Vern and Sparky get trapped in a blizzard
Let Sparky Lead
Vern cursed as he slipped on the frost-covered scree that passed for a trail down the Sawtooth Range's eastern slope. Sparky knew to stop and wait whenever this happened. The surefooted donkey was always perplexed at his clumsy human companion who, despite carrying no load and wearing heavy boots, managed to land on his butt several times a day.
The temperature was already below freezing in the canyon’s deep shade as the prospector and his burro worked their way down the mountain. Across the Stanley Basin, already dark, shadows chased the bright orange sunlight up the western slope of the Challis mountains. To the north, heavy black clouds loomed large; a picture-postcard announcement that dawn would find this world buried in winter. A blizzard would reign over this night.
Stanley, ID (44°13′0″N, 114°56′16″W, elevation 6,253 feet, named for Capt. John Stanley) was where Vern planned to spend a comfortable winter. The goldfields had been generous this summer. Sparky’s pack rack carried several ounces of the yellow metal, enough to keep them both warm and well-fed until spring.
As the last glimpse of sunlight died on the eastern peaks and lights came on in Stanley, the storm arrived. The protection of the mountain gullies was behind them. The grassy expanse of Stanley Basin gave no refuge from the roaring wind and stinging pellets.
Vern cursed himself. Good fortune brought greed; he stayed too long extracting those last few flakes of gold from the streams of the Sawtooth. Winter came fast and dangerous. Any of his missteps today could have resulted in a broken leg followed by a frigid death tonight.
Dark now, the blizzard obliterated the few lights of Stanley that were his beacon. Wandering off course just a little, he would miss the small settlement completely; or worse, travel in a circle, die of exposure before dawn, and not be found until spring.
Vern was more scared than he had ever been. His breath was bursting in and out, and he was talking to himself. A flash of instinct told him to trust Sparky — let Sparky lead. Vern dropped behind. Sparky turned his head, gave Vern a puzzled look, then plodded ahead.
When fear grips your throat, time slows to a crawl, and the agony goes on forever. But it was only a bone-chilling hour until man and beast were standing on the edge of Stanley. In the lee of a building, out of the wind, Vern got a good look at Sparky, and a sad sight he was. His left side was covered — top to bottom, head to tail, and his left eye was frozen shut. Sparky had led them in a straight line heading east by keeping the storm pounding him on the left side.
Looking about, Vern could make out the lights in Martha’s Public House, the only saloon, hotel, restaurant in Stanley. The wind carried on the smoke from the chimney the smell of steak cooking. Vern was chilled to the bone, hungry, and thirsty, but Sparky had to be cared for first.
They made their way to Wilson’s Livery. No one was about. Of course, not in this storm. Vern opened the large double doors enough to let himself and Sparky in, found a lantern, revealing rough wooden walls holding an assortment of tack, two rows of stalls, only one of which was clean and empty. The barn was warm, and their ‘Jack Frost’ coat melted quickly. Vern removed the pack rack, found some towels, and gave Sparky a good rub down, then a once over with a curry comb. The other tenants watched the whole operation, wondering why this ugly little burro was getting such special treatment. Two rations of oats into the trough finished the process. Vern left the pack rack with all his worldly possessions stashed in the stall corner save the small sack containing his new fortune. Tomorrow he would pay for Sparky's room and board for the winter – a winter of first-class treatment.
The wind had stopped; now, the flakes fell silently as Vern crunched his way to Martha’s. Whiskey, a thick steak, a hot bath, and a long winter’s nap awaited.
Word count: 692