Once more, in a haunting dream of destruction and reflection of days passed, flames rose from a house before him. Crackling sounds, as loud as thunder, drowned out everything but the devil's laughter. Jason watched the silhouette between him and the burning home--the youth for whom he had been searching--holding a child in the air by the foot; a knife raised for a killing plunge.
"Where is your God?" Jason heard the young man shout at the child’s parents as they knelt in front of him. The arm began to come down.
He listened to the pleas of the mother and father, who were being held back by force as their daughter was made ready for the slaughter. The girl’s screams of fear and pain were more than he could bear. Anger stirred up within him, lending him strength to act--a movement so bold and quick that no-one could stand in his way.
Out of the shadows he ran, clearing the ground in front of the house in seconds. After knocking out the guards that were holding the parents, he continued on; his speed still unchecked.
Jason's hand shot out in a blur, taking the blade away from the man and slapping an open palm across his face. The madman staggered and dropped the child, turning to view his assailant.
"Who do you think you are?" the man shouted, hysteria carving his appearance into a demonic mask, scarred by disease and plague.
"A Levite of God, come to send you where you belong," Jason replied, thrusting out the man's own knife in an action so fast that it was not seen, until the handle was protruding from his chest.
Lifting the young girl, Jason turned back toward the parents, who were just standing to their feet. Still moving rapidly as he passed, Jason saw the dazed look of surprise and fear on the father's face. Jason motioned him on, without slowing to see if the family followed.
Reaching the roadside, Jason sat the child inside a waiting van which was barely noticed in the dim light of the flames. Only then did he turn to find the others right behind him.
"Get in and stay down," he ordered, glancing back in the direction of the carnage of the burning home. As he opened the driver’s door, Jason could make out the forms of the two guards running towards them. Even as the engine roared to life, he could hear the demonic laughter shrieking from the inferno. Driving away, Jason thought he caught sight of a shadowed form dancing in the blaze, screaming out in hate of mankind.
The nightmare changed but slightly, as the scene became one of wider-spread destruction. Cities at war within themselves, looting and killing on every side, bodies left to rot in the streets. Again the vision moved, this time to a large valley, armies gathered, bombs falling, flames and smoke rising into the air. In the depth of his dream, words were spoken, calling out to his troubled heart, yet bringing no comfort.
The world's children play in their greed,
Casting lies and curses as if they were stones,
Their willfulness, as it were, laws to themselves.
They know not the fires that burn against them.
They feed the flames in haste to seek the world,
Lusting for more, never satisfied, shouting in their greed.
With mocking laughter, the devil hands them dead seed,
And they feed from the woe of his hand.
Slowly the trumpet rises, the servant prepares to sound,
The earth stands still for a moment’s time,
Silence felt in a heart’s beating.
A flaming spark is set to the fuel heaped high,
Yet the soulless dance on, heedless of their despair,
Mindful only of their merriment, desire, and lust for more.
The warning sounds, but they hear it not,
For the laughter of their evil way mocks on.
The trumpet sounds, they pause in fear,
Too late they see the flames rain down.
The trumpet sounds, the heap falls too,
Consuming the blooded wine of their mirth.
The trumpet sounds, and the flames rage high,
The soulless reap the reward of their greed,
Shouting the torment of their eternal pain.
The Trumpet sounds, as the hater mocks on,
Laughing at man's despair.
Fire began to fall from the skies like rain, burning everything in its path, and still the mock laughter came out of Jason's dream, as though to torment his very soul.
Then, loud and strong, a voice was heard above the rest. A mighty call going out, ringing across the heavens, as well as the Earth.
Beware... for when the final trumpet sounds, you shall stand ready....
Sword in hand to do battle for your Lord....
And you shall stand victorious with the KING.
* * *
Jason woke from the dream, startled to find someone standing over him. Drawing back in fear, he protectively thrust his arms before him.
"Jason, it's ok," the man said quickly, stepping away so as not to frighten him more. "It's me, Barry. Remember...Tulsa?"
"Barry...I’m sorry," Jason stammered as he rose to his feet. "I must have fallen asleep."
"It’s understandable. You haven't slept in a week."
Jason searched the area for signs of movement; any indication that someone might be following or watching them. Slowly the memories came back to him--securing the family, a week of late-night running, hiding through the day. Although everything now seemed as it should, his haste to reach safety caused Jason to see trouble around every corner and bush.
Miles to the west, the hills came together, and Jason thought he could make out the dip in the land where the outpost was located--a small valley, on the edge of the foothills and canyons, leading to the mountains beyond. In his mind's eye he felt he could see the pass and the colony that was hidden away in the caves below the tree-line of the higher peaks.
Glancing back, he watched the family gathered under the trees on the banks of the stream they had been following for two days. The worry on the mother’s face was clear to see, and even the boys were growing fearful. Jason was sure that his dreamtime shouting had not helped.
"How's your daughter?" he asked in a low voice.
As cold as the morning was, the child was drenched in sweat. "The fever is worse,” the woman replied. “I don't know how long...."
"The station is not far; we'll make it by noon. They'll have medicine there."
Jason stared down at the child, resting in her mother's lap. Her eyes pleaded with him for rescue--a comfort he was not able to give. Torn between waiting and going on to the desperately needed security of the shelter, Jason reached out in the only way possible. Softly he spoke words of prayer--seeking healing and well-being for the young girl, and strength to go on for another day.
"Across these fields is a farm; you can get help," he said aloud, more to the child than anyone else. "I'll take you there. They'll get you to a colony where you’ll all be safe."
The girl's tired eyes held him firm, not letting go. They cried out to him, "Don't leave."
"It’s not far now, Kiddo, and you can rest," he replied to the unspoken request, while praying in his heart, "Keep her whole, Lord, just a little longer."
Carol, the mother, rose to her feet, holding the child close for warmth. Barry had offered to carry her, but she would not release her baby. Fear for the little girl was the only strength she showed.
Slowly, the group gathered what possessions they owned, and headed out across the fields. Dew-covered stocks dripped in the cool morning air, pasting wet seeds to their clothing as they brushed past.
* * *
The grain was tall for the beginning of Spring, left to grow unharvested from the previous years, the height worked well to give cover as the family headed to the north along the hills. Even walking in the warm afternoon sunlight, the wet stalks made for a cold damp day. The nearest road, no more than an old back highway, unused as the land passed unnoticed in the last gathering seasons, but still unsafe for those in hiding.
To the untrained eye, the whole country seemed abandoned, and the farm appeared as a ruined group of old buildings. Viewed from the air, it would seem as though no one had checked the crops in several years--possibly not since the disappearances. However, as a guide familiar with the area, Jason knew better. Even in the bright light of day, he sensed something out of place; a danger that he couldn't see openly.
As the family took a break beneath a large, twisted oak on the edge of the fields, he had a chance to look around. Being careful of his footing, he made a short climb to the upper branches of the tree. Stretching above the canopy, he caught a glimpse of the old farm buildings--the way-station and transfer point for those he protected. He had made the journey before and knew well how things went. This was the hardest part, when they were so close, yet had to wait, sometimes hours, for the all clear.
* * *
So far, the trip had been an easy one. Headed north-west out of Tulsa across the plains, his only real concern had been the weather turning bad as the group reached the mountains. They had traveled by night for most of the way, packed into the back of Harry's old van, stopping during the daytime and hiding in old warehouses or barns along the route to Colby, Kansas. From there, it had been a long and arduous walk for more than a week to reach the way-station in the foothills outside of Denver.
The youngest of the children, Shelley, had come down with a fever, which had not seemed to cause any problems at first. The girl kept up with her family and only slowed near the end of the day's tiring march.
The rest-stop was well deserved, and much needed after wading through the tall, wet grain. Though Shelley made no complaint, Jason knew the trek had worn her thin. As he glanced down from the high branches, he saw the child sleeping in her mother's arms. Her father stood close by, almost as if guarding them both. It was clear how much the family loved one another by their show of attention. Even the oldest of the boys, Kyle, who was not yet sixteen years old, offered to carry the girl's pack to make things easier. For Jason, it was evidence of more of God's little blessings living on in a world of chaos.
Staying the previous night in the cold, damp air of the open field had made matters worse, and Jason was beginning to fear for the child. With her frail, sweat-drenched body, she needed the help that the way-station provided. Medicine was always kept on hand for emergencies, but for now they could only sit and wait as the day crawled by.
In the distance, beyond the old buildings of the farm, the road stretched both east and west, out across the plains and farther up into the hills. Jason could see for miles from his perch in the treetop, watching the settlement for any sign of movement; anything that would show it was safe to go on.
As he watched, it came to him what was out of place. The last time he had passed through, the dogs had been aware of his presence before he was in sight of the fields. This time there was only silence.
* * *
Climbing down to the lower branches, Jason called down to the father of the group, "Barry, in the front pouch of my pack, grab the field-glasses."
Keeping to the side of the old oak, so as not to frighten his family, Barry waited for Jason to reach the ground, and then asked in a hushed tone, "What's happened?"
"Not sure." Jason placed the strap of the binoculars around his neck, tucking the glasses in his jacket as he turned back to the tree. "Something is not right, and I need a better view." Then, seeing the expression on the man's face, he added in a louder voice, "My own paranoia most likely. Rest easy until I check it out."
As he made his way back to the top branches, Jason knew the man was watching him; waiting for a sign of hope. His heart broke from the plight of the family, as well as the fact that he could do nothing but pray and wait.
Reaching the top, Jason brought out the binoculars, and searched the area. At first he saw no movement, as though the place were abandoned. Then, tuning in a clearer view, he found a dog lying down by the back of one of the outer sheds. As he adjusted the scope, he saw an arm sticking out of the shed door with the ground beneath stained darkly. Jason did not need to see more to understand all that had happened.
He scanned the distant countryside for the sight of anyone who might possibly be watching the farm, but he saw nothing except miles of grain fields waving in the gentle breeze. Everything seemed deserted, but in fear he felt the presence of hunters seeking them--the last Christians of a dying hope for humanity.
Jason whispered a silent prayer for protection of the family below him, not knowing what should be done. The way-station had always been the end of the trail for him. Normally his task only called for him to bring the groups this far, but now his main hope was to reach the safety of the colony in one piece.
His eyes flew open at the sound of a soft moan from the young girl, and he started down the tree at a rapid pace. Halfway to the ground, he slowed to catch his breath and check his speed, so as not to show his fear. As Jason walked over to where the family sat, he could see Barry’s own concern showing strongly--both for his daughter and the unknown danger that lay ahead.
Calmly removing his jacket, Jason knelt before the mother, wrapped Shelley tight, and smiled as he took her overly warm hand in his. As her eyes slowly opened and looked up at him, he reached out to brush wet strands of hair from her fevered face.
"Don't worry kid," he said, trying to bring comfort, even though his fears made the words seem like lies. "You’ll be ok soon; we're almost home."
Rising to his feet, Jason caught Barry's eye, and nodded in the direction of the farm, away from his family. The man followed as Jason walked back to the far side of the clearing.
"I saw something I need to check," he quietly told the father. "I want you to keep everyone here and out of sight."
"What's wrong? Is there trouble?"
"I think the worst is passed already, but just in case ... you see those two peaks?" Jason turned and pointed west to a line of high hills. "Almost a day’s walk and you will come to a stream flowing down from that point. If you hear anything--anything at all--grab your family and head out. Someone will find you."
"If it's not safe, maybe we should...."
"I didn't see anyone moving," Jason said as he glanced towards the children sitting together in the shade on the other side of the tree. In his heart he was praying that it was all his imagination, but he knew well what he had seen. "I want a closer look. Keep every one quiet until I get back."
"Ok Jason. Be careful."
* * *
Jason walked away quickly, bent low to stay out of sight. He reached a ditch at the edge of the field and followed it to the first of the outbuildings. There, he hunched down in the tall weeds to get a better view of the main grounds. Still, nothing was moving on the farm--not so much as a chicken scratching the ground for stray seed.
Moving along the side of the shed that he had seen from the treetop, he slowed to a crawl, feeling his way by sound as well as by sight; fearful of every fleeting shadow in the corner of his vision.
Soon the smell of decay alone was enough to show that it had been some time since anyone had been near. Jason held his breath as he looked about the yard. Sprawled across the porch steps was the body of a man who appeared to have been shot in the back while trying to get away. He had been left to rot where he fell. It was then Jason knew that the hunters had missed no one, though the coyotes had done more than their share.
As he moved slowly from the shadow of the building towards the main house, Jason tried to stay out of sight while still watching everything around him. He had seen the work of the hunters before, and was ready for what he would find. The home would be stripped of everything useful--all the furniture, clothes, and food would be gone. He was also sure that they would have cleaned out any medicines as well, but for the child's sake, he prayed that something would be left.
Pressed against the wall beside the door, he strained to hear even the slightest sound of movement. Visions of the sweat-drenched little girl played havoc on his already overstressed state of mind, so he calmed himself with prayer, seeking comfort for Shelley more than for his own safety.
"As long as she makes it, Lord. Keep them safe."
Peace returned to his spirit, and Jason turned to step through the doorway of the old house. At the squeak of a board, his heart skipped, and he froze for a moment. Silence returned, and he began his search once more.
In each room he saw the same thing--bare walls and litter, scraps of paper and trash left behind as useless. He made his way to the kitchen and discovered that even the cabinets had been torn out. It was a disaster.
Moving to the stairs, Jason headed up to the second floor, where he was surprised to find a very useful box in one of the bedrooms. Then he found an even greater blessing. Inside the box were thick blankets. Immediately he said a silent prayer of thanksgiving, knowing that the blankets would provide much-needed covering if they were to spend another night in the open.
From the way things looked, Jason felt sure that almost a week had passed since anyone had been near the way-station.
"It may be safe for a while at least," he thought, "and Shelley won’t be so exposed to the cold air."
Even so, he knew that work would need to be done before he dared to bring the family in. The bodies would have to be removed, or the family might be too frightened to stay in the shelter that was most essential for the young girl.
As he turned back towards the stairs, a stream of light shone into the hall through one of the bedroom windows. Dust motes floated in the air, catching his eye and revealing an object on the floor. He had seen nothing but trash earlier, but now, as he reached for the small jar, his heart raced. Tears began to flow as he dumped the contents of a half bottle of Bayer Aspirin onto his shaking palm.
His joy at finding the medicine was so great that he thought little of using one of the precious blankets to move the body from the back step. He worked quickly, placing it with the other body that was already in the shed. Then, using the broken door, he closed them off from view--at least as well as was possible. Then, no longer caring if others were about, Jason headed out in an easy walk which turned into a run.
Making his way back to the ditch, he hurried to reach the family--his only prayer for the child’s safety. Jason could feel the Lord with him, and knew that he would keep watch to protect them.
Nearing the group, Jason knew that he should have slowed down, but he didn’t. Barry had seen him running and, fearing the worst, had grabbed their things and prepared to flee.
Breathless, Jason could not say a word for a moment, but motioned for silence as he showed the family the blessings he had found. Once he caught his breath, he told them about the house, and how he believed it would be safe enough--at least for the night.
"Clouds are moving in," he said, after helping to gather packs and belongings. "It might rain tonight, and help hide any tracks. The place looks in bad shape, but at least we’ll be out of the weather."
Barry got his family together, and Carol wrapped her fevered child in one of the blankets, holding her close. Keeping low, Jason led the group slowly back to the old farm building. This time, he walked in from a different direction, trying to keep clear of the shed and its contents. He knew that it would be hard enough for everyone to get past the stench, without the added fear of discovering what had caused it. As they came near, he quickly explained that a dog he had found earlier on the steps was the reason for the smell.
After everyone was settled inside, Jason set to the task of checking the other buildings, in the hope that something else may have been overlooked. However, as evening came, he gave up the fruitless search, finding that the hunters had, once again, done a complete job of stripping the place.
The storm moved in and things grew darker, but at least they had shelter out of the wet night. Knowing the fireplace to be stable, and that the smoke would not give their presence away in the downpour, Jason allowed a small fire to be lit. The meager meal they prepared was like a feast after so many days of cold food, and the heat was good for keeping young Shelley warm.
Sitting in the shadowed doorway, watching the rain in the late hours, Jason thought about whether they might chance staying the next day if it were still raining. Knowing that the colony was a good two days’ walk away, brought him some comfort, but he was troubled by the idea of taking the family out in such weather. Seeing the group huddled together in the dark house, finally sleeping, he searched the past for words long remembered.
“Help, Lord; for the godly man ceaseth;
For the faithful fail from among the children of men.
They speak vanity every one with his neighbour:
With flattering lips and with a double heart do they speak.
The Lord shall cut off all flattering lips,
And the tongue that speaketh proud things:
Who have said, With our tongue will we prevail;
Our lips are our own: who is lord over us?
For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy,
Now will I arise, saith the Lord;
I will set him in safety from him that puffeth at him.
The words of the Lord are pure words:
As silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times.
Thou shalt keep them, O Lord,
Thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever.
The wicked walk on every side,
When the vilest men are exalted.”
As he sat staring into the dark, streaks of lightning flashed across the sky in an awesome show of God's power, making the old words ring true to his heart. Fearful of those seeking after them--the last remnant of God-fearing Man--Jason sat long into the night.
The hours wore on, and the stress of the day slowly drained the rest of his strength, until sleep overtook him, only to cast him to the depths of shadowed dreams.
* * *
Shaken from the sleep he did not mean to take, Jason jumped to his feet and searched about, fearful of movement in the pre-dawn hours. As the memory of where they were came back to him, he began to relax. Quietly he counted the forms lying on the ground around him. Finding that all was still safe for the moment, he stepped out of the broken doorway of the old house and stood in silence as the light grew in the early morning. Once more he tried to shake the ill feeling out of his mind; visions of a haunted dream of loved ones vanishing before his eyes.
A mist fell in a blinding fog, heavy as a curtain draped over the world. Even with the coming day, the sun was nothing but a disk in a thick haze.
The sound of an approaching car was like a ghost from his past, when he had been fearful of unknown hunters that sought to lay traps for unwary Christians in the last days.
Beneath the overhang of a building, that now seemed as if it would fall in the next gust of wind, Jason watched the fog roll in the wake of the passing car. The headlights glowed like demonic eyes in the dense cloud of mist. Expecting to hear the sound of brakes as it turned aside, Jason said a silent prayer of thanks when the car continued on, and silence once more enveloped his surroundings, casting him back to the shadow of his own thoughts.
* * *
Months had run into years while Jason ran--hiding every moment and afraid to show himself to any but those who were also running. He had come across many who had been hoping for a better way; a way of peace in a world gone mad. Some had been taken, or killed--yet others made it to safety, such as the family that was now in his care, by using guides to help them reach places of safety, out of the hands of the hunters. There were officials who tried to silence anyone who started digging into the disappearance of all the Christians, and those who came hunting simply because of their hate, and would kill anyone who stood in their way, taking anything they wanted in a lawless world.
In spite of this, people did begin to search for answers to what had happened, and when they did, they learned the truth of God's word. They discovered how He had said that He would remove His faithful from a time of madness, when the wicked would rise unchecked. These new followers of Christ were people like Jason, whose loved ones had vanished. Some had immediately understood what had happened, while others were lost in doubt and fear, as life around them fell into chaos.
Jason could remember his own shock when a friend had vanished before his eyes. The car they were in had nearly crashed until Jason managed to reach into the driver's seat and pull the car to a stop.
Though living through the disappearance, the greater pain came when he found his wife had also disappeared from the same moving car. No word of warning, no signs of wonder, and no great trumpet's blast. One minute, they had been laughing as they drove to a family reunion that he was attending for the sake of her love. The next moment, his wife and friend had vanished without a trace, leaving just a haunting memory behind.
* * *
Glancing over his shoulder into the ruined farm house, Jason saw the darkened outlines of the man and woman he was working for as guide and protector--leading them and their children to the safe house in the mountains, to be handed on to others for transport to the hidden colony. There were only a handful of small caves in the hills, and the number of refugees grew daily. More space would be needed soon, but for now it was the only way, and it was up to Jason to see that they made it to safety.
He had made the trip ten times in the past, with but one casualty--a rebellious boy who had been fighting against his father, and nearly caused the whole group to be killed.
This time, they had been truly blessed to reach the way-station, but he knew it was only a matter of time before the hunters caught up. The blessings of his Lord were spread thin, and his fears multiplied with every passing day. Jason knew that he could always stay in hiding at the colony, but that was never his way--not when there was work to be done helping others.
As the morning grew brighter, his fear grew as well. Though the fog hid them, it also made traveling in the hills much harder. Jason prayed for strength to be able to lead the group safely through the day. He tried to remain hopeful that this was the last family, and at last it would be over; that the great and final return of the Lord would put an end to the running forever. Soft and silent, the words poured from his heart.
“All holy Father God and Lord of mercy,
Mighty King and Creator of all that has life,
Bless me in my walk this day, as always.
Be within as the path grows darker,
As my trial is now upon me in my weakness,
Show brightly Your strength within.
I walk in Your way, merciful God,
To do what is good, and right, and just,
Yet in the world of men I must stand a while.
Let me not falter in the trial that is to come,
Grant Your strength within me Father,
That I might walk with You in that final day.
Create within my lowly heart the means,
That I would seek Your presence always,
Rejoicing every moment, lifting voice in praise.
Place in me the greater good of Your hope,
And cause me to see the blessed day,
Even in the midst of the darkest night.
The burden I bear grows heavy on my soul,
As I watch Your people fall by the wayside,
Turning to revel in the shadows of their sin.
I plead with Thee, O mighty Lord and King,
Just in all Your ways, let me not stumble,
As my eyes grow dim from much weeping.
Give of Your great love and light, O Lord,
A beacon of strength within my lowly being,
That I might once more stand in hope.
Let not my life be downcast in the eyes of man,
Nor my struggles be seen as weakness,
But as a greater glory to Your Holy name.
In dying let others see Your blessing upon me,
That I held faithful to Your golden way,
Giving love and hope to my fallen brother.
Another day in Your presence O loving King,
To lift another in my burdened care,
Shining the light of Your love to the world.
I seek that my worth is but a mirror of You,
Your glory shining forth as the new sun,
The morning star of the first of all days.
Renew the Life within me, O gracious Father,
That all that is seen within my trials,
Is the light of Your strength within.”
As the morning light grew and the fog began to burn off, Jason woke the others, and started the day with a cold meal of water, dried meat, and some apples they had found in a field the day before.
Slowly, the group moved about, gathering their small packs and preparing to head out once more to seek a blessing in the arms of a loving God.
Shelley stared as Jason helped her older brother adjust the straps on his pack. There was a look of wonder in her sad eyes. As he looked down at her, Jason viewed the hundreds of children he had known--each one was like the child he had never had. Forcing a smile for her sake, he reached over to run a hand through her dark, uncombed hair.
"Ready to go kid?"
"Do you know what really happened?" Shelley's voice was quiet, yet bold, as she asked her question. Her mother's shocked face said much of how he himself felt--fearful of saying the wrong words. "Mom and Dad won’t tell me, but I think there has been a war."
Jason sighed as he knelt down before the child, and then, fighting his own tears, pulled her close in a gentle hug. Though Shelley’s fever had broken during the night, she still had a weak, frail look about her. If the colony had not been so close, he would never make her travel in the damp, mountain air.
Finally, he began to speak. "A very old war."
The group slowly gathered around as he spoke. "Man fell to sin in the beginning, and the war has raged against it ever since. But our God is a loving God, and He made a way for man. Some found it, and the Lord took them away. They are the ones who have vanished--the true believers in Christ. Many, like us, doubted at first, and now we must find our way back to Him. Yet with His blessing, we will gain that love once again and go to be with Him in Heaven."
Slowly Jason released the small girl as he got to his feet and looked around at the family. He beheld the fear and doubt in their eyes, seeking for hope in the confusion of the world. Within his heart, Jason said another prayer, for God to grant them the same inner strength to go on and see the final day of God's glory.
"Come on folks," Jason stepped out the back door, headed towards the fields and the hills beyond. "The day is before us, and paradise awaits."
* * *
The day remained cool, though the wind came out of the south. The fog had finally lifted by midmorning, as the group took a break at the start of the upward path into the hills. The little one seemed better, but was still struggling, even with the slower pace that Jason had set for them. Kyle did his best to keep her spirits up, telling jokes and encouraging her about how well she had done. He was also quick to help her whenever she lagged behind.
As the family continued their way through a small canyon, climbing around the large stones in the creek-bed, Jason offered to carry Shelley piggyback. Barry took the second child, ten-year-old Benny. Carol did quite well on the rough ground, but Kyle stayed close by, in case she needed a hand. Their progress was much better than Jason had hoped.
"If we can make it this far again in the afternoon, we’ll be able to reach a safe spot to camp for the night,” he said. “Then on to the colony at first light. We'll be there in time for breakfast."
The idea of hot food and a warm place to sleep was always a blessing. Since the long hike had started, to the west of Colby, their warmest shelter had been in the way-station. After the stream in the hills the previous evening, and the climb this morning, the family dreaded another night in the open.
On his own, Jason might have made the main caves in a day from the Farm, but he knew that the children would not make it at such a pace. Carol had been a real trooper overall, and as strong as Barry had tried to show himself, for the kids’ sake, Jason knew that the stress of the past month had finally caught up and it was beginning to slow them both down. All Jason could do was set a steady walk, keep the others going, and think of nothing but the end of the line.
It was slightly warmer in the afternoon, but as the hills closed in and sunset drew nearer, the air became cooler. Although there was not much by way of shelter until they reached the caves, the camp he hoped for was more than the edge of a field. A small stream wound through the rocks along a cliff, making an undercut that presented a covered space the size of a single room. They would also be able to have a fire without being seen, even from the air.
"Who trespasses on this mountain?" a voice called out from the trees in front of them.
The group stopped short. Fear showed in Barry's eyes, but Jason only smiled.
"A man with lovely feet," he shouted back, adding a laugh as he set the girl on the ground. "Actually, they're kind of sore."
"Jason?" a man said in surprise, stepping onto the trail. "Precious Lord, it is you. Been no news from the farm in weeks. We had begun to worry."
"You won’t get any either," he replied sadly, shaking his head as he turned to Barry to make introductions. "We're safe. This is John--he's part of the colony. John, meet the Winters--Barry, his wife, Carol, and the kids. Kyle's the oldest, this one’s Benny, and the little sweetheart is Shelley." He reached down and brushed a stray curl off the child's face. "Watch out for the smile--it's a killer."
"I see that," the man said, as he took Barry's hand in a firm grip. "How was the trip?"
"Long," Barry sighed. "I have never walked so far in my life."
"Well, you're almost home. Another mile or two up this hill."
"The kids won't reach it tonight," Jason said, knowing that none of them would make the climb without a rest. "Is anyone with you? We need a doc to check on the little one. She took a fever a few days ago. It was a real miracle that we found some aspirin left in the station."
"Nada," John replied, shaking his head as he stared towards the valley. "What happened?"
"Hunters," he stated plainly. Then, kneeling on the ground in front of Shelley, he said to her, "You'll be ok now. I’m going to get help."
Turning to John, who stood watching, he motioned ahead to the bend in the steam. "Get these people to the cliff-camp and cook the food they have. I’m headed up to get Marvin and some others. I'll try to be back before dark."
Carol took the girl in her arms as Jason started up the trail, almost at a run. Not even looking back as he rounded a corner, he cut across the stream in a few steps, heading along the cliff to an open path to the caves that were nearly two miles away.
Barry stared in amazement as he disappeared into the trees.
"Come on folks," John said, grabbing two packs, one in each arm. "Let’s get you to a nice fire, and something to eat. Not far now and you can rest." He saw the weak look on Shelley's face and knew Jason was right--they wouldn't have been able to go much further. "Don't worry little one, if I know Jase, he’ll be back before it even starts thinking of getting dark."
Note for Pt1, Pt2, and Pt3: Scriptural referance from Psalms 12, Matthew 20:16, 25:31-46, Luke13:27, Ecclesiastes 1:2, 3:1-12. NKJ version..