Green pines towered overhead, their fresh, peppery scent carried on the wind. Broad-leafed Maples and sprawling Hickories added to the canopy, their leaves flapping in the hot wind. A bead of sweat trickled down Levi’s lower back. He did not swipe at it, he did not flinch. One uncalculated move could kill him.
Death wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen, he thought. He could break a leg. Yes, a broken leg would be infinitely worse than dying.
He felt the Hickory tree sway and moved with it, shifting his weight for balance. The branch beneath his feet yawned. Tree hunting was difficult, but he was particularly talented. Even though game was scarce, he always made a kill. An ability to keep focused was that which most people lacked, and it was that at which he excelled. He liked to think of it as his mother’s genetic contribution, the prowess of the Iroquois.
Hours had passed, and the sun was at its highest point. A ray of light found his bare shoulder through a hole in the canopy. He was forced to move. Unlike his mother, Levi was not gifted with tan skin, resistant to sunburn. No, instead he thanked his father for the skin of the Irish, intended for colder climates and cloudier skies.
He started to stand and climb down on the branch below, but a rustling stopped him. In the pine tree on his right. He listened. One branch to the next, the creature jumped. Squirrel, he thought. He tracked the rustling as he readied his slingshot. A healthy, full grown squirrel appeared on a lower branch, his tail full and haunches fat.
He whistled once. Bo crept to the bottom of the tree and sat, waiting. Levi pulled back on the rubber band, and then a baby squirrel appeared behind the adult. He held his aim for a moment. The tiny animal flicked his tail, mimicking the parent. He lowered his weapon. The mother and baby scampered off.
He sighed as he placed the slingshot and stone back into the leather pouch at his hip. He looked down at the wolf looking back up at him, eyes glowing amber, still waiting for the payload to drop. There will always be more squirrels, Bo, he thought. He removed the belt from his waist and slung it around the tree trunk. Holding an end of the belt in each hand for support, he placed his feet on the trunk and inched his way down.
About halfway down the tree, he heard a soft whimper. Looking down, he saw Bo standing, facing east, ears fully up and listening. There was a path that direction, a sort of clearing. He could see the area from his current stance in the tree, but he and Bo were far enough back in the woods to be hidden from sight. He perched onto the nearest branch.
“Sit, Bo,” he whispered. The wolf obeyed.
A teenage boy ran past down the clearing. Something glinted in his hand.
It was not his habit to interfere with those he did not know. Especially those carrying weapons. But Levi’s interest was piqued. The runner’s clothes looked new, obviously pre-Exodus. A rarity these days.
A couple of minutes later, another young man passed by, walking, with a person hoisted over his shoulder. Both wore the same type of clothing as the runner. The walker was saying, “Hang on Mike. Almost there. Almost there.”
Mike wasn’t moving.
Maybe these guys need help.
Levi hurried on down the tree, and fastened his belt around his waist. He whispered a command to Bo, and the two followed Mike and his carrier, keeping quiet and hidden in the woods. They arrived at a cabin. Mike and his friend were with the runner on deck. They were talking.
Okay, they’re friends.
He’d seen this place before. He’d also seen many different people at this house over the years. Mostly squatters. Squatters were not his sort of company. They rooted through homes, schools, stores, clinics, which everyone did at some point to survive. The difference was that Squatters didn’t care if these places were abandoned or not. They just took whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted it. This house used to be a vacation home, he guessed, being in such a remote area.
The cabin was an A-frame, a once popular style for mountain getaways. The rusted metal roof nearly went to the ground on two sides, just two large sloping panels. Three pipes stuck out of the top with teepee-like covers. One pipe was larger than the others, he guessed, for a fireplace. The siding underneath was a light shade of green. He couldn’t decide if it was painted that color at one time or if moss was growing on it. A redwood stained deck was attached off the left side. One of the railings had rotted and fallen down. A smaller deck, just big enough for two people to stand, was attached off the second floor. Large flat river rocks outlined where flowers or vegetables must have grown around the deck’s base.
Ethan looked in through windows. Alex helped Mike sit down on the deck’s steps. They both looked expectantly toward the east. Soon, another tall man carrying a girl walked into view. They stopped in front of Mike.
Levi admired her hair. Long and dark, like his mother’s.
Cam meandered around the patio, walking over the deck. Ethan, Alex and Jackson appeared to be searching for a way into the cabin. Mike remained seated.
Bo gave a low growl.
“Shh,” Levi whispered. Bo only growled when he smelled danger, but Levi didn’t want him to draw attention. Spying usually wasn’t viewed as a sign of trust, and that’s exactly what he was doing.
Bo growled again, low, just under his breath. The wolf detected the approaching danger long before the hunter heard the heavy footsteps coming from the south. Levi darted behind the trees, following the sound of crunching leaves until he saw them, two large men dressed in black, heads shaved.
The second man turned to look over his shoulder, revealing a dark tattooed eye socket. These weren’t just Squatters. They were Skulls.
The Skulls were once criminals, pre-Exodus, sent to serve their time in one of the harder correctional facilities in the state. All men who survived their first year in the prison, which consisted of a rather harsh hazing period involving beatings, rape, torture and starvation from both fellow prison mates and the guards, were accepted into the Skulls. One side of their faces received a crude tattoo meant to look like a fleshless skull. Even the eyeball was tattooed solid black. They wore it like a badge of honor. Just before the Earth’s people packed up and shot off into the great unknown, they unlocked all the prisons. It had been decided that the new world didn’t need thousands of prisoners to feed, so they left them here to fend for themselves, along with the other thousands who either couldn’t afford to travel into the sky or simply didn’t want to. All the innocents left on the planet had to contend with the meanest, most hardened convicts in their region for survival. Like Cam and her friends were about to do.
The hunter smirked. This should be interesting.
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