Sunday, September 28, 2008
Jerry Steinhower turned to look over his shoulder one last time. Something told him the journey would be less difficult if he carried the image with him. The once make-shift shelter, comprised mostly of pine boughs, now served as a final resting place. He had spent hours lingering at a treacherous crossroads, wresting with demons; his conscience torn between staying with his friend’s lifeless body, or to move on. The odds of surviving the harsh Canadian elements were slim, but he had made a final decision. Nothing he could do for Harley Crider would bring him comfort now, or ease his own guilt. Jerry knew it should be his body lying on the pine needles with simply a patched together cross marking the grave.
The two had wandered severely off course, but by the time Harley realized his compass had malfunctioned the sun was but a sliver. Such an error, under normal circumstances, would have been recoverable, if not for the unanticipated squall. During the night the storm had dumped more than three feet of snow. A crystalline blanket transformed the five miles between them and the spike camp into an impassible nightmare. Hiking the rugged terrain under normal circumstances had been a challenge neither properly anticipated. Harley made the decision to wait for rescue.
From a novice’s point of view, he had done everything correctly. First, securing shelter; then as the thin veil of darkness became dawn, concentrating on a rescue plan. The signal fire was admittedly weak, but the best Harley could manage with limited resources. They watched small plumes of smoke rise, only to be dismantled by the breeze. Minutes became hours, hours became days—and still no one came. The beauty of the sinking sun became an evil indicator; the onset of unbearably cold nights spent shivering in the darkness of the wild.
Jerry had balked at the proposition of holding Harley so close, but soon welcomed the small amount of warmth transferred between bodies. Despite the ominous circumstances, Harley never lost his composure or his humor. Noticing Jerry’s hesitation, Harley suggested envisioning Ann Margaret in his arms, dismissing the wiry facial hair and the extra hundred pounds.
There had been no means of calculating the depth and darkness of the void created by the absence of his friend. Although they had been isolated in a wilderness there had been two. Jerry experienced an inexplicable comfort when in the company of his woods-wise friend. His persuasive words had convinced him to accept the invitation to hunt. Jerry’s had never held a gun and had no desire to kill anything, but he did wish to explore the mystical glue that Harley claimed held his life together. Two nasty divorces, a bankruptcy, and the loss of a job were hard to argue with. Harley dealt with each of the harsh blows in his own simple way; disappearing for a week to the wild, and returning with a rejuvenated frame of mind. Jerry wanted to experience that kind of liberation in his own life.
He did regret the injustice that had befallen his friend, but surely if Harley had chosen a spot to rest, it would have been here in nature’s pristine hands. Forever coddled by the surroundings that blessed his soul with flight.
Jerry felt his nose hairs freezing against the walls of his nostrils. The increasingly frequent bursts of visible breath were only the outward signs of distress. Perhaps the energy he exerted in brushing the snow over his tracks could be better used elsewhere, but time was of the essence. He could hear strained voices calling in the distance, and only prayed they didn’t turn in his direction. Jerry wiggled beneath some low hanging branches and settled with his back against the sturdy trunk. Those that searched that day came close to saving a man, but efforts to disguise his trail proved worthy. Harley would have been proud; not with the decision Jerry made, but with the execution of his plan. It was better for those that searched to remain naïve to the worthlessness of the man they sought?
An eerie fog hovered above the wind-driven caps of snow. Such isolation and solitude brings a mind to ponder many things. Images of dejected faces came in a barrage. His son appeared first, in a dusty uniform that belied the glow of victors face. Only in a twisted mind, could a late night at the office become an acceptable reason for missing his debut on the mound. His mate, Jane’s lovely green eyes, muted by cataracts composed of hurt and misunderstanding, staring in disbelief as he awkwardly offered a coerced confession in response to the damning evidence of a mistress. His father’s sunken and withered face flashed quickly; a tired, old man who could wait no longer. He had passed away in a forgotten corner of a nursing home room; his last words a desperate cry for his only son—a son who chose to honor an age-old feud over the dying request of his father.
Frozen tears clung to his chapped cheeks. As Jerry wiped at his thawing nose he observed a large man trailing behind the others. The determined gait was unmistakably Harley Crider’s. Perhaps he was coming for revenge. Possibly he knew the terrible mistakes Jerry had committed leading to his untimely demise.
Jerry recalled being uneasy with the weight of the .44 magnum in his hand, but dutifully performed his watch while his friend slept. Neither had heard the wolves approach. Only Harley’s cries for help jarred him from his inappropriate slumber. He rushed to the aid of his friend, but familiar blood painted their muzzles, almost smiling as they welcomed the late arrival.
Jerry could never be certain whether intentional fangs or the inadvertent round that pierced Harley’s skull had closed the deal. In either case the burden rest squarely upon his shoulders—and his heart.
It came as no surprise that Harley returned to him with a smile upon his face, and with angel at his side. The two stood silently together as if they waited for Jerry to speak or to join them. He did neither. If they anticipated profound words, he was incapable of them, and had no intention of leaving this spot. For one fleeting moment he considered begging for forgiveness, but Jerry knew his transgressions spanned a lifetime, and were certain to be judged too great. Among a million other worthy prospects, he could not fathom his own soul worth saving. He simply closed his eyes and watched the outlines fade into the mist.