The Twilight Twenty-Five
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The little wooden shack was in the rough country, where it was liable to snow seven months of the year. It was hidden among the shadows of the cedar trees, so that it wasn't easily found. This was back in the old, old days, when the wilderness was a dangerous and lonely place. Back when a man who wanted to disappear forever might be able to do it, especially if he had his wits about him and enough skill to carry him through lean times.
It was a beautiful spot. Almost silent all through the day, except the wind in the needle branches of the evergreens. There were days when the only sound Jacob Black could hear was the echo of his boots crunching down on the snow. At night, the winds were fiercer; but if the sky was clear then it lit up with a ribbon of cascading light. Like a midnight rainbow. Sometimes those lights sang out, in soft and eerie music that seemed to carry a familiar voice up from the south. He felt a little less lonely then.
Just about two years had passed since he'd left Washington state and headed up as far north as he could. It was easy to trap lynx and wolves in those parts, and he'd even gotten a few bear pelts. Mostly by chance. Another month or two, and he would have had enough money to head south again. Then keep heading even further south. Travel straight through Oregon and California, and swap a Canadian summer for a Mexican one.
And be with Bella again.
He was thinking of her all that day when Sergeant Edward Masen turned up.
Masen was a handsome man, almost too handsome to take seriously, with hair the colour of a fox's pelt and a red woollen jacket that marked him as the law in those parts. His face was hard and drawn with determination, and his eyes had gleamed with triumph on the day he finally caught up with Jacob Black. A man with a warrant out on him for murder.
"I don't see why I need to wear these," Jacob scoffed, lifting a pair of steel manacles that had been fastened to his wrists, "I said I'd go with you."
Night had fallen by then, and the heavy snowfall of the afternoon turned out to have been the start of a blizzard that was sweeping down from the arctic. The weather beat against the window in hard beads that were mostly ice, and made a drumming noise like a hundred impatient fingers on a table. Every now and again, the wind would race through the trees just like on most nights. Only the storm made it sound like the shrieks of a phantom.
"They stay on." Edward replied, not even bothering to turn around from the window. He'd been staring out of it since that afternoon, when he'd announced himself. Around that same time, the weather had turned too bad for any sane man to travel in, so they'd gone inside.
He was a quiet sort of man. Insular. Jacob didn't like that, but he didn't have the energy to hate Edward; just enough to resent him.
At least it was comfortable enough in the little shack. Jacob had done a fine job repairing it, and kept it well. It had belonged to an old trapper before it belonged to him, and it seemed like it had never been anything ramshackle or ill cared for. A fine enough place to live, if you were living alone. There was a warm iron stove near to where Edward stood, glowing hot and casting red light onto his red jacket. An oil lamp hung from the ceiling, but it had been turned down fairly low.
Jacob was sitting on his cot, still dressed for going outside. Edward had told him to stay put, and hadn't allowed him to change clothes.
"I've always liked storms," Jacob said, "There's some safety in them. Being inside, with weather like that between you and anybody who wants to get at you."
He chuckled a little morosely. There was some irony in the notion, thanks to his current predicament.
"How long until this thing blows itself out?" Edward nodded towards the snow.
"Three days, probably."
"Then you have three days extra of your life," He finally turned around to face his prisoner, "I guess storms really do offer you some protection."
"All you seem to want to talk about is the fact that I'm going to die," Jacob adjusted himself so that his heavy wrists were crossed over his knees, "But I already know all about that. I killed a man, so they're going to hang me, and that's how it should be. I don't blame you for coming after me. So let's talk about something pleasant, okay? Because we've got three days waiting out this storm and the whole trek back to civilization, and I'd prefer not to talk about my impending doom this whole time."
Edward Masen nodded, watching the pale shadows from the lamp light mixing with the shadows from the glow of the stove.
"Why did you do it?" He asked.
"Murder a man."
"You're not really familiar with the concept of pleasant conversation, are you?" Jacob sighed and shook his head, "I guess I can tell you, since it won't matter either way.
"I was down in a logging camp, right in Olympia. The work wasn't easy, but the pay was good. We'd just gotten married, me and Bella, and I wanted to set her up right. She didn't have to come stay with me in the camp, but she wanted to. Quite a few men had their wives there, and it might not have been so pleasant for her alone in town. She's a white woman, and there are some people who don't think she ought to have married me. We were worried about those people trying to make their opinions known, but we should have been more worried about what it was going to be like in the camp.
"The first few months were good. She liked the woods, and I was getting a reputation for being a good worker. Things went like a dream for a little while, until they hired a new superintendent."
"The man you killed was the superintendent, wasn't he?" Edward asked.
"I wouldn't be surprised if you couldn't understand all of what happened," Jacob shrugged, "You might have done things differently. Or you might not have. What are you supposed to do when a man like that tries to force himself on your wife? I guess I knew I should've just packed everything up and gotten her out of there, but I was too angry for that. I went to find the superintendent. I didn't mean to kill him, I just wanted to brawl with him a little. I was too angry.
"When I found him, he was just drunk enough to make him dangerous. He said some things about me, and then he laughed, and then he insulted my wife. So I just…" Jacob made a fist and leaned it as far forward as the cuffs would allow him to, "Hit him clean across the jaw. Knocked him off-balance, and he landed down on the ground pretty hard. Hell, none of the men watching even realized that he'd landed on a rock, until he didn't get back up. And that was the end of my good life."
A softer man might have been moved by the story, or felt some sympathy for Jacob Black. But Sergeant Masen had let himself become as cold as the ice volleying against the windows. His life was about his duty to the law, and almost nothing else. So, at the end of the story, he just nodded and said:
"They might let you off with manslaughter, if that story is true. Only ten or fifteen years in prison."
"You're a harsh son of a bitch, aren't you?"
"You killed a man, sir," Edward's eyes flickered angrily, "And there has to be compensation for the life you've taken."
"Two years alone in the wilderness isn't compensation enough?"
He didn't answer that, he just turned his head towards the window. The blizzard seemed to be the only thing that held his attention or his admiration.
"September fifteenth," Jacob said quietly, "It's her birthday today. I've always had good luck on her birthday, but it looks like this year's the exception."
That morning, in order to ease some of the loneliness and to try and celebrate how close he was to being with her again, he'd set an extra plate at the breakfast table. He didn't do anything delusional, like setting out food or making conversation. He'd just put down a plate, a glass and an extra fork. And he'd looked at her picture for awhile. She looked good in that picture, lively and a little fierce, even though her hair was done up. Jacob had always liked her the best when her hair was loose and falling forward. It suited her.
"Get some sleep," Edward said, pulling him from his thoughts.
Jacob nodded and lay down, the heavy manacles resting on his chest. He knew that there wasn't any chance he'd be allowed to sleep with his hands free, and he didn't even bother to ask if he could change into something more comfortable to sleep in. He didn't think there'd be any more to it, but the police sergeant soon made his way over with a thin chain and a padlock.
"Ankles?" Jacob asked, not even bothering to feel annoyed.
Edward nodded, wrapping the chain around Jacob's legs and locking it tight. He'd been on enough fugitive hunts to know not to take chances. Maybe he was a harsh son of a bitch. It didn't matter to him.
"If you need anything in the night, just whistle. Don't try to get up on your own, or I'll shoot you."
"I don't suppose you've got a family, Masen?"
"Only my mother. She's gone now."
"No sweetheart? No wife?"
Edward stayed quiet.
"That makes me feel a little sorry for you." Jacob shook his head, and sighed deeply enough to rattle all the chains wrapped around him.
Edward scoffed, and looked at his prisoner with a sidelong glance.
"I'm not the one whose going to be tried for killing a man."
"No. You're the one who doesn't have anybody to dream about."
It must have been a hard day's travelling for Sergeant Masen, because he fell asleep in his chair in less than a minute. But Jacob stayed awake and stared at the wooden beams of the ceiling, thinking about how fate sometimes kicked up swirls - the way the arctic wind was doing to the snow outside. An hour passed before he finally managed a fitful and dream-filled slumber.
While he slept, the storm raged on. The cedar boughs twisted overhead, and a low branch beat against the cabin window. A sudden burst of viciousness, and the wind and snow shot down the chimney, not putting out the fire, but forcing open the stove door enough for a slender shaft of light to cut through the room. Like the slash of a red knife.
Jacob might have woken up, but his dreams were full of Bella, and he didn't know if they were the last dreams - the last chance - he'd have with her. Memories, and fragments of memories, made bittersweet by the day's bad fortune.
She'd always loved wildflowers, and they'd gone out to a meadow one afternoon. Her hair was loose and lovely, just the way he liked it best. The sky changed from blue to grey, and there was a sudden drumbeat of rain.
He was in the cottage then, the one her mother had rented to them for the first month of their marriage. It was covered in a tangle of honeysuckles and morning glory, and the two of them were snuggled up inside. Warm and content with hearts beating against one another, and a thin blanket over top of them. A summer storm was raging outside, and the shutters were slamming against the outside of the house.
Early autumn nights, roasting corn with other young couples they knew. The Clearwaters were there. Smoke made his nose itch, and Bella smiled at the faces he made. But his throat was starting to close up, and it didn't feel very funny to him. He was coughing. Spluttering and coughing…
A startled gasp burst from his lips, as he opened his eyes to the smoke-filled room. His eyes stung right away, but he could see tongues of flame all around the side of the iron stove, licking up towards the roof. He went to move, but the chains clanked against themselves, and he knew he wouldn't be able to move quick enough.
Edward was already up, woken by the same smoke only a fraction of a second before Jacob called to him. But his instincts were quick, and he dove for the pale of melted snow kept by the door. The water hissed as it hit the flame, but it was no good.
"This whole place is pitch cedar!" Jacob coughed, "We have to get out!"
There wasn't time to unlock the chains, since Edward had forgotten which of his pockets he'd put the key in, so he pulled Jacob up and half-carried him out of the door. The two of them collapsed forward onto the cold damp of the snow, about twenty yards from the shack, and behind them the fire crackled and raged. Not even the storm could lessen the blaze.
In that sea of roaring flame was everything their lives depended on. Food, fuel, blankets, even snowshoes. All of it would be gone.
Edward hurried back towards the door, desperate to save anything he could to make it easier on them. A huge blast of heat shattered the window, and he raised his red sleeved arms to shield his face, as spears of glass shot towards him. The cabin burned so bright, it lit up the forest around it as surely as lamplight. Edward fell onto his knees, his jaw set and hard, his eyes despondent but resolute.
In the shadows behind him, sitting up in the snow, Jacob smiled.
It took a minute or two for Edward to get his wits about him again, and find the key to the chains around Jacob's ankles. His insistence on security had saved them a tiny bit of trouble, since both men had gone to sleep in their clothes and shoes. But their overcoats and mittens had been in the cabin.
"You'd know this part of the country better than I would," Edward said grimly, slipping the key back into his pocket and leaving the manacles locked tight, "What'll we do?"
"Nearest outpost is about sixty miles." Jacob shrugged, looking down at his bare and shackled hands.
"I know that," Edward shook his head, and peered off into the storm again, "And I know there's a man named Littlesea who has a cabin twenty miles from here. He's how I found you. But there could be a fur trapper's shack closer than that."
Jacob laughed softly and shook his head.
"Littlesea, huh? Did you pay him for the information?"
"No. He was just doing his duty as a citizen."
"That son of a bitch is my cousin," Jacob said with a grin, "Well, we could stay by this fire. We'll starve to death in two days time, but we'll be warm. Or we could walk. I prefer the idea of walking, myself. Freezing isn't such a bad death. You almost get sleepy towards the end, and it's pretty gentle. I've been close to it a couple of times up here. It's up to you."
"What are you talking about?"
"Dying, of course. See, I'm either going to be executed for murder, or I'm going to spend half my life in prison. So it doesn't matter to me what happens to us, though I suppose it might matter to you," The grin transformed into a wild, wolfish glare, "Which is why - if you don't want to freeze to death - you're going to take these cuffs off me, and give me your service revolver. I'll take us to a cabin close by, with you as my prisoner."
"Why?" Edward scoffed, "If they catch you after that, you'll be sure to hang. You'll be wanted by the crown for threatening an officer, as well as wanted for murder in the States."
"I have to take the chance. I need to be with my wife again, come hell or high water."
There wasn't much of a choice. It was freezing cold and they had no supplies at all, but Edward didn't have anything in his life but his work. He was a Royal Canadian Mountie, and if he couldn't be that, then he couldn't be much else. Just as he'd said, there was nobody left in his life worth coming home to.
"Why are you thinking so much?" Jacob chuckled, "If you don't take these cuffs off of me, we die. We won't get halfway to Littlesea's place before we freeze in these clothes. It'd be impossible to start a fire in this weather, and even if we found some dry bark, we don't have any matches!"
Edward was buttoning his red jacket tight around his throat, he was wearing a strange smile of his own. Though his was more grim and determined, and his eyes were stone glittering in the glow of the burning cabin.
"We make Littlesea's or we die," He said, slipping his hands into his pockets, "Get moving."
There was nothing between them for a moment, just the shrieks of the wind, the crackle of the blaze, the smell of burning cedar and clean snow.
"Why don't we just sit down and freeze to death here?" Jacob smirked, "Save ourselves a five mile walk."
"No. We'll take turns breaking trail," Edward said, "I'd rather be five miles closer to fulfilling my duty to the crown when I die, since it seems to be all the same to you."
Jacob watched Edward moving as they walked. The way the sergeant's shoulders hunched forward against the cold, his long stride, the determined clench of his hands. What sort of a heart did this man have, that he wouldn't trade his life for another in a situation like this? Maybe Edward had stared so long into the storm when he was sat by the window not because he was frightened of it, but because he saw something kindred. Something strong, bitterly cold and unyielding.
For three-quarters of an hour they walked in silence, neither of them uttering a word. The snow had stopped for a little while, and the wind had softened. A haunting, graveyard silence was settling over the tall cedars, and the night was growing colder.
The steel manacles on Jacob's wrists felt like they were searing his skin. The burning sensation was strange and heavy, and he knew that his fingers were probably frostbitten, but it was too dark to see for certain. Still, he knew that each jostling step rubbed his wrists against the metal, and skin and flesh had been torn off.
The cold numbed the pain.
Edward stopped. His nose and cheeks were bright pink, but the rest of his skin was as white as a piece of chalk. His ears were stinging like somebody had been whipping them, and the tops of his thighs ached and prickled from the muscles working so hard but never getting warmed up. He let out a long, ragged breath that swirled into mist.
"How far do you think we've come?" He asked, not even bothering to look behind his shoulder at Jacob. His voice was thick and slow, and it felt difficult to speak with it.
"Four miles. Four and a half."
"That means…" Edward shook his head, "Sixteen more to Littlesea's."
"You'll probably last another five miles," Jacob nodded, "But I won't last half of that, unless you take these things off of me. I can't get any circulation in my arms."
"Then I guess you'd better tell me…" Another puff of breath, "Where that trapper's shack is."
There was no reply to that, just the steady crunch of footsteps in the snow. Edward gave one last pant of breath and started leading the trail again.
It had been a habit of Jacob's to think of happier times when he was lost and alone up in the cold wild country of his exile, and he traced a river of memory as he followed his captor through the trees. He thought of warm summer days and green hills, he thought of games and laughter with the Quileute boys, but mostly he thought of Bella. Always Bella. He didn't notice Edward's pace beginning to slow, or that his own feet were starting to drag like a couple of lead weights. He was back in the land of his boyhood, and he was happy. All evils were forgotten, all worries faded. The piercing cold that crept up his arms - which he could no longer move - the stinging pain of his ears and nose, he didn't feel any of it anymore.
It was Edward who brought him back into their shared reality. He stumbled into a snow drift, and Jacob stumbled over him. For a minute they just stayed there, side-by-side and half buried.
Then the sergeant reached into his pocket and produced the key. It took awhile to unlock the shackles, since they'd been frozen solid for the last mile and a half of walking. It took even longer to remove them from Jacob's wrists, and both men winced at the torn and raw flesh that lay beneath.
"Take us to that trapper's shack," Edward pulled out his revolver and dropped it into the snow between them, "You've beat me."
Jacob sat up and looked around.
"Follow the creek," He said, nodding to the south, "About two more miles that way. Take your damn revolver back, I can't hold it."
Edward fought the urge to collapse back into the snow.
"Come on," He said, grabbing Jacob's arm and lifting him to his feet, "We've got a mile and a half left in us, if we push…"
"Barely a mile," Jacob shook his head, "Probably less. I guess if we had a fire, we could make it easily. Hell, I know we could."
Edward breathed in heavily, and the ice in the air stabbed the back of his throat. He knew it. There wasn't a full mile in him.
"If I told you something," Jacob said carefully, "Something that could save both of our lives, will you go back to headquarters and tell them I'm dead?"
Edward looked at him, straight into his eyes. It was the first time they'd seen each other man to man, purpose to purpose. Cold stone versus feral veracity. For a full minute they stood in silence, and then Edward said:
Jacob was too weakened to let himself get angry. He just hung his head.
"All I have is the service…" Edward said, though speaking had become difficult, "I've never given up. Never betrayed my duty. I won't now. But… I'll give you a twenty-four hour start ahead of me, when it comes time to leave that trapper's shack."
Jacob grinned. His hand reached out, Edward's met it, and they shook hands. Even though neither of them could feel the grip of the other.
"I remembered something while we were walking back there," Jacob explained, "About this afternoon, before you showed up, I was tidying up and I dropped a couple of matches into my pocket. This pocket here."
His left hand was clumsy and heavy as it patted his leg.
"Matches?!" Edward's face was alight with sudden and radiant emotion.
"You'll have to grab them out. My fingers won't be able to, and I'd hate myself for dropping them. There're only two or three, so be careful."
Edward thrust his hand into Jacob's pocket, staring at him as he fumbling, like he was afraid it was all a lie. But then a smile broke across his face, and he pulled his hand out with two small sticks between his fingers. The head had broken off of one, but the other was perfect.
They had a match!
There were birch trees nearby, by the bed of the creek, and Edward went in search of dry bark while Jacob used his stiff and lifeless hands to sweep a clearing in the snow. It would be hard going to light a fire with the ground so moist, but it could be done.
"I found enough for a good-sized campfire," Edward said, his arms crowded with strips of bark, "But it'll need kindling."
"I know," Jacob nodded, "Set it down."
He pawed at his inside pocket and managed to pull out a buckskin packet, and began unwrapping it. Inside was a layer of tissue paper and a photograph of a woman. Bella's photograph. The one that had kept him alive for two long, lonely years. He handed it and the tissue paper over to Edward.
The sergeant nodded in acknowledgement, and prepared the kindling.
Jacob closed his eyes and leaned back in the snow. He didn't need the fire, he thought, since he seemed to be getting warmer. And sleepy. Very sleepy. He heard a sound like scratching, and then a pop and the smell of sulphur. His body quivered, all the muscles he had were quitting on him and he could feel himself trembling all over. A peaceful darkness fell around him, deeper than the starless night and free of the whiteness of the snow. Was it time to sleep?
No, Jake. The voice said from his memories and dreams, You need to wake up. You can live if you wake up.
A heavy hand was shaking him, but that wasn't what had pulled him from the brink of death. He smiled when he opened his eyes, and saw her beautiful face shining in the fire. Just for a second, before it was swallowed up in orange and red.
"You said you always had good luck on her birthday." Edward noted quietly, one hand on Jacob's shoulder.
"That's right," He managed to reply, albeit weakly, "And this year… she saved your sorry ass, too."