The Companion

Karen S. Bell

The Companion

by

Karen S. Bell

The white jagged mountain sparkled beneath a rare, cloudless cobalt-blue sky and seemed near enough to touch. It was the Great One, Denali, called so by the Athabaskan Indians but known as McKinley to the white man. It was a mountain that men came to conquer and a mountain that conquered men. But some men clung like metal to its magnetic beauty and just stayed close. Such a man was Jack Raines, a WWII Navy fighter pilot turned bush pilot who had soared over the Alaskan terrain until age began to fog his vision and slow down his reaction time. Now in his twilight years, he still lived in the pristine wilderness that hugged the mountain and nourished his soul.

On this morning, Jack began his ritual of chopping the day’s wood. The sweet, bright sunlight afforded a rare view of the mountain that usually was hidden under thick, dark clouds and he paid homage, as if in religious awe, gazing upon this specter. Then he tossed his windbreaker carelessly by the woodpile, rolled up the sleeves of his Western flannel shirt, and picked up his ax. Swing up, slam down, his trained arms moved with no prodding from his brain as he rhythmically breathed in the brisk air. In this steady way, he made quick work of his chore and sat down on the workbench that he kept for resting on those days when his bones were stiff. Pulling the Navy-issue stocking cap off his head, he used it to wipe his creased and weathered face while his nostrils filled with a deep intake of oxygen that held the scent of coming winter.

As Jack gazed at the clearing around his cabin, he was still amazed at how quickly the seasons changed around here. Overnight the leaves of the Aspen trees had turned yellow and the ground moss that only a few days ago had blossomed with a stunning display of lavender was turning red and blending with the fireweed. It was Aug. 25, still summer in the lower 48, but here in Talkeetna fall came suddenly, as it always did. Jack could see that during the night the first snow had already dusted the peaks of the Alaska Range. By next month, the ground would be blanketed in white and the only color would be the greens of the tall Sitka spruce and Western hemlock that surrounded his cabin. Three seasons crammed into three short months, while winter gripped the rest of the year with a sun-starved existence that tested your sanity, your strength, and your shear will. Jack had survived many a winter and because of those experiences, he never took Alaska for granted, the beauty or the danger.

Glancing toward the cabin his taste buds quickened as he remembered the warm pot of coffee on the stove. With a slight effort, he eased himself up, grabbed his windbreaker, an armful of logs, and walked to his cabin, his graceful stride a remnant of the man in his prime. Once inside, Jack dropped the wood in a crate by the woodstove and crossed the tiny space to sit on his bed and pull off his muddy rubber boots. Fatigue overcame him as he wiggled his toes. It seemed he tired so easily lately.

“I sure am feeling my age today, Blackie,” he said to the sleeping warm bundle of fur curled atop his pillow. The cat looked up and stretched out his paws as if in response.

“Ya know, I thought I’d finish chopping two stacks, but only the one today. Guess I’ll do the other tomorra. But I’d better hurry, feels like an early snow this year,” he said and yawned.

“Well, maybe some of that coffee’ll perk me up.”

Jack poured the bitter, thick, black liquid expertly so that the grinds remained on the bottom of the pot. Sipping the hot drink gingerly, he sat in the threadbare, winged-backed armchair placed close to the wood-burning stove, angled in the corner, to allow an easy poke or loading.

Relaxed and comfortable, he looked around his one-room log cabin that seemed frozen in time with its rough-hewn appearance and dirt floor. The furnishings were sparse and yet completely adequate. His narrow unmade bed was shoved against the wall to the left of the door. A hook served as a closet and held a shirt and pair of jeans hung precariously, his one change of clothes.

A small chest of drawers, an antique found at a garage sale, was snugly placed under the solitary, small high window that kept the light of endless summer days to a minimum. The chest boasted a small cracked mirror hinged on the back. A small handmade table with two chairs occupied the center of the room. He had added electricity a few years back when he bought a generator but he still pumped water from the well to fill up his wash basin perched on a stand near his mirror. Indoor plumbing was his next project at some point in the future. Nothing frivolous here, except for a small, tarnished silver-framed photograph placed lovingly on top of the chest.

As Jack sank into his chair, his eyes began to mist as pictures of his past flashed in and out of his mind. He sniffed and brushed back the sparse hairs off his forehead, both habitual gestures that signaled his immersion into thought. These lapses into his past were frequent and varied in length. When he was in the mood for a sweeping review of his life, he often began with the vision of his friend Charlie and how they built this cabin when they decided to homestead here in Talkeetna. That thought always triggered an image of Charlie, red-faced and cursing, hopping on one foot trying to ward off the pain from a dropped ax handle.

“Its funny,” Jack said speaking softly to himself, a habit from living alone for so many years, “how some insignificant events pop in your head. Of all the days spent building this place, that’s the one I remember most. That Charlie! He cracks me up! I sure do love that guy! Only felt that way about three people in my whole life. Three people ain’t much for a whole lifetime and now there’s only Charlie.”

With a familiar sadness, Jack glanced toward the photograph. Sometimes it was so hard to remember the knowing of her and he would stare hard at her picture to bring back her scent or the feel of her skin. But sometimes he could recall every detail of her face, her body, her laugh.

“Oh, those days in Skagway...Skagway.”

He closed his eyes to wish away the present and continue his reverie, back...back, back before Skagway, saving the ecstasy and pain for later. Again and again he traveled back to his mother’s kitchen in Kendall, Washington. In his mind’s eye, he could see the peeling wallpaper and dingy linoleum floor that meant home and mother to him. He could almost smell the fresh-baked cookies or frying fish and feel the warmth and safety of her hugs and kisses. She was as soft and doughy as her cookies and smothered him with love and tenderness. It was good thinking about her but also hard.

“Ah those precious, precious days.” Tears welled up. So many tears, lately. “I’m just a crying old fool.”

He took another sip of coffee and let his mind go where it wanted. The war. Thoughts of war, disjointed feelings more than images. Fear, sickening fear, the shrill noise of bombs that made his pulse throb. No, not today. He could shake them away, shake away those thoughts. Become numb. And after a moment, they were gone. This relaxed him and the numbness led him into a dreamlike state where his life review flowed at a studied pace. The good memories slowly enjoyed like a special treat, the difficult ones a testament to understanding that joy and sorrow are all a part of life’s journey.

Jack settled in and thought about the day he had become an adult. It was the benchmark for all that came after. He was aboard ship, steaming toward home after the war ended. The captain called him in and handed him a telegram. His mother had died. She had gotten pneumonia and had died within a week. He became detached not being able to bear the terrible news. How odd, he thought, the son goes to war and receives a telegram about the death of his mother at home. He crumpled the telegram as he choked back his tears.

He was the only one at his mother’s funeral; just he and his mother as it had been all of his life. His father had been his mother’s desperate grasp at love. One night’s bliss became a memory for life, both in fantasy and in the reality of Jack. That night she entered the society of women who had explored the mysteries of passion and motherhood, but she was paradoxically shunned by them for daring to do so unmarried. She remained all of her life, a mother apart from other mothers and showered Jack with all of her thwarted emotions. It had been a tough role for him and as he stood at her grave his emotions had swung from grief to relief.

He stayed in Kendall just long enough to sell or give away his mother’s meager possessions and decided to head north with no clear destination, hopping a train to Vancouver. Then he caught a ferry sailing up the Inside Passage to Juneau and landed a job working on a barge that brought supplies to Haines and Skagway. The lush, rugged wilderness along the Lynn Canal made each trip an adventure. Narrow passages brought the barge close to shore revealing cascading waterfalls, nesting bald eagles, and moose. Through rain and sleet he traveled the Canal spellbound by the vacant and silent splendor of the land. He knew then that the Alaskan Territory would be his home, a refuge for his bruised and battered soul. The horrible nightmares reliving the war had somewhat subsided, but the pain over his mother’s death still lay heavy on his heart.

Jack settled into a routine of working the Canal and keeping to himself. It was especially easy to find yourself alone in winter, where he lived in cheap quarters around Juneau or Ketchikan. In the summer, on rare sunny days when he wasn’t working, he would hike up to the massive Juneau Ice Fields and marvel at the flowing river of blue ice. Once, he chartered a boat to Glacier Bay. Floating amidst the magnificent backdrop of walls of ice hundreds of feet high, he heard the roar of a far off tidal glacier calving another iceberg into the still water. He explored all the wonders of nature as a Cheechako, a newcomer, and by his third winter considered himself a Sourdough, an Alaskan for life.

Eventually, Jack began to prefer the less populated town of Skagway. Only hardy souls endured the fierce winter there, when the temperature could dip to 50 below spurred on by the Taku winds that ripped down the Chilkoot Mountains and roared up the Canal. These people had retained the frontier spirit that had born the town during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898. When the last tourist had left Skagway for the season, and the gift shops had all closed for the winter, Jack rented a room in town.

A feeling of camaraderie settled upon the townspeople at this time and Jack felt it as soon as he entered the Mad Dawg Saloon. The decor was garish with faded red velvet on the walls and fake gold accented mirrors and lamps. The long wooden bar sported a crowd of prospectors and mountain guides speaking in booming voices above the music of a small bluegrass band. Jack elbowed his way over to the bar and ordered his usual; a double‑shot of Jack Daniel’s neat. Just as the bartender handed him the drink the crowd behind him surged forward and the drink slipped from his fingers.

“Jesus,” yelled a big, burly man as he jumped up and brushed off his pants.

“Sorry Buddy,” said Jack. “Next one is on me. What’ll ya have?”

“I guess if Jack Daniel’s is good enough for my pants then it’s good enough for me,” the man belly laughed. “Charlie Wilson’s my name,” he said as he extended his hand.

“Jack Raines,” Jack offered as they shook hands.

From that moment a friendship began that would last the rest of their lives. Charlie’s exuberance for life complemented Jack’s somberness¾a picture of opposites drawn together by differences of style but oneness of spirit. Charlie was ruddy complexioned with a massive red beard and moustache and hair that hung to his shoulders in wild disarray. He was of medium height, big‑boned and heavy‑set. His soft, plump cheeks and snub nose framed sparkling brown eyes revealing the gentleness of his soul. An Alaskan bush pilot, Charlie was a man of the wilderness who could cope with solitude but also loved people. From the moment he saw Jack, he liked the look of him. Jack had an inborn elegance and grace.

Even though he was shockingly handsome, Jack was a man’s man and not concerned with appearances and Charlie sensed that about him. But women appreciated Jack’s chiseled features and eyes that looked like sparkling pools of blue water against his thick, jet‑black hair that fell over his eyes defying his careful grooming. They especially giggled over his two engaging dimples that peeked out around his mouth when he smiled. But Jack, in his self-deprecating way, never noticed their interest.

Jack also took an immediate liking to Charlie. After so many years of his solitary lifestyle, Jack was ready to open up. The two talked until the Saloon closed at dawn. Then they walked over to Charlie’s wood‑frame house and continued their conversation. They exchanged war stories, reasons for coming to Alaska, reasons for staying. The similarities of their lives overwhelmed them. Charlie also was raised without a father but at least he knew him some before he died. Both had been Navy fighter pilots in the Pacific Theater, rejected the comforts of civilization and were lured to the independence and peacefulness of the wilderness.

“I’m looking to expand my business. Buy another floatplane. Could use another pilot if you’re interested,” said Charlie impulsively.

“Well, I don’t know,” said Jack, “but you wouldn’t need me until next summer, right?”

“Hell, no! I get just as much business in the winter. I fly a lot of supplies up to Kotzebue and Pt. Barrow, weather permitting—put skis on the plane instead of pontoons when I need to. I make a lot of runs to Haines. Sometimes I fly sick people out of the bush. Let’s go see the plane I’m buying.”

Charged by their new friendship and strong cups of coffee, they walked over to the Skagway dock. Two single‑engine planes were moored side by side.

“The one on the left is mine. The one on the right’d be for you. Let’s see just how good a pilot you really are.”

Jack had never flown a plane on pontoons and at first he dipped the floats under water. He taxied for several hundred feet, practicing how much pressure his feet should exert on the foot pedals and soon consistently kept the pontoons from dipping. When he got the feel of it, he pushed the throttle forward and was speeding down the giant runway that he had known as the Lynn Canal. As he pulled the wheel back and took off, the clear bright sky enveloped him and his heart soared like the plane he was flying. He could see the glacier snow sparkle off the peaks of the Chilkats. The roar of the engine startled a herd of Dall sheep and they ran in all directions down the mountain. As the plane made its way over Glacier Bay, Jack looked down and glimpsed a giant humpback whale dive deep into the water. From this perspective, he could see this land as God could see it, the towering peaks, glistening water, and patches of white snow against the backdrop of blue sky and puffy white clouds. He was hooked and Charlie was convinced of his skill. Jack went to work for Charlie the next day. For the first time in a long time, life was good.

Jack and Charlie became known throughout the Territory. They were excellent pilots who knew their planes, their terrain, and their limitations. With no precise maps they flew by the seat of their pants, but their passengers always got to their destination, always picked up on target. They frequently took fisherman to the Brooks Range to fish the Kobuk and Salmon Rivers. It was rugged country and experienced pilots were in great demand. People often spoke of the heroic episode when Charlie and Jack spotted overturned canoeists while flying back from a drop-off point. With amazing skill and guts they both landed their planes on a spit of calm water and rescued the fishermen from an icy-cold watery grave. Often, they flew people to Haines, a fifteen-minute flight across the Canal from Skagway but a twelve-hour drive because of the limited roads.

At the end of Jack’s second winter with Charlie, warmer weather had teased its way in, and people were repairing the winter’s damage to their property. Dick White, a frequent passenger from Haines asked Jack and Charlie for help to repair his roof. Charlie immediately said “yes” but Jack was reluctant, preferring to spend his time flying. With some prodding from Charlie, he finally agreed never expecting where this unwelcome task would lead. On his first day on the job, he was poised to hammer a nail in a shingle when he stopped to glance down toward the front walk. Strangely, he anticipated her presence¾like an electric current ¾before he heard the front door open and saw the figure of a woman slowly emerge. Her silky waist-length black hair swayed gently against her back as she moved gracefully toward the road. He was mesmerized and eyed her until she reached the street where she turned around, looked up, and startled him by waving shyly as if she knew that he had been watching her all along.

From that moment, he went to work filled with eagerness to see her again. He caught glimpses of her, but always he sensed her presence before he saw her. His heart would quicken, his body tingle, and then she would appear. Some animal instinct deep within him took control, and he was totally obsessed with thoughts of her. He went on this way for several days until he could take no more. Waiting by the front door until she appeared, he paced like a caged beast, sensitive to any sound. When she finally came out his breath caught in his throat. She was the most beautiful creature on earth. Her black eyes flashed seductively. Her dark skin glowed sensuously.

“Let’s go,” she said as if he were expected.

Later, he found out that her name was Annie White and Dick’s sister. She was part Tlingit Indian and part French Canadian. Later, but not too much later, this exotic female became his reason for living. They were inseparable, desperate lovers caught in a spider’s web of passion. They passed the summer in this fashion and decided to marry. Charlie quietly observed the progression of this relationship. At first, he was happy for Jack, but then he became jealous. By the time Jack and Annie announced their engagement, he felt excluded. Jack was aware of Charlie’s estrangement, but he was powerless to do anything about it. Annie, with her delicate, wraith‑like beauty was his only thought and he wanted to be with her forever.

But forever wasn’t very long.

A snowstorm, quite early and unexpected, had caused Annie’s car to skid off the road and down a ravine. She was returning to their apartment in Skagway from Whitehorse in the Canadian Yukon Territory where she had gone to pick up her wedding gown. Jack’s pain over her loss was totally debilitating. He railed at the higher powers that had given him such happiness only to snuff it out so quickly. Capricious Alaska had offered him refuge, love, and now a heart so heavy he could barely breathe.

Charlie nursed Jack through bouts of depression and alcohol abuse. He didn’t leave his side even when Jack wouldn’t abandon his bed for weeks. When Jack finally emerged, he flew into the bush and stayed by himself in the wilderness. He chose to surround himself with the majesty of Mount McKinley to heal his wounded soul. He found a deserted primitive cabin and stayed until the tears ceased. It took all winter. When he came out of his self‑imposed isolation, he was alive but broken and became detached and aloof toward everyone but Charlie. He would remain that way for the rest of his life.

Once back in Skagway, he was morbidly drawn to the crash site. He would go there daily, studying for hours the rusted remains of her car. He realized that he would have to leave Skagway forever if he wanted some peace from his torment. He approached Charlie with his plan. They could homestead in Talkeetna, flying sportsmen to the inaccessible reaches around McKinley. Charlie readily agreed, hoping the change would help his dear friend. Jack chose a remote spot, ten miles from town and up a dirt road. Charlie built his cabin close to the Talkeetna Roadhouse thinking he could pick up more business if he was close to town. He put a gravel strip behind the cabin and, adding retractable wheels to the pontoons, parked the planes there. In winter, he would replace the pontoons with skis.

Slowly they began to live the life of the Alaskan bush people, hunting and fishing in summer, storing their food for winter in aboveground caches out of the reach of Grizzlies. When the Alaska pipeline was under construction, they were hired to fly between Prudhoe Bay and Valdez, and all points in between. They made money hand over fist and saved it all. It was money for their old age.

And now they were old.

Jack roused himself from his reverie and noticed that the coffee had turned cold in the cup. His memories saddened him as they always did, but that was his life, and his only memories. He looked out the window and was somewhat startled to see a light snow falling but he decided to go for a walk anyway. It was too early to meet Charlie for their ritual Friday night at the Roadhouse bar. Padding through the soft, new snow and bracing his head against the chill, Jack solemnly stared ahead as his breath hung like clouds in the cold air. Occasionally a branch rustled, or a twig broke, the result of some animal’s fearful flight from the intruder. A group of small chickadees hopped on the ground and then suddenly flew into the snowy sky with a great flutter of wings, only to swoop down again, hopping aimlessly. They randomly repeated this process, chirping their song but always aware of the human presence. As Jack absorbed this scene, he paused and noted that he felt both sad and exhilarated. The richness and beauty of the woods and its inhabitants always sharpened his awareness of the spiritual essence of life.

He continued along the path, careful to avoid stumbling over stones covered with snow and came around a sharp bend in the trail that led to the ravine. A little further on was the clearing that offered a wide vista and he walked to the edge and looked across with narrowed eyes. He imagined a road, (the one to Skagway), a car, and the car falling end over end into the ravine. It was a painful fantasy and brought him back to her last hours in the hospital.

She had lain so still and pale upon the bed, her long, black hair pressed in sharp contrast against the white pillow. As he peered down at her, the doctor came in and told him she had suffered severe brain damage and would not live through the day. He remembered how helpless he felt as he watched Annie slip from life. He had been holding her hand and pleading with her not to die when her breathing became erratic. Several nurses and a doctor rushed in and pushed him aside. It was to no avail—no one could save her. In a tragic irony not lost on anyone who knew them, Annie was buried on her wedding day, in the gown she had given her life for. When he kissed her goodbye at the funeral, he gently placed her wedding bouquet in her hands, the white orchid as pale as her skin. He told her he would always love her; there would be no other.

“I love you, Annie, always will.” Jack now said aloud, brushing the tears from his face. He turned from the ravine still shaken by the tragedy that ended his hopes for a life with the woman of his dreams. Nearly fifty years had passed and he still grieved, even now he grieved as he made his way back in the snow that was beginning to fall in big flakes. Once at the cabin, Jack realized it was time to meet Charlie at the Roadhouse and he headed straight for his battered Chevy pick‑up.

“Looks like this might be a heavy one,” he said as he cranked up the engine. “I’d better not stay too long.”

The pick-up shimmied and shook as it traveled down the winding dirt road. As was his habit, Jack turned on the radio to get the forecast but only static blared out, so he turned the knob looking for a clear station. Suddenly, he felt a sharp pain on the left side of his head and he raised his hand to massage it. The pain became excruciating.

Then, everything went black.

***

Something’s happened to Jack! Charlie dropped the glass he was washing when this feeling suddenly exploded into his consciousness. While he cleaned up the broken glass, he tried to shrug it off. He was not one who believed in such things but he couldn’t shake that feeling. Surely Jack would not have tried to drive in this storm? But his feeling of dread kept mounting and quickly Charlie knew he must abandon his temporary post as bartender and innkeeper and find Jack. And of course he couldn’t call because Jack had not found it necessary to have a phone installed when the telephone lines finally came there. “Who would I call but you? And I see you all the time,” he said in response to Charlie’s admonition to “Get a phone, dammit!”

But even though Charlie knew he must leave, he felt torn because the owners entrusted Charlie to run things when they went on their periodic shopping trips to Anchorage. Besides some stranger might stumble into the deserted bar because of the dangerous weather. He took off his apron and looked out the window. His stomach sank. The storm had built to the force of a blizzard. No one could survive out there. Charlie lit up a cigarette and took a deep inhale while he began to pace back and forth. I might not even make it myself if I go, he tried to reason to himself. His jumpy nerves made his palms sweaty and his heartbeat rapid. He couldn’t shake the thought of Jack out there, all alone. He’ll die for sure, if he’s not dead already. That thought brought a lump to his throat. That’s it! I know Jack needs me and I’d better go. With that, he pulled his moose-hide mukluks over his feet, grabbed his parka and went out to his car.

He tried to turn on the ignition but the car made a whirring sound and would not turn over. “Damn!” he roared in frustration as his determination to get to Jack overtook him. His hands trembling from emotion and the extreme cold made opening the hood a major task. Finally, he pried it up, but after a few seconds it slipped from his fingers and slammed shut. “Goddammit!” he yelled, kicking the left front tire. Calm down. You’ll never get this car to work while you’re this upset! Tears of frustration welled in his eyes. “Please hang on, Jack,” he sobbed out loud, his friend’s dilemma now a certainty in his mind. He tried the ignition again. The rapidly dropping temperature made the oil in the car thicken and impossible to start.

“Jack! Jack! I’m tryin’ Jack! Dear God, I’m tryin’!”

***

The last hours of daylight faded and darkness hovered over the land as the wind swept the snow into drifts. The only sound was the wail of the rushing air in syncopated bursts of energy. It’s freezing, thought Jack, I’d better throw another log on. With extreme effort he opened his eyes. It was so dark. He felt stiff and confined and tried to get up. I can’t move…I can’t move…son of a bitch! Why is it so cold? What’s going on?

Disoriented, he grew quite worried. Flakes of snow tickled his face. Snow? A jolt…adrenalin shot threw his body as the reality of his situation sunk in and his memory returned. He had pain in his head…yes. I was driving the pickup. He tried to reach out but he couldn’t move his right arm. With his left arm he managed to feel around him and discovered that he was pinned under the truck. That’s when he realized he had no movement from the waist down.

That’s when he realized he would die.

There was no hope. No one used this dirt road that only went from his cabin to the highway that led to Talkeetna. Adjusting to the dark, he could now see the snow accumulating in large drifts carried by the strong wind. He would soon become a frozen mass. Seductive Alaska had been his refuge, had brought him love only to snatch it away, and in the end would deny him a painless death.

He let out a deep agonizing animal cry, a trapped animal cry of frustration and anger. With that release of emotion, fear gripped him and he pleaded to the air.

“Oh God, someone help me!”

He could feel himself start to pass out but fought to remain conscious. An imperceptible shape near the truck. Hard to see in the snow but the sense of something…movement.

What is it? Is that someone?

“Help me, help me!” he cried with all his strength. He tried to focus his blurry eyes and whispered as his energy faded, “Is someone there? Please, please help me!” He closed his eyes exhausted and without hope. No one there. No one, but fate calling me. With that thought he became passive and awaited his death. The intense cold and biting wind were unbearable.

Frost‑bite began to attack his extremities causing him great pain. He prayed for eternal sleep to release him from this torture. But …a feeling…and then… he sensed her before he saw her and his eyes flew open. She was there, standing beside the cab of the pick‑up not more than two feet from him. He blinked his eyes in amazement.

She was wearing something white and flowing. Her long dark hair was straight and moved with the wind. He watched in wonder as she gracefully moved toward him. Kneeling down beside him, she cradled his head in her arms. All tension left him as he gazed into her dark flashing eyes. He could not speak or move, totally under her spell. As soon as she touched him, he no longer felt cold or pinned under the truck. He got up and faced her. Her beauty was pure. His breath caught in his throat. He didn’t understand what was happening and he didn’t care.

They embraced with unconcealed joy and tenderness and the snowy landscape became a backdrop in a dream. As they floated up wrapped in the warmth of their silent communication, the past and present blended while space and time converged. He was suddenly young and strong. He laughed out loud incredulously. Deep down, Jack questioned this experience but his rapture outweighed any apprehensions. He wasn’t just happy. He was complete, as if a big gaping hole in his heart has been closed. And then suddenly he was back under the truck and she was still with him. His head pressed against her bosom and her scent wrapped around him like a blanket. He felt her soft hands caress his cheeks. He would soon die but he was not afraid. Gulping his last breaths, Jack mustered all his strength to utter his last sound.

“My Annie!” he gasped in wonder.

***

Charlie gave up trying to start the car and rushed back inside the Roadhouse to grab his snowshoes. He realized he would be risking his life, but there was no other way—he would walk to Jack’s place. It was only five miles but it could be a 100, the way this weather had deteriorated. Snap! His mind flashed to the dog team the owners’ kept for sport. It would be tricky but he had handled that team once ¾when he was half drunk one day last summer. Either he snow-shoed over to Jack’s cabin or mushed over letting the dogs do most of the work. He chose the dogs and went to their pen in an outside shed. It was a small team of five and they each barked loudly and seemed quite fierce. Charlie tried to remember which one was the lead dog but in his stressed state-of-mind, he couldn’t concentrate. So he decided to take a chance and untied them while holding the harness¾maybe they would line up the way they were trained.

They were very excited and panting as if anxious for a run. The largest, a white Siberian malamute, after wrestling with the others, came over and stood next to Charlie. As soon as he did that, the other four, two huskies and two Norwegian elkhounds, lined up behind him. Charlie slipped the harness over them and hitched them to the sled. In no time, they were off racing down the back trail to Jack’s cabin. The dogs settled down to a fast trot while Charlie balanced himself on the sled. Mercifully, the snow had ebbed and Charlie could make out the path in the dark. He always kept a flashlight in his back pocket and he used it now to see ahead. The dogs traveled the trail with easy familiarity, it being the one on which they trained.

Charlie’s agitation made him oblivious to the cold and stinging wind. His one burning thought was to get to Jack. He had developed such love for him over the years. Jack was his family, his only family. Life without Jack would be empty and meaningless. He couldn’t bear the thought of it. With his mind racing as fast as the dog team, it seemed that he made it to Jack’s cabin in no time. Tying up the dogs, he raced into the cabin hoping his fears were groundless and his friend would be sleeping in his bed. “Jack are you okay?” he called out as opened the door. A cold dark cabin and a meowing cat was all that greeted him and a knot formed in his stomach.

He ran back out calling hysterically, “Jack, Jack where are you?” The wind grabbed the sound and whisked it away, making his shout a whisper. He aimed his flashlight out to the road that led to the highway and followed it. Oh my God… something’s there! His flashlight picked out a large object. It was Jack’s pickup flipped over on its side! His stomach tightened as he ran around it calling out his friend’s name. “Jack! Jack! Oh no! There was his beloved friend partially thrown from the driver’s seat and pinned halfway under door. It was too late. Jack lay frozen and still. He tried to pry him out, but the truck’s weight was too heavy. With searing grief his tears fell uncontrollably, sorrow overwhelmed him.

Charlie cried all the way back to the dog team. He cried while he hitched the team to the truck and cried as he pulled Jack free. Then, he mustered the last of his strength to gently carry Jack back to the cabin. He lovingly placed Jack on his bed and cried while he lit a fire. He sat down in the winged‑back chair totally exhausted and continued to mourn the loss of his dear friend. He thought of Jack, lying afraid and alone in the freezing weather. Picturing the ordeal drove him to distraction. “If only I had gone earlier,” he admonished himself aloud. “I tried to get here, Jack, I tried, I really did,” he sobbed to his dead friend. But wait. What was that? Charlie looked at Jack and noticed something most peculiar. He stood up and walked over to the bed so he could get a closer look. His face. The expression on Jack’s face! It could only be described as...ecstasy! His face was frozen, not in pain, but in ecstasy. Charlie just stared in disbelief. Then he noticed that Jack was clutching something in his left hand and he pried open his fingers. Out fell a white orchid! What the…Charlie sat back in the chair and stared in wonder at his friend and fell asleep from exhaustion.

When Charlie awoke the next morning, he realized he had not been dreaming. There was Jack with that look on his face and there was the white orchid. Charlie could make no sense out of it, but it released him from his heart wrenching remorse. Somehow he knew that everything was all right.

Soon after, the people of Talkeetna learned of Jack’s death and they mourned the loss of their dear friend, and his terrible final moments. At his funeral, they sadly shook their heads and whispered their own fears of a cold and lonely death.

Alone? Charlie questioned silently as he placed the crushed white orchid in the coffin and remembered a long ago wedding bouquet.