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Title: Beneath the Charred Surface

He could see two of the men snoring by the dwindling fire, an empty bottle of cheap whiskey lying empty between them. Behind, resting against a tree trunk, sat the lookout, a rifle lying loosely over his elbow and his hat lopsided over his face. He was snoring loudest of all.

John had waited in the frigid darkness and watched for what seemed like hours as they had laughed and ate and drank. The smell of the meat as they had cooked their kill had tightened his stomach even further. It was time. He approached, carefully feeling his way across the unseen forest debris, cringing as it snapped and cracked with each step. He was shaking, not just from the cold, and his heart thumped. His breathing was rapid and shallow. He felt faint, almost dizzy, but he blinked that away and focused on nothing but his hunger and his only means to satisfy it. He was only a few feet away now and he could feel the longed-for warmth of the fire. He looking down on the sleeping men as they flickered in the dancing firelight; their pistols held across their chests. There was a reek of stale urine. Next to one of them was a large chunk of over-cooked meat and a canteen of water. John reached down, trembling, and grabbed them both. Realisation hit him. Food! Water! He had them!

There was a groan, and then a shout. "Who the hell..."

John turned to see the lookout staring at him and raising his rifle. Instinctively he scrambled sideways, avoiding the first shot. He stood and kicked the fire sending a spray of burning embers into the man's face. The man screamed. John ran into the darkness. He could hear more voices now: angry drunken shouts.

"Damn it! Where'd 'e go?"

"There, ya eejit!"

Gunshots echoed through the trees. He stumbled and slid down a steepening slope and winced as his knee glanced the side of what might have been a rock. He could still run. He was okay. He was gasping for air now. Another more distant gunshot rang out.

After maybe a minute he stopped and crouched behind a tree, his chest tight and painful, and tried to keep his breathing quiet. The sound of the men was distant now. They were not coming this way. John relaxed a bit and his hunger snapped back into his consciousness. He took a bite of the meat. It was tough at first, but beneath the charred surface was moister, rarer flesh. John relished the tang of blood. He found himself grinning as the basic joy of eating washed over him.

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