April A to Z Challenge: Better Stay Close

Welcome to the April A to Z Blogging Challenge! This year my contribution is the story of my great grandmother Alzina. She lived in the style of “Little House on the Prairie”and kept a record of her life through letters to family and her own journals. I find her story fascinating and intriguing. Each post will start (sometimes strangely) with a consecutive letter of the alphabet, just because they have to. My hope is that we can “catch” some of her courage to help us face challenges in our present times.

1874

“Better stay close to the house Alzie.” Philena told her young daughter. Alzie was a husky three year old, her sister Phebe was two and number three child was due in a month. Philena wondered what she was doing out on the prairie in a make shift shack, trying to take care of the children and feed Emerson and the hired hands for days on end while they harvested the hay crop. If they hadn’t needed someone to cook, she could have been back at Prairie Home and a whole lot more comfortable.

But grass was one thing that grew on this Kansas prairie, even on bad years when farming didn’t provide what they needed. It was thick and sometimes as high as the horses’ backs. If enough men could be hired to do the work, the grass was free for the taking. It could be cut in June, and again in August if the weather cooperated. The market would be good for it later in the year. They would get by, and she was helping, doing her part.

But cooking for the men and keeping an eye on the children at the same time was a challenge, especially since Alzie was old enough to disappear in no time flat. Philena had given the child a paper with alphabet letters on it and she could hear her practicing their names as she sat just outside the doorway of their hut. She was a quick learner, and Philena knew she would have to start schooling her soon, maybe in the fall.

Probably because she was thinking about that, it was several minutes later that Philena realized that the recitation of letters had stopped and all was silent outside. Philena glanced over at Phebe who was napping on the cot in the corner, gave the pork chops she was frying a quick flip, and went to the door to see what her daughter was doing.

Alzie was on her way to the closest of the haystacks that were lined up on the prairie, her little legs going as fast as she could manage. It wasn’t that there was much danger in letting her play there, but there was one peril that made Philena diligent and that was the possibility of prairie fire. Thick, dry prairie grass could go up in flames easily and there was no way of stopping it once the wind started pushing it. People could get caught in it with no way of escape. Even if she could manage to pick up both girls and waddle with them, she wasn’t really sure where she would go.

Fortunately she could still go faster than Alzie and soon got her turned around and headed back to the hut. In one instant Philena noticed two things that set her heart racing. One was a slight curl of smoke coming out of the door of the hut and the other was the sight of the thick layer of hay that was serving as roofing over their living space. Why had she left her cooking on the stove, and her Phebe was in there!

Philena picked up her skirts and ran as fast as she was able, stopping only at the doorway for a moment to assess the situation. Even with the smoke in the air, she could see that the fry pan was aflame. The heavy smell of burning grease and smoke was nearly choking her as she crossed the room and grabbed the container of baking soda and emptied it on the pan. The flames shot up, nearly reaching the hay ceiling, and then died down completely as the smoke doubled in thickness. Philena pulled the pan off onto the dirt floor, gathered up the sleepy, coughing Phebe and stepped outside where they could breathe. Alzie was wide eyed with fright, but soon sat down on the ground with mom and Phebe and asked questions as they hugged.

In the distance, Philena could see one of the hay wagons coming. The men would be there soon for their noon meal, but some of them were going to have to share their pork chops this time. They were definitely going to be one pan short.

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