“Prairie gum!” exclaimed Roxanna. “Would you like to go out and get some prairie gum?”
“Oh, yes,” Rachel said. She had just walked the two miles between her soddy (a home built of sod) and Roxanna’s, but her six-year-old legs were eager to go on if the reward was prairie gum.
Prairie gum was a sticky substance that gathered on the broken tops of the tall rosinweeds that dotted the land. In the spring, the weed had blossomed like a little yellow sunflower, but today the leaves were stiff. It was fall, and everything on the prairie was brown and dry. The little wildflowers that had once added splashes of red, orange, and purple to the sea of grass, were all gone.
The girls walked hand in hand through the dry grass. They felt lucky to live so close to each other, because most prairie families did not have neighbors nearby. The golden land was vast, and homes were spread out. As Rachel and Roxanna walked, they could not even see another soddy.
They trotted from weed to weed, their long braids dancing behind them. Picking off a bit of the colorless gum here and a bit there, they tried to gather enough of it to make a chewy lump. They were so focused on spotting the next rosinweed and scraping its gum that they didn’t realize they had walked another mile. When a faint cry rang out, the two best friends froze.
“Listen! What is that?” Rachel’s brown eyes widened with fear. Both girls strained to make out the sound. Then they saw Roxanna’s father running toward them in the distance. “Why, it’s your father! He wants us to do something. What is it, Roxanna? Can you hear?”
“Run! Run! Run!” Roxanna’s father was yelling frantically. “Run to the breaking!” Roxanna quickly spotted the place where her father had turned over the prairie sod with the breaking-up plow. Land on the prairie could not be cultivated the first year; it had to be broken up, then left to lie and rot. During the fall and winter, the tough grass roots rotted away so that a common plow could get through them. She grabbed Rachel’s hand and began running the quarter of a mile to the breaking. They stumbled through the tall, dry prairie grass.
“Run to the breaking! Run! Run!” Roxanna and Rachel could see the blur of a blue shirt as Roxanna’s father waved his arms desperately like the fans of a windmill. “Run! Run!” His frantic voice was still faint, but the words were distinct.
“Roxanna, what is it? What’s the matter?” Rachel asked between frenzied breaths.
“I don’t know,” Roxanna gasped. Neither girl stopped running. Their parents had taught them to obey immediately, so they stumbled on as fast as their little legs would carry them.
The prairie grass felt like claws that again and again snatched at them and tried to trip them. Roxanna stepped into a gopher hole, and Rachel pulled her up. Rachel’s lungs ached, and she felt she did not have another breath in her, but she kept going.
At last they reached the edge of the breaking. Roxanna’s father came running up from the other side. Seizing both girls in his arms, he dragged them into the middle of the bare black space.
“Lie down!” he gasped and threw his body over theirs on the ground. The black soil was hard and scratched the girls’ faces.
“What is it?” Rachel panted.
A crisp, crackling sound was her answer. She turned her head to see a large fire sweeping across the prairie. The orange flames swiftly swallowed up the dry grass and weeds in its path, including where Rachel and Roxanna had stood just minutes before! The flames shot high into the sky with a sizzling sound like wicked laughter. The air over them grew thick with gray smoke and flying red cinders. Roxanna’s eyes and lungs burned from the acrid smoke. Rachel thought that her skin would melt from the intense heat that enveloped them.
“Hold on, girls,” Roxanna’s father urged.
And then the danger was over. The fire moved swiftly on down the prairie, leaving Rachel, Roxanna, and her father untouched because there was no grass around them to burn. They sat up and stared at the moving fire. Rachel wiped the sweat and dirt from her face with the back of her hand. Roxanna let out a big sigh of relief.
“That was close,” Roxanna’s father gasped, “but we made it!” He looked back to see a stretch of black that extended down the prairie, marking the fire’s path. The ground around the breaking was black and still sizzling. He inhaled deeply. “We made it because of your quick obedience to my shouts.” Then he bowed his head and gave thanks to Heavenly Father that the girls had been obedient and that none of them had been caught in the fire.