The latest in the Barefoot Times series by Jeff Pages

Book Excerpts

The Honey Smugglers

The snow-capped mountains glistened under dawn’s first light as the sun, bigger and brighter than yesterday, crept over the horizon. Roaring streams, fed by melting ice, cascaded into hidden valleys before disappearing beneath the rainforest canopy of what had just a few months earlier been a frozen wasteland.

To the north, fluffy white clouds, their bellies painted pink in the early light, foretold of the storms to come later in the day, bringing short relief from the oppressive heat and humidity.

The nervous young man in a grey business suit jumped to the ear-piercing cry of a red-tailed hawk as it answered the call of its mate further up the valley.

“Flaming bloody birds!” he yelled, pulling out a large white handkerchief and mopping his brow. “How much further do we have to go in this wretched jungle?”

“Not far now, no sir, we’re almost there.” Their guide, a short wiry man who looked as if he’d be just as much at home in Frizian’s forty year winter as he was in its short steamy summer, quickened his pace.

Grey Suit dabbed at his brow again, while Clem and Russell followed a discreet distance behind, stooping to balance the earthenware pots strapped to their backs. Soon the smothering rainforest canopy blocked off all sight of the mountains and the rising sun. 

Clem heard the sonorous hum of the Frizian honey wasps long before they reached the clearing. The tree before him, a giant amongst giants in this ancient forest, would have been impressive enough in its own right, but it was the dozens of conical nests hanging from its branches, the source of the humming he felt more than heard, that had captured his gaze. Each one, at least a metre across at the top, seemed to quiver and dance hypnotically in time with the noise, and he felt himself pulled towards them, drawn up to join the humming denizens in their never-ending song.

“Put this on.” Clem was vaguely aware of their guide speaking, and forced himself to turn away from the cones. Grey Suit took the yellow plastic suit and face mask from the guide, who showed him how to secure all the zips and tabs before pulling his own protective garment from his pack and sliding into it with practised ease.

“What about us?” Clem asked. Russell gave him a frightened glance.

“Did you hear something?” Grey Suit asked the guide.

“Don’t worry,” the guide said to Clem. “The sting of a honey wasp is a most pleasant death. First there is beautiful music, then the sweet smell of honey, a golden light, the gentle caress of a dozen young virgins, and before you know it, you’re dead.”

“Porters are expendable,” Grey Suit said. “Don’t waste your time talking to them.”

“As you wish, good sir.” The guide pulled a canister and rubber hose from his pack. “Would you be so kind as to hold this for me?”

Grey Suit took the canister from him while the guide pointed the hose towards the nearest cone. “Open the valve please.”

A thick white smoke enveloped the hive while the droning intensified tenfold. Hundreds of orange specks flittered through the cloud before dropping to the ground.

“Are they dead?” Clem asked the guide.

“No, only stunned. Quickly now, bring your pot over here, and try not to step on them if you can. They can still sting even while unconscious.”

Clem inched his way forward, carefully brushing away the tiny wasps with the sides of his feet to clear a path for himself.

“Teach you to wear shoes next time, won’t it?” Grey Suit said. “Now hold it under the hive, just there.”

The guide pulled a long serrated knife from his belt, using it to cut a small hole in the base of the hive. Clem adjusted his grip on the pot as a viscous golden syrup oozed into it, quickly weighing it down until he thought it might slip out of his hands.

“Right, you’re done,” the guide said, plugging the hole with a wad of cloth. “Watch those wasps on your way out.”

Clem moved clear of the hive as Russell eased his way in to replace him. “Keep a firm hold,” he said as his friend shuffled forward with his pot. “It gets heavy very quickly.”

The guide removed the wad of cloth and began filling the second pot as soon as it was in position. Russell shifted his feet slightly to keep its increasing weight balanced, but as he did so, one of the stunned wasps began to flutter, bouncing along the ground next to his foot as it tried to become airborne.

“Russell, look out!” Clem yelled. Without thinking, Russell lifted his foot, but the liquid in his now almost-full pot shifted, throwing him off balance. For a moment he wavered on one foot in defiance of gravity, but as he began to fall he had no choice but to plant his other foot back down, right on top of the wasp.

Grey Suit, realising what was happening, grabbed the pot as it started to tip, but its weight was more than he’d bargained for. As Russell slumped to the ground with a look of puzzled bliss on his face, Grey Suit staggered backwards, the pot of honey held at arm’s length as he tried to regain his balance. He may have done so had a tree root not caught the heel of his shoe, and as he fell the pot dropped onto his chest, winding him before rolling over and cracking open on a rock, its precious contents oozing out across the ground.

“Do something!” he tried to yell, but little more than a wheezy whisper came out.

Clem, ignoring him, dashed to Russell’s side, pulling something from his pocket as he knelt and checked his vital signs.

“You’re wasting your time,” the guide said, also ignoring Grey Suit’s plight, but Clem began resuscitation nonetheless.

“Damn you!” Grey Suit said to no-one in particular. “Damn you all!”

The guide turned towards him to inspect the damage. “I’m afraid that pot is beyond redemption.”

“You’ll be beyond redemption if you don’t shut it! How am I going to explain coming back with only half our quota?”

“It’s better than having none at all.”

“All right, you can tell the boss then. Now help me up!”

By now the wasps were beginning to regain consciousness, the smell of spilt honey perhaps arousing them.

“Leave him before you get stung yourself,” Grey Suit said to Clem as he saw him still working on Russell. Clem turned towards him, a look of utter contempt on his face.

“Do as he says,” the guide said, stepping over and placing a hand on Clem’s shoulder. “Your friend’s in a better place now.”

Clem placed his fingers on Russell’s neck, checking vainly for any sign of life, before shaking his head and standing.

“Mind the wasps,” the guide said as Clem made his way back to his pot and began strapping it onto his back.

 

* * *

© Jeff Pages

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