Alicia brushed the snow from the fur on her hood and stamped noisily on the rough pine floor. She heaved the bucket she was carrying onto the hook above the fire. The chunks of snow in the pail hesitated for a second, then fell lower and began to shrink and disappear. Alicia tossed a log into the flames and stood clapping her hands in the weak heat. She raised her eyes to the ceiling and mouthed a few words in prayer.
Reverently, she lifted a hunting knife from the mantel and fingered the faded letters on the handle. “Where are you, James?” she whispered. She slowly cut across four marks on the board-wall behind the mantel. She stepped back and stared at her tallies.
Her mind drifted away. She pictured her fiance standing in the doorway of the one-room cabin. She imagined his black curls bobbing up and down on his head. She remembered how he used to run through the woods on his long, thin legs. She thought of his darting blue eyes, and of the hand that always kneaded her back so firmly, yet so gently; and of the cheery bubbling voice that always hailed her.
She dropped the knife and whirled towards the door. Her face fell when she saw the visitor. “Tom, you frightened me!”
“Awfully sorry, ma’am. Still waiting for that poor man? I hate to say this, but I don’t think you’ll be seeing him again. Have you seen the weather coming on?”
“No, and I don’t want your feet under my roof. Please, leave!”
“I beg your pardon. I just wanted to see if I could help you here in any way.”
“I’m managing just fine.”
“Goodnight to you then! You are a tough one.”
Alicia said nothing and turned back to the wall. She waited until the door slammed shut again and scuffed across the room to the small window. In the gathering gloom, she could only just make out the bank of clouds sitting on the horizon. It was blacker than the surrounding twilight. Alicia sucked in her breath sharply and ran outside.
The woodpile behind the barn lay under a mound of snow. She frantically tore at it and began tugging at the frozen logs. She soon had an armload free. She ran to the house, threw them in the doorway and ran back to the barn.
The wind already swirled and tossed Alicia back and forth. She threw her small weight into it and fought to the house. She flung her coat and collapsed onto the bed. For a minute she listened to the eerie moaning of the blizzard. Then she remembered nothing more.
She awoke in a cold sweat. The room was bright around her. A square of sunlight flowed from the one small window. She strained to capture her last memory. She had woken once, tossing and turning in the dark. It seemed like days ago. The blizzard was still beating itself against the walls. She remembered the headache she had.
She suddenly sat halfway up. Wasn’t there someone in the room? How long had passed since then anyway? Her head still ached. She rolled onto her stomach and closed her eyes.
Her mind raced, keeping her from sleep. Eventually, she sat up and
slid down to the floor. She fell and rested against the wall, breathless. She gathered her strength and stumbled to the fireplace and clung onto it for support. A heap of cold ashes lay white and lifeless in the hearth. She noticed all her logs stacked neatly beside. She groped for the knife, but it was gone. She glanced up at the wall and looked for her row of marks. There was no trace. Every board was smooth and bare.
“How can it be?” she moaned, and collapsed into a chair.
She crawled to the bed and threw the covers violently over her. She dozed again, and lay between waking and sleeping.
When she finally woke again, it was bright morning again and all was still. She lay and listened to the sounds. A robin serenaded its mate in the pine near the window. Whenever it paused, Alicia heard something else – water dripped from the roof and the trees and tumbled onto the windowsill. She crept to the window, guiding herself along the wall, and peeked out. Already a rivulet ran past the house.
“When spring comes...” she said vaguely, and broke into spasms of sobs.
Her head reeled. With an effort she pulled herself across the floor. She ran her hands along the board as though her tally marks would appear. Dust tumbled from her hand. She could see now the white patch of wood that stood out among the soot-stained boards.
“It wasn’t a dream, then,” she muttered.
Weak as she was, she groped to her bare pantry. She tore a sack from a shelf and frantically shoved into it the little food she could find. She slung it over her shoulder and yanked the door open. The ground was covered in dirty slush that gathered as pools in the little hollows. The shoots on the pine trees were fresh and bright, and tiny cones peeked out among the needles. The air was thick with their fragrance.
Alicia stood for a moment, resting. Then she trudged down the muddy track and disappeared among the hills and greenery.
As if by a spell, the cabin and the valley stood in silence. The birds ceased to sing and the snow slid noiselessly to the stream in the bottom of the dell. The sun climbed, burning weakly, and fell again behind a hill.
In the twilight Tom loped to the door, whistling a careless tune. He paused to knock. When there came no answer, he gently pressed the door inwards. He walked familiarly to the lamp, lit it, and wandered around the square room. He inspected each wall with his fingers and smiled, satisfied. Then he turned to the bed with a start. The covers lay in a mound at the foot of the bed. The house was empty.
A grim expression spread across his face. He paced to the chest near the fireplace and rummaged among the clothes. He pulled out a leather case and checked the revolver inside. With it, he strode out into the night.
By the time the twilight faded into darkness, Tom found himself in a clearing in the woods. He shivered and looked about him. Nearby, a river rushed past noisily. The full moon emptied a blue glow into the clearing, and dimmed all the stars by comparison. He lit a fire and stared moodily at it. His stomach twisted, and he weighed up his chances of finding game in the woods.
As he contemplated, a branch snapped behind him. He pulled the revolver from its pouch on his belt and aimed it into the darkness. The night was still again, and the shadows were empty.
He dropped wearily onto a stump and turned to face the fire.
“Have you any food for a starving man?” a voice said behind him.
He lifted the gun again and turned to face the man standing in the edge of the firelight. His waistcoat and trousers were begrimed and hung loosely around his emaciated body. A fur hat was the only appropriate piece of clothing against the cold.
“Yes. It’s me, Tom. I’m near to starving. What have you got to eat there?”
“Nothing. I left as soon as I found Alicia gone.”
James swaggered forward and looked into Tom’s face. He leaned close enough for Tom to smell his sour breath of alcohol and feel his bristly chin touching his own. “What did you do?”
“Nothing, I only… ”
“Don’t lie! I know you. You’ve murdered her.”
“Never! I came out here to look for the poor soul. She must have fled.”
“Now what would make her do such a thing? Let me think. Ah, you took it, didn’t you? And you carved out all of those precious marks. Don’t try to fool me, fool!”
“I just… ”
“No excuses now. You took it, and you’ve as good as killed her. That’s what you wanted all along – you would have her dead!”
“And you would have her live – with such a man as you know you are! Did you ever tell her where you found that knife she keeps so dearly for your sake?”
“Ha! Now you’re trying to play my game! Isn’t it funny that it’s owner happened to have the same name as me. But all of that is in the past now. She’s promised to marry me in the spring.”
“She only loves you because you’ve hidden your true nature for so long!”
“You’re exaggerating. James always did get excited over cards. When he raised that knife at me, I had to defend myself.”
“Liar! Had your hand been steadier from the drink, I would have lain beside him. Now tell me where Alicia is!”
“It’s a pity I missed you the first time.” James pulled a pistol from his pocket and fired. In the same moment, his arm dropped and he clutched his shoulder. He collapsed to the snow, and lay moaning.
Tom walked to the riverbank and drew the knife from his coat pocket. He let it lie on his outstretched palms, looking at it fondly. Convulsively, he threw it as far as he could into the turbid water. He watched the spot for some seconds after it disappeared, then returned and knelt beside the wounded man.
James spoke in a pained whisper. “She’s near the river,” he mumbled. “She knows it – all of it. But she’s almost gone.”
Tom drew in his breath.
“Find her?” a voice broke in above him.
“No, sheriff,” he said. “I’ve got the wanted man. We need to hurry now! The lady won’t make it long.”
“Ah! He ran, but he couldn’t hide. He’ll answer for all of his crimes in court. I expect it won’t go well with him. But that can wait. Now, where was this lady last seen?”
“Search the riverbank!”
Tom raced beside the water ahead of the sheriff. He soon saw the wan figure on her back in the snow. “Alicia!” he called, kneeling. Alicia opened her eyes for a second, and a few tears spilled out.
“Sheriff, hurry! She’s alive, barely.”
The sheriff joined Tom by her side. “The cold’s getting to her. We need to get her to town fast!”
Grasses and blossoms sprang up in the soft, dry ground. The pines wore a thick covering of pale green. Robins and jays competed to fill the woods with their song. Tom sat listlessly on his doorstep, fingering his axe.
Just then, a horse’s hooves thumped the soft turf. The sheriff stopped short just in front of him.
Tom leapt up and burst out, “How’s…”
“… Alicia? Stronger every day. She left a message for you.”
“What did she say?”
The sheriff urged his horse and cantered down the road. Tom stood still for a moment by the cabin.
“You’re welcome,” he said to the trees. “Yes, it will soon be like old times.”
He swung his axe to his shoulder, and mingled his whistle with those of the spring birds. Then he bounded away until the last echo vanished among the conifers.