Bernie’s voice breaks across the moonlit night to where Casey’s been waiting in the cold at the little bridge where the lane from the farm goes over the stream.
“Hey, you got the steak?” shouts Bernie.
“Sure!” shouts Casey back in the direction of Bernie’s voice. “In here!” He means the backpack he’s carrying.
“And I got the frying pan!
“We’re rolling, O’Brien!”
Casey sees Bernie’s form emerging down one of the snow ruts in the lane. He’s carrying some kind of bag over his shoulder and he’s wearing a big coat with a hood that goes up over his head and Casey sees the white puffs of his breath coming out from under the hood.
“Hey,” says Bernie coming up next to Casey and bumping mittens with him. He’s standing in one snow rut and Casey’s standing in the other.
“Hey,” says Casey.
“So, ready, steady?” says Bernie.
Bernie steps off into the ditch beside the lane and Casey sees his legs sink into the snow almost up to his knees.
“Sonovabitch!” says Bernie.
“You okay?” says Casey.
“Tootie-frutie,” says Bernie.
Bernie lifts his legs in and out of the snow makes it to the fence on the other side of the ditch and swings the bag he’s been carrying over the fence. Then he stretches two strands of the barbed wire apart with his mittens and squeezes himself through.
“Bung ho!” he says to Casey from the other side.
Casey steps down into the ditch and feels one leg going all the way into the snow.
“Sonovabitch!” says Casey.
“So, come on, hand me that sucker,” says Bernie. He means Casey’s pack.
Casey swings his other leg into the snow, then the other leg, climbs up out of the ditch, gets next to the fence and Bernie, reaching across the fence, pulls the pack off his shoulders. Suddenly everything’s a lot lighter.
“What you got in there, O’Brien?”
“Steaks,” says Casey.
“A hell of a lot of steaks.”
Bernie leans Casey’s pack against a fence post and Casey pries two strands of barbed wire apart with his mittens and slips himself through.
“You know what?” says Bernie looking down at the stream. “You know what I’m thinking?”
“What?” says Casey.
“Make you a bet. Easier walking down there.”
Casey watches Bernie slide down the bank toward the stream and then step out on the ice of the stream.
“Yeah!” says Bernie.
Casey goes over to where Bernie’s bag is sitting in the snow and slides it down the bank of the stream to Bernie. Then he goes over to where Bernie has leaned his pack up against the fence post, hoists it up, gets his arms through the straps and feels all that weight on his shoulders again. He could swear to God the pack didn’t seem that heavy when he tried it on this afternoon.
“Hey, time’s a-wasting!” calls Bernie from down on the ice.
Casey walks over to where he sees Bernie’s slip marks in the snow going down the bank.
“I’ll catch you,” says Bernie.
“Oh, yeah,” says Casey.
Casey bends his knees and gets down as much as he can. Then he lets himself go and feels himself sliding.
“Got you!” says Bernie.
* * *
Bernie’s idea turns out to be good – that is, walking along on top of the ice of the stream. Well, sometimes they run into low-hanging branches and then they have to go around by stepping out onto the bank, but mostly it’s pretty easy. Sometimes Casey wonders if the ice will hold or whether he’ll put a foot through, but, then, on the other hand, it’s been so cold for so long that the ice has to hold. But, the thing is, right now the cold’s beginning to come in under Casey’s coat. And his fingers inside his mittens are already beginning to numb down. Maybe, thinks Casey, as he follows along after Bernie, all of this, the camping, the tent, the cooking, all the rest of it, really isn’t such a good idea. Maybe they ought to call it off. Try again in the spring.
“She’s that way” says Bernie looking up the bank of the stream over toward where the hole is in Old Man Miller’s fence.
That hole’s been there for about a year. Ever since Old Man Miller died. When Old Man Miller was alive he really kept that fence in good shape and hunters had to ask permission to use the camp at Hell’s Kitchen. In the year since Old Man Miller died some locals tore some of the fence down and nobody asks permission any more.
Bernie has a go at the slope of the stream. His legs slide back a bit and his bag falls back, but he climbs up out.
“Put her there,” says Bernie holding out one of his mittened hands.
“I can do it by myself,” says Casey.
“Yeah?” says Bernie.
“Sure,” says Casey. “Of course.”
Bernie turns and starts across the field leaving Casey down there next to the stream.
So, Casey has no choice. He has a go at the slope, but when he’s almost to the top he slides all the way down again, his pack coming partway off his shoulders.
Shit! he thinks.
Well, since Bernie’s not there to see him Casey gets down on all fours and, sinking his arms and his legs in the snow, makes it to the top of the bank. This time the pack stays in place.
When he stands up he sees Bernie’s already half across the field toward the fence and the trees and the hill beyond the fence.
And Casey’s got snow down the wrist of one of his mittens.
Maybe they really ought to toss it in. Or he, Casey, ought to toss it in. Because Bernie’s now half way across the field. And he took off by himself.
So why not? Just why the hell not?
“Bung ho!” he hears Bernie shout. “O’Brien!”
Then: “You there, O’Brien?”
“Coming!” Casey shouts back.
* * *
Up at Hell’s Kitchen Bernie swings his bag off dumping it right next to the fire ring. Well, with the snow everywhere Casey can’t see the complete circle of the fire ring that the hunters constructed, but in the moonlight he can sort of see one edge of the metal plating where it sticks out and can also see the logs piled up there in case anyone wants to make a fire.
Casey swings his pack off and sets it against the pile of logs. Again, he can’t believe how much lighter it feels with his pack off.
“You know what I’m thinking . . . ,” starts Bernie.
Except Bernie’s interrupted. By a sound. Down there near the stream. A cough. Followed by some kind of clicking. Or a thumping.
Followed by a silence.
Casey looks at Bernie and Bernie looks at Casey.
“Ain’t nothing,” Bernie whispers.
“Is so,” whispers Casey back.
“Naw,” whispers Bernie.
It doesn’t happen again. Casey really listens. He would have heard something. But, nothing.
“So,” says Bernie in his regular voice and going over to where he’s put his bag in the snow. “Let’s just see what we got in this sucker.”
Then they hear the click again. From down near the stream. And a kind of thumping noise.
“Tell you what,” says Bernie. “I’ll just have a look-see.”
“What?” says Casey.
“Keep the home fires burning.”
And he’s gone. Just like that. Off the slope at the edge of Hell’s Kitchen. Casey goes over and makes out Bernie half-walking and half-sliding down the slope toward where the stream bed cuts through the snow.
“Don’t,” whispers Casey. But it’s too late to say it now. Bernie’s already gone.
Casey stands there looking. The white of the snow is everywhere except for the dark of the trees. High above him the moon sits in the sky.
And the cold is really, really pushing in. And he’s not able to feel his toes in his boots anymore. And he’s not able to feel his fingers, either.
They should have packed it in. Or he should have packed it in. Right at the beginning
Suddenly the same sound. Only this time it comes from above Casey, up there on the side of the slope.
A click or some kind of crack.
Then a thumping.
Casey looks up through the tree branches.
But he can’t see anything.
A thumping again. Only this time closer. Almost over him.
Casey closes his eyes. He doesn’t move. Because if he remains absolutely still with his eyes closed – that is, completely still with his eyes completely closed – whatever it is that’s out there won’t see him.
“Tutie-fruitie!” That’s Bernie’s voice.
Casey opens his eyes and sees Bernie coming up the slope.
“Weren’t nothing down there,” says Bernie when he gets to Casey. “Like I said.”
Bernie’s looking over at Casey.
“You okay, boy?”
“Yes,” says Casey.
“Of course,” says Casey.
“Because I got to tell you, sometimes I wonder.”
Casey watches Bernie go over to his bag, sees him hold his bag up and dump all its contents out into the snow, the tent, the sleeping bag, food, and even, Casey sees, a frying pan.
Bernie looks over at Casey.
“So you okay, boy?”
“Of course,” says Casey.
“Yeah? Then I tell you what, O’Brien. You got the steak. I got the frying pan. Time’s-a-wasting. Bung ho!”
Karl Harshbarger is an American writer (living in Germany) and has had over 100 publications of his stories in such magazines as The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, The Antioch Review, The New England Review and The Prairie Schooner. Two of his stories have been selected for the list of “Distinguished Stories” in Best American Short Stories, thirteen of his stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and he has just received a nomination for Best of the Net.