The Prairie in Spring

They were on the route which Ashley’s men had established and along which the United States was to follow its western star. (Oregon began at the Continental Divide, that is, halfway through Wyoming, and from the western end of the pass that crossed the Divide you could see the tips of Mexican mountains.) They headed westward into Kansas, then turned northwest, crossing innumerable creeks and such rivers as the Kansas and the Big Blue. Beyond that the Little Blue, which brought them to Nebraska, and on to the Coasts of the Nebraska, the valley of the Platte. This was prairie country, lush with grass that would be belly-high on your horse, or higher, by June. In May it was spongy from violent rains, in long stretches little better than a bog. The rains struck suddenly and disastrously, drowning you out of your blankets, interspersed with snow flurries or showers of hailstones as big as a fist, driven by gales that blew your possessions over the prairie and froze your bones. Continuous deafening thunder might last for hours at a time. It stampeded the stock, by day scattering packs for five miles perhaps, by night scattering horses and mules even farther — and every one had to be searched for till it was found. Every creek was a river, every river a sound, and every brook a morass — and across these a hundred and fifty horses and mules, with sheep and the cows, had to be cursed, beaten, and sometimes pulled by ropes. They squealed, snorted, bolted, bit, kicked, and got mired down. The prairies were beautiful with flowers, waving grasses, and the song of birds — all carefully noted in Stewart’s novels — but not during the spring rains.