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The End: Chapter 6
I am jolted awake by a sharp snarl from Solo. Gabriel is standing over me; he'd tried to rouse me from my hellish dream and, although Solo no longer shows aggression at Gabe's presence, the one thing he will not permit either to do is approach me whilst I sleep.
"I'm ok" I mumble to both Gabe and Solo.
The latter lies down, growling still. I look up at Gabriel.
"Just a dream." I tell him, to which he merely nods in understanding.
We head out on patrol, me still clearing the cobwebs of the dream from my thoughts. The day is unseasonably warm and the sun feel amazing as we hike down the beach. Noah has remained at the station, grumbling about his sore joints and keeping watch from the crows nest. The old man has taken a liking to the high vantage point and spends hours up there, just watching.
We are just coming out of the woods and heading down toward the main road when Solo, who has been trotting over the snow a few feet ahead, stops and assumes a defensive stance, the thick fur down the center of his back standing on end, lips curling back in a snarl as he sniffs the air.
Gabriel and I follow his lead and stop, weapons at the ready, but we see and hear nothing. Solo, however, catches the scent he is searching for and begins to back up toward us, growling loudly. Gabriel and I point our rifles in the direction Solo is looking, all of us slowly retreating to the cover of the forest. We get just behind the trees and after a few tense moments, Gabriel and I see what Solo was warning us of. A horde of infected, trudging through the snow. They are still a good distance away and are slowed immensely by the cold weather and snow.
"Must not have eaten for a while." Gabe says softly, watching them through the rifle scope. "They're barely moving...but there's got to be thirty or more."
"I've got twenty arrows." I tell him, patting the bow and quiver on my back. "I can get up on a roof and take most of them."
"Okay. You do that, I can handle the rest."
"What are you going to do?" I ask, worried he might intend on firing the rifle.
Gabriel lowers the rifle, slinging it's strap over his shoulder and unsheathes the hatchet hanging from his belt as well as what I'd previously thought was an odd-looking flashlight but proves to be a collapsable titanium nightstick which extends to it's full length with a flick of his wrist. He grins at me, looking almost eager.
"Let's go, girlie." Hr says and moves off silently to flank the horde.
I order Solo to stay and head for the best vantage point; the old bakery where once they had served the best sticky buns in the world. Once on the roof, I can see Gabriel is crouching to the right of the horde's path as they make their way slowly toward us. I waste no time and carefully line up my first shot. Then another. And another. Before long all but the last ten are stumbling toward us. I climb down as Gabriel rushes the remaining dead. He's dispatched six of them by the time I reach him and we put down the last few together. Then we are standing amidst the bodies, retrieving arrows and cleaning our weapons in the snow. I whistle and Solo joins us, jumping to lick my face, even seeming happy to see Gabriel.
"We make a pretty good team." Gabriel says, yanking the last arrow from the soft skull of what appeared to have once been a young woman.
Solo is all too happy when we are ready to head back to the station; he detests the smell of the infected. We are greeted at the door by a beaming Noah.
"That was some fine handiwork." He compliments, clapping both of us heartily on the back.
"They were slower than I've ever seen." I say, unwrapping two large hunks of venison I'd set out earlier to thaw for Solo.
He takes them graciously to his usual spot under the table and I go to the woodstove to warm up. Gabriel sets to work at once pulling the arrowheads from their shafts to sterilize them while Noah fetches us both steaming cups of coffee.
"Either people have got real good at hiding... or we're the last ones for about a hundred miles." He muses quietly.
I glance at the old man, a thoughtful, almost troubled look on his face.
"What do you mean?"
"It takes a long time for them to get starved like that. A month or more. Meaning they haven't come across any food in quite some time."
"By 'food', do you mean people, Pop?" Gabriel asks from behind us, sounding slightly annoyed at his father's choice of words.
NOah ignores him and continues. " ...Just makes one wonder... the survivors who turned cannibal themselves won't survive forever eating human meats. Eventually they'll die of the sickness it brings, a few may start hunting and scavenging again, but they'll be weak, malnourished and probably starve or end up infected. It's possible the camp we ran across in Mackinac won't even make it through this winter. They were already getting sickly and eating the weakest among their own when they caught us. We may be the last ones in these parts.. hell, for all we know, we're the last ones anywhere."
His words fall on me heavily. I supposed I'd never thought about it so directly and of course my thoughts immediately go to my brothers and once again I feel the thin line of hope I've been clinging to slipping through my grasp.
"Nonsense." Gabriel says, ardently disagreeing with his father. "I don't doubt those marauders may be dead but there ARE others like us. I know it. They've just got the sense to stay put for the winter. Just as we have."
Noah turns to his son; "Ah, they've the sense to hide but not the sense to put down a roaming horde like that? It's not as if this is the first town they woul've wandered through. Why let them pass?"
"Maybe they haven't got the weapons to deal with them like we do." Gabriel counters
They stand looking at each other a moment and finally Noah smiles, shaking his head.
"You keep hangin' on to that hope, my boy-" I note his rueful, somewhat patronizing tone "- I say it'd be all the better if it's just us."
I blink back involuntary tears and although Noah takes no notice, I know Gabriel sees it. A look of anger passes over his bearded face.
"Sounds like the nay-saying of a bitter old man to me." Gabe jabs at him.
Before Noah can retort, I interject.
"Gabriel, will you help me bring in some wood, please?" It is the best I can think of to dissuade them from further argument.
Noah climbs back up to the crows nest, grumbling as he goes while we head out to the garage to tote in more wood.
"Old man doesn't realize other people actually have families. I'm sorry." He says, apologizing for his father.
"No need to apologize, really." I assure him. "Anyway, he might be right."
Gabriel grabs my arm as I reach for the woodpile, turning me back toward him.
"He's not." He says, matter-of-factly. "There's no way he knows that from how slow those things move. The cold makes 'em slow, the snow...hell the snow slows US down. There are other people out there, I just KNOW it. I feel it. And you know you do, too." He locks his eyes on mine poignantly.
Later, as Noah snores on the couch, Gabriel and I sit at the kitchen table, talking quietly.
"You really believe there are others?"
"Yes." He tells me firmly. "People as a whole weren't ready when it happened but the individuals who survived are adapted by now. We could find others, build strength and safety in numbers. We can put those things down, the marauders too, and reclaim our world. This place... it's perfect from a defense standpoint, hunting and fishing are great, water is abundant, but it was a hell of a road getting here. The Marauder camp in Mac city is big and they had patrols that scouted within several miles outside the city limits. It's hard to get around them..." He pauses, staring into the oil lamp between us.
"it wasn't there when I passed through." I tell him. "I spend a few days scavenging...I only ever saw the dead."
"You were lucky. They must have set up camp soon after that because they were well established by the time we arrived."
As he stares into the solitary flame, I find myself asking the one thing I'd been wondering all this time since they arrived.
"What happened at your father's cabin?"
"It was my fault." he started "I led a group of infected there without realizing... they broke right through the fence and took the livestock first. Gave us just enough time to get away. We thought about going down to the fallout cellar, they would've never gotten in there... but we would've been trapped for god knows how long... there were hundreds of them."
"And Mackinac? What happened there?"
"From a distance we could see the city was inhabited, and not by the dead. We watched them through the scopes for a while and saw what they were. We tried to circle around them but ran across a patrol about four miles outside the city. They caught us at night...old man was on watch but his hearing isn't what it used to be... they fell on us like a pack of hounds on a fox. We fought but there were so many of them...when they got a hold of Pop... well, I could hold my own but he's not as quick as he used to be. They started cutting into him right there. They would have eaten him alive..." Gabe finally looks up at me, his eyes troubled. "Next thing I knew, the five on me were on the ground and I was pulling the others off Pop. Managed to get him away and one of our rifles, but everything else was lost. There were shots fired as we fled, drawing even more of them and Pop was hurt bad. I had to half carry him and he was leaving a trail of blood that may as well have been in neon lights. We had enough of a lead to give them the slip. For a few minutes at least. We got to the marina and hid in the water under the docks all night. Just before sunrise, I dragged Pop to an old paddle boat and we crossed about half a mile to the right of the bridge. Found an abandoned old lean-to in the woods after a few days of hauling him on a makeshift stretcher. He'd lost a lot of blood, and we stayed holed up in that shack for two weeks. I'd go out and hunt, bring food back to him, mostly squirrels. Only had two rounds in the rifle. We were lucky to find the bows later."
I take in the story, recalling my own woes on the road.
"The point is..." Gabriel says, shaking the haunted look from his face, "I don't think we're going to find the other survivors sitting here."
"You want to leave? But You said it yourself; this place is near perfect. And this is the first place my brothers are going to come to find me..."
"I know that." His eyes meet mine. "and I understand if you want to stay. Pops won't mind staying, too. Stubborn old man doesn't believe there's anything to find anyway... but I could go. I can find others and bring them back here. With greater numbers we could build a real stronghold here." His expression is intense, I know there will be no talking him out of this.
"In the spring, then. When the weather is better. It will be easier for you to travel."
Even as I say the words, I have an undeniable feeling of dread. I don't want him venturing into the hostile unknown alone, and yet I don't want to leave my sanctuary here to go with him.
"No." He says flatly. "I'll go tonight. There were dark clouds out on the lake today, should hit land by morning. I'll need to stay ahead of it. The cold makes them slower, and you know how they flounder in the deep snow."
"Gabriel...travel isn't going to be easy in this weather."
"But it's the best time, and you know it."
He's right and I can't deny it.
"Where will you go?"
"Back toward Mac City, scout it out. I'll be faster on my own. It's been almost six months since we were there. Good chance they've killed each other by now or moved on maybe. If there are survivors around and the Marauders are gone, I'm sure that's where they'll be."
Again, I know he's right.
"When are you going to tell your dad?"
"Gabe..." I begin in a warning tone.
"It's better, I promise you-" with this he reaches across the table, grasps my hand briefly and I know my fears must be written plainly on my face, "-I'll come back."
I am still speechless as he gets up from the table.
"I'm going to pack a few things if that's okay."
"Anything you need." I tell him quietly.
As Gabriel moves silently about the station, I sit in front of the stove, absently stroking Solo's head. He whines softly every so often as he watches Gabe prepare to leave, as if he shares my concern. Then Gabe is ready, and we go into the garage, careful not to wake Noah. He hugs me, then takes me by the shoulders, his eyes searching mine, as if searching for words to fit the moment.
"I'll come back." Is all he manages, and then he is gone.
Noah is plenty angry when he discovers Gabriel is gone the next day. I know it is purely his way of coping with the fear he must feel for his son. He paces the floor, goes outside and chops wood while I fix some breakfast, which has long been cold by the time he comes in. He sits and eats in silence.
"Want to come out with Solo and I?" I offer in a feeble attempt to take his mind off his troubles.
He nods curtly and we head out, walking without a word between us for a long while. Finally, Noah breaks the silence.
"Damn hard-headed fool boy!" he spits out vehemently.
"He believe strongly in it. He'll come back, Noah."
"Damned fool's errand!"
It's obvious he doesn't like being left behind, besides his fear for Gabriel's safety, it only solidifies for Noah that he is no longer a young man, that his son now surpasses him in skill and vitality. I try to soften the old man with optimism.
"If he's right he could bring people back here with him and we could build a real community here."
"Hmph!" Noah stops walking and turns to face me. Solo issues a soft warning growl, sensing Noah's hostility.
"Let me remind you of something, dearie. There is nothing out there but death." He stops suddenly, probably seeing the despair on my face. "I...I'm sorry, Hannah. Guess it's just hard realizing you're too old to be of any help to your family."
I shove him lightly. "Enough sulking, old man. You're as tough as nails and you know it. Gabriel left, yes. And he left without you, yes. But he can travel faster and lighter on his own and I need you here. So just get over it and let's see about doing some hunting. If your boy comes back with others, we'll need the surplus."
His grim expression lifts slowly "Right you are, girlie."
The following morning, we are in the deer blind long before sunrise. Solo is curled up at the base of the tree, only his ears moving, constantly swivelling to pick up any sound. When a buck meanders into the clearing, we are all ready and as two arrows hiss toward him, he is still completely unaware. It's not until they find their mark and sink deep into his hide that he bolts. Solo knows this to be his cue and is off like a shot after the injured deer. He revels in the thrill of the chase. Noah and I are down the tree and halfway across the clearing in pursuit when the strangled bleat of the buck reaches our ears. I smile to myself, knowing Solo has caught him and brought him down. When we reach the spot, Solo releases his death-grip on the buck's throat. Blood drenches the snow, pouring from the jugular vein. Solo's plumed tail waves high; he knows he has done well.
"Good work, big guy." Noah tells him, impressed.
Whistling to himself, Noah carefully skins the deer, setting the hide away from the carcass, then helps me butcher the meat. We leave only the bones behind. Day in and day out, we work; hunting and fortifying the hotel, then the adjacent cabins. Solo learns to pull a light sled, usually loaded with meat from the hunt or supplies for the hotel and cabins. In the evenings, we make plans to expand our rebuilding once the snow melts, and on and on until finally, Spring arrives.
May 4th. I just stare at the square on the outdated calendar. There are already two X's on it. I put the pencil down and push the worn, torn old thing into the woodstove. I am done counting days. Gabriel has been gone nearly 4 months now. Noah has taken to spending long hours in the crows nest, watching for his return. We have encountered few infected and no marauders since Gabe's departure and with the warm weather, I begin to feel somewhat renewed. We have restarted the generator and transferred our meat stores into the big deep-freezer. Now that the cold season has passed and we've survived, we can slow our hunting efforts. We already have the freezer more than 3/4 full and with Spring in the air, game with be plentiful again.
Solo and I take patrol without Noah today. He woke up with cold-like symptoms and I insisted he stay in the station, wrapped in blankets on the couch. The snow has all melted, fresh green grass in it's place and best of all, Solo has grown into a magnificent sight over the winter. He is enormous like his father, gunmetal gray with his mother's flashing gold eyes. In spite of his thick chest and shoulders, his form is still streamlined and he moves with incredible swiftness and grace.
As we enter the woods from the beach, once again Solo's keen senses out-do my own. He stops in front of me, blocking my path, one ear pitched forward, his half-ear swivelling toward something only he could hear. Instead of his usual warning snarl, he whines anxiously and backs up against my legs. I hear the sharp, distinct snap of a twig on the ground being stepped on and the hair on the back of my neck stands on end as the possibilities race through my mind. I duck into the closest underbrush, eyes and ears alert to everything around us. A subtle movement in the trees ten yards or so away draws my eye and I unholster my sidearm, knowing the noise may draw the infected but it will be faster than my bow if I am surrounded.
The infected make noise when they are in the forest, in their both their clumsy movements and their constant moans and snarls. Only man or animal would move so stealthily as to sneak up on me. With the wolf pack gone and no other large predators in the area, I fear the worst-case scenario; Man. This thought, along with Solo's unusual demeanor, make me both nervous and curious. I strain my eyes searching the forest around me for more movement. Then a pile of fallen brush moves. Solo whines again, sniffing the air, and I see; it is not deadfall at all.
Upon closer scrutiny, I spot the vague shape of a person, crouched, in a woodland ghillie suit. I wonder how long we've been followed, and by how many. The elaborate camouflage makes it nearly impossible to detect the person in front me. Solo knew all along, though, and without his keen senses I may well have walked into a trap. But if there are more, we are trapped anyway and all I can do is lead them away from Solo. I tap him twice on his flank, a silent signal I taught him recently to stay hidden. He dislikes the command but will abide it. Aiming my 9 mm at the imposter brush-pile, I stand and move forward quickly.
"Get up!" I order, closing the distance between us.
I repeat myself, this time adding incentive.
"I will shoot you!" I fire a warning shot into the tree next to my target. This is enough to convince and the pile of leaves and twigs rises and morphs into the shape of a man, face covered by the hood of his suit, rifle in his hands.
"Drop it." I tell him.
He says nothing and keeps the rifle on me. I raise my own weapon slightly, making it clear I am aiming for a headshot.
"I said drop it. And if you're thinking you're faster than me, forget it."
For a moment, I think my ears are deceiving me, as I am certain I heard a chuckle fro beneath the hood. He lays the gun down and pulls back his hood.
"Glad to see you haven't gone soft."
Gabriel's face, rugged and windburned, breaks into a smile at my momentarily shocked expression. My surprise gives way to relief and I holster my gun, rushing to embrace him. He lets me go after a moment and whistles loudly. Six more men, wearing suits identical to his own, apparate out of the trees.
"Didn't spot them, though, did ya?" he chastises gently.
I shake my head, disappointed in myself. "I'm sure Solo knew, though."
"Where is the big fella?" Gabe asks, waving his companions over.
"I had him hang back." I tell him, whistling my own notes.
Solo races to me,sniffing Gabe up and down, greeting him with soft, chuffing growls. I have him sit, which he does reluctantly, bristling at the approaching newcomers.
"So you found others!"
"That I did." Gabe confirms, looking down at me fondly.
The others reach us, each toting military rifles. Gabriel smiles mischievously and gestures to the men on my right.
"I've brought you something." He says as they draw back their hoods.
I find myself falling to my knees, overwhelmed by the sight of two of my brothers; Thomas and Elias. They pick me up off the forest floor in a bearhug, joyful tears streaming down my face. After a few minutes, Thomas introduces the others.
"Markus and Connor were in my unit" Thomas nods to a tall blonde who gave the impression he was part Viking. He is propping up a stout and swarthy fellow who couldn't have been more the other's opposite. "And him, you remember, I suppose." Thomas finishes, pointing toward the third man who is tugging off his ski-mask. It takes me a moment to register the face, but when I do, he knows it and grins.
"Been a long time, Hannah." He says in his familiar light drawl.
Samuel's oldest friend who I had, in my youth, follow around like a sad puppy, opens his arms for a hug.
"You sure have grown up, darlin'." he says, dropping his arms when he realizes I am not coming toward him, and I pray that my already flushed cheeks, rosy from the excitement, will hide the hot flush I feel in my face.
"T- don't start" Thomas interjects sharply.
Shaking my surprise, I turn to Gabriel, suddenly overcome with questions.
"How..?" Is all I manage.
He smiles. "Found these boys laying siege to the marauders outpost near Mac City. Crazy as hell, these brothers of yours."
The on called Markus clears his throat loudly.
"We should move." he says, shooting Thomas a grave look.
"Right." Thomas agrees and gives me a nudge. "Well, little sister, you have a place here or what? We're in rough shape here."
I am all too happy to lead them to the station. Noah, having seen our approach from the crows nest, has venison and potato stew bubbling on top of the stove when we come in.
Solo retreats immediately to his spot under the table, growling at the newcomers who eye him cautiously.
"He'll get used to you." I assure them.
Thomas sets at once to inspecting the station, checking walls, windows, taking stock of the medical room where Eli has brought their injured man, Connor. The others are huddles around the woodstove, soaking in it's heat. Going to the stove to ladle out portions of stew, I notice Markus trying to wriggle his arm from a sling I hadn't seen till now.
"What happened?" I ask
"Laceration, dislocated shoulder. Nothing too bad." He since, though I am sure I see him wince as he finally gets his arm free.It's swollen around a long tear in his flesh, at least 8 inches running from his elbow up the tricep to his shoulder I at once feel a cold stab of fear at the sight of it, but he sees it and assures me.
"It wasn't one of them." he says, and I know he means the infected.
"Right, well, Eli needs to take a look at that. It's badly infected."
As Markus heads down the short hallway, I can hear Connor cursing in the med room as Eli sets the bone in his leg. I sincerely hope it heals suitably. He won't survive without it. I go to the end of the sofa opposite Tobias and sit, listening to the stew simmer, Noah outside hcopping wood, my brothers' voices drifting through the station; I lean my head back and close my eyes, taking it all in. I ignore the nagging question "Where are Nathaniel and Samuel?" for now, enjoying the moment. When I open my eyes again, Tobias is staring at me, an amused look on his face.
"Oh nothing, darlin'. Suppose I just haven't seen a face worth lookin' at in a while."
I can feel the heat creeping into my cheeks and ears again. I try to conceal it and go back to the stove to stir the stew.
"It's almost ready. Tobias, are you hurt at all?"
"Just a little..."
"Well, get on back there and let Eli have a look at you."
"I've had enough of his doctorin' for one lifetime, I think. 'Sides, I don't much think he could help where I'm hurtin' anyway..."
I turn to find him grinning devilishly. He winks at me and my cheeks burn even hotter. For years now I have had nothing on my mind but survival and such a flirtation evokes a bashfulness I haven't felt for years, which is quickly followed by a flash of irritation. I shoot him my most venomous look.
"Well, then you can doctor yourself, then. And if you're not hurt, you could help Noah with the firewood so we can all get settled and eat."
Noah needs no help with the firewood. In fact, we have all we need for the season already in the garage. But the old man likes to keep busy, and I feel the need to be away from Tobias immediately.He hold sup his hands in surrender.
"Alright, alright darlin'.I get it. All business. I like that...but you'll come around."
I say nothing as he rises and goes out the door. With the stew heated through, I move it off the stove and put on another skillet filled with cornbread batter. Thomas comes down from the crow's nest, drawing a snarl from Solo as he passes through the kitchen.
"You've done a good job, Hannah. Place is about as secure as it could be. Food, heat, Gabe says you've got a generator and gasoline, too."
"Good. Well done, little sister."
A warmth wells in my chest at Thomas's praise.
"No." Thomas takes me by the shoulders. "Thank you. You followed my directions perfectly. You've gotten everything ready and held it all this time. It's amazing." He lets me go and sniffs at the stew.
"My god, that smells good. What is it?"
"Bear! How did you manage that?"
"Noah and Gabe brought him down."
"He's a good man, that Gabe. Useful. Pulled us out of a firefight back in Mac City before he even knew who we were."
"Well, he left here to look for other survivors.He would've done the same for anyone...Thomas, what about Nate and Samuel?" The question spills out before I can stop it.
The garage door swings open just then, Noah and Tobias stepping in, arms loaded with wood. A dark cloud passes over Thomas's face.
"Later." He says simply.
Eli and Marus come from the back hall, Markus's arm freshly bandages and in a proper sling, Eli bloodied and exhausted. He drops onto the couch heavily.
"Gave Connor something for the pain, but that leg's going to need some time. He's got to stay in bed, the infection's causing a fever."
Gabriel comes to join us as I begin scooping stew for everyone and once everyone is served, they tuck into the meal like starving dogs; not a word between them, only the sounds of their eating. I fix a bowl for Connor and take it back to him with a canteen full of water.
He is lying with his eyes closed but opens them when he smells the steaming stew on his bedside table.
"Brought you something to eat."
"You're an angel." He says, setting the bowl in his lp.
"Hardly." I laugh. "Eat up, get some rest. You need another blanket?"
"No, no, I'm fine. Haven't been this comfortable since...well, I can't remember when."
"Good. Rest now. You need anything, just call to us. Someone will be back to check on you in a bit."
I settle into my easy chair as Gabriel fetches one of the bottles of moonshine from the kitchen and begins to tell Noah of how he came to find my brothers and their friends. They pass the bottle around, trading tales of travel and strife until, one by one, they each take their leave to the bunks in the back room. When, finally, everyone has gone to bed; Noah, Gabriel and I are left. Noah helps me gather the dishes while Gabe stuffs a few more logs into the stove. After the clean up, Noah dusts off his hands pointedly.
"Well, I'll be up in the nest if you kids need me." He says and ascends the stairs.
Solo finally comes out from under the table and settles at my feet as I drop onto the worn old sofa. Gabriel sits at a distance, both of us staring silently into the glowing woodstove. After a long silence Gabe reaches across the cushions and squeezes my hand briefly.
"Goodnight." and he is gone before I can even reply.
Puzzling over his odd behavior,I drift off there on the sofa, wrapped in my bearskin blanket.
"May 16th. Two weeks after my brothers' arrival, I sit with them in the early morning hours, fishing off the end of the break wall. The sun is slowly rising, throwing splashes of purple, pink and gold across the sky. Lake Superior lights up before us, reflecting the colors and the three of us save our words, caught up in the splendor of it all. Eli sighs next to me.
"Just like when we were kids." he says, almost whispering.
"Almost." is Thomas's grim reply.
Eli ignores him and continues, changing the subject.
"I've been thinking maybe we could work on cleaning up the rest of these buildings, maybe erect some kind of border fence, really lock this place down. before next winter."
"That's be a lot of lumber, and a lot of time. "
"Well, look around you." Eli says, gesturing behind us at the woods. "Lumber and time, we have,"
Now it is Thomas's turn to sigh as he casts his line our into the deep water. I listen to their bickering and try to hid my smile.
"We won't need to encompass the whole town, just the station, the hotel and maybe the immediate buildings around them." I comment.
"We can map it out when we get back. I'm sure the guys will be happy to have something to do." Eli answers, his voice gaining excitement at the thought of a project.
It was true, Markus, Tobias and Connor had been restless without the constant threat of imminent danger to keep them busy, and poor Connor even more so as he can do little more than sit in bed and make occasional trips out into the main rooms. His leg is mending but it will be some time before he is fully back on his feet. The others have opted to take up quarters in the cabins across the street when the station proved to be a bit crowded for their liking. They hunted long hours, and other than at meal times in the station and when they deposit the fruits of their hunting trips, I rarely saw them.
Our discussion is interrupted when Solo, lying a few feet from us, rises and gives his usual warning growl. We all turn at once to see Gabriel, rifle slung over his shoulder, coming down the breakwall at a jog. He waves us toward him and our fishing trip is over. As we meet him halfway, I can see his expression is not that of a man just coming to join his friends for some fishing. Before we can ask, he tells us the matter.
"Pop spotted smoke, maybe a campfire, about a half a mile out of town." He says, a note of excitement in his voice. "Connor and Markus are waiting at the hotel for us. Tobias went out this morning to hunt so we're hoping to meet up with him before he runs into trouble."
"I've got to get my - "
"-Your rifle?" Gabriel finishes, "Markus has it, ready to go."
We move swiftly to the hotel where Markus is waiting, anxious to get moving.
"We shouldn't all go." Gabriel says with finality.
I holster my gun and sling my rifle over my shoulder as Thomas cuts in.
"Hannah and Noah can stay."
Gabriel shakes his head.
"No good. She knows these woods better than anyone. Hannah goes. Connor, Thomas and I will accompany. Eli; you and Markus stay here."
Thomas, being accustomed to being the highest ranking member of his group, and NOT accustomed to having his decisions questioned, looks at Gabe in both surprise and irritation, as his fellow soldiers nod in agreement with Gabriel. Eli takes up a sniper position on the roof of the hotel while Markus joins Noah in the crows nest. The rest of us move out in the direction of the smoke.
WIthout the hindrance of the snow, we cover ground easily and quickly and it's only a matter of minutes before we hear the sound of a camp. Hunting alongside Solo, who glides silently over the ground by nature, I have learned to do so as well. So, as we approach, I take the lead, signaling the others (and Solo) to hang back. I move in closer to get a better look. There are five of them and I know at once they are marauders. Partly from their appearance...partly from the smell, but mostly from the gruesome scene which lay at their feet. A woman lay dying as they prepare to slaughter her as I would a deer. They are laughing at her as she chokes on her own blood. I am impulsive and careless in what I do next and I know it. Later, Thomas will chastise my foolish heart. I fire a bullet into her head to end her suffering. Then, as the marauders turn and I hear my companions rushing in behind me, I fire five more times; deliberately and accurately. On shot, one kill. Each bullet finds it's mark and the marauders are dead before they even know what's happening.