The young man had difficulty following the tracks left by Julien in the dark woods. They were deep enough into the trees that the snow wasn’t so heavy on the underbrush. But the young man knew where he was going and Julien didn’t.
The only place to go from here was the local Lawless camp where he and his friends had come from earlier. Julien was walking into a trap. Scouts would surely get him if the kid couldn’t catch up in time.
He wasn’t entirely sure why he wanted to help. The guy had just held him at gunpoint and tied him up. But he also showed him a bit of kindness and concern. That’s more than he could say for his group. They were only out for themselves. And the kid was tired of it.
He got caught up in the fun of the Lawless when they first appeared. But their lack of self-control and their desire to terrorize others was not what he had signed up for.
The sound of snapping wood caught his attention. It wasn’t too far up ahead. He went on.
Julien winced at the sound he had made by stepping on that log. Maybe his senses were just heightened but it was like a gunshot in the still woods. He listened intently for a moment and surveyed his surroundings. He could faintly make out what looked like beams of light bobbing up and down in the trees some distance ahead.
“Hey,” said a whispered voice from behind.
He spun around and leveled his pistol. It was difficult to see but he could tell it was the same kid from the rest stop.
“Don’t move, kid,” Julien said commandingly.
The boy held up his hands. “I just wanna help,” he said, “and it’s Mark.”
“Ok, Mark,” Julien lowered the gun a little, “who’s up ahead?”
“Lawless,” Mark said matter of factly. “And they aren’t going to treat you like a guest if they find you out here.”
Julien weighed his options in his mind and decided he had none.
“Where do we go from here?” he asked Mark.
The kid gestured with his head to the left. “We can get to the highway from here. We’ll be safe there. Most of them should be at the camp ahead.”
Julien nodded and pointed with the gun for Mark to lead the way. They moved silently away from the approaching figures.
Mark had led them across an icy stream, not big, but big enough to make the trek that much more difficult. From there it was up a steep hill that seemed to go on for miles but became comfortably level once they reached the top. They angled southeast for about another mile until they came upon a house in the woods. Julien paused in alarm.
Had the kid led him to an ambush? He considered running for a moment but he was exhausted.
Mark, noticing the concern on Julien’s face reassured him, “It’s my house, don’t worry. We’re safe here. The others don’t know about it.”
Julien nodded and Mark led the way to the house and in the front door. There was no sign of other occupants but Julien searched the place with his flashlight just to make sure. Satisfied, he put his gun away and relaxed a bit. He set his bag by a chair near wood stove and asked Mark if he could light a fire.
The boy got to work almost eagerly and soon the living room was comfortably warm.
“You have any food” Julien asked.
“Yeah, man,” the kid said, “I can make you a sandwich or something.”
“Sounds great,” Julien said with a halfhearted smile.
Again, the kid seemed to bound off and Julien wondered if he had any friends, or parents for that matter.
“You live here alone,” Julien inquired as Mark came back with two plates and handed one to him.
“Thanks,” Julien said. He was starving after that hike and he greedily dug into his food.
“No problem, man, yeah,” said Mark. “This is my place. My folks are dead and I just kinda took over. I was walking in the woods one day and I ran into those Lawless guys.”
Julien listened as he ate.
“Yeah, they beat me up pretty bad the first day but they let me join them.”
“And do you like being part of that crowd? They’re a bunch of evil punks,” Julien looked a little too angry at the kid.
Mark looked a bit sheepish. “Yeah, some of them are ok. But I don’t like the way they treat people. I just wanted to have some friends.”
Julien couldn’t help but feel a little bit bad for him. He wasn’t sure what to make of the kid but he seemed relatively harmless. And he had gone out of his way to help him.
“You wanna stay here tonight?”
Julien nodded, “I’ll rest for a couple of hours but then I have to be going.”
“Where are you headed?” Mark asked.
“I need to find my wife,” Julien said as he settled into the recliner he was sitting on.
“Where is she?” Mark asked.
He stared at he boy but didn’t answer. He wasn’t about to share anything with a stranger, let alone someone who claimed to be Lawless, even if he was different.
Mark seemed to get the message and sat down on the couch opposite Julien.
There was silence for a long moment before they both started to drift off. Julien slept harder than he had in years.