Vin had been very happy when his dad informed him that Uncle Ezra would be joining them on their campout. This would be the last such outing of the year, before the weather got too cold to spend time out in the woods, and having Ezra there made it even more special. He was always willing to spend extra time with Vin and JD, telling them stories upon request.
Chris and Buck had been content to let Ezra avoid the work of setting up the tents, gathering wood for the fire and setting up the supplies, as his aid in distracting the boys made their own go twice as fast. They smiled at each other as they watched him smile and tease and do tricks to amuse the two happy children, enjoying the way Ezra seemed to turn into an oversized child himself when he spent time with Vin and JD.
Noticing that the canteens were nearly dry, Chris announced his intention to refill them from the nearby stream-bed.
"I wouldn't advise that," Ezra told him. "I've brought along plenty of bottled water, enough for us all."
"What's wrong with the river water? It's a fresh source, I already checked," Chris pointed out, waiting for his friend's reasoning with an amused smirk.
The southerner grimaced. "Well, I heard a rather disturbing story about drinking ground water once and I've never quite reconciled myself to it since. I truly would suggest that we all avoid it whenever possible."
"Oh, this ought to be good," Buck chuckled.
The boys had perked right up at the word "story" and both were eagerly tugging on the sleeves of their uncle's jacket. "Tell us the story," Vin begged. "Is it scary?"
"I'm afraid it is," he replied. "Perhaps a bit too scary for such a youthful audience." Ezra shot a questioning look at the adults, not wanting to cause potential nightmares if the two doting fathers did not approve.
"I wanna hear the scary story!" JD begged. "I'm brave! Right, Da?"
Buck smiled at his eager son. "I think they can take it. In fact," he added, settling down into one of the folding camp chairs near the fire and poking the flames up a bit higher, "I wouldn't mind hearing it myself. Been awhile since anyone told a scary campfire story."
Eyes twinkling, Chris also settled. "Let's have it."
"Well, if you're certain," Ezra agreed, settling himself more comfortably with an arm around each of the boys. "As I heard it, the tale begins a long time ago in Turkey."
"Is this a Thanksgivin' story, Uncle Ezra?" JD interrupted, nose wrinkling in confusion.
For a moment, Ezra looked equally puzzled, then he laughed. "No, son, I'm talking about the country of Turkey, a long, long way from here.
"Anyway, as I was saying, this took place many years ago. A young girl in the country of Turkey began experiencing terrible stomach pains. The family was quite poor and could not afford a fancy hospital, so at first she did her best to keep the condition a secret."
Vin nodded. "She didn't want her mama and daddy to worry," he said, not noticing the slight frown his calm understanding of the girl's reasoning brought to his father's face.
"That is correct, but as months passed, the condition was not alleviated. In fact, it grew worse. What at first had been occasional discomfort, something that could be explained away by indigestion or gas pains, grew constant and increasingly severe. Finally, the girl was forced to confess her difficulties to her family. They took her to the local doctor but, again, nothing helped. For nearly five long years, the poor girl lived with her suffering."
"Five years? That's pretty long time," Chris commented.
Ezra nodded. "Indeed, and I can only imagine how agonizing it must have been to live with such pain, day and night, for such an extended period without any hope of relief. The girl, who by this time was 15 years old, was in constant torment and her attitude began to change in severe and startling ways."
"Attitude?" JD asked, cocking his head.
Ezra stroked his dark hair fondly. "Her way of behaving. You see, she had once been a cheerful, happy young child with plenty of friends and a carefree manner, much like your own. But after such a long time feeling bad, she simply had no cheer left."
"I feel sorry for her," Vin said sadly. "That would be awful. If the family was too poor for a doctor, couldn't they ask their friends for help? Dad would ask you if me or JD got that sick and they didn't have no money to help. Wouldn't you, Dad?"
Chris nodded. "Of course, I would. Maybe they didn't have that option, though."
"That was indeed the case," Ezra agreed, taking control of the story back. "This particular area of their country was a very poor and downtrodden one. Their neighbors were simple folk, in no better financial condition than they themselves enjoyed, and many shunned the poor girl in fear that whatever ailed her might be catching or caused by some unnatural means."
Anticipating the next question as he saw JD taking a deep breath, Buck interrupted, "That means they thought she was sick because she was somehow evil. It's stupid, but people sometimes believe stuff like that when they're scared."
The boy still looked uncertain but he looked back at Ezra, silently asking him to go on.
"The girl began to grow sicker and sicker. Her pain had expanded to include severe headaches, the inability to consume most foods, and a now almost unbearable level of pain in her stomach. At last there was simply no choice but to journey to a hospital if they did not wish their daughter to die. The parents begged their neighbors for aid and managed to scrape up enough money to travel the necessary distance to a charity hospital which possessed modern equipment, including an x-ray. The results were far from expected."
Ezra paused, suddenly concerned again that his story might induce nightmares.
"Don't worry Ezra, it will be all right," Buck assured him, reading the uncertainty in his friend's features. "If they get scared later, we'll be here for them. Go on."
Ezra sighed. "So long as you're sure. When the doctors had concluded their tests, they spoke with the girl's parents and informed them that their daughter had snakes in her stomach."
Vin shivered and JD made a disgusted face. "Ewww," they chorused.
"Snakes?" Chris repeated incredulously.
"That was, I'm sure, precisely the stunned parents' reaction," Ezra continued. "They were filled with questions. Were the snakes alive? How had they gotten there in the first place? Could anything be done?"
Buck grimaced, rubbing a hand against his own abdomen. "Alive? Ugh, that one wouldn't even have occurred to me."
"The creatures were indeed alive, though I'm uncertain how they survived such an extended duration," Ezra told him. "As it turned out, the girl had been drinking from a stream that contained the tiny fertile eggs of water snakes. The creatures hatched in the warmth of her stomach and remained living within her body for all those years. The doctors performed immediate surgery and removed a number of these snakes, each no larger than a strand of cooked spaghetti, but understandably a source of great pain for their hostess."
"Was the girl all right when they removed them, Unca Ezra?" Vin asked and cuddled closer to his uncle.
"She was quite well," Ezra replied. "She lived a long and full life, famous far and wide as the girl who had lived through the ordeal of the water snakes."
Vin smiled. "That was a good story, Uncle Ezra. Gross and scary but a happy ending, I like 'em that way."
"Me, too," JD decided. Then he made a face. "I sure am glad Chris didn't get no river water for us to drink, though. I don't want no snakes in my tummy!"
"Yeah, I'm sure glad that you stopped Dad in time, Unca Ezra," Vin told him with a hug.
Ezra returned the hug and grinned at Chris. "What do you think, Mr. Larabee?"
He snorted. "I think it's time we called it a night. Buck and I have planned an early start on that nature hike in the morning and I want you boys to be well rested."
The boys scrambled to their feet, distributing hugs all around, shouting good nights and thanks for the story over their shoulders as they disappeared into their tent to change and get ready for bed.
A few minutes later, Ezra yawned and tossed away the remains of the coffee he'd been drinking. "I believe I'm ready for a good night's rest myself. I'll see you gentlemen in the morning."
"Night, Ezra. Oh, and just so you know, you're cooking breakfast tomorrow, in payback for trying to give us all nightmares!" Buck called after him, smiling at the chuckle that emerged from Ezra's tent as he tied the small structure closed.
Eyeing his canteen, Buck sloshed the remaining inch or so of water thoughtfully. "You think that story was true?"
"It's always a possibility, Buck," Chris replied with a grin. "I think I'll stick with Ezra's bottled water stash this trip, just in case."