Nathaniel Mann placed the last stone on his father’s grave, bowed his head and mumbled words that went unheard; carried away by the howling desert wind. Alex and Emily leaned into the wind; holding onto one another for support and comfort as their eldest brother spoke. The heat dried Emily’s tears as quickly as they formed upon her rosy, sunburned cheeks. Nathaniel stopped speaking and watched as Alex tightened his grip on Emily’s hand and then he saw his brother’s shoulders tremble. He knew that he had to be the strong one now. He had made a promise to his father.
Nathaniel dared another glance toward his brother and sister and then returned his gaze upon the rubble at his feet. Then he straightened his back and walked away, leaving Alex and Emily still standing over the ninth shallow grave they had dug in the last three days.
The Mann children were lost and left alone in the heat on the high desert plain.
Twenty-one days ago, an over zealous wagon master had persuaded three men to leave the Truckee Trail and follow him, taking a shorter route to the fertile Sacramento valley. Three fathers turned their wagons southwest, leaving the main wagon train, thinking they would get their families to California faster.
Days later, and many miles from the Truckee, the incompetent wagon master admitted he was lost. He blamed everyone but himself for the party’s dilemma. One week after leading the three families into the desert; he rode his horse north and was never seen again.
As the small group continued west, the land became more barren and the lack of water took its toll. One by one the oxen fell to their knees and died from thirst and starvation. The heavy wagons were now useless dead weight to the travelers and became nothing more than shelter from the ruthless dry wind and scorching sun.
The young Jamison boy and his mother were the first to get sick and die. Then Isaac White and his twin daughters, Abigail and Adeline, were next and never left their wagon again. Soon afterward, Louis Jamison and Rebecca White died while seeking refuge from the unrelenting sun. Nathaniel found their ravaged bodies under the Jamison’s Conestoga wagon.
William Mann pulled his nineteen year old son Nathaniel away from his dying wife.
“Cholera, son. Your mother is dying from cholera just like the others. You, Alex and Emily have been spared by some miracle.”
“And you, Father, you aren’t sick …”
“I am ill, Nathaniel. You must promise me that you will get your brother and sister to California. With God’s help you must look after them. Give me your promise, son.”
“Yes, Father … I’ll take care of them and we’ll go to California, but you will be there, too. You will.”
The morning came and went, the afternoon fell away. The Mann children huddled around a small cooking fire and began to speak about their dim prospects of survival. Nathaniel inventoried their meager possessions for the tenth time since noon.
“Two flasks of water, a little beef jerky, one bag of flour and rifles with all the powder and shot we can carry, and Father’s money pouch. That’s all we have,” Nathaniel said, as he fidgeted with his father’s gun. “Father said the water is poison, the jerky and flour can be eaten.”
Emily couldn’t hold her fear back any longer when Nathaniel emptied the flasks upon the ground. “Are we going to die, Nathaniel?” she asked.
“No. And don’t ever talk of dying again. I made a promise and I’m keeping it,” Nathaniel answered.
The ever quiet fourteen year old Alex finally spoke. “What are we going to do, Nathaniel?" he asked. "We have no water and we’re lost in a desert."
“Beginning tonight we are going to walk and only at night when it’s cooler. We will walk north and use the North Star as our guide.”
“Why, Nathaniel? Emily asked with doubt in her voice. “California is west.”
“Because Father told me we should walk north,” Nathaniel answered with unwavering authority.
When the sun fell below the blistering white desert horizon, they paused at their parent’s graves one last time before beginning their trek to the north, each carrying a burden on their backs and grief in their hearts.
The first night, they walked across a sun baked plateau, void of life except for three determined children.
As the sun rose out of the east, they spotted a rock outcropping in the distance. They quickened their pace; hoping the feature would provide some comforting shade from the merciless sun. After walking another hour they reached the rocks. Emily dropped her load and collapsed in the shade. Both boys fell at her side, exhausted. They slept for several hours.
Nathaniel dreamed about the farm they had left behind in Ohio. He dreamed about splashing water and spring rain. Thirst brought him from his dreams and back to reality. He could still hear the sounds of running water.
Alex and Emily were awakened by their screaming brother.
“Water! I found water in the rocks.”
He had indeed found water trickling from a rock crevice.
Forgetting their tired limbs, the Mann children danced with joy. They filled their flasks as they chewed on jerky and celebrated with renewed hope.
The three children bowed their heads and thanked God for giving them the gift of water before starting their second night of walking.
Gradually the landscape changed, gently sloping toward a mountain range. Vegetation; although sparse, was beginning to appear. They continued to walk, occasionally stumbling over sun bleached bones, cactus and rocks. The sun rose for the second time on the three weary travelers. A stand of willows provided little shade but they still had water and all three fell asleep curled against each other.
When the sun set and the waning crescent moon lent some comfort to the travelers, they prepared themselves for another night of walking. The boys gathered up their scant belongings before looking up at the blackness overhead and the glimmering pinpoints of pale light.
After rising from the ground, Emily sat back down.” I can’t walk anymore,” the twelve year old complained.
“Get up, Emily,” Nathaniel demanded.
“I’m not walking. I will die; lying in these willows.”
Nathaniel stood over the girl and calmly said, “If you won’t walk, then I will carry you.”
“You can’t carry me,” Emily scoffed. We would both end up dying.”
“Is it your wish to be responsible for my death?” Nathaniel asked.
Emily turned her head away from her brother, hiding her tears and shame.
“Give me your hand, Emily,” Alex said. She relented and he helped his sister rise from the willow’s tangled roots.
They gathered up their supplies, placed them on their backs, looked up at the North Star and began walking in silence. The only sounds heard were weary footfalls and the wind whipping around cactus and boulders.
Suddenly, the night sky lit up like a lantern’s light piercing through darkness. The three Mann children stood in awe for a fleeting wink in time.
“Did you see that?” Emily yelled.
Both boys agreed that they had seen the falling star.
“Make a wish, Emily,” Nathaniel coaxed.
Emily closed her eyes and thought for a moment. “I made one, Nathaniel,” she said.
“What did you wish for, Emily?” Alex asked.
Emily was quick to answer. “I can’t tell you. It won’t come true if I tell,” she answered
Hours later they rested and had slept through the day. Just as the sun began to drop below the western horizon, they realized they had been resting in deep wagon tracks.
“Wagon ruts,” Nathaniel yelled with excitement. “We’ve found a trail.”
“They lead west, should we follow them?” Alex asked, while tugging on Emily’s arm.
For the first time since their walk began, the three Mann children turned west following the trail. The tired trio walked through the night and most of the following morning. When the sun was well above their heads, they crossed over a ridge and looked down into a luxurious valley. Emily blurted, “My wish came true.”
A long line of covered wagons were moving slowly across the valley floor.
Nathaniel lifted his father’s rifle into the air and fired one shot. The wagons stopped and soon; a lone rider turned his horse and rode toward them. Emily tore off her linen bonnet and began waving it in the air and she giggled when the rider waved back with his hat.
Nathaniel smiled, remembering the last words his father had spoken.
“Look north for direction and west for hope.”