19. April 2024 · Comments Off on From “West Toward the Sunset” · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book

Another snippet of the current W-I-P, wherein Sally and her little brother Jon have become lost on the prairie while gathering buffalo chips …

It was at that moment that I nearly jumped out of my own skin. A party of Indians appeared, as if out of the very air – not a sound, not a warning. At least a dozen of them, all men – on horses with unshod hoofs. They didn’t make a sound on the battered grass where a big wagon party had passed with a passel of loose cattle. The Indians were just suddenly there. Jon didn’t make a sound, for which I was grateful, but he pressed close against me, and I put my arm around his shoulders.

“Hello,” I said, although I was quite certain that they wouldn’t understand me – but it was polite to say, and Ma always insisted on good manners to strangers, even Red Indians.

And that was the curious part; the two who stood closest to us, after they all slid down from their ponies – were really red. Half of their faces, anyway; painted with red paint. They had also shaved their eyebrows and the hair on their heads nearly bald, save for a scalp-lock at the top. One had adorned the top of his head with a crest of stiff horsehair, dyed red and yellow. That one Indian man, who seemed like he was the leader, stepped closer to me and held up his hand. He said something that I couldn’t understand, guttural and harsh sounding, and waggled his fingers. I said ‘Hello,” again, as politely as I could.

I was glad that my voice didn’t shake. We were mortal afraid of Indians, then – especially being alone as Jon and I were. Although the Indians that we had seen in Independence, and those who ran the ferry over the Kansas River crossing hadn’t seemed that much off from the ordinary. They were just people, although considerably more browned from the sun and much more skimpily dressed than most.

And I saw that half of the Indian party were really boys – just about my age, and perhaps a bit younger – skinny, half-naked and … really not all that dangerous-looking. Were Jon and I supposed to be mortally afraid of boys hardly as old as I was? They seemed as curious about us as I would have been – that is, if Pa and Mr. Herlihy or Mr. Glennie had been with us. Indeed, one of the boys came up really close to us, as the older ones talked among themselves over our heads. That one boy reached out and touched Jon’s hair, feeling it with his fingers in one hand as he reached for the little wood-hilted knife hanging from the string that held the little flap of cloth around his middle to hide his male parts. It was as if that Indian boy were considering a bit of scalp-taking, and Jon flinched.

That was it, for me – no one had the right to scare my little brother out of his skin! I was so angry that I shoved that Indian boy so hard – so hard that he fell backwards on his behind.

“You let my brother alone!” I yelled at him, as fierce as if I were chasing off Aunt Rachael’s bully goose, who used to chase Jon and the other children something fierce. The boy glared at me, but he didn’t dare come any closer. He crawled away rapidly, before he got to his feet again. I was a bit taller than he was, and I must have been at least as strong. All the grown-up Indian men laughed. They said things to the boy that sounded as if they were making fun of him; he looked abashed and embarrassed. I put my arm around Jon and pulled him even closer to me.

“Don’t worry, Jon,” I whispered. “We’ll be all right. We’re close to camp, and they don’t really seem to want to hurt us.”

Jon’s lips wobbled. “Is Pa gonna come for us soon?”

“I hope so,” I whispered back. I had just about decided that I should chance our luck. The Indians didn’t seem all that inclined to take us prisoner – before or after scalping both of us. I thought I should just say goodbye and stride off confidently in the direction that I thought that our camp should be in.

After all – they hadn’t tried to hurt us or take us officially captive, yet. I reasoned that if they hadn’t done Jon or I any harm … maybe they would allow us to just go our way.

Whichever way that might be – which I didn’t know, but no one had to really know that, least of all these Indians.

Just as I had made up my mind to do this, I heard the jingling of harness, and the steady dull clip-clopping of shod hooves. The Indians – they all turned, alert in every bone. Half of them slid from their horses and vanished. It was like a trick from a traveling magician; one minute they were there, and the next they were gone, melted into the remains of tall grass, or shallow hollows in the ground.

“Well, well … what do we have here, Deacon?” drawled the man holding the reins of a wagon drawn by half a dozen mules, hitched two and two and two. He was a dark man, with grizzled hair, dressed almost like an Indian himself. He halted the mules and regarded us all – Jon and I, and the remaining visible Indians with great interest.

The other man stood up in the wagon, with a big black book clutched to his chest. He was older – I mean, I think they both were about the same age as Grandpa Reverend, but the dark man driving the wagon looked somehow fitter. Spry. He was dressed in a fringed leather hunting coat that looked somewhat like the Indians wore, and a long knife at his belt. The man called Deacon just looked old, with white hair down to his shoulders, like the picture of a prophet in the Old Testament – but he looked happy, not thunderously angry, as Grandpa Reverend always allowed that the prophets were, given that they were sent to chastise sinners.

“Children, Mr. Bayless – and the heathen that I was sent to redeem!” Deacon exclaimed, waving his free hand, and the other man – Mr. Bayless heaved a great sigh and seemed to roll his eyes in exasperation. “It is a heavenly sign, indeed! Tell them that I mean no harm! I have come to bring them the good news!” his eye finally fell upon Jon and I. “Children … are you of the Kettering party? I was told that such a company was on the trail, and we were desirous of joining such a godly company…”

Meanwhile, Mr. Bayless was making peculiar sweeping gestures with his hands, and venturing some words – words which the red-painted Indian with the horsehair crest to his scalp-lock and the others all appeared to understand – from the rapt manner in which they all paid mind. The Indian leader then responded with similar. Sign-talk, I think they called it. A simple manner to speak with another tribe if there was no language in common. It was a curious thing – that the Indian tribes in the wild lands beyond the Mississippi River had no single language between them, other than this signing-talk.

The other Indians – the ones who had hidden – emerged silently from wherever they had concealed themselves. They stood around, watching the signing-talk, listening to Mr. Bayless and the horse-hair-crested Indian leader, and talking among each other.

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