The novel Prairie Fire! is an exciting story that describes homesteading on the prairies during the 1870s. The Bains family has moved to the new Canadian province of Manitoba and plan to establish a farm, but no sooner do they find their land on the empty prairie when horsemen arrive to challenge their right to farm on Métis land. Jamie, Kate and the whole family are swept up in the struggle to make a success of their farm and make friends with the Métis people.
Prairie Fire! is an adventure story in the acclaimed Bains series for young readers 10 to 14, written by Bill Freeman. The book is illustrated with 19th century photos of Manitoba, farming and the Métis who lived on the land long before the settlers arrived. The Bains series has won the prestigious Vicky Metcalf Award for a body of work.
ISBN: 1-55028-609-9 Cloth, 1-55028-608-0 Paper
Prairie Fire! is available from Chapters Indigo online for $9.95
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This is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of Prairie Fire!
Meg prodded Baby with a stick, and the cart left the trail, heading southeast across the virgin prairie. The ox plodded along at his usual leisurely pace. The axle squealed as the large wheels of the Red River cart rolled over the fresh spring grass, marking the new trail as they went.
It was mid-afternoon and the May sun, shining out of a cloudless sky, made the Bains family hot. From the west a gentle breeze brought a cool, refreshing smell on the air. Flowers were everywhere: blue, yellow, pink and white. Kate began gathering them and soon had a huge armful that she presented to their mother. Peggy smiled at the generous gesture of her youngest daughter.
Kate was thirteen years old, that awkward age where she was still unsure of herself. She had a quick smile and long auburn hair like her mother. All the way out to Manitoba, she had complained about the move, but now, seeing the open prairie and the vast western sky, she felt a rising excitement.
At first the prairie had seemed empty, but as they moved across it they found the place alive with wildlife. A prairie chicken startled them as it few up out of the heavy grass, but it disappeared as quickly as it had come. Overhead, geese and ducks were flying north on their long migration back to their nesting grounds. The long grass was filled with crickets and grasshoppers, snakes and gophers.
The three youngest children fanned out in front of the cart as they attempted to find the surveyor’s stakes marking the boundary lines of the quarter sections. Peggy was worried that Robbie might get lost in the long grass and made him ride on top of the cart. He was a delicate, dreamy, ten-year-old boy, who seemed more at home in his books than out on the raw prairie.
Jamie and Kate roamed a long way ahead of the others. Kate discovered an iron stake in the ground with writing on the side and called to the others. Meg studied the marking and then looked at the map for the longest time to pinpoint their location. “It’s another mile and a half due south to our homestead,” she announced.
Peggy could barely contain her excitement. After all the months and years of work and planning, scrimping and saving, they were finally going to find their own land. “It’s our land, Meg. Ours! Think of it!” she said, unable to contain her excitement.
Kate was having a difficult time on the rough ground. Her long skirt got caught in the grass and almost tripped a number of times. Once she kicked at a white object in the grass and found the bleached skull and horns of a buffalo.
They were a long way ahead of the others when they heard their mother shouting at them. “What did she say?” Jamie asked.
“I think she said don’t get lost, or stay together. Something like that.”
Kate liked being with her older brother. When they had been little, living in Ottawa, they had been very close. But Jamie had worked away from home for more than a year. He was fourteen years old. In the last year, he had grown four inches and was almost as tall as their mother. Kate found her brother quieter than she remembered. He was attentive to detail, with restless blue eyes constantly watching and trying to understand. She wondered if she would ever be like that.
“Look,” Jamie called to his sister. He had found another iron stake in the ground. He stood up, glancing back to where they had come from and then gazing ahead. “One more mile due south, and we’ll be on our land!” He felt a rush of excitement.
“Come on, I’ll race you to it!” Kate shouted with a laugh. She hitched up her long skirt and began to run through the long grass, an infectious giggle flowing behind her. “I’ll be first to the homestead!”
“Come back, Kate! You might get lost!” But Jamie was laughing too. He followed her at a run and soon caught up to his sister. “Why are you so slow?”
She had her skirt pulled up well over her knees. She wasn’t going to let this brother of hers win the race. Kate sprinted as fast and as hard as she could until she caught him. Now the two of them ran together, happy to be free and alive on this untouched prairie.
The land rose a little and then fell away. As they came to the top of the rise, they could see a vast park like stretch of prairie. In front of them, not ten paces away, was the iron stake marking the beginning of their property. The two of them saw the stake at the same time. With a cry they sprinted towards it until they both fell at the marker, laughing and rolling in the long grass.
“I got her first! shouted Kate.
“Did not. Beat you by a mile.”
They laughed for a minute as they rolled on the soft grass. Then, gradually they stopped and slowly, without a word, got to their feet. This was going to be their home. What did it look like?
The green prairie rolled on endlessly. In the east of the property, a clump of trees grew along a creek. Not far away, ten or more horses stood grazing quietly, watching them curiously.
“Where did those horses come from?” Kate asked. “Are they wild?”
Jamie stared at them with the studied eye of the horseman. These were more like ponies than horses. They were much smaller than the draft horses used in farming and even smaller than the riding horses that he had worked with in Ontario, but they were strong animals with big chests and lean haunches. They looked as if they could run for hours and survive the worst winter on the prairie.
Janie took a few steps toward the animals. It was only as they shied away that he noticed that their legs were hobbled so they could be easily caught. These were not wild horses. Someone was grazing them on their land.
“What is it Jamie?” Kate asked as she came up beside him.
The boy was about to explain when he spotted a horseman in the distance riding straight toward them at a hard gallop. Jamie wondered for a moment if they had been stalked and hunted. As the horseman came closer, they could see he was young, no more than twenty years old. He had a dark complexion, more Indian than white, and he wore a tan pull-over shirt with a colourful red sash tied around his waist, signalling that he was a Métis. A big sunhat, pulled over his forehead, did not hide the fury and determination in his face.
Kate grasped her brother’s arm in panic. The horse thundered down on them. At the last moment the man turned his mount and brought it to a stop in a cloud of dust.
“What are you doing here?” the man demanded in halting English. His horse trembled and was soaked in a lather.
Jamie tried to stay calm. “Are those your horses?” he asked.
Métis have pasture rights on these lands!” The young man shouted in anger as his horse danced about nervously.
“This is our homestead,” said Kate impulsively. “That’s our marker right there.” She pointed at the iron stake. “Mother has all the papers to prove it.”
The man’s horse kicked violently and reared back on its hind legs, but the horseman never lost control. “It has always been our land to graze our horses and cattle,” he announced with a loud voice. “Even with your piece of paper, you have no rights here. This will always be the land of the Métis people!”
Just at that moment the Red River cart, with the other members of the family, crested the rise.
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