I remembered that
when I was a boy, our ranch neighbor, Jim Hoye, got caught in a storm like this
while elk hunting. He didn't make it. In evening sessions around the old
potbellied stove, the folks would sit and talk about Jim. With the spring thaws
he was found, a black bear chewing on one of his frozen legs.
shoot the bear?" I asked.
The question went
unanswered. Dad would be imagining out loud how the storm threatened and
bullied Hoye during the final hours and how he faced the white hell. Now I
understood. My hands and feet had long since gone numb. I crouched even tighter
in the saddle.
Directly ahead of
my horse a bobcat suddenly appeared, as in a picture flashed on a screen. Its
frozen, pinched face opened in surprise, and the drooped ears snapped to
attention. It stepped aside only enough to clear the horses' hooves and watched
us through storm-squinted eyes. The horses plodded by the cat, indifferent to
anything but the howling wind and their own miseries. With an exaggerated
mustache of frosted whiskers, the cat was the picture of dejection as it
watched us go. The swirling snow slowly took its spots out of focus and then
blended them away into the white—and it was gone as if it had never
An ironic thought
twisted into my mind-wanderings. Could the sun actually be shining, 40,000 or
50,000 feet up? It was eerie to visualize cloudtops in a soft golden glow,
especially with us at the bottom of a sea in which Mt. Everest could be buried
and lost, microbe-like creatures, eight miles down, inching along its murky
bottom. There was a vague thought of hot food, which seemed strangely
unimportant. I shook my head to clear it. There was no danger of falling into a
death sleep—old wives' tale—because the terrific cold would soon awaken me. The
danger was of beginning not to care.
With hurricane force, the wind now slashed and surged with banshee shrieks. And
then the roan's lead rope became taut as he stopped. His cinch had loosened,
and the saddle and both deer were hanging under his belly. My God, I thought,
this is disaster. I'm in no condition to fight him now.
I doubted that I
could stir, I was so frozen. But with no choice, I rolled off onto feet that
felt like frozen stubs and proceeded to kick and beat blood back into my
fingers and toes. This probably saved them from frostbite.
The gale battered
us as I studied the problem. Could I knock him out with my rifle butt and
repack the deer before he recovered? But the blow might be too hard, especially
the way I felt. I only knew I wasn't equal to another battle like the
He turned his
head and stared at me as I cautiously reached to undo the cinch, expecting him
to explode any moment. But, surprisingly, he didn't. He had had enough fight,
or he somehow realized the seriousness of our plight. Or more likely he had
simply been beaten by the wind and cold. I unpacked and repacked the frozen
deer as he stood, patient as an ally. I almost loved the ugly beast for not
starting another donnybrook. As I retightened the mare's cinch and mounted,
evening dusk was beginning to blend into the swirling white.
The cold grew
more bitter. I was only aware of the rocking motion between my knees and the
wind battering my ears. How could we possibly last? Where the hell was camp,
anyway? Without warning, night lowered upon us, robbing us of the little
visibility we had. We moved on in the black void.