Prof reached into his valise and pulled out a floppy leather wallet. As he rummaged through it, receipts and slips of paper fluttered to the ground. I ran around and picked them all up, except for one, because Omar got to it first and ate it. I hoped it wasn't important. "The National Geographic Society will be happy to pay off this boy's debts in return for his service," Prof said with odd formality, like he was in a radio advertisement. "I am pleased to offer you twenty thousand francs' worth of United States currency."
I stared, openmouthed, as Monsieur Tatagani took a note into his hand, this one even more fine and intricate than the francs. "I don't know what you're on to, old man," he said, "but the check is good. The boy's yours." He leered at me. "What will I do now? My home will feel so empty!"
Unconsciously, my eyes went to Monsieur Tatagani's house. The other boys were lined up at the front door, staring at us. I wished I could take Pierre and the rest with me, both to get them away from Monsieur Tatagani and to have allies against this odd Arab.
Monsieur Tatagani slipped the check into his wallet. "I hope," Prof said to Monsieur Tatagani, "that you will see this windfall as an opportunity to help those in need."Monsieur Tatagani laughed.
"I am in need! Even a money-lender can need money. This will pay the tax collector."
With plenty left over for banana beer, I thought sourly.
Monsieur Tatagani scowled at me, his expression angry but also somehow wounded. Then he headed back to his home, scrutinizing his check. My new owner and I stared after him as he swaggered away.
"Hurry up!" Prof said, snapping his fingers. "Get your belongings! The chimpanzees will be disappointed if we're late." Then his expression softened and he winked. "Unless that mock man you met last night told you otherwise."
Numbly, I tripped after Monsieur Tatagani. My knees were limp. I'd thought I'd spend the rest of my short and pointless life laboring under that debt. And this crazy foreigner had paid it on a whim. I'd seen the number printed on the traveler's check fifty American dollars! I couldn't understand it.
As he approached the house, Monsieur Tatagani yelled at the boys lined up in front. "You know you're not allowed around here during the day! Go! Get hunting!"They lingered, but when Monsieur Tatagani picked up his stick they hurried along the road. What happened? Pierre mouthed as he retreated, awestruck.
"Good-bye!" I called after them. I'll come back and help you if I ever can.
Once they got to the tree line, most of the boys slipped into the jungle. But Pierre stopped, staring at me dully. Unable to take the guilt of leaving him behind, I ducked inside the house.
My belongings only half filled the plastic basin. Inside was a hospital form I'd kept because my mother had once signed it, a cloth purse made from an old pair of pants and tied neatly with scrap rope, and a second shirt with a hundred-franc note hidden in the lining. I hefted the basin under the crook of my arm and got ready to leave.
My stomach was fluttery. Monsieur Tatagani's house had been a misery compared to the home I'd once had. But leaving it still felt like leaping from a cliff into a current.
I left the small amount of money I'd scrounged under Pierre's bed cloth. Prof had thousands millions? of francs, so the money would do Pierre a lot more good than it would me.
Monsieur Tatagani was seated on his couch as I left, staring at his check. I was tempted to leave without saying anything more to him, but felt I had to say some kind of good-bye, despite everything. Having his house to come back to at night had kept me alive. I cleared my throat. "Monsieur "
Excerpted from Threatened by Eliot Schrefer. Copyright © 2014 by Eliot Schrefer. Excerpted by permission of Scholastic. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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