“Jerry, how are those matches holding up?” Steve asked, blowing on his frozen hands. “Can you get that kindling lit?”
“Shit, no,” Jerry swore. “I’ve got three left and I can’t feel my fingers. Can’t feel a damn thing.”
Those were not the words Steve wanted to hear. It was twenty degrees below zero. If they didn’t get a fire going soon, they were going to freeze to death.
Jerry fumbled lighting the match he was attempting to hold. It flared for a moment and then fell from his numb fingers into the snow, sizzled and went out. Two matches to go.
Next to them the rushing water of the Yellow Knife River cascaded over ice covered boulders on its way to Lake Superior ten miles to the east. Steve and Jerry had been on a winter hiking trip along the trail that ran high above the river when the ledge of snow they were on collapsed and they tumbled thirty feet down the steep slope into the frigid water below. In just seconds they were both not only soaked but numbingly cold. They scrambled out and found a level spot in the snow. Steve had sprained his wrist. It was up to Jerry to build the fire.
That had been fifteen minutes ago. A combination of wet stick matches and a wind swirling down the canyon walls made lighting a fire difficult. They’d built a small teepee of twigs and pine needles but getting it to light was proving next to impossible. With two matches to go, their prospects were grim.
Steve moved closer to Jerry. In a gesture of profound intimacy, he motioned to his friend, “Give me your hands.”
When Jerry balked, Steve said, “Don’t give me that macho BS.” He motioned again and said, softly, “Here, let me help.” Steve took his friend’s bare hands in his and, ignoring the pain in his wrist, drew them to his lips and blew on them, warming them with his breath.
After a minute, Jerry said, “That good. Thanks, man. They’re better. I can feel my fingers, now.”
He took the second match and struck it against the side of the match box. Nothing. It was too wet. On the second try it broke apart and fell to the snow.
The two men looked at each other. They were in their mid-thirties and had been best friend since grade school. Now it all came down to this. The sun was setting behind the pine trees lining the rim of the canyon. With the lack of sunlight the cold was settling in deep and hard.
Jerry took the last match, resolve set in his eyes. He looked at Steve. “Let’s do this.”
“Go for it, man,” Steve said.
Jerry struck the match. Both men watched, their lives hanging in the balance, as it flamed…flickered…then caught.
They quickly built a roaring fire. There was hope for them yet.
JIM BATES lives in a small town twenty miles west of Minneapolis, Minnesota. His stories have appeared in CafeLit, The Writers’ Cafe Magazine, A Million Ways, Cabinet of Heed, Paragraph Planet and Mused – The BellaOnline Literary Review. You can also check out his blog to see more: http://www.theviewfromlonglake.wordpress.com.
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