Western Christmas Story 1892
December 20, 1892
"Never had a Christmas present?"
"Why, it's just dreadful! Well, there's one thing - you shall have one this year, you dear thing;" and Molly Ellison flung down the Christmas muffler she was knitting, and stared at her visitor, as if she could scarcely believe what she had just confessed to her. The visitor laughed, showing a beautiful row of small white teeth as she did so. She was a charming little maiden of twelve or thirteen, this visitor - a charming little maiden with the darkest of dark hair that hung in a thick shining braid, tied at the end with a broad red ribbon. Molly Elliston thought she was a beauty, as she looked at her dimpled smiling face - a beauty, though she was an Indian, belonging to what was once a great and powerful tribe. When, three years ago, Molly Elliston had come out to the far Northwest with her mother to join her father on his ranch, she had thought she should never feel anything but aversion to an Indian. Molly was then seven years old, and had always lived at some military post, for her father had been an army officer until the three years before, when he had given up his commission to enter into partnership with his brother upon a sheep and cattle ranch. A few miles from this ranch was an Indian reservation. The tribe that occupied it had for a long time had been quite friendly with white people, and were therefore not altogether unwelcome neighbors to the Ellistons. Molly thought they were very welcome, indeed, when one day, in the third summer of her ranch life, she made the acquaintance of this pretty Wallula, who was not only pretty, but very intelligent, and of a loving disposition that responded gladly to Molly's friendly advances.
"But to think that you've never had a Christmas present!" exclaimed Molly again, as Wallula's laugh rippled out. "If I'd only known you the first year we came! But I'll make it up this year, you'll see; and, oh! Oh!" Clapping her hands at a sudden thought, "I know, I know what I'll do! Tell you?" as Wallula clapped her hands and cried, "Oh, tell me, tell me!"
"Of course I sha'n't tell you; that would spoil the whole. Why, that's part of the fun that we don't wish to tell. It is all a secret until Christmas eve or Christmas morning."
"Yes, I know; Metalka told me; but I forgot."
"Of course your sister must have known all about Christmas after she came back from school. Why didn't she make you a Christmas present then, Lula?"
"Metalka?" A cloud came over the little bright face. "Metalka didn't stay long after she came back. She didn't stay till Christmas; she went 'way - to - to heaven."
"If Metalka had staid, I might have gone to school this year."
"I thought you had been to school, Lula."
"Oh no; only to little school out here summers - little school some ladies made; and Metalka tole me - taught me - showed me ev'ry day after she came back - ev'ry day, till - till she - went 'way. I can read and write and talk, talk, talk, all day in English" - smiling roguishly, then more seriously and anxiously. "Is it pretty fair English - white English - Major Molly?"
"White English!" laughed back Major Molly. "You are such fun, Lula. Yes, it's pretty fair - white English."
Lula dimpled with pleasure, then sighed as she said, "If I could go 'way off East to Metalka's school two, three, four, five year, as Metalka did, then I could talk splen'id English, and I could make heap - no, all sort things, and help keep house nice, and cook like Metalka."
"But why don't you go, Lula?"
"Why don't I? Listen," and Wallula bent forward, eagerly. "I don't go because my father won't have me go. Metalka went. When she first came back she was so happy, so strong; she was going to have everything white way civ - I can't say it, Maje Molly."
"Do you mean civilized?"
"Yes, yes; civ'lized - white way. And she worked, she talked, she tried, and nobody'd pay much 'tention but my father. The girls, some o' them, wanted to be like her; but the fathers and mothers wouldn' help, and some, good many, were set hard 'gainst it; and then there was no money to buy white people's clothes, they said; it took all the money was earned to pay big 'counts up at agency store, where Indians bought things - things to eat, you know; so what's the use, they said, to try to live white ways when everything was "gainst them, and they stopped trying; and Metalka was so dis'pointed, for she was going do so much - going help civ-civ'lize. She was so dis'pointed, she by-'n'-by got sick - homesick, and just after the first snow came, she - she went 'way to heaven. And that's why my father won't have me go to the school. He say it killed Metalka. He say if she'd staid home, she'd been happy Indian and lived long time. He say Indian got hurt; spoiled going off into white man's country."
"How came he to let your sister go, Lula?"
"Metalka wanted to go so bad. She'd heard so much 'bout the 'way-off schools from some white ladies up at the fort one summer, and my father heard too. A white off'cer tole him if Indian wanted to know how to have plenty to eat, plenty ev'rything, like white peoples, they must learn to do bus'ness white ways, be edg'cated. So he let Metalka go; he couldn' go, he too old, but Metalka could go and learn to read all the books and the papers and keep 'counts for him, so't he'd know how to deal with white men. When Metalka first took 'count for him, after she came back, my father so pleased. He'd worked hard all winter hauling wood, and killing elk and deer for the skins; and my mother 'n' I had made bewt'ful moccasins and gloves out o' the skins, all worked with beads; and so he'd earned goo deal money, and he'd kept 'count of it all - his way, and 'twas honest way; and kept 'count, too, what he'd had out of agency store; and Metalka understood and reckoned it all up, and said he'd have good lot money left after he'd paid what he owed at the store. But, Maje Molly, he didn't! He didn't! They tole him he owed all his money, and when he said they'd made mistake, and shoed 'em Metalka's 'counts, they laughed at him, and shoed him big book of their 'counts, and tole him Metalka didn' know 'bout prices o' things. Then he came home and said: "What's the use going to white people's schools to learn white people's ways, when white people can come out to Indian country and tell lies 'bout prices o' things?" And that's the way 'tis ev'ry time, my father say; the way 'twas before Metalka went to school. The bad white trader comes out to Indian country to cheat Indians. He knows white prices, but he don't tell Indian white prices; he tell Indian two, three time more price. That's what my father say. And Metalka, when she see it all, she so dis'pointed, she never get over it, and my father say it killed her, like arrow shot at her."
"But your father doesn't think all white people bad - he doesn't dislike all their ways?"
"No; it's only white traders he thinks bad, and the white big chiefs who break promises 'bout lands. He like white ways that Metalka brought back, and he built nice log house to live in, instead of tepee, 'cause Metalka wanted it; and he like all you here, Maje Molly, 'cause you good to me. But, Maje Molly" - and here the little bright face clouded over - "my mother say all white peoples forget, and break promises to Indians."
"No, no, they don't, Lula; they don't, you'll see. I sha'n't forget; I sha'n't break my promise, you'll see; you'll see Lula. On Christmas eve I shall send you a Christmas present, sure - now remember!" answered Molly, vehemently.
It was the day before Christmas - a beautiful, mild day; very unlike the usual winter weather in the far West. At the Ellistons' windows hung wreaths of pine, and all about, on tables and chairs, tempting-looking packages were lying. Some of these were from their military friends, and most of them were directed to "Major Molly," the name that had been given to Molly when she was a little tot of a thing, and the pet of the fort where she lived. On this Christmas day as she watched her mother fold up the pretty bright tartan dress that was to be her Christmas present to Wallula, she said, gleefully: "Don't forget, mamma, to write on the box, 'Wallula's Christmas present from Major Molly.'"
It had been Molly's intention to have Wallula to tea on Christmas eve, and then and there to bestow upon her the pretty gift. But invitations to dine at the fort had frustrated this plan, and so it was arranged that Barney McGuire, one of the ranchmen, should come up and carry the box over to the reservation late that afternoon; and as the short winter day progressed, and Molly found that she must have a little more time to finish off the table cover she wanted to take up to the Colonel's wife, she said to her mother, "Instead of going on with you and papa at five o'clock, let Barney escort me to the fort after he leaves Wallula's present - that will give me plenty of time to finish the cover, and plenty of time to get to the dinner in season."
"Very well," answered Mrs. Elliston; "but you must promise me to start with Barney as
soon as he comes back for you, whether the cover is finished or not. You mustn't be late."
At five o'clock when Captain Ellison and his wife rode off Molly was working away at her cover with the greatest industry. Now and then as she worked on she glanced up at the clock. If everything went smoothly - if the silk didn't know or the lace didn't pucker - she would be through long before Barney came back for her. But presently she thought where was Barney. He ought to be there for the box by this time. She worked on a little longer, her ear alert for the sound of Barney's horse. At last she went to an upper window and looked out. She could see, even in the gathering dusk a great distance from that window, away across toward the sheep corrals and cattle pens, but nobody was in sight. What did it mean? Barney was punctuality itself.
Five, ten, fifteen, twenty minutes more she worked with flying fingers, and still there was no sight or sound of Barney; but her work was finished, and now - now, what then?
There was only Hannah and John, the two house-servants, at hand. Hannah couldn't go, and John had strict orders never to leave the premises in Captain Elliston's absence. She looked at the clock - every second seemed an age. If Barney didn't come, if no one was sent in his place, her promise to Wallula would be broken, and Molly remembered Wallula's words, "My mother says all white peoples forget, and break their promises to Indians'"; and her own vehement reply, "I sha'n't forget; I sha'n't break my promise, you'll see, you'll see, Lula." Break her promise after that! Never, never! Her father himself would say she must not - would say that somebody must go in Barney's place, and there was nobody - nobody to go, but - herself!
"Yer goin' alone, yer mean, over to the Injuns?" demanded John, as Molly told him to bring her pony, Tam o'Shanter, to the door.
"Yes, yes, and right away, John; so hurry as fast as you can."
"Do yer think yer'd orter, Major Molly? Do yer think the Cap'n would like it?" asked John, disapprovingly.
"John, if you don't bring Tam 'round this minute, I'll go for him myself."
"'Tain't safe fur yer to go over there alone!" cried Hannah.
"Safe! I know the way, every inch of it, with my eyes shut, and so does Tam; and I know the Indians, and Wallula is my friend; and I told her she should have her present Christmas eve, sure, and I'm going to keep my promise. Now bring Tam 'round just as quick as you can."
John obeyed, though with evident reluctance, and hannah showed her disapproval by scolding and protesting; but they had both had both of them lived on the frontier for years, and their disapproval therefore was not what it might have been under different circumstances. Molly, they knew, could ride as well as a little Indian, and was familiar with every inch of the way, as she had said, and Wallula was her friend.
"And 'twouldn't 'a' done the least bit o' good to hev set myself any more against her. If I had, just as like as not the Cap'n would 'a' sided with her and been mad at me, for he thinks the Major's ekal to "most anything," John confided to Hannah, as he brought the pony round.
The pony shied a little as Wallula's Christmas present to strapped to his back. But at Molly's whispered, "Tam! Tam! Be a good boy. We're going to see Wallula - to carry her something nice, just as quick as we can go," the little fellow whinneyed softly, as if in response, and the next moment, at Molly's "Now, Tam," he started forward at his best pace, a pace that Molly knew so well, and knew she could trust - firm and even and assured, and gaining, gaining, gaining at every step.
"Good boy, good boy!" she said to him as he sped along. But as he began to hasten his pace it occurred to her that it was only about half an hour's easy riding to the reservation, and that after leaving there she could easily reach the fort in another half-hour - so easily, that there was no need of hurrying Tam as she was doing, and she pulled him up with a "Take it easy, Tam dear." As she spoke Tam flung up his head, pricked up his ears, and made a sudden plunge forward. What was it? What was the matter? What had he heard? He had heard what Molly herself heard in the next instant - the beat of a horse's hoofs. But the minute it struck upon Molly's ear she said to herself, "It's Barney, for that's old Ranger's step, I know." Ranger was an old troop horse of her father's that Barney often rode. But in vain, she tried to rein Tam in. In vain she said to him: "Wait, wait! It's Ranger and Barney, Tam."
The pony snorted, as if in scorn, and held on his way. What was the matter with him? He was usually such a wise little fellow, and always knew his friends and his enemies. And he knew them now! He was wiser than she was, and he scented on the wind something that spurred him on.
But hark! What was that whirring, singing sound? Was that a new signal that Barney was trying? Was it - Whirr, s-st! Down like a shot dropped Tam's head, and like an arrow he leaped forward, swerving sideways to escape the danger he had scented - the danger of a lariat flung by a practised hand.
Oh, Tam, Tam! Fly now with all your speed, your mistress understands at last. She is a frontier-bred girl. She knows now that it is no friendly person following her, but some one who means mischief - and that mischief she has no doubt is the proposed capture of Tam, who is well known for miles and miles about the country as a wonderful little racer. Yes, Molly understands
at last. She has seen in the starlight the lariat as it missed Tam's head, and she knows perfectly well that only Tam's speed and sure-footedness can save them. Her heart beats like a trip-hammer, but she keeps a firm hold upon the rein, with a watchful eye for any sudden inequalities of the road, while her ears are strained to catch every sound. Tam's leap forward had given him a moment's advantage, and he keeps it up bravely, his dainty feet almost spurning the ground as he goes on, gaining, gaining, gaining at every step. In a few minutes more they will be out of the reach of any lariat, then in another minute safe at Wallula's door.
In a few minutes! As this thought flashes through Molly's mind, wh-irr, s-st! cuts the still air again and again. Tam drops his head and plunges forward.
Though the starlight is brighter than ever, Molly does not see the lariat but there is something, something - what is it? - that prompts her to fling herself forward face downwards upon Tam's mane; and the lariat that was about to drop over her head once more falls harmless to the ground, and Tam once more seems to know that danger has been escaped, and starts forward again with an exultant bound. They are almost there. Molly sees the smoke from the tepees of the reservation, and a light from a log cabin, and draws a breath of relief. But not yet, oh, brave little frontier girl! oh, gallant little steed! is the race won and the danger passed. Not yet, oh, not yet! for just ahead there is a treacherous pitfall which neither Tam nor his mistress sees - a hollow that some little animal has burrowed out, and into this Tam plunges a fore foot, stumbles, and falls!
"She said, 'I sha'n't forget. I sha'n't break my promise. You'll see, on Christmas eve, I shall send you a Christmas present sure. Now remember.' On Christmas eve! And to-night is Christmas eve!"
Wallula had said this over and over to herself ever since the sun went down. She had kept count of the days from the day that Molly had made her that vehement promise. That promise meant so much to Wallula. It meant not merely a gift, but keeping faith, holding on, making real friends with an Indian girl. And her mother had said "She'll forget, like the rest. White peoples always forget what they say to Indians." And her father had nodded his head when her mother said this. But Wallula had shaken her head, and declared with passionate emphasis more than once:
"Major Molly will never forget - never! You'll see - you'll see!"
Wallula had awakened very early that morning, and the minute she opened her eyes she thought, "This is the day before Christ's day. To-night, 'bout sundown, Major Molly'll keep her promise." All through the day this happy thought was uppermost. In the afternoon she followed Major Molly's instructions, and hung pine wreaths about the cabin.
The short afternoon sped on, and sundown came, and the gray dusk, and then the stars came out.
"Where's your Major Molly now?" asked the mother. There was a sharp accent in the Indian woman's voice, and a bitter expression on her face. But it was not for Wallula, it was for the white girl - the Major Molly who, in breaking her promise to Wallula, had brought suffering upon her; for on Wallula's face the mother could see by this time the shadow of disappointment gathering. It made her think of Metalka. Metalka had gone amongst the white people. She had come back full of belief in them, and it was the white people's white traders with their lies and their broken promises that had hurt Metalka to death. There was only little Wallula left now. Was it going the same way with Wallula? These were some of the Indian mother's bitter resentful thoughts as she watched Wallula's face.
Wallula found it very hard to bear this watchfulness. She felt as if her mother was glad that her prophecy had proved true, that the white girl had broken her promise. But Wallula was wrong. Her mother's bitterness and resentment were the outcome of her anxiety. She would have given anything, have done anything, to have saved Wallula this suffering. If something would only happen to rouse Wallula she thought as she watched her. There had come a visitor to their cabin the other day - the chief of a neighboring tribe. When he saw Wallula, he said he would come again and bring his little daughter. If he would only come soon! If he would only - But hark! what was that? Was it an answer to her wish - her prayer? Was he coming now - now? And jumping to her feet, the woman ran to the door and flung it open. Yes, yes, it was in answer to her prayer, for there, over the turf, she could see a horse speeding toward her; it was coming at break-neck speed. "Wallula! Wallula!" she turned and called. An echo seemed to repeat, "Lula, Lula." At that echo Wallula leaped up, and sped past her mother with the fleetness of a fawn, calling as she did so, "I'm coming, coming!" In the next instant the wondering woman saw her child running, as only an Indian can run, by the side of a jet-black pony whose coat was flecked with foam, and whose breath was well-nigh spent. As they came nearer, into the pathway of light that the pine blaze sent forth from the open door, something that looked like a pennon of gold streamed out, and a clear but rather shaken voice cried, "Lula, Lula, I've kept my promise, I've kept my promise!"
The next moment the owner of the voice had slid from the pony's back into Wallula's arms, and Wallula was stroking the streaming golden hair and crying jubilantly, "She's kept her promise! she's kept her promise!"
"Yes, I've kept my promise. I've brought your Christmas present, there it is in that box
strapped across Tam. If somebody 'll unstrap it and see to Tam, we'll go into the house, and I'll tell you what a race I've had. I can only stay a few minutes, for I must get to the fort if your father 'll go with me; I don't dare to go alone, now."
"To the fort?" asked Wallula, wonderingly.
"Yes, I'm going there to dinner; but let's go in. I'm so tired I can hardly stand, and Tam -"
But as a glance showed her that Tam was being cared for, and that Wallula's mother was carrying the box into the house, Major Molly followed on with a sigh of relief, and doffing the riding-suit that covered her dress, flung herself down before the blazing fire, and began to tell her story. When she came to the point where Tam stumbled and fell forward, she burst out excitedly:
"Oh, Lula, Lula! I thought then I should never get here, and I don't know how we did it, Tam and I, I don't know how we did it, but I kept my seat, and I gave a great pull. I felt as strong as a man, and I cried, 'Tam! Tam! Tam!' and Tam - oh, I don't know how he did it - Tam got to his feet again, and then he flew, flew, flew over the ground. We'd lost a minute, and I expected every second the lariat would catch us sure after that, but it didn't, it didn't, and I'm here safe and sound. I've kept my promise, I've kept my promise, Lula."
"Yes, she kep' her promise, she kep' her promise! repeated Wallula, in glad triumphant accents, glancing at her mother, and at the tall gaunt figure of her father standing in the shadow of the doorway.
Wallula was a young girl, and this mystery of a Christmas box was of full delight to her; but just then a greater delight - the joy of Major Molly's fidelity - made her forget everything else. But Molly did not forget. The minute she had finished her story she sprang to her feet, and produced the contents of the box. Wallula clapped her hands with delight when the pretty bright dress was held up before her.
"Just like Major Molly's! Just like Major Molly's! See! See!" she called out to her father and mother.
The mother nodded and smiled. The father's eyes lighted with an expression of deep gratification; then he leaned forward eagerly, and said to Molly,
"Tell 'gain 'bout where you saw - heard - lar'yet."
"Just as we got to the little pine trees where the old Sioux trail stops," answered Molly, promptly.
"Yah," ejaculated the Indian, grimly, in a tone of conviction. Then, turning, he took down a Winchester rifle, slung it over his shoulder, and started towards the door, saying to Molly as he did so: "You stay here with Wallula. I go up to fort and tell 'em 'bout you."
"Oh, take me with you, take me with you!" cried Molly, jumping up.
The Indian shook his head. When Molly insisted, he said, tersely: "No, not safe for little white girl yet. Maje Molly stay here till I come back."
Molly's face fell. Wallula stole up to her. "I got bewt'ful Chris'mas present for Maje Molly," she said, softly. "Maje Molly stay see it with Wallula."
"You dear!" cried Molly, flinging her arm round Wallula.
The Indian father nodded his head vigorously, and his face shone with satisfaction. "Yes, yes!" he said. "Wallula take care you. You stay till I come back."
In looking at and trying on the "bewt'ful Chris'mas present" - a pair of elaborately embroidered moccasins lined and bordered with rabbit fur - and in dressing Wallula up in the tartan dress, the time flew so rapidly, that long before Molly expected it, the cabin door opened
again, and the tall gaunt figure reappeared.
Behind it followed another figure. Molly ran forward as she saw it, and, "Papa, papa," she cried, "I waited and waited for Barney, and he didn't come; and I couldn't bear for Lula not to have her Christmas present to-night for I'd promised it to her to-night. She told me when I promised that white people always broke their promises to Indians, and I said over and over that I wouldn't break my promise; and I couldn't, I couldn't break it, papa."
"You did quite right, my little daughter - quite right."
There was something in her father's manner as he said this, a seriousness in his voice and in his eyes that surprised Molly. She was still more surprised when the Indian suddenly said: "She little brave; she come all 'way 'lone to keep promise, so she not hurt my Wallula. She make me believe more good in white peoples; so I go to fort - I keep friends."
"You've been a friend indeed. I sha'n't forget it; we'll none of us forget it, Washo," said Captain Ellison; and he put out his hand as he spoke, and grasped the brown hand of the Indian in a warm friendly clasp.
At the fort everything was literally "up in arms"; that is, set in order for business, and that meant ready for resistance or attack. Molly had lived most of her fourteen years at some Western military post, and she recognized at once this "order" as she rode in.
"What did it mean?" she asked again, as the Colonel himself met her and hurried her into the dining-room. And the Colonel himself answered her.
"It means, my dear, that Major Molly has saved us from being surprised by the enemy, and that means that she has saved us from a bloody fight."
"I - I -" faltered Molly. Then like a flash her mind cleared, and she struck her little hand on the table and cried: "It was an Indian, an unfriendly Indian, who followed me, and Washo
knew it when I told my story!"
"Yes, Washo knew it, and, more than that, he had known for some days that those particular Indians had been planning a raid upon us, and he didn't interfere - he didn't warn us, because he had begun to think that we were all bad white traders, and he wouldn't meddle with these braves who proposed to punish us, though he wouldn't go on the warpath with them. But, Major Molly, when he heard your story, when he saw how one of us could be a little white brave in keeping a promise to an Indian, for your sake he relented towards the rest of us."
"And when he asked me to tell him where I first heard the lariat -"
"When he asked you that, he was making sure that it was his Sioux friends, for he knew they were to send out a scout, who would take exactly that direction."
"But why - why did the scout chase me?"
"He was after Tam, no doubt, for this Sioux band is probably short of ponies, and Tam, you know, is a famous fellow, and the moment the scout caught sight of him he would give chase."
"Did he get Ranger that way? And where, oh, where, is poor Barney?"
"The probability is, that the scout visited the corral first, and captured Ranger, who is almost as famous as Tam."
"But Barney; oh, oh do you think Barney has been killed?"
"We don't know yet, my dear; your father has gone off to the ranch with a squad of men. He'll soon find out what's happened to Barney. And don't fret, my dear, about your father" - seeing a new anxiety on Molly's face - "the raiders by this time have seen our signals, and have found out we're up and doing, and more than a match for them; so don't fret; don't fret any of you," turning to his wife and Mrs. Elliston. "I don't think there'll be so much as a skirmish."
And the Colonel was right. When the Indians saw the signals, and the other signs of activity, they knew that their only chance of overcoming the whites by taking them unawares was gone. There were a few shots fired, but no skirmish, and by the time the moon rose, the fort scouts brought in word that the whole band had departed over the mountains. A few minutes after, when Captain Elliston rode in, the satisfaction was complete, for he brought with him the news of Barney's safety. Ranger, however, was gone. The Indian - or Indians, for there were two of them at that point - had succeeded in capturing him just as Barney had started out from the corral. A stealthy step, a skillful use of the lariat, and Barney was bound and gagged, that he might give no alarm; and all this with such quiet Indian alertness, that a ranchman further down the corral heard nothing.
So harmlessly ended this raid, that might have been a bloody battle but for Major Molly's Christmas promise!