Nahum struck the axe into the chopping block and raised his hands, turning slowly to face the lawman. “You be careful with that sidearm, son. Making me a might nervous, it must be said.”
“On your knees,” the lawman said. His voice had the quality of marbles rubbing together in a white-knuckled grip. “Hands behind your head.”
Nahum closed his eyes to keep them from rolling. How old was this kid? Thirty? “Look, son, my knees don’t bend so good anymore. Not in this kind of cold. But I’ve got coffee on the stove and a fire going back inside. Let’s just warm up for a minute, what do you say?”
The boy adjusted his footing and blinked snow from his eyes. “On your knees, old man. Go on then.”
Nahum’s lip curled involuntarily. “I can’t.”
A gust of wind roared through the trees, bringing with it a fresh dusting of snow that clung to the kid’s entire left side. Nahum felt the cold in his bones, and he’d only been out for a few minutes. “I can’t run anymore,” he said. “I’m caught. I surrender. But you look like you’re about to keel—"
“Shut up! Get on your knees!”
“Let’s just sit by the fire and have ourselves a cup of coffee. You can smell that coffee, can’t you?”
“I heard what you said!” Nahum lowered his hands and took a step forward, staring the younger man down, ignoring the quivering revolver. “I already told you, I ain’t getting down on my knees. You can call it resisting arrest. A doctor would call it arthritis. It’s all the same to me. But I’m about to go inside that cabin and enjoy one last cup of coffee as a free man. I’m going to let that fire warm my bones. Then we can have our little adventure getting off this mountain in a blizzard.”
Nahum turned his back on the speechless lawman. He fought the urge to scratch the back of his head, where he was sure the gun was pointed. He made no sudden movements aside from his stomping march inside the cabin, leaving the door open behind him. By the time he had filled two mugs of coffee, the lawman was stomping snow from his boots and pushing the door shut with his heel. The gun was still trained on Nahum, but the kid’s eyes had landed on the fire. His jaw went slack.
Nahum put the coffee on the table, scooted a chair out for his guest, and rested his back against the counter. “There's wood up here, but tinder's hard to come by with an axe as dull as mine.”
The kid’s knees looked ready to fold. “H-how much have you burned?”
Nahum shrugged. “I don’t keep count.”
The kid pulled a black notebook from his pocket and scanned the first few pages, flipping through with his thumb, trying to keep the gun steady in his other hand. His eyes darted between Nahum, the fire, and the book. “Says here you made off with at least twenty grand.”
Nahum took a sip, then crossed the little room to the woodstove. He grabbed a wad of cash from the pile and tossed it into the flames, stabbing it a few times with a rusty poker. “Sounds about right,” he said, watching the bills curl in the heat.
The kid slumped into the chair at the table, his expression as blank and pale as the valley outside. “But why? Why would you…?”
Nahum took a photograph off the wall, brushing a film of dust from the top of the frame. A tired-looking woman stared back from behind the oval of glass, her features gaunt, her smile sad. She was propped up by pillows, and a doctor's bag sat open beside her. “She didn’t have much of a chance, even if we did have the money to operate. But I was always good at beating the odds, you see. I had to try.”
A determined gust whistled through the gaps in the walls, making the fire gutter and crackle.
“I wasn’t there when she died,” Nahum continued, setting the photograph in front of the kid. “I got the money, but I ain’t never been so poor.”
For the first time, the lawman allowed his aim to waver. Gravity drew the barrel toward the floor as strength left his arm. “This was your wife?”
“Forty-six years,” Nahum said with a heavy nod.
“She was lovely.”
Nahum drew a shaky breath. “You have no idea.”
The kid put his notebook on the table, watching the drafts play with the pages. There were endless notes, some neat, others illegible. There was even a halfway-decent sketch of Nahum, done in soft pencil with a question mark floating above the head. “I didn’t really expect to find you up here,” the kid said. “Wasn’t even sure it was you we were looking for.”
Nahum took another sip. “Well,” he said, “you’ve earned your keep, son, I’ll give you that.”
The kid looked around the room, then fixed his stare on the photograph. A long silence, and then, “I don’t suppose you’d be here if I came back tomorrow.”
Nahum straightened and set his cup down. “No, I don’t suppose I would.”
“Maybe you have enough cash left to get yourself across the border.”
“It is possible.”
The lawman sighed and holstered his weapon. “I’ll still be coming after you, mister. And if our paths were to cross again, that would be the end of it, understand? This is your only shot.”
Nahum let a tear escape the tangle of his eyelashes, leaving an icy trail down his cheek. “I understand.”
The kid picked up his little black notebook and tapped it on the table, then walked to the woodstove and tossed it in. “And here I thought I might get a promotion out of this,” he said with a sigh. He returned to the table, took a long swig of his coffee, tipped his hat and said, “Sorry for your loss.”
Nahum watched the lawman fade into the storm, then rushed for the woodstove, slapping and blowing and cursing to save as many bills as he could. The ploy had only cost him a few hundred, by the look of it. He made sure every last ember had died before stuffing it all into a burlap sack. He swiped the photograph from the table and kissed the cold glass sweetly. “Lady, I don’t know who you are, but you’re the best partner I ever did have.”