The silver-black embers cradled my thoughts, which I’d carefully composed, and then tossed into the orange fiery glow.
I stood reverently above, staring, as the paper curled, folded, blackened, and lifted into the gray smoke above.
“May the Montana winds carry these ashes, and by one of God’s miracles, touch yours.” That’s what I’d written to my dear, dead friend.

I stood there a long time, waiting for the emotion to come. I’d invited it. I was ready to grieve.

But the grief didn’t come, so I sat back down on the picnic table seat and took a long, slow swig of lukewarm Miller beer. It was camping beer. I’d picked it up at “The Fort” in Big Timber before heading up the Boulder River.

The day was hot. Bella, my 12-year-old yellow lab, and I had spent the morning on the prairie – in Rapelje – to meet some friends and watch a mountain bike race.

I was antsy. The passing thunderstorm and heat played on my nerves.

All I wanted – needed – was to get out of there. Get next to one of Montana’s rivers and I’d be fine.

I felt it when we pulled up to the banks of the Boulder. The sound of the rushing water, the wind blowing across the Crazies, the sun on my shoulders – Mother Montana was working it out of me, like an expert masseuse.

We’d taken the top off the Jeep before leaving Rapelje and arrived hot. After wading in the river, we crawled in back for a nap.

Waking up, I looked at Bella and said, “Shoot, no reason to go home – nobody waiting for us there.”

The dry grasses and twigs I gathered for the fire lit in an instant, thanks to the wind. I carved up a stick and carelessly roasted two hot dogs till they were black and scarred, one for each of us.

The rippling song of the aspens in the afternoon breeze made me think of her.

I’d gotten a call a week ago from my lifelong friend. “She passed away,” she said in a heavy, flat tone on my voicemail, “I can’t believe it.”

We both had guilt. Our mutual friend for many years had slipped into alcoholism and our friendship had slipped away with it. Too many late-night drunken calls had tested the bounds of what we’d tolerate.

“I wondered if you called me to say goodbye? Did I not pick up?” I’d scrawled in the eulogy I never gave.

Regret coursed through my veins, like time I’d never be able to recapture.

I felt the pulse of life brush across my sunburned shoulders and stared at the churning milky brown river rushing by.

“Where is my pulse?” I brooded.

– In memory of Sharon Warning, a dear friend.