Read Calico Captive Online

Authors: Elizabeth George Speare

Tags: #Ages 10 and up

Calico Captive (7 page)

Suddenly, to her amazement, Mehkoa himself rose from the circle and turned to meet her gaze. With a start of panic she realized that he was coming toward her. Just in front of her, as she stepped involuntarily closer to Susanna, he stopped, standing very erect, and held out to her some object.

"Take it," prompted James, under his breath, and Miriam reached out her hand. It was a necklace of rare and valuable purple wampum, carved from the inside of the conch shell, each bead delicately fashioned by hand.

She heard Susanna draw in a sharp breath.

"What is it?" Miriam asked. "What does he want? Am I being adopted?"

Mehkoa spoke. "We go on big hunt. We away, squaws make ready log house—big—all new, like white man. When hunt over, white girl come live there. Squaw of Mehkoa."

Squaw! His meaning made its way, not into her mind, but into her veins like icy needles.

"Me—you mean—me
marry
you!" She thought she had screamed, but the words came out the barest breath.

Mehkoa heard them, however, and saw the unmistakable horror that drained her face white. In the depths of the dark eyes of the boy there was the merest flicker. Not a line of the young face changed, but that carved mask seemed to darken as though a shadow fell upon it. For one dreadful moment Miriam stared. Then, in blind terror and fury, she flung the necklace to the ground and turned and ran, past the motionless figures, down the dark alley, into her own wigwam. The ancient squaw, roused from her nap, looked on with unblinking eyes as Miriam flung herself sobbing on the pile of blankets.

There Susanna and James found her when they themselves were at last free to leave the Council. Susanna bent and gathered Miriam into her arms as though she were little Sue. James stood inside the wigwam door with both concern and disapproval on his face.

"You are not to scold the child," protested Susanna. "'Twas a terrible shock, coming so unexpected-like."

"I understand that, my dear," James answered her. "I still say 'twas a pity she had to show it so plainly. When we are dealing with enemies it is well sometimes to respect their ways."

Miriam stiffened. "You mean you would have stood by and let them marry me off to that horrible savage?"

"Certainly not. There was no talk of marrying tonight. If you could have concealed your dread, we would have had time in our favor. As it is, our time is short, and truthfully, I am not sure what we can do."

"I don't understand," Miriam faltered. "How can anything I have done make things worse than they have been all this time?
Nothing
could be worse than having to marry an Indian!"

"Mehkoa thought he was doing you a great honor," Susanna explained. "They all thought so. That is why you were never adopted or given any real work to do, because Mehkoa had spoken for you and he is their favorite. But now you have shamed him before the whole tribe, and the women say you will never be forgiven for it."

"What is more," added James, "when you ran out of the lodge, Mehkoa announced that he no longer wanted you on any terms, and he stalked out himself. The Indians consider that very childish behavior. Mehkoa is in disgrace with his father and with his own people. 'Tis that I am afraid of."

"We shouldn't hatchel the child like this," said Susanna. "She only did what any Godfearing woman would."

The two Indian women, coming into the wigwam, glared balefully at the intruders. With a last tightening of her arms, Susanna released her sister and left her. Shrinking, Miriam met the gaze of her Indian family. The girl's eyes glittered triumphantly, not so much with hatred as with contempt. Chogan's face was ugly.

She pointed to the dying fire, and with a threatening gesture ordered Miriam to stir the embers. When Miriam, in confusion, moved too slowly, she emphasized the order with a vicious kick at the girl's shin. The stab of pain taught Miriam more clearly than James's warning that from now on her life in the village was to be a far different affair.

Worse calamity befell them next morning. At dawn the Indian women went out to watch the departure of the hunting party, and taking advantage of their absence, Miriam crept to the wigwam of Sabbatis in search of her sister. She had just reached the wigwam when two braves came to greet Susanna, escort
ing between them little Sylvanus, clad in new deerskin jacket and leggings.

"Look, Ma," he boasted. "I got a new bow and five arrows all my own. I'm going to kill a deer. Maybe even a bear."

"Maybe you will," rallied Susanna, her voice trembling with foreboding, "when you're big enough."

"I'm big enough now. I'm going to be a sannup pretty soon. You just wait and see if I don't bring back a deer."

"What are you talking about, Vanus?" demanded Susanna, her eyes darting to the Indians in suspicion.

"I'm not Vanus any more. I'm Matguas now. That means Rabbit."

"He big man now," grinned an Indian. "He go big hunt."

"Big man!" cried Susanna. "He's only a little boy—only six years old! He can't go on a hunt with men!"

"Six year plenty big," nodded the Indian. "Indian boy go five year, sometime."

"Matguas smart boy. Make good sannup," agreed the other.

"Indeed he won't!" cried Susanna, forgetting all caution. "You can't take a child like this. I shan't allow it."

The grins vanished from the Indians' faces. Sylvanus, his fine prospects threatened, broke into shrill protest.

"You can't stop me! I'm not Vanus any more. I'm Matguas. I'm an Indian now!"

"Stop talking nonsense, Vanus. Where is your father? Where is Captain Johnson?"

One Indian shrugged. "White Captain make trouble," the other admitted. "Him tied in big wigwam. Not go out now."

Susanna's hands went to her throat. She tried another tactic.

"A child will just be in your way," she coaxed. "His legs will give out. He talks big, but he's only—"

"Go now," broke in the Indian roughly. "No talk more."

"Vanus!" sobbed his mother, throwing her arms around the child. Sylvanus lifted his brown cheeks for her kiss as unconcernedly as though he were leaving for an hour's play. Then he broke from her and trotted away with the Indians. But as Susanna ran after him along the pathway, he turned back, and for the first time his blue eyes were clouded with doubt.

"'Tis all right, isn't it, Ma?" he quavered. "What are you crying about?"

The crack in his childish bravado steadied Susanna. Catching Miriam's arm in a grip that made the girl gasp, Susanna fought for a voice that would reassure him.

"'Tis all right, Vanus," she managed finally. "Be a good boy, and be sure to say your prayers every night."

Miriam's own troubles were blotted out in her sister's anguish. But she was not allowed any time to attempt to comfort Susanna. Chogan, returning, set her to work with lashing tongue and a cuff that left her ear throbbing. From that morning on there were no more bright beaded designs or soft skins to work on. Instead she lugged heavy buckets of water, scoured greasy cooking pots with dirt and pebbles, and learned with an aching head and scarred shins that the wood for the fire had better not run short.

One morning, under a vicious yank, the too often scrubbed calico dress ripped irretrievably, and Miriam was forced to put on the castoff leather shirt and skirt that were flung at her. These foul-smelling Indian garments, far more than the back-breaking work, undermined her courage. They symbolized for her all the shame of captivity. In her own dress she had retained her white pride, but how could she even feel like a Willard inside these heathen clothes? Tears of weariness and self-pity dropped on the matted fringe.

I am no better that the others, she thought. In a little while anyone would have to look close to tell me from a squaw, and I won't even care.

That night a shriveled old sannup with a game leg that kept him from the hunt visited the wigwam. He watched as Miriam hoisted a heavy kettle, and he prodded with a hard finger to test the muscle in her arm. When he had gone Chogan thrust a leering face close to Miriam's.

"You like?" she croaked. "Him better young sagamore?" And at Miriam's question she burst into a malicious cackle.

Pretending to be in need of firewood, Miriam fled to Susanna's wigwam. As she neared it, she heard low voices in the darkness, and stopped short, unable to believe her ears. Susanna and her husband James stood in the shadow beside the wigwam, and they were quarreling in tense whispers. Never in her entire life had Miriam heard a bitter word between these two. For all her determination, Susanna had never dreamed of setting her will against James, and he, on his part, would have given her anything she asked without stopping to count the cost. Yet here in the darkness, in a voice choked with weeping, Susanna was insisting, and James was refusing in anger. Miriam, both puzzled and frightened, crept away, ashamed of having eavesdropped.

Next morning she discovered the cause of their argument. It was barely daybreak when a rough hand and a prodding toe jerked her from sleep. Chogan stood over her. Miriam stumbled to her feet and followed the squaw out the door, between the shadowy wigwams, down the path to the river. There James and Susanna waited, standing close together in the bitter frost, James's arm about his wife's shoulder. Miriam's first thought was one of relief. These two were no longer in disagreement. Then the strain on both their faces blotted out her relief. She saw the canoe bobbing softly against the pebbles, held by two Indians who waited, paddles in hand. In the bottom of the canoe, huddled under blankets, Polly and Sue crouched, with terrified faces.

Susanna broke gently from James's embrace and came to lay both hands on her sister's arms. "You are not to be worried, Miriam," she said earnestly. "James has managed to persuade them to take you to Montreal. They would not listen to him before, when Mehkoa had spoken for you. Now they have no use for you and think they might as well sell you to the French. And once he is there, James can begin to arrange with Massachusetts for our ransom."

Miriam hugged her sister in joy. "Worried!" she cried. "To get away from this dreadful place? 'Tis what we have hoped for all along."

Susanna said nothing, and over her shoulder Miriam saw James's face, haggard as an old man's.

"What is it?" she asked, drawing back. Susanna appealed hesitantly to James, who refused to help her.

"'Tis nothing," explained Susanna finally. "Just that Sabbatis will not let me go at present. Only you and James, and the little girls."

"And leave you alone—in this place? Have you lost your mind, Susanna? How could you consider such a thing, James?"

James clenched his hands. "I have said all I can," he groaned. "They are taking the children away, no matter what I do."

"James knows it is best this way," Susanna went on. "It is his only chance to get through to the colonies. You must see, both of you, that there may not be another chance. I am perfectly safe here. Sabbatis treats me fairly, and I could not leave anyway till Sylvanus comes back from the hunt. When the French have made a good offer, they will let me come fast enough."

Afterwards Miriam was glad to remember that she had spoken without thinking. "Then let James go. And the girls. I'm not going without you."

"Oh, I can't go on fighting both of you," cried poor Susanna. "Don't you see, Miriam, 'twas a miracle he could persuade them. You have to go. They are planning to marry you off. Nobody wants you now, but that old man who needs a squaw to do his work. Even one more day and you might never get away at all. We can't afford to waste time like this."

Chogan, sensing that the promised money might be slipping from her grasp, took a menacing step toward the sisters. "No talk. No-good squaw go now," she ordered. One of the Indians lifted his paddle and grunted impatiently. The sound roused James from his indecision.

"Get in the canoe, Miriam," he ordered harshly.

Miriam clung to her sister, weeping, until Susanna, with dry eyes, pushed her away. Then the girl ran blindly to the canoe, climbed in beside the bewildered children, and hid her face againt Polly. In a moment she felt the canoe rock beneath James's step, and then move in one sweeping shove away from the shore. At the same instant, wails of realization burst from Polly and Sue. Miriam and James bent automatically to muffle their cries. The canoe shot toward a bend in the river, and looking back, they watched the frail figure standing gallantly on the shore, till Susanna was lost to their sight.

Chapter 7

T
HERE IS
Montreal," said James. "We shall reach it before nightfall."

Miriam shook off the sleep that dragged at her and struggled to sit up. The Indians made no protest; here on the broad St. Lawrence River they had no need for caution. She gazed at the unknown French city whose name, ever since childhood, had meant to her only hatred and terror. To a girl who had spent her entire life in the sparsely settled New Hampshire valley, it appeared huge and threatening. Behind the great stone walls rose black gabled roofs, pointed church steeples, two massive stone towers, and looming over them all, a menacing rocky hill.

"It looks frightening." She shuddered. "Is it made all of stone?"

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