Word Count: 888
“It doesn’t make sense. A whole wagon train — wagons and all — can’t just disappear,” Adam Cartwright remarked for at least the third time since he and his brothers had heard the tale.
The three Cartwright brothers had just delivered a small heard of cattle to Fort Churchill. They had supper in the mess hall which was abuzz with news about the raggedy, starved man who had stumbled into the fort the day before. Unfortunately, the man died, but he had managed to croak out the words “Wagons. Folks. Gone. All gone” before he passed on.
It was late in the season for a wagon train to be still on the east side of the Sierras, let alone one in trouble. A patrol had been sent out to search for any sign of the train. The patrol had not yet returned when the Cartwrights left the next morning.
The day was overcast and windy, and the mountains in the distance shrouded in dirty gray clouds.
“Looks like it’s snowing up there,” Joe commented.
“Yeah. It’s gonna to be cold tonight with that wind comin’ down off the mountains. Hoss grabbed his hat as an errant gust tried to grab it.
Adam looked around at the rock-strewn landscape. “We should camp here for the night. That looks like a likely spot.” He pointed to where two large boulders set at right angles to each other. “That should give us some shelter from the wind.”
Later, as they sat eating their supper of beans, bacon, and bread, Hoss brought up the missing wagon train. “I wonder what that poor fella meant when he said the wagons and folks were all gone? You reckon he was with the wagon train?”
“Too bad we couldn’t have stuck around till the patrol came back,” Joe added.
“That could be days. We need to get home,” Adam pointed out. “We’ll be delivering more beef to Fort Churchill in the spring. Maybe we can find out then if the patrol found anything.” Adam sipped his coffee and studied the sky. “Those clouds are really racing. We’ll be glad for the shelter of these boulders tonight.”
The brothers settled into their bedrolls for the night, but for some reason, none of them were able to sleep. Joe crawled out of his bedroll and poured a cup of coffee from the coffee pot nestled in the embers of the fire. He leaned back against his saddle and watched the full moon flit through the scudding clouds. Hoss joined him. “It’s sure a spooky night.” Hoss shivered and pulled his blanket tighter around his shoulders.
“Yeah, something does feel kind of strange,” Joe agreed. He too, wrapped his blanket tighter around himself.
Adam gave up tossing and turning and laid there listening to his brothers. “The only thing strange here tonight is your conversation. This constant wind is making us jumpy. Not to mention the coyotes. They’re sure howling up a storm tonight. Get back in your bedrolls. We’ll get to sleep eventually. I’m bushed.”
One by one, the trio dropped off. None of them heard the faint rumble of wagon wheels and plop of hooves above the wind. None of them looked to see the clouds coalesce into the shapes of covered wagons trekking through the night sky.
The following spring:
“Thank you, Captain Slater.” Adam Cartwright pocketed the bank draft and receipt for the beef cattle he and his brothers just delivered to Fort Churchill. “We’ll see you in the fall, as usual…”
On the way out the door, Hoss turned to the captain. “Say, Captain, when we were here last fall, a fella’ staggered into the fort goin’ on about a lost wagon train and you sent a patrol out lookin’ for it. We were wonderin’ if it was ever found.”
“Now that was a strange thing.” Captain Slater rubbed his finger over his mustache. “The men are still talking about it. We found eight deserted wagons, still loaded with household goods and food and water, but no sign of people or animals. Looked like they had made camp for the night. They were pretty far off the usual route for wagon trains, though. In fact, no one seems to venture over that way much… Not even the Indians. It’s desolate, even for these parts. There’s this old half-breed who hangs around the fort. He claims that evil spirits live there.” The captain chuckled. “If you believe that sort of thing.”
“You boys have a safe journey home, and give my regards to your father.”
Two weeks later:
The dark clouds of a spring storm hung over the high desert. Coyotes yipped and jackrabbits scurried for their burrows as the thunder crashed. The howling wind tore at the tattered canvas covers of a circle of deserted wagons. Lightening flashes illuminated the unearthly parade through the turbulent sky above the wagons: Eerie figures of Indians, Spanish Conquistadors with their horses, explorers, prospectors, and lastly, the latest addition to the ghostly company — an emaciated group of would-be settlers and their animals trudging alongside eight battered-looking covered wagons.
***The End*** (we hope)