Eliza was unprepared for the bone-chilling cold. The snow began to fall and the wind blew it horizontally across her view. The barn, which had been clear to see just moments before, faded into a hulking, indistinct shadow as the snow came between them.
“’Liza, wait.” David O’Malley turned and took a long rope from a hook beside the door. He tied one end of it to a high hook at the roofline of the house. “Let me go first,” he offered as he unwound the rope behind him. “Hold on to me with one hand, and to the rope with the other.”
She did as he said, and closed her eyes against the sting of ice mixed with the snow. The ground underfoot became slippery. Even mostly covered, her face stung. She could no longer feel her toes and fingers, even though she moved them to keep them warm.
It was impossible to talk in the whining wind, so when they reached the fence Papa gestured that she was to go to the barn. He tied the rope to the fence, she realized, so they could find their way back to the house. She groped along the fence line toward the barn. Icicles formed along the top rail.
Fancy called out to her with a loud neigh when she opened the barn door. She would have to leave it open so Papa could drive the animals from the pens into the barn. She closed it as far as she dared to limit the cold air coming in. She climbed the ladder into the storage above the barn and pitched hay – a lot of hay – down to the floor of the barn. The sheep and goats that were in the pens began to trickle in through the door. In the dim light she piled the hay into a corner and put grain into the feed troughs. When she checked the water there was plenty, but it was already beginning to freeze. She broke up the shell of ice that skimmed the surface and hoped that the animals could get enough to drink. She opened the stalls for the horses in the barn so that they could press close to each other for warmth. It was all she could do.
The stream of animals had stopped so she gritted her teeth and stepped out the barn door, closing it behind her. She reached out with her hand to find the fence rail. She needed to find her father and they needed to get back into the house before they were too cold to move. She’d never known the cold could penetrate so deep into her bones, that she could move inch by inch down the invisible fence, finding her way by feel, and could not see or feel anything at all. If Papa had gone back to the house without her she would never find her way.
He hadn’t. He was slumped over the fence at the place where the rope connected to it.
She tugged on his arm and for a moment she feared he had frozen as he stood by the fence and waited for her. Then, moving slowly, he straightened and felt for her hand. He put one of her hands on the rope and the other grasping the back of his coat. Then he led her back to the house, step by agonizing step.
And suddenly they were there. She bumped up against her father’s back as they ran into the wall of the cabin. She continued to hold on to his coat as he shuffled along the wall to the left, feeling for the door. At long last a sliver of light penetrated into their dark, cold world and they were able to push through the door then slam it shut on the dark, cold, dangerous storm behind them.
“I couldn’t see. I couldn’t get any more wood,” he pronounced solemnly. “I was lost for a moment, not two steps from the house.”
“We’ll need to close off the bedroom, bring all the blankets and clothes, everything we can find, into this room. We need to keep each other warm until the storm passes.”
Eliza and Allen did as he asked, and carried everything that could provide warmth into the main room. They piled the mattresses around as well as under them, and each put on several layers of warm, dry clothes. Eliza’s fingers began to thaw as she worked in the relatively warm cabin. She found several pairs of socks and gloves for each of them. Then they lay down on the mattresses, pressed close to each other, and covered up with the blankets they’d gathered.
Then they lay there and listened to the wind continue to blow, and heard the snow mixed with ice crystals as it struck the windows. Snow sifted in through the space under both doors and formed a little drift of snow on the floor.
“What happens to the cattle when they are caught in a storm like this?” Eliza thought of the brown animals scattered across their ranch. She loved riding Fancy to the top of the hill and looking out at all the stock dotting the hillsides. “Will they be smart enough to huddle up and keep each other warm?”
“Probably not.” Her father’s voice was gruff. “We will be lucky if any survive, even the ones in the barn. We weren’t ready for a blizzard this early in the year. I never even thought to put the cattle into the pens this early.”
“Papa, what about Davy and Hugh and Ed?” Allen’s voice was small and scared and squeaked with his nervousness.
Eliza began to calculate in her head. It took at least two hours to get to the road, then another three on the road to get into Cheyenne. There was no way they could have made it all the way into town before the storm hit.
A shudder of fear ran through her and chilled her to the bone.