Read Calico Captive Online

Authors: Elizabeth George Speare

Tags: #Ages 10 and up

Calico Captive (4 page)

"We will call her Captive," Susanna murmured. "Poor little one. What does she have to live for?"

James smoothed back the matted hair from his wife's face. "She is in God's hands, as we all are," he said gently. "He has been merciful enough to bring her to us safely. We must go on trusting Him. Now sleep, my dear. Sleep while you can."

"Take her outside, and let the children see," Susanna begged. "And then let her sleep here with me."

Outside the shelter Miriam noticed that the Indians were very curious and more than a little impressed. They followed with sharp glances but made no objection as James and Miriam walked over to the three children huddled together with awe-filled eyes, and showed them their new sister. One of the Indians brought Miriam a long wooden spoon to feed her with, and another, one of the two who had Susanna in charge, even came very close and poked his face into the tiny bundle and studied it curiously. Then he capered off like a silly schoolboy in delight. "Two monies!" he cackled, holding up two dark fingers. "Two monies for me!"

"The hateful thing!" Miriam blazed, watching him. "What does he mean, for him? What does he intend to do with the baby?"

"He thinks the baby will bring him double money,"
Peter Labaree spoke up. "We ought to be glad to hear it. It means he will take care to keep the little mite alive."

"True," agreed James. "'Tis the best sign we've had so far. Though I suspected it when they allowed Susanna to live."

"Suspected what?" asked Miriam. "Why is it a good sign, James?"

"I believe they intend to sell us, instead of keeping us captive. The French are offering more money for live prisoners than for scalps. We've been moving steadily north. I reckon we'll come out somewhere along the border of Canada."

"You think they're not going to kill us? You really think that, James?"

"We're a lot more valuable alive," Peter Labaree agreed. "Provided we don't try their patience too far."

"We must do our best not to," said James. "If they will just give Susanna a little time to rest. Try and talk to the children if you can, Miriam. Tell them we must keep marching with good courage and do nothing to provoke them. I have great hope we may all come through this together."

Miriam felt her knees suddenly weak. For two days she had not dared to look ahead or to hope at all. The relief was almost more than she could bear. Peter Labaree saw her waver and held out his arms.

"You've done a fine day's work, girl," he told her. "Let me take the babe now. Never fear, I know what to do for her. I've three of my own."

Miriam surrendered little Captive with gratitude. She was so tired she longed to drop down on the wet pine needles and in sleep forget everything that had happened. For a while she had forgotten how hungry she was, and now the very thought of food made hex faint. Suddenly she was struck by a sharp new fear.

"But James," she cried, "if they sell us to the French, won't we be slaves? They will own us, won't they?"

Slavery she had heard of, too. It was the most dreaded word known to these white men and women, who were not afraid of work or privation or hostile Indians so long as they knew themselves to be their own masters.

"Aye," admitted James. "'Tis not too happy a prospect, but still the best we can hope for. Some I've known have found it not too hard. I believe the French are open to reason. They are usually willing to ransom their prisoners."

"Don't trouble yourself too much, Sister," he added kindly. "Sooner or later we will get word back to the fort. Give me the babe now, Peter. I fear my wife will not rest without her."

Peter Labaree looked down at little Captive cradled gently in his big arms. "She minds me of my youngest," he said. "Only three months ago I held her for the first time."

James Johnson laid a hand briefly on his friend's shoulder as he turned back to the shelter. Looking up at their muscular six-foot neighbor, Miriam saw that there were tears in his eyes.

Chapter 4

I
CAN TALK
Indian," Sylvanus boasted. "Want to hear me talk Indian, Miriam?
Nebi,
that means water."

"What do you want to talk Indian for, Vanus?" snapped Miriam. "'Tis a horrid language."

"I don't think so. I can walk like an Indian too. See how Ahtuk walks? He makes his toes go like this."

"Vanus, you ought to be ashamed of yourself."

"Why? Ahtuk says I'm a
wskinnossis.
I'm going to be a big brave when I grow up."

"You are not. You're going to be a captain like your father, and don't you forget it. Vanus, what's got into you to be so friendly with the Indians? They're wicked. They're our enemies."

Sylvanus was only six years old. Miriam's ideas of loyalty were far too complicated to understand. To him this march through the wilderness was an exciting excursion after a summer cooped up in the fort. The Indians let him do pretty much as he pleased, and he could see nothing frightening about them. No one was fussing at him to wash his face or to learn his letters. He admired the tall naked body of his Indian owner, sinewy and powerful, which looked far more like a captain's to him than the exhausted plodding figure of his father. Of the whole wretched party, Sylvanus alone was thoroughly enjoying himself. Once when they stopped to rest, the Indian boy, wearied of teasing Miriam, stripped a slender ash bough and fashioned a small-sized bow and some light arrows, and showed the child, over and over again, how to aim and snap the deerhide bowstring. His hands over the small white ones were gentle. Susanna, watching them, burst into tears, and Miriam could not hide her indignation.

"Can't you tell Vanus not to?" she stormed to James. "He
likes
the Indians. He's forgotten already what they've done to us. 'Tis—'tis disloyal!"

"Vanus is only a child," James rebuked her. "He has been lucky that the Indians have taken a fancy to him instead of abusing him. An Indian friend isn't a bad thing to have, Miriam. Indians have a sense of loyalty too."

That philosophy was incomprehensible to Miriam. She could never feel anything but hatred for a redskin. She hated them more every day of this miserable journey. She hated their unfathomable black eyes, their expressionless language. She shrank away from the food they offered for fear her fingers might touch theirs. Most of all she hated the boy, Mehkoa, with his arrogant swagger.

She could not remember how many days they had been dragging along at this slow pace. The days blurred together like an endless nightmare. Six, perhaps, or seven. Sometimes the sun filtered through the trees or scorched her shoulders as they followed an open riverbank. Other days it rained fiercely, weighting down her hair, and almost sealing her eyelids shut. Some days there had been almost no food at all, and she could have cried like the little girls with hunger cramps. When the Indians brought down a hawk or a woodchuck the slim portions were carefully divided so that even the Indians never had anywhere near enough. Two days ago, at a camping place, they had found supplies left from a previous camp, a skin bag of bear grease hung from a limb of a tree, and a bag of flour. That night they had feasted on pudding with bear-grease sauce, and broth seasoned with snakeroot. After that there had been nothing at all, until yesterday when the Indians had decided to shoot old Scoggins. The very thought of that meal still made her retch, but she had eaten it, like all the others, because her hunger was beyond endurance.

With Scoggins gone, the Indians had fashioned a kind of woven litter in which James carried Susanna on his back, a sore burden for his waning strength, even though Susanna looked so frail and wasted a breath might have blown her away. That Susanna endured those days at all was incredible. Sometimes, when the whole party came to a halt and Miriam saw her sister slump to the ground, she was filled with frantic impatience.

She holds us all up, she would despair. James said they would not bother with us too much. Any minute they may get fed up with her and decide to kill us all. If we could just do something about Susanna! If we could go ahead and leave her to rest somewhere. Without her we could get where we're going. Anywhere, just out of these woods. Anywhere where there'd be some food. But then a glimpse of Susanna's white face would shame her. Susanna never made a sound or gave a word of complaint.

Sometimes, Miriam thought, the thing that exasperated her most was Susanna's patience. She herself had so little. The baby Captive, for example, had driven her almost to the end of her endurance. At first they had taken for granted that, being the only other woman, she would care for the baby and carry it. Captive wasn't heavy, but she was a constant burden. She cried on and on, piercingly, for the food that she could not have. The sips of gruel when they stopped to make a fire would quiet her for a few moments only. The crying rasped on Miriam's nerves until she could not bear it longer. Finally Peter Labaree had lifted the baby from her arms and taken charge. Certainly he had a way with babies, and there was far less wailing from that time on.

The moment she gave up Captive, the Indian boy was back at his tricks. She could not decide which was the worse torment, the bite-em-no-see-ems, as the Indians called the tiny black midges, or this unpredictable boy. Several times, surprisingly, he fell into step beside her, walking with the lithe grace of an animal, and attempted some conversation, which she scornfully rejected. Then he would fall behind her and devise some new trick for her discomfort. Though his irrepressible spirits occasionally provoked the older Indians to a snarl, he was obviously their favorite. Unless his pranks interfered with their progress they took no notice of him or of Miriam's embarrassment. Her one defense was her pride and a determination to do her best to spoil his pleasure. When a furry caterpillar dropped into her portion of gruel, or a small snake wriggled over her shoulder, she held her breath tight and did not even squeal. She wore her hair braided now like a squaw's, hanging forward over her shoulders, where he was less able to pull it. When a branch whipped back at her with cruel intention, she bit her lips and marched scornfully ahead. It was a sort of game between them, a cruelly unfair game with all the odds on his side. But she was a white girl. This loathsome boy would not have the satisfaction of making her cry.

The seventh day was nearly over when Miriam suddenly remembered something. It was her birthday, and for the first time in all her life no one had remembered or wished her happiness. What a silly thing, to want someone to wish her happiness when heaven only knew what horrors were in store for herl This was the day when she had hoped for another party, when she would have danced again in the blue dress—with Phineas Whitney! Now the thought of him, which she had pushed back to the edges of her mind all this week, flowed over her with a great lonesome ache that was worse than hunger. Did he share even a little of this heartache? What had he felt that morning when he learned that their few days together had been lost? Tears gathered in her eyes and would surely have spilled over, except that just in time she caught the Indian boy's curious glance and winked them back.

The party ahead had come to a halt again on the shore of a small river, Otter Creek, Peter Labaree guessed. Miriam had learned to dread these brooks and rivers to be crossed. They meant slippery moss and sharp rocks hidden under wet leaves, and soggy clothes that never really dried out in the forest damp. This creek looked really frightening. The water rushed swiftly, and just below them it broke into rapids with a roar that echoed against the rocky banks and drowned out their voices. The Indians were evidently familiar with the creek, and were deliberately choosing a crossing place. They pointed, indicating a path from rock to rock.

"No step that way," the leader warned. "Big hole there. Very deep."

Two of the Indians were sent ahead to point out the route they were to follow. Then James Johnson, with the litter that held Susanna, stepped in carefully and forced himself into the current. Besides being swift, the creek was deeper than anything they had waded before, and Miriam's heart sank as she saw the water creeping up above the man's waist and closing over her sister's shoulders. Three Indians each swung a child to his shoulder. Polly, in terror as the cold water crept up her bare legs, caught her captor's black tuft of hair in both hands and clung desperately. Peter Labaree had to hold the baby Captive up over his shoulders to keep her blanket dry. The leader motioned Miriam to follow.

The sting of the icy water snatched away her breath. It took all her caution to keep a footing on the mossy stones, and the pull of the current terrified her. Actually, when it came to deep water she was as much a coward as Polly. At home in Charlestown some of the boys had learned to swim in the river, but for a girl, even for a tomboy, such a sport was forbidden. She must make sure that she did not fall.

She had just reached the deep water and braced herself against the pull of the current when a fearful thing happened. Labaree, just ahead of her, tottered, lost his footing, flung out one arm to save himself, and fell headlong into the creek, losing his grip on the precious bundle he carried. With a gasp of horror Miriam watched the dirty scrap of blanket that held the baby Captive whirling round and round like a leaf.

Then, without thinking, she plunged forward and struck out wildly. Her fingers touched the blanket and clutched it tightly in a spinning whirlpool. But her flailing feet could not find bottom again. She had gone off the course—into the deep hole the Indians had warned against. The current was too powerful to fight. It pushed her faster and faster, and the roaring was all around her like thunder.

Panic blocked out every thought. But somehow she kept her hold on the blanket. Suddenly her body hit against some object with a sickening jolt, and automatically her free arm grabbed hold. Gasping and choking, she clung fast, and when her eyes cleared she saw that she was flattened against a submerged log caught against the rocks, its jagged tip jutting out of the rapids. Gasping for breath, Miriam struggled with her awkward bundle and managed to heave the baby up and to hold her propped against the log only a few inches above the rushing water.

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