Cass Rohlin pulled his roan to a stop and turned to watch the slow-moving wagons. They'd been traveling across the flat grasslands for the last week, averaging no more than 15 miles a day. It had been a dry spring and all the usual watering places were dried up. The oxen needed water and all the barrels were running low. A few hours ahead, there was a dry wash that used to be a creek. He had scouted around last night and found some water in the deepest part of the wash. There was enough to fill the water barrels and water the livestock, but no more. For a while last night he thought they would get rain, but the storm had moved south of them, providing only an impressive lightning display. It was going to be a tough trip this year. Tougher than usual, but it wouldn't stop the flow of settlers. Most of this group came from somewhere in Virginia. They thought to escape the hardships that war had brought on them, but they had little knowledge of what lay ahead - nor could anyone tell them. They heard only the part about the fertile land in Washington and Oregon.
Each year for the last three, he had led wagons across the Smoky Hill Road from Fort Leavenworth to Denver, and then on up to South Pass. There was usually water, if a person knew where to look, but without a guide it could be a dangerous trail. He'd led a lot of gold miners up this route a few years back, but now it was traveled mostly by settlers heading for California. Most stayed on the original Oregon Trail, but some traveled south, partly to avoid attacks by the Sioux Indians. The truth was, they were far more likely to die of disease or drowning while crossing rivers than at the hands of any Indians.
He swung his horse around and headed for the lead wagon at a trot. Rans Lockheart glanced up from his team of oxen as Rohlin rode up. He wiped his forehead with his shirt and squinted up at Rohlin.
"You find any water yet, Rohlin?"
Rohlin nodded as he turned his horse to keep pace with the oxen. "About a couple hours ahead, but it's down in a wash. You could probably get the wagons in there, but I'd suggest you haul the water out."
Lockheart frowned. "Narrow and steep?"
"And muddy," Rohlin added. "We'll cross a little further North."
Loaded down as the wagons were, they'd get bogged down in the wash. He'd cautioned them against overloading their wagons, but they had heard how hard those nice things were to find in the west. The settlers camped, slept and walked beside their loaded wagons, rarely getting inside. It was a place reserved for the sick and old.
Rohlin left Lockheart and rode back along the line of wagons. They were a friendly bunch, but they mostly kept quiet during the day.
He finished his loop without detecting any problems and returned to Lockheart.
"It looks like everything is fine so far."
Lockheart nodded and pointed to the western horizon. "Looks like a storm brooding. Maybe we'll get some rain."
He had good eyes. The haze was barely visible, nothing more than a discoloration on the horizon. It was there, all the same.
"Maybe," Rohlin said skeptically. He had an uncomfortable feeling about that haze, as if he'd seen something like that before. A dust storm? They'd better reach that wash before the dust did. Otherwise, there'd be nothing left but mud.
More than an hour passed as the wagons lumbered slowly toward the wash. The sun was setting into a red haze and the air had an unpleasant odor - as if something were burning. Rohlin jerked the roan to a halt and stood in the stirrups, squinting at the horizon. It wasn't a dust storm, it was something much worse. Soon the oxen would be getting wind of it and they'd be wild-eyed.
Rohlin swung his horse around and galloped back to the wagons. At Lockheart's startled expression, he had only two words. "Prairie Fire!" He trotted down the line of wagons, shouting instructions. "Get your wagons down to that wash as fast as you can. We might be able to make it before the fire."
It didn't take long for the smell of burning grass to reach the wagons. The entire western horizon was filled with billowing smoke. Drivers snapped whips at and on the oxen, but the wagons creaked and groaned at an agonizingly slow pace. By the time they reached the wash, the flames of the fire were clearly visible no more than a few miles away. The fire had whipped up a brisk breeze and they were choking on the smoke.
"Get down into the wash!" Rohlin yelled at the settlers. "Leave your wagons. There's nothing you can do about it now."
Lockheart shook his head. "We can pull the wagons down into the wash and wet the tops with water."
Rohlin glared at him. "You'll never get those wagons down there in time, and if you do, it'll take you a week to get them out."
"The oxen smell water," Lockheart insisted. "They'll move faster. Everything we own is in these wagons."
Lockheart didn't wait for approval before starting his wagon down the steep embankment. The oxen plunged forward, the wagon lurching dangerously to the side as the front wheels went over the edge of the embankment. The dirt crumbled, and as the rear wheels cleared the edge, a trail was beginning to wear. The next oxen followed, and gradually the banks wore down.
The fire crept closer, and the settlers strung out along the wash, using buckets of precious water to wet down the tops of their wagons. As the last wagon made its way down the steep embankment, the smoke was so thick it was hard to see further than a few yards. Rohlin was the last one into the wash and the flames were licking at the western side of the wash as he did so. He urged the roan into the wash and stripped the saddle off. Throwing the saddle blanket in the muddy water a moment, he slung the wet blanket over the horse's back. It was the best he could do.
The fire roared above them and the sky was black with smoke. Flaming pieces of grass floated into the air and then drifted down to the wagons below. Occasionally an ember would land one of the wagon tops and ignite it, but one of the settlers would beat it out with a wet blanket. Some of the embers made their way across the wash and small fires started up there as well. The heat was intense in the wash, but not as bad as it would be above.
Gradually the fire moved on, leaving a smoldering black expanse of land for miles. They had been fortunate to find a place to hide, but the worst wasn't over. They'd used precious water, and there would be miles without food for the oxen. Rohlin eyed the vertical walls of the western side of the wash in the fading light. How would they get the wagons out of the wash?
As if reading his mind, Lockheart spoke beside him. A few men with shovels can break down the sides of the wash enough to get the oxen up. We'll get the wagons out tomorrow."
Rohlin laughed without humor. "It's going to take more than a few men with shovels to get that broke down enough to get these wagons up there."
Lockheart gave him a sour smile. "I think you're the man who said we couldn't get these wagons down here in time, too. But we did."
Rohlin cast a concerned eye at the sky. "If it rains, you'll be in a fix."
Lockheart walked away shaking his head and mumbling something about faith moving mountains. They'd better do a lot of praying, because they were going to need all the help they could get.
Dawn broke clear, and the water was almost all gone. He saddled the roan and found Lockheart. "I'll scout ahead for some water, grass and a place to get out of this wash."
Lockheart nodded. "Good. You go look for water and grass. By the time you get back, we'll be out of this wash."
It was wishful thinking, but they might as well be doing something while he was gone.
"Keep an eye out for rain. If it rains, get your people out of the wash. Even if it's not raining close, the runoff can come down this wash in a wall of water so fast that you won't have time to get out."
"I know, you said that before," Lockheart said irritably, "and I'm not stupid."
"I'll be back in a few days," Rohlin said, and mounted his horse. Lockheart wasn't stupid, but he had no experience with the problems that could be encountered on a trail. Rohlin hated leaving them in such a predicament, but there was little he could do at the moment other than scout out a better trail. That was what he'd been hired to do, not play mother to a bunch of grown men.
The first day he followed the wash until he found a low place where the wagons could get out. The tough part would be pulling them down the length of sandy wash to that point. The next chore would be harder - finding grass and water. He rode the rest of the day over blackened prairie without a trace of water. He made a dry camp that night and slept restlessly, thinking about all the places where water might be found, and which way the fire had traveled. He finally slept.
He woke later, not knowing what had awakened him. He lay still, listening. The roan had his ears perked and was staring to the south, in the direction of the wagons. Rohlin threw his blanket back and sat up, staring into the distance. Suddenly the sky lit up with a brilliant bolt of lightning. Thunder boomed immediately.
Rohlin staggered to his feet. The wagons! Would Lockheart get his people out in time? He threw the saddle blanket on the roan and swung the saddle up. Reaching under the horse, he grabbed the cinch. His movements were automatic. His mind was occupied with morbid thoughts of the scene he would find when he arrived. At best, the people would be on the banks of the wash, their food spoiled and wagons buried in muddy water. He should have stopped them from pulling the wagons into the wash.
As he rode, the rain started. It came down in sprinkles at first, and then in driving rain that turned the blackened ground into a sticky mud. He rode through the rain for hours, wishing he hadn't strayed so far. By morning he reached the wash, running nearly full of water. He groaned, turning to follow the wash. He watched for debris from the wagons, but saw none.
The sun was high when he saw something in the distance. He rubbed his eyes and stared. It looked like the wagons, but it couldn't be. Yet, as he rode closer, it became obvious that it was the wagons.
Lockheart met him as he rode into camp. "Thought we were going to have to start without you," he said with a wry smile. "Thought maybe you'd got lost."
Rohlin frowned. "I figured I'd find a bunch of wet homeless people when I got here." He glanced at the wash and shook his head when he saw the wagon tracks. "I wouldn't have believed it if someone had told me. How'd you do it?"
Lockheart shrugged. "Faith and a lot of hard work." He patted the roan on the neck. "My wife has some food cooked up. Why don't you have something to eat before we get started? I reckon you've been traveling all night." He lifted his brows. "Did you find grass?"
Rohlin dismounted and gave him a chagrined look. "I didn't find anything. It all found you. The grass will begin to come back in a day or so after this rain. We'll just keep heading west."
It was amazing how quickly things could change on the trail. It was strange how adversity could suddenly change to good luck. Each trek across the plains was a learning experience for everyone, not only the settlers. He had viewed their situation as impossible and set out to find something better. Lockheart had viewed the situation as a challenge. He had used his head and hands to change their situation. Lockheart hadn't moaned in despair. He had met the challenge with faith and determination.
It was a lesson Rohlin wouldn't soon forget. All the experience in the world wouldn't tame the west. It would be people like Lockheart, who had the faith and courage to do what must be done.
This story can be found in the collection of short western stories "HORSE OPERA."