Writer's note: To enjoy the story to its fullest, it's advisable to first read "The mailman's journey" => https://blog.reedsy.com/short-story/ablu79/
“Two orders of wild boar stew in red wine with mushrooms, paprika and sweet mashed potatoes and two mulled wines with cinnamon, oranges and a pinch of rum. Enjoy, folks!” said Sam, the jolly moustached-giant.
“This looks amazing! Thank you!”
He went back to tidy the kitchen after preparing the meal for the two cross-country skiing enthusiasts who stopped at his inn.
“You are spoiling them, Sam,” a baritone voice came from the bar, not 2 metres away from the small kitchen window. “Why waste the good rum in boiled wine?”
“It’s mulled wine! Don’t worry, Bruce. There’s plenty more left for you. Not many people have been coming since the snow fell last month. I’m sure you’re happy about the lack of hikers, mister ranger. More time for you to give me more money.”
“Stop being a cheeky bastard and give me another one!”
“You didn’t say ‘please’,” Sam replied, poking the rugged ‘bear’.
“Pretty please, with a damn cherry on top, gimme the damn drink!” he said in a soft, melodic and sarcastic voice.
“Here you go, pal. What’s eating you today?”
Bruce took a big sip of drink, turned around towards the empty tables, rested his elbows on the bar as he leaned on it and sighed deeply. Sam grunted almost imperceptibly as he was interrupted from cleaning the bar.
“I hate this time of year! Patrolling my area is a hassle. I’m cold, I hate fighting the blizzards, bone-headed and unequipped amateurs are crying for help when - not if - they are losing the trail.”
He squinted looking at the two colourful-dressed tourists who were enjoying a somewhat-fresh hunted boar.
“I might as well go to their table and say ‘I hope your radio battery is filled. I’ll be impatiently waiting for your call to save you in a couple of hours’ ,“ he said mockingly. “That’s if they even have a radio.”
Sam smiled at his friend’s bad mood. He had an amusing way of being grouchy.
“I hate to disappoint you, Bruce, but they rented a room for the night. Lighten up! You are bringing down even ol’ Betsy over there”
Betsy was enjoying a big meaty bone near the fireplace. She was a five year old bloodhound, Sam’s hunting partner, his confidant and his best friend. She was light brown, with big, brown, gradient-like ears, a big black spot on her back and the face of an 80 year old smoking saylor. Betsy was Sam’s radar for wild boars and his bodyguard against curious bears. His faithful and loyal companion was a gift from his mother who passed away four years ago.
“Come on, Bruce. You've been a ranger for more than ten years now. What’s really bothering you?
The ranger turned back, wiggled his glass and took a sad sip.
“It’s Rebecca. We haven’t been getting along these past months. We’ve been fighting over nothing almost everyday. This morning, I stormed out as she was yelling at me.”
Sam stopped cleaning a glass and patted his friend on the shoulder without saying anything. In moments like that, listening was the best thing he could do. He knew that unsolicited advice, even with good intent, can feel like placing himself on a high moral pedestal, which would be more of a self-validation than any aid.
“I’ll put on some Queen. That will cheer you up a little.”
He walked to the other side of the dining room where he had a laptop connected to a surround system. He opened up his collection of CDs and picked up “Queen’s Greatest Hits”.
“Tonight I’m gonna have myself a real good time
I feel ali-i-i-ve”
Freddy’s unique voice sprung throughout the inn. Even the fire started swaying to the rhythm of ‘Don’t stop me now’.
When he went back, Sam was pleased to notice that Bruce was keeping the beat of the song by tapping the bar with his fingers and slowly waving his head. He left the ranger alone with his thoughts and went upstairs to tidy up.
The inn had five rooms on the upper floor, destined for hikers who want to travel further up the mountains. Each room had an electrical heater that could barely heat up to 15 degrees celsius during the winter. On the ground floor there was the dining room, the bar, the kitchen and Sam and Betsy’s bedroom.
Showering was an interesting endeavour. In the bathroom below there were two 100 litres barrel-like metal containers, filled with water which had to be brought manually from the river nearby. Inside the main barrel, there was a rubber hose connected to a pump which was fixed on the wall. To take a shower, one had to constantly pump the water from the barrel. For the cold season, Sam had improvised a fire pit in the bathroom and placed the barrels on top of it for a more pleasurable experience, but during the summer, to save time, Sam placed the barrels outside in the sun and the water would be somewhat warm, to the discontent of its guests, but beggars can’t be choosers.
The inn was enclosed by a wooden fence, with a gate on which resided a mailbox and a sign writing “Mountaineers welcomed!”.
The falling snow was gradually covering the entirety of the ranger’s Jeep, parked near the inn. The fence was gently being rocked by the power and the song of the howling wind. The inn’s windows were fighting the abuse coming from outside and slowly, battle scars were appearing on them in the form of ice flowers.
“Good thing I’ve gone hunting early this morning,” said Sam as he watched the outside spectacle from the warmth of the inn.
“Would have been better if you would have killed that boar instead of just grazing it,” said Bruce, smiling. “I could have sworn that it laughed at you as it ran away in that cave. Hell, even Betsy gave you a judgemental look. If I were her, I would make you sleep on the couch tonight.”
“How about you sleep in your Jeep tonight?” came the snarky response.
“If you give me the bottle of rum, I could sleep on the roof”
It was an overall jolly atmosphere with their banter, classic rock on the background and Betsy napping by the fire. The two guests finished their meal and went up to their room. The two men were left alone up until the door opened.
“Hurry up and close the door! My drink is freezing!” Bruce shouted.
“Keep your shirt on! The wind does not let me.”
“Hello, Mr. Albert!” Sam greeted one of his regulars. “The usual?”
“Yeah, Sam! Get me a coffee as well.” Said the old man as he cleaned himself of the snow. “Even Lucifer would freeze out there.”
“Then why did you bother to come?”
“Nice to see you too, Bruce!”
Mr. Albert was one of the few people that lived in this remote area. He lived alone with his dog and coming to Sam’s inn was his favourite pastime. No rain, nor wind, nor snow could break his will for a drink and some company. Solitude can drive a person mad.
“How’s life, Mr. Albert?” Sam asked as he opened a beer for his new guest.
“Filled with thrill and wonder,” came the sarcastic response. “It’s an abundance of joy, songs and love. A little more joy and it would come out of my nostrils.”
“So nothing new, then.”
“Take a word of advice from me, kids: don’t get old. Your back aches, your teeth fall, you cannot go to the bathroom without your glasses and you live at the speed of fifteen pees per hour. Bah!”
“I would rather grow old than face the alternative,” said Bruce as he rose to go to the bathroom.
“How was the hunt, Sam?”
“I would rather not talk about it,” he replied in shame.
“Eh! You’ll get it next time. Open up the good scotch and have a drink with me. My treat! I just got my pension today.”
“That’s great! Poor ol’ Hugh! How can he face this weather at his age, I don’t know.”
“Hugh retired. We have a new kid. He came today in skis, of all things. I guess Hugh took his ATV with him in retirement.”
“A new kid, you say? I hope he’s on his way back by now. The wind is murder!”
“I told him the same thing. I hope he listened.”
Sam brought the bottle and three glasses, opened it up and poured some fine 12 year old scotch. Its sweet scent of cinnamon and nuts filled the room.
“Put on some Michael Jackson, Sam” said Mr. Albert with his glass raised.
“Coming right up!”
The three gentlemen were talking and laughing as the evening set over the mountain. They talked about politics, sports and made fun of eachother with every occasion. It was a simple way of enjoying the little things in life. It’s a kind of serenity that only living in the mountains can bring. Nobody for kilometres on end, no traffic, no sirens, just peace.
“What was that?” Mr. Albert frowned while focusing on the mysterious sound.
“I think it was my radio. It must have caught some interference. But how? We’re far away from anybody,” Sam responded.
They continued talking and drinking.
“What the heck is with this thing?”
Sam took the radio and started turning the knobs to try to get a reception.
Mr. Albert stopped drinking, put down his glass, stood up and walked to the window. It was pitch dark and the blizzard resembled an epic fight of supernatural beings.
“No, it can’t be!” He said slowly.
Sam turned the knobs until the reception was clear. His heart skipped a beat.
“This ... Jack ... mailman ... bleeding ... help...”
“Bruce, wake up!” Sam yelled with all his might. “Call the mountain rescuers!”
It was like the alcohol in the ranger’s blood had evaporated. He stood up, picked up his radio and called the mountain rescuers.
“This is ranger Bruce calling the mountain rescuers, over!”
After a few seconds, the radio responded:
“This is Dan, head of the rescue team. Over!
“I’m calling from Sam’s inn! We’ve intercepted a distress call from the new mailman. He said he is lost and bleeding! Over!
“Understood, ranger. We are dispatching a team. The blizzard is going to make it difficult for us to reach your location. We’ll try to get there as fast as we can, but it may take up to an hour and a half. Over!”
“God dammit! He will be dead by then!” Sam said. “Bruce, get your coat! We are going after him!”
“Are you crazy? How do you expect to find him? My Jeep is snowed in and we cannot see anything!”
“Maybe Betsy can find his trail?”
“How? By imagining his scent?”
“I have the envelope he gave me today,” said Mr. Albert. “He gave it to me barehanded. Maybe there is some scent left on it for Betsy”.
Sam took the envelope, not before the old man emptied it of the cash.
“We’ll see! Bruce, get the sledge from out back. I’ll get Betsy. Besty, come here girl!”
The dog wagged her tail and came galloping to Sam. He wrapped a collar with lights around her neck and put the envelope in front of her nose.
“Here, girl! Smell this!”
He grabbed the gun for defence purposes and ran outside with the dog following.
“Go on, girl! Find him! Bruce, move your butt!”
Bruce was already panting. There was 20cm of snow to plough through and more was falling each second. They could hardly keep their eyes open. Not five minutes into the blizzard and their beards grew icicles.
Betsy was busy trying to find a trail, Sam was running behind her with a flashlight and Bruce was falling back with the sledge. Thirty minutes into the search, and still nothing. It was getting dangerous to stray so far away from the inn.
Sam was desperately trying to contact the mailman with his radio, but there was no response. They feared the worst.
After ten more minutes, they had lost hope. Even Betsy was out of ideas. She laid down, whimpering. Both men stood still, panting, looking into eachothers eyes, hopelessly. Bruce made a small gesture with his head indicating the direction to the inn and Sam, reluctantly, agreed. It was over.
All of a sudden, Betsy caught a smell, barked and started running. The two men found strength to give it one more shot and followed Betsy who disappeared into the night. Could it be that she found his scent? Or was it an animal? A few minutes later, they lost sight of her.
“Betsy!” Sam yelled
“Betsy, ol’ girl!”
He was getting scared.
Suddenly, a loud bark came from a few metres off-trail to their right.
“Stay here, Bruce! I’ll check on Betsy!” Sam tried to out-yell the blizzard.
After so much time in the frozen hell, searching without hope, fearing the death of the young mailman, he had a glimmer of hope. As he approached the circle of light that was Betsy’s collar, he saw a half-snowed-in statue-like body, with a fading headlight. Betsy was trying to pull him by the pants. He was barely breathing.
“Oh, God! Betsy, you’re a hero!”
Sam kneeled and in spite of his depleting energy reserves, picked up the human icicle and walked back to Bruce.
“You’re going to be alright, man!” he comforted the semi-conscious mailman.
“Bruce! Bring that sledge, fast! Come on, this man is dying! Hurry, hurry! Lay him down!”
The ranger got the mailman by the shoulders and gently put him on the sledge.
“Cover him with blankets! Thank God we heard him over the radio. Good job, Betsy, you ol’ bloodhound! Bruce, call the mountain rescuers, now!”
The chirps of happy birds was an indication that spring had arrived. The snow was but a thin silky sheet over ground. The hiking season started and already Sam was busy providing for his customers. It has been three months since their successful rescue mission. He heard no news about the young mailman. Maybe he had transferred? The only thing he knew was that the mailman had been recovering well.
Sam was cleaning the bar after he had served his last customer when all of a sudden, he heard a yell from outside and saw a familiar face.