A small fire fueled by a pyramid of cut branches burned bright in the shallow fire. Heat warmed a small tin pot of water held precariously above it by a crude stand. Outward from the pit, a few blankets were laid out just in the glow of the fire. Shadows from those danced against the dried remains of an ancient, overturned maple tree. Near the fire, Captain Hunter dropped a small pile of branches just outside the fire’s reach. He then watched in silence while William checked the bandages on O’Fallon’s head and right thigh. The quartermaster opened his eyes and managed a weak smile.
“Nae worry Cap’n, be takin’ more’n this tae lay me low.”
A thin smile played across Hunter’s face while he reached for a tin cup and a small bag of dried, brown leaves. “Get some rest my friend. Drink that tea William’s made, it’ll help you sleep.”
Carefully pouring the scalding water from the pot, Hunter mixed it with leaves for his own tea. Returning the pot to the fire, he rose and walked to the edge of the camp. He watched the evening moonlight play across the snow-draped pines. Gently, the wind picked up and a light snow drifted again from the scattered clouds. The forest was moderately thick here and the shadows cast by the moonlight moved ever so slightly. In the distance, a sharp howl from a wolf hunting in the distance echoed in the night air. From behind, a crunch of snow heralded Moira’s approach. She paused next to Hunter and tugged her long coat around her a bit tighter.
“Bugger me, it be cold. How long do ya think we ‘ave Cap’n?”
“A few hours at the least. A day at most. This snow and the whipping we gave them at the crash should slow any pursuit down a touch.”
“It be all disturbin’ if ya ask me. Comin’ outta nowhere like that, they had ta been layin’ in wait. Think they were usin’ the wee ones as bait?”
Hunter turned that over in his mind, sparing a glance at the two children. William had bundled them up in spare blankets. Angela and Miles huddled together for warmth and reassurance, occupying the space between the overturned tree and the small campfire. It provided the warmest place, for heat from the fire reflected back from the overturned roots.
“Bait? I couldn’t imagine why they’d be bait for us. No, I suspect we led them to the children unknowingly.” Hunter took a sip of the tea and offered the cup to Moira without a word.
“Thankee, I could use a cuppa.” Moira took a sip of the hot drink and handed it back. “Followin’ or waitin’, shame on it either way. It brings ta mind dark reasons why.”
“I wish I could think otherwise, but it was too convenient. They arrived the moment we brought those two children out of that wreck, something like that isn’t happenstance, my dear.”
She nodded slightly in agreement. After a moment’s consideration she added, “Or we be in a bad bargain.”
“Spot on point. I had not thought of that. However, if that’s so, I can’t figure what their Uncle Ian would get from it since he hired us to find them.” Light flakes of snow drifted in the wind to brush his face while he looked up to the cloudy sky. He sighed, exasperation and fatigue taking its toll. “Either way it’s something to sleep on. For tonight we’ll need watches.”
“Aye Cap’n. Ah’ll take first light.”
“Well and done, Moira. William?”
William looked up from where he sat mending a small hole in a spare blanket. “Aye Cap’n?”
“Setting watches between the three of us. Moira has first light. What say you? We’ve quite a lot of night to cover.”
“Now’s fine for me Cap’n. Ya can get some sleep. O’Fallon’s only just drifted off a bit ago, I kin watch him for awhile. ‘Sides, I been needin’ ta mend ma blanket for awhile.”
“Fair enough,” Hunter yawned despite his best efforts to resist it. Methodically, he reached down to wind the mainspring of his clockwork right hand. Carefully he flexed it, the interlocking gears within the chocolate brown rhino-hide leather joints protested at the cold. Hunter winced as the temperature and sensation of the cold gears radiated subtly through his arm. “Watch close, we’ll break camp at first light.”
The wolf’s howl broke the night air again. The trio cast glances into the dark trees around them. Hunter frowned.
“And by all means, eyes sharp tonight. I don’t think we’re alone.”
Embers glowed in the coals of the fire struggling against the chill the next morning. A dusting of light snow added to the effect, blanketing the camp and everyone in it with a touch of frost. Moira cupped her hands near her mouth and blew. Fog from her breath encircled her head while she walked between the lumps of blankets and coats, rousing the campsite.
Captain Hunter rubbed his eyes and yawned. “Any signs?”
“A bit o’ smoke near the ridge. No signs o’ the fliers.”
“Good, with luck we’ll put some distance between us and them.” Hunter stood and stretched. A bit more alert against the morning light, he knelt and recovered his blanket. Carefully he knocked the light snow from it and rolled it tight.
Moira, having already packed her blanket, walked over to the two smaller bundles of blankets on the far side of the coals. “Up to it. Let’s pack up so’s we kin be movin’ downslope.”
“We gotta?” Came the little boy’s whimpering reply.
“Aye that ya do, young sirrah.”
While the children rose, stiff and irritable, William stood with a yawning stretch then checked the quartermaster near him. O’Fallon’s eyes opened slowly. “Where be we t’day?”
“Same as day afore. Let’s check them bandages.”
Despite the cold of the snowy mountain air, Hunter stepped a few paces away from the campsite into the tree line. Carefully, he scanned the ridge behind and above them. Just beyond the rocks a thin column of gray smoke, barely visible, rose into the morning air. His thoughts turned over the possibilities in his mind. Some concerned themselves with the immediate necessity of a morning meal, while others were not so pleasant. Namely why their attackers were being so relentless.
Hunter’s eyes never left the ridge line. “Yes, Mr. Falke?”
“About packed and ready and … Cap’n? We’ve had some company.”
Something in the young man’s tone struck Hunter as off. In the few years since William had joined his crew, William Falke had displayed a knack for finding the unusual. This time was no exception. There in the snow, the young man pointed out the light depression of a pair of tracks.
“That’s a paw print, oddly shaped though. One too many toes for a wolf or cat. The other I’ve never seen. Where do these go? Have you trailed them?”
“Only some Cap’n. Picked ‘em up outside camp, I did. The big tracks came not far away, watched us a bit then left in a hurry.”
“Chasin’ the first I ‘spect. Big cat or wolf. Just can’t figure where’d it come from, though. It kept climbin’ trees then jumpin’ down. Its almost like it was around the camp watchin’ us the whole time.”
“That’s not a comforting thought. Next time we need to check the tree canopy. We were lucky this time. Had that animal chose, it could’ve jumped in camp and hurt any of us.”
“No harm done, I never considered it myself, either. Let’s return to camp before our friends above the ridge there get the idea to take a walk.”