©2015 Robert Lee Murphy
Will stepped on one snowshoe with the other a couple of times until he figured out he had to keep his feet farther apart. Otto was right. It was awkward and took some practice, but he could walk on the surface of the snow without sinking deep into the powder. Ruby, on the other hand, was almost up to her belly in the drifts. The mule snorted and blew, struggling to lift a leg and move it forward.
Ruby wasn’t going to last much longer through the deep snow. The railroad survey stakes followed the course of Sugar Creek from Rawlins Springs for about five miles. When the creek took a turn to the north, the stakes continued due east along a ridgeline. The drifts weren’t as deep on this elevated ground as they’d been along the creek. Here Ruby only sank to her hocks.
About midafternoon the snow stopped falling. The temperature had stayed well below freezing for days. Maybe the storm was finally playing out. Sunbeams streaked through gaps in an overcast sky. The warm rays caressing his shoulders felt good. The ache from the old arrow wound diminished.
He estimated he was making two miles an hour trudging on the snowshoes. His normal walk could cover solid ground at three to four miles an hour. But his slogging through the snow, plus Ruby’s struggling, made for harder going. With each breath he took he dragged ice-cold air into his lungs. White mist appeared in the air before him with each exhalation. Still, he perspired in his heavy coat. He unfastened the top two buttons.
A couple of hours later, Ruby nudged him in the back of the arm with her muzzle and snorted. Will could hear her labored breathing and when he looked back, a cloud of steam obscured her nostrils.
“Yeah, I agree. We’ve been doing this for a long time.”
The sun was well down over his back now. They’d been walking since early morning, and even at his slow two-mile-an-hour pace, he thought they should be nearing the North Platte River.
“Come on, girl. Just a little farther.” He pulled on the halter rope, and the mule fell in behind him.
A couple hundred steps later he stopped. There it was. Stretched out before him, the tops of a line of cottonwood trees poked above the white expanse. Their leafless limbs exhibited a dirty brown line across the horizon.
“We’re here, Ruby.”
From where Will stood, the North Platte flowed far to the north in a hundred-and-fifty-mile loop, before swinging southeast to hook up with the South Platte in western Nebraska.
After a few more paces, Will stood looking down at the river. Cottonwoods lined the banks on both sides, the fifty-foot trees extending their barren limbs above the level of the plain on either side. Fingers of ice splayed out from the river’s edge, reaching into the center of the rapidly flowing, hundred-foot-wide stream. Now that the snow had stopped falling, the nighttime temperatures would plummet, and the river would freeze over completely.
Will looked north, studying the course of the winding river. A cold breeze caressed his nose and cheeks—not strong enough to sway the trees or dislodge their coatings of snow.
By traveling due east as he had, Will reckoned he’d reached the river ten or twelve miles north of where the Overland Trail crossed it at North Platte Crossing. Perhaps he should follow the river south, where he might hook up with a stagecoach. Maybe he could find his uncle and help him get food back to the camp. Bullfrog Charlie Munro’s cabin would be someplace between here and the river crossing. That was another possibility.
A flicker of movement under the cottonwoods along the bank caught his eye. A hundred yards away, an antelope buck flicked his white tail. Was he signaling other members of his band? Were there females nearby? Will wanted that buck. That’s why he’d come here in the first place.
“Quiet, Ruby,” he whispered. He led the mule down the slope a few yards to a large tree and looped her halter rope around a branch. He slipped his hands out of his mittens and untied his carbine from the packsaddle. The buck stood unmoving, looking in the opposite direction. The north wind blew Will’s and Ruby’s scents away from the antelope.
The shot would be a long one from here, but the carbine’s .52-caliber, metallic, rimfire cartridge provided an effective range of five-hundred yards, under ideal conditions. He must remember to aim low, since the Spencer had a tendency to fire high. But he didn’t have a shell in the chamber. He’d packed the carbine unloaded for safety. If Ruby had fallen in the snow and the weapon had discharged accidentally, the shot might’ve killed the mule. He would have to lever a round into the chamber before he could shoot.
He took a deep breath and pointed the carbine toward the antelope. He tried to ease the trigger guard lever down and back up to chamber the round, but a deafening click filled the silence around him.
The buck had heard the sharp noise and bounded away.
“Dang it!” Will muttered. “Sorry, Mama.” His mother, God rest her soul, had always chastised him for cussing. He tried to remember not to, but sometimes the curse slipped out.
“Ruby, you stay here. I’m going after that buck.” Why he thought it did any good to tell the mule to stay where he’d tied her, he didn’t know. Nobody else to talk to he supposed.
Will struggled down the slope on the snowshoes. Perhaps he should take them off. But the snow was deep and he’d probably bog down without them. He just needed to tread carefully.
He reached the spot where the buck had stood. Tracks led a few paces down to the river’s edge and then turned south. Will trudged along the bank, easily following the trail the antelope left in the snow.
Hee-haw! Ruby brayed loudly.
Will looked back up the slope over his shoulder. The buck stood frozen not far from where he’d tied Ruby. The antelope had circled back and surprised itself by coming face to face with the mule.
Will swung around to get into position to fire, and in so doing stepped on the right snowshoe with the left one. He stumbled and slid backward down the sloping riverbank. He threw his arms up, in an attempt to regain his balance, and struck an overhanging branch with the barrel of the carbine. His finger jerked on the trigger. The weapon discharged with a loud bang.
The force of the recoil tumbled him farther down the slippery slope. The snowshoes tangled in the underbrush and ripped from his boots. He landed on his back on the ice along the river’s edge.
A cracking sound exploded beneath him. His weight broke the fragile ice. He dropped the carbine and sank.
Wow! That was cold.
His back side bumped on the bottom of the stream, as his body submerged. He got his legs under him and stood up. Fortunately, the river was only waist deep near the bank. But he had to get out of the freezing water—fast!
He grabbed an overhanging cottonwood limb and pulled. The brittle branch broke off, and he fell back into the water.
Once more he stood and stepped toward the bank.
A dull snap from beneath the water’s surface surprised him.
Oh no! An excruciating pain, far worse than the cold, engulfed his ankle.
He’d stepped into a beaver trap.