How to Make it Rain in the Desert
Excerpt from: Winnetou III
Old Shatterhand and Sans-Ear are following a trail into the desert, the deadly Llano Estacado; things are getting desperate, as they have run out of water, and are near perishing … they encounter an expansive cactus field.
Naturally, the trail I followed didn’t lead into the dangerous vegetation; it lead around it and I followed it, but not for long because, suddenly, I had an idea that filled me with renewed energy.
When the heat in Florida’s low-lying areas increased so much that it turned the ground to ‘liquid lead’ and the sky to ‘glowing ore’ without the smallest cloud in sight, the people suffering from the heat would set alight the dry reeds and any other dead shrubbery and wouldn’t you know it, the rain came. I had witnessed it twice and someone who was reasonably familiar with the laws, powers and phenomena of nature could certainly explain the process without the need for a scientific elaboration.
That’s what came to my mind at that moment; as soon as I thought about it I knelt next to the plants to carve enough kindling from their fibres. A few minutes later a lively fire licked into the air that expanded, slowly at first but increasingly faster until I stood in front of a raging inferno that seemed to have no boundaries.
I had experienced several prairie fires already, but none had travelled across the ground with such thundering roar like the cactus hell where every single plant exploded like a loaded gun upon firing so that it sounded like an entire army was engaged in combat. The blaze climbed into the sky and above it hovered an ocean of glowing steam, pierced by cactus splinters that were catapulted upwards by the heat like arrows. The ground beneath my feet shook and the air reverberated from the dull roar of what sounded like a battle.
That was the best help—at least for now—that I could give Bernard Marshall and his friends. I turned back, unperturbed about whether or not I would be able to find their tracks later. The hope strengthened me so much that I wouldn’t have required half an hour to get back to the others, but it wasn’t necessary, because Sam and Bob had followed me with the horses, which managed to drag themselves along a bit farther.
“Blimey, Charley, what’s happening up ahead? First I thought there was an earthquake, but now f’r instance I believe that the sand has ignited.”
“Not the sand, Sam but the plentiful cactus over yonder.”
“How did it catch alight? I don’t believe it would have been you who did it.”
“Truly, it was you! But…what for?”
“To get rain.”
“Rain? Don’t mind me saying so, Charley, but I do believe that you’ve gone a little crazy just to pass the time!”
“Don’t you know that many natives consider crazy people to be very smart?”
“I hope you don’t claim to have done something very smart! The heat has doubled compared to before the fire.”
“The heat increased and static electricity will develop accordingly.”
“Stay away from me with your electricity f’r instance! I can’t eat it; I can’t drink it: I don’t even know what sort of strange creature it’s supposed to be.”
“You’ll soon hear it because in a short while we’ll have the nicest thunderstorm.”
“Get off it! Poor Charley, you’ve really snapped!”
He looked at me with such concern that I realized he wasn’t joking. I pointed into the sky.
“Can’t you see the vapour clouds that are already forming?”
“Tarnation, Charley, in the end you’re not as crazy as I thought!”
“They’ll form a cloud that has to discharge quite violently.”
“Charley, if this really is so, then I’m an ass and you’re the smartest fellow in the United States and beyond.”
“It’s not that bad, Sam. I’ve seen it done in Florida and have simply imitated it here because I thought that a handful of rain wouldn’t do any harm. See, there’s the cloud already! As soon as the cactus has burned down it’ll happen. And if you don’t want to believe it, then have a look at your Tony, how she flaps her tail stump and flares her nostrils! Even my mustang can smell rain already; it won’t extend much past the cactus expanse. Let’s move so that we can catch it!”
Although we were running, we could have just as well climbed onto our animals because they were as lively as their reserves permitted, and urged forward. They instinctively sensed the refreshing water.
My prophecy came true. Half an hour later, the small cloud had expanded so much that the entire sky above us and up to the horizon appeared black; then it broke loose, not gradually like it did in temperate zones but suddenly, as if the clouds consisted of solid vessels that had been toppled over and their contents spilt out. It felt as if twenty fists were drumming around on our shoulders and within a minute we were so drenched as if we had swum across a river in our clothes. The two horses first stood quietly and endured the flood with joyful snorting; but once they had been drinking their fill from the liquid in the many toppled and hollowed cactus trunks they began to cut capers; soon we noticed that they had regained their strength almost completely. We felt extremely comfortable, opened our blankets to catch the precious liquid, drank plenty of it and filled our waterbags.