Jerrycan Boys – A short story (part 2)

Author: Idoroenyen Udoh

Read the first part here.

Tito came to a stop, “we are here,” he announced.

There was a split pipe with dark liquid sipping from it. Its two opposite sides were still in the ground. Tito suspected it had been dug up and cut open during one of the militant raids. The area around the broken pipe was without grass, like a bald spot.

“jackpot!” the boys chorused.
They couldnʼt hide their excitement as they hurried to the spot.
“How do we know if this is fuel, they said it comes in types?” Tega asked.
“fuel is fuel!” John answered.
Tega turned to Tito for a better answer, but Tito only shrugged. To Tito, fuel is fuel. This black liquid was the one that powered big machines and did “many many things.”

A thick hand grabbed Titoʼs neck and yanked him up.
“It is just some boys, boss!” said the man tightly gripping Titoʼs neck.
“and so!” came a raspy voice, “bring them here!”
The man began to drag the three along without any care; he moved fast. Tito couldnʼt breathe and tried to break free, but the man gripped his neck tighter. His vision blurred. The man stopped and released the boys allowing them to fall to the ground. Tito rolled on the grass, coughing and wincing in pain. He placed his cheek on the soft earth and his palm on the grass. It was wet and smelt, like petrol.
“Would you get up?”
Tito felt a kick to his head and jerked up, still on his knees. A burning torch nearby illuminated the place and Tito could see a little, someone glared down at him. The face was hard and had a permanent scowl. Titoʼs chest tensed and he looked away and down at the grass pricking his knees. From the corner of his eyes, Tito could see his two friends were also kneeling. Tega was visibly shaking. Tito felt something moist run down his palm and drip from his fingers. The cut on his palm had ripped open.
“This is no place for small boys. How old are you?” asked Boss.
The boys were silent.
“I said, how old are you!” yelled Boss.
“twelve. Sir,” Tito replied.
“Yes, Sir!” Tega and John chorused.
One of Boss’ men came up to him and whispered something into Boss’ ear. Tito noticed Bossʼs face tightening. Boss turned back to the boys and fidgeted with his gun.
“Sir!” Scarface came forward, with a rifle swung across his body. There was the sound of water dripping, Tega was pissing on himself.
Boss saw what happened and burst out laughing, and his men did the same.
At that moment, he jumped up and punched Boss’s jaw, then snatched away Bossʼs gun while Tega and John ran to safety. But he still saw himself on his knees. He wasnʼt bold enough, he was only imagining.
Boss stopped himself and cleared his throat. “Keep them with you,” he said, “we will see if they are of any use,” and with that, Boss was gone with most of his men.
Tito took note of the broken bottles lay laid about, metal plates, spoons and cups. He saw some hammocks tied to the trunk of trees.
Someone rolled the burning torch in the dirt, and it was dark again. It was just the moonlight poking through the canopy of trees that was left. Tito could hear the snapping of twigs and boots crushing leaves as Scarface ordered them to get up.
Factions had already started to spring up weeks after the protests began, and they acted on their own. As for the village heads, anyone caught in the crime will not be protected. In those days, Tito would eavesdrop and hear about the harsh army, the brutal militants his father nicknamed “the oilmen,” about oil money and the kidnapping of a foreigner. Those were cold nights when he loved to wrap himself in cotton blankets, along with his siblings and cousins. While the adults gather around an oil lamp, speaking in low tones.
Tito wished he could be wrapped in a blanket and not wet, injured and covered with dirt. Recollecting the events of hours ago, Tito realised they had entered the wrong territory and had to escape.
“We have to run from here,” Tito whispered to John in front, his voice shaking. The boys were filed up on a straight line while Scarface led the way, and one of Bossʼs men tailed them behind. John was quiet for a while, clearly irritated, asked if Tito didnʼt think he knew.
“Two of you shut up there!” barked the one behind.
Tito scanned his surroundings. He had to act fast. Agile Scarface was busy a few feet ahead, throwing out branches from the path. Tito glanced at the man behind him. He looked only a few years older and weak. Tito knew he could tackle him down in seconds.
Tito leaned forward and whispered into Johnʼs ear, “When I turn, grab Tegaʼs hand.”
Before John could speak, Tito turned back and dashed at the one behind, knocking him down and striking his head on a fallen tree. John grabbed Tega and ran, and Tito did the same. The man lay at the foot of a tree, unable to move and disoriented.
“It is this way,” said Tito, “see I know this tree,” he said pointing at a large mahogany tree.
“No, it is this way. We came from that side,” John insisted.
“Tito! You have put us in much trouble already,” Tega said conclusively.
Trouble, what trouble was his fault? If Tega had shut up back at the swamp, no one would have seen them. Did he force them to come anyway?
Tito was about to speak, but the sound of rustling leaves interrupted him. They turned to the noise and saw Scarface charging at them, his hands on his rifle. John and Tega dashed away. Tito tried to call out for them, but it was useless. Tito scurried off with Scarface at his heel. He tried to look for any sign he was going the right way, but there was no sign. Scarface had his hands clenched on his rifle.
“let me catch you,” he said, dragging the last two words and gritting his teeth. A gunshot was fired, and Tito fell to the ground.
Scarface paused and aimed.
Tito opened his eyes and discovered he was lying on leaves. Tall elephant grass towered above him with insects wriggling on his face. He could see the soft light from the moon, and he wasnʼt in pain except for the bruises from Bossʼ blow and Scarfaceʼs. His left hand was bled, but didnʼt hurt much. Tito got up to peer through the grass, mindful of his pursuer. Scarface had his back facing Tito with his rifle pointing ahead of him. He moved with caution as if in search of something –alarmed. The gunshot had not come from Scarface.
Energy surged into Titoʼs limbs unexpected. The voices in his head started to scream and pull at the strings in his head. He heard, “Run!” What about his friends, but what about Tega and John?
Tito heard more gunshots. Amid the chaos, he heard again “run,” and he ran.

Let me catch you! RUN. How can you leave your friends like that? RUN
Do not mind him, thatʼs how he runs from the trouble he makes! RUN
Trouble maker! RUN
Where are your friends? RUN
Tito, it is all your fault RUN

Tito clasped his ears with his hands and continued running over branches and leaves. He was sure he stepped on an animal.
Familiar houses began to appear, so he hastened up. In minutes, running past low houses with zinc roofs. A part of him felt the person had lost him, but he didnʼt look back. Tito continued to run barefoot. He had pulled off his muddy sandals earlier to run faster and not cause noise. Although his bladder threatened to explode, he did not stop.
Relief flushed on Titoʼs face as he approached his house. He pulled| his shorts as he got to the corner and urinated on the grass. Tito looked up at the sky that was now turning blue from black and thought of John and Tega. Had they reached home too? He was slumping to the grass when he caught sight of light he suspected was from a heavy-duty torch. On an impulse, he flung his sandals in the grass and went up the veranda, jumping over the steps. This time, he could see the interior of the room. He held his breath for fear he might breathe too loud, and his heart throbbed. He tiptoed across the room and crept onto the mattress.

As Tito relaxed his sore body on the foam, his little sister rolled over and lifted her little head. She mumbled something to him, but Tito couldnʼt understand what she said. He thought of ignoring her, but her head was still up. Tito turned his face to hers.
“Where did you go?” she asked.
“I–piss, I went to piss” Tito whispered, and he watched his sister place her head back on the mattress.
“sleep,” he said to her, “sleep.”

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