Authors: Elizabeth George Speare
Tags: #Ages 10 and up
Gradually her breath came back. As her own panic quieted, she felt a needle of fear for the baby. She could not turn her head or free a hand to move the blankets, nor hear a sound in this roaring, but presently she felt a slight jerking against her arm. The baby was kicking feebly, and a choking wail came thinly through the thunder, close against her ear. Captive was alive. If only she could manage to hold her up out of the water till help came. But the awkward position was back-breaking, with the other arm straining to hold them both to the wet log. Its rough bark scraped her ribs unbearably.
She could see the rest of the party on the bank and could watch their excited gestures, though she could not hear what they were trying to shout to her. She was only vaguely aware of what they were doing. She did not see the Indian searching his pack or remember the length of new rope James Johnson had brought back from his trading. She could not see the Indians recrossing the creek above her, or the stone that hurtled across the rapids over her head with a slithering length of rope attached. After what seemed an endless length of time, however, she realized that something lay across the water, and as it gradually stretched taut she realized that it was a rope, only an arm's length away, from bank to bank. Almost within reach, but too far to be any good to her. She dared not let go the log. She knew she had not the strength to turn her body, to cling to Captive, to let herself into that swirling water again.
Then she saw that two Indians were coming out across the water, swinging easily and powerfully along the rope toward her—her own master and the young boy. Mehkoa reached her first. Holding out his arms for the baby, he tried to wrest Captive from her grasp. Miriam clung closer to the sodden blanket in terror. She could not trust Mehkoa. Captive was safer with her, even here, than with that grinning savage.
"Give!" he shouted in her ear. "Give papoose. Mehkoa carry!"
With the swirling water about them, his dark eyes were very close to her own. There was no grin there now. He met her look honestly, and suddenly, with a sob, she gave the baby into his hands. At the same moment the other Indian reached her, and his hard arm went round her waist. The instant her grip on the log let go, Miriam lost consciousness.
When she opened her eyes, her first sensation was of blessed warmth. A roaring fire crackled within a foot of where she lay, sending a glow that penetrated the soggy rags that clung to her body. Then she felt warmth close to her face, and realized that James Johnson was holding the baby's wooden spoon against her lips. The first swallow of broth made a hot path deep inside. Raising her head, Miriam saw the others all around her, the silent Indians, the children, Susanna on her litter, and they were all watching her.
"Are you all to rights, Sister?" James asked. "We owe you much, more than we can say."
"I'm to rights," Miriam answered, pulling herself up. "The baby—is Captive safe?"
For answer, Susanna pulled aside the woolen jacket that had taken the place of the gray blanket. Captive's wrinkled, red little face puckered up even more tightly at the disturbance, and her pitiful mouth opened in a hungry howl. Susanna raised her eyes and met Miriam's in a long grave look.
She knows, Miriam thought with wonder. She knows the dreadful things I have been thinking about her. And she knows that I will never think them again! Suddenly she was closer to her sister than ever before in their lives, and the love and courage shining from Susanna's eyes warmed her more deeply than the fire or the broth. Somehow, without a single word, their whole relationship was changed. Miriam had always been the little sister, always tagging along, always just a little at odds with the rest. Now she was a Willard too! For just one moment at least, Susanna's courage had been hers. She had measured up.
All at once, for the first time since that fearful morning in Charlestown, something like happiness bubbled up in her. Here she and Susanna both lay by the fire, soaked through and scarcely able to sit up, but Miriam felt that they stood side by side, and that whatever lay ahead the two Willard women would see it through together.
One of the Indians had shot and cooked a big bird of some kind, and now the steaming morsels were carefully divided. As her own master offered her a portion on a piece of bark, Miriam saw to her amaze
ment that it was a piece of breast meat, the choicest bit. He offered it gravely, as though it were some sort of honor.
The meat was stringy and undercooked, but as she ate it slowly, making each bite last as long as possible, Miriam tried to sort out the bewildering ideas that had crowded upon her in the last few moments. What strange creatures these Indians were! Were those howling savages who had burst in upon them at Number Four the same men who had built a fire to dry their prisoners' clothes? Were those greedy barbarians, scrabbling for everything they could lay hands on, the same men who here in the forest scrupulously divided the meager food into equal portions and offered it to the prisoners before they had tasted it themselves? They were sly, ignorant animals, yet they had a sort of dignity about them.
They have treated us well, Miriam had to admit to herself. Nothing like those stories of what they do to prisoners. Yet I know they despise us, every one of us. If they don't abuse us, there is some reason in their minds, or perhaps they are too proud to bother with us. I can never understand them.
The real surprise, however, was still to come. After they had eaten, as the Indians prepared to march again, Mehkoa came toward her. She saw him coming, but she would not look at him, and turning her head away, she pretended to be absorbed in braiding her damp hair. She was aware that he stood waiting for a long time, but she would not look up. What if he had saved the baby? A baby meant only money to him. The Indians would not let any part of their prize slip through their fingers. She still hated him, and his devilish grin. Finally, however, her curiosity was too much for her, and she raised her head to look at him. He was holding something in his hands, something bright blue, and her heart leaped in unbelief. It was the blue dress!
"White girl wear," he said. "Old cloth no good any more. White girl put this on."
Miriam sat up and clutched the blue folds tight, as though they might be snatched away in one of his tricks. It would be like him. But he simply stood waiting for some word from her. Miriam turned her head away again. The dress was hers. He had stolen it, and he had no right to be thanked for it now. She wouldn't put it on either. She would carry it, every step of the way. Then, looking down, she saw that the boy was right; the old dress was no good. The rocks and the jagged log had torn the rotting fabric to shreds. She had no choice but to tramp through the forest in the only pretty dress she had ever owned. As the soft folds went over her head, Miriam felt her control suddenly cracking. She began to laugh, a laughter that sounded shocking and that she couldn't stop.
"Miriam, what is it?" James was instantly at her side. "Are you ill?"
"I got a birthday present," she sobbed. "Did you know it was my birthday? My only present, and it had to come from a horrid Indian. And 'tis too late to do me any good."
She hated Mehkoa more than ever. Yet somehow, she had a definite conviction that he would trouble her no further. It was only later, lying beside the fire, that it occurred to her to wonder, uncomfortably, if in the battle between her and the Indian boy it was she who had come out the winner after all.
long past caring that the precious dress was bleached and torn to a shapeless rag when at last the party reached the village of St. Francis. The prisoners had known for several days that a destination was near. They were traveling not on foot now, but in three Indian canoes. They had left the shining Lake Champlain behind, progressing by a series of rivers and streams, now wide, now narrow and swift. Twice they had stopped at French forts, once at Crown Point and once at Chamblec, and each time the French soldiers, though refusing to buy any prisoners, had handed out hot food and brandy. From these first encounters with the French, Miriam saw little reason to fear them. If it were Canada they were approaching, their fortunes were bound to improve.
The spirits of the Indians were visibly on the rise, and their pace was accelerated. Powerful bronze arms sent the three canoes racing with long rhythmic thrusts, and now and again shouts of unguarded triumph sent shivers down the spines of the prisoners cramped against the rough floors. By night, in the light of the fire they had built on the shore, the Indians danced, circling in an endless weaving chain around the fire, one brave after another breaking the pattern with violent, hideous contortions.
When they tired of dancing they rehearsed the prisoners for some future performance that must meet exacting standards. Each of the white prisoners was taught a special song. Over and over Miriam's master drilled her in the detestable, meaningless words,
Danna witchee natchepung.
Sylvanus was the only one who seemed to perform to the Indians' satisfaction. He would pose, legs astride, arms folded like a chieftain, and shrill
until they howled and slapped their legs with relish.
Finally, late one afternoon, the canoes drew up to a narrow strip of sand where the Indians donned war paint. Here for the first time each of the prisoners was daubed. Miriam held herself rigid as her master drew a bark twig across her cheeks and forehead, leaving a sticky smear of vermilion. Susanna looked like an apparition, her gaunt cheeks hideously spotted. Sylvanus was a comical little goblin, his baby face a striped replica of his master's.
"What is it for, Peter?" Miriam whispered, steadying the spoon against the baby's ravenous groping mouth, as they took advantage of the brief halt. "Are we coming to Canada?"
Peter Labaree rubbed his chin glumly. "No chance of that now," he said. "We've turned south again two days ago. Changed their minds, I mistrust."
"Then where are they taking us?"
"From the direction, I reckon Saint Francis."
St. Francis! The most dreaded word in all New England!
"Then they'll kill us!" she moaned, her fear breaking through the whisper. Peter lifted a warning hand.
"Steady now," he cautioned, taking the jerking spoon out of her fingers. "I think they're still bent on selling us to the French. Probably want to show us off first. And they need food as bad as we do."
"They burn people at the stake at Saint Francis!"
Labaree shook his head. "These Injuns are Abenakis. If they was Iroquois now, I wouldn't give much for our chances. With the Abenakis, I'd say the worst we've got to look forward to is the gantlet."
That was another of those words the women at the fort used to whisper. The gantlet—double lines of Indians armed with clubs and knives, through which a captive was lucky to come out alive.
"Keep your chin up, girl," advised Labaree, noting too late what his words had done. "You've got to allow these redskins have treated us decently enough so far."
They pushed on again, the Indians whooping and yelling in anticipation. Presently the tense nerves of the prisoners jumped to an answering clamor from the shore, as they swept toward a stretch of pebbly sand. Instantly, from the trees, a howling frenzy of women burst upon the shore. After the weeks of silence, the hubbub was paralyzing. Miriam shrank in the canoe and stared at the ragged screaming women, the naked shrill, excited children, and the dogs, countless mangy frantic creatures, leaping and yelping.
At a fierce gesture from her master she pulled herself up and cringingly stepped out on the shore. Surely she would be torn to pieces! But the leader was shouting above the uproar, and the women fell back. Booing and screeching with disappointment, they nevertheless obeyed, shoving the children, kicking the dogs, into a rough sort of line with an opening at the far end. Then, abruptly, there was silence. The gantlet! Even the children knew what it meant.
"Sing!" commanded the leader, pointing to Susanna.
Unbelievably, Susanna began to sing, a thread of a voice lifted quite clearly and steadily in the chant she had memorized. Clinging to James's arm, her head high, she moved between the lines of Indians, and not a single hand was raised against her. After her Polly and little Sue parroted their song and dance in terror and streaked past their mother to the other end.