Bill looked over at Jim, his crippled brother. Jim hunched down into his overcoat. He sensed Bill’s thoughts. Could he help it if he didn’t have but one leg? No excuse for Bill to have shouted at his father the evening before. Jim closed his eyes and saw them arguing.
"Dad, he can’t go with me," Bill said it matter of factly.
"You take him, Bill, you hear?" Dad was adamant.
"He’s just in the way, Dad, got to help him all the time," Bill whined.
"Shut up, Bill, he’s going with you… it’s final, and don’t you say another word!"
"He’s nothing but a damn cripple!" Bill shouted.
♦ ♦ ♦
They drove north in silence. The long ribbon of gravel stretched before them, white, in what promised to be a very cold day. They topped a shallow rise, and off to the right Jim saw the first fingers of sunlight reaching upwards to the infinite milky whiteness that was, as yet, indistinguishable as sky or land. He huddled down in his overcoat. His breath went out in great white streams and flattened in all directions against the side window of his brother’s T-model. He huddled deeper into his overcoat and shivered. He watched the sun, as pale as a late winter moon, rise over the eastern roll of ridges. How did that poem go? "The sun that chill… " No that wasn’t it. "The sun that brief December day - rose cheeless over hills of gray… "
The T-model coughed. A jerky, complaining cough, thick with phlegm. It rattled and squeaked as it coasted to a stop alongside the road.
"What's wrong, Bill?" Jim asked.
"Gas, I think. We forgot to fill it at home… no stations in this neck of the woods… damn few farms either."
Bill clambered out and Jim watched his gloved hand screw off the gas cap. Bill peered into the emty tank just ahead of the windscreen. Jim shivered and huddled even deeper into his coat. Bill came around to the side and jerked the door open. A cold blast of air hit the side of Jim’s face. "Goin’ for some gas," Bill announced then he slammed the door shut.
Jim listened to the crunch-crunch of Bill’s feet on the cold gravel as he walked back up the small knoll behind the car. He watched an early morning hawk gliding in tight circles, on wings as immovable as the bitter cold that surrounded it. The hawk passed between him and the sun and stood out black and sharp, with its wing feathers spread, letting cold sunlight filter through. Jim shivered. He watched the hawk, on its endless upward spiral, gliding on a cold updraft of wintry air, until it was out of sight.
The low hills, from the east, through north, and around to the west, stood out now in the diffused light. Barren, cold country. Miserable country. It must have been put there by some God, in anger. Maybe a Greek God. Boreas perhaps, had picked it up in the north somewhere, and deposited it there in its desolation. Jim sat there, shivering, in thought.
He moved his head, slowly. He closed his eyes and saw nothing but the cold, barren hills. He felt the numbness creeping up his leg. He drew it in against the seat and looked out at the cold land.
He leaned his head against the side window and looked up at the diminishing sun. "And darkly circled," he thought, "gave at noon… " He tried to remember. "A sadder light than waning moon." He couldn’t remember the next part. He looked at the frost forming on his coat. It was even building on the buttons from his breathing. "A chill no coat however stout… of homespun stuff could quite shut out." Was it Longfellow? "That hard dull bitterness of cold… the coming of the snowstorm told… " Jim dropped into frozen slumber.
♦ ♦ ♦
Just before dusk Bill topped the small rise and saw the back end of the Ford, black against the white snow. He stopped and with a gloved hand, removed the cap from the bootleg whiskey. He pulled, long and noisily at the remainder, then tossed the empty bottle into a snowbank. The flakes swirled around his head.
Bill slapped side of his numb face and staggered forward towards the T-model. He groped for the door handle.
"Jim, Jim… I’m back… couldn’t get gas, but found a full crate of whiskey… a whole crate, Jim!" Bills voice was thick from drink. "found it ’bout ten miles back… found a shed to drink it in too… sat down for a while, to get warm, Jim… Jim!" Bill shook his head. "Clean forgot to open the door," he mumbled.
He jerked on the door. It was frozen shut. He scraped the snow, with an unsteady boot, from the running board. He put the same booted foot against the side of the T-model. He leaned back, his full weight pulling on the door handle, and jerked the door open. He tumbled over backwards into the snow-filled ditch. Jim’s frozen body tipped sideways, slowly at first, and dropped silently into the snow at Bill’s feet.
"God, Jim, it’s cold down here," Bill said.
♦ ♦ ♦
The sun that brief December day - Rose cheerless over hills of gray,
And, darkly circled, gave at noon - A sadder light than waning moon.
from Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl by John Greenleaf Whittier