Seeking shelter from the storm, we made our first mistake. We left the Jeep right where Sam had spun out in the slushy mud making his three-point turn and headed on foot for Diego Pass. The Upper Larch Mountain Road is closed in autumn every year. Sam bragged he knew Oregon mountain pass conditions better than me. That’s why he chose that route as our getaway. But I didn’t think Diego Pass was where Sam persuaded me it was going to be. I was all for staying in the Jeep; cold as it was, we had the money bags tucked in the back and the blizzard howling outside our windows was getting worse than I could remember in years.
Jeeps aren’t supposed to get stuck. Just as I was telling Sam to do a three-corner to get us out of there, he was jamming the gas pedal to the floor, and still we went nowhere fast.
The whiteout that began right after we bolted from the bank with our canvass sacks stuffed with cash—seventy-two thousand, five-hundred and fifty dollars—made us feel lucky. I knew the amount to the dollar because you have a lot of time on your hands in a stuck vehicle. Chinooks are tricky, as everybody around here knows. There’s a story about a man and his wife going out for dinner; he’s wearing summer clothes, she’s dressed for winter. He comes back with frostbite while she’s got heatstroke. The chinook winds blowing down from Canada gave us cover, but you can get twenty degrees on one side of an air mass and minus twenty on the other. The warm, heavy winds started out to make the ground slushy, and that’s why we were sitting in that Jeep in muck up to the tailgate with three bank bags full of useless money.
That’s where Sam got his brainstorm about hitting the bank just before the season. All the ski resorts in the county gear up for winter around this time and make their big initial deposits, more than you’d see during the rest of the season. In theory, it was a good plan. In theory, capitalism allows the poor man to become a rich man. In theory, hard work will make you successful. In other words, reality says something else about how things actually work in life. The part of Sam’s plan that didn’t come out of a bottle of Jim Beam were passing back and forth one night on the rez was good; the rest not so good.
“We’re the got-damn Indians here, Julius,” Sam said to me. “If we don’t know when the chinooks are blowing, who the hell does?”
I admitted he had a point. We’d been messing around on these mountains all our lives, riding dirt bikes, four-wheelers, got caught in a few squall even, and sometimes we weren’t in cars when it happened. The worst time was when we “borrowed” Old Man de Angelis” horses while he was getting his liver prodded by the doctors in the hospital in Tacoma. We were on the wrong side of the chinooks that time as well, and I remember how my hands burned with the cold and the horses” eyes and manes were covered in fat flakes that clung and made the ride down the Cascades one of the worst times of my life—worse than growing up on the rez, worse than any jail I ever been in. Sam lost a finger on his left hand to frostbite, but you’d think it was a badge of honor to see him light up his cigarette in some bar in front of a girl and show off the missing finger to get her to talking about how it happened. Hear him tell it, you’d think we were on a secret mission, not a pair of no-count Indian boys joyriding on a pair of swaybacked stolen horses.
When he finally shut up to let me have a turn, I started to list my own favorites: spot prawn, terrine of venison—country-style, not how they make it in town—and I was adding sour cherries and mustard garlic when I suddenly stopped.
“Hey, Julius. Keep going. I’m picturing it in my mind now,” he said.
“I can’t,” I said. “It’s sounds like we’re ordering our last meal before they execute us.”
The wind howling like a lobo wolf outside wasn’t giving me confidence. But once you commit to something like this, stupid or not, you can’t go back on it or quit halfway. We did everything we could with the clothing we had on to make ourselves less of a target for the biting wind.
Sam went first—no surprise. The split second after he was out the door with two of the moneybags in his fists, a whirling column of big flakes spun around the empty driver’s seat behind him. Sam thought he was tough because he had played semi-pro ball. He wanted to leave with all the money. We argued about that for an hour. I told him to take a band of twenties for when he found help, but Sam’s mule-stubborn, so most of the money went with him. I tucked the third bag under my shirt for extra protection.
Out the door after Sam I went, and the shock of the icy wind on my exposed skin was brutal. I had a moment where I almost turned around but I couldn’t leave Sam out there, so I headed off in his tracks, which the wind was already shredding in front of me. After a few yards, the edges of his prints were blurred and I knew it was pointless to call his name. He would have to be right next to me to hear.
The swirling white snow was disorienting. You couldn’t look in any direction to tell where you were. Looking up or down wasn’t much better except that I could see my legs. In seconds a sheet of slushy snow had plastered each thigh, weighing me down and freezing me to the bone. I’m a leftie so I knew to compensate a bit as I trudged through the snow, which was up to my kneecaps.
It’s hard for me to believe myself, but I think I was just a couple hundred yards from the Jeep when I realized I wasn’t going to make it. That Jeep could have been parked on the moon for all it mattered then; there was no going back. I’d never find it. My tracks were gone, filled in after ten yards, and I had lost Sam’s tracks along way back. I started laughing. I don’t know why. I must have been on the verge of losing my mind. I wasn’t even cursing my cousin about it. I had a crazy idea he’d found help somehow, impossible though it was, and he had abandoned me to a freezing death.
That’s when my left foot slipped out from under me and I went down to my neck in a snow-filled ditch. I had slowly drifted off the road we were on.
That’s when I detected it. It was just a wavering black circle in all this whiteness. I crawled toward it on the palms of my hands because my fingers were useless. Like a wounded dog, I went right up to it. It was a hole. Just a rotten tree that had fallen across a ditch.
I crawled in and tucked my legs and arms to my chest. A gray softness to the light made me realize dawn was occurring after what felt like ten years. I spent two full days in that hollowed log. I expected to die in there.
Somehow I found myself on my feet crawling through the deep snow of the ditch. The storm had finally worn itself out and I could see hazy patches of blue between ragged, scudding clouds when I looked up.
Sam was stretched out on his stomach in the middle of the road frozen hard as brick. The money bags just inches from his arms. He was pushing them ahead of him through the blizzard down the middle of that logging road.
I crawled, stumbled, half-walked until I felt cold steel under my hand. I was touching the hood of a truck—somebody’s truck. I couldn’t make out the driver behind the frost of his windshield. I must have looked like the walking dead.
He helped me inside. He tried to put the heat on full blast for me, but I grabbed his wrist to stop him. Heat to a person suffering from hyperthermia will kill faster than a bullet. My shaking and twitching started up again as the blood found its way back into right channels of my worn-down body.
He dropped me off in town at the corner of Winston and Broderick. I went into the Army Navy store and bought a fleece-lined parka, some dry clothes, including socks, boots, and flannel shirts. I changed in their restroom and walked right past the bored cashier.
What happened next you’ll say is either typical of a loser like me with a second chance at life or fate. Take your pick. I got shit-faced drunk. I remember buying drinks on the house—then that’s the last thing I remembered. When I came to in the hospital three days later, the doctor asked me if I felt like talking. I glanced at the morphine drip and held up my bandaged hands with stubs where fingers used to be. He said he’d be back later.
“No rush,” I said.
The chain on my right ankle wasn’t necessary. Without most of my toes, I couldn’t walk to the toilet—even if I could make it out of my bed. The nerves in my whole body were twitching and burning like they’d given me an acid transfusion.
Later the man I assumed was a doctor showed me PET scans and pointed to my organs. I must have been delirious because I don’t remember that part.
“Real pretty,” I said, “all those jazzy colors.” Just keepsakes, I was thinking, for my sentencing day for armed robbery.
“Your liver, heart, lungs are all affected,” he said. “The enzyme is called Sphingomyelinase D.”
“What the fuck,” I said, not tracking what he was saying. “I survived the cold, man. That’s why I’m alive.”
“No,” he replied; “not the cold, son. It must have been a colony with a lot of females.”
Colony of females . . . what the holy hell was he babbling about? I wondered.
“Spider,” he said. “Brown recluses.”
That rotten log, those quarter-sized lesions all over my back and legs—
I wanted to leap out of that bed and grab him by the neck. “What the hell are you talking about? Wh-what spiders?”
“One or two, sure, we could have treated it,” the doctor said. “But not . . . that many. The Brown Recluse is rare this far north but . . .”
My head dropped back to the pillow. He kept talking but it was Martian to me. I was beyond speech. I wished Sam had made it. I could make up a story so he could pass it on to the Chinook Indians back in the Columbia Gorge after I was gone. I could say Coyote tricked me into taking shelter in that log. That would make what’s coming easier to take. I’ve got First Nations blood in me. The rest is white trash. I can do jail, but some things you can’t prepare for.
Robb White’s third hardboiled novel features series character Thomas Haftmann in Nocturne for Madness (New Pulp Press, 2016). He has two noir mysteries: When You Run with Wolves (Number Thirteen Press, UK, 2013) and Waiting on a Bridge of Maggots (Grand Mal, 2015). He also has a collection of short stories comprising a mix of mainstream and crime fiction: ‘Out of Breath’ and Other Stories (Red Giant Press, 2013). A crime ebook Special Collections won the Electronic Book Competition of 2014 hosted by New Rivers Press (Mankato State University). Website address: <http://tomhaftmann.wix.com/author-site >.