I'm never quite pleased with the things I've written. Sometimes it seems the plot was lacking, others times too much description, but always not quite what it should have been. Perhaps only my perspective has changed. I'm not the person I was, even a year ago.
I've begun to re-read some of my short stories and intend on re-posting a few. Some will change slightly, others more dramatically, and sadly some are beyond rescue.
Jerry Steinhower turned to look over his shoulder one last time. The journey would be easier if he carried the image with him. A make-shift shelter comprised of pine boughs served as a final resting place. Hours had passed as Jerry lingered at a crossroad, wresting with demons; his conscience torn between staying with a friend’s lifeless body, or the decision to move on. Odds of surviving the harsh Canadian elements were slim, but there was nothing he could do for Harley Crider that would bring him comfort now. The only sign of his friend existence was a mound of cold dirt and two twigs fastened with twine in the form of a crude cross.
The two had wandered severely off course, and by the time Harley realized his compass had malfunctioned the sun was but a sliver against an unforgiving sky. Under normal conditions such an error would have been recoverable, but not after the surprise attack of a northern squall. During the night the storm had dumped more than three feet of snow, transforming the five miles between them and the spike camp into an impassible nightmare. Harley made the decision to wait for rescue. From a novice’s point of view, he had done everything correctly. Giving first priority to shelter, then as the thin veil of darkness became dawn, formulating a plan for rescue. The signal fire was admittedly weak, but the best Harley could manage. Small plumes of smoke barely cleared the tree tops before being dismantled by a stiff breeze. Minutes became hours, hours became days—and still no one came. The sinking sun became an evil indicator of the onset of another unbearably cold night.
Never once had Harley lost his composure or his sense of humor. Jerry remembered balking at the proposition of holding another man so closely, but Harley knew the small amount of warmth transferred between bodies was the difference between life and death. Harley suggested he envision sharing the sleeping bag with Ann Margaret, even if she had developed a thick coat of wiry facial hair and put on an extra hundred pounds. Harley was strong enough for both of them, but now he was gone.
There had been no means of calculating the depth and darkness of the void created by the absence of his friend. They had been isolated in a wilderness, but even then there had been two. Jerry’s woods-wise friend provided an inexplicable comfort. His confident air and persuasive words extended beyond the forest. After months of needling, Jerry decided to accept the invitation to hunt. Although he had never held a gun and had absolutely no desire to kill anything, he wanted to know more about the mystical glue that held his friend’s life together. Harley Crider had survived them all; two nasty divorces, a bankruptcy, and the loss of a job. He dealt with each harsh blow by disappearing for a week into the wild, returning with a rejuvenated sense of purpose. Jerry needed that kind of liberation in his own life.
Jerry’s legs were on fire, he was only a few hundred yards from the shelter and his heart was already racing. His energy reserve was running low, but time was of the essence. Strained voices became clearer and louder as they turned in his direction. Jerry quickly ducked beneath the low hanging branches and settled with his back against a sturdy trunk. Those that searched that day came with a hundred yards of discovering him. Harley would have been proud; not with the decision to cover his own tracks, but with the execution of his plan.
With the searchers safely past and his hiding place undisclosed, an eerie fog melted the gap between earth and sky. The collective forces of exertion, hyperthermia, and guilt ushered a barrage of images past. A young boy wore a dusty baseball uniform, sporting a frown that belied the glow of a victor’s face. Jerry intended to be there for his son’s debut on the mound, but ties with the office were too strong. His wife’s lovely green eyes stared in disbelief as he offered a coerced confession in response to the damning evidence of a mistress. His face was sunken and withered; a tired man who could wait no longer. He expired in a forgotten corner of a nursing home as Jerry honored an age-old feud over his father’s last request for reconciliation. There was a large man trailing behind the others. The determined gait was unmistakably Harley Crider’s. Harley was only the latest in Jerry’s life to have had greater expectation than he could deliver.
Jerry recalled being uneasy with the weight of the .44 magnum in his hand, but it was his duty to perform watch while his friend slept. Jerry never heard the wolves approach. Only Harley’s cries had jarred him from an inappropriate slumber. He had rushed to the aid of his friend, but blood-painted muzzles smiled as they welcomed a late arrival. There was no way to determine whether intentional fangs or the inadvertent round that pierced Harley’s skull had closed the deal, but either scenario was equally sickening.
Despite his grizzly fate, Harley returned with a smile upon his face and an angel at his side. The two stood together as if they waited for Jerry to speak or to join them. If they anticipated profound words, he was incapable of them. Jerry’s transgressions were certain to be judged too great. Among a million other worthy prospects, he could not fathom his own soul worth saving. As heavy eyes and doors of opportunity tend to do, they closed. Harley Crider and his escort faded into the mist.