Jasper stiffens and makes a slow turn around to find what has put so much fear in the hush Claudia just gave him. The hair on the back of his neck is prickling and standing up underneath his long locks. He takes a look on the other side of the tree and sees no movement, so he remains as still as possible. Both of his hands hold steady onto his shotgun that is aimed out from his chest.
The silence is deafening. Jasper’s eyes are alert and his body feels strong. The white glistening snow and the deep blue sky are all that give off any light. The silhouettes of trees all around begin to morph into human bodies, animal bodies to Jasper as he scans back and forth around him.
Jasper begins to rely more on his hearing ability as his eyes grow weak in the dark. He turns his head from right to left in a slow rotation so as not to miss one sigh or step in the snow. In mid-rotation of his head to the left, a sound wave travels across the snow and enters his right ear. Jasper’s mind translates this sound into a footstep in the snow. Movement, and it’s nearby. Another step is detected after another, after another. What was interpreted as one person upon hearing the first step, is now understood to be multiple pairs of feet crossing the snow together. Jasper knows he cannot fight off a large group of people by himself, so he begins to walk backwards, away from the tree he heard Claudia’s voice tell him to be quiet. He has no time to cover up his own tracks and so he knows he must lead those tracks to another tree, so as not to lead the approaching group to Claudia. He chooses a tree that is about 100 feet from the tree that Claudia is hidden within.
The steps grow louder. They are getting closer and Jasper has little to no time left. He slings his gun over his shoulder and jumps up onto the tree. There are not many low branches so he must shimmy himself up the large trunk about 20 feet before he can use branches to help get him up higher. He climbs another 20 feet till he gets to a place where he has good visibility of Claudia's tree and to where he is unlikely to be spotted.
Leaning his back up against the trunk and sitting in its L-shaped curve, he again places his shotgun out in front of his chest, ready to fire.
The group is getting even closer and their path leads them closer to Claudia’s tree than his own. Jasper feels a sense of panic as he realizes she will be easier to find first before himself. He cannot move at this point as they draw closer, so he must wait to see what unfolds. He curses himself for not having time to cover up his tracks that now litter the bottom of Claudia's tree. Showing evidence of a human's presence.
The group can now be seen as a large black mass moving through the snow. They are approaching the far side of Claudia’s tree, so Jasper cannot see all of their movements, but he is thankful they don’t travel near to where he left his tracks on the opposite side, closer to him. He can hear their loud, husky breathing. It is hard to make out each person individually, but with how large the group appears as one blob, Jasper calculates that there are at least 20 of them. They travel with horses and a group of shorter, smaller looking humans, which Jasper assumes are women. The group of what appears to be women walk close together in a huddle.
Two bodies can be spotted at the front of the pack. These two look big and seem to be in charge, as they dictate where the group walks.
“This area will be good to set up our camp for the rest of the night,” one of the leaders says to the other in a deep and booming voice.
“Let me know when, and I’ll get them to work,” is the other’s reply.
The second of the two men sounds younger and his tone has an edge of slimy to it that rubs Jasper the wrong way.
They continue walking, and as the group passes the tree Claudia is in, Jasper lets his hands relax on the gun ever so slightly. He can feel his chest fall a little as his nervous anticipation calms down.
The older man nods at the younger one, which signals the slimy man to whistle a command at the people. It cuts through the air and the group halts in submission.
“We will set up here and over there,” the whistler barks out using two fingers on each hand to point to the areas that he is talking about. The people break into smaller groups and get to work setting up the camp.
Jasper hears some whimpering in the commotion of it all. He suspects it to be coming from the group of women, who he believes may be here against their will. As he is watching the women’s group more closely, he can tell by the way they are moving as one that they may be tied together.
“Shut them up!” The young leader adds.
He and the older leader walk farther past the group, which means farther away from Jasper and Claudia, which eases Jasper’s fears a smidge.
We seem safe for now, but the first rise of the sun, we won’t be safe here anymore. They will spot us.