How cold could it be?
|The knocking at the door could have been the wind. It had been howling all day. The windows had been shuttered against the cold, so Virgil could only see out the small sliver that let in the tiniest bit of winter daylight. Try as he might, there was no way to see the door to the rough hewn wood cabin. The older man stroked his grey stubble that passed for a beard and pondered the noise. It didn’t seem to be tapping with the gusts, and there was plenty of clear area around the perimeter, so it was not likely to be a branch. Still, he was loathe to open the door, chill the main room, and allow the drifted snow to fall in on the floor. The muffled knocking came again, and after a brief hesitation, Virgil went to the door and lifted the two pieces of lumber set across the door to reinforce against the wind and snow. When he lifted the latch, the door blew in, along with plenty of white powdery snow, and almost falling in was a nearly frozen man. A moment of shocked disbelief passed, but the icy dry wind brought the thin man with thinner garments around quickly. He grabbed the stranger and pulled him inside, then put his back to the door to close it. When the latch clicked, he turned and took one, then the other, sticks of wood and placed them in their brackets with a clunk. The open door had indeed cooled the cabin, but the blaze in the native field stone fireplace would soon have it comfortable again.
“Here sir, come sit by the hearth and warm up.” Virgil gently guided him to a handmade chair. “You look like you really need it!”
“Th - Th - Tha…” The stranger tried to speak. He was tall with long shaggy blond hair and beard. It was difficult to tell much more with him bundled up in so many layers.
“You just wait a spell, mister.” Virgil held up a palm. “We can talk in a bit. You warm up, now, and I’ll go put on some grub. You look like you could use that, too.”
The one man sat, and the other crossed the great room to the kitchen area. He open a cupboard and pulled out two canning jars, whole potatoes and sliced carrots. He mulled over adding corn, but decided against it, then pulled down a large cast iron pot. Virgil, being quite the hermit, had by necessity become an inventor, and from his “outside box” he pulled a slab of venison and a jar of broth. He quickly shut the door of the cool space to keep the cabin warm, even though the spacious cooler was about perfect to keep meat and perishables without freezing. After dumping all the ingredients into the pot, he added a few spices from open jars on a window sill that would let in morning sun in the summer. The scent of the herbs as he ground them between his fingers reminded him that spring would return and he would be growing them again. With a smile he walked back to the fire and hung the pot from a hook built into the fireplace to let the kettle warm the ingredients and cook the meat. He might be thin and short, but he had a wiry strength needed for solitary living.
“Well, friend, I’m Virgil.” The man had removed his gloves and was holding his hands out and flexing them in front of the fire. “You don’t suppose you’d tell me just what in the heck you was doin’ out there? I mean, once you can talk without chattering of course.”
“Thank you.” He replied with just a touch of a cold stutter. “For letting me in. So cold out there.”
“Indeed it is, yes. My place is kinda out of the way, so how in blue blazes did you end up here?”
“Name's Colt.” He held out his hand.
“Where are my manners.” Virgil shook it. “Good to meet you, Colt.”
“Likewise, for sure.” He smiled. “It really is a pleasure. So, I guess you’d say I came overland from Dominion Creek. This seemed like the easiest route to a town.”
“Dominion Creek? That’s a fair ways off!”
“Yeah, I found out the easy way must be the long way. When we started out, it wasn’t nearly this bad weather, not even close.” Colt heard the pot start to hiss. “That’s a pretty sound.”
“Yep.” Virgil reached up on the mantle and grabbed a small jug. He held it out. “Here you go, have a pull off this. It’ll warm you up for sure.”
Colt shrugged out of one of the coats he was wearing and took the jug. He pulled out a cork, lifted it and tipped it to his lips and drank. Three swallows was a bit too much, and he sputtered then shook his head. Virgil couldn’t help but chuckle. He knew it felt like a forest fire going down.
“See? Warms you up and gets you movin’!”
“What the hell is that stuff?” He coughed.
“Good ol’ white lightnin’. Learned to make it back in Arkansas before I came up here.”
“It burns. It really burns.”
“Yeah, I know.” Virgil took a slug. “Burns right nice. Hard to find good corn up here, though.”
“So, you said 'we.' Were you with other folk?” He looked from the fire to his visitor. “And why head out with winter comin’ on, anyway?”
“A group of us were all together when I struck a thick lode.” For the first time it became apparent by the folded front brim of his hat that Colt was a prospector. “Everyone started disappearing from the camp. There were four of us in on my crew, and we figured they headed back to stake a claim.”
“So what happened that you ended up here alone?”
“Well, we started out along the trail built up through the gap.” He explained. “But they had a head start, and we decided to risk going cross country. “Turns out that was a bad idea. Winter came on faster than we thought it would.”
“Freezes up real fast in these parts. You didn’t know that?”
“Nope. It was our first time up here. We came late spring.” Colt looked down. “Other places we mined before weren’t anything like this place.”
“You bet. Silver in Nevada, even dug some copper in Oregon.” He grinned. “I’ve been just about everywhere, Virgil!”
“But you and your folk messed up here, so it sounds,”
“You got that right.” He sighed. “Two of them drown when we broke through a frozen creek. Hell, we didn’t even know we were fucking on it.”
“Hmmm…” It was clear Virgil disapproved of the language.
“Sorry, it was awful. One second they’re right next to you, the next moment, gone.” He shook his head. “I should have seen it. That log should have tipped me off. It was all scuffed up.”
“I suppose we figgered it was just another down tree, but I think now it was prob’ly set there by someone using it for a bridge. Know it, really. It was in there tight. Only reason two of us made it.’” Colt explained. “I shimmied across it the next day, too.”
“It saved you?”
“Yeah, me and Otis both. He almost went under, but I caught an arm and dragged him up. Our other two friends was closer to it when we broke through.” He sighed. “Never had a chance, neither of ‘em.”
“Well, damn.” Virgil had little to say in response. However, he did have a question. “If y’all went in up past your chest, how in the heck did you keep from freezin’ to death?”
“Well, that’s a whole story unto itself, it is…” The air was now filled with the aroma of a wild game stew. “That smells right good, I must say.”
Virgil offered to get a couple bowls for them, and this time Colt accepted the offer of a mug of hot coffee that was kept warm on the hearth. Returning from the kitchen area with eating implements, and also a plate with bread and butter, Virgil used a ladle to serve his guest a hearty bowl of stew and a mug of day old coffee. Colt found it to be exquisite, and the game flavored meat spiced with sage and thyme melted in his mouth. The vegetables, softened by the salty broth, could have been straight from the garden. Aside from a few mutters of appreciation, he didn’t talk, but wasn’t precisely quiet, either. After he finished and stretched, he thanked his host once again for the hospitality.
“Look,” Colt started. “I have a proposal for you.”
“Oh?” Virgil sipped his coffee. “What would that be?”
“Take a gander at this.” He pulled a large hunk of quartz with a thick vein of gold running through it. “That… is a lot of gold. Way I see it, if we had such a bad time in this weather, the others folks did, too. If they did, I'm in luck. If they didn’t, they already made it. Either way, I need to wait out this mess.”
“Are you saying you want to stay here with me?”
“Well, I have two more of these, one a little smaller than the other two. You lodge me until it’s safe to travel, then guide me to a town with an assayer and land office. In return, I give you the small lodestone. What do you think?”
“I don’t know… I’m really only stocked for one. I don’t get company. Usually.”
“Think about it. It’d buy you plenty of good corn.” He smiled then pointed at the door. “Besides, you can’t send me back out in that.”
“No no, but when the storm let’s up.” Vigil paused. “Well, wait. If we both hunt, and we cut back on the vegetables. Say, where in the heck is your rifle, anyway?”
“It almost drown me. The arm I threw over the log had my pack on it, but the current pulled my .30-.30 right off my shoulder. I’ll miss that gun.” He lamented.
“Nice brush gun. Won’t take down some of the animals up here, though.” He cautioned, but then asked his question again. “So how did you not freeze after going in the water? It’s dang near a death sentence.”
“Well, we were lucky I guess. Right next to that damned stream was a big stand of fir trees, and a couple dead ones. We half walked and crawled twenty feet to those trees, and just managed to pull off enough branches with dead needles to start a fire to dry out.”
“How did you get a fire going if you were soaked?”
“With this.” Colt pulled a slim metal tube from his coat pocket. “Waterproof match case. Bought it in San Francisco. I never thought it would save my life.”
“I’d heard of them, but never seen one.” He took the proffered item and studied it. “Interestin’. So wait. If you got a fire goin’, where’s the other guy you saved out the water?”
“Oh,” Colt looked a little bit ashamed. “I killed him.”
“Hey,” He raised his hands palms out and shrugged a bit. “It was either him or me!”
“How’s that exactly, Colt?”
“By the time we had the branches set to light, neither of our hands would work.” he explained in a rather cavalier tone. “I read a dime novel once about some guy in the same situation, only all he had was his dog. He killed it and slit it up the middle and stuck his hands in to warm them up.”
“So you did it to a person?” Virgin was aghast. “Holy hell! How could you?!”
“It worked! Here I am.” He gave an odd grin. “He didn’t even go to waste, my friend, we had no luck hunting, and I was starving. It wasn’t tasty like your food, but I cut all I could off him and of course what I didn’t use that night froze. I still have some in my bag!”
“Oooo…” He felt the stew trying to come up and fought it back. He whispered. “Get out. Get out of my house.”
“You,” He stammered. “How could you? Good God, do you have no belief in human decency?”
“Nope.” A shot rang out and the smell of burning gunpowder filled the room. “I believe in success at any cost. And you weren’t ever touching any of my gold!”
“You shot me.” He held his belly as blood seeped around his fingers.
“I did, yes.” Colt responded. “But don’t worry Virge, you’re too damn skinny to eat! But you were right about one thing, there’s just enough here for one. Sorry friend.”
Colt stood and replaced the small pistol in his boot holster from where it was under the table. He stepped over Virgil as he walked over to the jug of moonshine. He took a slug and smacked his lips. He knew he would enjoy his time here. After a moment, he stepped over to the body that fell from the chair to the floor. He dragged his former host towards the door by the armpits, and Virgil moaned. Setting aside the barricades, he opened the latch and the door swung open with a harsh breeze. Virgil felt himself tossed into the frozen snow and heard it crunch under his weight. He opened his eyes when he heard the cabin door slam shut, took one last look at the gray cloud covered sky, and then closed them for the last time.