Prairie Line (Part 1)


Cry unto him when ye are in your fields, yea, over all your flocks (Alma 34:20).

Seth lay in the dark, wondering what had awakened him. His ears strained to hear a noise, and his heart began to pound. There it was again! He jumped, then sighed with relief. It was the new telephone. They had bought it through a mail-order catalog. His dad and their neighbors, the Smiths, used the top strand of the barbed-wire fence that separated their ranches to string a telephone wire on. Then they used old rubber tires as fence connectors so that the lines wouldn’t short out. When the phone was first connected, Seth had listened to Mrs. Smith’s voice describing their new Appaloosa colt. He was so astonished that he couldn’t say a word.

All the neighbors had clamored to be part of the line. Everywhere the barbed-wire fences stretched, neighbor was soon connected to neighbor. Mrs. Bowers even put a switchboard in her house so that callers could be switched from one line to another. Now Seth’s family was even linked by the prairie line to Grandpa and Grandma.

Seth sat up in bed. Grandpa and Grandma! Had something happened to them? Who was calling in the wee hours of the morning? He pulled on his jeans and padded barefoot into the kitchen.

His father was still talking on the telephone. “I’m sure he’ll do it for you. Don’t worry about a thing. I’ll take him over later today.” He hung the earpiece on its hook, then turned slowly around. “What are you doing up?” he asked Seth in surprise. Dad looked awful.

“What’s happened?” Seth whispered.

His mother stood in the doorway, with baby Janet in her arms. She, too, waited for the answer.

“Grandpa’s had a heart attack,” Father said quietly. “They’re taking him to the hospital in Gillette.”

“Oh, no!” Mother cried. “Is it very bad?”

“He’ll be fine. He just needs rest. He’ll be in the hospital for a couple of weeks. Then he’ll be able to come home.”

Seth felt a little of the worry ease, but he still wished that he could see Grandpa or do something for him. Grandpa was like a best friend. He’d always been there when Seth needed someone to talk to.

“Until he gets strong again, he wants Seth to take care of the farm,” Father added.

“No,” Mother protested. “Seth’s too young to be in charge of a dairy farm.”

“Now, Grace,” Father reassured her, “Dad has already sold most of his cows, and Seth has helped him before. I think that he can do it for a short time. And when I get the roundup and haying finished, I’ll go over every day and give him a hand.”

“But some of those cows are about to calve,” Mother said. “What if something happens?”

Seth tried to think of a way to help persuade her. “I could call you,” he suggested. “The Smith’s have that Model T. Maybe Dad could borrow it in an emergency.” He stood straight and tall. “I want to do this for Grandpa and Grandma, Mom. Please let me.”

She looked lovingly at him. “I forgot about the telephone. Yes, you can go. They’ll need your help until Grandpa can be up and around again, and you’re not so far away, after all, if you can telephone.”

Seth hugged her. Then he ran back to his porch bedroom to pack his bag. He was going to Grandpa’s!

At Grandpa’s farm, Seth found himself faced with a bigger responsibility than he had ever imagined. He worked from before sunup each morning till the last of the milk was separated at night. Tired as he was, he still enjoyed turning the handle on the separator and watching the milk pour out into one bucket while the thick cream came out another spout. Oh how good that cream was on hot oatmeal!

Every night he called his parents just after supper. He felt very important as he cranked the handle around and around until Mrs. Bowers answered. “Good evening, Mrs. Bowers,” he greeted her formally. “Would you switch me to the King home, please?”

“Hello there, Seth,” she answered. “How’s your grandpa?”

He’d chat with her for a few moments while she switched him onto his parents’ line.

Everything was fine until Sweetie decided to be difficult. She’s the most contrary Guernsey cow ever born, Seth thought. Guernseys were known for their placid nature—but not Sweetie. She’d rather kick you than look at you. And now she was calving.

Seth went out to the barn and looked at her. He didn’t know much about it, but he could tell that she was in trouble. Carefully he walked into her stall, talking softly to soothe her. She whirled around and kicked at him. He jumped back, but her hoof grazed his shin.

“Ow!” he yelled and ducked back behind the stall. He rubbed the sore spot, then limped a little on his way back to the house. He cranked the handle on the phone and waited impatiently to talk to his mother. “Mom, Sweetie’s having trouble calving. Is Dad around?”

“Oh, Seth,” Mother said worriedly, “he’s out at roundup and won’t be back till tomorrow.” There was a pause, then she added resolutely, “You’ll just have to do the best you can.”

He felt so alone. “But I don’t know what to do.”

In the silence that followed, Mrs. Bowers spoke up. “Just do what you’ve seen your pa do and then pray!”

When Seth hung up the phone, he didn’t know if he should laugh because Mrs. Bowers had been listening in or cry because he couldn’t do what his dad had done. He was too small. And as for praying, he didn’t even know how. He’d never even been inside a church. He went outside and headed slowly toward the barn.

“Hello there!” a voice called out.

He whirled around and saw two men walking toward him. A tall man in a black coat asked, “Are your folks home?”

He shook his head, too miserable to say anything.

“What’s the matter, son?” the other man asked kindly.

Seth looked up and saw a face full of wrinkles, the kind you get from years of squinting in the sun. It was a face like Grandpa’s—weather-beaten and comfortable.

“Grandpa’s in the hospital, and Sweetie’s calf is turned and can’t be born. She won’t let me near her, and even if she did, I couldn’t help her. Mrs. Bowers said to pray, but I don’t know how. Do you?”

The man’s eyes began to twinkle as the whole sad story tumbled out. “Well,” he said, “first things first. I do know how to pray, and I’ll teach you, but for now let’s look at that cow.”

The man headed for the barn at a brisk walk while stripping off his coat. Taken by surprise, Seth ran along beside him, trying to keep up.

The man knew just what he was doing. When Sweetie lashed a hoof at him, he just chuckled. “Kinda bad tempered for a Guernsey, aren’t you?” He looped a rope on that hoof and tied it down, then patted her and began to work.

Seth couldn’t believe how easy it seemed. In just a short time a little calf lay at their feet, too weak yet to get up. He stared at the new little creature and wondered again at the miracle of birth. Would it live? The man handed him some clean straw. “Rub that calf down with this and dry her off. Then we’ll bring her around to her mama. As soon as she gets some warm milk inside her, she’ll be just fine.”

Seth worked carefully over the calf, then carried her to where Sweetie stood, still tethered, in the corner. The calf bumped her udder and, with tail swishing, drank the strengthening milk.

The man brushed his clothes off. “Do you have a pump I can wash off at?”

“Sure. By the back door,” Seth answered. “Say, thanks, mister. Sweetie is Grandpa’s best milker. That’s how she got her name—for her good cream. He’ll be pleased that she’s all right.”

“You’re welcome, son.” He clapped Seth on the back. “I’m a rancher myself.”

Seth looked up at him, puzzled. “Do you live around here?”

“No. My ranch is on a high desert plateau in Arizona.”

“What are you doing in Wyoming?”

“We’re missionaries of the Lord’s church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

“Oh, so that’s why you know how to pray.”

The man smiled and began to wash. After he washed and put his jacket on, he turned to the boy. “Now it’s time for that first lesson in prayer.” He bowed his head and addressed Heavenly Father. After he thanked Him for the new little heifer and the young boy who was caring for the farm, he asked for help for Seth and strength for his grandpa.

Seth listened in astonishment. It was so easy! Not much harder than talking to Mother on the prairie line. But did God really listen?

The men left then, promising to return the next day to help with the chores. When Seth reported the day’s events that night on the prairie line, he felt thankful. Then he went into his room, knelt by his bed, and tried to talk to Heavenly Father.

(To be continued)

[illustrations] Illustrated by Mike Eagle