Friday, April 15, 2016

The Blizzard

by Christopher L. Istace


They were similar in so many ways.

Both were rotund, rugged and healthy 71-year-old men, married and living in comfortable homes near Tansi Lake, Sask.

Both had full and successful careers in the trades. One was a heavy-duty mechanic. The other was a carpenter. Although they were retired and collecting a full pension, both accepted odd jobs in the area – cash only, “under the table,” no cheques, no receipts. The extra money provided funding for beer, liquor and fuel – gas for the boat in the summer and the ice auger in the winter.

Because that was another characteristic they shared.

Gilbert and Rene loved to fish.

The winter of 2013-2014 was the coldest winter season in more than 30 years. The temperatures generally hovered below minus-40 degrees Celsius for days at a time. Many elderly residents living on Tansi Lake fell ill with cabin fever; a mental illness sending patients into a suspended state of folly. Alone in their homes, they would stumble over imaginary objects and talk to themselves endlessly.

One lonely widower allowed wild animals into his home just for the company. His visitors included minks, rabbits, squirrels, crows, ravens and, once, a coyote.

An elderly woman fell into permanent dementia, driven deep into her mind by the constant self-talk as the windows rattled endlessly in the stiff winter wind. Her cheeks stung in the biting cold when she had to use her bathroom; the commode being located in the deepest recess of the house where the heat from her tiny, electric fireplace couldn’t reach.

Nevertheless, from late December until mid-March, Gilbert and Rene would fish several days a week. They would don four to five layers of winter apparel, pull some bait from the deep freeze, jump on their four-wheeled all-terrained-vehicles and race across the frozen lake to a small, ice-fishing shack, which was located about 300 yards straight out from Rene’s house.

If you were a meal worm waiting in your small plastic bag to be hooked as bait, and you were purchased by Gilbert or Rene, you would conclude, after a very short period, that the pair’s participation in the sport of angling had little to do with the fish below their feet, however.

They loved to “debate.” At least, that’s what Gilbert and Rene called it. Anyone within earshot would define their conversations as fierce arguments. Civility seemed to take shore leave whenever they had a rod and reel in their hands. No one in their presence, not even their wives, can be faulted for mistaking their relationship as a constant battle between sworn enemies.

After taking note of who the latest cabin fever victims were, Gilbert and Rene would argue over theories about how their neighbors could fall into such a depressing state. By their ability to remain physically active – or by sheer stubbornness – they seemed to avoid the fever that struck what they called “the weaker-minded” human inhabitants of the North American Prairie that winter.

It helped to have the company of their wives at home. So did the comfort of their contemporary, lakeside houses.

Each evening before bed, Gilbert and Rene sat in their respective rockers in front of their respective kitchen televisions warmed by high-efficient, gas-fired furnaces supplemented by wood stoves. The wood-burning appliances were purchased more for their wives’ interior design preferences than for heat provisions. Gilbert and Rene kept them fired regardless.

The wood stove in their 40-square-foot ice-fishing shack – cut and welded out of an old, empty propane tank – had absolutely no aesthetic value, however. It was there to do its job; provide uninterrupted heat for the seven-hour angling sessions the pair endured.

Actually, there was no thought put into the beautification of any portion of the shack. Everything had a practical use or it didn’t exist.

Inside, shelves holding tools, knifes, and old fishing tackle lined the back end of the nine-foot-tall structure. A rack for two and three-foot ice-fishing rods ran along one side, while on the opposite sat a foldaway table below a small window. “Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard” hung high in the corner by the entry. Throughout the shanty, hooks, screws and nails protruded from the two-by-two studs that made up its frame. Shovels, ice scoops, an axe and more fishing rods hung from them.

In the back corner opposite the stove was a battery, which had its charge held by a small solar panel pinned to the wall outside. The battery ran the radio – always on JX 960, “Where it’s always Country, Country, Country in the Country.”

The battery also powered a line of tiny light bulbs that ran along the peak of the ceiling.

The anglers dropped their lines through a pair of one-foot-square openings in the floor on each side of the shack. The openings allowed enough room for a gas-powered auger to cut a 10-inch round hole in the ice beneath.

Rene constructed the building years ago. Gilbert bought in by helping move and maintain it through the long Saskatchewan winter months. Both claimed ownership. It was a primary topic of debate between the two, particularly when one suggested adding an appliance or new feature to the tiny shack.

“I think we could really use a percolator to make coffee on the stove, there,” Gilbert suggested one day. He preferred his name be pronounced, “jill-bear.”

“What in the good Lord’s name would we need to bring a contraption like that in here for?” said Rene, who preferred his name be pronounced “wren-ae.”

“Sometimes, I like a shot-a coffee while I’m fishin’. Something wrong with that?”

“Nothing except it being just another piece of trash taking up space in my place.”

“You’re place? I put in as much mind and trouble into this old shack the last few years as you did building it,” griped Gilbert, who called his shack partner “wren-ee” to be abrasive.

“But I built the friggin’ thing, didn’t I, Gilbert,” said Rene, who pronounced Gilbert’s name, “gill-bert,” to return the slight against his moniker.

“You may have built it, but how would it move around if it weren’t for the skids I put on the bloody thing. I sacrificed some good water skis so we could slide it around. Works far better than the treated, four-by-four lumber you so idiotically thought would do the trick. You have to agree with that, Rene.”

“I agree to nothing,” Rene responded, spitting into his ice hole as an exclamation point.

And so it went for hours at a time, meandering from one argument to the next. They rarely found common ground despite their many similarities and shared life experiences.

Rene adjusted the stove every so often, opening a small damper in the front to allow more oxygen inside, which stoked the fire when the shack cooled. Gilbert reached over his ice-fishing hole and closed the damper when he found himself getting too hot. The temperature inside the little shanty rose and fell like the momentum of the arguments over home-made sausage spicing, fish batter recipes, scalloped or deep fried potato wedges, proper window installation, the R-values required in garage walls, beer, or the Canadian Parliamentary Senate.

Their jigging tactics became a subconscious activity. The men absently lifted their rods to let their bait-tipped lure rise and fall to the bottom of the lake 30 feet below. Neither of them paused to consider their words as they fished. Their thoughts exited their mouths before any processing occurred within their septuagenarian minds.

However, silence fell upon them, mid-sentence, when one or the other felt the slightest tug or bounce at the end of their rods. In that silence, there was a peace between them, one watching the other as he dabbled the lure to see if there was extra weight on the end of the line.

“Anything?” one would whisper.

“Not sure yet,” the other replied.

Silence.

Jigging.

Silence.

“Bastard probably stole my bait, too,” they’d say if the weight of the fish disappeared. “But thinking Katherine Hepburn was a method actor is simply horse-shit. She was the same friggin’ character in every movie she was in. Only her character’s name changed.”

Their “debate” raged forward as if uninterrupted.

In the uncommon case when the lure was held between the jaws of a Northern Pike, a Walleye, a Perch or a Burbot, a flurry of excited cursing flew out of their mouths in paragraphs. On a calm winter’s evening, one could hear the mumble from these oratories from across the lake and mistake it for the singing of the spirit of the valley. The closer you got to the source of the sound, however, the more vulgar the diatribe became.

If the fish came through the hole and hit the floor, Gilbert and Rene would share a short celebration; a shot of dark, spiced rum drawn from a bottle in Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard. After clinking plastic cups, they would slurp their liquor while the fish flipped and flopped at their feet in a final quest for water and freedom.

A few minutes later, both lures were re-baited and at the ready just off the bottom of the lake, and the pair would argue over who would clean the beast and how best to debone it.

This particular “debate” happened every time a fish was caught. It never got old for them.

The clash was heightened even further if one or the other had a fish on and failed to bring it through the ice. While one screamed “You should’ves” and “You could’ves” from his chair, the other waved him off, shook his head and told him to choke on lake water.

This was the contemptuous relationship between Gilbert and Rene.

-----

The coldest day of winter arrived late. It was March 1, 2014; a Saturday.

Gilbert and Rene always fished on Saturdays.

It was about 12:30 p.m. when Gilbert loaded his four-wheeler and hooked up a sled to haul some logs for the shack stove. At that point, there was only the hint of a breeze from the west. Nevertheless, it was colder than normal and the old man donned a balaclava and pulled a fur cap tight over it. His mittens were as thick as boxing gloves and he wore three pair of wool socks in his over-sized winter boots.

Although the shack sat just 300 yards out from Rene’s back door, it was a two-kilometer trek across the ice for Gilbert. He had to be well protected on a relatively benign winter’s day. Anything below minus-20 was an adventure of survivalist proportions for him.

Gilbert didn’t think in these terms, however. He was at his home and the shack was on the lake. To get there, he just had to dress appropriately and warm the four-wheeler accordingly. There were fish to be caught; arguments to win. That was that.

Rene was already stoking the fire in the stove when Gilbert arrived about a half hour later.

“There’s more wood on the sled,” Gilbert said, tossing a couple logs to the floor. “I’ll dump it in the bin out back.”

“We’re not fishing outside,” Rene countered without hesitation. “Bring some of that shit in here.”

Gilbert shook his head, but obeyed.

He’s in a mood again. I can feel it, Gilbert told himself. There was a slight discomfort in his chest as he thought it.

After dropping a couple of armfuls of wood beside the stove, he moved to the back of the shack to dump the rest in the bin. Inside the small structure, the auger motor gurgled to life as Rene began to recut their holes in the ice. Gilbert was almost finished emptying the sled when he heard a bang, then a loud obscenity.

He raced around to the front of the shack where Rene stood over his auger buried deep into the frozen lake. Only the motor and its wide handles were visible.

“What the hell’s going on?” Gilbert said.

“The gawdamned thing won’t come out,” Rene said.

Gilbert stepped into the shack, pushed Rene aside and bent over to give the auger a heave. It didn’t move.

“The gawdamned thing won’t come out,” Gilbert said.

“That’s what I just said, idiot,” Rene responded.

“Well, how did this happen? You know you gotta keep pulling the snow out as you cut through the ice so it won’t plug up when the water gushes in, right?” Gilbert said.

“This ain’t the first time I’ve ever cut a friggin’ hole in the ice, man,” said Rene. “You think I’m stupid or something?”

“We gotta get it out before it freezes in there, eh?”

“You don’t say,” Rene said with a pie-eyed expression on his face.

Rene was in a mood before - actually, his normal, abrasive, tormented self - but this auger situation is going to awaken a monster of greater proportions, Gilbert thought. He didn’t see the point of sticking around to bear the storm of Rene’s frustration, but decided to finish his chore with the woodbin behind the shack.

Rene stood silently looking down at the head of the gas-powered ice auger, his hands on his hips. How in all of Saskatchewan’s glory was he going to free that machine from the frozen lake’s grasp? Five minutes later, the only movement he had made as he thought about an answer to the question was his unconscious habit of curling one side his long, grey moustache.

As if jolted alive with a shot from a taser, he moved with stern purpose. The plan he formulated may or may not work, but it was guaranteed the auger would remain lodged in the ice until spring thaw if he just stood there playing with his facial hair.

Rene strutted outside, mounted his four-wheeler and headed towards his home on shore about 300 yards away.

Gilbert tossed the last log into the woodbin then moved his own four-wheeler beside the shack, sled in tow. He noticed it was getting colder. The growing breeze made snow crystals dance along the surface of the lake. They hissed and tinkled, some of the snow banking along old drifts and neighbouring shacks.

It was early March. Normal highs were supposed to be minus-six degrees Celsius. It was now well below that at Tansi Lake.

The wind was now coming from the north and swirling easterly along the channel of the Qu’Appelle Valley. Gilbert’s round body was exaggerated by his bibbed coveralls and parka. His extra girth threw him off-balance when a strong gust arrived unexpectedly. Should it stay this way for another couple of hours, he was sure it would settle in and bluster through the night; one last fit of anger from Jack Frost.

Gilbert contemplated heading home then, but the auger was stuck and he felt obligated to help Rene, despite his shack-mate’s growly demeanor. If the pair was able to free the machine, maybe they could drop a line into the lake for a few minutes.

The cold began to bite into Gilbert’s cheeks, a sure sign that the wind-chill was rising and the temperature was falling. He stepped into the shack and closed the door. After studying the auger, he went into a squat and attempted to twist the auger free from the hole; the oriface he would have been fishing out of if Rene had used the machine properly.

The auger wouldn’t budge.

“That impatient, old shit,” Gilbert said, angry that Rene had probably ended any hope of dropping a line that day. He pulled a chair in front of the wood-stove and grabbed a fresh log from a nearby pail. The fire’s warmth allowed Gilbert to remove his hat, his gloves and the itchy balaclava covering his face.

A few minutes later, the rumble of Rene’s four-wheeler rattled the shack window. The door burst open and Rene stomped in, his hands full of wrenches and sockets.

“Don’t get that friggin’ fire too hot. Going to be working in here a while and I don’t want to overheat,” he grumbled.

“Yeah,” Gilbert replied sarcastically. “Better to get sweated up in the cold air. Nothing makes a man feel alive like a stiff shot of pneumonia.”

“Just get the hell out of my way,” Rene said, nudging Gilbert out of the chair. He worked at the bolt holding the motor to the stock until the nut was free. One good yank, and the engine was off. Rene hung it by the handles by Mother Hubbard's Cupboard where it was usually placed.

Gilbert sat back comfortably and watched with his hands interlocked and resting on his lap. There was little he could do at the moment, so he just enjoyed the warmth emanating from the black, home-made stove.

Rene stumbled outside, grabbed a chain and a hand-jack from the front basket of his four-wheeler and slammed it on the floor of the shack, startling Gilbert.

“That ain’t gonna do nothin’,” Gilbert said.

“Just stay there, shut your mouth and learn something, son,” Rene said.

He wrapped and locked the chain around the top of the auger stock then set the jack on a block of wood by the fishing hole. He hooked the other end of the chain on the jack’s lift. A drop of condensation from his nose fell onto the handle of the jack where it solidified instantly on the frozen metal bar.

“Geez, she’s getting cold out there,” he said. A gust of wind agreed with his statement, hissing through a gap between the stovepipe and the hole in the sheet metal roofing.

“You don’t say?” Gilbert said. “I should be heading home before it gets any worse, but I also wanna stick around and get a laugh out of this shit-show. I said before, that ain’t gonna work.”

Rene shot Gilbert a glare before locking a pin on the jack and starting to crank the handle. The floor creaked as the pressure built on the foot of the jack. The end of the chain on the auger slipped a little before catching tightly. For a moment, Rene’s idea looked promising.

Gilbert leaned over to see if the auger stock was lifting. It appeared to slip upwards a quarter of an inch, but upon closer inspection, he saw that the chain was just bending the metal shaft towards the jack.

“Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” he yelped, putting a hand on Rene’s shoulder to get him to stop cranking. “You’re just bending it. That ain’t gonna do shit.”

Rene guffawed and started cranking the jack handle again. Three cranks in, the chain’s hold on the end of the auger released. The loud snap startled both men, making them stumble back against the opposite wall.

“Cripes!” Rene said, throwing his gloves at the jack, which had fallen over and was leaning on the rickety lawn chair that Gilbert would have been fishing off of if the day had gone according to plan.

Gilbert waited a moment, a smarmy grin crossing his face, before saying, “Told ya.”

“Don’t test me, you bastard,” Rene said as he retrieved his gloves and walked out of the shack.

Gilbert just laughed.

Outside, Rene sat on his four-wheeler and huffed in frustration. He was out of ideas on how to solve the auger problem.

The wind-chill held enough cold now that the air made Rene’s cheeks feel like they were rubbed with acid. He pulled the flaps of his winter hat over his face and put his back to the wind.

“Just leave the thing as it is for now,” Gilbert yelled from the door of the shack. “We’ll work on it tomorrow if the weather straightens out. It’s getting pretty bitchy out here.”

“Go home, you lazy shit,” Rene grumbled. “I’m pullin’ my auger out of that hole today if it kills me.”

“Stubborn bastard,” Gilbert said as he looked down the valley towards the west. The shadow of a thick snow squall darkened the mid-afternoon sun. The job very well might kill them both, but Gilbert decided he would stay and help regardless.

“What are you thinkin’ now?” he asked Rene.

“Nothin’. Just thinkin’,” Rene said. “I said go home if you want.”

“I heard ya,” Gilbert said as he stepped back into the warmth of the shack.

Rene looked across the lake and saw what Gilbert had noticed just moments before. It was only 2 p.m., but the bank of clouds on the horizon produced an evening-like shade across the valley. The wind was picking up, whistling across the snow banks that dipped, rolled and flattened along the surface of the frozen ice.

Rene felt defeated; by the stuck auger; by the growing cold; by the late-winter blizzard that appeared to be screaming towards him. He slid from the seat of his four-wheeler and walked into the shack.

“Shut ‘er down,” he said, pointing at the stove. “Going home.”

Gilbert had his head down the hole in the floor where he was chipping away the ice around the auger stock with an old, rusty meat cleaver he found on a shelf above. The activity would be fruitless, he knew, but he wanted to appear to be doing his part.

“We’ve got to get this thing out,” Gilbert said. “It freezes here, I don’t know what we’ll be able to do. Was thinking we’d get it out tomorrow, but with this storm comin’…”

“That thing is frozen in there already. Are you paying attention to what’s happening outside? Are you all-out numb to the cold?” Rene said, sitting in his lawn chair by the window. “It’s gawdamned frigid out there. Must be minus-25 degrees now and dropping. Who knows how cold with the wind-chill.”

“So, what? We just leave it until it melts through in the spring and slips to the bottom of the lake?” Gilbert said. “We gotta get it out. What if we moved the shack and cut around it?”

“I ain’t spendin’ any more time out here. It’s so cold, the clouds seem to be dropping outta the sky,” Rene said. “I’ll figure out that son of a bitch tomorrow.”

He slid closed the damper on the stove leaving just enough of a slit to allow the fire to burn down slowly.

“I should be letting you figure all this shit out, though, seeing as it’s your fault,” Rene said.

“What the hell are you talking about? Was I the one standing over that auger cuttin’ holes today?” Gilbert said.

“You realize if you hadn’t’ve been late, I wouldn’t’ve been drilling your hole. I thought I’d be nice and do something for you and look where it gets me,” Rene said.

Gilbert seethed with anger. He struggled to a standing position above Rene.

“What kinda friggen’ logic is that?” Gilbert said, lifting the large cleaver blade and resting it on his shoulder. “How is it my fault you couldn’t finish a drill you’ve done a thousand times before? You’re an asshole.”

Rene could see a red glow growing in Gilbert’s eyes. He noticed the white knuckles as Gilbert tightened his grip on the cleaver. He also wasn’t comfortable with the advantage Gilbert had on him, standing over top of him as he was.

Gilbert could feel his chest tighten with the purge of negative emotions spilling out of him. His anger and frustration with his shack partner was barely contained now. The cork had popped after years of pressure built from their tumultuous relationship. It wasn’t that they always argued; although they called it “debating.” It was Rene’s demeaning attitude; his inability to measure his words; his inability to apologize or admit when he was wrong. Rene was always right and he bullied those who thought otherwise.

Gilbert’s breath hissed through his clenched teeth while spittle dribbled from his lips and sprayed over Rene’s parka.

“Sit down before your hurt yourself,” Rene said, a little frightened by Gilbert's facial expression. Upon finishing the sentence, he saw Gilbert lift the cleaver off of his shoulder. Rene put his arms over his face to protect himself from the blow he expected to come and blindly shot a leg out from his chair in an attempt to connect with Gilbert’s knee. He missed.

“Sit down, you animal!” he yelled, an attempt at putting Gilbert back into his right mind. “Sit down and calm down, you bastard!”

Gilbert had only been reaching to put the cleaver back on the top shelf above him. He didn’t realize how his movement could have been interpreted from Rene’s seated position until he stumbled back and found a seat of his own.

Rene slowly lowered his arms from his face. He found Gilbert slumped in the chair across from him. Gilbert opened and closed his fists, an attempt at letting the rage inside dissipate. His jaw relaxed and he heaved a huge breath to calm his nerves. His composure was regained.

Outside the shack, the wind ripped into a howl. The small building moaned with the push of it. The fire’s dying flames made one last snap in the remaining dry wood.

“I’m sorry,” Gilbert said a moment later. “I’m not feeling like myself today.”

“Well, no friggin’ shit,” Rene said. He got up and slammed closed the damper, extinguishing what was left of the fire. “Pack up your stuff and go home. Pack up all your stuff. Everything. You’re not welcome here anymore.”

Gilbert looked down at his boots. He opened the zipper on his parka and tried to rub away the deep pain in his chest. He felt nauseous and leaned over to try and relieve the sensation. That made him dizzy, so he sat up again.

Rene slammed the door behind him as he stepped outside. He was getting away from who he now believed was nearly homicidal.

Does he have the fever? Rene asked himself. The others were going crazy. Why not one of them?

Rene turned the key to start his four-wheeler, but the machine only clicked and wheezed. He tried it again with the same result. He cursed into the wind and punched the wall of the shack beside him. It hurt his hand, so he ripped off his glove to see if anything was broken.

The wind howled now. The snow fell in swirling lines; at one moment horizontal, stalling in mid flight, down to the ice surface with another gust, then up again to resume its ultimate, unknowable destination. He looked towards his house, but it was hidden in the faded, afternoon light and the curtain of precipitation.

Rene slid off the seat of the vehicle and gave the back tire a stiff kick with his steel-toed boot. His toes came alive with a stinging tingle, stunned by the collision with the tire and cold from the dangerously low temperatures.

“You rotten piece of shit,” he yelled at the four-wheeler as he walked back towards the entrance to the shack. He opened the door and froze at the sight of Gilbert lying in an awkward position and motionless on the bare, plywood floor.

“Gilbert,” he said, closing the door behind him. “Gilbert. Get up.”

Rene leaned over and shook Gilbert’s shoulder. There was no response.

“You son of a bitch!” he yelled. “Not today!”

Rene rolled Gilbert onto his back, careful to make sure his head didn’t hit the hot, metal stove. The old man was unconscious, his hands still clutching his chest. Rene dug underneath Gilbert’s parka to check for a heartbeat with his palm. Although he felt nothing at first, there was a faint bump-bump when Rene concentrated harder.

Rene had heart problems of his own. In 1998, a heart attack almost forced him into early retirement.

But he was stubborn. He wanted and needed to keep working. He ate a healthy diet, gave up chewing tobacco and quit drinking alcoholic beverages for about four years. As he felt better, he began to take more risks again; a snort of dark rum here, a slice of pizza there.

Fifteen years later, he was feeling fine, but never left home without a bottle of glycerin spray. He had never had to use it himself, but on March 1, 2014, Rene pried open Gilbert’s mouth and shot two squirts of the chemical inside.

“That should get you movin’,” he said, putting the bottle back in the pocket of his coveralls under his parka.

He opened the shack door to give himself room to prepare Gilbert for transport. The wind pushed the door against Rene as he moved his shack-mate’s body to drag him outside, head first.

As he stepped away to grab the sled, the door came within a couple of inches of slamming closed on Gilbert’s skull. Rene grabbed it tightly and ripped it from the shack, breaking the hinges away from the frame. It required a fit of physical exertion he hadn’t performed in years and it surprised him when he did it.

Rene swung the door towards the west, letting it flutter and tumble in the stiff easterly gale. The blowing snow pelted his cheeks like thousands of pinpricks and he had to cover his face with his forearm to keep the ice crystals from hitting his eyeballs.

Feeling his way around the shack, he found Gilbert’s four-wheeler and detached the sled from the rear hitch. By the time he made his way back to the front of the shack, Gilbert’s head and face were caked in snow. Rene leaned over to clean it off. Gilbert groaned.

“Hang on, you bastard,” Rene screamed. “If you die here, I’ll haul you out and leave you on the ice like a burbot. The coyotes will have you cleaned up in a day.”

Rene knew Gilbert couldn’t hear or understand him. Nevertheless, he yelled a stream of obscenities at him as he pulled Gilbert out of the shack and dumped him onto the plastic, blue sled. A few scraps of bark and kindling that Gilbert had failed to toss into the woodbin still lined the bottom of it.

The sled was similar to what ranchers used to haul calves from the pasture to a warm shed. Gilbert was not only larger, but also far more uncooperative than a calf. He was dead weight and it took Rene another overwhelming effort to load the rotund old man.

Rene pulled the hood of Gilbert’s parka over the unconscious man’s head and zipped it tightly. He patted the semi-conscious man on the cheek to see if he would react.

Gilbert moaned again, but his eyes remained closed.

“Come on, asshole! Wake up!” Rene said as he shook Gilbert’s shoulders. There was still no response.

Rene felt his way to the back of the shed to Gilbert’s four-wheeler knowing that the keys to the machine were always in the ignition. The engine sputtered and coughed, but failed to catch. Rene threw open the choke and held in the throttle when he turned the key again. This time, the four-wheeler turned over for about five seconds, backfired, then died.

“Son of a bitch,” Rene screamed. He was wasting valuable minutes. As long as Gilbert’s heart was sputtering out of rhythm, the cold would drop his core temperature down dangerously low incredibly quickly.

Rene hiked up his coveralls, zipped his parka, pulled his winter hat tight over his ears and donned his giant insulated gloves. If Gilbert was going to make it, Rene would have to drag him to the house about a half kilometer away.

The snow was deep now. Rene fought to keep his balance with every step, his foot sinking six inches into a snow bank here; a foot and a half there. He could feel the energy draining through his thighs and calves as he trudged in what he believed was the direction of his house.

Rene was literally blind. All he could see in front of him was a moving, gray cloud of snow that slithered and swirled in the blasting wind. The rope from the sled wrapped around his waste bit deeply into Rene’s parka as he moved forward; step by slow, exhausting step.

“You’re a heavy bastard,” he screamed back at Gilbert.

Fifteen minutes seemed like an hour. Rene knew he should have been ashore by the boathouse behind his home by now. His waist ached from the strain of the rope. His head spun from trying to focus his eyes through the blizzard. His legs were beaten and powerless as the powdery snow deepened.

Rene stopped, put a hand to his cheek and, even through his winter glove, could feel it was frozen into a white, chalky block of skin.

A gust of wind meandered down the lake, rustling the stiff, bare branches of the trees along the shoreline. They snapped and groaned in the strain to stay upright. It was a powerful push that hit Rene from his left side and toppled him over.

Rene tried to get back to his feet, but failed. He gave a final gasp, then passed out.

-----

The beep of a heart monitor above him stirred Gilbert awake. Oxygen from a mask filled his lungs, making a hissing noise as the air blew into his face. About a dozen wires ran from several areas of his chest to a computer on a table beside him.

Berta stood and took Gilbert’s hand in hers, tears falling down her bulbous cheeks, which still shone with youth despite her age; 68.

From his position on the bed, Gilbert looked up and saw the girl he had met at a high school dance more than five decades earlier.

“Where am I,” he mumbled through his oxygen mask.

“The Yorkton Regional Health Centre,” she said, wiping her nose with the tissue in her free hand. The other held its grip on Gilbert’s fingers.

“What happened?”

“You had a heart attack. You crashed in the ambulance on the way here, but you made it,” Berta said.

Gilbert acquainted himself with his surroundings, the plain, white, sterile room confirming he was in a hospital. When the memory of him standing over Rene with a cleaver hit him, he opened his eyes wide.

“Where’s Rene?” he said.

“He’s in a room on the next floor. He’ll be fine,” Berta said. “He’s the one who saved you.”

“Can I see him?”

“I think the nurse and the doctor should look you over first. Rene is nearby. You’ll see him soon enough.”

Gilbert was stable, but would need to stay in the hospital for a few days, the doctor said an hour later.

“And Rene? What happened to him? Is he going to be okay?” Gilbert said.

The doctor laughed.

“Just worry about yourself for now,” he said. “You’ll find out all about your friend soon enough.”

Gilbert tried to lift a hand to scratch an itch under his oxygen mask. An IV tube attached to his arm stretched and tightened as he moved, surprising him and causing the beep on his monitor to skip. The doctor looked up, saw the rhythm return to normal, and scratched a note on a chart at the foot of Gilbert’s bed.

“What day is it?” Gilbert asked, his voice raspy due to a sore throat.

“It’s Monday,” the doctor said as he walked over to the window and opened the curtain to let sunshine fill the room. “And I think we’ve finally got spring on the way.”

Gilbert turned away from the light, but enjoyed the warmth a sunbeam provided to his feet.

I can feel my feet, he thought. He realized then, through the haze of medication and post-traumatic stress, that he really was still alive.

-----

“Look what you did to me, you SOB,” Rene said loud enough to make Gilbert jolt. He had been sleeping after a fit-filled night full of horrible dreams that included him hacking Rene to pieces with that old, rusty meat cleaver; laying on an uncomfortable blue sled; and the high-pitched whine of a snowmobile.

Gilbert turned to see Rene rolling into the room sitting in a wheelchair. His face was wrapped in gauze and his right leg stuck straight out in front of him in a cast.

“What happened?” Gilbert whispered.

“You had a heart attack on me, jerk,” Rene said. “You almost died in my dojo.”

“Your what?”

“My man-cave. My fishing shack. Remember? We were fishing,” Rene said. “Well, we were trying to fish.”

The memory of the meat cleaver jumped into Gilbert’s mind and he began to sob.

“Oh, jeezus. Here we go,” Rene said, shaking his head. It stunned Gilbert when Rene rolled closer to the bed, reached out and held his hand.

“I’m sorry,” Gilbert whispered. “I’m so sorry.”

“For what?” Rene said.

“The cleaver. I was mad. You thought I was going to…”

“Ah, hell. Ooh blah dee, ooh blah dah. Life goes on,” Rene said. “Water, bridge; you know the saying.”

“How’d we get here?” Gilbert said after regaining his composure.

Rene explained how he was outside trying to start his four-wheeler when he came back and found Gilbert laying on the floor of the ice-fishing shack; how neither of the four-wheelers would start; how he had to drag Gilbert’s “sorry ass” back towards Rene’s home.

“I collapsed about where the end of my dock would have been if it was summertime. You believe that? So close; so far,” Rene said.

“Then what?” Gilbert asked. If that was the end of the story, they would both be frozen like discarded Northern Pike hidden in a snow bank.

“Charlie found us. Charlie Furgus. The plumber down the way,” Rene said.

Mildred, Rene’s wife, called Charlie when the worst of the storm moved in. She wanted someone to check on Rene and Gilbert since she could no longer see the shack through the blizzard from their upstairs sunroom.

“After finding the shack open and empty, he was comin’ back to the house on his snowmobile. The son of a bitch ran over my leg here,” Rene said, tapping a knuckle on the cast. “It’s how he found us. Never thought getting run over would save my life.”

“Your face?” Gilbert said.

“Frostbite. May need skin grafts. Got good drugs in me, though. Don’t hurt a lick,” Rene said.

Gilbert went silent, closing his eyes as he began to cry again. He struggled as he tried to roll onto his side to face Rene more squarely from his bed. Rene reached over from his wheelchair and helped him as much as he could.

Tears streamed from the corners of Gilbert’s eyes, dripping on the pillow underneath his head. He sniffled a couple of times before speaking.

“Thank you,” Gilbert said. “Thank you for saving my life.”

Rene’s eyes welled up. He used the collar of his hospital gown to dry them.

“Thank you for livin’, brother,” he responded.

Rene squeezed Gilbert’s hand a little tighter.

Gilbert squeezed back.

“Enough sobbin’. I got some shoppin’ to do,” Rene said, letting go of his hold on Gilbert. “It’s Wednesday. Doc says I get a day pass and if all goes well, he’ll give me a full release tomorrow.”

“Going home?” Gilbert said.

“Naw. Stayin’ in the city until you’re out, man,” Rene said.

“You don’t have to do that.”

“I know,” Rene said as he wheeled toward the hospital room door.

“What are you shopping for?” Gilbert asked.


“Can’t finish the fishin’ season without an auger, can we,” Rene said.