Read Love After Snowfall Online

Authors: Suzanne D. Williams

Love After Snowfall (6 page)

BOOK: Love After Snowfall
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Yet here was a woman who satisfied his heart, one who could subsist on the barest essentials. They needed each other.

She’d never grieved for her spouse. Whatever had happened to Nathan Button, she blamed herself for it. Living alone out here was as much some form of punishment as it was penance. She thought to continue his dream. Perhaps, her husband would have liked that. Seemed like from her words, he was an intensely selfish man, one who thought only of what he wanted and not so much of her.

Because he’d damaged her.
He’d made her the ascetic she was. She’d deny herself any pleasure at all to somehow prove to the memory of Nathan Button she was all the things he’d wanted her to be. When all she needed to be was herself.

His shivering
ceased, and the chill inside took over. Ezekiel stared outward barely aware she’d returned or that her hands were on his cheeks or her tears dripping on his chest.

“Do not die on me,” she cried. “Do not die on me. I lost one man. I’ll not lose another.”

He motioned with his mouth, his lips forming words that stuck to his tongue. Then he shut his eyes and faded away.

 

***

 

Clementine wept, her mind returning to a place she’d prevented it from going for these many months. Nathan’s bedside, his eyes sightless at the ceiling, his hands stiffened into claws that dug at the air, and her response – screaming, frantic to raise him back up. But it wasn’t to be, and soon, the task of burying his body fell on her alone.

She’d fashioned a travois from a bit of canvas and two stout poles, shifted him onto it, and dragged him away from the house, two hundred yards or more. She’d had nothing to say over him once he was laid in the hole, and no emot
ion left from exhaustion.

It wasn’t until later,
staring at his empty plate, which she’d absentmindedly set like always, that she’d fallen apart. And relived it. And relived it.

Ezekiel Knapp
being in almost the same state was too much to bear. If he died, then so did she. For no matter how wrong it was, no matter how disrespectful of Nathan’s memory, no matter how he’d fallen into her path, crawled into her bed, kissed her lips, he was embedded in her heart deeper than Nathan had ever been.

What a fool she was to think she could turn him loose and walk away, return to the barest existence w
ith no one to talk to but Timmy. She couldn’t. She wouldn’t. She’d have him beside her, beneath her, above her, around her. She would give herself to him in whatever state he chose.

She grasped his
collar, her tears frosted on her cheeks, and shook him back and forth. “Don’t you die on me, Mr. Knapp. I didn’t come this far to let you go. The snowmobile is out; I’ve hitched up the sled; and we’ve only a few hours to ride to get there. Due west. Then help will come. Do you hear me?”

His eyes snapped back open
, and his tongue flicked over his lips. He breathed out the faintest whisper of words. “You … love … me.”

She backed away
, her hair dancing along his cheeks, and then lowered her mouth to his. He was cold, his skin wintry. “Promise me you’ll not die. Promise me.”

And
she waited, her heart in her throat, for his response.

“I … promise …
.”

 

***

 

Blackened poles stuck at awkward angles in the midst of a field of ashes. Her insides growing frosty, Clementine stared at the remains of Ezekiel’s cabin, visually picking out the few items that hadn’t been destroyed – a cook pan, the hull of the wood stove. There was no evidence of the radio.

Wandering across the space, she kicked the toe of her boot at the ground for any sign of wh
at had happened and stopped sharp at a print burnt into the remains of the doorway. She crouched and laid her hand inside. Same size. Same pattern as what she’d seen outside her place.

She sniffed the air.
Gasoline. Someone had set this fire.

Ezekiel had been trapping for a couple days before he’d met her. Whoever shot him could have burnt his cabin and caught up, but only i
f they were experienced enough at tracking. Even for an experienced tracker it would be a hard hike over terrain that could kill the best of men.

T
hat meant this was deliberate. Someone was after Ezekiel Knapp. Why? He’d given no indication he had any enemies here and had behaved with her as a peaceful man.

Which brought to mind another thought.
They hadn’t killed him, but injured him instead. Why wait until he was away from home to do that?

She headed back toward the sled.
None of that mattered right now because he needed help, and she wouldn’t find it here. This meant more delay, more time without his receiving medical care, and him in an already tenuous state of health.

She knelt down
beside the sled, taking hold of his hand. “We’ve got to go further,” she said. “Find somewhere indoors and warm tonight. There’s nothing left here.”

She’d not
stop until they found shelter or she ran out of gas. She kept that to herself. Hopefully, it wouldn’t come to that.

Ezekiel h
ad to be made warm. The cold would be too much for him. She buried her fear and remounted the snowmobile.

E
ach mile appeared the same as the last, an infinite ice-covered wasteland with no sign of anything or anyone. Come late afternoon, her fear returned. What if there
was
no one to find? What if she wasted her time and he died? Once again, it’d be her fault.

She could have saved Nathan, but she’d refused to go for help.
I can handle it
, she’d told him, though he’d protested again and again.

Fool woman. Take the dog and go.

But she’d wanted to prove something, prove she was all the things he’d asked her to be.

Clementine slowed and glanced behind. There was nothing left to prove this time. Ezekiel had already shown her
what weaknesses were. Faced with his presence, his demands, she’d given in, just like she had with Nathan.

Come with me to Alaska,
he’d said.

She’d stared into his eyes, contemplating his
grand words. And protested.
Alaska? But Nathan, that’s so far.

It’s where I
want to be, and if you love me …

The memory faded.

She turned her gaze forward to an opening in the trees and swerved the snowmobile left in an arc. The opening spread wider toward a frozen pond surrounded by beaver-gnawed tree trunks. She dismounted and tested the ice, walking out a few feet. A shape on the opposite side caught her eye. Pointed, wrapped in canvas.

“Teepees.”

Her heart pounding in her chest, she returned to the snowmobile and drove out onto the pond. She crossed it in minutes and pulled up outside the cone-shaped home. It’d bring warmth. A fire inside would heat the walls, and she could warm him and buy some time.

She set to work, shifting him off
the sled and through the door. Weariness pulled at her small body. He was more and more difficult to handle as he grew sicker. Hauling him inside, she made him a bed and wrapped him tight, pausing only long enough to capture her breath and a last thread of energy before exiting to gather wood for a fire.

A
curl of smoke whisking out the flap overhead, she collapsed at last, lying beside him and nodding off. She awakened hours later, the glow of the fire low and Ezekiel’s breath blowing on her neck. She peeled herself away to restock the flames, then uncovered him and checked his leg. The infection was worse, and his skin scalding.

He needed some form of nourishment, but was most likely past
consuming solid food. She’d make a broth.

Melting snow in
an iron pot, she dropped in a portion of meat and a few bones and set them to simmer, then dug out a bowl and sat it at the edge of the flames.

Ezekiel’s cough spun her around. He stared up at her. “Clem.”

She dropped to his side, her hand on his cheek.

“Thought maybe I was dead and this was heaven, seeing you
here.”

She
scowled. “I’m hardly fit for heaven, and you promised not to die.”

His face became a grimace. “Working … on that …”

“I’m making you some broth,” she said. “It’s important to get nourishment in you.”

He nodded and looked past her at the teepee. “Where’s … where’s the cabin? We didn’t reach it?”

The cabin. She’d known he wasn’t conscious when she’d spoken earlier.

“We got there,” she said, “
but it was gone. Someone burnt it to the ground.”

“Burnt? But …”

“It was on purpose,” she added.

He silenced.

“Who is after you? Why would they burn your cabin and chase so far to shoot you in the leg?”

He exhaled. “There was a story I heard when I first built there.” He paused to gather himself. “
Story said someone had buried gold there years ago. George …” He gave a loud grunt.

“George?
The man who told you about teepees?”

He nodded, his cheek scrubbing the bedding. “This one’s his.”

She glanced around the circular walls. It was snug and appeared to be well-built.

“Lie with me, Clem.”

She curled herself beneath the blankets at his side, her face turned toward his.

He brushed her lips with his own.
“Does me good to feel you there,” he whispered.

She wrapped an arm about him.

“Did I imagine it, or did you cry over me?” he asked.

“It wa
s a weak moment. I … I thought you were dying.”

He laughed softly, the sound pleasing to her ears, but strained in his throat with
evident pain.

“I don
’t see what’s funny about that,” she replied. “Nathan died, and I was left here with no one.”

Ezekiel clutched her hand
s between them. “Tell me what happened. I want to know.”

She closed her eyes, tears welling
upward. She could no longer keep it to herself. He wanted to know, and he deserved to know.

The truth fell out.
“I shot him.”

 

***

 

Ezekiel sucked in a faltering breath. “You … you did?”

Unexpected.
He’d pictured her husband’s death in many ways, mostly illness, but never injury and not at her hands. She was so capable now.

She bobbed her head, and a sob escaped.
“In the chest. I was green and didn’t have good aim, but thought to impress him. I didn’t know he’d gone that direction. I heard the noise in the bushes and fired.”

Her sob became a wail.
“Don’t die, Nathan. Please, don’t die. I didn’t mean to. I wanted to be what you’ve asked of me. I wanted to learn.”


Shhh …” Ezekiel made the sound and laid his palm on the back of her head. “It’s me, Ezekiel, not Nathan, and I’m alive.”

She flipped her face upward and grasped at his cheeks, drawing the
ir mouths together. Her hunger was evident in the motion, and desperation, and grief. She moved her lips to his cheeks. “I love you,” she said. “I love you.”

But what of that was for Nathan and what was for him? He kept his question inside.

She stilled at last, her fingers clutching at him. “He lived only one day afterward. I should have gone for help, but didn’t. I was too afraid to see people again, too embarrassed by my failure. You’re right. I’m a fool. I’ve lived out here alone to be what he wanted of me.”

“You don’t have to do that anymore. Marry me, Clem, like I asked.”

Her kiss this time was tender. She buried her face in his chest. “Is this why God brought us together?”

“I think sometimes …” Ezekiel began. “Sometimes God sees two people’s hearts an
d knows how they’ll match. Kind of like puzzle pieces. I used to do these great, big puzzles with my mom. She’d do the same scenes over and over again, and sometimes, after so many attempts, they’d turn up missing a piece. That bugged her to no end, so she’d carve one out of paper and position it inside. But, you know, it was never really as right as the piece that was supposed to be there.”

Clementine clutched at him, her hands wound in the fabric of his shirt, as if he’d fade from view otherwise.

“I think me and you are supposed to be,” he said, “and God knew that.”

“W
hat of Nathan?” she asked.

“Nathan made you who you are, and I have no regrets about that. I fell in love with the girl who could shoot a moose and carve it up while toting around a man shot in the leg.”

“Is this love?”

He brought her face toward his. “How did you feel when you knew you loved Nathan?”

Her forehead wrinkled. “Giddy. Outside of myself.”

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