A fur trapper transports his dying partner to the nearest town thru an Alaskan snowstorm.
|The following writing exercise is a script treatment, adapting Chester S. Geier's short story "Cold Ghost" into an episode of The Twilight Zone. To help in visualizing the story, I've imagined a cast for it.
The original story is available for free here at Project Gutenberg. See my notes at the end of this treatment for a commentary on the adaptation process.
The Cold Lands
Matt Hager: Robert Duvall
Ben Cahill: Burgess Meredith
Sheriff Maddox: John Anderson
Doctor: William Edmonson
Teaser: A snowstorm, through which gallops a dogsled. Seated on the sled is BEN CAHILL, wrapped in furs, dozing restlessly. Riding behind, cracking the whip, is MATT HAGER. The dogs plunge and struggle and swim through snow drifts as Hager curses them. When they become hopelessly stuck, Hager pauses long enough to unpack a bottle and press it upon Cahill. Cahill, as in a delirium, refuses it, and begs Hager to take him to the doctor in Moose Gulch instead. Hager hurls the bottle away, and and angrily asks Cahill where he thinks he's taking him in this blizzard, if not to the doctor.
Opening Narration: The place: northern Alaska. The time: winter. And what do we see? Two men and eight dogs? Or ten desperate animals, wrapped against the cold in fur? But if we are all brothers under our pelts, as the poet assures us, exactly what kind of animal would we find if we sliced open the thick coats and peeled back the naked, quivering flesh beneath? Matt Hager and Ben Cahill have made their fortune stripping the hides from the game they have trapped, but they are about to find themselves stripped even more cruelly and more completely, in a process that will leave their very souls exposed to the coldest winds known to man—winds that blow in from The Twilight Zone.
Act One: Hager frees the empty sled from a massive snowdrift, then drags Cahill back onto the sled. Cahill is roused when Hager packs a great cube of furs in front of him. He recognizes them as the furs that he and Hager have collected over the course of the season, and he stops Hager long enough to ask why he brought them along. Hager (still in a fury) explains that he wasn't going to leave the furs at the cabin where any wandering vagrant might find and steal them: "That's six months of my life there," he snarls, "and I'm not going to risk losing it." He cracks the whips at the dogs and puts them in motion.
Dissolve to a makeshift camp, beneath a large drift, under a screen. Cahill, exhausted and feverish, asks how far they are from the doctor. Hager—mulishly—admits he doesn't know. The dogs have to rest, he tells Cahill. Cahill, noticing the pack of furs, urges Hager to throw them aside, as they make the sled too heavy: "We'd be in Moose Gulch by now if you didn't bring them." Hager, temper rising, again refuses. Cahill, peevish, muses that the furs, and the money they will bring, are the only thing that kept Hager with him: "You hated the job," he tells Hager, "you hated this country, you hated the cold, and you hated me." Hager doesn't hesitate to confess that Cahill is right: "You bet I'll be glad to shake this place off. I'll be glad to shake you off!" Cahill asks Hager what he'll do with his share of the money from the furs they will sell. Dissolve to a lush landscape of palmettos and paradise trees, Hager basking in the sunshine in loose, short-sleeved clothes, as Hager in voice over describes the house by the beach he'll buy in Mexico. Cahill wants to know how he'll pay for it. "I'll buy a mink farm," Hager replies; Cahill points out you can't raise minks in Mexico; Hager says he'll make enough money off his share of the furs that he'll be able to pay someone to run a mink farm for him in Canada.
Hager and the dogsled push on through the snow. One of the dogs collapses, and Hager has to stop to cut it from the traces, then scouts around far enough to spot some rocks and a wind-damaged tree. He returns to Cahill and tells him that he knows now where they are—near some river rapids not more than a dozen miles from Moose Gulch. Cahill again urges Hager to throw away the furs, as they are too heavy for the dogs. Hager again angrily refuses. Cahill tells him that the dogs can't haul both the two men and the furs, and asks Hager what he values more: his (Cahill's) life, or the furs. Hager—in an unreasoning fury—throws the furs off the sled. Cahill smiles and thanks him, and says that he now knows that they'll make it to the doctor in time, and adds, "For a moment, I was afraid you were going to throw me into the snow," and closes his eyes without seeming to notice the expression of frozen loathing and anger that Hager turns onto him.
Act Two: Hager returns to a makeshift shelter built near the sled, under which a fire is burning. There's a pan over the fire, and from it he pours water into a cup, which he gives to Cahill, who drinks it greedily. Cahill asks Hager where he went, and Hager said that he went to bury the furs in the snow near a tree that he recognizes: "So we can find them later." Cahill chuckles, and observes that Hager must be dying not want to come back to Alaska, if he is so desperate to hang on to the furs. Hager, who is much calmer than he had been earlier, repeats that he will never return. Cahill says, "But I think you will," and appears to doze off after Hager (stung) asks what he means by that. Hager rouses the dogs and puts them in motion again.
Dissolve to Hager, driving the dogsled, pulling it to a stop long enough to step off and survey the landscape. Cahill, in a wretched state, demands to know how far they are from Moose Gulch. Hager (calm again) confesses that he got turned around in the blizzard and they are having the retrace their steps. Cahill laughs bitterly and observes, "I'm well punished for saddling myself with an idiot tenderfoot for a partner." Then the feverish Cahill lashes out, calling Hager a fool who would have starved in the wilderness without him (Cahill), and that he was the slowest learner he (Cahill) had ever seen. "That's why you hated me," Cahill snarls. "Because you needed me, and you knew you needed me, and you hated that every day I had to show you that you needed me!" Hager snarls back that he doesn't need Cahill anymore, because he won't be returning to Alaska ever again. Cahill says, "You will if you want to buy that mink farm!" and explains that Hager's share of the furs will only be half of what he is expecting, because he (Cahill) lied about how much they'd be worth: "You'll be back here next year, trapping and skinning, because you're no good for anything else! And you'll still need me to show you how! So you'd better pray that you get us to Moose Gulch in time!"
But Hager only smiles at him, and kneels beside him, and explains that they would have been at Moose Gulch hours ago, except that he (Hager) got them deliberately lost. He's been going in circles, he says, waiting for Cahill to die. "I'm going to kill you," he tells the stricken man, "and they won't find a mark on you. You'll have died of fever and cold, and they won't have any way to pin it on me. I won't need you then, and I won't need to come back to this stinking ice box, because I'll have my share of the furs, and I'll have your share too!" Cahill, shocked and horrified, tries to struggle out of the sled—and Hager helps him up, then hurls him face down in the snow. "Go on! Freeze! Hurry up and die!" he snarls at his partner. Cahill tries to crawl away, but Hager grabs him and pulls him back. Cahill only has the strength to offer up a feeble curse at Hager: "You will get me to the doctor, Matt, or you will die in the attempt!"
Dissolve to Cahill, face down, half covered by snow. Hager bends to check his pulse; satisfied, he drags Cahill back to the sled and throws the stiff body onto it.
Dissolve to Moose Gulch, where the DOCTOR enters a waiting room where Hager paces anxiously. The doctor has bad news: Cahill is dead. Hager pleads with him, "Maybe he isn't, check again!" but the doctor is adamant: "You were carrying a dead man most of the way here. I'm sorry." SHERIFF MADDOX enters in time to hear the news. He asks Hager why he waited so long to bring his sick partner in—in the middle of a snowstorm yet. Hager says that he didn't think Cahill was that sick, and that bringing him out in the middle of a blizzard proves how desperate he was to save Cahill. The sheriff is skeptical: "You'd like me to believe that, wouldn't you? That you didn't take him out in the snow storm to kill him?" Hager gasps and stammers, but the sheriff waves him off, saying, "I can't prove anything, Hager. I just know I'd be a lot happier if you got out of the territory. And if I'd be happier with you out of the territory, you know that you'd be happier out of the territory too." He tells Hager that there's a steamer on the river that will be leaving the next day—and that it will be the last steamer of the season. "I recommend you be on it," the sheriff says. Hager is glad to promise that he will.
Dissolve to Hager digging in a snow bank, near the gnarled, landmark tree seen earlier. The snow has stopped and the wind is calm, but he is desperate and flailing, muttering to himself that he knows he buried the furs around here someplace, and is frustrated to fury that he can't find them. He hurls his small shovel away and staggers over to the dogsled, from the back of which he takes a larger shovel. But as he turns toward his work, he wheels to stare at the dogsled. Cahill is propped up inside it. As Hager stares, the wind comes up suddenly, and the air fills with snow. Cahill, eyes squeezed shut, mumbles at Hager, begging him to get him to the doctor. Hager: "I got you to the doctor!" Cahill: "But not in time, Matt." Hager: "You're dead!" Cahill: "But I'm not, Matt. Not until the doctor says that I am." Hager, overcoming his terror and loathing, pulls Cahill from the sled and hurls him into the snow. But when he turns around, Cahill again is bundled up in the sled: again, Cahill mumbles at him: "The doctor, Matt. I told you, you'd get me to the doctor, or die trying." Hager staggers around in the swirling snow, and as he looks about he finds that all the landmarks have vanished. "I don't know the way!" he screams. "I don't know where we are!" Cahill opens his eyes long enough to say, "If I'm not going anywhere, Matt, then neither are you."
Hager, despairing, mounts the sled and whips the dogs into motion. The sled skates away, obscured by curtains of snow. Dissolve to the night sky, swirling with stars like snow.
Closing Narration (Voice Over): Revenge, it is said, is a dish best served cold. It is very cold in the wastes of Alaska, where a Flying Dutchman in the form of a dogsled, lashed by a freezing wind, heaves itself over seas of snow, searching eternally for a warm port in the storm. And if it is cold in Alaska, you may observe that it is even colder in this particular corner of The Twilight Zone.
Notes: In outline, the above treatment hews closely to Chester S. Geier's "Cold Ghost," a 1948 short story published in Amazing Stories. Only at the end does my adaptation depart from the original. In Geier's story, Matt Hager successfully transports the stock of furs to Moose Gulch, sells it, and moves south. He is afflicted by cold, however, wherever he goes, and he dies—frozen to death—in Mexico, wrapped in blankets, before a hot fire. I've imagined a different, less drawn-out ending.
In detail: Hager and Cahill do not talk much in the original story, which is told almost entirely through exposition describing Hager's thoughts and actions. This would not work in a teleplay, so I have imagined possible scenes where they can talk their way through their conflict, and have also tried to heighten the conflict by portraying Cahill (contrary to the original story) as having himself tried to cheat Hager by exaggerating the value of their pelts.