Summary: A series of abnormal weather events one winter culminates in an unfortunate disaster that blindsides the Cartwrights.
Rating: K / Word Count: 1611
The Cold Isn’t All Bad
Ben and his sons sat atop their horses staring out over the valley below. No one could have guessed that this would have been the outcome that had befallen upon the Ponderosa. Any of the previous weather forecasts over the last month would have been easy to handle. However, it was the combination of them all together that led to this perfect storm of a disaster.
One Month Earlier…
It all started when western Nevada was plunged into a deep freeze. It was one of the coldest February’s that any of the Cartwrights had remembered. Well, not quite coldest. There was that first winter after Adam returned home from college when temperatures dropped well into the negative 20s. But that was only for a week or two.*
This time, it wasn’t that bitterly cold. What it was, though, was consistently cold. High temperatures for the entire month of February didn’t rise above 25 degrees. Thick ice covered most of the rivers not to mention the unrelenting snow pack. The snow wasn’t terribly deep, but with temperatures failing to rise above freezing, it didn’t melt either.
When Ben saw the calendar was about to flip to March, he breathed a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, it was premature as the cold lingered into the first week. If it’s even possible, that first week of March was even colder than February. If Ben hadn’t been there to witness it himself, he wouldn’t have believed it.
All the cold, snow, and frozen rivers for over a month took its toll on the cattle. Every autumn the Cartwrights moved their cattle down to lower pastures for the winter. This year, it didn’t seem to make much of a difference and they were forced to move them even further. The only location they could find that had even a hint of some grazing land for the cattle was below one of their dams. While not an optimal spot, anywhere else would result in complete loss of their herd. At least here, there might be a small glimmer of hope of saving most of them.
By the second week of March, warmer temperatures began to push into the region. Snows quickly melted, but the ground remained frozen.
These warmer days also got the ice moving on the rivers again. The ice broke up during the warm sunshine during the day, then refroze when temperatures dropped below freezing at night. This cyclical temperature trend resulted in ice blocks forming and jamming on the rivers. There was nothing unusual about this; it happened almost every year. However, the prolonged cold caused the ice to be much thicker than usual; several feet thick in some places. As these wagon-sized ice chucks moved down the river, they got caught up above the dam. The immense size of the ice blocks put an unseen stress on the dam.
If the temperatures just continued to warm gradually, Ben was fairly certain the blocks would have eventually melted and all would have been fine. Mother Nature had her own plans though.
About the end of the second week of March, a powerful weather system developed off the California coast. It brought heavy snow to the windward side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. In contrast, it brought heavy rain to the lee side, the side the Ponderosa was located.
Nearly two to three inches of cold, intense rain fell on the still frozen ground in one day. Any other time, the rain would have soaked right into the ground which would have been a welcome gift. However, with the ground frozen, or mostly frozen, it simply ran off the rock-hard surface, straight into the ice-choked rivers.
The sudden influx of water stressed the rivers above what they could handle. It was this extra water added to the river that caused just enough extra force from the ice chucks against the base of the dam and set in motion a series of unfortunate events.
“Pa! Pa!” A holler split open the silence and echoed across the courtyard in front of the Ponderosa Ranch.
Ben looked up from his ledger he was working on at his desk when he heard the frantic calls from his oldest as he rode quickly into the yard. When Adam stormed in through the front door and he saw the ghostly look spread across his face, he knew something was dreadfully wrong.
“Calm down son.” Ben stood from his desk to meet Adam halfway. “What’s the problem?”
“We were down in the pasture checking on the cattle as you told us to do this morning. Things aren’t looking good down there.”
Ben’s thoughts immediately went to the cattle. Maybe they weren’t getting enough food or water. “Is it the cattle?”
Adam took a moment to catch his breath before shaking his head. “No, no. The cattle are fine…for now.”
“Now what’s that supposed to mean?”
“It’s the dam. It’s moaning and creaking. I took a ride up to the top of the dam and there are giant ice blocks pushing against the dam wall. I know it’s well built, but I fear it might collapse under the pressure of the ice and the water. I rode back down to Joe and Hoss, telling them to start rounding up the herd. I told them I was coming back here to get you so we could try to move them to safety.”
Fear washed over Ben’s face before spurring him into action. “I’ll get my horse.”
A half-hour later, the duo arrived at the meadow below the dam. Adam’s brothers had successfully rounded up the cattle and were attempting to move them, although it was slow going with only two of them.
After a brief assessment of the dam, Ben came to the same conclusion that Adam had: the dam was going to fail and they better get those cattle moved as quickly as possible.
The four of them worked hard over the next hour. The easiest way to move them would have been either to the left or right, out of range of the dam if it did indeed fail. They couldn’t do that here though. On one side sat a swampy forest and the other side rose a gigantic bluff. There was only one opening in that bluff about a half mile down that they would be able to use to get the cattle up and out of the floodplain. In the meantime, they had no choice but to push the cattle as far downstream from the dam as possible and hope they reached the opening before the dam completely collapsed.
The cattle had other plans that day making moving them easier said than done. A few avoided the Cartwrights completely. Most wanted to just be left alone so they could keep happily eating the green grass that was just starting to sprout up. Eventually, they got them moving and were almost to the opening when some of the herd wanted to try to find a shortcut through the swamp forest. That’s where Adam and Little Joe were when they heard the crash of the dam bursting open.
“Joseph! Adam! Get out of there!”
Adam looked up at his father’s panicked shout only to see a wave of muddy water and ice headed their way. Grabbing Joe who was almost knee-deep in the mud trying to free a heifer, they both rushed back to their horses, abandoning the stranded cattle.
They both pushed their horses to a gallop, which almost wasn’t fast enough. They made it to the other side of the meadow and up the opening in the bluff with only seconds to spare.
Reaching the top of the bluff, they pulled their horses up next to Ben and Hoss. They all just sat atop their horses staring out over the valley below. What was only a trickle of a stream a few minutes ago, was now a turbulent river of water and massive ice slabs.
Thankfully, they all survived and made it out without being seriously injured. They lost some cattle that day, but they managed to save most of the herd. They all learned some important lessons that day as well. Hopefully, those lessons could be put into practice in the future so something like this doesn’t happen again, or if it does, they will be better equipped to handle it.
However, the most important lesson they learned that day was that Mother Nature can be, and always will be, unpredictable.
A/N: *In reference to my story “The Cold Isn’t All Bad”.
A/N 2: This story was inspired by a similar event that took place in Nebraska a little over two years ago (March 14, 2019). Record cold temperatures in February and early March gave way to a rapid warming trend causing ice blocks to form in the northern Nebraska rivers. This was followed by 1 to 3 inches of heavy rain on the frozen ground which rushed right into the already strained Niobrara River. The force of the ice combined with the extra water was too much for one little dam (Spencer Dam) to handle and it failed, sending a wave of water and ice downstream. It wiped out several bridges, houses, and caused field and road flooding all the way down the Niobrara. This in turn caused extra strain on the Missouri River causing flooding as far as Omaha (250 miles away) and even further south almost to Kansas City (450 miles away).
Other Stories by this Author
- The Cold Isn’t All Bad (by wx4rmk)
- The Autumn Race (by wx4rmk)
- Eternal Legacy (by wx4rmk)
- A Stray Named Muffin (by wx4rmk)
- Hop Sing’s Fortune Cookies (by wx4rmk)