Two Kohl Sisters


15. Up In Smoke

There was almost $750 in the tin box down in the trunk ready to be deposited. At breakfast we exulted over it. The Ammons sisters were always draining the bank dry. Sedgwick would open his eyes when we walked into the bank with that bag of money.

We planned to go to Presho that day. It was hardly safe to have so much money in the shack, and we were eager to put it in a safe place. It represented months of planning and effort and hard work. But the labor didn't seem bad to look back on that morning, not with the reward at hand. It had been worth while, because the end of the road was in sight and we had accomplished much that we had hoped to do--more, in some respects.

It was unbearably hot that morning, and we decided against the trip to Presho. After all, one more day wouldn't matter, and the sun was so scorching we quailed at the thought of that long ride. There was an ominous oppression in the air, and heat waves made the ground appear to waver before our eyes. Here and there flames flared up without any explainable origin, as though from the heat of the grass itself.

The day crept on to mid-afternoon, and the hot wind came up from the ground, blistering our faces. There was no one near the print shop, where the metal was hot to the touch, no movement over the plains. We sent our helpers home, while Ma, Ida Mary and I moved about languidly, doing only what was absolutely necessary.

There was a curious, acrid smell in the air. As though a bolt of lightning had struck, I stopped my work on the paper and cried out, "What's that?"

"Fire," screamed Ida Mary; "fire!"

Smoke enveloped us. There was a deafening crackle. Blinding red flame. We ran to the door, and there, not ten feet away, our shack was burning to the ground. The little lean-to kitchen, covered with tar paper, was sending its flames high into the air. Frantically we ran to the front door, shouting above the crackling and roar of flame, "The trunk! The money! The settlers' money!"

The print shop would go, too--and the notices had several weeks to run--but the essential thing was to get the money back. We must do that, must! Oh, for a rolling bank on wheels!

At the front door black smoke came rolling out, choking us. Ida Mary threw a sack over her head and started into the shack. Ma Wagor and I dragged her back into the open air. The building was burning as though it had been made of paper, a torch of orange flames. We watched it go, home, money, clothes, a few valuable keepsakes, furniture--everything we possessed licked up by the flames. The piano, too--I was glad it had brought so much pleasure to the settlers.

The wind! Now the fire was spreading. The print shop was burning, its inflammable tar paper and dry boards blazing like powder. "Hurry, hurry!" we called frantically to each other. From the print shop I grabbed the most valuable papers while Ida Mary snatched what she could from the post office. Stoical, silent, making every move count, Ma Wagor was busy in the store, her store, in which she had taken such pride and such infinite pleasure. Ma was getting more "confusement" now than she had bargained for.

Blinded with smoke, we caught up the sacks into which we had stuffed the papers and threw them into the cave, the only shelter left on the whole claim.

In less than thirty minutes the post office, the store with its supply of food, the print shop were gone. The harvest of long months of labor and storm, thirst and fire, vanished as though it had never been--gone up in clouds of heavy, black smoke.

If the wind would only go down, we groaned; but the sparks had already caught the grass around us. A prairie fire! If it ever jumped those breaks, the Strip would be devastated with the wind sweeping the plain as it was doing. What irony that we who had printed our precautions and warnings for others, should burn up the Strip! We who had labored so to save it! And there was no chance for us. We could not outrun a prairie fire. The horses, which were untied, had gone full speed across the prairie at the first smell and sight of fire.

Now the oilhouse had caught, and we turned, panic-stricken, running headlong across the plains, our feet burning, not knowing where we were going so long as we could escape the explosion of the oil. Inside the firebreaks the grass was burning. Listening for the explosion of the oil was like waiting for the crack of doom. Then we remembered. Pa Wagor had sunk the barrels underground, using siphons, "just in case of fire."

Sparks leaping up, flying across the breaks--the prairie was on fire! We checked our flight, sanity returning with the emergency. We had to go back--simply had to go back and fight that first outbreak of flame. The Strip was at stake. Life and property were at stake. Falling, rising, running, falling again, dragging each other up, we went back. "Help!" we called to the empty prairie, "Help!"

There was nothing to smother the fast-spreading blaze. Not a thing. Not even a sack or a hat. We tore off parts of the clothes from our scantily clad bodies. Ma took off her petticoat. There was a sack in the barn which we wet in a keg set in the yard, wet the canvas which covered the keg. With that, with our feet we trampled down the sparks as they fell, the flames as they rose--shoes hot and charred, holes burning through.

Across the prairie a team was coming at a dead run. "Bless the Lord," Ma Wagor panted, "it's Sam Frye!"

A bright red flare shot up from behind and around me. My dress was on fire. Ida Mary clawed dirt from the hard-baked ground, and with it in her hands twisted my burning smock into knots to keep the flames from spreading. With almost animal instinct I threw myself down in the firebreak, pressing hard against the ground to extinguish any smoldering sparks on my clothing, and lay panting, cooling in the dirt.

Sam Frye, the mail-carrier, was there, taking charge. All at once a crowd had gathered, attracted by the leaping flames on what had been the settlement of Ammons, running to fight the threatening prairie fire. Men went to work, fighting fresh outbursts of flames and putting out fire on the ruins. Women hovered about us in sympathy, some with tears streaming down their sunburned cheeks under the straw hats and bonnets. Neither Sister nor I could shed a tear.

Dazed and dizzy, we stumbled back across the breaks to the charred ashes of our labors. Apart from the tangible losses that lay in coals, the newspaper, the voice of the Brulé, was gone. "Down into frontier history," Senator Phillips said. Into it had gone the ambitions, the heartbreaking labor, the vision of two girls.

Half-naked, our scanty clothing burned and torn, hair singed, faces and parts of our bodies scorched and black with smoke--tar paper makes black, smudgy smoke--eyes red and burning, we stood there in the middle of the open spaces that had dealt us their blow. Our pazuntas hadn't worked, that was all. But at least we had checked the prairie fire. We had won that much from the Brulé, the "Burned" land.

We clung to each other wordlessly. There was nothing to say. Everything that made up our daily life and our plans for the future had been wiped out in thirty minutes.

"We still have the claim," Ida Mary murmured at last; "nothing can destroy the land."

"But all our bright hopes--"

How the fire got such a start before we detected it was a mystery. With the shack walls already burning hot and the strong wind, it had been like spontaneous combustion. Ma Wagor was baking bread on an old oil stove. Perhaps a draft from the open window had fanned the fire. But the origin didn't matter now.

Ma Wagor had worked heroically, helping us to save the important records, the mail, and the prairie from being swept by fire. When it was all over she did not whimper about her loss.

When I saw Pa coming, I ran to her. "Ma, here comes Pa. This will kill him. You had better go meet him." He had not wanted her to buy the store in the first place; now there were debts piled up, and only the homestead to pay them.

She sat on the ground, burying her face in her hands. "Let him come to me," she replied. "It's his place to comfort me in time of trouble."

True to her feminine intuition, he went to her and put his arm around her shoulders. "Elizabeth," he said. No response. "Elizabeth," he entreated. "Don't give way like this. We will pull through somehow."

I felt a hand on my arm, and Alex Van Leshout's voice hoarse in my ear. "The latchkey of the Circle V is on the outside. If you girls will come over, I'll move out. If you need me or Hop-Along, all I have is at your service. You're a good Indian, Edith."

Sometimes I envy the women who are able, during a catastrophe, to stop and grieve over it. I never seem to have had the time. There was always something that demanded to be done, whatever the circumstances.

The fire had no sooner been put out, the claim bare as the day I first saw it--save for charred grass, and a great mound of ashes, and the smell of smoke--when Sam Frye opened the mail sacks. Sitting bedraggled in his old buggy, Ida Mary distributed the mail to the patrons who had gathered. Even though the post office was gone, the mail must go on. We were never destined to be back-trailers.

The sultry, tragic day came to a close, with the plains light long after the sun had gone down, and the Ammons settlement gone, and a devastating sense of emptiness. Ida Mary and I realized that we had no place to go. With typical frontier hospitality, every home on the reservation was open to us; but that night we longed to be alone. It wasn't commiseration we needed, but quiet in which to grasp what had happened to us. We decided on Margaret's shack, left vacant when she had proved up. She had left a few household essentials there.

There some of the frontier women followed us, to bathe and salve the burns we had forgotten, bandaging those which were the worst. I had suffered most when my clothing caught fire, but miraculously there were no serious burns.

They left us alone as night came, Ma and Pa Wagor, Ida Mary and me. It was Ma who roused first from the general lethargy in which we were all steeped. She began bustling around. "Guess we'd better have something to eat," she said briskly.

"There's nothing left to eat," Ida Mary reminded her.

Triumphantly, Ma brought forth a big bundle tied up in her old gingham apron. In it were cans of salmon, tomatoes and other essential foods. And a can of pineapple, Ma's panacea for all ills! "I knew we'd be hungry after all that, so I jerked up a little stuff while you were getting the papers out."

She brought in an armful of prairie hay, built a fire in the cookstove and made strong tea. She was no longer the clinging vine of an hour before.

And there in the little shack down the draw, penniless, almost naked, all our belongings and our plans for the future in charred ashes on the claim, we slept from exhaustion.

No matter with what finality things seem to end, there is always a next day and a next. During those first few hours the extent of our disaster had dazed us. Then, the odds seemed so overwhelmingly against us that there was no use in going on. The only trouble was that we couldn't stop. Post office or no post office, there was the mail. Print shop or no print shop, there were the proof notices.

We were like the cowboy who, hanging to a running steer's tail, was dragged against the hard ground and through brush until he was cut, battered and bruised.

Fearing he would be killed, the other cowboys, who watched, shouted wildly to him, "Let go! Let go!"

"Let go, hell!" he yelled back. "It's all I can do to hold on!"

Then there was Great-uncle Jack Ammons, back in the earlier days of Illinois, who had become critically ill from some lingering disease of long standing. One day the doctor called Aunt Jane aside and said, "Jane, if Jack has any business matters to attend to, it had better be done at once. I don't think he can last another forty-eight hours."

From the bedroom came a weak, irritable voice, "Jane! Jane! Where's my boots?"

Uncle Jack got up, fought the disease, and lived and prospered for many a year. We came of a family who died with their boots on.

I don't know whether it was a streak of Great-uncle Jack or whether, like the cowboy, we held on because we could not let go. The latter, perhaps, for we saw no way of escape. Many times, I think, people get too much credit for hanging on to things as a virtue when they are simply following the line of least resistance. We saw no means of escape, and were too stunned to plan.

Of one thing we were sure. We would not go back home for help. There would have to be some way of telling our father of the misfortune so as to soften the blow as much as possible, but we were determined not to add to his burdens, which were already too heavy for him.

"If the railroad company takes us to the state line," declared Ida Mary, "it will have to take us crated--or furnish us covering." In the garish morning light, indeed, we felt rather naked in those flimsy, torn clothes, the only garments we now owned.

"We can't go back, anyhow," I reminded her. "We can't leave things unfinished. The proof notices have to finish running, and Sam Frye will be throwing the mail sack in at the door." It was easier to get into things than to get out.

The settlers came that day with their widow's mite of food and clothes; the women's clothing too large, the children's too small. But it covered us--after a fashion. The store at Presho sent out a box of supplies. Coyote Cal and Sourdough rode up.

"Beats tarnation, now don't it," Coyote Cal consoled us.

"I told you this country wasn't fit for nothin' but cowhands," growled Sourdough. "Here, the punchers rounded up a little chicken feed." He fairly threw at us a dirty tobacco pouch, filled with coins. "Coming before pay day like this, tain't much," he grumbled, as though the catastrophe might have waited for pay day--things couldn't be done to suit Sourdough.

A wagonload of Indians drove up, men and squaws and papooses. They climbed out, unhitched, turned the team loose to graze. They came in mumbling in a sort of long wail, "No-print-paper, hu-uh, hu-uh," but gleeful as children over the gifts they carried. A bright-hued shawl, thick hot blankets, beaded moccasins. There was a sack of "corn in the milk" (roasting ears) which had been raised over by the river, and stripped (dried) meat. We did not know whether it was cow, horse or dog, but we knew it had been black with flies as it hung on the lines drying--we had seen them drying meat. However, parboiling should make it clean.

And early that morning we saw Imbert coming from Presho, hurrying to Ida Mary, his face drawn and haggard. They went into each other's arms without a word, and at last Ida Mary was able to cry, tears of sorrow and relief, with her face against his breast.

I lay weak and ill, wasting from a slow fever. I slept fitfully, while streams of cool water went gurgling by, and cool lemonade, barrels of it. But every time I stooped to take a drink the barrels went rattling across the plain into a prairie fire.

"Maybe you've got typhoid," Ma would say as she bathed my hot head and hands with towels wrung out of vinegar and warm water, fanning them to coolness. "You'll be all right, Sis," Ida Mary would say; "just hold on--" We did not call a doctor. There was no money left for doctors.

Rest, sleep, and nourishment were what I needed, but conditions were far from favorable for such a cure. The deserted shack was baking hot. It was not the cheerful place it had seemed while Margaret lived in it, with the bare floor, the old kitchen stove, the sagging wire couch and a couple of kitchen chairs. We had scanty, sticky food, and warm, sickening water. We didn't even bother to keep it clean. The routine of our life had been burned away. The handful of dishes went dirty, the floor went unswept. But Ma brought milk and custards that she had made at home, I drank the juice of dried fruits, and Imbert brought us water from the Millers' well. We sank jars of it deep into the ground to keep cool.

Heine broke a new trail across the plains and a few days after the fire the horses came home. They had wandered back to the old site, snorted at the black ruins, and gone thundering across the prairie led by Lakota with the wild horse's fear of fire. We never expected to see them again. But one day they saw Sam Frye coming with the mail. They followed him down the draw, and when he stopped and threw out the mail sack Lakota gave a loud neigh and walked straight into Margaret's old barn. Where the mail sacks went was home to Lakota.

Moving the post office around the prairie, piling the mail in an open box in the corner, may have been criminally illegal, but we gave it no thought.

The mail, in a haphazard fashion, was being handled. Our next problem was the proof notices. They must go on. It was vital to the settlers. Many of them could not live without the money they were borrowing on the final proofs. Without the press there seemed no solution to that problem.

On the sixth day after the fire Ida Mary got up early, while I slept in the cool of the morning; she made a blast from the dry grass under one cap of the stove, boiled coffee, ate her lean breakfast, and put food on a chair beside my bed. Then she darkened the room, slipped out, saddled Lakota, rode up to the cave, and brought out the mail sack of legal papers we had saved from the fire. She took out the notices--those in course of publication and others due to be published. Then she rode on to McClure, made arrangements with the printer of the McClure Press, and began setting up the notices.

When the stage came in that noon with the Ammons mail, there was a letter from E. L. Senn, the proof king, offering us the use of the shop and part-time service of his printer to meet the emergency. Although we had cornered the great proof business on the Lower Brulé, he was coming to our rescue to save it for us.

That night Ida Mary came home, hot, weary, with lines of fatigue in her youthful face and about her blue eyes. But there was a resolute look, too, marking her strong will; and in her voice a tone of satisfaction.

It was a long, arduous task, setting up again all those notices in small type. The type of the McClure shop would not set half of the notices. We sent the balance of them to be set, some in Presho, some in Pierre, got them back by stage, and The Wand, despite fire and all other obstacles, went on with its work--a few days late, strictly a proof sheet, but without lapse of publication.

And Ida Mary kept things going, conserving her strength as well as she could, with Imbert and Ma Wagor helping. Ma said, "I'd 'a' died if I hadn't found something to do."

It was mid-August, with no sign of the drought breaking. In the shack down the draw we sat during spare hours sorting type at Margaret's kitchen table, picking, separating six-point, eight-point, ten-point letters and spaces, leads, slugs. Ma Wagor and other neighbors helped at odd times; Heine separated the type into piles of like sizes. Sorting that type-pi was a job to which no one in the world but a printer can give the deserved sympathy.

Heine, raking around in the cooling embers on my claim, had found several cases of pied type and a few odds and ends of printing equipment down under a piece of heavy tin roofing, the only thing salvaged from the wreckage.

A committee of settlers came, emptied a little sack on the table. In a little heap there lay pennies, dimes, quarters, a few silver dollars--precious coins that had been put aside to keep the wolf from the door--and a separate roll of bills. The offering of the Lower Brulé settlers! "To build a new shack and print shop," they said simply. "The homesteaders will do the building."

Of course, we must build another shack and reestablish residence or there would be no deed to the land. The money represented not only the hard-earned savings but the loyal support of the settlers. When we protested, they laughed. "But The Wand has always been telling us to share," they said. Some of the business men of the towns added to the contribution to establish the newspaper.

One sweltering day, with everyone seeking escape from the broiling sun, all movement over the Strip was suspended. As I lay on the couch recuperating, there came a great explosion that roared through the dead hush like all the cannons of war gone off at once. Ida Mary, resting in the shade of the shack, came running in. It could not be thunder, for there was not a cloud in the sky. It had come from over Cedar Fork way.

Soon the plains were astir with settlers rushing in the direction of the explosion. A great rumbling force was sending steam high into the air. It was Ben Smith's Folly. He had struck gas--enough to pipe house and barns for light and fuel! Then came a heaving, belching from far down in the earth's cavern. And up came the water--a great stream of it that ran over the dry hot ground! Water overflowing. That artesian well, flowing day and night, would save the people and stock until it rained.

And with the flowing of fresh, cool water on the Lower Brulé, life began to flow through my veins once more, and I got up, ready for what was to come.