by Dave Gregory
Eight brown horses, sporting thick wool blankets, stood on solid ice, exhaling mist. Two chomped on a bale of hay inside a red, temporary barn while the rest twitched expectantly, anticipating their morning run.
Bundled in dark, shabby garments, a wiry, lone man watched with fondness, yet softly cursed the steed who’d disappointed him in yesterday’s races. ‘Kept my unlucky streak alive, didn’ ya, Sentinel?’
A second person approached – same height, equally scruffy but his dark, wavy hair contained a few more strands of grey. ‘Tom, it’s time to go.’ His tone was practiced but lethargic. ‘Crystal don’t like to wait.’
‘Aw, gimme a minute.’
The second man hesitated, then confronted him: ‘How much did’ya lose yesterday?’
The gambler turned in anger. ‘How’d ya even know I lost?’
‘Didn’t – ’til now. Christ, I can’t keep beggin’ advances to keep Mac Neil off yer hide.’
‘No one’s asked ya to, Fred. I got it under control.’
‘Doubt it, baby brother.’
Tom’s attention returned to the racehorses. They were sleeker than Crystal, the jet-black mare they worked to near-exhaustion each day. Crystal’s primary purpose was hauling, not speed, though Tom felt certain she could compete against the finest assembled before him. He imagined the thrill of being hitched behind her as she surveyed her competition. Such a light load would be a treat for her.
‘Let’s skedaddle. Crystal’s waitin’ to help us make a little money,’ Fred pointed his thumb toward the ice-harvesters gathering farther out on the lake. He found it exhausting to be in charge of someone so irresponsible.
Tom hated being bossed around. ‘How d’ya think Crystal’d fare ’gainst these scraggly mules?’
Fred threw back his head and exhaled. ‘Ya wanna run a work horse ’gainst racers? Ain’tcha got enough debt already?’
‘But Crystal knows the lake better. Just think, ice racin’ is about confidence as much as anything. With me in control, she’d beat any contender.’
‘Tom, yer never gonna find out. What? Ya think Glendenning’ll just letch’ya take her away. Where in her eighteen hour day’s there gonna be time for harness racin’?’
Tom hung his head low. ‘All right, it was just a wild idea.’
‘And where ya hidin’ a harness? Or was Glendenning gonna give ya one a those, too?’
‘I said “All right,” already!’
‘Still haven’t admitted how much ya owe Mac Neil.’
Tom looked at his boots and confessed: ‘Fifteen.’
‘Dollars!’ Fred put both hands on his head and shouted: ‘That’s the price of a bed for two weeks, plus a few rounds of Pale Ale.’
‘Don’cha think I know that?’
‘Mother of God.’ Fred grabbed Tom’s arm and pushed him ahead, marching his younger brother across the lake.
Tom and Fred were among two hundred seasonal employees who harvested 125,000 tons of Nova Scotian ice during a six-week stretch from Christmas to early February. Although electric refrigeration was rapidly replacing pre-war era iceboxes, most men on the lake were unaware of this trend.
Using power saws and crow bars, they cut sheets of ice in a grid-like pattern. Floating slabs, larger than a barn door, were hooked and pulled along freshly carved channels extending to the southernmost shore. There, Tom, Fred and dozens of others, hitched ice to teams of horses who hauled it to Glendenning’s Ice House, where it was sliced into two foot slabs and stored between layers of sawdust. All through spring, summer, and well into autumn, buyers as far south as Massachusetts and as far east as Quebec, purchased blocks of Banook ice for pennies a pound.
Though the harvest scarred much of the lake, ice skating, curling and harness racing took place each weekend on a reserved section of the frozen surface. Races meant wagering, which attracted bookkeepers – fearsome creatures like Mac Neil; big as an ox, only red-hot hatred glowed in his bitter green eyes. His curly bronze beard was thick and flecked with grey. He’d spent time in jail and was known to beat debtors owing as little as one dime.
Mac Neil knew exactly where to find Tom. Once the noon payment deadline passed, he pinpointed the luckless gambler in a crowd of ice-cutters, on a low makeshift bench near shore. Approaching from behind, he boxed him on his left ear.
‘Pay up or meet your fate,’ he shouted, the fog of his breath shot like daggers, before dispersing on a brisk wind.
Dropping his meagre lunch of cold toast, Tom leapt over the bench and came at Mac Neil with more mettle than anyone expected. Bone cracked as he landed a devastating blow to Mac Neil’s jaw. A crowd gathered, chanting and shouting. Trapping his opponent in a fierce stranglehold, Tom seemed taller and more broad-shouldered than anyone remembered.
With Mac Neil in a headlock, Tom dragged the flailing body toward the ice bridge separating the lake’s two largest worksites. Throwing someone into subzero waters was a foolish way to win a fight, since both parties usually landed in the freezing drink, but Tom was known for bad choices. Dazing his victim with solid, underhanded blows to the face, Tom pushed the aggressor over the edge.
Fred, who’d been unsuccessfully coaxing a loan from the paymaster, arrived in time to watch Mac Neil topple backward into the frigid lake. Falling, Mac Neil made a frenzied grab at anything in reach. He caught the edge of Tom’s scarf and yanked him forward but lost his grip before hitting the water, which splattered at Tom’s feet. Arms out, unable to regain his balance, Tom attempted a frantic retreat and appeared to run backward while a mysterious, magnetic force lured him into the frosty abyss.
Dozens of onlookers either cheered or cursed – depending on whom they’d placed their bets. Fred’s whispered prayer failed to keep Tom upright.
Following the splash, the crowd transformed from spectators to lifesavers. Emergency protocols were in place, drills were frequent and the men took pride in their response times. Rescue teams for each fighter—each victim—rushed in with ropes and lassos ready.
Mac Neil kept fighting and gained the upper hand, forcing his opponent’s head underwater until a lariat landed with a splash nearby. Mac Neil slipped into the loop and a horse pulled him to safety. Wrapped in a blanket, ice in his beard, he remained combative, unlike his rival whose eyes glazed over as the lake flooded his lungs. Deflated, sinking, Tom managed to find Fred’s lasso and slipped his head and one arm through – which prevented his neck from snapping as Crystal hauled him out.
Tom’s hands and face were purple, his fingers curled into shaking, fragile fists. Mac Neil watched, spitting on the ice at regular intervals, as four men lifted Tom and carried him toward a house on the lakefront, with a hearth and blazing fire.
Tom’s chattering teeth went silent and someone shouted: ‘He’s not breathing.’
‘Drop him, drop him,’ Fred screamed and watched as they lowered his unresponsive brother. Pools of liquid flowed from Tom’s wet clothing. It solidified and cemented him in place. Fred administered mouth to mouth, followed by brutal chest pounding until Tom, by some miracle, coughed and sputtered.
‘Let’s get him inside,’ Fred commanded.
As the rescue team lifted, a patch of Tom’s tattered, black jacket tore away, frozen to the ice.
Meanwhile, Crystal, used to hauling and familiar with crowds and bustle, noticed nothing out of the ordinary. Experience taught her the ice bridge was as solid as any plot of earth she’d ever walked on. Standing at the edge, she lowered her head for a cold drink.
Freshly splashed water made a glossy new surface beneath her hooves. Ice shifted under the weight of lingering spectators. Soft crackling and pinging, followed by a hollow groan, went unnoticed in the commotion. Beneath Crystal’s great mass, the surface tilted toward the waterline. Her front hoof slid forward.
It was a most unexpected sensation. Raising her head full height, she noticed the other foreleg also moved. Lifting one hoof, intending to firmly replant it, she lost all traction. Both forelegs hit the water and she went in, head first.
Crystal had never been so startled.
When she resurfaced, her terrifying screams sounded human. Everyone heard the splash, and her desperate plea, but little could be done. Getting a noose round Crystal’s neck and strangling her into unconsciousness was their only chance. Once stilled, they could lift her and, with luck, revive her – but these attempts failed more often than they succeeded.
Reinvigorated rescue crews gathered every rope, including those half-frozen to Mac Neil and Tom’s shivering bodies. Missing their mark each time, the lassos became entangled in Crystal’s flailing limbs.
Inside the lake house, Tom heard Crystal’s screams and summoned his remaining strength.
‘Stay down, stay warm,’ Fred pinned his brother to the floor. ‘Ain’t nothin’ we can do.’
Frantic squeals of terror penetrated their souls. Severely weakened, Tom continued to struggle, but Fred kept him down. Tears filled Tom’s eyes as he listened in horror – until silence came and he learned what many already knew: the difference between a live horse, and a dead one, was an agonizing seven minutes in icy Banook.
Dave Gregory reads historical markers as he wanders and later fashions stories from what he has learned. He is an Associate Editor with Exposition Review and a Fiction Reader for journals on both sides of the Atlantic. His publication credits include The Nashwaak Review, The Lindenwood Review and Sky Island Journal. Dave’s story “Eighteen Dollar Shoes” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Bull & Cross in 2018.