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It’s the worst blizzard in fifty years! Delores is very ill, but there’s no way to get through the snow. How long will she be stranded at school?
Out on the South Dakota prairie, the winters are fierce. This storm is the worst one yet: It’s below freezing outside, and the winds are howling. All of the other kids have gone home, but Delores’s family can’t get to her, so she has to stay at the school. Between a fuel shortage and having to boil snow for drinking water, it’s been ...
It’s the worst blizzard in fifty years! Delores is very ill, but there’s no way to get through the snow. How long will she be stranded at school?
Out on the South Dakota prairie, the winters are fierce. This storm is the worst one yet: It’s below freezing outside, and the winds are howling. All of the other kids have gone home, but Delores’s family can’t get to her, so she has to stay at the school. Between a fuel shortage and having to boil snow for drinking water, it’s been hard for both Delores and her teacher, Miss Martin. Now Delores is very ill. How will Miss Martin get her to the doctor in all this snow?
Prairie School was inspired by letters from children at a real South Dakota prairie school, which Lenski then visited during the severe blizzards of the winter of 1950.
First Day of School
"She hasn't come yet."
A boy and a girl on a small, spotted horse came galloping up to the prairie schoolhouse. They slid off and turned the horse loose. "No, she's not here," said the girl. "We're in plenty of time." The schoolhouse looked shabby and deserted. The front porch was sagging and weeds grew high in the yard.
"Look, Delores!" said her brother. "Somebody's broken a window."
"Konrad Snider did that last year, don't you remember?" said the girl. "His ball landed on Miss Martin's desk."
The two children had blue eyes and straw-colored hair. Their cheeks were rosy from their ride over the South Dakota prairie. They were dressed in faded checked shirts and blue jeans. The boy was half a head taller than the girl.
"Look at these steps," said Darrell. "Broken down again. I'll have to bring hammer and nails and fix them, I suppose."
"Wish we could go to that nice new brick school in town," said Delores. "I'd like to ride on a bus."
"You'd end up frozen stiff in a snowbank," said her brother. "They can't run busses so far out. There's our town—Oak Leaf!"
He pointed to the north, where the tiny Oak Leaf depot stood beside the railroad track. Just beyond rose a tall grain elevator. Off to the right stood a single house, empty and deserted. On the other side of the tracks a grass fire was burning, sending up dark, smoldering smoke.
"Some town!" laughed Delores.
"First they called it Kukuk," said Darrell. "Mrs. Kukuk was Russian and named the postoffice after herself. Then somebody changed the name to Tuttle, and that got changed to Oak Leaf—I don't see any oak trees around anywhere."
"Oak Leaf had sixty people once," said Delores, "but they all moved away. I guess it was too windy for them, or too snowy in winter, or too far out. Papa said there used to be two stores, a lumber yard and lots of houses. I wonder what became of the houses."
"They moved one or two into town," said Darrell, "and the wind blew the others down. So everybody moved away."
"Even the Swartz's have gone," said Delores. She looked across the prairie to the deserted house. "Poor little house—it looks lonesome."
"It'll soon have company," laughed Darrell. "The field mice and prairie chickens and skunks will soon be moving in. What's that—a jackrabbit?"
"Looks more like a dog," said Delores. "He's coming this way."
"It's Spike. The Swartz's Spike," cried the boy. "Here, Spike! Here, Spike! Come here, old boy."
The dog, a large shaggy shepherd, came bounding up.
"Do you suppose they forgot him?" Darrell patted the dog to make him stop jumping. "They moved to town last spring. I wonder if he's been here alone all summer."
"He acts like it," said Delores.
"He's so glad to see us. He must be hungry," said Darrell.
"I wish Miss Martin would come," said Delores. "She'll bring food and give us something to feed him."
They walked back to the teacherage door.
"Wonder why she's so late," said Delores. "She ought to be getting here. The first day of school is tomorrow. Look, Darrell, is the grass fire getting worse?"
The children looked across to the field beyond the railroad track, where a cloud of smoke was rising. Now and then it lifted and showed leaping flames beneath.
"The wind's not in this direction," said the boy, "so there's no danger. The prairie grass always burns off every year."
"Let's ride over to the track and watch it," said Delores.
They called Sugar and mounted, then rode quickly over, with the dog Spike following. The fire was licking its way along the railroad embankment, leaving a charred stretch of black behind it. Darrell pulled up the horse in front of the depot, and they watched the fire in silence.
"Good thing Pop plowed that fireguard," said Darrell. "Two furrows along the fence—that'll stop it."
"It won't jump the track, will it?" asked Delores.
"I told you the wind's in the other direction."
"I hear a car." Delores turned and looked. "Teacher's coming."
Over the brow of the rolling hill beyond the schoolhouse, a car was crawling on the winding prairie road, coming closer and closer.
"That must be Miss Martin," said Darrell. "Nobody else would be coming this way today."
They raced Sugar back to the schoolhouse and dismounted just as the dust-covered car drove up.
"Hello, hello!" called Miss Martin, smiling. "Glad to see you." Miss Martin was small, thin and wiry. She was dressed in a new checked suit and wore a red hat with a gay feather. Her eyes were bright and sparkling. "How nice to have a welcome—and some help with my unloading. But what's the matter? You both look so serious. Aren't you glad school opens tomorrow?"
"We came to tell you ..." began Delores. She stood on the teacherage steps and looked over to the elevator and depot.
"There's a pretty bad prairie fire, Miss Martin," said Darrell.
"You think I'm afraid, don't you?" Miss Martin smiled.
"Mama said if you are afraid, you're to come home with us and sleep at our house," said Delores.
"It has burned off three sections," said Darrell. "Down by our place the men burned a backfire to make it come this way. They're still fighting it with sacks and water over on the other side."
"Yes, I saw it from the road," said Miss Martin. "I wonder how it started."
"Pop says he bet somebody's been burning tumbleweeds," said Darrell. "Summer's been so dry, there's an extra big crop."
"You mean Russian thistles?" asked Miss Martin.
"Yes," said Darrell. "When they get dry, they break off at the stem and roll along like a ball. The wind sends them tumbling across the prairie until they pile up against somebody's fence. Some people don't want their fences broke down by tumbleweeds, so they set fire to them. Then the prairie grass starts burning too."
"It sure is windy today," said Delores. "It's a bad day for prairie fires—the grass is so dry. That fire might come awful close."
"The Bauers over in the brakes had to move," said Darrell. "They were burned out—lost everything."
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that," said Miss Martin. "They are Peter's and Hulda's grandparents, aren't they?"
She opened the door of her car and stepped out. Spike came running up, panting.
"Why, whose dog is this?" asked Miss Martin. "Yours?"
"It's Spike, the Swartz's dog," said Darrell.
"Oh yes, I see it is," said Miss Martin. "It's good to see Spike again. He's always friendly." She began to walk around the building. "It hasn't changed much," she said. "Still the same broken steps, the same broken window—and weeds right up to my door. I'll have to clear a path to get in."
The children helped her pull tall ragweeds up by the roots. Then she went up the teacherage steps, took a key out of her purse and unlocked the door.
"Let's go inside," she said. Delores followed.
"I'll unload your car, Miss Martin," said Darrell. The teacherage was a name given to two small rooms at the back of the building, where the teacher lived. The door led into a small square kitchen. The furniture was simple—a table, cupboard, chair and two stoves. One was a two-burner kerosene stove for cooking and the other a coal heater marked Heatola. Delores looked up at the ceiling and smiled. "How do you like your smokehouse, Miss Martin?"
The shadow of a frown passed over the teacher's face. "It hasn't been painted!" she exclaimed. She went into the bedroom. "Oh dear! No bureau. I'll have to get used to living out of cartons and egg crates again."
Delores did not know what to say. "At least I have my own bed," Miss Martin went on. "That makes it homelike. It won't take me long to get settled."
Delores looked at the bed. It was a cheap metal cot with sagging springs. The mattress was thin. "If you come to our house," she said, "I'll sleep on the davenport tonight, and you can have my bed. It's wide and comfortable, and it's got two featherbeds on it."
But Miss Martin was not listening. Back in the kitchen, she opened the door into the schoolroom. Six wide windows faced the east, and let in the only light. A large desk stood in front, two bookcases and a piano in corners. The children's desks were arranged in three rows. Blackboards lined three sides of the room. Two doors led into the front hall, which served as a cloak room.
"It's not painted!" cried Miss Martin, looking up at the high ceiling. "Oh, they promised to paint it, didn't they, Delores? Don't you remember—at the picnic on the last day of school in May?"
"I guess so," said Delores, ashamed.
"If the fathers would help, it wouldn't be such a big job."
Delores remembered that her mother had offered to paint Teacher's kitchen herself. Mama always had a paint brush in her hand. She was always painting something. But she had never found time to paint the teacherage kitchen.
"Mama's so busy ..." Delores began.
"I'll have to sweep and dust before I can move in." Miss Martin went into the front hall and down the steep cellar stairs. Delores went with her, and they looked in the coal bin. "A little coal left over from last winter," said Miss Martin. "Maybe we won't need so much this year."
"Papa says it's gonna be a soft winter," said Delores.
They came up the stairs again and went outside. Darrell had unloaded boxes and cartons of books, brooms, mops and dustpans, groceries and suitcases, and piled them in a pile at the teacherage steps.
"Won't you come and sleep at our house tonight, Miss Martin?" asked Delores anxiously.
Miss Martin looked across the prairie, again. The billowing smoke seemed to be coming closer. "Put the things back in the car, Darrell," she said.
"You'll come home with us then?" asked Delores.
"No, it's quite safe to stay here," said Miss Martin. She added, almost in a whisper, "I must get used to it again." Then aloud:
"I'll only take in one suitcase and a box of groceries." She pointed to them. "And the kerosene can and the five gallon can of water. I'll leave everything else in the car for tonight"
"Got anything to feed Spike?" asked Darrell.
"Spike? He'd better go home," said Miss Martin.
"The Swartzes left Spike here when they moved to town last June," said Delores. "Didn't you know that?"
"They've moved to town?" Miss Martin glanced at the deserted house. "I thought the house looked empty. Now I'll have no neighbors at all." She paused. "Here are some sandwiches left over from my lunch. Give them to Spike"
Darrell loaded everything back in the car again. Then he brought Sugar around and climbed on her back. "Come along, Delores," he said, "We got to be gettin' on home. I got all the chores to do."
"Darrell, I'm not going," said Delores. "I'm going to stay with Teacher tonight. Mama said if she wouldn't come, I was to stay and sleep by her—this first night."
Darrell sniffed. "A lot of protection you'll be. You'll put out the prairie fire, I suppose, when it starts to burn the schoolhouse up."
Miss Martin laughed. She put her arm around the girl's shoulder "But I'm not afraid, you know. Why, I've lived in a teacherage for so many years ..."
"Don't you ever get lonesome—all by yourself?" asked Delores.
"Lonesome?" Miss Martin laughed gaily. "I haven't time." She went in the bedroom, took off her hat and suit, and slipped on a cotton dress. "Let's get the brooms and sweep."
Darrell rode off and the sound of Sugar's hoofbeats died away. Miss Martin opened the windows, and she and Delores swept and mopped until they were tired. The light faded and the high ceilinged schoolroom grew dark. Miss Martin filled the kerosene lamp and lighted it. She opened a can of baked beans and another of apple sauce. She and Delores sat down and ate.
To Delores, it was a strange meal. Teacher ate such funny things. She never baked kuga (cakes) or made casenipfla (cheese buttons) like Mama did. She just opened cans and warmed things up. She never fixed big dishes heaped high with mashed potatoes; she never made big bowls of brown gravy. She never ate wuerst (sausage) at all. No wonder she was so thin.
"I must get some bedding," said Miss Martin, after supper. But she did not go to her car. She stood silently on the back porch for a long time. Delores came and stood beside her.
The prairie stretched so endlessly off in the distance. It was not "flat as a pancake" as people so often described it. It was rolling. It rolled and tumbled like the great waves of a mighty sea. There were no trees at all—how homesick a person could get for a tree! And yet there was a grandeur and a majesty about this barren landscape. The brown velour texture of the grassy prairie slopes was beautiful. Miss Martin took Delores' hand in her own. Delores was a child of the prairie. She had never known any other life. The woman and girl felt very small in the immensity of sky and land before them.
Miss Martin spoke softly: "Sometimes last year, early in the mornings, I used to see a mysterious house far away to the northwest, across the prairie. It was shining so white and beautiful ... I wished I could go there ..."
Delores laughed. "It wasn't a house, it was a mirage. There's no house in that direction. Sometimes when I'm riding I see a beautiful town, with high walls and towers. Mama laughs and says it's foolishness. Then, an hour later, it's only the slope of a prairie hill."
"Yes, I know," said Miss Martin. "I always wish I had time to stand and watch the mirage fade away ..."
"Are you afraid of the prairie fire, Miss Martin?" asked Delores.
"No, Delores," came the ready reply. "If it comes closer, we can get in the car and ride to your house ...even in the middle of the night."
Night at the schoolhouse seemed very long. It was August and the air was hot and close. Delores wished she had gone home with Darrell after all. She could not sleep. The teacherage felt so strange, not cozy like home at all. She was lonesome for Mama and her little brother Christy. She could smell the smoke from the burning prairie grass and felt sure it was coming closer. She listened to Miss Martin's regular breathing. Then all at once, she heard footsteps. Somebody was walking around the school building with heavy treads. Should she wake Miss Martin up?
Who could be out there on the prairie, nine miles from town? There was no one at the depot or the elevator at night, and the Swartzes had moved into town. Maybe it was the dog Spike. If they fed Spike, he would stay at the school now. Spike was a good watch- dog. He would take care of the school.
Then she smelled smoke again. The fire must have jumped the track. Maybe it was moving toward the schoolhouse. Delores heard the footsteps again—ka-lump, ka-lump, ka-lump. She burst into tears and Miss Martin woke up.
"What's the matter, Delores?"
"I heard something ..." the girl began. "Look!" she pointed to the window, where a dark form could be seen.
"Who is it?" called Miss Martin, rising in bed in alarm.
But the intruder did not answer.
"WHO IS IT? GO AWAY!" said Miss Martin in a loud voice. She put her hand on the girl's arm. "Don't be afraid, Delores."
The figure did not move. Heavy footbeats could again be heard. The figure nuzzled against the window frame and gave a little snort.
"Oh, my goodness!" cried Miss Martin, laughing. "It's a horse. Delores, look. A horse is poking its head in our window. Good thing the window is so high off the ground—he might have walked in."
Delores had to laugh. Miss Martin got up and the startled horse went trotting away. She looked out at the teacherage door. "Horses!" she cried. "There's a whole herd of them. They've come over here because of the grass fire. But it's all died down now."
"I'm glad of that," said Delores. She looked out the bedroom window and could see it still smoldering along the tracks, and knew the danger was over. She fell asleep quickly, and before she knew it, morning had come. After breakfast, she helped Miss Martin unload her car. Over by the elevator, she saw the herd of horses, eating grain, and recognized them as her father's.
"Eight o'clock," said Miss Martin. "The children will soon be here."
The Sticklemeyers came first. There were six of them—Jacob, Fernetta, Sophie and Wilmer, one in each grade from the third through the sixth, besides the twins, Donna and Bertha, starting in the first grade. They drove up in their cart, a homemade box mounted on two wheels, pulled by their twenty-year-old horse, Buckskin. They all jumped out and Jacob took the horse to the school barn and unhitched the horse.
Miss Martin was kept busy greeting everybody. Konrad Snider and Emil Holzhauer each came on. horseback. Ruby Englehart came riding behind her father on his big white horse, Silver. Ruby was eight and had blonde curls. She was pretty and knew it. Last of all, the little Hummels, Peter, seven, and Hulda, six, came in panting from walking two miles and a half across the prairie.
"Is everybody here?" called Miss Martin at the front door. "What are Konrad and Wilmer chasing?"
"It's a goose," said Sophie Sticklemeyer. "The Swartz's goose."
"They left their goose here," said Delores. "They left Spike, too."
"Here comes the Galloping Goose!" shouted Wilmer Sticklemeyer. The goose came up on the porch and the boys tried to chase it in. But Miss Martin stood in the doorway. "Is everybody here? Let's go in."
"Everybody but Darrell," said Delores.
There was so much to tell Miss Martin, it was hard to settle down at first.
Excerpted from Prairie School by Lois Lenski. Copyright © 1951 Lois Lenski. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted April 2, 2013