Authors: Elizabeth George Speare
Tags: #Ages 10 and up
"Sing!" ordered Miriam's master. "Singl Dance fast!"
Under the grease paint, Miriam's face felt stiff. Her dry tongue could not make a sound. The snap of a switch stung her bare ankles, and her feet jerked involuntarily. The words came back to her,
Danna witchee natchepung!
Another stinging cut sent her scurrying after the others. A howl of derision greeted her undignified flight and, mortified, she halted beside her sister. Why couldn't she have carried it off like Susanna? Another roar, this time of approval, greeted Sylvanus, who was strutting as though he knew he bore a charmed life.
The gantlet was over. Labaree had been tripped, and blood trickled from an ugly bruise on his forehead, but not a hand had seriously been raised to harm any of them.
They had barely drawn a thankful breath when a deep throbbing drumbeat set them quivering afresh. In the center of the clearing stood a drum made of a tree trunk, as wide round as a washtub and high as a man's waist. The jabbering women were again stilled. The lines of the gantlet parted, and into the clearing between moved a row of warriors. Behind them strode a tall figure with towering shoulders under a scarlet blanket, his great beaked nose jutting beneath a tremendous feathered bonnet. His measured words fell like deeper drumbeats into the complete stillness.
Before this chief the prisoners were led, and each was solemnly considered. Susanna first was officially claimed by her master, who presented to her a belt of wampum, saluted her formally, and led her away, with Captive in her arms. Little Sue and Polly were claimed by squaws. When it came Miriam's turn, her master spoke at length to the Grand Sachem. For a long chilling moment the whole weight of that awful gaze held her motionless. Then he gave an order, and two women stepped forward. One was as shapeless as a bag tied through the middle, with brown wrinkled face, like a dried apple. The other was a girl, younger than Miriam, with a smooth copper skin and an unblinking stare of pure hatred.
These women led her away from the clearing, between a double row of squalid bark huts and wigwams, among which sagged an occasional decrepit log cabin. Her glance was caught by the hairy circles that dangled like flags from every doorpost, until with a prickle of horror she realized what they were—scalps! She turned away her eyes, and looked beyond the huts to a tottering church steeple with a huge cross black against the reddened sky. Then she blinked as she stepped through a doorway into the dimness of a wigwam.
There was a choking smell of wood smoke, of unwashed bodies, a fragrance of sweet grass, the redolence of boiling meat. A fire burned in the center of the wigwam, and nearby, on a pile of dirty blankets and skins, squatted a wizened and shrunken old woman.
The hasty pudding, ladled into a wooden bowl on the floor, sent up puffs of mouth-watering steam. The shapeless squaw handed her a wooden spoon, and after a moment's hesitation, Miriam sat clumsily down on the floor, to dip in her spoon with the others. A cackle like that of a hen in the barnyard broke from the toothlesss old squaw. With a flick of disdain in her black eyes, the Indian girl sank gracefully to her knees and back on her heels. Miriam flushed, aware of her own awkwardness, but at the first taste of the luscious dish she forgot her pride. She dipped the spoon again greedily, but after a few swallows her knotted stomach refused more food. She moved back dizzily, and while the others ate, she sat neglected on a ragged blanket, till the smells, and the strange jabbering, and the crackle of the fire blurred and wheeled into an exhausted sleep.
In the morning she was left to her own devices. The three Indian women busied themselves making moccasins. The woman, who said her name was Chogan, threaded colored beads and applied them expertly in a complicated design. The old grandmother smoothed and cut the soft skins, and the girl stitched the pieces together. After watching for a time while the women worked and chattered, Miriam ventured to the doorway and stood looking out, and as they still ignored her, she found courage to go in search of the others.
To her relief, Susanna called to her from a nearby doorway.
"How is it with you, Miriam?" she inquired anxiously. "Do they treat you well?"
"They don't pay me much attention," Miriam admitted. "Except for the girl. I think she'd enjoy seeing me tortured."
"Have they adopted you?"
"I don't know what you mean."
"I have been adopted into this wigwam. That was what the belt of beads meant. Now my master, Sabbatis, is my 'little brother,' and I have to call the old woman my
That means mother—God forgive me! I suppose we should be thankful. James said that once we are adopted they will not harm us. I wish I knew where they have taken the others."
"I don't see how you stand it!" Miriam burst out. "I wouldn't call that old hag mother, no matter what they did to me!"
"Then you'd be very foolish," replied Susanna crisply. "There could be worse things. Anyway, 'tis not for long, just till James can arrange for the ransom money. A white woman just came by here, though, who says she's been in this place for ten months. She says they won't object if we wash our clothes down by the river. I'll see if I can find the children and we can make ourselves more fitten."
As the days went by Miriam decided that she could not have been adopted. She was fed and allowed to sleep and otherwise completely ignored. Susanna and James had been put straightway to work. Susanna, with her slight strength, sat all day braiding tumpline or stitching deerskin shirts for her "little brother." James labored somewhere at the edge of camp, while Peter Labaree had been taken away, presumably to Montreal. When Miriam, restless with inactivity, ventured to help Susanna, Sabbatis took the work out of her hand and sent her away. Did he mistrust her ability to do even such a simple task?
Back in her own wigwam, Miriam sat watching the women. There was no man in this family. Chogan was apparently a widow, and her daughter still unwed. At least here was no master to drive her on, and no Mehkoa to torment her. She had caught only a few glimpses of the Indian boy. She had learned, without surprise, that he was a person of importance, son of one of the sagamores who surrounded the Grand Sachem. Praise be, she need no longer concern herself with him, but sometimes the constant vexation of the trail seemed preferable to this boredom, this endless waiting that was worse than the stifling existence inside the fort at Number Four.
She sat watching the women's expert fingers, and in spite of herself, her interest was caught by the bright beaded design that formed under Chogans needle. Her own fingers itched to try it.
"I could do that," she offered finally. Chogan stared at her doubtfully. Miriam picked up a needle that had fallen to the dirt floor, and wove it through the air in a convincing gesture. Grudgingly the squaw handed her an unfinished moccasin and indicated where it should be stitched, then watched sharply and with surprise as this "no-good white squaw" drew the needle capably through the soft leather. After that Miriam was allowed to work at the family trade of moccasin making, though if an outsider appeared at the door the work was snatched from her hands. The occupation was better than idleness, and within a few days she had progressed to applying the beads, painstakingly copying the Indian woman's designs. Even the old grandmother nodded and smacked her lips in approval. Only the Indian girl seemed to understand that it was boredom and not good will that had prompted Miriam's interest. Every day she managed, by her lithe strength and the arrogant perfection of every graceful gesture, to make Miriam feel clumsy and weak. Between the two girls the wary hostility never relaxed.
Gradually her own young strength reasserted itself. A summerlike mood lay over the village. The still pools by the river's edge reflected the first red leaves of the maples. The warm blue sky cooled at night into a soft blackness thick-clustered with stars. There was plenty of food; the Indians feasted and shared their bounty lavishly. The work was not too burdensome to women accustomed to settlement living. Little Polly and Sue, though they were led away every evening to sleep in a distant wigwam, were allowed to join their mother every morning. Polly clung close to her mother's skirt, and was content to sit motionless for hours holding the baby carefully in her arms while Susanna worked. Sue gradually found courage to join in the noisy games with the white and Indian ragamuffins that swarmed the village. Both little girls had color in their cheeks now, and their bare arms and legs looked rounder. The baby Captive, fed on walnut meats stewed in cornmeal, was beginning to coo and gurgle like a proper child. Their work done, Miriam and Susanna sometimes joined the wistful straggle of white women who scrubbed their rags of clothes at the river and stubbornly cherished a remnant of English decency amid the squalor of the camp.
Early one morning, Miriam and Susanna sat for a few moments outside the wigwam of Sabbatis. Susanna's eyes lifted from her work and searched the roadway beyond the huts, straining in the hope of seeing James, who occasionally was able to walk past the wigwam on his way to work and to stop for a hurried word.
"Have you seen your brother?" she demanded once of Sue, who had lured Polly into a game of hopscotch in the dusty roadway.
"I saw Vanus this morning, running races in the clearing," Sue called over her shoulder. "He had some dark stuff rubbed into his hair."
"Always with the Indians," Susanna sighed. "I don't like it. I must get to talk with James somehow."
"I don't see why you worry about Vanus," Miriam said carelessly. "He's better off than any of us. The Indians just spoil him."
Susanna shot her a bleak glance. "'Tis that that worries me. If we don't get him away from here soon he'll be completely out of hand. And 'tis time he started school."
"What makes you so sure we're going to get away?" Miriam had to ask. "What's to prevent their keeping us here forever, like the rest of the captives?"
Susanna's lips tightened. "Because we are not going to be like the others. Most of them have stopped hoping or even caring. We will never stop trying, not for one moment, and sooner or later, James will find a way."
Looking at her sister, Miriam marveled again how that slight body could contain such resolution. No, Susanna would never be like the others. But what of herself? she wondered uneasily. Was her own courage proof against many weeks of empty waiting?
She looked up, startled to see that a strange figure had paused before the wigwam. He was a white man, with a face like yellow wax under a wide black hat. A robe of some heavy black stuff closed tight about his throat and dragged in the dust at his feet. His eyes, looking out from deep hollows in his gaunt face, regarded her sister and the baby with such a gentleness and a deep sadness as she had never seen in all her life.
"The infant goes well?" he inquired haltingly.
"She is doing well, thank you," Susanna replied with a wariness in her tone that was unlike her usual frank response. The tall man stood silent for a moment, and then, sensing her rebuff, turned away. As little Sue hopped carelessly into his path, he laid one hand briefly on her curly head.
"Who is he?" whispered Miriam, as he continued on his way.
"He is a priest," answered Susanna shortly.
"You mean—a Catholic?" Miriam recoiled from the word with all the prejudice of her Puritan upbringing.
"What did you expect? Didn't you know that the French are all Papists?"
"I never thought about it. But this man—his face is so kind—"
"They burned Hugh Latimer at the stake in England. Does that sound kind?"
Miriam was silent, puzzled. Incongruously, through this alien village, came the sound of a churchbell. Past the wigwam where they sat drifted little clusters of Indian women and children and an occasional aged brave, all following the summons of the tolling bell.
"I declare, it must be the Sabbath," said Susanna.
A scattering of white prisoners came by, bowing to the two English women like pathetic ghosts of decent churchgoers. A middle-aged couple, whom they already knew to be a Mr. and Mrs. Putnam from Northampton, paused for a moment.
"We're going to attend the mass, ma'am," Mr. Putnam offered. "If you've a mind to join us, we'd be happy to have you."
Susanna's shoulders stiffened. "I was not brought up to attend mass," she answered, and at her tone a trace of embarrassment crossed Mr. Putnam's face.
"No more were we," he answered stoutly. "But in this heathen place you got to cling to something."
Mrs. Putnam raised her eyes to meet Susanna's. "Right after they brought us in here," she explained, "our baby died. Father François, that's the priest, came and sat with us all night. And in the morning he gave her a Christian burial."
Tears of pity rose in Susanna's eyes, but she did not yield her disapproval. In the awkward silence Miriam ventured a question.
"This priest—how do the Indians allow a white prisoner so much influence?"
"Father François is no prisoner. He's a Jesuit priest. Saint Francis here is his parish."
"You mean he stays in this place of his own free will?"
"That's right. He says there's lots of Jesuits up north here, living in worse places than this. Some of them were very wealthy men back in France. They had a heap of schooling in fine universities and such, and then they sailed all the way over here to Canada just to save these worthless critters' souls. It's a marvel. Father François was even tortured by the Hurons once. You notice how he keeps one hand down at his side. All the same, he wouldn't leave."
The bell in the church steeple had stopped ringing, and Mrs. Putnam pulled her husband's sleeve.
"We got to hurry," she reminded him. "You sure you won't change your mind, Miz Johnson? There's a lot of comfort in the mass."
"Thank you," said Susanna. "We will hold our own service right here, the same as we always did at the fort. Try and find Vanus if you can, Miriam. We can't let him forget his catechism."
HEY HAD LIVED
in St. Francis for three weeks when, early one evening, all the prisoners were commanded to attend a Grand Council. Every brave, old and young, in the village was present, with the squaws ranged behind them along the walls. The pipe was passed from mouth to mouth, filling the lodge with its acrid, throat-catching smoke. The Grand Sachem, impressive in his feathered bonnet, spoke at great length to an audience so intently silent that Miriam dared not even shift weight from one cramped foot to the other. She had picked up a good many Abenaki words by now, and the Indian gestures were no longer meaningless. It was fairly easy to figure out that the circle of braves who sat nearest the fire were about to depart. Not on a raid this time, she decided, because they were not painted, and there was none of the mounting frenzy that would precede a battle. It was a hunting trip, she interpreted, to some place where many animals were dwelling. Mehkoa was among the hunters. Time after time her eyes were drawn back to that arrogant head with its boldly shaped features.