End of the Road.
The blizzard has been ravaging the snowy desert for three day now. The icy wind had broken excessively sharp and forceful. Myriad waves of snow and obscure clouds were driven west by this storm, as if it was determined to erase any sign of nature if it wasn`t the endless shawl of the great white wasteland. Naked branches of a few bushes were quivering as the inexorable wind whipped them fiercely. It was roughly midday, but the gloomy veil of snow made the outskirts barely visible and unbreakable cloud ceiling let not a ray of light.
Two dark dots were staggering slowly through this desert. Slightly bent down by the weight of their backpacks, they kept on going forth tied together by the rope. Not a recklessness or thirst for adventure made them go through this blizzard risking their lives but the circumstance. They passed almost three hundred miles since their sled crushed to absinth and their supplies have been running out since then. Strict diet and saving on supplies didn`t help considerably, and now they shared only a handful of dried bread and a box of matchsticks.
The leader was going forth, carrying his bag which appeared to be much heavier than the another`s, breaking throught the snow up to his kneecap with every step. The second one, clutched fiercely to the rope they were tied together and tried to keep his pace and to place his feet in his guider`s footsteps. Staggering and applying his last strength to move his feet, he finally stumbled and collapsed to the snow as if he`d been shot. The leader felt the sudden tense of the rope, turned around and watched his pal elevating himself slowly from the snow.
"Allrigh`" he said tediously when the second one failed stand up. "Let`s rest.".
He threw his bag off his shoulders, and started flattening the snow for their fire. He figured he had to collect the fuel as quick as possible before the snow sweeps their place again. It took him ten minutes to find enough branches and put them together. No time to lose now. He started to feel his fingers going numb. Pulled off his mitten with his teeth and threshed his arms back and forth, beating the arms against his sides. He brought out his box of matches. Protecting the matchstick with his back from the wind he stroke the match and extended it to the timber. The fire died in a second. He grew very calm. The second time there should be no failure. The ice cracked on his beard when he opened his mouth to exhale a warm breath on his hands. He closed the distance up to no space between him and the bunch, stroke the match again. Insecure bit of light gleamed on the edge of the match. He was so close to it this time that burning brimstone went up his nostrils and into his lungs causing him to cough. Fire went out.
The tingling fear of death, oppressive and adhesive started to agitate him. The third match however lit and gave birth to the small nucleus of fire that started to absorb the branches. The leader gave a breath of relief.
His partner who`s been watching him apathetically since he started building the fire crawled closer and extended his hands towards to flames. The warmth passed through his freezing hands and invoked pain as he felt his limbs coming back to senses. A shadow of smile appeared on his haggard face. He didn`t help his friend to set the carpet protecting from the wind, and he just observed him scooping the snow with his kettle and setting it above the fire. When it reached the boiling point, he apprehensively scooped the flour from his little bag and added it to the water. This mix and dried bread were their only nutriments.
When Stephen woke up his partner was already packing up. He didn`t even look at him when he seated himself on the snow.
"It`s time, Steve. Pack up." He tied the bag lash around his chest.
Steven leaned forward, his face distorted with a grimace of miserableness.
"Bill, Ima had too much of this march, I reckon. Keep on without me."
"No, no, no." Bill sat beside him "I am not gonna listen to your croakin`. I ain`t dragged you these four days on my back just to leave ya here just two, maybe three days away from the village. "
"Exactly. I wish I was half strong as you. I`d pull it off if I was."
"Shut up with your wishin`. We`re in a stone`s throw from the camp. Just one last effort, and we`ll be drinking good ol` Daniel`s and trashin` the dough all over the place."
"If we haven`t missed the village already. How could ya possibly now where the hell are you in this blizzard?"
"I followed the compass."
"You know it`s worth's shit in here, Bill. I wouldn`t take it if strayed awry, I just can`t."
"You stop grumpin` right there and get up. Not leaving you here to freeze. "
"You`re young and strong. Go forth. I know I am just holding you back Billy."
The blizzard wailed furiously.
Steven was fifty two but looked like a decrypt elder. Deep creases furrowed his face and the ice embedded in his beard and eyebrows made him look even older. Bill was twice prior his age but hardly looked any better. Weary and tired as they both were, he could pass for an old man as well , But there was a one distinctive difference. Not a single fire ever set in those lands could compete with the flames that burnt in Bill`s eyes. Hope and energy, although partly diminished by an acerbate battle with the desolated barren arctic wasteland, still were shining in his eye-sockets. Note even a slightest bit of this certitude was present in Steven`s gaze. Bill knew how pointless it was, trying to convince a man to go on, when he had already given up on himself. One is unstoppable while he has hope, and nothing can incent him when he`s hopeless.
Bill stood in front of his friend and watched him. Somehow, Steven looked even more tormented than before they had taken rest. He was shaking his head slowly in a denying motion, as if answering to Bill`s unasked question.
"I can`t leave you here to die Steven." He said, rather indecisively.
"Why do you think I`m gonna die, Billy? My boy, I reckon I`ll just lie by a little bit longer and then I`ll follow your footsteps."
Bill nodded inattentively. He knew how improbable it was.
"You`ll just fall asleep and you`ll never wake up. You`ll die under the snow."
"Dogs sleep under the snow."
"You aren't a dog, Steven."
"I`ll be alright. Just leave me my half of the supplies. And a gun, in case some wild bastard shows up, wishin` to fest a little off my meat."
"Bad idea, pal." Bill took a swift look at their backpacks and stopped his gaze on the bags they had carried from the mine. Steven nodded, indicating them:
"Take my half Bill. You deserve it all. Not all what shines is gold, you know what I mean?"
"Yes" Said Bill very silently. "I guess I do."
As they shared their goods and chattels Bill could not neither repel nor seclude himself form thinking how infinitely stupid it was to drag Steven all the way up on his back just to leave him here to perish. He was investing strength, food, just to keep him alive and come back together, splitting their gold as partners. Bill was ready to continue doing so, only if Steven had any hope of survival. . And now it was even more preposterous. What could be more ridiculous than sharing supplies with a dead man? And he undoubfully would be if he stayed, they both knew that. If he could not keep on any longer he would not stand a chance. But not only he didn`t want to survive, no. He also wanted to make an illusion of making it through, even knowing it would decrease Bill`s own chances. But what could he do? The most rational option was to point the gun at him and demand him to either follow and keep in pace or he will shoot. And count to five. But instead he counted and gave away half of the dried bread, half of matchsticks. He opened the cylinder and counted the bullets. Four. He poured two to Steven`s hands. Bill knew he would have to shoot.
That was it.
"Think for the last time, buddy."
Bill didn`t have to be asked twice. He loaded his burdens on his shoulders and launched off to the snow storm. For minute he could be seen tromping in the snow, but then faded away. Having watched him disappear, Steven lay on his back again. But this time he didn`t let the oblivion of Morpheus capture him. After a while he got up with a groan and brought out a mug from his almost emptied bag. He jolted and scattered gleaming coals and boiled himself some water with flour. He soaked dried breads in this sweet substabce and swallowed them with greed. He recollected himself only when the third and the last piece of the dried breads had been eaten. This humble repast didn`t help him to regain any strength but revived him. Having felt the warmth of the food digesting in his stomach, he optimistically pondered over his situation. He`d asked Bill to give him a gun only to spare himself from a slow and ongoing death by freezing. But now he was full of determination and decisiveness. Two days of a route? Not impossible. Compared to what he`d already been through…
Steven loaded his lightened backpack on his back and moved out. Keen, frozen needles were stinging his face, and forceful wind was blowing him off the route. He stepped forward as he tried to subdue the attack of nausea and pounding heartbeat. Every step felt like an ordeal. He though he`d overpassed an amplitudious distance and allowed himself to evaluate the past route. He looked back and figured he had hardly mastered twenty yards. Steven groaned in distress and desperately lowered himself to the snow.
"I could have made it with Bill" - He though as he lay in snow breathing heavily. "He did drag me, goddamned. He would have pulled us both. How could I let him go? I could have survived, why didn`t I listen to him?"
The more he lay in the snow felling his limbs starting to cool off and go numb, the more this realization grew stronger."He`s strong. I would have made it with him. Why did I think I had to die? My father lived till he was seventy."
Suddenly, he rethought his opinion about his death. He wanted to live desperately, and he wanted it bad. He drew his gun and pointed it up. The shot buzzed in his ears but probably was just a mouse squeak accompanied by the orchestra of the blizzard. He throbbed his hand to the snow and waited.
It started to darken, gradually minifying the light. The blizzard, having finally exhausted itself from a many day rampage finally began to weaken. Impenetrable roof of clouds gave a crack, allowing for the bloody-purple rays of the dusk to leak in and illuminate the arctic desert. This light of course was just as bone-chillingly cold, as everything else in these lands. Steven witnessed this dusk while trembling madly in a futile effort that his body had tried to warm itself. He managed to crawl back at their former fireplace, and relit it, although he had to sacrifice burn his rig. He wasn`t concerned about how much time had passed since the last shot. Billy didn`t come back. It was meaningless to waste another shot, since now it could be used for specified target. A prized marksman like him shouldn`t miss.
"Why waste a bullet? Even if he heard me I`d still be lying here till I'm dead. " Thoughts were racing in his brain chaotically "He left me here, didn`t he? Not a man`s type of behavior. I was a damned old fool for asking him to leave me, yes. But the truth is, he never insisted. I bet he was happy like it was Christmas when he stole my gold and walked. That`s right. He got my gold, it`s so obvious now. He didn`t give me time to rest, he`s been exhausting me for days. I bet he`s been hiding provision from me as well. Nobody ever was a dweeb in my family. So why I am dying here, unable to get up and he`s walking around with a doubled stock of gold in his bag? That bastard`s going to rot in this desert with me. God won`t allow men like him walk this earth. " Steven felt the bitter tear of self pithiness rolling down his cheek. He closed his eyes.
The relief of having gotten rid of the ballast of his partner didn`t last long. Almost a mile was passed without aches or intrusive feelings of hunger and tiredness. But it all came back in a tripled force. A Bill began to feel his leg muscles nagging; taking steps became harder with every minute, until he fell for the first time. After that, every time he had to get up grew more strength demanding, more intense. Every time his fear of not having enough strength to get up would intensify . But he was a man with an undeveloped imagination. This fear didn`t bring up any ponderings about his fragility as a human being. This fear only drove him forward.
He walked another mile and then saw a long downhill before him. He evaluated it`s length, groaned and strapped off his backpack. This hill would not have been a problem for a healthy and rested man but for Bill it was an ordeal. He had to save up on his strength. "Dead got no need for gold" He thought with a determination.
Filled bags with gold send flew into the snow. Having thrown away Steven`s half he however stopped.
Bill continued on his way. The blizzard was beginning to cease. It was still snowing but the wind wasn`t whipping his face with the sharp crystals of snow anymore and after days of beating his way through the storm it was like a warm sea breeze. But his burden was still considerable. He had decided to take a break every thousand steps, but the understood he overestimated his strength. Having taken the seventh hundred and sixty third steps, he felt. His head was buzzing from exhaustion and hunger. His body was screaming in pain and depletion begging him to take a break. Right when he was about to consent, the image of Steven`s corpse flashed before his eyes. Bill gritted his teeth. Steven probably wasn`t dead yet, but that was only a matter of time. Taking the rest now meant following his path. Path of weakness and eventually, death.
His heart was going to burst out of his chest, he clutched his teeth he almost cracked one or two of them. His head was reeling, making him sick. His muscles trembled when he strained him. And then he got up again. Excruciating pain of a spasm stroke somewhere in his ankle. He stumbled and fell down, turned around on his back, and intensively massaged his leg through his pants, inhaling burning, icy air. After the pain had been gone he sat there for a few moments more, taking precautions to make sure the spasm won`t come back.
The last hundred feet he crawled on his fours. It seemed to him like`s been an eternity but finally, he mastered this decline. He celebrated by falling helplessly in the snow, and thus taking his earned rest. The summit of this hill didn`t have any bushes or branches to make a fire, and Bill` only treat was a hard piece of dried bread.
This was the longest rest took since the last time with Steven. He was dreary; he could hardly resist closing his eyes and dozing off. He remembered the story Johnny Old-Creek told him. They`d been chased by the wolves in the papal forest a hundred miles south from the village. Wolves had been growing balder every night and every night they got closer and closer to their fire, to the point they could easily see their mugs snarling teeth and deep burning coals of their eyes. They knew that if they both had fallen asleep they`d wake up being gnawed by a pack of wolves. So they seared their flesh, in order to stay on guard.
For a second Bill thought he`d fallen asleep already, for he suddenly realized that he was seeing the same deep-seated savage eyes of hundreds of wolves staring at him hungrily. But strangely, it looked like they all were sitting in one single spot, right in front of him. Bill shredded and began programming himself to another mile of a hard route when he fixed his eyes on the "wolves" again. And almost immediately jumped up, as if he hasn`t been not dragging his burden for many miles now.
Steven was right. The compass was worth shit in these lands and Bill had in fact miscalculated their route to the village Couple of miles ahead of him, right at the bottom of the valley gleamed lights of civilization. Instead of three or two days of unbearably hard road, there was just three or four hours of a downhill slide. He made it, and he still had his golden sand and diamonds. He thanked God he didn`t throw them all, and those that had been thrown, could be found in the morning… "You made it, you bastard!" he cheered himself and extended his hands to grab his backpack. And suddenly, he thought of Steven. Man who had suffered and gone almost twenty miles in a storming blizzard just to give up and perish having almost gotten to their destination. If he only knew how close they were…
Bill looked back at valley and calculated. Three or four hours will take him to get to the camp. Probably thirty minutes or so to move out with a rescue team, and an hour to cover the distance to place where Steven stayed. But most likely, it will be too late. If he didn`t shoot himself he would sure be freeze to death by they will have reached him. The only chance he had was to burn as many of his belongings and thus keep his warmth and life. But that was as improbable as assumption that Steven gathered strength and is now following Bill. The traveler fixed his gaze on where he`d come from. He could see only the obscure darkness of quickly descending night. "It`s been only an hour. I know that we`re close, and the blizzard`s virtually over. If I go now I can coax Steven to go forth. And plus no need to save up on the supplies. We could spend a night there and move out in the morning. But if overestimate myself and Steven, we`ll both die for sure."
Bill made a decision, and now he was as determined to enter the village with Steven was as strong as in the beginning if their journey. Bill hid the gold by the stomp, taking only his food and a sleep bag with him. At the beginning walking downhill was relatively easy, and Bill didn`t feel exhausted anymore. He would close his eyes now and then just to take an elusive rest while going on his trail He however controlled his pace in order not to burst in a fast run and reach the condition of not having strength to make a step. Plus the ankle still echoed every time he made a step. .He careered forward, just hoping he will find Steven breathing.
Was he dead? He was lying in a pitch black pit, buried under an inert tombstone. He didn`t feel anything at all, except for all-enshrouding cold. He tried moving any limb of his body but realized he could not even locate any of them.
After that, he finally understood that he didn`t wake up by himself. There was a sound that was erupting out of nowhere, somewhere far away from him and then dived back into the oblivion. He tried to remember how his body operated before he died, and tried to apply strength. Apparently, his muscles got the signals, although he didn`t feel it.
"Steven!" - Bill cried out loud. He was wandering around his former fire place that barely appeared through the snow. Steven wasn`t seen anywhere around, and that was bad. He`d probably walked in the wrong direction. Bill secluded from the thought that it meant he`d came this entire path for nothing and now his own chances were minimal.
"Steven! Where are you?"- He called with all his strength left.
"He came back" - A thought appeared in Steven`s dying mind "He came back!" he started to dig himself out of the snow clumsily, for the cold had penetrated too far in his body. He tried to fumble for his revolver, but his fingers were too stiff to hold it. "Helpless like a toddler" - he bit his lip harder and started throbbing his hand against his haunch mercilessly hoping to get back some of the sensivity.
"Where are you!" - Billy almost lost his hope. He made a mistake, for coming back. He was cursing at his stupidity and sentiments that made him risk his life for someone who had refused to save himself. He was looking desperately around.
Steven felt something like a hundred burning needles penetrating the tips of his fingers. He could now move them enough to grab the gun, despite of the excruciating pain that was slowly replacing the cold numbness. Steven thought that his fingers were about to crack like ice. Old-timer pulled out the gun and rolled over to his chest, facing the source of the sound. His eyes slightly adjusted to the darkness, and he saw dark dot, which appeared to be darker than the background rushing back and forth 30 feet away.
Steven made no sound. He put his gun at the curve of his elbow, lying still in the snow.
No sign of Steve. Now, it was completely meaningless to keep looking for him, better start collecting the firewood, else he would be a dead man in a matter of hour. He turned and walked the other way.
"Looking for me, Billy?" Steven was trying to catch the black dot in an aim. "Wasn`t sure you`d have enough supplies to make it, so you came to steal mine? To finish me off, so I won`t show up demanding my half? Not today, Billy-bird. Not today. I am not a stupid old man anymore." He only had one shot, and the gun was reeling madly in his hands. But the target only grew bigger, as Billy approached him.
Steven`s feeble body made its last exertion to calm the trembling down a little bit. That couple of seconds while the dot stayed in the aim were enough to take a clear shot. The gun jerked in his hands and slipped in the snow. Bill neither swung his hands nor exclaimed. He felt in the snow casually and somewhat unexceptionally. "Now, I have to search him" Steven began crawling towards the body of his former partner, his thoughts messed up in a feverish carousel. To him, it seemed like Bill had tons of food stashed somewhere, for he `d been stealing from Steven for days. These mad thoughts suddenly gave the old-timer a new rush, a new motivation and the will to carry on and live.
He was dead two minutes later.