By Lea Sheryn
Clara Holmes stood in the claim shanty doorway. Her husband’s boot marks were the only mark in the snow-covered landscape. In a long row, they marched toward the horizon. Then, they disappeared.
Overnight, blizzard winds rocked the brave little shanty. Such a structure was all the law required. Its walls and roof consisted of rough-hewn lumber hastily nailed together.
Clara and Clement Holmes arrived in the Dakota territory during the summer of 1880. The homestead act allowed them to claim one hundred and sixty acres. However, they must continuously work on the land for five years in order to claim it as their own.
The mild summer provided a small crop of potatoes and a few meager onions. The Clements would fare better during the following mid-year season. They planned to break more land and plant a wider variety of crops.
Fall swiftly turned wintery with an October blizzard. For two days and nights, fierce winds rocked the little claim shanty. The frontier family huddled together before the pot-bellied stove. The fourth dawn arrived bright and clear.
“I’ll walk to town after breakfast,” Clem announced after surveying the clement weather. “Someone may have gotten lost in the storm or otherwise require assistance.”
“Must you?” Clara nervously questioned.
“The sky is clear; no sign of another oncoming storm,” her husband responded. “I’ll make it there and back all right.”
The small prairie town lay four miles distant from the Holmes’ claim. Farley, Dakota Territory, consisted of one long Main Street with false-fronted store buildings facing each other. Men gathered in Murphy’s General Store to gossip and play checkers. Clem frequently walked into town and spent the day chatting with other townsmen.
Although Clara usually encouraged this activity, she wished Clem would remain close to the homestead. The blizzard unnerved her. She longed for the comforts of their Cincinnati home. Why had she allowed Clement to convince her to move to the new territory?
“Freeland!” Clem Holmes shouted, placing the fly-bill onto the kitchen table. “The government promises one hundred and sixty acres for a mere five years of productive farming.”
“Nothing in life is free, Clement,” Clara declared, snatching up the advertisement.
“True, we have to work the land,” her husband agreed, “but, in the end, it’s ours.”
The Holmes left Cincinnati with two wagons full of their worldly possessions. Clem took the reigns of the first, and Clara followed in the second. Matthew, their oldest son, rode up front beside his father. Tall and lean, the nine-year-old proudly waved goodbye to his envious school friends as they passed. Behind them, Maude Holmes sat rigidly in her rocking chair. Clem’s mother was against the move. However, she refused to stay behind.
Their two younger girls perched on a board behind Clara. Jessica held her hands clasped tightly in her lap. Like her Nana, she did not want to leave her home. Nevertheless, she bore her sorrow inside. Maimie jounced on her seat, full of excitement. The three-year-old had no cares in the world. Adventure thrilled her. Patiently, Jess cautioned her to sit still.
“How far to Dakota territory, Ma?” the seven-year-old girl asked.
“It’s quite a ways off,” Clara answered, her eyes riveted on the road ahead. “We’ll camp on the prairie overnight.”
“Camp?” Jess queried, primly adjusting her skirt, so it lay smooth over her knees. The new lilac-sprigged lawn pleased her. Mama had made the girls new dresses to travel in. “You mean to sleep on the ground?”
“Yes, sleep on the ground,” her mother wearily responded. The idea did not thrill Clara either.
“I’m gonna catch a prairie dog,” Maimie chimed in. “And name him Charlie. He’ll be my very own doggie.”
“Heaven help us.” Jessie rolled her eyes into her head.
“What’s the matter with Richard?” Clara inquired.
The little terrier, Richard, walked placidly beneath Clem’s wagon. They had discussed leaving their pet behind but finally decided he would make a good watchdog.
“Richard’s Papa’s dog,” Maimie responded, then brightly added, “I want one all my own.”
“A prairie dog isn’t really a dog, stupid,” her older sister snapped.
“Jessica!” her mother admonished.