©2015 Robert Lee Murphy
“Now how’s you gonna know where you’re going in this snow?” Homer asked.
“Following the survey stakes. They’ll lead me to the North Platte. The river’s only fifteen miles east of here.”
“Why not go south to the Overland Trail, like your uncle done? Stagecoach comes through there regular like.”
“No stagecoach is going to get through this storm. Besides, it’s barren country between here and Bridger’s Pass. There’s no water that direction. The North Platte is where I’ll find game. Antelope and elk need water. They’ll stay close to the river . . . especially in the winter. So that’s where I’m going.”
Otto sat up and leaned against the side of the tent. His blanket slipped off his shoulders. “Will,” he croaked. He coughed hard to clear his throat. “If you’re set on going out in this storm, take these snowshoes.”
He held out two strange-looking contraptions. Each slender, wooden bow curved tightly back upon itself in a large oblong arc with the ends lashed together in a tail. The lopsided circle formed by the wood was interlaced with a webbing of leather thongs.
“I’ve never used them before,” Will said.
“We used snowshoes in the old country all the time,” Otto said. “I’ve used them a few times out here. I’ve even seen the Indians use them.”
“Why didn’t Uncle Sean take them?”
“When he left, he could still ride a horse through the light snowfall. That’s not going to be possible now. Snowshoes are a little hard to walk in at first, but you’ll be able to travel pretty fast through the drifts once you get the hang of it.”
“I’ll try them.” Will wanted all the speed he could muster to get to the river and return with his kill. The men’s lives might depend on it.
Otto lay back and pulled his blanket up beneath his chin. His face looked flushed and he shivered constantly.
“Homer,” Will said. “If it’s all right, I’ll take Ruby. She’s taller than any of the horses. Her longer legs will let her plow through the snow better . . . and she’s used to doing pack duty.”
“Along the river, I’ll gather some brush to bring to the horses. They haven’t eaten much in days.”
“That’d be good. And, if you find a willow bush, peel some bark off and bring it back for the fellows to chew on. Might help lower their fevers.”
Will checked the loads in the six chambers of his Colt revolver, reseated the percussion caps, returned the pistol to his holster, and snapped the flap closed. He raised the flaps on the two belt pouches he wore to be sure he had extra percussion caps and additional revolver bullets. He checked the magazine in the butt of his Spencer carbine and confirmed it was fully loaded with seven shells, but didn’t chamber a round. He rolled the carbine and a spare magazine in his blanket and tied the bundle with a cord.
“Don’t you want to take more carbine ammo?” Homer asked.
“I’ve got fourteen shots with the carbine. If I can’t hit something with fourteen, I’m not qualified to be the hunter for this team.”
“What if you run into Injuns?”
“There won’t be any Indians out in this weather.”
Will turned the collar up on his heavy coat, buttoned it around his neck, and draped a pair of mittens secured with a leather thong around his shoulders. He pulled on his old, black slouch hat, which had once belonged to his father, and draped a bandana atop the hat’s crown, pulling it down over his ears and tying the cloth beneath his chin.
He gathered up the blanket roll and the snowshoes, then paused. “I won’t be gone long, Homer. I expect to make the river by nightfall, bag an antelope or elk, and be back by sundown tomorrow.”
He stepped through the flap entrance, dropped it back into place, and waded through the knee-deep snow to the horses and the mule. Here, where they’d pitched the tent and tied the animals beneath an overhanging cliff, the snow drifting had been minimal. The wind whistling off the top of the bank blew most of the snow straight overhead and beyond their camp.
The black Morgan gelding whickered. Will rubbed the large white star blazed on the horse’s forehead. “No, Buck, you can’t come this trip.” The horse whinnied and shook his head, dislodging snow from his mane.
Will brushed the snow off Buck’s back and tightened the strap that held the saddle blanket in place. He kept a blanket on each of the animals to provide them some warmth and protection.
“Ruby, you, on the other hand, are coming with me.” He shoved the snow off the big mule. “I’m not going to ride you. You’ll need to conserve your strength for later.”
Hee-haw. Ruby brayed a protest.
“Sorry. Homer gave his permission.”
Will dropped the snowshoes and the blanket roll beside Ruby. He lifted the mule’s packsaddle onto her back. “No load to tote now.” He tightened the cinch. “But on the way back, I expect to have you heavily burdened.”
Will lashed the blanket roll containing the carbine and extra magazine onto the packsaddle. He stepped into the center of one of the snowshoes, knelt, and fastened the straps around his boot. He fastened the other snowshoe, rose, and untied the mule from her picket pin.
He gathered up Ruby’s halter rope, but when he turned to lead her away he stepped on the left snowshoe with the right one and fell facedown in the snow.
Hee-haw. Ruby stood over Will and laughed.
“Not funny, mule.”