Part I, Chapter 1

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The icy wind whipped dirty grey snow into Nathan’s face. It was always cold and overcast now. He wondered if warmth would ever again come to this dreary world. His extremities were long past numb and his joints felt as if they were frozen in place. He looked at his family lying in the dingy ash-like mush beside him. Bethany shivered and burned with fever and Nathan feared she wouldn’t make it through another night outdoors. His watch told him it was three o’clock in the afternoon, but the overcast sky looked like dusk. Days were shorter now.

Nathan turned back to the little clapboard shack silhouetted in the fading light. At one corner of the structure white smoke billowed from a rusty sheet metal pipe promising warmth.

There is no easy way to do this. I hope I don’t get us all killed, he thought. Even if things go well, there will likely be blood. Nathan lowered his head onto his arm and closed his eyes. Choices were falling away from him like the leaves on the dying trees towering over them. Keeping his family alive. That was the only thing that mattered now.

He looked at his sons and gave them a nod as he stood. Joshua and David rose and followed their father slowly. Nathan put his hand on Bethany as they passed, her fever so bad she was oblivious to everything around her. He thought about conferring with the boys again, but that would only be stalling. They had talked it all over before and besides, there was nothing complicated in what they were about to do. With sudden determination, Nathan ran the last ten feet and kicked in the flimsy door. He was momentarily blinded by the light and warmth.

Nathan moved along the right wall and felt the boys come in behind him. His eyes adjusted and he saw three men and one woman. They were staring back at him in shock. The dirty unkempt man nearest the stove stood slowly with a cunning look on his face. He eased a hatchet from the nearby woodpile. Nathan aimed his assault rifle at the man and tightened his finger on the trigger. The man froze, but glowered at Nathan with tangible malice. Time stopped and Nathan almost reconsidered.

“So what are you going to do?” snarled the angry man in front of him. “You can’t make us leave and you’re sure as hell not staying here with us! This is our place, find your own!”

Nathan shot the man in the face without thinking. Before he could turn he heard David fire the shotgun to his left. David's shot hit both the man sitting at the table and the scrawny woman in his lap. They both fell to the floor in a bloody heap.

The man closest to the entrance bolted out of his chair towards the door and Joshua hesitated, nearly letting him go. Nathan knew what the boy was thinking…he’s running, isn’t a threat, but he’s headed out the door towards where Mother is waiting sick in the snow. The boy deliberately stepped forward into the wind gusting through the silhouette of the door and shot the man in the center of the back with his .45 automatic pistol.

Joshua stared at the crumpled body outside the door and looked sick. David simply began going through pockets looking for valuables. Nathan wondered again how his two sons could be so different, and not just in appearance. Joshua was blond and light skinned like Nathan. He was also the oldest by a year and the thinker. David was dark haired like his mother and not terribly reflective. Nathan suspected David spent little time on regret or second-guessing.

Nathan let out a deep breath and closed the door before the precious heat could escape. He grabbed Joshua’s arm, “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I guess. Like you said, if we don’t get Mom out of the cold she is going to die and this is the only warm shelter we’ve seen for days.” Joshua lowered his head, “I just wish there was another way.”

“There is no other way, and you know it,” said David casually from the floor where he was trying on the hat of the still dying man. “They wouldn’t let us stay in their filthy, lousy shack and even if they did, we’d have our throats cut before morning or worse.” David did not even bother to look around at them, now preoccupied with examining a small knife from the woman’s jacket pocket. She kept putting her hand on David’s arm as blood pooled out of her neck and he shook it off absent-mindedly each time.

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