WHEELS OF FIRE
All the days were peaceful after that July day when the grasshoppers flew away. Rain fell and grass grew again over all the land that they had eaten bare and left brown and ugly. Ragweeds grew faster, and careless weeds, and the big, spreading tumbleweeds like bushes.
Willows and cottonwoods and plum thickets put out leaves again. There would be no fruit, for blossom-time was past. There would be no wheat.
But wild hay was growing coarse in low places by the creek. Potatoes lived, and there were fish in the fish-trap.
Pa hitched Sam and David to Mr. Nelson’s plow, and plowed part of the weedy wheat-field. He plowed a wide fire-break west of the house, from the creek to the creek again. On the field he sowed turnip seeds.
“It’s late,” he said. “The old folks say to sow turnips the twenty-fifth of July, wet or dry. But I guess the old folks didn’t figure on grasshoppers. And likely there will be as many turnips as you and the girls can handle, Caroline. I won’t be here to do it.”
He must go away to the east again, to work where there were harvests, for the house was not yet paid for and he must buy salt and cornmeal and sugar. He could not stay to cut the hay that Sam and David and Spot must have to eat next winter. But Mr. Nelson agreed to cut and stack Pa’s wild hay for a share of it.
Then one early morning Pa went walking away. He went whistling out of sight, with his jumper-roll on his shoulder. But there was not one hole in his boots. He would not mind the walk, and some day he would come walking back again.
In the mornings after the chores and the housework were done, Laura and Mary studied their books. In the afternoons Ma heard their les- sons. Then they might play or sew their seams, till time to meet the herd and bring Spot and her calf home. Then came chores again and supper and the supper dishes and bedtime.
After Mr. Nelson stacked Pa’s hay by the stable, the days were warm on the sunny side of the stacks, but their shady sides were cool. The wind blew chill and the mornings were frosty.
One morning when Laura drove Spot and her calf to meet the herd, Johnny was having trouble with the cattle. He was trying to drive them out on the prairie to the west, where the frostbitten, brown grass was tall. The cattle did not want to go. They kept turning and dodging back.
Laura and Jack helped him drive them. The sun was coming up then and the sky was clear.
But before Laura got back to the house, she saw a low cloud in the west. She wrinkled her nose and sniffed long and deep, and she remembered Indian Territory.
“Ma!” she called. Ma came outdoors and looked at the cloud.
“It’s far away, Laura,” Ma said. “Likely it won’t come so far.”
All morning the wind blew out of the west. At noon it was blowing more strongly, and Ma and Mary and Laura stood in the dooryard and watched the dark cloud coming nearer.
“I wonder where the herd is,” Ma worried.
At last they could see a flickering brightness under the cloud.
“If the cows are safe across the creek we needn’t worry,” said Ma. “Fire can’t cross that fire-break. Better come in the house, girls, and eat your dinner.”
She took Carrie into the house, but Laura and Mary looked just once more at the smoke rolling nearer. Then Mary pointed and opened her mouth but could not speak. Laura screamed, “Ma! Ma! A wheel of fire!”
In front of the red-flickering smoke a wheel of fire came rolling swiftly, setting fire to the grass as it came. Another and another, another, came rolling fast before the wind. The first one was whirling across the fire-break.
With water-pail and mop Ma ran to meet it. She struck it with the wet mop and beat it out black on the ground. She ran to meet the next one, but more and more were coming.
“Stay back, Laura!” she said.
Laura stayed backed flat against the house, holding Mary’s hand tight, and watching. In the house Carrie was crying because Ma had shut her in.
The wheels of fire came on, faster and faster. They were the big tumbleweeds, that had ripened round and dry and pulled up their small roots so that the wind would blow them far and scatter their seeds. Now they were burning, but still they rolled before the roaring wind and the roaring big fire that followed them.
Smoke swirled now around Ma where she ran, beating with her mop at those fiery swift wheels. Jack shivered against Laura’s legs and tears ran out of her smarting eyes.
Mr. Nelson’s gray colt came galloping and Mr. Nelson jumped off it at the stable. He grabbed a pitchfork and shouted: “Run quick! Bring wet rags!” He went running to help Ma.
Laura and Mary ran to the creek with gunny sacks. They ran back with them sopping wet and Mr. Nelson put one on the pitchfork tines. Ma’s pail was empty; they ran and filled it.
The wheels of fire were running up the knoll. Streaks of fire followed through the dry grass. Ma and Mr. Nelson fought them with the mop and the wet sacks.
“The hay-stacks! The hay-stacks!” Laura screamed. One wheel of fire had got to the hay- stacks. Mr. Nelson and Ma went running through the smoke. Another wheel came rolling over the black-burned ground to the house. Laura was so frightened that she did not know what she was doing. Carrie was in the house. Laura beat that burning wheel to death with a wet gunny sack.
Then there were no more wheels. Ma and Mr. Nelson had stopped the fire at the haystack. Bits of sooty hay and grass swirled in the air, while the big fire rushed to the fire-break.
It could not get across. It ran fast to the south, to the creek. It ran north and came to the creek there. It could not go any farther, so it dwindled down and died where it was.
The clouds of smoke were blowing away and the prairie fire was over. Mr. Nelson said he had gone on his gray colt after the cattle; they were safe on the other side of the creek.
“We are grateful to you, Mr. Nelson,” said Ma. “You saved our place. The girls and I could never have done it alone.”
When he had gone away, she said, “There is nothing in the world so good as good neighbors. Come now, girls, and wash, and eat your dinner.”