The White Papoose

A Short Story by Ruth Hammond

The last sack of wheat was dumped into the remaining corner of the strong, wooden wagon that had withstood the destructive forces of wind, rain, snow and terrific heat, as well as the constant rise and fall of wheels over new, unbroken ground, rocky river bottoms, and through the trail-less forests, a test which modern vehicles could not undergo, in a many thousand mile trip from the East. A man, looking equally as strong as the wagon, unbent his back after disposing of the cumbersome sack with the ease of a well-developed, muscular man, and brushed with even strokes the dust from his grey lindsey shirt. A tug at this homespun caused him to drop to his knees and enfold the small form of a four year old child in his knotty arms. With a tender hand he pushed back the faded blue sun bonnet, disclosing her "daddy" laugh, made doubly bright by a setting of deep blue eyes, sparkling teeth, and golden hair that caught and played with the tiny sunbeams as they danced about. As his hands gently stroked the beaded curls, his eyes sought the smiling eyes of his wife who stood near.

"She came to us, Mary, here in the West when we had nothing but our boy, Jim, the wagon here, and our oxen; and with her came the spirit of success."

He stood up with the child in one arm, placing the other around his wife. "Now," he continued, "we have our home, our land, our water, the currant bushes you wanted so, Mary, and this winter David goes to school." It was a monologue between two people for the radiant face of Mary echoed the words of her husband.

An anxious whisper in his ear brought hearty, reassuring laughter from the man. "Daddy you be sure don't forget the candy."

"Bless you child, I'd forget your mother's flour before I'd forget your candy", he said, with a wink at Mary. "Give daddy a big kiss to remind him of it; then I'll go and be back before you open those pretty blue eyes after your nap."

With a parting hug from daughter and wife, he took his place on the wagon seat beside his grown boy, who was gazing with dreamy expression over the broad expanse of land that surrounded their home.

"Should we go, son? You drive into the village, and I'll drive back."

"All right, Dad."

The eyes of the child and mother followed the wagon until it was hidden by a cloud of dust which rolled after it. Then, automatically, the worn hands of the pioneer woman sought the small white hands of her tiny daughter, who was to glorify this new heritage of theirs in the West. The mother's full kind voice did not show the effect of work, worry, and disappointment, however; it had the ring of the future in it - - the future that was to be a fast moving, colorful parade of achievements.

"Jean, should we see if we can't find enough berries for daddy's supper tonight and surprise him? You run get mother a dish while I prop this flower up." Tiny bare feet sped over the fragile blades of new grass toward the house, and strong hands lifted the delicate, drooping rose to place a stick under it as support.

The gentle voice murmured, "Poor tiny rose, too weak to stand the intense rays of the blazing sun. Only the strong can stand against it - - only the strong."

"Mamma, I beat you to the garden", called Jean from the kitchen door.

"Oh no you won't", was the reply; and the two set off, one at full speed, the other pretending the speed of wild horses as she breathed hard and made a great noise with her feet as she tagged behind her daughter. At the goal little Jean, dish and all, was sent flying into the air and brought down close to the face of her mother.

"You little vixen. You beat mother, didn't you? But you won't beat her picking daddy's berries."

Their progress toward the prized berry bush was suddenly halted, and with a convulsive movement the child was caught up into the arms of the mother; for there stepped from behind this bush the only object which had made her fearful of the West. Course stiff braids falling over broad shoulders, small piercing black eyes above high cheek bones, a wide mouth opening to show yellowed teeth, a string of elks' teeth encircling a short neck, a dirty piece of blanket around his loins, torn buckskin moccasins encasing large feet, leathery skin as brown as the soil he was standing on dully glowed in the sun - - everything more than fit the wildest descriptions she had heard of the Indians who occasionally came down from Skull Valley. The people in the village had warned her that she might be bothered by them. But she did not know just what "bothering" meant, and with a wild shriek she ran with all her strength toward the house, carrying little Jean in her arms. Once inside with trembling hands, the lock was shot into place. Creeping toward the corner, the mother endeavored to calm the smothered frightened sobs of Jean, and tried to reason within herself what she could do.

A sudden jerk on the latched door made her jump, quivering, to the floor. Afterward a gently knocking came, growing louder and louder, then stopping as suddenly as it started. The silence was as startling as the noise, and for a happy second the mother thought the Indian had gone. With awful realization, however, she remembered she hadn't latched the front door. Whirling around, she knew it was too late, for there in the door was the Indian, coming stealthily toward her and Jean.

Horror stricken, Mary cried, "Stop! What do you want?"

The masterful face of the woman and the firm voice made the Indian stop and hesitatingly point to little Jean who was trying to hide herself in her mother's skirts.

In slow, guttural tones he said, "Me want white papoose."

Mary pushed the child behind her and replied, "Papoose ours. Go or my husband kill you."

A strange leer came over his face. "Buck gone; squaw here alone. Me want white-haired papoose." Again the Indian started his sneaking steps toward the woman.

Retreating slowly, Mary tried to distract the Indian's attention from her child. "Me give red beads, plenty sugar, biscuit, if you go."

A grunt and greedy step toward them resulted. "Key-wi-no. Give papoose, now."

The terrified mother realized she could not cope with his animal-like strength; yet she must save little Jean - - John's and her Jean. She had been told that the Indians liked bright things, and sugar and bread. But these did not tempt him. Oh, Heaven! There was surely something she could do. The wall of the room seemed to be sneaking up in back of her as stealthily as the Indian was in front. They would smother her, choke her. Better that than have this brutish creature take Jean.

Then she and Jean struck the wall; she could retreat no further. Mary kept saying to herself, "I must do something. Jean - - our Jean. What was it the ladies in the village had said about the Indians - - they were superstitious. Maybe she could frighten him."

These thoughts were accompanied by the toneless words of the ever-nearing Indian, which beat rhythmically on the mind of the woman like a tom-tom - - "Me want white papoose."

With sudden triumph, Mary raised her head, looked the Indian square in the face. With one hand she took her false teeth out of her mouth and waved them in front of the Indian, holding Jean with the other.

He stopped short, glanced around as if to see devils sticking out of the cupboards. With a war whoop he turned and fled out of the room, over the fence, and up the road, leaving a thin trail of dust behind him. A thick, enveloping cloud of dust was slowly coming toward the fast receding figure. With a tired, thankful sigh Mary sank to her knees, hugging her child close to her.

In joyous accents she cried, "It's all right now, Jean; your daddy and Jim are coming - - John and Jim."