“Kick out that damn fire!”
The voice calling from out of the dark startled the family gathered around the open campfire. The pot of beans they’d been cooking hung painfully alone over the open flames.
“I said kick out that damn fire! Now!” the voice repeated.
The man stood and faced the direction from which the voice had called. He squinted his eyes and tried to see through the darkness that blanketed their camp. But it was too dark, not quite pitch black, but too dark to see very far, just as it had been for almost six month. They hadn’t seen the sun since it sat in September at the start of the long winter night here in the Alaska Territory just north of what had once been Fairbanks.
“I said who’s there?” he said again, this time placing his right hand on the butt of the pistol he wore in a holster on his belt.
“Keep your hands where I can see ‘em!”
“Now see here!”
“You best keep your damn hands where I can see ‘em or I’ll drops ya where ya stands,” the voice said again. “And kick out that damn fire!”
The man’s wife took a pail of water and poured it over the open flames, sending a hiss of steam, smoke and ash into the night. “There mister,” she said, a tremor in her voice. “It’s out.”
The family had traveled so far and for so long that she’d lost track of time. They’d lost one of their children along the way, a boy of only nine years old when he’d fallen into a deep crevasse while trying to cross what they thought was a solid ice pack. One moment the boy was there and the next he was gone, swallowed by an opening in the Earth so dark and deep that his cries for help could not have been heard even if he had survived the fall. She refused to lose her husband to a voice in the night.
Now their meager supplies had run out and they were down to the last of their hope. If they didn’t find shelter and sustenance soon, the rest of their family would disappear into oblivion the same as their son.
A lone figure detached itself from the darkness and cautiously approached the family. He held a weapon in his hands that resembled a primitive crossbow. His face was covered by a mask that appeared to be made of some kind of animal skin, and his clothing was dark and feral, covering him from head to foot, making him almost impossible to see.
“Don’t you people know how much danger you’s in?” His voice was low and easy with just a hint of distrust.
“Just take it easy with that thing,” the camp husband said, indicating the crude weapon in the hands of the stranger. “We don’t want any trouble.”
The stranger from the darkness made a guttural sound deep in his throat. It sounded like an attempt at a laugh; then again, it might have been a growl.
“We’ll trouble’s ‘xactly what you’ll find you stay ‘round here.” He approached the family, eyeing each member individually. He kept his crossbow trained on the husband while he shined what appeared to be a battery-operated light on the family. A man, a woman, two girls, and a boy. And all so young and raggity-lookin’.
The couple couldn’t have been more than forty, maybe forty-five years old, and the kids looked like they ranged from maybe twelve down to four or five. Then he noticed the baby in its mother’s arms, bundled against the cold.
“What’re you people doin’ out here on the tundra? You lookin’ to get yourselves kilt dead?”
The couple exchanged wary glances in the dim light. They still couldn’t see the stranger clearly but it was apparent they were in danger.
“My name is Carson,” the husband said. “Carson Moore. And this is my wife, LouEllen, and our children, Abby, Lydia, and Robbie.” He waved his hand toward his family who had gathered around him. “We’re just passing through, looking for a place to find shelter.”
The stranger stepped closer to the family. He was big and rough, at least six feet three inches tall. He weighed at least two-hundred thirty pounds. The kids look frightened and malnourished. The woman ain’t bad lookin’ but she’s seen kinder years. The man looks to be strong and of reasonable health, even though his skin is drawn tight, probably from worry and fear.
Reaching with his left hand while still holding his weapon in his right, the stranger removed the mask from his face. Carson Moore still couldn’t make out the man’s facial features, then realized why; the man was black, pitch black with a thick growth of black beard speckled with flakes of gray.
The closer he got to the family, the rougher his features became. His face was scarred and pitted, and his hands were large with protruding knuckles like they had been broken several times. But there was something about his eyes that told Moore he was not a threat as long as he didn’t make a move for his pistol.
“Name’s Jerkins,” the man said. “Ty Jerkins.” He continued to eye the family. It wasn’t often he ran across a migrant family, and never one with three kids.
“We don’t mean any trouble, Mr. Jerkins,” Moore said. “We were just cooking a pot of beans to feed the kids.”
Jerkins lowered his weapon but kept it ready if he needed it. He was fairly certain now this family was harmless. Still cautious, he circled around the scared husband and wife. It wouldn’t be the first time a bunch of scavs had set up a phony camp to try to steal his hunt.
“You’d a fired off that pea-shooter hangin’ at your side, you’d a’had more trouble’n you could’a shook a stick at.”
“Mr. Jerkins?” the wife said. “What are you going to do with us?”
Jerkins looked the woman up and down again. She was dressed in hiking clothes and boots, but he could tell that underneath, there was a considerable woman. He concentrated his gaze on the three children that had gathered around her, and on the man that stood defensively in front of them all, each one with a frightened look on their face. These people ain’t no threat.
“Folks ‘round here calls me Jerky.”
“Jerky?” Moore asked.
“It’s ‘cause I’m a hunter for the city. Big game mostly. Big ‘nuff to make jerky out’ta to eat when times is bad.”
“Bear mostly,” the large man answered. “Elk when I can find it. Moose ever now and then.”
“Mostly,” Jerky answered. “When I can get one cornered.”
“You hunt bear with a crossbow?”
“I hunts ‘em with whatever I can kill’em with,” he said. “Anything quiet. Sure as hell don’t shoot off no damn percussion cap. I ain’t that damn stupid.”
Moore started to ask Jerky to join them for dinner then remembered his fire was out. But Jerky wasn’t interested in a plate of cold beans. His eyes moved from side to side, and he appeared to be listening for sounds in the night.
“Is something wrong, Jerky?” Moore asked.
“You people ain’t got one damn clue about where you’re at, do ya?” Jerky asked, still peering into the darkness.
The couple shook their heads.
“You’re in some deep shit out here, that’s where you’re at,” Jerky said, lowering his voice to a whisper. “Not two damn klicks from a scav camp.”
LouEllen Moore pulled her children to her then stepped closer to her husband. “Scav, sir?” she asked. “What’s a…”
“Shhhh,” Jerky warned, holding his hand up to the woman. “Just hesh for a minute.”
Concern for his family overcame Carson Moore. He didn’t know if they were in more danger from this odd person that had invaded their camp, or from whatever menace the large man feared from out of the darkness.
“Scavs is outcasts from the cities,” Jerky continued. “Criminals and scavengers mostly; people that won’t obey the laws. Some is just wanderers that move from place to place makin’ trouble wherever they go.”
Moore looked out into the night. He didn’t like the fear this man had brought into their camp. Yet he felt somehow safer with Jerky present.
“And here you people sits ‘round a campfire that can be seen for ten damn klicks and smelled for twenty.” Jerky kicked two loads of dirt onto the still-smoldering fire. “You’s just lucky it’s damn near three in the mornin’ or you’d’a had half the damn scav camp down on your ass.”
Carson Moore looked at the luminous dial on an ancient wristwatch he wore on his left arm. “Three in the morning?” He looked exasperated; tired. “Guess I’ve lost track of the day and night time hours. I thought it was afternoon.”
Jerky, still a bit leery of the man, finally decided these people were what they said they were, migrants trying to escape the heat and floods in the low country. He was amazed they had survived their trek north. Luck or something had to be on their side to get this far. Without warning, Jerky bent down and picked up the small boy into his arms.
“Robbie!” the mother cried.
“Hesh!” Jerky said. “Ain’t gonna do the boy no harm.” Robbie whimpered again and reached for his mother. “I said hesh!”
Jerky faced Carson and LouEllen Moore. “You people get your supplies together and come with me.”
“You wanna stay here?” Jerky snapped. “You’ll be dead by mornin’, and this purty woman of your’n’ and these kids’ll be gone.” He shrugged his shoulders, the boy still in his arms. “Don’t mean nothin’ to me, mister. Your family; your choice.”
LouEllen Moore stepped around from behind her husband and started gathering their few belongings. Abby, the oldest girl, rolled up the sleeping bags that had been laid out on the ground beside the campfire. Moore stepped toward Jerky and held out his hands for his son.
“You’re scaring the boy, Jerky,” Moore said. “Let me have my son. I’ll take care of him.”
“You scared’a old Jerky, boy?” the large man asked Robbie Moore. He nodded.
“Don’t mean to scare ya none,” he said and handed the shivering boy to his father.
The family secured their belongings to backpacks and waited while Jerky stepped back into the darkness from which he’d spoken earlier. When he reentered the camp, he had the dead carcass of a small elk slung over his shoulders.
“You people step in behind me and follow close. Don’t make no noise.” He eyed the pot and pans hanging from a strap over Carson Moore’s shoulder.
“Keep them damn pans from rattlin’ and bangin’ together or you’ll wish you never heard’a beans.”
The odd parade of men, women, and children started out through the dense underbrush, each one close on the heels of the person in front of them. Moore couldn’t tell from their twisting path which direction they were headed. He carried his young son in his arms and laid his head on his shoulder. He had untied the pot from the strap and handed it to his wife, exchanging it for a sleeping bag that she had been carrying, along with the baby in a shoulder sling.
After an hour of silent marching, LouEllen Moore asked if they could stop for a few minutes to allow the kids to rest and use the toilet. Jerky looked around the clearing they’d entered and decided it was probably safe to stop for a while. He lifted the elk from off his shoulders and hung the carcass over a low tree branch. He lowered himself onto a boulder, slid his hunting knife from his scabbard and cut off a piece of jerky he pulled from his hunting pack. He handed the piece of smoked meat to the LouEllen, along with three other pieces for the children.
“Thank you, sir,” she said. “Thank you for sharing your food with us.”
Jerky nodded. He cut off another piece of meat and tossed it to Carson. “Eat this,” he said. “It’ll pick ya up.”
Moore tore a piece of the meat off with his teeth, chewed the juice out of it and swallowed its pungent texture. He’d had jerky before but none that tasted like this.
“Bear jerky?” he asked the hunter.
“Moose,” Jerky answered. “Kilt it last spring up in the high country.”
“It’s good,” Moore said. “A little gamey, but good.”
Jerky turned to the children chewing on the meat. With exception to the boy, they hadn’t spoken since he’d stumbled onto their camp. “You like that meat?” he said to the girls. They nodded but didn’t speak to him. He motioned for the oldest girl to come to him. She exchanged glances with her mother who nodded her approval for her to approach the odd man.
Twelve year old Abby Moore stood in front of Jerky. He reached out and gently took her right hand, turned it over and looked at her palm and fingers. “Had it rough for a while, ain’t ya, girl?”
“Yes sir,” she answered. “We’ve been walking for a long time.”
“You been helpin’ your ma and pa with the little’ns, I reckon,” Jerky said. “Totin’ supplies and cookin’ over a campfire?”
“Been washin’ your clothes and takin’ your bath in streams, and been meltin’ snow for drinkin’ water?”
Jerky nodded his head and offered Abby another piece of smoked meat. “Wish I had somethin’ more to offer ya, child. But I travels light on my hunt. Ain’t got no bread.”
“That’s ok, Mr. Jerky,” Abby answered. “We don’t mind.”
Jerky held out another piece of the dried meat to Robbie, who just shook his head while he eyed the stranger from the security of his father’s arms.
“You like spinach and turnips, boy?” Jerky asked. Again, Robbie shook his head.
“Me neither. I’m a meat and taters man myself.”
Jerky turned to the Moore’s. His face was kinder since talking to Abby. He didn’t pose the same threat he’d offered only an hour ago.
“Won’t be long now,” he said. “Another hour or two and we’ll be someplace safe.”
“Jerky,” LouEllen said, “you said you were a hunter for the city.”
“There’s a city out here on the tundra?”
“Not too far from here,” he answered, tearing off another bite of jerky. “Jest over them hills.” He pointed into the night. Except for a faint glow of light reflecting from the cloud cover, it was impossible to see anything in the distance. “Red’s just over there.”
Long-forgotten hope crept onto the faces of Carson and LouEllen Moore. Was this odd man really leading them toward safety? Was it possible they were near a place that could offer them food and shelter?
“We best be movin’ on,” Jerky said, pushing up from the boulder. He lifted the elk from off the limb and slung it back over his shoulders. “Won’t be long ’fore the scavs’ll be out.”
Without saying another word, he started back on a trail that only he knew. The family fell in behind him. Jerky set a quicker pace this time. He wasn’t used to having to travel with a bunch of other people in tow. But he’d been away from home for over a week and was anxious to get back to the warmth of his own cot. The family struggled to keep up with the long-legged man. How he could walk so fast while carrying the elk across his shoulders was a mystery to LouEllen Moore.
After a little over an hour of quick-paced march, they started a winding climb up a tree covered hill. Although it was still dark, Moore could tell the path they were on was well worn, which indicated to him that they were nearing civilization. His heart raced at the thought that his family would soon be safe.
The light reflecting from the clouds helped brighten their way. Moore could see the horizon at the top of the hill and wondered what could lie on the other side. He helped his wife along. Abby, who by now was also carrying Lydia, the baby girl, carried the two sleeping bags her mother had started out with, but she didn’t seem to mind the extra load.
They reached the top of the hill and stepped out into a small clearing. Spread out on the valley floor below was a city; a city made of glass domes. Jerky looked back and forth between Carson and LouEllen Moore and held his hand out toward the structures below them.
“That’s Green,” he said. “Polar City Green.”