©2015 Robert Lee Murphy
“Why hasn’t he come back?” Will Braddock held the flap of the tent open and peered out into the snow, which continued to fall into its seventh day. In his almost fifteen years, Will couldn’t remember such an extended period of nonstop snowing.
The shadowy figures of their horses and Ruby the mule, sheltering beneath the overhanging cliff bank, were all that broke the whiteout expanse before him. Buck’s coal-black coat made the Morgan stand out more than the other animals.
“Your Uncle Sean will get here as soon as he can.” Homer Garcon coughed harshly. The middle-aged Negro had recovered from the worst effects of the strange illness that’d struck the members of Sean Corcoran’s survey inspection team a week earlier, but his raspy voice indicated he was not completely well.
“Homer, when he left, he said he’d be back in two days . . . three at the most. That was a week ago.”
“We just has to give him more time. Now close the flap, Will. You’se letting out what heat we got in this flimsy tent.”
Will dropped the flap and looked at Homer, who sat with his head in his hands near the back of the Army wall tent. The team members preferred to sleep under the stars—but they were fortunate their leader had insisted they carry the tent. The canvas walls gave some protection against the unseasonably late snowstorm that assailed them. Tall enough for a man to stand in the center, the tent’s sides rose only waist high. Its narrow interior provided enough sleeping space for the five team members.
Otto Hirsch and Joe Quinn lay wrapped in their blankets along opposite sides of the tent. Normally, they were robust surveyors, with boundless energy, trekking across the wild country through which the transcontinental railroad was being built. Otto and Joe were the chainmen, moving ahead of his Uncle Sean’s transit to mark and measure the distance and elevation as the team surveyed a route. Homer served as the team’s cook and Will was officially his helper—with the added duty of hunting to provide fresh meat. Will had earned his spot on the team the year before because he’d proven to be a crack shot.
Homer dragged himself outside twice a day, morning and evening, to brew a pot of coffee and prepare a meager meal under a fly attached to the side of the tent. Will would scrounge the only available firewood from scrawny bushes that grew in the vicinity of the small spring that emerged from the cliff face. He’d feed the smaller, leafless twigs to the animals and kindle a cook fire from the larger branches, using his flint and steel. But, now they were running out of food.
“Homer, look at them.” Will gestured to the sick men, one on each side of the tent. “They’re not going to get well on what we have left to feed them. Even as good a cook as you can’t make decent soup out of jerky and hardtack. We need meat . . . and bone marrow.”
Homer raised his head and stared at Will with vacant eyes. “Maybe we has to kill one of the horses . . . or Ruby.”
“No!” Will shook his head. “We can’t do that. We’ll need all of the horses to get out of here when the storm lets up. And no way will I butcher your mule.”
Only Will had recovered from the illness that’d floored everyone except his uncle. Whatever the ailment was, they’d probably contracted it from a sickly band of Ute Indians who’d wandered into their camp several days ago begging for food. Will had felt sorry for the women and children, their noses red and swollen, but the team didn’t have much food left and had sent them away with only scraps.
After seeing the destitute Utes, Will had wondered if his mixed-blood friend Lone Eagle, and the band of Cheyenne to which he belonged, had managed to slaughter enough buffalo to feed themselves through the winter. Will had saved the son of old mountain man Bullfrog Charlie Munro from drowning in quicksand last summer and, in appreciation, Lone Eagle had given Will two eagle talons from his personal amulet. Later, one of those talons had deflected an arrow that could have ended Will’s life. He now bore a nasty scar in his left arm where the arrow had passed through the bicep. The wound ached in this bone-chilling weather.
Will wore one of the talons on a horsehair thong around his neck. Whenever he felt it scratch against his chest he thought about Jenny McNabb, the feisty young lady who’d captured his fancy the year before. He’d given her one of the talons, in the hopes it would bring her luck. When her family’s wagon had been attacked by the Cheyenne, Lone Eagle had recognized the talon and spared her life.
But where was Jenny now? When he’d ridden out of Fort Sanders on the Laramie River last fall, Will had promised her they’d meet again this spring. Did she still work at Wells Fargo’s Big Laramie Station?
Will had spent the closing months of 1867 helping his uncle’s team perform surveys in western Wyoming, until cold weather had forced them to hole up at Fort Bridger. It’d been boring waiting through the winter in the small outpost near the Utah border. His uncle had been anxious to get his team back in the field and in early March 1868 he’d decided to start.
Since then, the team had worked its way east, across central Wyoming, heading for Fort Sanders at the base of the Laramie Mountains, where they hoped to receive their next assignment from General Grenville Dodge, the Union Pacific’s chief engineer. But now, here they were snowbound at Rawlins Springs, a couple of miles east of the Continental Divide.
Last fall, his uncle’s team, accompanied by General Dodge and General John Rawlins, had discovered this vital spring. Rawlins had pronounced the water so refreshing that he’d told Dodge if any spot were to bear his name, he’d want it to be this. Dodge obliged him and wrote Rawlins Springs on the map. When Rawlins returned to his duties as Ulysses S. Grant’s chief of staff in Washington, D. C., he’d given his horse, Bucephalus, to Will. Everyone called the big, black Morgan “Buck.”
When the snowstorm hit, the team had been a few miles west of the eastern rim of the Continental Divide, which surprisingly occurs twice in central Wyoming. Parallel divides enclose the Red Desert, one hundred miles wide between its eastern ridge and its western one. From the eastern divide waters flow to the Atlantic Ocean. From the western one they flow to the Pacific. In between, the desert is devoid of trees and home to little wildlife. What water flows into the center of the Great Basin either evaporates or sinks into the earth.
Then the illness struck. One by one the men complained of aches and fevers while they struggled through the snow. The horses could no longer wade through the deepening drifts bearing riders, and Otto, Joe, and, Homer had trouble stumbling along on foot. They’d finally managed to reach the sheltering ledge at Rawlins Springs.
His Uncle Sean was the only one who’d escaped the fevers and chills. He helped the team set up camp and left Will, the least sick, to tend the others. His uncle had ridden south to intersect the Overland Trail at Bridger’s Pass Station, fifteen miles away. There, he hoped to buy food, and perhaps medicine, at the Wells Fargo stage station.
“Homer,” Will said. “We have to have food. Something’s happened to Uncle Sean. I just know it. He’s stuck out there in this storm and can’t get back. I have to get us an antelope . . . or maybe an elk.”
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea, Will. What’ll your uncle think if he shows up and you’se gone?”
“That’s just it. If Uncle Sean shows up.” Will looked again at Otto and Joe. “I’m going out to hunt.”