The Solitary Path of Courage
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I had been crouched for a long time in the tangy, earthy smelling hayloft, and my baggy pants with patched knees and crumpled plaid cotton shirt were drenched in perspiration. To make matters worse, it felt like a platoon of a hundred fire ants was swarming across my body to the cadence of a silent bugler.
It was probably just some brittle stalks of hay savagely poking through the loosely woven fabric of my hand-me-down garments. Nevertheless, every few minutes I scratched, wriggled, and tunneled my way through the messy piles of hay. It was only when a splintered board noisily groaned under my weight that I became silent.
If the renegade Indians in the cow pasture ventured closer to the barn and heard me, I could be kidnapped, even killed. Earlier when I sprinted to the ramshackle structure for safety, frenzied whooping resonated through the nearby forest. Then galloping horses' hooves splashed through a shallow creek and wildly pounded on the parched ground near the pasture. I ran for my life!
The sudden ferocity of the small band of Indians was shocking. The local tribes of Nez Perce and Cayuse were known to be peaceful, even good neighbors. Yet rumors abounded in recent days of gold fever striking settlers and Indians alike when gold and silver was discovered on tribal lands.
The endless waiting in the hayloft was unbearable! Patience is not my greatest virtue; in fact, I don't lay claim to it being my virtue at all. More than anything, I wanted to ease my way out of the prickly hay and steal a look through a broken plank in the roughly hewn wall. But the risk of discovery outweighed my growing crankiness.
Irritably, my lengthy body squirmed back into its prison of hay. My lively imagination added a hoard of spiders and a few field mice to the cavalry of ants fighting for dominance on the moist battleground of my sweating body. At least my vivid thoughts kept me alert and ready to defend myself.
All at once, there was an ominous silence. It not only gave me goose bumps and reminded me of the eeriness of a graveyard tomb overrun with weeds and cobwebs, but it was unnerving after the ear-splitting shrieks of whooping! My heartbeat rhythmically drummed in my ears like tom-toms in a war dance.
Even stranger, the reassuring splotches of midday sun, which had been streaming through the hairline cracks in the barn timbers, began transforming to a malevolent blackness of a threatening thunderstorm. I trembled in fear for what might be happening in the pasture.
In the six months since being coldheartedly dumped in the Idaho Territory, I found the erratic weather to be a cause for alarm. Especially disturbing were the impressive displays of lightning and thunder roaring through the impassable rock formations of the mountains. The sheer vastness of the breathtaking cliffs sent storms ricocheting in every direction and causing climatic chaos, or so it seemed to a city girl like me from Chicago.
Like the volatile weather, the local Native American population was said to be growing unpredictable. I hadn't lived in Idaho long enough to know much about either the weather or the Indians, but instinct told me it was foolish to take any chances with either one.
For years, the Nez Perce and Cayuse had accepted the presence of white settlers and missionaries in the area. In fact, some regularly attended the Protestant services and even helped with farming chores on the communal mission lands, where I was living with my newly adopted family. Every so often, it seemed something unexpectedly set the local Natives off. Similarly, Native Americans in other parts of the United States became restless when lands were threatened or government promises broken. All guesses were off on what caused the incident in the pasture.
Today's attack occurred at noon. Earlier in the morning, the missionary compound was a deceptive picture of peace with cows mooing and a sultry breeze blowing through the shade trees. Since ten o'clock, I'd been sprawled on a roughly hewn lawn chair made of coarse wooden slats. With a giant canopy of leafy elm trees over my head, the cooling shade thankfully provided some relief from another sweltering fall day. It would be inaccurate to describe my activity as relaxing in a lawn chair. I was actually serving the terms of my punishment for throwing a tin cup of water at my insufferable older stepbrother Lukas. Talk about being one of the most pig-headed human beings I've ever met!
The morning debacle went down like this. While my stepmother was scrambling eggs at the cast iron stove, Lukas was cracking jokes to his other siblings about my boyish behavior. Although I was peeved, I remained silent. Because I've only been part of the Thompson family since spring and my position in the crowded household is precarious at best, I rarely verbalized my complaints.
Getting back to this morning's episode, throwing water on Lukas' taunting face was a gratifying necessity. Unbeknownst to me, my older stepbrother innocently pretended to drop a half-eaten piece of bread under the family-sized oaken table. While he was supposedly picking up the crust, he secretly knotted the leather shoelaces of my sturdy work boots together.
When the meal was done, I unsuspectingly stood up and began to stack dishes, or at least that was my intention. Instead, my torso lurched forward as my feet got tangled on a chair leg. Several pottery bowls helplessly toppled from my hands and crashed into shards on the hardwood floor. As if all that weren't bad enough, I gracelessly sprawled like falling mop, resulting in a huge bruise on my cheek.
My real father, a devout Christian, always taught me to be well-mannered, but this time my enraged response was swift and uninhibited. Looking back, it was actually quite impressive though out of character for me. After letting loose with a colorful string of expletives my father's railroad cronies regularly used, my entire tin cup of water magically catapulted sideways onto Lukas' sardonic face. His shocked expression was priceless!
It was a definite lapse in judgment. This is a religious mission, and off-color words and temper tantrums are not tolerated. The entire household was thrown into a full-fledged tizzy, except for my nemesis, Lukas, whose inscrutable dark eyes seemed to glint with admiration at my uncontrolled outburst.
Although it was pleasurable watching beads of water drip through my stepbrother's thick brown eyebrows, I was actually filled with remorse. Not only had I offended my strict stepmother but also my impressionable younger stepsisters and stepbrother Josh.
As I was preparing an apology, my stepmother jumped into the fracas and reprimanded only me, not the real culprit Lukas. I became stone silent and swallowed any intended words of regret. Completely ignoring the bruise on my cheek or my shoelaces being tied together, she chastised me for my foul mouth and ingratitude toward my new family.
My punishment was to read a lengthy illustrated book on comportment for young ladies in the hope of learning proper manners and ladylike behavior. Lydia Thompson, whom I address according to her specific wishes as Ma'am or Miss Lydia rather than Mother, warned me my lack of manners and poor attitude would prevent me from finding a suitable man to marry someday. Talk about misunderstanding someone! If a man acted like Miss Lydia's precious son Lukas, who would want one? Not me!
So that is why I was relaxing under the elm trees near the pasture with the aromatic smell of cow patties wafting past my nose. It still seems strange I was learning how to say please and thank you when the Indian raid began.