By William Cass
Tim got up early. It was Saturday. The trailer was still. He lifted the corner of the curtain with his finger and looked outside: it was snowing again, hard. Only the week after Christmas, and already the heaviest winter snowfall on record. He dressed, then walked down the short hallway, plugged in the Christmas tree lights, and started breakfast.
Austin woke up next. He came in carrying the new stuffed elephant that had been poking out of his stocking, holding it by the ear. He sat on the edge of the couch and looked at the tree. His eyes were full of sleep. Tim poured pancake batter into small circles in the greased skillet.
“Hey, bub,” he said.
The little boy rubbed his nose. He asked, “When do we have to take it down?”
“No special time.We usually wait until the first of the year and make a bonfire out back. You remember last year?”
The little boy shook his head and looked for the first time at his father. His brown hair was disheveled and his mouth drooped like his mother’s.
“That’s all right,” Tim said. “You weren’t even three yet. You’ll like it. We can roast marshmallows.”
“Like summertime at the lake?”
“Exactly. Go snuggle your mom. Breakfast’s about ready.”
He padded off in his flannel pajamas. Tim turned the radio on low. The weather report said that more heavy snow was expected throughout the day across the Inland Northwest. He flipped pancakes with the spatula, then slid them with the rest onto the plate he was keeping warm in the oven. He poured more batter into the skillet and looked outside again. He watched the snow fall in big flakes over the rusted storage shed out back and breathed as slowly as he could. The snow had almost covered the truck tire rims that he’d left leaning against the shed.
His wife came down the hall holding Austin’s hand. She was a big woman who’d kept getting bigger after giving birth. She was wearing a plaid bathrobe and her strawberry-blonde hair was tied up in a short ponytail up high on the back of her head. They both sat on stools at the counter where Tim had already set places. He and his wife looked at each other.
She said, “To what do we owe this honor?”
Tim was holding the spatula like a baton. “Can’t I make breakfast for my family?”
“Sure,” she nodded. “Sure you can. Absolutely.”
It was the same tone she’d begun using with him shortly after he’d gotten laid off at the mill in August. She’d used it especially after they’d begun to rely on her meager weekday lunch shift over at Bishop’s Marina on the lake. She looked outside and said,
“See you got your woolies on. Going for a hike?”
“Buddy I was in the service with called yesterday from Spokane. He’s coming up to go snowmobiling. Asked if I might want to go along. I told him I thought it would be all right.”
She was still looking outside. “Called while I was at work yesterday?”
“But you didn’t think to tell me about it until now.”
She shook her head slowly. Without looking at him, she reached across the counter for her cigarettes and lit one. Then she pushed off the stool and said, “I’m going to take a shower. Please call if you’re going to be late for dinner.”
He watched the back of her go down the hall. Then he brought over the pancakes, and he and his son ate in silence.
Tim was supposed to meet Danny at the Coolin turnoff on Route 57. Tim had the truck parked back under some trees. But Danny was late, so Tim ran the heater every now and then to try to stay warm but not waste gas. No other cars were in the turnoff; very few vehicles went by at all. It was just too nasty out. Tim wished he’d brought a thermos of coffee, but in the end, he’d just wanted to get out away from home as quickly as possible.
Danny didn’t show up until almost ten o’clock. He was pulling the snowmobile on a trailer behind his truck. Tim walked out of the trees and Danny pushed the passenger door open for him. The heat from inside hit Tim, and so did the smell of reefer.
“Man,” Danny said, “I’m sorry. This damn weather. I sat behind three wrecks, and I left Spokane before seven.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Tim said.
“Well,” Danny asked, “you jacked or what? Could we have picked a better day than this?”
Tim shook his head. Danny had an old Tom Petty tape playing in the dashboard. He nodded his head, Tim thought, to the music. They’d spent some time together at Camp Pendleton, then later at Paris Island, but to say he knew Danny well would have been a stretch.
“All right,” Tim said. “If we’re going to do this, let’s go.”
They drove without talking towards Coolin. It seemed funny to Tim that they should find nothing to say after so long apart and given what they were planning. Danny drummed his thumbs on the steering wheel. They rounded the big curve at the Dickensheet, crossed over the Priest River, passed the landfill, and turned right at Wood’s service station and tavern, which was shut up tight and dark. They passed no one on that leg, or on the one to the “Y” up above Cavanaugh Bay where they parked up a little dead-end road that Tim knew about from riding motorbikes as a boy.
They still said nothing as they unhitched the snowmobile and slid it off the trailer. Danny took a Flexible Flyer sled with wooden slat sides out from the under the shell of his truck and hooked it to the back of the snowmobile. He put a flashlight, a tire iron, a small fishing tackle box of tools, and an empty meal-sized Tupperware container into a burlap sack, wrapped that in a green garbage sack, and bungee-corded the whole thing inside the sled.
“That’s it?” Tim asked.
“Yep,” Danny nodded. “That’s it.”
He took two helmets out of the back of the truck and handed one to Tim. They pulled them over their knit caps and pulled their ski gloves tight. In a muffled voice, Danny said, “Ready, Red Rider?”
He climbed onto the snowmobile and tried three times to start it with the choke engaged until it finally caught, coughing. Tim got on behind him, and they started on new snow down the unplowed road that passed behind the back of the airstrip to the lake.
Danny couldn’t go very fast because of the swirling snow, but he went faster than was safe anyway. Tim kept his head turned to the side and watched for the lake. For a while, there were only the trees and bushes fleeing by below Sundance Peak. Then they passed Cougar Creek, and the lake sat, as always, long and still on the left, gray-blue, with the Selkirk Mountains behind it along the western shore.
After they passed the tip of the peninsula at Four Mile, Baretow Island emerged, then the gumdrop shape of Kalispell Island, and beyond it the gray-green foothills that lightened in shades like octaves into the tall distance where they eventually stretched snow-tipped along the Canadian border. A kind of wave passed over him, as it always did, watching it unfold. They passed the little incline where he and his father first put in their little fishing boat when he wasn’t much older than Austin. Then they crossed Roaring Creek and he shivered again for a different reason because he saw the first line of cabins along the little horseshoe bay that fronted Eastshore Road as it straightened towards the upper lake. He looked for smoke from any of the chimneys, but saw none, and he realized suddenly how badly he’d hoped to see some.
Danny slowed the snowmobile to a stop and turned his head back. Tim couldn’t see his eyes through the cloudy shield, but his mustache was crusted with ice and his mouth was smiling.
Danny said, “This smooth, or what?”
“It’s pretty smooth.”
“We could take a damn chandelier out and not break a crystal, it’s so smooth. Jesus H. Did we pick a perfect day, or what?”
Tim just nodded.
“So, where do we start?”
“Up past that next creek. There’s a logging road to the right that goes up to Hunt Lake and a long drive to the left that leads down to all these cabins.”
Danny grinned and whistled. Tim followed his gaze along the shoreline.
“Nice places,” Danny said. “What are there, twenty or so along here?”
“And you’re sure that Captain-guy lives far enough up the road?”
“The Colonel. And yes.” He pointed. “See that island? That’s Eight Mile. He lives way the hell up there.”
Tim had worked summers for the Colonel as a pile driver on the lake before getting the mill job a few years back. He knew that only the Colonel wintered along this stretch of shore and that his cabin was well past Indian Creek campground more than a mile away. Plus, he’d never be out on a day like that.
Danny gunned the engine, shifted, and they climbed the rise, rounded the bend across the creek, and turned down the frontage lane between the cabins and the road. Tim tapped him on the shoulder and pointed to a woodshed down the first drive. Danny pulled under the corrugated tin roof next to a neatly stacked pile of tamarack and turned off the engine. They climbed off the snowmobile and took off their helmets.
Danny looked at Tim and shook his head. “Hell, we don’t even need the damn tarp. Hell, if we looked a little harder we could probably find a damn garage with a space heater. This is too damn easy. Even if somebody wanted to follow us, was intent on it, the snow would cover our tracks like that.” He snapped his gloved fingers.
Tim shrugged. “So far, so good, I guess.”
“Jesus H.,” Danny said and unhooked the sled.
They started down between the trees to the first cabin, which was like a small log lodge with dark green shutters. At the back door, Danny didn’t hesitate. He just took out the tire iron, shoved it in the door jam, and pulled hard back and forth until the wood splintered and the lock gave way.
Watching him, Tim thought of that muggy evening on a bluff near Beaufort, South Carolina, where they’d first talked about this. It was late after a day of daring one another with girls on the beach. They were drinking beer and looking at the stars over the ocean. Danny had told Tim about how he and a buddy had broken into some places at a resort lake in Minnesota just before they’d graduated from high school and Danny’s dad had moved the family west. Seven little cabins in a row, Danny said, maybe an hour total; they’d only been interested in cash. Tim had told Danny about Priest Lake, which Danny had never visited even though he’d lived in Spokane for two years before enlisting and it was only ninety miles away. As they drank more beer, the idea evolved into a winter scheme and Danny said he knew some guys in Portland who’d pay well for jewelry, silverware, credit cards, things like that.
They got sent different places after Paris Island and lost touch. Tim forgot about their talk, or at least rarely thought about it again, until the day before when, out of the blue and after four years, he answered the telephone and heard Danny’s voice. Tim had been out of work going on five months with nothing in sight. And his wife had her attitude. He could dole the money out a bit at a time. And if she asked, he could say he’d won it playing poker with his old pal Danny and some of his cronies after snowmobiling.
So, with his heart hammering, he followed Danny into that empty, cold cabin with its pine walls and its still-new smell and looked through the bathrooms and living room while Danny searched the bedrooms. He found an old Rolex watch with a chip in the face and Danny found three travelers’ checks for fifty dollars each under some socks. They put both in the Tupperware container and Tim followed Danny through the snow to the next cabin pulling the sled behind him.
After that, it was pretty easy to keep going. Since noise and stealth were not factors, they used the crowbar with regard to neither. Although the electricity was turned off in most of the cabins, there was plenty of natural light from outside to search by. And it was too cold not to wear gloves, so leaving fingerprints was of no concern.
They moved through the first few cabins quickly and with some urgency, but gradually slowed their pace and made each search an almost languid excursion. In one, Tim came upon Danny in a bedroom with his face buried in a pair of woman’s underwear; in another, he came downstairs to find him sitting tipped back in a recliner smoking a roach and reading a movie magazine. Tim began to linger over photographs: families on docks, at bar-b-ques, out on boats, couples in embrace at sunset, children growing older on dim hallway walls from one picture to another. He recognized a number of people vaguely from his days working on the pile driver. He came across one snapshot in a standing frame of an older man he’d helped change a tire on the side of the road one early fall evening outside Priest River. He was almost certain the woman in another had been the valedictorian in his older brother’s high school class.
They did better than they’d hoped finding things of value: several checkbooks and credit cards, a set of antique silver in the original cherry wood box, a laptop computer, and over five hundred dollars in cash, which Danny kept adding to a roll in the zippered pocket of his ski pants. The Tupperware container was better than half-full of jewelry.
They came upon two things at the end that Tim would later regret. The first was a Husquvarna chainsaw sitting next to the backdoor of the last cabin. It looked as if it had never been used, but when Tim squatted next to it, he could see that it had just been extremely well-cared for: cleaned and oiled, and the teeth individually sharpened.
“Boy,” he said, “that’s something.”
“What?” Danny asked.
“The chainsaw. Mine’s busted to hell. Shot.”
“You want it? We got room. Take it.”
“Hell, man,” Danny said. He lifted the chainsaw himself and slid it into the burlap sack. He crisscrossed the bungee cords over the load, strapped them tight, and they started back up the path on fresh snow, the flurries now blowing into their faces.
Tim heard the scratching at the back of the woodshed after they’d reattached the sled to the snowmobile and were about the leave. That was the second thing. They stepped around a box of cedar kindling and saw the ground squirrel caught in the trap by its right hind leg. It lay on its side pawing weakly in the sawdust, its mouth yawning slowly, a trickle of blood coming from its ear. Tim’s eyes and the small, marble-like, black eyes of the ground squirrel met. He knelt down next to it.
“Let’s go,” Danny said, “Damn thing probably has rabies.” He pulled on his helmet, climbed on the snowmobile, started it the first time, and backed it out of the shed. “Come on, cowboy. Let’s hit the trail.”
Tim stood up and pulled on his own helmet. He looked back at the ground squirrel, then at Danny. “Maybe we should put it out of its misery. Bury it somewhere.”
“Not in this life,” Danny told him and throttled the engine. “Come on.”
It couldn’t have been past two o’clock and already the light was falling. The snowmobile idled two-stroke oil exhaust into the white snow darkening it. The wind had lessened, but the dizzy canopy of fat, slow flakes still tumbled everywhere. Tim glanced back at the squirrel a last time, got on, and they left.
Back at the truck, Danny first started the engine and heater. They secured the snowmobile on the trailer and put the sled with its load in the back under the shell. When they got into the cab, it was already warm. Danny took off his coat, gloves, and hat, cranked up the music, and sang with it while they drove back to where Tim had left his own truck. Danny pulled in behind it, then put the truck in park, leaving the engine to idle. He put his right arm over the back of the seat and turned to Tim.
“Well,” he said nodding, “that was sweet.”
Tim nodded back, he hoped, without apparent reluctance.
Danny asked, “So, how do you want to play this?”
Tim shrugged. “I don’t know. You’re the expert.”
“Well, we could do it several ways. Seems to me fifty-fifty’s pretty fair. You found the gig, but it’s my old man’s snowmobile. You’re taking a bigger chance living up here, but I’ve got the contacts to run this stuff.”
“That’s fine,” Tim said.
“All right. I guess we’re on the same page so far. So we can just split the cash and I can send you a money order or something for half of whatever I get in Portland. Unless you want to drive over with me tomorrow.”
“No,” Tim shook his head. “I’m not interested in making that trip.”
“Course you could just take the cash we got and I could sell the rest for whatever I can get. Course I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say it’ll probably be more than five hundred smacks. Maybe considerably more.”
“That sounds all right,” Tim said. “That’d be fine by me.”
“And of course the chainsaw’s yours. I’m thinking of heading down to Palm Springs for a while, get out of this weather. Not much use for a chainsaw there.”
Danny grinned and stuck out his hand. Tim shook it. Danny took the roll of cash out of his pocket and handed it to Tim. Then they climbed out of the cab and walked to the back of the truck. Tim wrapped the chainsaw in the green garbage sack, and Danny followed him to his truck. Tim slid the chainsaw behind the seat, climbed up into the cab, and started his own engine and heater. Danny stood in his plaid workshirt and dark ski pants in the falling snow holding the open door.
He said, “Well, I’ll call you after Portland. Tell you how things turned out.”
Tim shook his head. “You’d better not. My wife might get suspicious.”
“O.K.” Danny nodded his head. “And I guess we’d better not think about pulling another stunt like this around here anytime soon.”
“So, you know how to get in touch with me in Spokane.”
“Give me a call, we’ll go get a beer.”
Danny was still nodding his head. He looked up the road, then slowly back. “You ever hear from Drexel or Bannister?”
“Nah.” Tim shook his head.
“Me neither. Peterson get married?”
“I guess. Last I heard, that was the plan.”
“He still in?”
“As far as I know.”
“Those were good times,” Danny said.
“Yes, they were,” Tim lied.
“Damn straight.” Danny slapped Tim on the thigh. “Listen, you take care.” He stepped back and started to shut the door. “Drive safe in this mess.”
Danny closed the door and Tim watched him walk back through the snow to his truck. They both backed out. Danny went south towards Priest River, and Tim turned up Route 57 towards home. He flipped the headlights on. He wished he had a radio, but it was broken.
At Nordham, he stopped at the mini-mart for gas. He chose a family comedy to rent from the video rack and bought a frozen pound cake, a package of microwave popcorn, and two sixteen ounce cans of beer. He talked with the cashier, a guy he’d played junior varsity basketball with in high school, about the snow and logging permits for a few minutes, then walked back outside into the twilight that was wild again with blowing snow.
He drove slowly watching the snowflakes dance in his headlights and finished both beers before he reached the trailer. He sat a moment and looked at his wife and son through the front window. They were taking down ornaments from the tree. He could see the television on behind them. He thought he’d wait until she was at work on Monday to move the chainsaw into the shed. He tried not to think about the man who had owned and cared for it. The beers helped a little in that regard. He thought he’d keep the cash in the shoebox with his military memorabilia. He thought that would be a safe place, but he felt lousy about keeping it there and he hadn’t had enough beer to dull that; he had more in the trailer.
He was sorry to see the Christmas decorations come down. In fact, he felt close to tears. Tim climbed out of the truck and walked inside.
He was able to convince his wife to leave the lights up on the tree. But shortly thereafter, they got in another fight. He hadn’t realized the movie he’d rented was one they’d already seen. And he’d forgotten to get a can of pork and beans.
They’d watched the movie anyway, and Tim had a few more beers. For a while, he could forget about things and focus on the movie. Afterwards, he gave Austin a bath and tucked him in. That reminded him of his father and then he was in trouble. Because his father had cared for his tools. And then there was the fact that his father had also been a fly fisherman who would only catch and release. And there was the time that cutthroat had swallowed the hook and got itself tangled in some submerged tree roots and by the time his father was able to unsnag it, the fish had fought the life out of itself. And how grim and quiet his father had become afterwards.
If not for those things, Tim might have gotten away with it within himself. But instead he’d known as he was toweling off his son from his bath, as he noticed for the first time that his son’s ears were his own and those of his father’s, at that moment, he was certain that he would try to undo things. He didn’t know how, but he there was no question in his mind that he would try.
Tim tucked his son into bed laid down next to him. He listened to the small boy’s breathing slow into sleep. Later, he heard his wife turn off the TV, heard her come down the hallway, heard their mattress sag, heard her begin to snore softly herself. In spite of the alcohol, in spite of the things he did to calm himself and the perfect stillness, sleep was a long time coming for him.
The next morning before dawn, he rose, dressed, put the cash in his pocket, took an apple from the kitchen, and went out to the shed. The snow had lightened, but was still falling. It was dark and very quiet. He found an old pair of cross country skis and a knapsack, stored them in the truck, and drove out to where Danny had parked at the Y above Cavanaugh Bay the day before. He ate the apple while he strapped on the skis and put the chainsaw into the knapsack. He fit the knapsack over his shoulders; the weight was awkward but manageable.
It had been years since Tim had used the skis and he knew they weren’t properly waxed. He took a couple of tentative slides on and could do little more than lurch and scoot a bit. But it was better than walking. He figured it was two or three miles to the cabins. The sky above Sundance was just beginning to lighten, like a tiny splash of cream in black coffee. A little snow was falling. Tim started down the road behind the airstrip.
It was slow going and he was badly out of shape. He grew hot inside the jacket, but kept it buttoned. A few times, one of his skis sunk into a drift and he found himself crotch deep in snow. It was a production to free himself and his breath came in heaves, but none of that really mattered. He plodded on.
At Cougar Creek, he stopped for a drink of water and the first glimpse of the lake, gray and still, the islands to the north just visible in the softening light. He upset a flock of quail a little past Roaring Creek, near the old logging road that headed up to the falls, but that was all. Otherwise, it was just his forced breaths, the stillness, the delicately falling snow, and the gathering light of morning until he reached the long drive to the cabins.
Tim skied down to the last cabin first. He replaced the chain saw carefully where he’d found it. Then he just divided the money up and set a portion inside each doorway where they’d been the day before, working his way back hastily to the first log cabin with the green shutters. He didn’t try to figure out what had been taken where; he simply divided the money as evenly as he could. He didn’t even get out of the skis. He didn’t study the damage they’d caused. He just wanted to be done with the whole thing as quickly as possible.
On his way out, he paused at the woodshed where they’d parked the snow machine. Snow had drifted over all but the squirrel’s head. It was dead now, stiff on the dirt, its black eye still open, the trickle of blood dried and darkened. He brushed away the snow and released its leg from the trap, then brought it behind the wood shed under the eaves and scooped out a shallow grave in the pine needles there with his gloves. He covered the squirrel with needles and rocks.
He stood for a moment and looked over the tops of the cabins over the lake. He said, “That’s it, then.”
They were the first words he’d spoken that day. He couldn’t tell if he felt better or not. He felt numb, but he always felt similarly when he hadn’t slept. He wished he could do something about the ruined doorways and the other things they had taken, but he couldn’t. And if somehow, Danny got caught, he could only hope it wouldn’t lead to him. A chill passed down his neck. He thought, the hell with it. He thought that’s all I can do. He blew out a cloud of breath and started back up the frontage road.
He skied steadily, getting into a kind of rhythm without the weight of the chainsaw. He was most of the way down road behind the airstrip when he first heard what sounded like a motorcycle approaching. Blood rose up through his chest, up the sides of his neck, behind his ears. He stopped and turned around. He listened to his own breath slow as a headlight neared and Tim recognized the Colonel on his four-wheeler spraying two feathers of snow behind him. He swallowed.
The Colonel was wearing one of those fleece-lined jumpsuits the old timers wore at the mill in the winter and a fleece-lined, flop-eared cap. He stopped the four-wheeler next to Tim and pushed his goggles up over the front of the cap.
He squinted and said, “That you, Timmy?”
“What the hell you doing? Out exercising?”
“Getting some fresh air, you know. How are you, Colonel?”
The old man just nodded, then said, “Drive all the way over here to ski? That’s a lot of trouble, isn’t it?”
Tim gestured the way he’d come with a ski pole. “Pretty over here. Quiet.”
“It’s that,” the Colonel said.
“My old man and I used to come over here sometimes to do this when I was little.”
The Colonel nodded some more. Tim looked back up the road. He couldn’t tell to what extent the falling snow had covered his tracks. It was impossible to tell at what point the Colonel had noticed them. He wished it was snowing like the day before, but it wasn’t.
“How is your dad? How’s he feeling?” the Colonel asked.
“I haven’t seen him for a while. I’m glad he’s doing better. He’s a fine man, your dad.”
Tim nodded and said, “Yes, he is.”
“And you used to ski together back in the day?”
“Not far. Maybe down to the put-in by the creek.”
“That’s a pretty good fishing spot,” the Colonel said. “You can still catch some there, but too many people know about it now.”
“I suppose,” Tim said.
“Good memories, though,” the old man said. “All right, then. I saw the tracks back there and wondered, what the hell?”
Tim didn’t know what to say, so he just nodded and stamped snow from his skis. He knew that later on, the whole thing might still blow up, but there was nothing he could do about that. He looked at the Colonel again and thought about the time they had spent together on the pile driver when he was just an ornery kid that didn’t know squat. The Colonel looked the same as he had then, grizzled and sharp. The snow was beginning to lighten and there were streaks of blue to the west. The Colonel asked, “Where you parked?”
”Up at the Y.”
The old man grinned. “You almost got her licked.”
Tim waited for the Colonel to ask how far he’d gone, but he didn’t.
Instead he asked, “Any word about the mill rehiring?”
“Not that I’ve heard.”
“Maybe down to Priest River?”
Tim shrugged and said, “Maybe. Have to wait till spring, I guess.”
The Colonel nodded and looked him over. Standing there, and with the snow lessening, it had grown colder.
The Colonel asked, “Don’t suppose you want a ride the rest of the way.”
Tim shook his head. “Nah, I’m fine.”
The Colonel nodded and throttled the engine a little. “Okay, say hello to your dad for me.”
Tim nodded, lifted a pole in farewell. It seemed to him a meager gesture. He watched the old man go off up the road. He watched him grow small and listened to the motor die away until he saw the four-wheeler turn left and disappear at the Y.
Maybe the Colonel was going into Coolin for breakfast. Maybe he was just out for a ride. Tim didn’t know. All he knew was that it didn’t matter. What was done was done. You broke a glass on the floor, then you swept it up, but it was still broken. That was the thing. Even if he never got caught, that was the thing. Even if he found a way to save some money and get it back to the people in those cabins, even if it was enough to pay for repairs and the other stolen goods and he was never caught and he never heard from Danny again and he went home and hugged his family, even if they went over to his parents’ for Sunday dinner and his dad and he talked about fishing and his dad seemed stronger and then the mill called and he got his job back and things got better with his wife, it wouldn’t matter. As far as what he’d done went. As far as what he’d chosen to do. That wouldn’t go away. He could never precisely be the same. Even if he became better somehow, if his character improved, the exact person he’d been when he’d awakened the morning before was irretrievable.
He said quietly, “You’d better be careful.”