Daylight retreats, slipping away behind a mountain range of jagged stone. Oranges, purples and reds spill across the underbelly of sparse clouds. Three Walkers stand together near a small campfire while Hemmett stirs a cooking pot simmering with potatoes, carrots and large chunks of rabbit meat. As he meddles over their dinner, Wynn and Anna watch in weary silence, the day’s walking having caught up to them. Shadows crowd around, encroaching ever closer as the sunset fades. Despite the growing flames of the campfire, Anna can already feel the heat slipping from her body. She rotates in front of the fire often in a futile attempt to chase the cold away. On the edge of camp, Wilder lounges in deep snow with a look of contented leisure, as if the untouched powder were a drawn bath for him to relax in. It’s an amazing sight to Anna, seeing a creature take such comfort amongst so much cold, and she soon feels her first shiver of the evening. To chase her chilling blood away, she searches the sled for the tree rounds they use for stools and carries them to the fire. Wynn dishes their servings, and the three sit in a small circle around the fire to dine. The only sound shared between them are the intermittent taps of spoons finding the bottom of tin bowls. The meal is delicious, each bite filled with tender meat and hearty potatoes.
Save for the sound of green firewood popping in violent snaps, silence dominates the camp. It rampages through their tents, tramples their belongings and wedges itself between the Walkers with pushing elbows. Anna feels embarrassment for her previous outburst of anger while Wynn and Hemmett patiently search for words to say. As night settles in, the silence seems to mock them.
“He’s right, you know,” Hemmett finally ventures after the meal is finished and the bowls are wiped clean. “Mr. Wynn. About the numbers. About how much people are skimming off the top when it comes to the gold claims. I don’t know if it’s half. It’s probably a lot less. When I talk about it, I get mad. Sometimes it gets to me and I exaggerate the point.”
“Often,” Wynn corrects. He sits slumped forward with one leg stretched toward the fire. Now and then, he works his leg, bending the knee and rubbing his hip.
Hemmett shrugs. “Anyway. I also don’t want you to think the north is filled with thieves.”
“Rapists either?” Anna asks, her tone a quick jab.
He takes the rebuke in stride. “Those either, Ms. Holt. Another exaggeration of mine, though don’t take that to mean you shouldn’t be careful. There have been enough cases to warrant caution on your part. But Mr. Wynn is right when he speaks well of the north. Most are well-meaning. I was being, oh… how do you say it?”
“Ridiculous?” Wynn offers. “Hyperbolic? An arse’s mouth?”
Anna cracks a smile at the third suggestion. “I’ll take that one.”
Hemmett gives a sideways look to Wynn, and his hardened face slowly yields into a smile.
“Thank you for cooking,” she says to Hemmett.
“You’re quite welcome.”
Anna pulls her seat closer to the flickering flames and wraps the wool blanket around her legs before sitting. With gloves still on, she extends her hands toward the fire.
“Cold?” Wynn asks.
“Yes,” she says without hesitation. “Still. Always.”
“You’ll adjust,” says Hemmett. “I know, I know. You’d like to kick me for saying it. I wanted to kick him when he told me the same thing. But it’s true. You’ll adjust.”
She gives a slow nod. But when? her thoughts beg. She balls her fingers within her gloves in hopes of forming fiery cores with her fists. Staring into the fire, pulsing embers capture her eyes. Colors dance between liquid gold and seething crimson, taking on the appearance of a pot melting precious ores. She leans forward, and heat soaks into her cheeks. Cold is driven away from her nose. Her stomach settles with satisfaction, stuffed with rabbit stew. Soon, her eyes grow heavy.
“You should sleep,” Wynn says.
His velvety voice snaps her eyes open. “Oh,” she says, coming to. She stretches her arms and stands. “I don’t know. Isn’t it too early?”
“It is,” says Wynn, “but you’ll need the rest. Tomorrow brings another day of walking, and tonight brings your first night of sentry.”
“Indeed,” Wynn says. He slowly rises from his seat, bending his knee to work out a kink. “I’m going to get some rest myself. Mr. Hemmett will take the first watch. I’ll manage the second. You, Ms. Holt, can watch for the morning.” He smiles. “You’re not properly introduced to the north until you’ve seen the light of its sunrise.”
Anna turns and clasps her hands behind her back in one last effort to absorb the fire’s heat. Though her tent only resides a few feet away, she dreads the cold awaiting inside.
Wynn kneels down with a tired grunt and folds back the flap to his tent. “Good night, you two.”
“Night,” they reply in unison.
Anna tilts her head to the sky. Orange firelight dances on nearby trees before giving way to the darkness above. Wisps of cloud-cover block all but the boldest stars. Silence hangs, and she waits for the howling cry of distant wolves. Minutes slip by. The howling never comes. A shiver ripples through her body.
“The longer you wait, the harder it gets,” Hemmett says.
“What’s that,” Anna asks, looking over her shoulder.
He nods toward her tent. “Crawling under those skins. They’re not getting any warmer. It’s a bit like jumping into cold water. Best to get it over with.”
Anna gives a light chuckle of agreement. “The candles we hang inside the tent, do they work? Do they actually help against the cold, or is it just a placebo?”
Hemmett smiles. “Try a night without them and see for yourself.”
The smirk on his face is enough to answer the question. “I’ll take your word for it.” Her eyes return to the sky and wander, bouncing from star to star, the shifting clouds giving them a hazy glow. Around them, the world is mute. “It’s so quiet,” she says, her words disturbing the gentle pops and soft cracks of the fire.
“Isn’t it? I found that harder to get used to than the cold. The cold you stop worrying about at some point, but the silence… it’s like a stalker always sneaking up on you. Just when you’re comfortable with it, some awful noise comes and shatters it to pieces and reminds you how little noise there was. Quiet like this makes you forget how loud the world can be.” They both pause and observe the lack of sound. “Have you ever been this far into the wilderness?”
“No, not like this,” Anna says. “I’ve gone camping in the backyard a few times as a girl. That was quiet too, but nothing like this.”
“You’re a city girl?”
“I am,” Anna says after a moment. “We lived close to the capitol my whole life. We had to since my fath—” She cuts the word short and turns.
Hemmett’s dark eyes are on her, but no anger exists within. His black cowboy hat is tilted back, exposing his face. Firelight casts pointed shadows around his cheeks and jaw. “It’s alright. I know who your father is. What he does.”
Anna turns, facing him fully, and sits again. She looks down, hesitation dancing in her hazel eyes, and curls a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “Anyway, my grandparents have a farm. We went there a lot when I was a kid. I’d sleep outside sometimes, in the summer, but it was never that quiet. They had goats and chickens that always made some kind of noise. Crickets, frogs, owls. Lots of things to listen to.” Anna recounts the farm, and homesickness swallows her heart.
“The north has its sounds, but it takes you longer to hear them,” Hemmett says. “Not the obvious sounds like the wolves from last night. You have to train your ear. Whispering winds. Sighing trees. Even the snow speaks to you if you’re willing to listen. That sounds nice though, the farm.” Seeing the sadness come over her, he asks, “When was the last time you were there?”
Anna thinks. “Two summers ago. No, three. It’s been three years.”
“That’s a long time.”
“Yeah,” she says with a touch of regret. She looks to the stars again, hoping to find any that may be familiar, a distant link between the north and home. Tired circles linger under her eyes.
“Get some sleep, Ms. Holt,” Hemmett says.
Anna brings her eyes down from the sky to look at Hemmett once more. Leaning toward the fire, his long jacket hangs open and free, dangling in the snow. One elbow is planted on his knee, the raised hand supporting his chin. In the firelight she can see the early graying of his short beard and the weathered cracks in his skin. His emerald eyes look back, calm and sharp with wakefulness.
“Okay,” she says. She turns, removes her boots and crawls into her tent.
“And Ms. Holt,” Hemmett says before she closes the flap.
“What you said last night, about approaching your tent? How you sleep with your rifle?”
Remembering the threat, Anna waits. “Yes?”
“Remember we’ll be waking you for your watch before daylight.” A hint of worry touches his voice. “So don’t shoot, okay?”
Anna smiles and peeks through the opening in the canvas. She furrows her brow in mock consideration. “No promises.”