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Submitted by Dave Free on 20 November 2006 - 2:26pm.

As Steve climbed from the jeep, the cold mountain air took his breath away. “Brrrr! I thought you said we were supposed to be able to ski without our shirts on!”

Hank rolled his eyes. “You really are a baby, you know that? It will be plenty warm when the sun gets up. Put on your coat and let’s go get our passes before the line gets any longer.”

Steve unzipped the inside pocket of his his parka and dug out some money. Handing it to Hank he said, “No you go get the passes. I’ll meet you in the lodge. I’m going to get some hot chocolate and check out the female situation.”

Hank considered arguing but thought better of it, “Whatever you say. 'U da man' today.” He turned and trudged off to the ticket booth.

Steve pulled his jacket on, checked his hair in the rearview mirror, then put on his new sunglasses. The sun wouldn’t be up for another thirty minutes or so, but the hundred dollar glasses were too nice to leave stuffed in a pocket somewhere. As he walked to the lodge, he began to feel better about the prospects for the day. He had felt some remorse for his outburst at the kitchen table this morning, but after talking with Hank he felt much better. He really hadn’t meant to get that angry but, as Hank suggested, it was probably the only way to get his point across. He smiled as he thought about the chair crashing to the ground. It was purely accidental, but it sure added emphasis to his speech.

As he reached the door of the lodge Steve looked up at the surrounding mountains. The sun was just reaching the snow-covered peaks and the crystal blue sky provided a brilliant backdrop. “This is what it is all about.” Steve thought to himself. “Freedom, beautiful surroundings, good friends. This is life.”

The quest for available females didn’t turn out as Steve had hoped. He ordered two hot chocolates from a “lunch lady”--hair net and all--and took a seat next to a window with a good view of the mountain. The chocolate was scorching hot, but the heat of the cup felt good on his hands. It was just getting cool enough to sip when Hank walked in and took the seat across the table.

“Any luck with the women folk?”

Steve shook his head and grimaced. “Not unless you’re into lunch ladies.”

Hank smiled. “Cheer-up man. The skiing is going to be hot. I saw some babes in the ticket line. New shades?” Hank pointed at the glasses on the table next to Steve.

“Yeah, a hundred big ones. Nice uh?” Steve picked them up and handed them to Hank for his inspection.

“Not bad, not bad at all. Are they x-ray?”

“What?” Steve replied incredulously.

“X-ray. You know like those glasses they used to advertise in Boy’s Life. Seems like they were $5.99. Heck, for a hundred bucks you ought to be able to see through mountains!”

Steve chuckled. “Don't be so jealous dude!”

Hank smiled in return. “Me jealous? I don’t think so. I’m just glad you got them when you did, you’re going to need all the help you can get to keep up with me on the slopes today.”

“Listen to you! I’m the one that’s always waiting at the bottom for you. A thousand dollars worth of skis and you’re still snow-plowing.”

Hank smiled calmly. “You know, there’s one way to find out who’s the better skier.”

“I’m listening.” Steve replied.

Hank continued, “From now until lunch, every run is a race. We’ll alternate choosing the course. We ride the lift together and the first one back to the bottom wins that race. Whoever has the most wins by twelve noon is the better skier.”

Steve smiled, this is what he liked about Hank, the competition, the challenge, always squeezing everything he could out of life. But this morning, just racing wasn’t enough. They’d raced plenty of times. This morning it had to mean something. Steve had declared his liberty and know he was going to exercise it. “Sounds good to me,” he replied, “but I think we should make it more interesting.” Hank looked up from his hot chocolate and Steve went on, “If I win, I drive your jeep like it was mine for a month.”

“And if I win?” Hank asked.

“If you win, the glasses are yours.” Hank smiled and nodded. “You got yourself a deal big man.” He went to hand the glasses back to Steve and then thought better of it. “I don’t think I want you wearing these today. You might scratch them or something.”

Steve gave him a sarcastic smile, stood up and and took the glasses out of his hand. “You better go drive your jeep one last time. I’ll be driving home.”

Hank rolled his eyes, took one more sip of his hot chocolate, and followed Steve out the door.

By eleven thirty the shirts were off and the score was even. Steve was more at home on the moguls and had won every time the course included a number of them. Hank was like a banshee on the straight-aways.

“Dude, last run before twelve.” said Hank checking his watch as they settled onto the chair lift. “You've picked the course three times and I've picked the course three times. It’s my turn again, but I was thinking we ought to do anything goes. First one to the bottom by any course wins. What’d ya say?”

“Henry you are a gentleman and a scholar. But that’s not going to keep me from thrashing you. It starts as soon as the skis hit the snow.” The conversation died and they both sat in silence for several minutes as the lift took them higher and higher up the mountain. Competition had been a part of their friendship from the beginning, but this was the first time Steve could remember having actually bet something on it. Somehow it felt different. It was definitely challenging and exciting, but it did nothing for the friendship. Right now, more than anything, Steve wanted Hank to lose. “Well, too late to go back now.” He thought to himself as as the shack at the top of the lift came into view. As soon as his tips hit the snow he jumped off the seat and dug with both poles. “I’ll order lunch for you at the bottom!” He yelled over his shoulder at Hank as he dropped off the catwalk into a steep set of moguls.

Hank stayed on the catwalk and tucked himself low with his poles in tight. Steve might be faster down the moguls, but Hank knew he could beat him, even if he had to go farther, by staying on the straight aways and just plain flying.

By the time Steve reached midway, where the steep mogul course and the smoother trail came back together, he was winded but confident that he had built a sizable lead. He had never done the moguls faster and he knew Hank would take the longer course to avoid the bumps. His biggest concern was that the lower half of the slope wasn’t nearly as steep as the top. If Hank was even close to him at this point, Steve would have a hard time holding him off to the bottom. Just as that thought crossed his mind, he caught a flash of movement out of the corner of his right eye. It was Hank! He was in his tuck position and didn’t even slow down as he shot past Steve.

“Shoot!” Steve jammed his poles into the snow and pulled himself forward, “There’s got to be another way down. I’ll never catch him if I stay on the trail.” In a split second, Steve made the decision of a life time. Instead of following Hank on the marked trail, he went straight across it and into the trees. He’d rode the lift once with a guy who swore it was possible to ski straight down the mountain rather than following the trail. The shortest course was straight down, and right now that is exactly what Steve needed.

The ungroomed snow and fallen trees made for rough going. Steve figured it was near the end of the season and he needed new skis anyway so he wasn’t too concerned about rocks or other scrapes. Despite the rough terrain, he did pretty well and managed to avoid any serious falls. By the time his straight downhill course crossed paths with the winding, groomed trail again he felt sure he had passed Hank. He hesitated for just a moment to catch his breath while his eye focused on the trail above. Still no Hank, but Steve knew he couldn’t be far behind. If he stayed on the trail now, it would all depend on how far back Hank was. Steve wasn’t left to ponder for long. Hank’s bent-over figure appeared on the trail above him and Steve could see he was booking. “Well, I guess that decides it.” He jammed his poles into the ground, skated across the trail and dropped off into the trees on the other side.

Having successfully skied the ungroomed run above, Steve threw all caution to the wind and went at it with everything he had. He was a naturally gifted athlete and his body was in the best condition it had ever been. The challenge of the bet combined with the risk of being off the beaten path added further adrenalin to his system and for a few glorious moments he felt unstoppable. Every turn was picture perfect, every jump video-worthy. It wasn’t but a few moments before Steve could see a clearing through the trees. “Boy, that was even faster than I expected,” he thought as he made the last few cuts and came out from under the trees. “Why do runs like this only happen when no one else is around?” was his last thought before the world dropped out from under him.

The clearing Steve saw through the trees, and assumed was the trail, was actually formed by a very deep and rugged ravine with a small, partially iced-over creek running down the bottom. Where Steve came upon the ravine, the opposite side was forty to fifty feet away. Both sides were so steep they might has well have been vertical. From Steve’s perspective, it was just like shooting off the top of a thirty foot cliff with nothing but rocks and ice cold water at the bottom.

His first thought as he went airborne was to reach the opposite side. He realized in an instant he would never make it and began waving his arms wildly trying to keep from going down head first. The involuntary scream that started as he went over the edge ended abruptly with a crash as he hit the stream.

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