much. He was nowhere closer to finding Jed than he had been before he sat down a while ago.
Since sitting here was a waste of time, Heyes decided to head for the last place both he and Jamie had seen his cousin. He walked into the hall and sat down in the same chair Jed had spent the afternoon waiting in; he checked out the room and tried to get some idea of where his cousin might have gone.
It wasn’t long before he noticed the three bullies huddled near the stairs. Once again he got the feeling that something was up because they were doing plenty of whispering and laughing and kept looking towards him. Heyes frowned as he glanced at them again. Had they done something to Jed?
He wondered whether it was worth the effort to try to talk to them. His only other option was going to Miss Menius. But, he would only do that as a last resort though, because it would just cause more trouble for Jed. His frustration grew. “Kid – where in tarnation are you!?”
While he waged a silent battle about what to do, his eyes searched around the room again, seeking a clue - any clue - as to Jed’s whereabouts. Heyes stood up and that’s when he noticed Jed’s slate laying by the wall. It had to be his cousin’s; he could see the broken corner. He still remembered how Jed had become frustrated one afternoon and had thrown it against the wall and cracked it.
Heyes walked over and picked the slate up. He turned around and leaned against the wall, holding it in his hands and looked down at it, with a wish that it could talk. Well, at least Jed had been this way sometime this afternoon, but where had he gone from here?
As he continued to think, Heyes noticed two things simultaneously. First, as he looked over at the bullies he realized that he had their full attention. They had stopped talking and were staring at him, as if waiting for him to do something. The second thing was the smell of smoke! He turned and looked at the wall behind him. “There’s no reason there should be smoke around here; we’re nowhere near the kitchen or any fireplaces...” Heyes turned around to stare at the three boys.
“Something’s wrong! They know something about it and they’re going to tell me what it is right now!” He strode across the room to stand in front of the bullies, close enough to flatten the boys if he had to. His close proximity caused them to take a step backwards when they saw the look in his eyes.
“Okay, I want to know everything you know about Jed missing!” He held a hand up as one started to deny it. “And unless you wanna be picking your teeth up off the ground, I’d better be hearing the truth right now - and nothing had better have happened to Jed - or else!”
“We didn’t do anything - you don’t have any proof!” Danny retorted, his own hands balled up into fists in anger.
“I might not have any proof - yet, but you three have been acting mighty suspicious and too darn happy since Jed’s been gone! I found his slate on the floor over by that wall, and while I was standing there I smelled smoke!” By their reactions, Heyes realized that he’d hit the nail on the head and that he had been right in thinking they knew something.
Both boys turned to stare at Danny, but it was Michael who unwittingly supplied the answer. “You were the last one down there, Danny!” he blurted out accusingly.
“Just shut up, Michael! Whose side are ya on, anyways?” Danny snarled as he took a step towards the boy.
“Down where?” Heyes grabbed Danny. “You do know something about it, so one of you better start telling me what you know or I’m going right to Miss Menius and she can deal with you!”
“Your dumb little cousin ain’t nothin’ but a troublemaker, Heyes! He’s jus’ gettin’ what he deserves! Little baby tried to make fools outta all of us - too bad he got caught!”
When Heyes slammed Danny up against the wall, still holding onto his shirt, the bully realized he might stand a better chance with Miss Menius. When Heyes pulled back his fist, Danny started to talk.
“Aw, he’s okay, Heyes - maybe a little scared, but nothin’ bad.” He dropped his voice. “He followed me down to our secret hideout. It’s where we go so we can have us a little bit of privacy, if ya know what I mean,” he winked at Heyes. “Anyways, I don’t know how he found it; shoot, nobody has found us for nearly two years!
“Well, at least we thought they hadn’t. I caught him jus’ as he was gonna lock me in, so I jus’ turned the tables on him, shoved him inside an’ bolted the door.” Danny made the mistake of laughing, “Boy, was he ever cryin’ like a little baby when he found out I was gonna leave him down there.”
The only thing that saved Danny from a beating was that the other two boys grabbed Heyes and held him back. The bully was wise enough to take the opportunity to put some distance between the two of them.
Heyes was furious and strained against his captors. “Where is he? You don’t understand - tell me where to find him before its too late!”
“Aw, go ahead an’ show him, Danny; Jeddie-weddie’s probably learned his lesson by now. He’ll leave us alone an’ I don’t wanna have to have to deal with Heyes anymore!” Matthew let go of the boy’s arm; Michael did likewise.
“Big cousin Heyes to the rescue again,” Danny sneered, “I should’ve known! Jus’ follow me, an’ try not to make a big deal outta the secret panel; we don’t want everyone knowin’ ’bout it.”
Heyes followed them over to where he had discovered Jed’s slate. Danny looked around to make sure no one was watching and then pushed a piece of wood cleverly constructed to look like an ordinary knothole in the panel. There was a click and as the door slid open, smoke tendrils began to snake out into the room. All four boys looked at each other in dismay as they realized at the same time that this secret was not going to remain a secret much longer!
Heyes quickly shut the door to prevent any more smoke from escaping. He needed a chance to think, but knew that if he was going to save Jed it had better be quick thinking.
“Is there any other way in or out?” he demanded impatiently.
“N-no,” Michael no longer sounded quite as calm as he answered. “That’s the only way in or out; there ain’t no other doors or windows.”
“Matthew, you go find Miss Menius. Michael, you get all the kids outside, just in case the fire spreads, and you, Danny - you’re goin’ down there with me to help rescue Jed!” At the look Heyes gave him, Danny didn’t dare refuse.
Heyes looked at the three boys still standing behind him. “What part didn’t you understand? The whole school might burn down if we don’t do somethin’ quick! Jed’s down there in that - if anythin’ happens to him...” he left the threat unfinished. The other two boys nodded their heads and took off running, glad it wasn’t them going downstairs with Heyes!
Heyes pulled his shirt over his mouth and nose, telling Danny to do the same. “You’re gonna need to go first to show me where to go. Take a deep breath out here before I open the door- try to hold it as long as you can so you don’t breathe in any more smoke than you have to. After we find Jed we’re gonna high-tail it outta there fast - you ready?” Danny nodded and both boys took a deep breath. Heyes opened the door and shoved Danny inside.
Jed didn’t want to die; not this way - not alone - and definitely not alone in the dark! He wasn’t sure how to avoid it though; he didn’t have any more strength left to yell. His hands were so bruised from pounding against the door he could hardly feel them anymore; they had become almost numb. His throat was raw and hurt and he was thirstier than he had been an hour ago. His arm felt like someone was sticking needles all over it and Jed hated needles! All that had been bad enough, but then, smoke had started coming in under the door.
As the smoke began filling the room, the exhausted boy knew he had to do something to try and keep it out. He had crawled around in the confines of his prison, coming up empty- handed. As he used his shirtsleeve to rub his watery eyes which were smarting from the smoke, he got an idea. Jed removed his shirt and stuffed it along the bottom of the door. It had helped a bit, but the smoke was still getting in. It was getting harder to find air to breathe and without his shirt, he was even more cold and miserable. Jed lay on the cold, damp floor shivering, his eyes closed, wishing he’d never tried to do this without Han...
“Han...” Jed whispered the name. Now he’s gonna be all alone and it’s my fault! Jus’ ’cos I wanted to show Han I was big enough to take care of my own problems! I’m so tired... Jed gave a deep yawn and shivered as he curled up into a tight ball, hugging himself for warmth. His last conscious thoughts were of his cousin.
“Han, I don’t care, even if you’re really mad at me, please find me!”
CAMPSITE, PRESENT TIME
When Heyes stopped speaking both men remained silent. That memory had been a lifetime ago. Back before they ran away and became outlaws; when they were still Han and Jed, still dreaming of what they wanted to do when they got older.
Heyes glanced sideways at Curry and broke the spell of silence, his voice quiet as he asked, “You remember what happened next?”
“No... not really,” he hedged uneasily. “You an’ Danny were the ones awake. I was trapped down in that stupid room thinkin’ I was gonna die an’ I’d never get the chance to tell you -” Kid stopped abruptly and, after an indifferent shrug, he shifted his gaze away from his partner to stare into the flames.
When Heyes realized Curry wasn’t going to say anything else, he took up telling the story again.
“Yeah, you’re right; Danny and I were still trying to get to you...”
Heyes and Danny had almost reached their goal, with just a few feet left to go. Finding it hard to breathe, both boys were coughing, bent over double, their eyes smarting from the smoke.
Unable to see, Danny turned to Heyes and pointed to his left. They had reached the door. Heyes hoped this wasn’t a fool’s errand. His emotions waged a war against each other. Part of him wanted Jed to be inside so the search would be over; the other half hoped the room was empty and his cousin was off somewhere playing another game of hide and seek.
As Danny reached out, Heyes tapped him on the shoulder and motioned for him to wait. He wanted to see if he could find the cause of all the smoke. So far they hadn’t seen any sign of a fire, just smoke. It didn’t take him long to find the source. A cigar had fallen into a pile of old cleaning rags, but they were only smoldering without catching on fire. When Heyes showed Danny what he had found, the look on the bully’s face was enough to convince Heyes of the boy’s guilt.
An insolent look on his face, Danny grabbed the cigar, threw it on the ground, and stomped it out. He picked it up and shoved it into his pocket almost defiantly. He wasn’t going to take no chances on leaving any evidence behind that could point to him.
Now that the smoke was stopping, they could see a little better. Heyes hurried to the door and tried several times to slide the bolt back, but it refused to budge. “Look for something to hit it with,” Heyes ordered.
Danny scouted the area, coming back almost immediately with an old board. They wedged it under the bolt and, using their combined strength, snapped the bolt clean off the door.
Yanking the door open, Heyes could barely make out the dark shape huddled on the floor in the corner of the small room. He ran over and threw himself down next to it, reaching out a hand and coming in contact with cold, bare skin.
“Geez, Kid, you’re like ice!” Heyes exclaimed, looking around for Jed’s shirt. He finally found it shoved against the wall behind the door. “You must have used it to keep some of the smoke out. “I’ll try to remember to tell you what a good plan you had, Kid – later, when you can hear me!” Heyes whispered. “Danny,” he yelled, “get in here and help me get Jed off the floor!”
The boy came inside and reached downwards but Heyes stopped him as he was about to grab Jed’s arm.
“Be careful, just help lift him up, hand him to me and I’ll carry him. You lead the way and I’ll follow you.” Together they got Jed up and into Heyes’ arms and started heading back to the hall.
“When we get to the stairs, I’m going to need you to help me get him up.” It was much easier to breathe going back since the smoke had already started disappearing and they could see where they were going. As he looked down at the limp form he carried in his arms, Heyes quickened his steps.
Please, don’t let him be as bad off as he was the last time, I don’t think either of us can go through that again, Heyes whispered. When they reached the stairs, Danny turned to help get Jed up the steep steps. When they finally reached the top, they found a very irate Miss Menius waiting for them.
After one quick look at the headmistress, Heyes pushed her to the back of his mind and turned his attention to Jed. He got his first real look at his cousin as they emerged out of the darkness and into the light. What he saw almost caused him to drop the boy. Jed looked like he was the loser in a prize fight! The tear-stained face streaked with dirt made him look even younger and more vulnerable than his ten years. His knuckles were torn, scraped raw. His left arm was bent at an odd angle, hanging awkwardly at his side.
Miss Menius looked first at Hannibal and then down at Jedediah. “I should have known you two would be at the bottom of this! What was it, another of your clever plans gone wrong, Hannibal?” Miss Menius demanded.
“No, ma’am, I didn’t have anything to do with it...this time!” Still trying to catch his breath, Heyes tried to explain to Miss Menius what had transpired in as few words as possible.
“There wasn’t any fire, just some old rags that were smoking up the place down below! Please, I just had to save Jed...” And now that Heyes had Jed safely upstairs, the effects of everything that had been happening began to take their toll on the older boy. He staggered under Jed’s weight but managed to get him laid down in the chair before he collapsed down beside him on the floor.
“I’m still not sure what has been going on, but right now we need to see that Jedediah is taken care of. Danny, you go get a couple of the men outside, and tell everyone else they may come back inside.”
When the two men arrived to take Jed, Heyes reluctantly let them take his cousin, knowing he had to let him go to be examined, but not wanting to let Kid out of his sight now that he had found him. He turned to Miss Menius, prepared to use every bit of charm he possessed to persuade the headmistress that he had to go along with his cousin.
“Please, Ma’am,” he implored and looked straight into her eyes, “let me go with Jed...I promise I won’t get in anyone’s way - I’ll be real quiet!”
“Now that would be a wonder to behold - Hannibal Heyes quiet! It might even be worth permitting you to go, just to see if it can be done!” Miss Menius knew from experience that whether or not she gave Hannibal permission to go, the boy would find his way in there anyway; there was just no separating the two of them.
“Very well, I will let you stay with him on one condition, Hannibal. I shall expect to see all four of you boys in my office first thing in the morning immediately following breakfast, and we will get to the bottom of what has been going on around here these past few days, isn’t that right, boys?” she pivoted around to face the other three boys standing behind her.
The three bullies had been huddled together talking quietly over by the stairs and as she turned to include them, all three heads nodded. “Yes, ma’am,” they chorused.
She turned back to Heyes, “Well, Hannibal?”
“Yes, ma’am, just so long as I can go with Jed now!”
“As long as we all understand one another, you may go, Hannibal.” Miss Menius gave a dismissive wave of her hand and walked towards her office.
“Hey - Heyes, wait up a minute!” Michael called out before he could leave.
Heyes spun around. “What do you want?” he glared at him. “Haven’t you three done enough?” He waited with mounting impatience for the three boys to approach him.
Making sure no one was within listening distance, Michael kept his voice low. “We need to talk before we go see Miss Menius in the mornin’. If we don’t get some kind of plan worked out, ain’t none of us - ‘ceptin’ maybe you - ever gonna be able to sit again, and we’re all gonna have extra chores to do for the rest of the time we’re here!”
Heyes looked at them like they were crazy. “And what makes you think I’d help you come up with a plan? It’s your fault Jed’s in there with the doc right now, with who knows what wrong with him! Why should I do anything for you three?” he demanded angrily, his hands clenched into fists at his sides. “Give me one good reason why - why should I care what happens to you?”
Michael gave the other boy a knowing look before he continued, “Well, Heyes, the way we see it, Jed’s gonna be in even more trouble than we are - unless you can think up one of those plans he’s always goin’ on about. He’s always braggin’ ‘bout how clever his cousin is at thinkin’ up things. Well you’d better jus’ think about what’s gonna happen to him when he’s well enough to get up. Do ya think Jed can take all the punishment that’ll be waiting for him?”
When Heyes remained silent, Michael smirked, “Well, do ya? Ya know they don’t forget- dontcha, Heyes?”
Yeah, unfortunately, he did know, from personal experience. Punishments could wait until the offender was physically able to have them administered. And there wasn’t any chance that they would forget, either. The bullies couldn’t have thought of a better argument to convince Heyes to help them. And they were right on another point, too. Jed would be the one blamed for almost everything and most of the punishment would be his!
Heyes sighed in frustration as he rubbed the back of his neck. “Okay, after I go check on Jed, I’ll come find you and together we’ll figure out some kind of a plan.” His eyes darkened, “But I want you to know, I’m only doing this for Jed - you three just happen to be part of the solution!”
“Right, Heyes, whatever ya say.” Danny’s smile mocked the dark-haired boy as the three bullies turned away jostling each other and laughing among themselves.