Charlie wasn’t sure how death would finally manifest herself, but after forty-six years sharing a bed with the same red-headed woman, he felt reasonably certain the Reaper would, at the very least, be a strawberry blonde.
Over the past year, she’d come for two of his best friends. Both went kicking and screaming into that not-so-good night. Poor old Wayne didn’t even know who he was for the last couple of months.
Charlie resolved to go with more dignity when his number came up. He told the guys down at the Lucky Wishbone that before his health got too bad he planned to stuff his pockets with bacon and walk into the Bitterroot Mountains for a one-way hike with the grizzly bears. His wife, Rachel, had scoffed, judging that such an idea proved his mind was “well past gone” and went on to dub him A Man Called Pooh.
Unfortunately for Charlie, his diagnosis with pancreatic cancer snuck up on him in the middle of winter. All the grizzly bears had long since curled away in hidden dens and would offer no help at all.
The Saturday before he was supposed to start chemo he woke up early, dressed in the dark, then kissed Rachel on the cheek. He stood by the bedside for a long moment, staring down at this woman who’d spent so many years by his side. He kissed her again and patted her softly on the rump. She was used to him getting up early and mumbled a reminder for him to put on the coffee.
Outside the bedroom, under the grinning portraits of five freckled grandchildren, he slipped into insulated winter boots and shrugged on a heavy wool coat. He pressed the start button on the coffee maker before slipping quietly out the kitchen door.
He would have to take care of this himself, without the aid of bacon or grizzly bears.
Montana was an easy place to be lost. He didn’t have to trudge very far off the logging road where he left his pickup before he was out of breath and chilled to the bone. He’d strapped on a pair of old snowshoes, but they didn’t make traveling much easier in the deep snow. As frail as he was, he didn’t figure this would take very long. He made it about three miles deep into a good stand of tamarack before he found a likely spot and sat down on a stump to wait.
Charlie had been sitting there on that stump, letting the cold wrap in around him, for nearly half an hour when the woman shuffled to the edge of his clearing. A weary back protested as he groaned to his feet. He chuckled despite the popping in his arthritic knees. Rachel would have been proud. Even with death coming for him through the snow, he’d retained a modicum of chivalry.
The gal staggered in from the tamarack shadows, into the pale blue glow of a forest snowfall. She moved as only a woman with high principles could stagger—shoulders pinned back, each hip pausing slightly before the other moved forward to take the lead.
Countless popcorn snowflakes floated down on still air, vacant the slightest breath of wind. Chickadees fluffed themselves on silent limbs. Even the chattering red squirrels had fallen mute. Apart from the squeaky crunch of the woman’s snowshoes, the clearing was quiet as a tomb.
She wore a plaid green mackinaw coat and charcoal gray slacks of the same heavy wool. It was impossible to tell her true build under the bulky clothing, but judging from the rosy, round apples of her cheeks, Charlie guessed she was somewhat on the stout side. Red hair spilled in a riot of curls from beneath a camel hair tam. The hat tilted jauntily above a flawless, oval face. She wasn’t young, but if she was anywhere near Charlie’s age, her years had been much less burdensome. Her green eyes held an inquisitive but world-wise sparkle.
If this beautiful creature was Death, Charlie decided he’d go along without a fuss.
“Oh, you gave me a fright, I don’t mind tellin’ you.” She pressed a hand to her breast, panting at the effort of maneuvering wide rawhide snow-shoes across the deep drifts. “My eyes aren’t what they used to be. When I spied you through the trees, I feared I’d run across a banshee or some such thing.” A thick Irish brogue curled from her lips like smoke from a fine briar pipe.
Charlie tilted his head to one side, grinning like a fool. “No ma’am. Not a banshee. Just plain, old Charlie Muldoon.”
Surely Death would have recognized him for who he was—a sick man on his last legs—easy pickings. Still, he supposed the real deal would have some sneak to her. She was, after all, a redhead.
Charlie shivered in spite of himself. A cloud of vapor enveloped his face as he spoke. “I hope you have a cabin hidden nearby.”
“I fear ’tis not the case, Mr. Muldoon,” the woman said, still panting. Charlie supposed Death might be tired enough to pant, what with all the work she had to do.
“I thought you might lead me to shelter,” the woman went on. “And what do I find but a man stuck knee deep in the same fix as I.” She tilted her face toward the sky, one hand on the tam the other still at her chest. Charlie followed her gaze, as if there was something above the treetops beyond gunmetal clouds and endless falling snow.
“How cold do you expect ’tis?” She said, still gazing heavenward. Snowflakes clung at her lashes like bits of feather down.
Charlie hunched his shoulders in a shivering shrug. His nose hairs were freezing, but such a thing seemed too indelicate to speak of with this particular woman.
“Five, ten above,” he said. The temperature would drop like a stone after dark. Bony and frail, he’d never make it through the night. That had been the plan before she’d arrived. Now, with the redhead, an unwelcome hope had settled in with the cold.
He looked at his elk rifle leaning against the weathered stump of a ponderosa pine as big as an oil drum. For a time, after he’d walked off from his pickup and the snow got deeper, he thought about using it. In the end, he decided he was too proud to be found like that. Better to let the elements take him. That wouldn’t be so hard on Rachel. She’d already be left with nothing but his meager retirement. No point in topping that off with the knowledge he’d blown his brains out because he was too big a coward to face a slow death by lingering illness.
“Don’t suppose you have any matches?” he asked the woman, trying to clear away thoughts of his dear Rachel.
“Sorry.” She tossed her head like an insolent filly, smirking at her own stupidity. “I’ve spent enough time in these mountains. You’d think I’d know better than to wander away from camp without a kit…”
She closed the distance between them quickly, the swish of wool against her thighs harmonizing with the crunch of snow.
“Marley FitzSimons.” She extended a mittened hand and met his gaze with a red-lipped smile so genuine it chased away the chill as surely as any fire. “I cook for Cyrus Brune, though I must admit I’m a better housekeeper than a cook… which is to say not too good at either.”
Brune guided elk hunters out of a camp beyond Badger Creek almost five miles from where they stood, over a sizable mountain range.
“You’re a long way from home,” Charlie mused.
“I am at that,” Ms. FitzSimons said. “I grew weary of so much man-talk in camp and strolled off for some fresh air like I was thick in the head with nary a gun or kit. I do have a pair of legs under me, if I you don’t mind my sayin’ so. Before I knew it, I’d gotten myself turned around on these logging roads. This snow’s covered my tracks or I’d retrace my steps.”
“Be dark soon.” Charlie patted the stump where he’d been sitting. It was already covered with an inch of new snow. “You must be beat, Ms. FitzSimons,” he said. “Please, have my seat.”
“Thank you, Mr. Muldoon. A true gentleman.”
“How long, do you think?” She cut him off, nestling herself down on the stump, snowshoes kicked up before her to make a foot rest, boots still in the bindings.
“How long ’til what?” Charlie cocked his head.
“Until we freeze out here without a shelter or fire.” There was a calm sadness in her voice. No terror, just a practical woman looking for an honest assessment.
“Forgive me for saying so, Ms. FitzSimons, but you don’t strike me as the sort of woman who gives up quite that easily.”
Emerald green eyes locked on him like the twin high beams of an oncoming truck. “Oh, if I were young and still held fast to the notion that everything works out for the best, then,” she cocked her head, “maybe I’d have a wee bit of hope. But we’re miles from another living soul. You said yourself the dark will be on us soon enough—and we have no fire.” Her shoulders slumped when she finished, but only a hair.
Charlie chewed his bottom lip while he thought. “If we had a shelter…”
Ms. FitzSimons stared at the ground. “I’m no woodsman, but I do believe this snow will kill us before we build a cabin.”
“We can build the shelter out of snow.” Charlie shrugged as if it was all so simple. “See how it’s drifted up by those trees? It’s got to be six or seven feet deep there off the road.”
“A cave.” She looked up at him, a hint of jade hope sparkling in her eyes. “What’ll we use to dig?”
“I will use a snowshoe,” Charlie said. “You rest.”
“Rubbish.” She dusted the snow from her lap and wallowed to her feet. “I am a strong woman, Mr. Muldoon, both in will and constitution. If I am to spend the night with you in this snow shelter of yours, I’ll be helpin’ build it. Besides, the work will warm us twice; once with the building and again when we’re inside the cave.”
Charlie located a likely spot where a previous wind had pushed a deep drift against a low swell of ground. He probed with his walking staff and couldn’t feel the bottom.
Once he’d stomped out a sunken trail of packed snow to stand on, he took off his snowshoes and stuck one in the drift.
“Nothing fancy,” he said while he used the curved toe of his shoe to scoop out a rough, T-shaped opening through which he’d excavate. “Just big enough we can squeeze in together.”
His back screamed for mercy by the time the hole was big enough to get his shoulders inside. Perspiration dripped off the end of his nose.
“Slow down, Charlie. We mustn’t sweat,” Ms. FitzSimons scolded, working to pull the snow away as he pushed it back to her. “The cave won’t do us any good if we’re soaked to the skin.”
Charlie stopped to catch his breath. Their wool clothing would provide some insulation even when it got wet, but she was right, hypothermia would creep over him fast once he stopped moving.
“There’s not much chance of me staying dry once I have to crawl in there and dig us out enough space to curl up.” Vapor poured from his mouth as he spoke, settling to the ground at once in the frozen air.
“I see your conundrum.” Ms. FitzSimons was on her knees, leaning on the snowshoe she’d been using as a rake. “We’ll have to strip out of our long drawers while we dig, then put them back on before we go in for the night.”
Charlie slapped his knee. “That way we’ll have dry woolies between us and the damp. You’re a mighty wise woman, Ms. FitzSimons.” He gave her his best smile. The one from long ago. The one he usually reserved for Rachel.
“Well then…” she said, tossing him a quizzical look through the fading light.
“Well, then,” she wagged her head back and forth. “Turn away if you please. I’ll not have you seeing me in the nip with nothing but my tam.”
“Fair enough,” Charlie mused. This woman was a handful. He turned and began the quick, ungainly dance of stepping out of boots, then his outer layers, finally stripping off his wool long johns. The sloppy wet kisses of snowflakes against his bare skin caused him to scramble back into his wool trousers, suspenders, and heavy shirt. He was buttoning his coat when he heard a throaty chuckle from behind him.
He turned to find Ms. FitzSimons holding a small bundle, presumably made up of her unmentionables. A mischievous twinkle said she’d not bothered to turn around herself.
She winked, reading his thoughts. “You never said I should.”
They hung their long johns on the low branch of an aspen tree that looked as bony as Charlie and went back to work.
Charlie chuckled to himself as he dug. Rachel definitely would not approve of this woman.
A half hour later as the last pale shades of gray light faded from a charcoal sky, Charlie planted his snowshoe in a drift beside a dark hole that lead to their new home.
“She’s done,” he said. “It’s tight—hardly enough room to turn over—but she should keep us alive.”
“I find myself indebted to you, Mr. Muldoon.” The mysterious woman pulled the collar of her mackinaw up tight around her neck. “Now, I have a surprise for you.”
Charlie swayed on his feet, lightheaded from the intense labor of moving over a thousand pounds of snow. “What? I don’t have to turn around this time?”
“Mr. Muldoon!” Ms. FitzSimons’ hand flew to her chest in mock embarrassment. “I’ll have none of your shenanigans.” Her chiding over as quickly as it began, she opened up her fist to reveal a Snickers bar. It was Charlie’s favorite.
“This is my surprise,” she said. “A bit of nourishment to warm us from the inside. I’ll split it with you, though from what I saw of your bony self, you could use it more than my broad behind.” She patted her stomach.
Charlie shivered, grinning like a love-struck school boy. He swung his arms in an effort to push warm blood to aching hands. His feet were nothing more than icy lumps at the end of quivering legs. “No matter which way you decide to look this time Ms. FitzSimons, I need to retrieve my woolies. I’m gonna catch my death if I don’t get into something dry.”
“And we wouldn’t want that,” Ms. FitzSimons whispered, dusting the snow off Charlie’s rolled long johns and passing them to him with a soft smile.
“I have one more surprise left in my pocket,” she said after they’d dressed.
Charlie looked at her, afraid to hazard a guess.
“It’s a tiny flashlight off my keyring.” She held it up like a Christmas present. “It’s not much as far as lights go.”
A skiff of wind jostled the trees around the clearing, pushing the two together against the sudden chill. Charlie took her by the arm and guided her toward the cave. “After you, Ms. FitzSimons, I fear there’s a storm blowing our way.”
He shivered so badly he thought he might chip a tooth. Breathing deeply of the icy, metallic air, he shuffled in on hands and knees behind the woman, first dropping down, and then climbing up to the raised sleeping ledge no bigger than a twin bed. The top of his head bumped against her rear end in the blue darkness. She said nothing.
Charlie had raised three boys at the edge of the Montana wilderness and knew a thing or two about digging snow caves. Once finished, the little shelter was amazingly warm, relative to the plummeting temperature outside.
The tiny LED lit the chamber like a torch, bouncing brilliant white light around the rough, oblong dome.
“This side is a wee bit more your size,” Ms. FitzSimons played the light on the far wall. “You’ll have to crawl over top of me, but I believe you’ll fit better.”
Charlie kept his head low to keep from knocking snow from the arched ceiling. Moving on all fours, he worked gingerly across the reclining figure of Marley FitzSimons. Halfway through his journey, he made the mistake of looking into her eyes. He was close enough he could smell the sweetness on her breath, see the sheen of moisture on her lips. He paused there for a long moment, him not moving, her not speaking.
“Charlie,” she said at length. It was the first time she’d called him anything but Mr. Muldoon. “You have saved my life, that’s certain. It troubles me to say it, but at my age, I’ve found myself looking up from this position at more than a few men.” Thick lashes fluttered. Her body moved under him. “But I can tell from those kind eyes of yours you’ve never looked down on but one sweet girl.”
The spell broken, Charlie shuffled over next to the wall. Maybe Rachel would approve of this woman after all.
“Well, Ms. FitzSimons,” Charlie said with a sly grin. He situated his weary bones next to the wall. “I’m not sure what you’re implying, but I just got back into my dry clothes. I don’t think it prudent to get all sweaty again under the circumstances.”
“That’s the spirit, Mr. Muldoon,” she said, scooting her rear end closer so it rested against his thighs. “You may wrap your arms around me if you wish… for warmth.”
“We fit together pretty good this way,” he chuckled. “Like spoons in a drawer, my wife would say.”
“Everyone fits together this way, Charlie.” She switched off the LED throwing the cave into darkness. “Because we’re all spoons of a sort. Though I fear I’ve become more of a ladle in my later years.”
Charlie let his arm slide under her shoulders. He pulled her closer for the warmth she brought him body and soul. “Women with a little meat on their bones are more my style.” His teeth rattled in concert to his shivering. “You just ask my wife.”
“Women like us…” Her whisper was somber in the darkness of the cave. “…we give shade in summer, warmth in the winter… and when we die, you can use our skins to make a boat.”
Charlie rose up on one arm, knocking down a shower of snow. It sent a wet chill down his back. “Hey, where did you get that? That’s what Rachel always says.”
“We’re not much different,” she said, “your Rachel and I. Now…” She gave his hand a gentle pat where it lay across her waist. “Time for you to go to sleep, Charlie.”
Charlie woke up aching all over. Cold air licked him in the face. Snowmelt dripped down the front of his collar. Screaming muscles told him he was still alive, but muffled, disembodied voices said death wasn’t too far away.
“Charlie?” The voice sounded low and vaguely familiar. “Charlie Muldoon, you in there?”
More snow hit him in the face. His eyes flicked open in time to see a plastic shovel break through the top of his cave. A brilliant streak of sunlight sent him cringing into the blue shadows. His hand flung out beside him, searching the snow.
“Where is she,” he said, shielding his face from the light.
“Where’s who?” It was that Sedwick boy who worked for the county paramedics.
“Ms. FitzSimons,” Charlie said, beginning to worry. “She was right here.”
“No one here but you, Mr. Muldoon,” the Sedwick boy said.
Charlie felt himself being lifted out of the cave. Had it really come to this? The scrawny little Sedwick boy could lift him so easily.
“Anyone know who he’s talking about?” Charlie heard the boy say.
Rachel was suddenly by his side, holding his hand as they strapped him on a stretcher with warm blankets.
“He’s always had a thing for Maureen O’Hara,” she explained as the paramedics worked. “Her real name was FitzSimons. He must be imagining things.” She bent to kiss him, tears streaking her face. “What were you thinking, you silly, stupid man? You could have died out here.”
“I’m sorry,” Charlie said, his voice sounding far away, even to himself.
He tried to make sense of what had happened as they carried him to a waiting helicopter. Maybe Marley FitzSimons was just a figment of his imagination—but oh, what a lovely figment she’d been. She reminded him of Rachel.
He remembered now, falling asleep thinking of his wife, hoping for the first time in a long time that he might have another few moments on earth with his sweet Rachel.
A movement at the edge of the trees caught Charlie’s eye as they loaded him in the medevac chopper. He smiled weakly when he saw the heavy green mackinaw coat. Ms. FitzSimons had taken off the jaunty tam, showing a full head of fire red hair. She waved, smiling brightly, as the men finished strapping in the stretcher.
“I’ll see you again, Charlie Muldoon.” She blew him a kiss. “But not quite as soon as you think.”