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The lad took a deep breath and exhaled.

At that moment a load of buckshot hit the backside of the thick tree he was sheltering behind. The bark shattered in different directions. Arthur Travis (that was the lad’s name) shuddered and shrank back. He stood like that for several long seconds. There was no second shot. He straightened to his full height again, still with his back to the saving trunk.

— I’ll get you, you bastard! — came a shout from a house in the clearing at a distance from where the shooting was taking place. — I’ll fucking get you!

Travis squeezed his eyes shut, equalized his breathing, and moved swiftly into the woods.

Keeping his eyes on the tree, Sergeant David Hall, standing by the kitchen window of the house, continued to wait, clutching tightly the shotgun he had just fired from. When the target appeared for a moment from behind cover, Hall muttered grudgingly: «Gone!» — He turned and left the kitchen. Walking down the corridor, he opened the storeroom where the weapons were kept. Hall took the gun and handed it to his subordinate Corporal Miller, who had come running in at the noise from his room.

— Here, Henry,“ Hall said. — „We’re going after him.

— But, sir, what about the security of the facility? — Miller asked perplexedly. — «We have orders…

— Didn’t you see the corpse in the kitchen?! — The sergeant objected. — What the hell kind of facility, Henry? Wake up, there’s a murderer lurking out there who might come back for us. We must avenge our comrade’s death, lest it be in vain. Before the bastard gets too far away, there’s a chance to catch him. I know where he went and how he got here! Either he had no choice and had to get out of the way, or he went where he was safe. While we’re talking, he’s getting away.

Corporal Miller stood in indecision. Hall held out his pistol to him with the words, «That’s an order.» Henry silently tucked it behind his belt. Hall also took two automatic rifles from the storeroom. One he gave to the corporal, the other hung on his shoulder. He kept the shotgun as well. Walking past the kitchen, the sergeant took another look at the breathless body. He went up to the first floor and pulled a sheet off the bed. Miller helped wrap the deceased in it and carried the corpse into the living room.

The blood of the deceased was almost cold, but it, like the remains of the brains, could be easily washed off. But the military did not do so: there was no time. All around they could see the signs of a struggle. The assassin must have been injured in the fight. He limped on one leg as he fled.

The two soldiers left the scene and went into the forest to look for the fugitive.

When they descended a small slope into the bushes, Travis decided to take his first break, stopped and sat down on the ground. His whole body ached terribly, his strength was leaving him quickly and there was no time to recover. The boy groaned and was ready to burst into tears in despair, but he pulled himself together. He could not give in to despair; he did not know whether the sergeant and corporal were after him. He had to get as far into the woods as he could until he was sure of his safety.

Travis, ducking as low as he could, reserved his strength and walked forward slowly, taking care not to strain his injured leg. He was poorly oriented in this unfamiliar forest. He could turn aside to throw off the trail of possible pursuers, but then he risked to get lost for a long time.

What next? There was no turning back: the house he had fled from would undoubtedly be prepared for his return.

Exhausted, he saw a small hole in front of one of the trees. He broke off some branches, lay down in the hole, covered himself with them and leaned his back against the trunk so that he could see what was going on. He was fortunate that his clothes were of a protective colour. He might not have been perfectly camouflaged, but he stood a good chance of going unnoticed.

Travis closed his eyes, tired from the constant strain. When he tried to open them, he found that they had become unbelievably heavy. He tried to lift them with his fingers, but his hand would not move either.

After a few seconds Arthur fell into a deep sleep.

He was awakened by the crackling of dry twigs. The footsteps of his pursuers could be heard behind him, very close by. With eyes dilated with fear, Travis tried to see if there was anything that would help him — a sturdy stick or other cover nearby. But there was nothing in sight.

Losing his guard and allowing himself to fall asleep, the fugitive found himself in a quandary. He feverishly considered ways out of it and decided that the only chance of overpowering the two armed men, who had received special training, was a surprise attack. Catch them by surprise, winning a few seconds which can later decide everything! It is not said for nothing: the best defence is a good offence.

But that thought had to be discarded.

As soon as he moved his hands they were instantly pierced with pain which spread over his entire body. Every injury he’d sustained in a recent fight was reminded of itself by a dull throbbing ache. He couldn’t step into a new one now: he couldn’t even stand up on his feet. He needs at least some time to recover. But unfortunately there was none left.

Every time he moved his arms, they were instantly pierced by an intense pain that pulsed through his body. Every injury he had sustained in a recent fight was a dull throbbing. He couldn’t step into a new one now: he couldn’t even stand up on his feet. He needs at least some time to recover. But unfortunately there was none left.

Sergeant Hall and Corporal Miller moved cautiously through the forest. Peering around, they kept their weapons ready. The search for the killer had not yet yielded any results.

At first they followed his footsteps, noting drops of blood on the ground, broken branches of bushes or trampled grass. But soon the tracks were lost. Now the fugitive could be anywhere. It was difficult to hide in this forest in plain sight, but as soon as one got further out one could easily disappear into the thicket.

— What shall we do now, Sergeant? — Miller asked in a whisper.

— The bloody bastard had got away. Maybe he lured us here on purpose, but he’s got his bearings.

The sergeant thought for a moment and ordered:

— Split up.

— Are you sure? — The corporal interrogated.

— I am sure. He may be setting a trap for us, but we have an advantage,» Hall pointed to the shotgun in his hands. — He’s wounded, it’ll play into our hands. If you don’t spot him in twenty or thirty minutes, get back to the point.

— Yes, sir.

Hall went to the right, Miller to the left, walking two metres from Travis covered in branches. The lad stared into the back of the slow-moving corporal and prayed to himself that Miller would get as far away as possible and never look back. For what reason the military didn’t see him, Travis wasn’t interested. He knew that he was lucky, and that was all that mattered. And besides, he saw a branch lying on the ground not far away, of a decent thickness.

The sun was setting slowly. The forest, already gloomy, had grown even darker.

Corporal Miller, looking around, began to catch himself thinking that they had missed the fugitive after all, and that in the coming darkness they would be unlikely to locate him. He did not know how much time had passed. Miller had no desire to go further into the woods to stumble upon the wanted man. In order not to expose himself to unnecessary danger, he decided to walk back and turned around.

In front of him, just a few yards away, peering out from behind a tree, was Travis. Miller turned white. He opened his mouth to say something, but could not get a word out. Arthur came slowly out from behind cover. He held his left hand up, showing that he was not hostile.

— Take it easy, Miller, it’s all right.

— But… you… how?! — The corporal stammered and broke into a cold sweat. — I… saw you… you were…

— Now, now, Henry, just give me a minute and I’ll explain,» Travis went on, inching closer to the corporal.

— This can’t be…» Miller gasped.

As he stood there in shock, averting his gaze and lowering his machine gun, Travis kept walking toward him.

The corporal looked at him with eyes full of horror. Travis did not show any aggression. He was perfectly calm, apart from a slight excitement caused by the muzzle of the machine gun pointed at him.

This calmed Miller down a little, too, and he exhaled in relief. But his gaze slid lower, and he saw a thick branch in Travis’s right hand, which he was studiously trying to hide behind his leg.

Miller understood, but it was too late.

Travis swung and hit the corporal in the face with all his might. Miller swayed, dropped his assault rifle from his hands, but stayed on his feet. Travis lunged at him, knocked him to the ground and punched him in the face, but the blows were not as hard as he expected.

Miller, who had managed to throw his adversary off, reached for a nearby machine gun. But the fugitive was ahead of him: he crawled up to the corporal, clamped an arm around his neck and began to squeeze it tightly. Henry tried in vain to get out of the grip. He only managed to grasp the grip of the machine gun, to grip the trigger, but he no longer had the strength to point the weapon at Travis. A short burst went into the ground.

«Idiot!» — flashed through Arthur’s mind. A few more seconds and the corporal would be finished. Travis saw the veins in his enemy’s neck bulge and the life slowly leave the corporal’s body.

Miller began to twitch in convulsions.

It was not consciously, but reflexively. The corporal was still warm, but his heart was no longer beating. Travis unclasped his hands only a few seconds later, not fully aware that it was over.

This was the second man Travis had killed. Unbeknownst to him, killing the corporal was much easier for him than killing his first victim. Arthur didn’t try to analyse the murders and perhaps truly comprehend what he had done. All he could think about now was Sergeant Hall, who couldn’t help but hear the gunshots and was probably already on his way here. Wasting no time in thinking, Travis picked up his assault rifle, checked the magazine and prepared to face the sergeant, counting on his experience and reaction. He hid behind a tree again. Holding his breath, he listened, trying to figure out where his second stalker was now. But it was quiet all around.

About two minutes passed — lingering for both Travis and Hall. The sergeant saw the corporal’s body from a distance and immediately stopped. Miller might have been lying unconscious, but Hall dismissed the thought and followed the worst-case scenario. The sergeant was unable to make out a machine gun beside the corporal, but he immediately assumed that the weapon might have been taken by the intruder and their chances were now even.

Changing his shotgun for his assault rifle, the sergeant began to move cautiously forward, studying the area carefully and looking out for absolutely everything.

Hall stopped a few yards from the corporal’s body and, after a cursory examination, confirmed that he was dead. The sergeant began firing at the nearest trees behind which the killer might be hiding. In short bursts he marked the trees, moving from one tree to the next. The sudden burst of gunfire startled Travis so much that he almost dropped his gun from his hands, but he immediately controlled himself and waited. Arthur realized that the sergeant did not know where he was and was firing at random.

After a succession of shots there was a lingering pause. Travis, not seeing Hall, assumed that he might have been changing the magazine or running out of ammunition. It was an opportune moment: they had to find out where the sergeant was as quickly as possible and be the first to open fire. Arthur took a deep breath and was just about to come out from behind cover when another round rang out.

Now Hall was firing into the trees next to Travis. After the shots were fired everything went quiet again, which alarmed Travis even more. The hope that the sergeant had run out of ammunition was gone. What was he waiting for then? As the fugitive pondered, another shot rang out, much closer. And again there was a pause.

The situation was heating up, something had to be done urgently, but the moral pressure was preventing Travis from concentrating. How long would the lull last this time? He didn’t have to wait long for an answer — the shots rang out again. Now they were more frequent and powerful: the sergeant was firing a shotgun.

Bark and splinters of gunfire flew in different directions as the gunfire moved swiftly toward Travis. As soon as another shot hit the tree closest to the fugitive, he instantly jumped out from behind cover and ran as fast as he could into the woods. Hall caught the target, the muzzle of the shotgun following Travis, the shot slicing through the branches above his head, but the shooter missed every time. Travis, turning around on the run, fired a short burst in the sergeant’s direction, after which the weapon suddenly jammed. Dropping it to the ground, he again hid behind a thick tree, catching his breath. The sergeant also stopped firing.

Travis was still comforted by the thought that the shooter had used up his ammunition, but suddenly fear gripped him. Arthur remembered Miller’s gun, which he had caught a glimpse of during their fight. Peeking out from behind cover, the lad saw the sergeant slowly backing away, approaching the corporal’s corpse. He was sure to get a gun. Travis jumped out from behind cover and ran straight at Hall with a loud shout.

When the sergeant saw his attacker’s twisted face, he, like the corporal before him, froze for a moment in amazement and consternation: he thought he was running at him not as a man but as an intrepid beast. At the last moment his composure returned to the sergeant and he pulled the trigger. But the weapon failed: no shot was fired.

The men collapsed to the ground, and a struggle ensued. Hall was stunned, but his raging adrenaline gave him energy. His opponent, on the other hand, was tired and exhausted.

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