Here are some delightful sample stories from some of my TRUE pioneer story books for you to enjoy! Sit back with a cup of sassafras tea and let yourself slip back in time.
Gift of Gab
One Good Turn
A Shot In The Dark
GIFT OF GAB from "Even Love Is Odd: True Old Fashioned Pioneer Stories of Love and Romance"
I elbowed Wally out of the way and scrambled up the train steps ahead of him, grabbing the railing at the top to catch my balance when my snow-slick shoes threatened to send me skating down the aisle. As I stopped to shake snow from my pant cuffs and stomp my shoes free of the icy stuff, Wally jostled me from behind. “Get a move on, Sherman, some of us want to get warm.”
“Hold your horses,” I shot back. “Some of us want to keep from falling on our fannies.” I gave Wally a backward butt before I started down the aisle to find a seat. Then I saw her watching me. The girl couldn’t have been more than twenty, with soft waves of chestnut brown hair that curled alluringly around her ears. Her lovely figure was clothed in a burgundy dress. Large brown eyes regarded me curiously as her full, pink mouth curved with the hint of a smile. I wondered with a hot flash of sudden embarrassment if she had heard what I’d said to Wally. I hoped not.
My heart fluttered in alarm when I saw that the seat opposite the beautiful young lady was empty. I didn’t dare take it. I could smooth talk the hometown girls who were my own age, which was eighteen, but this was completely different. I knew that if I tried to converse with this pretty stranger, my tongue would trip all over itself.
I abruptly turned and slid into a seat that was across the aisle but just ahead of where the girl was sitting. From my vantage point, I could watch her without being blatant. Wally plopped down onto the seat opposite me. Each pair of seats on the train faced one another so that four people could sit and converse comfortably as they rode to their destinations.
“Boy, Sherm, I never thought when Christmas break started that I’d be looking forward to school again,” Wally said as he stretched his legs out long in front of him.
“Yeah, me too,” I said absently, my eyes glued to the girl. She was casually watching other people find seats along the train car. She had an open and friendly expression. Maybe I could speak to her after all. But what would I say? If I could only think of an impressive opening line, there was still time to change my seat. Wally could even tag along. Maybe he would sit beside me like a gentleman instead of sprawling all over his seat like a scarecrow missing some stuffing. Maybe not. If I took Wally, he’d probably make a mess of things. I’d be better off to go alone. But Wally would follow me anyway, asking me where I was going and why I was changing seats. There was nothing sophisticated about Wally.
“Sherman? What are you staring at?” Wally said, craning his neck around to look behind him. The girl noticed his movements and fastened her deep brown eyes on me.
“Turn around!” I hissed at Wally through my teeth as I quickly dropped my eyes.
“She’s a looker,” Wally said as he turned back to face me. I stared hard at him. “What’s with you, Sherm?” Wally’s eyebrows raised along with his question. Then a wicked little smile turned up the corners of his mouth. “Oh, Sherman, are you in love?” he taunted.
“Shut up,” I said. “How can I be in love with someone I don’t even know?”
Wally extended his hand into the aisle. “Go introduce yourself,” he said too loudly. “Your carriage seat is empty, Prince Charming.”
“Your head is empty,” I growled at him before I folded my arms stubbornly across my chest.
I felt a hard bump against my shoulder and shot a look up into a man’s square jawed face. He sported a pencil thin moustache on his upper lip. “Oh, sorry,” he said as he pulled his sales case closer in to his body. He smiled with perfect teeth and nodded his head in apology, his smart-looking bowler hat bobbing agreeably. As soon as he finished speaking to me and turned his head forward, I knew he’d seen her. I could tell because his shoulders pulled up straighter, his head tipped, and there was a slight pause before he stepped forward.
“Is this seat taken?” he asked the pretty girl in a deep voice as smooth as butter.
“No,” she answered. An adorable little smile played around her mouth.
My heart swelled with a curious mix of pain from missed opportunity and relief from removal of temptation. I reasoned that I couldn’t very well sit across from her if there was already someone else there. The salesman set his case on the floor and leaned back into his seat. He removed his hat and expertly pulled a hand over his hair to smooth it into place. “Trains are one of the best inventions ever,” he said as he laid one arm casually along the back of his seat. “Imagine having to make this trip in an open air wagon.”
The girl’s face drew up in sudden consternation. “That would be so cold!” she said, sliding her hands around her elbows.
The salesman’s voice continued confidently. “Fortunately, you don’t have to worry about a thing. You’ll ride warm, safe and sound until you need to get off at…?” He paused to let her fill in the blank. He acted as though he was the man to personally thank for the young woman’s journey being a pleasant one.
“Did you hear that?” I whispered to Wally. The train floor rumbled under my feet as we pulled out of the station.
“What?” Wally asked, rummaging in his valise for a packet of sandwiches that his mother had tucked somewhere inside.
“He found out where her stop is.”
“So? I could have done that,” Wally pulled the linen napkin back from the double stack of bread in his hand. “Just ask her.”
“No, no, that’s too bold. You put girls off if you’re too bold.”
Wally’s forehead creased in puzzlement as he bit into the sandwich. He didn’t even bother to swallow before he asked, “What about brave, bold and daring? Aren’t those things a girl wants in a man?”
“That’s different,” I said impatiently. “Listen, Wally, we could learn some things from this guy. He’s suave.”
Wally shrugged. “My mother taught me that listening to other people’s conversations is eavesdropping.” Wally swallowed his bite of sandwich before he said, “Not that I mind eavesdropping on occasion, but it has to be something interesting before I stoop so low.” He lowered his head and looked up at me, making his eyebrows a stern barrier as a schoolmaster might while scolding a cheating pupil.
I gripped my armrest and leaned forward. “This is educational,” I said firmly. “If we learn some of his methods, we’ll be able to talk to girls when we get back to school.”
“I can talk just fine,” Wally said. “Any girl that doesn’t like the way I talk isn’t worth talking to.” He took another bite of his sandwich. “Want some?” he asked through his unchewed mouthful as he extended the sandwich toward me.
“No, you eat it,” I said, exasperated. He did. After he’d swallowed the last bite, he leaned his head back and went to sleep, his mouth falling open like a fish going after bait. I was glad for the absence of his opinion until he started to snore. The noise made it hard to eavesdrop on my unwary tutor.
After a while, we pulled to a stop in Thistle Junction. The conductor announced that we were awaiting a connecting train from Price before we continued our journey. His announcement woke up Wally, who yawned hugely, stretched his arms high overhead and announced, “I’ve got to go answer nature’s call. What about you, Sherm?”
“Oh, keep your voice down, will ya?” I said in a hoarse whisper. Several people got up to stretch their legs and wander about the small train station, including Wally and me. After we took care of necessities and worked out some kinks, we got settled in our seats again. I noticed the salesman walking with the girl as they made their way back to their places. I could hear her giggling and wished I knew what the salesman had said to her. I re-dedicated myself to learn as much as I could from this man while I had the opportunity. As the couple sat down opposite each other, I leaned forward and slightly out into the aisle with my elbow on my knee and my chin on my hand. I hoped I looked casual.
“Hey, Sherm, what are you …” Wally began.
I was just getting ready to tell him to mind his own business and do something useful like stare out the window when a sudden jolt threw me off my seat and into the empty spot beside Wally. My eyes were wide with surprise as I caught the back of the seat with my hands. I had a perfect view of the salesman in the same predicament I was in. He had also been thrown forward, but since he had placed himself directly opposite the girl, he was in danger of bumping heads with her. He threw his hands out at the last second, bracing them on either side of her head. Something flew out of his mouth and landed in the girl’s lap as he took the sudden weight of his body on his extended arms. My face reddened in sympathetic embarrassment for him. Pushing himself quickly away from the back of the seat, the salesman boldly snatched whatever it was from the girl’s lap. Her expression of shock made me mighty curious. A partially chewed bite of bread would more likely elicit a feeling of disgust. I should know. I threw a withering glance at Wally.
“Whoa, what was that?” Wally asked, looking out the window.
I looked back at the salesman in time to see him whirl away from the girl and stalk down the aisle, his mouth pressed together in a mushy line. I glanced down at his hand and glimpsed a set of false teeth peering out from between his fingers. Little wonder there was no smile on his face. It was clutched in his hand. The salesman disappeared out the door at the end of the train, which led to the next car.
“Well, look at that,” Wally said in delight as he pointed a finger at the window. “The Price train must have bad brakes. It bumped right into us!”
After the new cars were coupled to our train, we again got underway. The salesman never returned to his seat. Even when we pulled into the Salt Lake City train station there was no sign of the girl’s missing seatmate. She stood and brushed her skirt absently with a gloved hand before she made her way down the aisle and off the train. It was then that I noticed the salesman’s case sitting crookedly between the two facing seats.
“Wally! Look at that!” I said, pointing. “Do you think we should take it?”
“Oh, eavesdropping isn’t enough for you. Now you want to become a thief, too,” Wally chastised me.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” I answered defensively. “What if the salesman was so embarrassed that he got off the train at Thistle and left his case behind? How’s he going to know where to find it?”
“How would you know where to find him?” Wally asked reasonably. “Look, Sherm, the D&RGW deal with lost luggage all the time. They’ll know what to do with it. Come on, let’s get going.”
Wally led the way. I kept hanging back, feeling for some reason that I had to keep my eye on the case. Wally finally managed to pull me off the train and onto the ground. “Quit dragging your feet,” he complained. “We’re the last ones off the train.”
As I followed my friend toward the station exit, I threw one more look back over my shoulder. Framed in the doorway of the train car was the salesman. He stood on the bottom step, his head turning right, then left, then right again. Seeming to satisfy himself with what he saw, or maybe what he didn’t see, he quickly stepped down and hurried away, his teeth clamped firmly in his jaws, and his sales case gripped tightly in his hand.
ONE GOOD TURN from "Unseen Odds: Spiritual Happenings, Ghostly Tales, and Spooky Pranks from Long Ago"
I had to be the last person on earth. It was the only explanation that made sense. I hadn’t seen another living being for days and days, and now it seemed forever since the snow had begun falling, working relentlessly to bury me alive. My hopeless heart could think of no other explanation except that there wasn’t any one else beyond the frozen whiteness piling up against my log cabin tomb. I stared despondently out the window, my eyes unfocused and my mind turned inward, stumbling around the desperate ache of slow starvation. What am I doing here?
The question came unbidden, without anger or recrimination. Even as I asked, I knew the answer. Love had brought me here. I loved Rick more than a gingerbread-trimmed house in town with warm fires blazing in every hearth, more than a pantry stocked with readily available food from the general store, more than a pianoforte, indeed, more than anything on earth. That’s why I was sitting alone on this homestead in the wild and beautiful Teton Mountains.
While my parents approved of Rick, they didn’t approve of his lifestyle. They had feared for both my safety and my sanity when he had told them of his dream to homestead lush meadow acreage in a remote Teton valley. They had done their best to persuade him to take a job in town instead. To Rick’s credit, he had listened to them before discussing the matter with me. As he spoke to me of living and working in town, the light in his eyes faded and his countenance drooped. I looked across the table into his weary face, giving in to a sudden surge of compassion. He was willing to work a job he didn’t like and live where he didn’t want to just for me. What he didn’t know is that I wouldn’t be happy unless he was.
“Rick,” I’d said, taking one of his hands in both of mine.
“Yes, Asa,” he said, looking at me with strange, dull eyes that didn’t belong on my beloved’s face.
“I know what I want to do.”
I could see him stiffen as he braced himself for my words. “What?”
A slow smile crept over my face. “I think we should homestead.”
Rick’s mouth dropped open as his eyes lit up. “Really, Asa? You really want to?”
If I’d had any doubts before, seeing his face come alive quenched them all. “Yes,” I said, unable to stop from smiling. “I want to homestead with you.”
So here I was, two days ride from town, homemaking in a rough log cabin that Rick and I had built ourselves on a spread that was as beautiful as heaven must be. In the summer, a stream of pure water tumbled through the meadow close to the cabin, and trees stood as sentries along the mountain wall that protected our little valley from winds that would otherwise cripple cornstalks and batter wheat grass down flat.
In the six month’s we’d been married, I hadn’t felt deprived of neighbors. Rick was all I needed. We had the occasional Indians stopping by, curious folk who had never been threatening. Even so, the first sight of them always gave me a start. Rick was never afraid.
Usually I went with Rick on his trips to town. I liked to see what was new in the general store and catch up on the news, but the last time he’d gone, I was the way of women, and suffering from cramps. The last thing I wanted to do was ride a horse.
Rick had been three days late getting home. I paced the floor, imagining his broken body lying at the bottom of some ravine. I checked out the window hundreds of times a day, wondering with a catch in my heart if he’d been waylaid and beaten by robbers who stole his horse and clothes before leaving him wounded and defenseless in the wilderness.
At last, when my fingernails were chewed down to the quick, I saw him riding up the trail through a halo of sun-brightened autumn leaves. I burst from the house and ran to meet him. He swung off his horse and threw his muscular arms around my waist, hugging me so hard that my feet left the ground. I had a pretty good stranglehold around his neck, too.
When we finally broke apart, he began untying bundles from the back of his patient pack horse, shooting me frequent looks that melted my heart down into my toes. “I was scared to death,” I said as I opened my arms for a bag of rice. “Why were you gone so long?”
“On my way to town I came across an old Indian lying on the mountainside,” he said. He slung a full saddlebag over one of his shoulders and hefted a sack of sugar in the other. “The man was so sick and weak, he could barely move.”
I hurried ahead of Rick and opened the cabin door. As soon as we’d dropped our supplies onto the table, I asked, “What was the matter?”
Rick shook his head slightly. “I don’t know. He looked awfully old. His face was all wrinkles, and the lines from his nose to his mouth were deep as canyons.” Rick linked my hand in his and we walked outside. “Funny thing is, he had a bow and quiver of arrows with him, like he was out hunting, although it didn’t seem he’d be able to get around well even on a good day.”
Rick took up the horse’s reins and we headed toward the barn. “What happened to him?” I asked.
“I put him on my horse and walked until I found his village,” Rick said. “The tribe came running when they saw us. Seems they’d missed him, and were getting ready to go out looking when we showed up. Once they took over and he was settled, they insisted I stay and eat with them.” Rick squeezed my hand as we entered the barn. “They can’t cook anywhere near as good as you can, Asa, but I didn’t want to hurt their feelings, so I stayed.”
Rick let go of my hand so he could loosen the saddle. “I wouldn’t have expected anything less of you,” I said, my heart warming at the goodness of this man I was lucky enough to call my husband.
When our provisions again ran low and Rick was ready to make another supply run, I told him I didn’t want to go. He turned startled eyes to me. “Why not?” he asked.
“I just don’t feel like it,” I hedged.
He’d shot me a look full of such hurt that I blurted, “How am I supposed to surprise you if you’re always hanging around?”
“Surprise?” he asked. Really, his open mouthed expression was quite comical.
“Look here,” I said as patiently as I could. “It’s nearly Christmas. If you don’t know what that means, then I’m not going to explain it to you. You’ll just have to wait and see. Now get out of here and stop asking questions!”
Rick’s face cleared and he flashed me an adorable smile. “Well, if that’s the way you feel about it, I’ll just get out of here,” he said cheerfully.
“You do that,” I said.
He stepped close to me and said, “I should be back in four or five days.”
“I know that,” I said.
Rick moved his face closer to mine. “The sooner gone, the sooner I get back,” he said softly. Then he kissed me, warm and long. I sighed with happiness as he broke away and swung up onto his horse. He tipped his hat to me before he turned and rode down the trail.
When I went to the cupboard to make supper, I was dismayed to find that the mice had gotten into the flour and rice, and had somehow managed to tip over the molasses jar. Sweet brown goo stained the rough wooden boards in my cupboard. I recoiled at the sight that bore a disturbingly close resemblance to spilled blood. I managed to salvage a cup of rice, but the flour was tracked with paw prints and mouse droppings. The sight of it turned my stomach. I still had some salt, two pieces of jerked meat, and half a loaf of bread. With the lone squash left over from our garden, I figured I could make do until Rick came home.
I kept my meals small, eating only a few bites, chewing slowly and telling myself that I was full. Rick would be home soon. I had hope, until it started to snow. Now my brain was so clouded, I couldn’t remember anything but snow.
Rick’s new sweater was knitted and wrapped in brown paper with one of my old hair ribbons tied around it. It no longer gave me pleasure to imagine Rick opening his present on Christmas morning. Every good thought had been driven from my head by the sharp pains of relentless hunger, which had now dulled into a steady ache. Whenever I stood up, dizziness washed over me and my trembling legs seemed only just able to carry me from one place to another. Mostly I sat in the rocking chair, too weak to push the rockers into motion.
Between the giddy flurries of white, I could see that the snow was piling as high as the woodshed roof. Soon I’d have to go out and clear the narrow path. My foggy brain latched onto the thought that I wouldn’t want to starve to death and freeze to death, too. I’d go out soon, after I rested.
Heavy pounding on my door yanked me from a dream filled with roast beef and boiled potatoes swimming in gravy. “Rick!” I called, my heart alive with hope. I struggled to my feet and stumbled to the door, fumbling with the latch before pulling it open. My heart about leaped out of my chest when I found myself face to face with an old Indian man. Intelligent black eyes looked out at me from the web of wrinkles that criss-crossed his face. Deep lines ran from either side of his nose to the corners of his mouth.
“Oh!” I gasped, a curious mixture of fear and relief chasing around in my head. Here was proof at last that I wasn’t the only person left on earth. Yet should I be afraid? Why had he come? As if to answer my unspoken question, the Indian raised his arm. I flinched before I noticed the pair of rabbits dangling from the old brown hand. The Indian had brought me food.
Instantly, I opened the door wider. “Come in,” I invited, moving my hand toward the middle of the cabin just in case he didn’t understand English. He shook his head and held the rabbits out to me. I took them. He turned and walked away into the snow, a quiver of arrows hanging from his back and bow slung over his shoulder.
I didn’t stay to watch him disappear into the storm. I was too busy stoking the fire in the stove and thinking of food.
After I had eaten both rabbits, I had enough strength to go outside and clear the woodshed path. I carried in two big armloads of wood and gratefully settled in for a sound night’s sleep.
In the morning I woke to the familiar pangs of hunger, now sharpened with the recent reminder of food. Why had I eaten both rabbits? I berated myself. I could have saved one for breakfast. Tears of frustration burned my eyes. If only I could live like a bear and sleep until spring, it would solve everything. Maybe I’d just stay in bed anyway. There was no reason for me to get up. It would be so much easier just to lie here and sleep forever and ever.
I wiped the tears out of my eyes and turned my head toward the window. I stared out the small pane of glass, not daring to believe what I saw. The snow had stopped. My heart lifted with hope, and I swung my feet out of bed. Sunlight was beginning to spread over an unbroken expanse of white. Now Rick would come home.
I boiled the rabbit bones and made a thin broth to drink before I busied myself straightening the house and stockpiling the firewood, trying my best to ignore the hunger that complained and rumbled around in my stomach.
As the weak winter sun began dropping in the sky, my spirits dropped, too. My repeated trips to the window to look for Rick were all wasted. I never spied him riding to my rescue along the snow-clogged trail.
The knock was startling and unexpected. I hurried to open the door and found the same old Indian who had been there the day before. I smiled and invited him in again. He didn’t reply, but he held out a bird that was as big as a chicken. When I took it, he held out his other hand to me. His cupped palm was full of a tangle of brown shreds of what looked like bark. I looked at him, puzzled. He swirled his fingers over the palm full of bark, then made his hand into a cup shape and pretended to drink from it.
“Oh! Tea!” I said, excited that we were communicating. The Indian nodded, and the corners of his mouth curved up. The lines from his mouth to his nose deepened even further, like two small canyons. I suddenly realized that this must be the Indian Rick had rescued. I smiled and nodded at the old man and held my hand out toward him. He dumped the bark into it, then turned and walked away.
I hurried inside and made my solitary meal. I carefully saved the soft under feathers that I plucked from the wild bird. If I could get enough by next Christmas, I would make Rick a new pillow.
The silent Indian continued to bring me food once a day. I invited him in each time, thinking that he might want to step inside and warm himself, but he never did.
One day I was raking ashes out of the stove, idly wondering what the old Indian would bring me for my supper, when I heard a shout. I hurried to the window and stared in amazement at a horse and rider plowing through chest-deep snow before I screamed, “Rick!”
I ran to the door and flung it open. “Asa!” Rick yelled. He slid off the horse’s back and struggled through the snow toward me.
“Rick!” I called again. Tears spilled down my cheeks as Rick grabbed me into his arms so hard it hurt. I didn’t complain. I was too busy crying into his coat.
When at last he pulled away, tears were running down his face and losing themselves in his beard. “Asa, I was so worried when I couldn’t get back here, I thought…,” he didn’t finish. His face crumpled and he hugged me to him again.
“I wasn’t sure you were coming back,” I said through my tears.
“Oh, Asa, I’ll always come back to you,” Rick said thickly. He pulled away and looked into my eyes. “I started back as soon as I could, but I got lost in the snow. Some of the Indians from the tribe I told you about last time found me and took me to their camp. They made me stay with them until it was safe to travel. It seemed like an eternity.”
“Then they must have sent the old hunter,” I said.
Rick tipped his head at me in confusion. “What old hunter?” he asked.
“You know. The one you found on your last trip that was too sick to move.” Rick’s eyes went wide. “The one with the wrinkles and the mouth lines as deep as canyons,” I reminded him.
Rick closed his mouth and swallowed. “What about him?” he asked slowly.
“He brought me food while you were gone,” I said.
Rick looked around the snow filled landscape. “When did you see him last?” he asked.
“Just yesterday,” I said, watching my husband’s face. He was acting so strangely. “He brought me a leg of venison.”
Rick shook his head. “He couldn’t have, Asa.”
“But he did!” I insisted.
Rick gripped my hands in his. “It couldn’t have been him,” Rick said, searching my eyes with his. “He died the day after I left him with his people.”
ONE AGAINST from "Odd People: Andapu Oyate: Friendships and Feuds Between Pioneers and Native Americans"
“They can’t get away with it,” To-ko-witz growled. “We must not let them think that the battle is won.”
“I agree,” said Mon-dats. “We need white blood.”
I didn’t say anything, even though I wanted to remind Mon-dats that the blood of the white-skinned people had proven to run as red as ours when it spilled from their bodies. It’s true that it made a brighter contrast against their pale skin, especially if their hair was the strange, ghost color of many spider webs strung together over their heads. It was fascinating, this light color that made me think they already had half of their spirit in the grave. The spider hair made them look old, even if their faces were young. I wondered if these light-hairs felt the wounds of death as keenly as those of us with the solid skin color of earth. I had killed my share of the pale skins, but hadn’t known how to ask them how it felt to die.
We’ll lie in ambush,” To-ko-witz said. “Many of the pale skins are coming into the canyon to cut wood.”
“Bah,” said Orro-kani with disgust. “They build their shelters thick and solid, and they don’t move them with the seasons. They squat together like ants crawling over a carcass, and their dwellings are as ugly as a pile of moose turds.”
This made me laugh. It was so like Orro-kani to speak his mind. Even though he was one who liked to laugh, I would not want to be on the wrong end of the spear if Orro-kani were my enemy. There would be nothing left of me if he truly wanted to be rid of me. He was the fiercest warrior I knew.
“They make good bread,” I mumbled. My stomach growled in agreement. The others stared at me, their dark eyes narrowed.
“What?” I asked.
“You would trade a loaf of bread for the lands of your forefathers?” To-ko-witz demanded.
“No, of course not.” I set my jaw so they would not ask me any more questions. Was I the only one who missed the days when the white settlers first came to our valley? They had come here during a time of first cold, bringing their fat cattle, who were so tame that they stood and watched while you notched your arrow, and watched it fly toward their hearts. Then they would fall over dead. They were more accommodating than deer or elk. As the winter wore on and snow piled deep, the cattle began dying of their own accord. We would drag off their carcasses and feast in our camp.
More settlers came the next year, bringing more cattle. We found it to be much more convenient to drive the cattle into the mountains before slaughtering them, because some of the settlers didn’t like us to help ourselves. They had a strange word, called “stealing.” We didn’t have such a word in our language. We saw things very differently from the whites, with their pale eyes. We took what we needed, we took what we wanted. If anyone could take it back from us, then it was theirs by rights, and they deserved to have it more than we.
We soon discovered that some of the cows gave milk, and cream, and the whites had magical machines that turned cream into butter and buttermilk. I had even been to Walter Cox’s house on some occasions where they had made ice cream. They shared with me, as they always did. When I lifted a spoonful of ice cream to my tongue, it hurt. I yanked the spoon away, thinking I’d been burned. But the little Cox children were putting spoonful after spoonful into their mouths. The bit of ice cream on my tongue melted and I caught the flavor. I had never had anything like it before. It must be food of the Gods. I scooped the rest of my ice cream into my mouth as quickly as the awkward spoon would allow. Then Walter’s missus saw my empty bowl. She looked into my eyes, smiled, and put more into my bowl.
“Mama,” said one of her daughters, called E-mi-lee. “May I have more?”
“No, I’m sorry. There is no more.”
E-mi-lee stuck out her bottom lip. “Then why does he get more?” She pointed her spoon at me, and I began to scoop the ice cream into my mouth faster.
“He’s our guest,” said Missus Cox.
I grinned at E-mi-lee and opened my mouth wide to take in the last bite of ice cream, delighting in the shock of cold that melted into sweetness beyond any berries or even honey that I’d ever found in the forest.
E-mi-lee wasn’t a spiderweb hair, but her sister Sarah was. When Sarah saw that my bowl was empty, she leaned over to take it from me. I reached up to touch her hair. She jerked away, a look of surprise in her strange round eyes, as blue as the sky in summer. I wondered if everything looked blue through her sky eyes.
“It’s all right, Sarah,” said Cox. “He’s not used to blonde hair, that’s all.”
Sarah gave me a thin smile and hurried into the kitchen with my bowl.
I burped as loudly as I could so that Missus Cox would know how much I liked the food she’d given me, especially the ice cream. E-mi-lee gasped and put her hand over her mouth, as though she’d burned her tongue on a roasted cricket. One of the little Cox boys laughed out loud, and I grinned at him.
Nearly all of the whites would give us food when we asked, but most of them handed it out the door to us, then shut it in our faces instead of inviting us to eat with them like Cox did.
There was one white woman, the crazy Yew-nees Warner, who held out no good will toward us, even though her husband had honor in death by killing an Indian before he himself had been killed. It was an even exchange, a trade that balanced the numbers in the best possible proportions. Yet Yew-nees didn’t seem satisfied that her husband had died a noble warrior’s death and had gone to the best afterlife, far better than if he’d died an old man in his wigwam.
I had gone along when we’d been to visit Yew-nees at the dwelling of her parents after we’d made peace from the killings. Her father was a white leader, a man we called “Captain.” He was reasonable about war, he knew that it was simply a way of life, and once the deaths were avenged, there was no sense in hanging onto the dead with a heavy heart.
One of those who had killed Warner had claimed Warner’s strange neck cloth to wear around his own neck, although he didn’t tie it in the same fashion as Warner had, with a knot that slid magically along the length of fabric. Warner also had some curious talismans with him, a metal cylinder that folded out some most wondrous tools that we had never seen the like of. None of us had been selfish, but had broken several of the tools off so that we might all take part in the new and wonderful things that the pale skins brought with them. Yet when we visited as guests in Yew-nees’s home, she glared at us as if we were demons. My fellow warrior adjusted his neck cloth and smiled at her, thinking that seeing how we honored her husband’s belongings would prove to her the high regard we held him in.
We all pulled out the pieces of metal that had been shared with us and laid them out on the table for her to see with what honor we esteemed the brave Warner.
As soon as she saw the items, a most wondrous change occurred in Yew-nees’s face. It drained of what little color it had until she truly appeared as one dead. Her eyes narrowed and her mouth compressed into a thin line. She hardly looked human anymore. Even though she was obviously with child, she wasn’t slow to grab up a knife and start toward us. If she had reached us, I had no doubt that she would have done her best to plunge the blade into at least one of us, possibly more, since we were so surprised at her actions. Yet she didn’t get the chance to kill even one of us. Instead, her father grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her from the room. A sound escaped her mouth, a strangled cry that didn’t even sound human.
We laughed in amazement at her power and determination. She would have a strong papoose, of that we were all in complete agreement.
Captain returned alone. If he had beaten her while in the other room in order to teach her to keep her place, she hadn’t cried out, not even once. Our admiration for her grew, as well as our conviction that she was possessed of an unusual spirit.
It was after she had her papoose that one of our young men, Enapay, who had heard our stories of Yew-nees decided to go and ask for bread from her household. He said he wanted to see this pale devil woman. He would have to go without me because I remembered, all too well, the knife that had come for me faster than I had thought possible.
We could see the fort from our Indian camp. We watched Enapay go in, and later we saw him come running out, screaming and crying that the devil woman had beaten him nearly dead. When he calmed down enough to make sense, he said that he had found her alone with her papoose when he knocked. He asked for bread.
“No.” she said. “Go away.”
She was not a large woman, not even tall. Enapay closed the door and leaned against it. “Give me bread,” he said. He was determined not to be put off by this small white woman. He would make her do as he commanded, as a woman should.
Yew-neese laid her papoose down on the bed. “That baby stared at me with its strange, pale eyes,” Orwitz said, his own eyes growing wide with the memory. “He bewitched me and fixed me to my spot. I couldn’t move. Then Yew-nees pulled a stick from where it propped up one of their glass walls. The pane of glass crashed down, sounding just like rifle fire. I thought that someone was shooting outside, so my attention was distracted. Then she came at me with her stick, swinging it with such ferocity that I didn’t even have time to pull my blanket up around my shoulders to protect myself. She beat me until I had to cry for mercy or die. At last that devil-woman opened her door and told me to get out.”
Enapay showed us the bruises and bloody cuts on his back and shoulders.
When Chief Arropeen heard his tale, he told Enapay that he deserved just what he got.
“I was bewitched!” Enapay declared.
“Squaw,” Arropeen said.
Ever since that exchange, Enapay had been “Squaw,” and not one of us would ever ask Yew-neese for anything. Sometimes the children of our tribe would dare each other to approach her and touch her skirt, but it was the rare child who would even take up the dare, and none followed through. Yew-neese was possessed of a devil spirit, there was no doubt about that, but we still called Enapay “Squaw.”
The Cox family was as opposite of Yew-nees as it was possible to be. They would always smile when they saw that it was me at their door. They invited me in, cut the bread thick, and spread it with some of their good sweet butter before handing over it to me. Sometimes it had golden honey poured over it, if they had any. They would ask me to sit at their own table to eat, bringing a cold glass of milk for me to drink with the bread. I felt as though I was one of their tribe.
If all whites had been like that, then there wouldn’t have been so much bloodshed. Yet some of the whites expected us to abandon our homeland for them to take over. They called us names, cheated us in trading, and taught their children to throw rocks at our children.
Recently, some of our tribe had been killed in a skirmish a day’s ride south. We had to avenge our tribesmen, and we sought enemy blood in exchange for the Indian blood that had spilled.
“We will kill some of the men who are cutting down our trees in the canyon,” Mon-dats declared.
“They always have some of their numbers stand guard with fire sticks,” said To-ko-witz.
“We’ll get them first,” said Orro-kani. “We’ll gather enough of us to kill the fire-stick holders, then we’ll kill the rest.” His eyes shone with eagerness.
“Or we could lie in wait and ambush anyone going into the canyon,” I said. “They wouldn’t be expecting us to wait patiently. They think we’re blood-thirsty barbarians.”
Orro-kani turned his dark eyes to me. “We could be as sneaky as rabbits in a burrow,” he said. I thought he was poking fun at me, until he said, “We could be rabbits hiding the teeth of a bear in our mouths and the claws of a cougar in our paws!” He grinned, and I grinned back.
“Are we all agreed to this plan?” To-ko-witz asked. He looked at each of us in turn, and we all gave him a nod of assent.
“All agree,” he announced. “Let’s go spill some pale face blood and avenge our brothers.”
“The first ones to come along,” Mon-dats said. “We’ll kill them before they can even scream.”
My heart pounded with anticipation as we grabbed our weapons and headed for the canyon mouth. I even let myself hope that maybe there would be a flame-hair among those who would fall into our trap. I had seen only two flame-hairs in my life, and I would be proud to own a scalp like that. It couldn’t help but bring me luck, to have a scalp with such powerful magic as to be the color of fire.
We made our way through the trees along the river that ran along the bottom of the canyon. When I spotted the white man’s bridge, I had an idea. “Wait! “ I said. “Let’s hide under the bridge. It will be the perfect place to wait for our victims. After they’ve crossed, we’ll attack from behind and they won’t even see us coming.”
Orro-kani placed a firm hand on my shoulder. “Good thinking,” he said. “I say we make our burrow under the path that spans the river.”
Again, To-ko-witz checked that we were all in agreement, and then he led the way to the bridge. We hunkered beneath it, weapons in hand, our heads tilted upward to listen for any sound of feet, be they human or horse, on the planks of wood that stretched out into a shelter over our heads.
We were patient. After a time, we heard the sounds of female voices and laughter.
It was difficult to keep my excitement in check as the voices grew louder, and the sounds of feet rattled the boards over our heads. Females had long hair, and long hair made the best scalps. It sounded as if there were enough for each man in our party to claim one. I strained to listen for the sound of a male voice, but none came through to my ears. It was rare to have female paleskins out alone, but perhaps they thought they would be safe in numbers. Foolish thinking. Even if they had a gun, they would be so weak that even if they saw us coming, we would be upon them before they could even raise and fire a weapon.
When the females had crossed the bridge, To-ko-witz signaled to the others to make their way up onto the road. I was right behind Orro-kani. We slid like shadows into the brush beside the road to make our attack.
There were six white women walking along the road just ahead, with baskets in their hands. I grinned. After the massacre, we could take the baskets, which almost surely carried food that was going to the pale men who were cutting trees in our mountains.
So much the better. If we were taking the lives of the women who mattered to the men, then they would be wounded in their hearts as well. Even better than that, we would get some of the white man’s food to eat.
I was suddenly hungry. Their bread was so fine-textured compared to the coarse flour that our women ground with rocks and made up into fry cakes. Too bad for the pale men gathering wood who would now have to do without their food and without their women.
Then my eyes stopped on one of the women who walked at the back of the column, one with hair the color of spider webs.
Although there were many of the whites who had light hair of different shades, there was something about this hair that struck a memory in me. When the smaller girl walking beside her turned to say something to spidersilk hair, I nearly gasped out loud. It was the face of E-mi-lee, Cox’s daughter. And spider web hair was Sarah. I knew it without having to see her face.
“Stop,” I hissed.
Orro-kani spun around and scowled at me.
“We cannot do this.”
“Why?” Orro-kani demanded, his eyes narrowed into angry slits, his fist wrapped around the shaft of his bow, and his fingers worked the fletching on his arrow.
“I know those women,” I said.
“Then you get to kill the ones you know,” Orro-kani said.
“No. I cannot kill them. They are daughters of my friend.”
“Whites are not our friends,” Orro-kani spat. “That’s why we’re doing this.” He shook his head as though despairing of my sanity.
“We must vote,” To-ko-witz said. “Who is ready to kill these white maggots and get them off our land?”
Orro-kani nodded his head, and so did the others. I shook my head “no.” Orro-kani looked at me as if he would like to kill me.
“We have one against,” To-ko-witz announced, not sounding the least bit happy about it. “It is over.”
Orro-kani gave a gasp of disappointment loud enough that I was sure the women would hear him. I glanced down the road where the white women were disappearing around the bend. Not one of them looked back.
“You rabbit!” Orro-kani snapped, then he stomped off through the forest. I knew his feet were heavier than they needed to be.
A couple of weeks later, I went looking for Cox and found him in his field. As soon as he saw me, his face broke into a smile as broad as the yoke he had on his oxen’s shoulders. He showed no sign of fear, even though I had my bow in my hand and a quiver full of arrows slung across my back. “Are you hungry?” Cox asked. “Come, share my lunch,” he said. He didn’t even hesitate, and I knew I had done right in sparing his daughter’s lives, even though I was about as popular in camp as a bloated buzzard.
Cox opened his cloth bag and pulled out some bread and a lump of yellow that he called cheese. It was soft and chewy and salty. Delicious.
“Cox,” I said, “Don’t let your E-mi-lee and Sarah go out in the mountains alone any more.”
His eyes opened wide in surprise. “Why? What’s wrong?”
“They could get dead.”
Cox’s face darkened. “Is this a threat? Haven’t I always been your friend?”
I held up one hand to ward off his sudden anger. I had enough people mad at me back in camp. “It is because you are my friend that your daughters are alive,” I said. Then I told him of our plans, and how I had voted against the massacre.
Cox’s eyes got wet, just like a woman’s. I looked away so I wouldn’t have to see his loss of manhood dripping down his face.
“You are a true friend,” he said, his voice tight and garbled with women’s water. I was feeling sorry that I had told him anything. Certainly, women were valuable property, but not worth breaking down to cry like one. But his next words redeemed himself in my eyes.
“Come to my house tonight,” Cox said. “Come and have all the ice cream you can eat.”
A SHOT IN THE DARK from "Isn't That Odd? Strange and Unusual Pioneer Stories"
“Chris!” Sophie roughly shook my shoulder with her hand as we continued to whirl. I was beginning to feel annoyed. If she didn’t want to dance with me, there were plenty of other young ladies who would love to dance with a suave young man of 15.
Yet something was wrong. Sophie never called me Chris. She always called me Christian.
I opened my eyes in order to check the face of the girl I thought was Sophie. Instead of round blue eyes and rosy cheeks, I found myself looking into small brown eyes narrowed against the lamp light and cheeks bristling with stubble. I was face to face with Hector Keyes, and he didn’t smell like Sophie, either. The dance floor, the music, and all the pretty girls waiting in line to dance with me were gone in the blink of an eye. My heart sank clear down to the soles of my feet when I recognized the sheep camp. I was somewhere in the middle of a soggy summer night, and I was looking at Hector instead of Sophie. It might as well have been a nightmare.
“I heard something,” Hector said.
“Was it waltz music?” I asked sourly.
Hector looked at me quizzically. Although he was older than me by a few years, I had decided he was certainly no wiser. “No,” he said, shaking his head slowly as though seriously considering the possibility of dance music. “It was an animal noise.”
I groaned. My first man-sized job was not turning out as I expected. The thought of herding sheep for the summer had seemed idyllic. I could picture myself following the flock, shouldering my new gun as I stood on a craggy outcropping of rock, stoically guarding and protecting my charges as I earned my princely wage.
Reality was grimmer than my daydream. The sheep were stupid. If one walked into a mud bog, they all walked into the mud. They bunched, then ran if a flurry of leaves blew across their path. They tried to crowd each other off cliffs in their hurry to see what was up ahead, even if it killed them.
There didn’t seem to be such a thing as sleeping through the night any more. Bears and coyotes would invite themselves to the sheep supper table whenever they felt like it. Eagles would dive out of the sky and snatch a newborn lamb in the daylight. Big cats would skulk up in the darkness. You never knew just what you would find when you stumbled outside in your skivvies. If the moon was bright, you had to keep to the shadows and strain your eyes for a disturbance in the flock. Getting a clear shot at a bobcat or coyote was near impossible as they were small enough to blend in with the sheep.
It made me wonder whose side the sheep were on, the way they milled about between the predator and the rifle, getting in the way of the bullet that could kill the enemy and save their woolly hides.
If it was a cougar or a bear, you could spot them right off. One day only last week, I’d gotten a good shot off at a cougar, even drew blood, but I never found the cat. Might’ve been that it wasn’t bad enough wounded to drop it. At least with the sting of a bullet in it’s hide, it would think twice before making an easy meal of my sheep again.
After being initiated into the very real hazards and dangers of herding those wooly idiots that some people thought were soft and fluffy enough to count themselves to sleep by, I was dubious when we met up with Dave, a young man whom Hector introduced to me as an exceptionally good sheep herder. I didn’t believe Hector. Dave was deaf. I could grant him the possibility that he was a sharp lookout in the daytime, but how could he protect the sheep in the dark of night if he wasn’t able to hear a predator as it slunk it’s way toward the flock?
It was late in the evening when our flocks joined up. We decided to eat together that night and trade news. For the most part, Dave followed the conversation so well that I almost forgot he was deaf. When I turned my head to talk to Hector, Dave put his hand on my arm and said, “Face me when you speak, even if you’re talking to Hector.” He smirked, “I’m better looking than him anyway.” Dave was quite skilled at reading our lips.
When we finally turned in, Dave’s camp wagon was parked next to ours. That night, I heard the dogs barking, and then the chilling sound of a coyote howl. I leapt out of bed and grabbed my rifle, hurrying outside to save our flock. I was ready to defend Dave’s too. I knew he would need some help.
To my surprise, Dave was already outside of his camp wagon, rifle at the ready. He saw me and gave me a little salute before he faded into the night to circle around his flock and deal with the danger.
I didn’t figure the moonlight was bright enough to carry on a lip-reading conversation with Dave, so I confronted him the next morning at breakfast. “How did you know there was a coyote out there?” I demanded as soon as I saw him face to face.
Dave smiled smugly. “I felt the vibration when the dogs barked,” he said, “And I could feel the answering vibration of the coyote howl.” It didn’t seem possible, but it had to be, because I couldn’t think of any other explanation.
We had parted our flocks, and now Dave was off somewhere with his sheep, probably sleeping soundly through a still night, while I was stuck with Hector and his keen hearing.
“Time to go, Chris,” Hector said, “You check around west and I’ll circle around to the east. Meet you back here,” and he was gone.
I pulled on my shoes and shrugged into my jacket. I grabbed my rifle and stepped outside. The ground sucked at my shoes like a giant leech. The air was damp from the earlier rain, and the wind blew cool, sending shivers down my uncovered neck. I had discovered that mountain summers could be downright cold, and tonight was no exception.
I turned up my collar and decided I would make a quick circle, then get back to my bed before it could cool off completely. After all, I hadn’t heard any noise. It was Hector who’d heard it. Let him get the varmint, if there was one.
I started out with my customary long strides. I could keep my bearings for a few yards beyond the camp, but once I was well out into the open, I realized what my haste had prevented me from noticing before. With the tired out rain clouds resting in the sky, covering the moon and stars like a thick comforter, there was no heavenly light.
I slowed, and then stopped. I briefly thought about turning back, but I wasn’t going to let Hector needle me about getting lost in the dark. He sometimes thought he was superior because he was a seasoned herder and this was my first year. I didn’t plan to give him reason to harass me tonight.
I grasped the rifle in both hands and extended it before me, feeling my way with my feet, using the rifle as a sort of barrier between me and whatever was out there. I slipped my finger into the trigger guard and gripped the stock firmly with my other hand. The world was strangely silent, as though the clouds muffled out sound as well as light. The cold breeze stirred my hair, making me shiver and regret not pulling on my hat. Even the sheep were silent, and I found myself wishing to hear a small bleat or the hollow clopping of a sheep’s bell. But there was nothing. Nothing except the disembodied whisper of leaves as the invisible breeze stirred them to momentary life. The sound seemed unnatural in this total darkness. It should have been quiet, like a cave. Or a tomb.
The thought flashed through my mind that maybe I was dead. But dead men didn’t carry rifles, did they? A shiver tickled my spine as I took another careful step.
Suddenly, my feet slipped in the traitorous mud, forcing me down to one knee as my hands flew out to catch my balance. Somehow I managed to keep my grip on my gun. In a desperate effort to save myself from falling forward, my arm brought the weapon back toward my body. The wooden stock slammed into my knee, making what I knew would be a large, colorful bruise. The impact on my leg caused my finger to squeeze off a shot.
The blast tipped my precarious balance and I ended up on my seat in the mud. I didn’t care. I’d had enough. Hector could say whatever he wanted to, I was returning to camp.
I turned and blundered back the way I had come. I worried that in the darkness I would miss the wagon, but like a homing pigeon, I found it with only a few stumbles over low brush and one bruised shin.
I stood my rifle it its corner and crawled into bed, jacket and all. I trembled and shivered like a pup kicked out in the snow.
“Hector?” I whispered hoarsely through my chattering teeth, although I didn’t think he was there. I got no reply. That was odd, since he had left before me and he was a young man with long legs. He could easily have finished his circle and returned by now. Unless he had trouble finding his way in the dark, too. But he’d never admit that.
I began to warm up and to relax, letting my body sink into the straw tick and my muscles turn to mush. My mind was drifting pleasantly back toward my dreams when suddenly the awful thought struck me that maybe Hector wasn’t back because he couldn’t get back. Maybe I had gotten disoriented out there in the impossible darkness of this eerie night and had crossed over into the path of Hector’s circuit. It could be that when I slipped and fell he could have been standing right in front of me and I wouldn’t have seen him. He could have been standing right in the path of the bullet.
I sat up and started shivering again, but not from cold. Had I killed a man? I had to find out. But how would I ever find him in the dark? I desperately groped toward the table, searching for the lantern or a candle or any source of light so that I could find Hector. Maybe he was just wounded. Maybe I could help him, save him from bleeding to death.
My hands stopped their scrabbling search when I heard a scraping sound outside. Was it a branch? Or an animal claw? I strained my ears. Nothing but a low moan from the wind sounded outside.
The wagon shifted, and I yelped in surprise. Something was coming in.
“Chris! What did you get?” Hector said as he clumped inside.
“Are you all right?” I blurted.
“Kind of cold, but nothing ate me while I was out there. Where were you? Not doing your job? Out shooting just for fun?”
“I had an accident.”
The banter left Hector’s voice. “You hurt?” he asked.
“What did you shoot at?”
“I just fell and my gun went off,” I said, with more edge to my voice than I meant it to have.
I thought Hector would say more, get in a few more digs, but he just rolled himself into his blankets and said, “Sweet dreams.”
In the morning, Hector was shaking my shoulder again. “Chris!” he said.
I swatted at him. “Go away!” I said. I was still tired and anxious from the night before, and had no desire to get out of my bunk yet.
“Chris, you’ve got to come see!” Hector persisted. He was almost squeaking, he was so excited.
“What?” I said, flinging back the covers and staring him hard in the face.
“Outside,” Hector said, leading the way.
I stuck my feet in my boots and made my way outside. The sky was clearing of clouds, a few ragged tatters moving reluctantly toward the horizon. The sheep were trading their morning news with muffled “Baa’s.” It seemed that the events of the night before had been more of a dream than waltzing with Sophie.
Hector was following the dents my feet had made in the wet soil the night before. Becoming curious now that I was up, I looked around to get my bearings on the path I had taken. I was off by a few yards from where I thought I was, but all in all, I was pretty close, and proud of it.
“This is where you were standing,” Hector said.
I turned my attention back to my fellow herder and stopped dead in my tracks. Lying about four paces beyond Hector was a mountain of black fur.
“A couple more paces and you would have been bear bait,” Hector laughed shrilly. “Instead, you got him right between the eyes!”
When my legs would move again, I examined the bullet wound, then circled the huge black bear, measuring the scant distance that had been between him and me and counting my blessings with every step I took.
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