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Addie's a pioneer now in the vast Dakota territory, far from her friend Eleanor and Iowa. And now she must care for her youngetst brother as Ma, Pa, and the older boys and Mr. and Mrs. Fency leave to build a home before winter comes. She's all alone with two year-old Burt when the terrifying prairie fire...
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Addie's a pioneer now in the vast Dakota territory, far from her friend Eleanor and Iowa. And now she must care for her youngetst brother as Ma, Pa, and the older boys and Mr. and Mrs. Fency leave to build a home before winter comes. She's all alone with two year-old Burt when the terrifying prairie fire begins!
How can she save herslef and little Burt before the raging fire steals their home and their lives!
Unhappy to leave her home and friends, Addie reluctantly accompanies her family to the Dakota Territory and slowly begins to adjust to life on the prairie.
Addie awoke to the sound of Canada geese flying south, their strange cries filling the cold morning air. During the past three days the Mills had traveled west more than thirty-six miles and were now looking for Chouteau Creek to follow north to Hutchinson County. Pa said they were only about twenty miles from their homestead. It was still nearly dark this morning, and the wind from the northwest reminded her of winter. Addie worried about what would happen to her family if they didn't get a house built before a blizzard set in. Will had told her stories about the Dakota Nor'westers that filled the sky with snow so fast travelers were unable to see. They became separated from each other and wandered lost until they froze to death.
"Smells like snow," Addie said to George, who dumped a pile of buffalo chips he had collected. Addie rubbed her hands together and pulled Mother's wool shawl around her shoulders to keep warm. She stirred the cornmeal mush that was their breakfast.
The children ate their mush slowly. Sweetened with sorghum syrup, the gruel didn't taste quite so bad this morning. Addie didn't like cornmeal mush when they ate it in Jackson County and she didn't like it now, but she knew this would be all there was to eat until they stopped to rest late that afternoon. Since they'd started on their journey, George and Pa had shot rabbits and prairie chickens to eat for dinner every now and then. The wild game was a welcome change from salt pork and jerked beef. But their usual fare was gruel with milk in the morning and gruel, fried salt pork, and biscuits for dinner.
"I could shoot a buffalo right between the eyes,"George bragged, licking the back of his spoon.
"Could not. There aren't any more buffalo around here. Haven't been any for nearly a year. That's what Pa says," Addie replied and stirred the gruel in her bowl so hard it slopped on her apron. She knew the huge herds that had once roamed this part of the prairie were gone, wiped out by hunters who came with guns for hides or just for sport. Only bones, skulls, horns, and buffalo chips remained in the tall grass. "I bet I could get us some fresh game better than you could, with all your big talk."
George laughed and slapped his knee. "Pa isn't going to teach you to shoot. Mother says it's not ladylike for a girl to handle guns."
Addie felt her face flush. She wished her father would teach her how to use a gun. She wished George couldn't make her so angry all the time. "Hurry up and finish, Lew," Addie said brusquely, turning away from George's satisfied smile.
As the sun began to rise, Addie could see frost clinging to the delicate turkey-foot grass, another name for the big bluestem that grew in some places as tall as a man on horseback. The grass was called turkey-foot because its slender stem split at the end like a turkey's toes.
The dead-white needle grass in the distance already looked like snow. Most of the prairie flowers were only dried stalks with stripped seed heads. A few pods clung to frost-blighted stems. Once the last wild geese and cranes flew south, the prairie would be silent except for the "ti-ti-chu-ree" of snow buntings and the plaintive whistle of circling red-tailed hawks. These were among the few birds that braved winter on the prairie. Of course foxes, coyotes, prairie chickens, rabbits, and meadow mice had no choice but to stay.
"We don't have any choice, either," thought Addie. Someone else was living on the farm they had rented back in Jackson County, Iowa. It had been a hilly place with clay-filled soil where Addie's family had struggled to make a living for nearly ten years, ever since Addie was born. Pa had never had enough help to clear more of the bottom acres where the land was level and low and close to the Mississippi. He had used this part of the farm to graze what few cattle the family kept.
Three years ago the river had flooded their fields, washed away their small corn crop, and drowned every cow except Big Jones and Great Giant. The milk cows managed to escape because they grazed on a hill -- they were too fat and lazy to walk all the way down to the bottom land. The flood covered the first floor of the house and knocked over the barn, floating it south. Addie and her family saved themselves by climbing the high bluffs nearby. They were just in time to see the bridge to Sabula snap in two from the force of wild, swirling brown floodwater. Woodchucks, rabbits, toads, frogs, and snakes -- some half-alive, some drowned -- had been washed up into the branches of trees. Addie had covered her ears to shut out the panic-stricken lowing of cattle desperate to find a place to stand up. Nearly fifty families in Jackson County lost everything they owned.
When the flooding was over, the Mills had two cows alive and their house still standing. Neighbors found Pa's Union Army papers in a tin box five miles down river.
To help pay their debts, Mother had to sell her fancy wedding brooch, which she had hidden behind a fireplace brick before the flood. George and Addie and Mother milked Big Jones and Great Giant and churned nearly five hundred pounds of butter to sell in Sabula for cash. Two hungry winters followed. There never seemed enough to feed so many mouths.
It was the year after these bad winters that Pa decided to sell Great Giant, leave Jackson County, and homestead in Dakota. If they farmed one hundred sixty acres for five years, Pa said, the land would be theirs, free. They would never have to churn butter to pay a landlord again. For days Pa had spoken of nothing but Dakota.
"It is the Land of Begin Again," he told his family. "We can own our own land. It will be hard work, but it won't be any harder than staying here and starving. With the railroad going west, the whole prairie will be filled up before you know it."
Addie and George finished eating. "How will we know when we get to the homestead?" George asked Pa.
"We'll know because I'll remember. And I carved four hardwood stakes with our name at each corner of the claim," Pa replied. "Now, Addie, take this corn mush and some tea to your mother. She's in the wagon packing the bedding."
Addie dished up some gruel and poured a steaming cup of tea for her mother, taking care to sweeten it the way Mother liked.
"Mother?" Addie called into the quiet wagon, hoping that just the two of them could talk together alone. But as soon as she spoke, Nellie May awoke, crying.
"Addie, why did you wake the baby?" Mother asked crossly.
"I didn't mean to," Addie said quickly, handing breakfast to her mother. She was going to ask what would happen if they couldn't find their homestead's wood stakes because Indians had pulled them out of the ground. But she thought better of the idea and hurried away without saying anything at all.
It was another long day with nothing to see except more miles and miles of grass. Will said he was too tired to play his harmonica, so Addie and her brothers had to march alongside the wagon without music. When they grew tired of marching, they waved clouds of grasshoppers away with wands of Indian grass. All afternoon they wore crowns of dry sunflowers in their hair as they kept watch over the family cow.
"Don't let Big Jones wander away from the wagon like that!" George shouted to Addie as she and the cow, searched a low bush for any remaining chokecherries "Don't you know Indians like to steal cows?"
"I wish some Indians would steal you. Can't you think of anything else to do except give me orders?" Addie replied angrily. There were no chokecherries, and now she had thistles caught all over the back of her dress.
"Addie, do you really wish Indians would steal George?" Lew asked, his eyes wide with surprise. The idea seemed almost too horrible.
"I most certainly do. There's nothing I'd like better than to see George slung over the back of some wild Indian's pony. " She knew she shouldn't say such awful things, but sometimes George made her so furious. What gave him the right to boss her around?
Suddenly, Pa stood up in the wagon seat and stared into the distance. What was it?
"Smoke!" he called out.
Addie gulped and ran to the wagon, -- scrambling up for a better look. Sure enough, beyond the next rise she could see a thin wisp of smoke.
Copyright© 1986 by Laurie Lawlor