Moonlight was still pouring through the windows like a stream that had been released from a beaver dam. The Three were restive in the beginning of the night, but had settled down to sleep once the evening began to cool off a bit. This is good sleeping weather with the temperature slipping down into the fifties at night. Lucas has taken up sleeping on the right side of me, and he’s a warm puppy. At nearly three years old, Luke is beginning to edge away from being a puppy and I miss that. Bert is aging rapidly before my eyes and only Sam seems to be holding steady. I know she’s there before I feel her weight on the bed, and Lucas moves over to allow her some room.
“When I was a little girl there was an old man who used to strike matches on the palms of his hands and then hold the match up to watch it burn out. You could go to a store then and get a half a box or a quarter of a box of matches, and sometimes you’d buy a little bundle of ten tied together with a string, and keep them in a snuff box or such. There wasn’t a need for matches for poor folk because even paying a penny for something was too much unless you could eat it. Most people used a flint to start a fire, and folk kept a coal burning in the stove all the time if they could. Cold winter was dangerous time to go without fire but you didn’t hear about people dying from it like they do now. Whiskey got to killing people in the cold and nobody figured that out. It was like they thought it was keepin’ them warm but they’d wake up dead with it the next morning. Dying drunk is confusing as hell, you know.
But the old man said he married a girl too young and her Pa came after her one night so the man hit her Pa in the head with a shovel and they both thought he was dead. They took to run and headed up north, plains country, past where there was people and they found a old sod shack built into the ground. He found a job on a ranch but hid the girl from everybody cause they was both afraid the law might put two and two together if they saw her. Neither knew of the cold that the winter would bring and they weren’t ready for it when it got there. The rancher took the man out to a place to help dig a wagon out of the mud and they saw a huge cloud come rushing out of the north like the hand of God Himself. They got the wagon out but the rancher told the man they would have to hold up at his place until the snow stopped. The man had to confess he was hiding the girl so the rancher let him have a horse, and the man rode back to her, in the storm.
When he got back it was so cold the grass had already froze in place and broke like crystal under the hooves of the horse. The sod house leaked a bit, and was damp cold inside. The girl was wrapped in blankets and the fire had gone out in the stove. The man tried to flint it up but the cold was too much for the fire, and night caught them cold and dark.
The girl told the man she hadn’t bled in a month, maybe longer, and they both huddled together knowing there was three of them to die now. Without fire, there was no way to live through the night, and the man knew it. He put his hands on her body to warm them, to keep them from shaking and he could feel the cold of them biting into her, but she didn’t flinch from it. He gathered up some of the feathers from the bed, and some dust, and some wood shavings and tried to flint a spark into them but not the tiniest light could be bring. He tried rubbing sticks together but all he got was a thin wisp of smoke. The night grew colder and the horse tried to push his way into the house before he died, too.
The rancher and two other hands fought their way to the sod house the next day but it was noon before they got there. They saw the mound of snow that marked where the sod house was, but they didn’t see any smoke so they knew there wasn’t much hope of finding anybody alive in there. The managed to get through the door and when they did what they saw was worse than what they had imagined.
The old man telling me this said he and that girl managed to stay together for nearly fifty years before she died. Her Pa wasn’t dead, and he came looking for them after a five year spell, and there was two kids by then, and he settled down a bit about getting hit in the head with a shovel. He had heard about the cold spell that hit was wanted to know how they lived through it, and wondered if the stories he had heard were true, and they allowed they were.”
She stopped speaking and I lay there and listened to the sound of Lucas’ breathing in the night. The moonlight had shifted around a bit and the shadows were deepening.
“What happened?” I asked and my own voice seemed tiny.
“They let the horse in for the heat of his body but it wasn’t enough. The man took a knife and slit the horse’s throat, and then cut the horse open, and stuffed the girl inside, and pushed his way in with her. The rancher and his help found them frozen into the carcass the next day, but still alive. The meat and heat of the horse had kept all three living past the dawn. But had the rancher not come, they would have died in there. That old man liked to strike matches and watch them burn down to nothing.”
I woke up to moonlight and Lucas with his head up, looking at something in the dark. I could smell blood and sulfur in the night.