THE TALL INDIAN
In those three days the norther had howled and screeched across the prairie till it blew itself out. Now the sun was warm and the wind was mild, but there was a feeling of autumn in the air.
Indians came riding on the path that passed so close to the house. They went by as though it were not there.
They were thin and brown and bare. They rode their little ponies without saddle or bridle. They sat up straight on the naked ponies and did not look to right or left. But their black eyes glittered.
Laura and Mary backed against the house and looked up at them. And they saw red-brown skin bright against the blue sky, and scalp locks wound with colored string, and feathers quivering. The Indians’ faces were like the red-brown wood that Pa had carved to make a bracket for Ma.
“I thought that trail was an old one they didn’t use any more,” Pa said. “I wouldn’t have built the house so close to it if I’d known it’s a highroad.” Jack hated Indians, and Ma said she didn’t blame him. She said, “I declare, Indians are getting so thick around here that I can’t look up without seeing one.”
As she spoke, she looked up, and there stood an Indian. He stood in the doorway, looking at them, and they had not heard a sound.
“Goodness!” Ma gasped.
Silently Jack jumped at the Indian. Pa caught him by the collar, just in time. The Indian hadn’t moved; he stood as still as if Jack hadn’t been there at all.
“How!” he said to Pa.
Pa held on to Jack and replied, “How!” He dragged Jack to the bedpost and tied him there. While he was doing it, the Indian came in and squatted down by the fire.
Then Pa squatted down by the Indian, and they sat there, friendly but not saying a word, while Ma finished cooking dinner.
Laura and Mary were close together and quiet on their bed in the corner. They couldn’t take their eyes from that Indian. He was so still that the beautiful eagle-feathers in his scalp lock didn’t stir. Only his bare chest and the leanness under his ribs moved a little to his breathing. He wore fringed leather leggings, and his moccasins were covered with beads.
Ma gave Pa and the Indian their dinners on two tin plates, and they ate silently. Then Pa gave the Indian some tobacco for his pipe. They filled their pipes, and they lighted the tobacco with coals from the fire, and they silently smoked until the pipes were empty.
All this time nobody had said anything. But now the Indian said something to Pa. Pa shook his head and said, “No speak.”
A while longer they all sat silent. Then the Indian rose up and went away without a sound.
“My goodness gracious!” Ma said.
Laura and Mary ran to the window. They saw the Indian’s straight back, riding away on a pony. He held a gun across his knees, its ends stuck out on either side of him.
Pa said that Indian was no common trash. He guessed by the scalp lock that he was an Osage.
“Unless I miss my guess,” Pa said, “that was French he spoke. I wish I had picked up some of that lingo.”
“Let Indians keep themselves to themselves,” said Ma, “and we will do the same. I don’t like Indians around underfoot.”
Pa told her not to worry.
“That Indian was perfectly friendly,” he said. “And their camps down among the bluffs are peaceable enough. If we treat them well and watch Jack, we won’t have any trouble.”
The very next morning, when Pa opened the door to go to the stable, Laura saw Jack standing in the Indian trail. He stood stiff, his back bristled, and all his teeth showed. Before him in the path the tall Indian sat on his pony.
Indian and pony were still as still. Jack was telling them plainly that he would spring if they moved. Only the eagle feathers that stood up from the Indian’s scalp lock were waving and spinning in the wind.
When the Indian saw Pa, he lifted his gun and pointed it straight at Jack.
Laura ran to the door, but Pa was quicker. He stepped between Jack and that gun, and he reached down and grabbed Jack by the collar. He dragged Jack out of the Indian’s way, and the Indian rode on, along the trail.
Pa stood with his feet wide apart, his hands in his pockets, and watched the Indian riding farther and farther away across the prairie.
“That was a darned close call!” Pa said. “Well, it’s his path. An Indian trail, long before we came.”
He drove an iron ring into a log of the house wall, and he chained Jack to it. After that, Jack was always chained. He was chained to the house in the daytime, and at night he was chained to the stable door, because horse-thieves were in the country now. They had stolen Mr. Edwards’ horses.
Jack grew crosser and crosser because he was chained. But it could not be helped. He would not admit that the trail was the Indians’ trail, he thought it belonged to Pa. And Laura knew that something terrible would happen if Jack hurt an Indian.
Winter was coming now. The grasses were a dull color under a dull sky. The winds wailed as if they were looking for something they could not find. Wild animals were wearing their thick winter fur, and Pa set his traps in the creek bot- toms. Every day he visited them, and every day he went hunting. Now that the nights were freezing cold, he shot deer for meat. He shot wolves and foxes for their fur, and his traps caught beaver and muskrat and mink.
He stretched the skins on the outside of the house and carefully tacked them there, to dry. In the evenings he worked the dried skins between his hands to make them soft, and he added them to the bundle in the corner. Every day the bundle of furs grew bigger.
Laura loved to stroke the thick fur of red foxes. She liked the brown, soft fur of beaver, too, and the shaggy wolf’s fur. But best of all she loved the silky mink. Those were all furs that Pa saved to trade next spring in Independence. Laura and Mary had rabbit-skin caps, and Pa’s cap was muskrat.
One day when Pa was hunting, two Indians came. They came into the house, because Jack was chained.
Those Indians were dirty and scowling and mean. They acted as if the house belonged to them. One of them looked through Ma’s cup- board and took all the cornbread. The other took Pa’s tobacco-pouch. They looked at the pegs where Pa’s gun belonged. Then one of them picked up the bundle of furs.
Ma held Baby Carrie in her arms, and Mary and Laura stood close to her. They looked at that Indian taking Pa’s furs. They couldn’t do any- thing to stop him.
He carried them as far as the door. Then the other Indian said something to him. They made harsh sounds at each other in their throats, and he dropped the furs. They went away.
Ma sat down. She hugged Mary and Laura close to her and Laura felt Ma’s heart beating.
“Well,” Ma said, smiling, “I’m thankful they didn’t take the plow and seeds.”
Laura was surprised. She asked, “What plow?”
“The plow and all our seeds for next year are in that bundle of furs,” said Ma.
When Pa came home they told him about those Indians, and he looked sober. But he said that all was well that ended well.
That evening when Mary and Laura were in bed, Pa played his fiddle. Ma was rocking in the rocking-chair, holding Baby Carrie against her breast, and she began to sing softly with the fiddle:
“Wild roved an Indian maid, Bright Alfarata,
Where flow the waters Of the blue Juniata.
Strong and true my arrows are
In my painted quiver, Swift goes my light canoe Adown the rapid river.
“Bold is my warrior good, The love of Alfarata,
Proud wave his sunny plumes
Along the Juniata.
Soft and low he speaks to me,
And then his war-cry sounding
Rings his voice in thunder loud
From height to height re- sounding.
“So sang the Indian maid, Bright Alfarata,
Where sweep the waters Of the blue Juniata.
Fleeting years have borne away
The voice of Alfarata, Still flow the waters Of the blue Juniata.”
Ma’s voice and the fiddle’s music softly died away. And Laura asked, “Where did the voice of Alfarata go, Ma?”
“Goodness!” Ma said. “Aren’t you asleep yet?”
“I’m going to sleep,” Laura said. “But please tell me where the voice of Alfarata went?”
“Oh I suppose she went west,” Ma answered. “That’s what the Indians do.”
“Why do they do that, Ma?” Laura asked. “Why do they go west?”
“They have to,” Ma said. “Why do they have to?”
“The government makes them, Laura,” said Pa. “Now go to sleep.”
He played the fiddle softly for a while. Then Laura asked, “Please, Pa, can I ask just one more question?”
“May I,” said Ma.
Laura began again. “Pa, please, may I—” “What is it?” Pa asked. It was not polite for
little girls to interrupt, but of course Pa could do it.
“Will the government make these Indians go west?”
“Yes,” Pa said. “When white settlers come in- to a country, the Indians have to move on. The government is going to move these Indians farther west, any time now. That’s why we’re here, Laura. White people are going to settle all this country, and we get the best land because we get here first and take our pick. Now do you understand?”
“Yes, Pa,” Laura said. “But, Pa, I thought this was Indian Territory. Won’t it make the Indians mad to have to—”
“No more questions, Laura,” Pa said, firmly. “Go to sleep.”