Authors: Elizabeth George Speare
Tags: #Ages 10 and up
At a curt order from the leader, one of the Indians fumbled through a bag of the stolen supplies and produced a loaf of bread and a few apples and raisins. Divided among so many it made scanty fare, but even these few mouthfuls Miriam found hard to swallow.
"Better eat," advised Peter Labaree, who was nearest her.
"I'm not hungry," said Miriam. "What are they going to do with us, Peter?"
"If they're feeding us, that's a good sign. Means they don't mean to kill us. Not yet anyway."
The leader struck his tomahawk against a log meaningfully. "No talk!" he ordered. "We go now. Walk fast. No talk any!"
As they struggled to their feet again, Miriam saw that the Indians' keen ears had caught a sound, and that they were watching intently the little clearing along the river, their hands ready on guns and tomahawks. Then she heard it too, a snapping of twigs and a heavy footstep. Hope leaped up and died away. It was only Scoggins, the ancient, sway-backed horse of Mr. Stevens, grazing innocently along the river. Poor old Scoggins, always good for a joke at the fort, all at once seemed almost beautiful. One of the Indians raised his rifle, but the leader spoke again sharply. With a quick move, he stepped forward and unfastened the thongs that bound James Johnson's arms.
"Get horse," he ordered, pointing at Scoggins. "Get horse for squaw."
James, his arms free, gave one desperate look about the group, and Miriam knew what was in his mind. At once, however, James knew that his only hope lay in obeying the Indian's command, and he walked quietly toward the unsuspecting animal, holding in his hand the bit of apple that had been his share. Old Scoggins walked amiably into the trap, and in a moment had said goodbye to his peaceful river existence. Pilfered sacks and blankets were thrown over his back, and James hoisted his wife's limp weight into this improvised saddle.
The afternoon march seemed endless. The Indians were still in a hurry, eager to get as far as possible from the fort before night fell. Toward sunset they came out on the shore of the river, and the prisoners understood that they were to cross. They were given a short chance to rest while the Indians dragged together dry branches to make a raft. Then Susanna was pushed onto the raft, James Johnson was ordered to swim alongside, and Peter Labaree was given poor Scoggins to force to the
shore. Miriam, sitting with the children, watched the frail platform that held her sister waver and sway, but it reached the other side, and presently returned for her and the little girls. When they were all across, the Indians kindled a fire and hung over it the familiar copper kettles in which Miriam and Susanna had stirred so many meals in the snug safety of their own cabin. These they filled with stolen porridge.
As they waited for the porridge to boil, Miriam looked about at her captors. By some unspoken agreement, each one of the prisoners seemed to belong to the Indian who had first laid hands upon him. The Indian who had found Miriam in the loft was never far from her side, even now that he seemed to think it safe to let go of her arm. There were not so many Indians, only eleven in all, though they had seemed such a savage horde inside the cabin. Taking advantage of this moment's pause they were busily pawing over the goods they had plundered, now and then letting out cackles of delight as something struck their fancy. Miriam saw a candlestick and two of Susanna's silver spoons, and then with a stab of real anguish, she caught a glimpse of blue flowered calico. The new dress! The Indian who was in the act of yanking the precious goods out of his sack looked up and caught her longing gaze, and a taunting grin broke over his dark features.
Why, he's young, Miriam realized with a shock. Much younger than the others. And he's laughing at me. He knows it's my dress. Helpless fury surged hotly over her. I hate him! she raged inwardly. I could kill him for touching my dress with his dirty fingers.
Following another guttural argument, the Indians decided to pitch camp in this place, very evidently blaming Susanna for slowing them up. After standing and looking at her for a long moment, the leader shrugged and left her alone, whether from scorn or pity it was hard to tell. Certainly she would not try to escape, but precautions had to be taken with the others. The Indians split branches and fashioned a crude sort of stocks over the legs of the men, tied by thongs that fastened high overhead on limbs of trees. The children fared better. Sue and little Polly had their ankles tied, but were given blankets. To her horror, Miriam was forced to lie down between two Indians, a heavy cord thrown over her body and held securely under theirs. All this was done in silence. The Indians spoke few words, and any attempt to speak on the part of the prisoners was met with fierce threats.
Long after the Indians were asleep, Miriam lay rigid with mortification and fury between the two guards. They were so close that every breath she drew was filled with the heavy bear-grease odor of their bodies. They had taken no pains to choose a smooth sleeping place. Twigs poked her back, and a sharp pebble bit into one shoulder. She could not roll over, and she dared not even ease her aching muscles for fear the slightest tug on the cord would waken them. With the darkness a new torment had commenced; the air was swarming with mosquitoes, whining and biting savagely. More than that, now that the shock of their captivity was wearing off, she had time to be afraid. Where were they going? What did the Indians have in store for them? All her life Miriam had heard tales of white men taken captive by Indians, some stories so horrible that the older settlers' voices would sink to whispers if a child were around. Those whispers, the fearful looks, the terrible words she had been able to catch, tortured her now. If she could only speak to Susanna, even to Labaree or James, they might be able to give her a little comfort.
Sharper than hunger and fear, the memory of die blue dress pricked her. At the thought of its lovely folds crumpled in that hateful boy's hands, the tears flooded her eyes, and turning her head against the ground, Miriam let them fall. There in the wilderness, surrounded by savage enemies, bound for a fate she dared not imagine, she wept her heart out for a flowered dress she would never wear again.
HEY WERE PUSHING
forward next morning in a chill fog and drizzle when a new vexation was added to Miriam's distress. She had begun to relax a little, the watery gruel warm in her stomach and her strong young body rested from a brief sleep. With the war paint washed off their faces, the Indians looked far less terrifying, and they had only troubled to bind the two men, feeling sure of the women and children. The whole party was walking single file now through a dense wood where only the Indians could recognize a trail. Miriam's captor walked ahead of her, and beyond him little Susanna rode quiescent on the shoulders of another redskin. Polly's captor was out of sight. Curiously enough, the Indians had accepted the fact that Polly, unlike the cowed Sue, was docile only so long as she was in sight of her mother. The moment the trees hid from her that familiar figure hunched on the back of old Scoggins, no threats could subdue her wails. The Indians had shown surprising patience with this behavior, and the brave who carried Polly waited stolidly in the trail whenever Susanna was forced to rest.
Farther ahead in the fog Sylvanus' eager voice now and then broke the silence. He had lost all fear of the Indians by now, and was not at all discouraged that his friendly prattle met a stony response. He seemed to sense that he could get away with more freedom than any of the others dared attempt.
All at once Miriam's dress caught on something, and she fell forward, scraping her hands. Looking back, she saw the hateful young Indian just behind her, and once again she caught a glitter of derision in his black eyes. Plainly he found her awkward stumble amusing. A few minutes later she tripped again, and this time she looked up just in time to see him spring back, grinning openly. The Indian ahead motioned her to her feet with an impatient gesture.
"He stepped on my dress," Miriam flared. "He tried to make me fall!"
Her master shrugged and moved forward. Her cheeks hot, Miriam bunched her skirt into both hands and stumbled after him. With both hands full of skirt, however, there was no way to ward off the brambles and low-hanging branches that snapped back against her. Her captor gave no sign that he noticed, but presently he motioned her to stop, and whipping out his knife he neatly sliced a spiral of green vine that swung from a tree and handed it to her with a rough gesture toward her skirt. Miriam stared at him. Could this be a sign of thoughtfulness? Or was he merely impatient at her slow progress? She could read no slightest softening in that stern face. However it had happened, she accepted the vine gratefully and made a clumsy job of tying up her billowing skirt.
After that the walking was easier. But presently the boy behind her crept closer and gave a playful tug at her hair, a tug that hurt and sent stinging tears to her eyes. Miriam's temper mounted. Not one of the boys at the fort had ever tried to pull her hair twice. But here there was no way to retaliate.
He knows I can't do a thing about it, she thought angrily. But I know one way to spoil his fun. He's not going to have the satisfaction of seeing me blubber like Polly. Setting her lips tight, Miriam held her head higher than ever and set her feet straight ahead.
When soon afterward they caught up with the rest of the party at a clearing, Miriam was shocked out of her own vexation at the sight of her sister. Susanna had collapsed on the wet ground. Her face was hidden, but her shoulders moved in a rapid, shuddering breath, and now and then her whole body seemed to draw tense with anguish. Four Indians stood looking down at her with ugly scowls. Plainly another argument was beginning. Suddenly, to Miriam's horror, one of the Indians raised his tomahawk and brandished it over the woman's head. The whole terrified group of prisoners held their breath. But another warrior knocked the lifted arm aside. The two braves faced each other with angry shouts. Then the leader spoke, one curt word, and the two turned away sullenly.
At another command they set to hacking down fir branches, and with unbelievable speed they constructed a small shelter of green boughs. James Johnson, his arms unbound, bent over his wife, lifted her gently, and helped her to walk the few steps, holding the branches carefully aside till they were both hidden from view. The rest of the party, seeing that there would be a wait, settled down on the ground to rest. The children simply dropped where they were and were almost instantly asleep.
Miriam edged closer to the man who rested against a tree trunk. "What is it, Peter?" she whispered. "Is Susanna very ill?"
"She is in labor," said Labaree soberly.
"In labor? You mean the
Peter! She can't be! A baby can't be born out here!"
"Babies have been born in all sorts of unlikely places," answered Labaree. "At any rate, your sister is going to need your help."
"My help!" Miriam was terrified. She shook her head violently. "I couldn't, Peter. She can't expect me to do that. I wouldn't know what to do."
Labaree said nothing, and Miriam stood staring at the leafy booth. This was an ordeal she had not counted on at all. Through her mind flashed a memory of the day Polly had been born. She remembered Annie Howe, who had borne nine children of her own, and had lost track of how many others she had helped into the world. She could see Annie now, bustling into the cabin, pink-faced and clean, smelling of good strong soap, poking up the fire, hustling the children outside with good-natured smacks, shaking with laughter at her own jokes, making it all seem easy and matter of fact and good. But here in this chill forbidding place there was no capable Annie to take charge, only a frightened girl with no knowledge at all.
Labaree's silence made her uncomfortable. More than Labaree, all of them seemed to be watching her, judging her for a coward. There was no sound from the shelter. How long would it be? Suddenly Miriam knew that no matter how she dreaded to go in, she could not bear to wait outside another moment. She was a white girl; her place was with Susanna, not out here with these savages. Running across to the shelter, she stooped down and crawled inside.
Susanna, lying on a pile of fir branches, turned her head weakly. "Oh Miriam," she breathed. "I'm so thankful you're here."
Miriam never forgot her sister's courage on that day. With the same stubbornness that had brought her parents into a wilderness to found a new home in spite of cold and hunger and unending labor, Susanna fought now to bring her child into the world. Two hours later Miriam held in her hands a baby girl, a perfect, tiny, red morsel, who opened her thin little button mouth in a pathetic wail.
As though someone outside had been waiting for that signal, there was a rustling of the green boughs, and an arm thrust inside a little pile of clothing. As James Johnson picked it up, Miriam was struck by the realization that the Indians had chosen the finest and softest of their stolen articles for the newcomer. Wrapping the tiny wrinkled body in a warm old hood of Polly's, she caught Susanna's eyes following her every move, and bent nearer to let Susanna see her child. It was almost impossible to believe, but there was happiness in the mother's eyes. Even here in this place she welcomed a new baby with love and pride.