“Would ya just look at all that blood, Jen?” Steve pointed his knife at the big red blotch staining the snow near our boots. “Must be a big one.” He grinned, the excitement dancing in his blue eyes lighting up his gaunt face.
Saliva pooled in my mouth. Meat . . .
How long had it been since we’d had anything but some wild greens, dug from beneath the snow, boiled with bones of previous kills? Weeks? Months?
No one kept count of the years anymore. What was the use? Since The Cold Time had come, settling over the world in a thick, white blanket, the passage of time had lost meaning. There was a brief period of warmth and melting—Mama called it summer—when a few hardy, fast-growing plants were harvested. Then snow covered the land once more.
When I was a kid I had heard talk of ice ages, and maybe at one time, had known what that meant. Now all I knew was The Cold Time.
Mama said we had fared better than most since we already knew how to live off the land. She told us how most of the people who lived in cities had died out in just a few years after The Cold Time had come. They had gotten all their food in places called stores, and didn’t know how to hunt for it. “So much for civilization,” Mama had said.
I had never seen a city or a store, and didn’t know what civilization was, but Mama knew about such things. Daddy too. The Cold Time had come when they were big kids. Oh, the stories they could tell, describing things so far-fetched I sometimes wondered if they made them up.
“You daydreaming again?” My brother elbowed me in the side. “Ain’t no time for that now, gonna be dark before long. We gotta track down this critter and get back home.”
My mind returned to the here and now, to the blood-soaked patch of snow and the smeared tracks leading into the woods. “Looks like it took your bear trap with it,” I said.
“Yeah, I see that. And something else—you see it?”
I studied the tracks, and a smile stretched my cracked lips. “There’s two of them.”
“Yeah,” Steve said. “Some critters are funny, won’t leave a hurt one behind. Bad for them, but good for us. We’ll bag enough meat to feed us all for a couple of weeks at least.”
“You mean we’ll have enough meat so that Molly’ll get a good helping.”
Molly was pregnant with Steve’s baby. He was worried about her, seeing as how there wasn’t anything to her but belly. All of us were down to skin and bones, but being pregnant made starving even harder on a body. Meat or no meat, Molly would be lucky if she didn’t lose the baby. But I didn’t tell Steve that. He already knew.
He looked up at the slate-gray sky, tears filming his eyes. I gave him a quick hug. “Come on, let’s go get Molly and that kid of yours some meat.”
We trudged through the snow into the woods, following the trail of blood. A light breeze ruffled the evergreens. Every so often, clumps of snow fell from drooping branches with a soft thump. Steve and I jumped at every sound.
Then off in the distance we heard it: the growling and snarling of fighting wolves. The bastards were after our kill!
Steve and I glanced at each other, then took off running as fast as the deep snow allowed. No following the blood trail now; we raced toward the sounds of an empty belly.
Steve saw them first. “To the right,” he huffed. “There.”
My eyes followed his outstretched arm. Five wolves surrounded a man and woman. One wolf had the woman by her arm and she was screaming. The man was flat on his back in the snow, Steve’s bear trap biting into his ankle, and a wolf tearing into his throat.
“No!” I pulled the knife Daddy had given me when I turned a woman and started hunting, and plunged in among the pack. Steve was right beside me, swinging and slashing with his own blade.
We made a good team. We’d done this before—just the two of us against many. He was my right hand, I was his left. At all times, we knew where each other was and what each was doing. There were no wasted movements. Our minds meshed and we became one invincible fighter.
The battle lasted less than a minute, and five wolves lay dead upon the blood-soaked snow. And one dead man.
I turned to the woman. Cradling her injured arm, she leaned against a tree, sobbing hysterically.
I stepped over one of the dead wolves and put my arm around her shoulder. “There, there, it’ll be all right,” I said softly, using the same words Mama had used while drying my tears when I was a kid and had gotten hurt or had a nightmare. “Everything’ll be just fine.”
She relaxed against me. “John . . . he’s . . . he’s dead, isn’t he?” Her shaky voice was little more than a whisper.
I raised her bowed head and looked into her wet, green eyes. “I’m afraid so.” Then I slashed her throat and quickly turned her away so her pumping blood wouldn’t stain my coat. I pushed, and she landed face down. The snow around her turned red.
Steve clapped me on the back. “Seven, Jen. Seven kills in one day. Mama and Daddy ain’t gonna believe this.”
I looked at all the carcasses surrounding us. And smiled. Maybe Steve and Molly’s baby would make it after all.