- The Lost Ones
His bandaged head resting against the tree trunk, the wounded man opened his eyes slightly and asked, “Have we come out of it?”
“God be praised! We have. Safe and sound,” the bearded man answered in a perfectly calm voice.
The man with a bag hanging around his neck nodded. “Yes, at last we’ve saved ourselves.” He looked at the bandaged head of his wounded companion and inquired, “How’s your wound now?”
“Oh, I guess it’s still bleeding a bit,” replied the wounded man.
“Don’t worry, my dear,” consoled the bearded man, his voice still calm. “God willing, the injury will heal up soon.”
The wounded man opened his eyes wide and looked at them one by one. Then, as if assailed by a sudden doubt, he raised his finger and began counting each one of them—the bearded man, the man with the bag, and the youth. He became confused and asked, “Where is the other?”
“What?!” the youth asked. “You mean we’re short one man?”
The bearded man gave the youth an angry look, then turned to the wounded man and chided him gently, “Friend! We are already too few. How is it that you counted wrong?”
The man with the bag appeared to agree with the bearded man, and with great confidence proceeded to count. He counted the bearded man, the wounded man, and the youth; then he too was taken aback. “There’s a man missing. Where is he?” he asked.
The youth looked apprehensively at the man with the bag and, to make sure, decided to count again. He counted the bearded man, the man with the bag, and the wounded man. He too was perplexed. He began all over again. No luck. He counted the lot of them a third time, very carefully indeed, only to feel helpless and mystified yet again. “Strange . . . ,” he spoke under his breath.
All four looked at each other in disbelief; they were visibly upset and, by now, rather frightened. A single word—“strange”—simultaneously escaped their lips in a whisper. Then they fell silent.
The long silence was broken by the sound of a dog barking somewhere in the distance. The youth looked up at the others with foreboding. “Where’s that dog barking?” he asked in a low voice.
The bearded man summoned his courage and declared, “There has to be someone around. Why else would the dog bark so?”
“Who could that be?” the man with the wounded head asked indifferently. [End Page 61]
“Him, of course. Who else?” the bearded man replied loudly. “He can’t be too far away,” he continued confidently. “He must have been separated from us somewhere near here.”
The wounded man straightened up, grabbed the club lying in front of him, and said, “I’ll go look around. If it really is him and the dog’s holding him up, I’ll help him return.”
With club in hand, the wounded man disappeared in the direction of the barking. The three men sat in perfect silence until the man with the bag spoke up. “Could it really be him?”
“Of course!” the bearded man affirmed. “Who else if not him—at such an odd time and place.”
“Yes, it must be him,” the man with the bag agreed. His voice had become a little calmer. “He’s scared of dogs. Many times before, if a dog appeared in his path, he’d just freeze.”
“Did you notice,” asked the youth as a fresh doubt began inching its way into his consciousness, “the dog isn’t barking anymore?”
The man with the bag strained to listen, then said, “Yes. That’s strange! The dog isn’t barking anymore. God knows what’s the matter.”
“The two of them together have probably chased the dog away,” the bearded man tried to reassure them. “They’ll be here any minute.”
Once again the three lapsed into silence, peering into the space in which the wounded man had disappeared. The man with the bag gazed far into the distance. Suddenly he said, “What—he’s coming back alone...