The Watchers

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9. The Adventures Of Red Riding Hood



It is Sunday. The plaintive tinkle of the schoolroom bell at the Mission has rung the Christianized Indians to the short service which is held there.

"Indian Mission." The name conveys a sense of peace. Yet the mission histories of the Indian Reservations would make bloody reading. From the first the Christian teacher has been the pitiable prey of the warlike savage. He bears the brunt of every rising. It is only in recent years that his work has attained the smallest semblance of safety. The soldier fights an open foe. The man in charge of an Indian mission does not fight at all. He stands ever in the slaughter-yard, living only at the pleasure of the reigning chief. He is a brave man.

The service is over. It is perforce brief. The grown men and women come out of the building. The spacious interior is cleared of all but the children and a few grown-up folk who remain to hold a sort of Sunday-school.

There are Wanaha and Seth. Rosebud, too, helps, and Charlie Rankin and his young wife, who have a farm some two miles east of White River Farm. Then there is the missionary, Mr. Hargreaves, a large man with gray hair and rugged, bearded face, whose blue eyes look straight at those he is addressing with a mild, invincible bravery. And the Agent, James Parker, a short, abrupt man, with a bulldog chest and neck, and a sharp, alert manner.

These are the workers in this most important branch of the civilizing process. They are striking at the root of their object. The children can be molded where the parents prove impossible. Once these black-eyed little ones have mastered the English language the rest is not so difficult. They have to be weaned from their own tongue if their Christian teachers would make headway. A small, harmless bribery works wonders in this direction. And all these children have learned to speak and understand the English language.

Seth attempts no Bible instruction, and his is a class much in favor. His pockets always contain the most home-made taffy. He has a method purely his own; and it is a secular method. Only to the brightest and most advanced children is the honor of promotion to his class awarded.

He is holding his class outside the building. His children sit round him in a semicircle. He is sitting on an upturned box with his back against the lateral logs of the building. There is a pleasant shade here, also the pungent odor from the bright green bluff which faces him. The Indian children are very quiet, but they are agog with interest. They have noted the bulging pockets of Seth's Sunday jacket, and are more than ready to give him their best attention in consequence. Besides they like his teaching.

Seth's method is quite simple. Last Sunday he told them a little, old-fashioned children's fairy story with a moral. Now he takes each child in turn, and questions him or her on the teaching he then conveyed. But in this direction they are not very apt, these little heathens.

The singing inside the Mission had died out, and the last chords on the small organ had wheezed themselves into silence. Seth, having finished his preliminaries, began serious business.

He deposited a large packet of treacle taffy upon the ground at his feet, cut the string of it with his sheath-knife, opened it, and examined the contents with a finely critical air. Having satisfied himself he set it down again and smiled on his twelve pupils, all ranging from ten to twelve years of age, sitting round him. He produced a well-thumbed volume from his pocket, and, opening it, laid it upon his knee. It was there in case he should stumble, for Seth was not a natural born teacher. He did it for the sake of the little ones themselves.

Next he handed each child a piece of taffy, and waited while it was adjusted in the cheek.

"Guess you've all located your dollops o' candy?" he said, after a while. "I allow you ken get right at it and fix it in. This camp ain't goin' to be struck till the sweet food's done. Guess you'll mostly need physic 'fore you're through, sure. Howsum, your mam's 'll see to it."

The last remarks were said more to himself than to the children, who sat staring up into his dark, earnest face with eyes as solemn as those of the moose calf, and their little cheeks bulging dangerously. Seth cleared his throat.

"Guess you ain't heard tell o' that Injun gal that used to go around in a red blanket same as any of you might. I'm jest going to tell you about her. Ah, more candy?" as a small hand was held out appealingly toward him. "Guess we'll have another round before I get going right." He doled out more of the sticky stuff, and then propped his face upon his hands and proceeded.

"Wal, as I was goin' to say, that little squaw lived away there by the hills in a snug tepee with her gran'ma. They were jest two squaws by themselves, an old one, and a young one. And they hadn't no brave to help 'em, nor nothin'. The young squaw was jest like any of you. Jest a neat, spry little gal, pretty as a picture and real good.

"She kind o' looked after her gran'ma who was sick. Sick as a mule with the botts. Did the chores around that tepee, bucked a lot of cord-wood, fixed up moccasins, an' did the cookin', same as you gals 'll mebbe do later on. She was a slick young squaw, she was. Knew a caribou from a jack-rabbit, an' could sit a bucking broncho to beat the band. Guess it was doin' all these things so easy she kind o' got feelin' independent--sort o' wanted to do everything herself. And she just used to go right down to the store for food an' things by herself.

"Now I don't know how it rightly come about, but somewheres around that tepee a wolf got busy. A timber wolf, most as big as--as--the Mission house. An' he was savage. Gee, but he was real savage! Guess he was one o' them fellers always ready to scare squaws an' papooses an' things. Ther's lots o' that sort around."

Wanaha, quite unobserved by Seth, had come round the corner of the building, and stood watching the earnest face of the man who was so deliberately propounding his somewhat garbled version of Little Red Riding Hood. While she listened to his words she smiled pensively.

"Yes, they git themselves up fancy an' come sneakin' around, an' they're jest that fierce there ain't no chance for you. Say, them things would eat you right up, same as you've eaten that taffy. Wal, this young squaw was goin' off on her broncho when this timber wolf comes up smilin', an' he says, 'Good-day.' An' he shakes hands with her same as grown folks do. All them timber wolves are like that, 'cause they think you won't see they're going to eat you then. You see he was hungry. He'd been out on the war-path--which is real bad--an' he'd been fightin', and the folks had beaten him off, and he couldn't get food, 'cause he'd left the Reservation where there's always plenty to eat an' drink, and there was none anywhere else.

"Wal, he sizes up that squaw, and sees her blanket's good an' thick, and her moccasins is made of moose hide, and her beads is pretty, and he thinks she'll make a good meal, but he thinks, thinks he, he'll eat the squaw's sick gran'ma first. So he says 'Good-bye,' an' waits till she's well away on the trail, and then hurries back to the tepee an' eats up the old squaw. Say wolves is ter'ble--'specially timber wolves.

"Now, when that squaw gits home----" Seth paused and doled out more taffy. The children were wonderfully intent on the story, but the sweets helped their attention. For there was much of what he said that was hard on their understandings. The drama of the story was plain enough, but the moral appealed to them less.

"When that squaw gits home she lifts the flap of the tepee, and she sees what she thinks is her gran'ma lying covered up on the skins on the ground. The fire is still burnin', and everything is jest as she left it. She feels good an' chirpy, and sits right down by her gran'ma's side. And then she sees what she thinks looks kind o' queer. Says she, 'Gee, gran'ma, what a pesky long nose you've got!' You see that wolf had come along an' eaten her gran'ma, and fixed himself up in her clothes an' things, and was lying right there ready to eat her, too, when she come along. So master timber wolf, he says, 'That's so I ken smell out things when I'm hunting.' Then that squaw, bein' curious-like, which is the way with wimminfolk, says, 'Shucks, gran'ma, but your tongue's that long you ain't room for it in your mouth.' That wolf gits riled then. Says he, 'That's so I ken taste the good things I eat.' Guess the squaw was plumb scared at that. She'd never heard her gran'ma say things like that. But she goes on, says she, 'Your teeth's fine an' long an' white, maybe you've cleaned 'em some.' Then says the wolf, 'That's so I ken eat folks like you right up.' With that he springs out of the blankets an' pounces sheer on that poor little squaw and swallows her up at one gulp, same as you ken swaller this taffy."

Seth suddenly sprang from his seat, held the bag of candy out at arm's length, and finally dropped it on the ground in the midst of the children. There was a rush; a chorus of childish glee, and the whole twelve fell into a struggling heap upon the ground, wildly fighting for the feast.

With a gentle smile Seth looked on at the fierce scramble. To judge from his manner it would have been hard to assert which was the happier, the children or their teacher. Though Seth found them a tax on his imaginative powers, and though he was a man unused to many words, he loved these Sunday afternoons with his young charges.

His thoughtful contemplation was broken by Wanaha. Her moccasins gave out no sound as she stepped up to him from behind and touched him on the shoulder. Her grave smile had passed; and when he turned he found himself looking into a pair of steady, serious, inscrutable eyes. No white woman can hide her thoughts behind such an impenetrable mask as the squaw. Surely the Indian face might well have served as a model for the Sphinx.

"The white teacher makes much happy," she said in her labored English.

Seth promptly answered her in her own tongue.

"The papooses of the Indian make the white man happy," he said simply.

There was a long pause. Suddenly one dusky urchin rose with a whoop of delight, bearing aloft the torn paper with several lumps of sweet stuff, discolored with dirt, sticking to it. With one accord the little mob broke. The triumphant child fled away to the bluff pursued by the rest of her howling companions. The man and the squaw were left alone.

"The white man tells a story of a wolf and a squaw," Wanaha said, returning to her own language. The children were still shrieking in the distance.

Seth nodded assent. He had nothing to add to her statement.

"And the wolf eats the squaw," the woman went on, quite seriously. It sounded strange, her literal manner of discussing this children's story.

A look of interest came into the man's thoughtful eyes. But he turned away, not wishing to display any curiosity. He understood the Indian nature as few men do.

"There was no one by to warn the squaw?" she went on in a tone of simple inquiry. "No brave to help her?"

"No one to help," answered the man.

There was another pause. The children still inside the Mission house were helping to chant the Doxology, and the woman appeared to listen to it with interest. When it was finished she went on----

"Where the wolf is there is much danger for the squaw. Indian squaw--or white. I, too, learn these things. I learn from much that I hear--and see."

"I know," Seth nodded.

"You know?"

"Yes."

"Wanaha is glad. The white brave will watch over the young squaw." The woman smiled again. Seth thought he detected a sigh of relief. He understood this woman as well as it is given to man to understand any woman--even an Indian woman.

"This wolf won't bother about the gran'ma," said Seth, looking straight into Wanaha's eyes. "He's after the young squaw."

"And he will have the young squaw soon."

Wanaha abruptly turned away and hurried round to the entrance of the Mission. The sound of people moving within the building told her that the Sunday-school was over. Her silent going suggested that she had no wish to be seen talking in private to Seth.

Seth remained where he was. His delay may have been intentional, yet he had the appearance of deep preoccupation. He quite understood that Wanaha's presence during his story had been deliberate. She had left her own class on some trifling excuse and come out to warn him, knowing that he would be alone with his children. There was no smile on his face while he stood thinking, only a pucker between his dark brows, and an odd biting of his under-lip.

At last he shook himself as though he found the shade chilly, and, a moment later, sauntered round to the front of the building in time to meet the others coming out.

He joined the group which included Wanaha, and they talked a few minutes with the Agent and Mr. Hargreaves. Then Mrs. Rankin and Rosebud moved off to the two waiting buckboards, and Wanaha disappeared down a by-path through the trees. Seth and Charlie Rankin followed their womenfolk.

Seth was the only silent member of the party, but this was hardly noticeable, for he rarely had much to say for himself.

On the way home Rosebud at last found reason to grumble at his silence. She had chattered away the whole time in her light-hearted, inconsequent fashion, and at last asked him a question to which she required more than a nod of the head in reply. And she had to ask it three times, a matter which ruffled her patience.

"Why are you so grumpy with me, Seth?" she asked, with a little frown. She always accused Seth of being "grumpy" when he was more than usually silent.

"Eh?" The man turned from the contemplation of the horses' tails.

"I asked you three times if you saw the Agent talking to two of his scouts--Jim Crow and Rainmaker--before service."

Seth flicked his whip over the backs of the horses.

"Sure," he said indifferently.

"Jim Crow is the head of his Indian police."

The girl spoke significantly, and Seth glanced round at her in surprise.

"I know," he observed.

"Do you think there is anything--moving? Oh, look, Seth, there's a lovely jack-rabbit." Rosebud pointed ahead. A large jack-rabbit was loping slowly out of the way of the buckboard. Seth leant forward with unnecessary interest, and so was saved a direct answer to the girl's question.