Saturday, October 22, 2011

CHRISTINA CONFRONTS INDIANS

          The following chapter is from my novel Christina's Saga: From Norway to Dakota Territory. The fictionalized story of my Norwegian Grandmother who came to America at 19 alone, and homesteaded in South Dakota.  In this chapter she is still single and living in a sod shanty.


THE INDIANS

Christina's neighbors a mile and half due east were Meyer and Olga Pearson and their two daughters.   It was Olga Pearson's wooden house that Emma Efrainson felt indicated too much wealth for them to be homesteaders.  The Pearsons had come to Dakota Territory in 1879 and built one of the first wooden houses in that part of the county.   

            In the spring of 1883 just after planting time, Meyer Pear­son got an offer of a job in Michigan to earn money so they could keep the homestead going.  Olga stayed behind with the two little girls to work the farm.

Christina was feeding the chickens when Olga and her two daughters came hurrying across the prairie.  She had a girl's hand in each of hers and was practically dragging them along. They stopped, out of breath in front of Christina. The dust on Olga's cheeks had pathways that were still damp from tears. 

The five-year-old's head was lightly covered with wispy white hair.  Ella’s large soulful blue eyes made even the most reserved want to pick her up and take care of her.  Her need to elicit protection was in part related to her seven-year-old sister Anna's ability to cause accidents to happen.  The older girl with her freckles and reddish cast to her blond hair had a look of potential mischief about her.    

Under calm conditions Olga was high strung.  When things went less than well, she reacted with panic.  The girls seldom saw strangers and had picked up some of their mother's tendency to overreact.  Now they stayed silently behind their mother, the littler one hanging on to her skirt and peeking out from behind her mother at Christina. 

             Olga caught her breath and gasped, "Christina, are the Bakke's home?"

            "No, they and the boys have gone off to Brookings.  They won't be back for two or three days."   Christina waited for Olga to explain the emergency.  She knew Olga had trouble in knowing what was a real crisis.   There were times she had been very fearful one day, and on the next couldn't have told you what she was so worried about.  

            Still out of breath from the exertion, Olga said, “We're all alone out here then?"

            "I guess. Why?"

             "A man rode by our farm this morning.  He said we should all pack up and go into town.  Some of the Indians left the reserva­tion and have gone on the warpath again.  He said they're likely to come here killing and burning."

            "I never heard of Indians around here giving us any trouble," Christina cautioned.

            "Christina, it's only a few years ago that they rose up in Minnesota and killed all those poor settlers.  Those awful sav­ages are born to raise hell and kill.  They don't want us around these parts.  This was their hunting grounds.  They're still mad at us for coming and using it like God intended, to grow food and raise God fearing folks like my girls here."   The thought gave her strength; she squared her shoulders and a look of pride appeared on her face.

            "You think we should go to town then?"  Christina asked as she scattered the last grains of corn to the chickens.

            "No, I don't want to leave my new home.  Meyer and I worked too hard to build it for some beasts to burn it down and steal everything.   I don't know what to do, but I'm not leaving!"

            Christina thought a moment.  "I think we should go to town.  If they burn the house, you can always make another one."

            "If we try to walk to town, they could catch us in the open, and we'd be worse off,” Olga protested.   "I won't go.  If I can't find nobody to help me, I'll just stay at the house with the girls."

            Christina looked at her soddy.  “Well, if the Indi­ans want my sod shanty, they can have it.  If it was a nice house built of wood, maybe I wouldn't leave either."

            The four took off across the wind swept grass for the Pear­son farm.   The light breeze carried vestiges of the land it passed over, a light smell of skunk, dry grasses, newly turned sod.   If they had stopped and let the odors envelop them, they would have found traces of the smoke of a far off grass fire.

            Christina turned and saw the Pearsons falling behind.  Olga's face was flushed with the exertion of trying to match Christina's pace.  Christina had to slow down her long stride so that the Pearson girls could keep up.  The little girl's eyes were still wide with fright.  Silently they trotted in their bare feet attempting to stay close to their mother.

            It only took thirty minutes to get to the Pearson house.  Fifty yards from the house Olga stopped and examined the build­ings and the yard for anything that was out of the ordinary.  From that distance all appeared normal.  The women still ap­proached the house cautiously.  When they were in the yard, Olga jerked her head toward the house.  “Might be Indians in there."

            Christina walked up to around the house and cupped her hands against the glass.  "It's all quiet in there.  There's no sign of any movement."

            Olga pulled the children closer to her side and picked up Ella.  "Christina, you go in first."

            Pushing the door open with her foot, Christina stepped in.    All was quiet in the room.  Her eyes checked every corner.  Against the wall next to the hearth was a long, heavy looking rifle.  She went to the door, "Olga, do you have bullets for Meyer's gun?"

"I don't know.  He hides them somewhere so the girls can't find them."  She cautiously entered the room.  "Let me think.  Maybe he's got them in his box he calls his useful this and thats."   She went into a bedroom, pulled a large box out from under the bed and began to search in it.   "I don't know how he ever finds anything in this box.  Look at this mess, nails, hammers, pinchers, steel spikes, tongs and all kinds   of junk jumbled together." 

            She took pieces out until she found a box containing the large bullets labeled, “Springfield rifle."  She handed  the box to Christina who tore it open and put a handful of the large car­tridges into her apron pocket and picked up the rifle and stepped outside.   

            Olga followed her and in a voice filled with awe asked, "Can you really shoot that?"

            "I seen Bjorklund do it.  I can figure it."  She set the gun against the wall and straightened her dress.  The respite allowed her to become aware that her hair had come loose and was getting in her eyes.  First she took a deep breath to collect her thoughts, and she took a moment to readjust her hair.  Finally she said, "We're not going to see any Indians, but I got to know how to use the gun anyway."  

            She pointed to the open area south of the house.  "Get all the animals out of the way down that way, and I'll see if I figure how to shoot this thing."  

            Olga pushed the children away from her and toward the small fenced in area where the shed was, in which the fowl were kept at night to keep them safe from coyotes and weasels.   With a whoop the two children began chasing the chickens and the two ducks into their small coop.  The running cheered them up and the little one began laughing with pleasure as she sprinted after the rooster who was insisting on keeping his freedom to hunt worms in the manure pile.

            With the animals out of the way Christina looked over the ground for a target.   The coming and goings of animals and people kept the yard clear of grass, and the roughly plowed ground with its large clods began just a short distance away.   Christina thought, "We are changing the land.  In just the few years since I came, it is different, but is it really different?"   She stood a few moments longer admiring the vast distance to the horizon where the deep blue sky with a touch of cottony clouds began.

            A yelp from Ella, who had just gotten the rooster in the coop, broke her reverie, and she refocused on the land immediately in front of her.   She settled on a rock about the size of a loaf of bread 25 yards away.  "I'll shoot at that white rock over yonder."     

            She picked up the gun to load it, trying to look as if she knew what she was doing, but the gun didn't cooperate.  It acted as if it were developing a will of its own.   It tipped out of her hands, hit the ground nose first shoving dirt into the barrel.  Christina casually dug the dirt out with her little finger.  Placing her left hand midway up the barrel and holding the stock on her hip, she brought the gun into a position where she could flip open the trapdoor and insert a bullet.  Then she snapped the trap door shut, struggled to pull the heavy hammer back and raised the gun to her shoulder.  

            Questions bounced around in her head.  "Why didn't I get someone to show me how to do this?  How tight do I hold it?   Will it hurt when it shoots?  Why doesn't it hold steady?  It keeps moving.  I didn't know it was so heavy."    

             To be safe she kept a light hold on it.  She pulled the trigger.  Her head jerked back from the shock of the explosion.  Smoke vomited from the barrel.   Dust billowed up from where the gun hit the ground ten feet away.

            Olga rushed over to her.  "Christina, Christina, are you all right?" she cried.

            Christina looked herself up and down to make sure   all of her pieces were still in place.  She flexed her arms, shook her hands to bring back feeling.  "I think so.  It was a bigger bang than I expected."   Picking up the gun, she brushed off the dust, flipped open the trapdoor, shook the spent cartridge out.   It fell at her feet in the dust.     

            She took another precious bullet out of her apron pocket and clicked it into the chamber.  A part of her apron caught in the mechanism, and it refused to close.  Opening the trap door, she ripped the apron bringing an, "Oof da," from her lips.  Finally ready, she cautioned herself, "Tight, remember hold it tight."   Following her instructions she pulled the gun tight against her shoulder.   Pointing it in the general direction of the rock, she pulled the trigger. 

            With the explosion a heavy jolt hit her.  She was thrown backward, sprawling on the ground.   This time it was her bottom and not the gun that raised the cloud of dust.

            She sat for a moment, breathless and stunned by the impact.  When she found her voice, she shouted at Olga in delight, "This time I held the gun.   Now if I can find how to stay on my feet, maybe I'll shoot good."   

            Still sitting on the ground she took out the spent cartridge and reloaded the chamber.   She was developing  a new respect for what the gun could do to her but also what it might do to any­thing that the bullet might hit.  Setting her legs apart, holding the gun tight against her shoulder and leaning into the coming shock, she pulled the trigger.  This time both she and the gun stayed in place. She had closed her eyes at the noise and the impact against her shoulder and didn't see where the bullet landed.  There was elation in her voice when she asked, "Did I hit it?"      

Olga shook her head.  "No, you missed.  It went way off there to the side."  She pointed out a spot way to the side and some 50 yards in back of the rock. 

            "These bullets cost," Christina said,   "I'll shoot just two more.  I need to keep some for when the Indians come."   The last two practice shots fell closer to the rock.  She thought, "If I aimed at an Indian, he would have still been standing all in one piece.  Well, I can't hit nothing.  Maybe the noise and smoke will scare the savages off." 

            The gunfire reassured Olga that they were now prepared for the Indians.  The worry lines in her face disappeared, and for the first time she smiled.  "It's hot out here with no shade.  Let's go inside, and I'll make us some coffee."

            The rest of the day passed uneventfully.   Ella and Anna played in the yard, and Olga checked for Indians only three or four times an hour.  At bedtime she said, "I think we can sleep good.  Meyer told me that Indians won't attack at night.  If they are killed in battle, their spirit can't find its way to the happy hunting grounds in the dark."

            Olga got up at the first sign of sun and began pacing nerv­ously from one window to another.  It was late morning when she suddenly froze in her tracks and cried, “Christina, get the gun--the savages are coming!"

            Christina stepped out on the porch, squinted trying to make out the figures.  Given the flatness of the land and lack of trees, they were still a fair distance off and neither their sex or race could be made out.  "There's only two of them and they're afoot.   Maybe they ain't Indians."

            "They're probably just the scouts.  The others will be right behind."  Olga said in a reassuring voice.   Christina and the girls were not comforted.

            Christina chest became tighter and her breathing more diffi­cult as the two figures approached.   They were coming across the grassland from the direction of her farm.   No others appeared in back of them.  "Christina, they may just be testing us.  Watch them carefully."

            "Well, they do look like Indians all right, and they are coming right for the house."  

            Olga wrung her hands and got tears in her eyes.  Christina's heart was beating so loudly she was sure Olga could hear it.  The sweat on her palms was making it difficult to keep the gun in a ready position.  Thoughts fought each other, "They don't look dangerous.   You really can't tell.   They could be trying to fool us.  If I shoot I'll miss. The smoke and noise might scare them away."

            Olga pushed the children toward the house. "Girls, go in the house and stay under the bed.  Don't come out until I come in to get you.  Now scoot."   She came back to stand 20 feet behind Christina, lending moral but not physical support.  "Maybe you should shoot a warning shot to let them know we got a gun."

            "No, the way I shot yesterday I might hit one of them by mistake.  Then they'll get really mad.  We'll let them come closer.  They may not be dangerous."

            "Savages are always dangerous.  We can't trust them.  Please, Christina, shoot at them."              

 "No."

            The Indians stopped 20 yards away.  It was a male and a female.   They looked at the rifle that Christina held in her arms and showed no fear of it. They seemed to expect white pio­neer women to stand around their yards with a gun in their hands.   In a loud whisper Olga said, "They're wearing Christian folk's clothes.  Maybe they've already killed somebody."

            Christina snorted, “If they killed somebody for those clothes, it was some time ago.  They're awfully dirty and torn to be recent.  That coat he's wearing wouldn't flatter a scarecrow."

            Christina could see that the couple were neither old nor young.  But she didn't know how fast Indians aged.  She would have to ask someone about that. The man was barefoot but the woman had moccasins on her feet.  Both of them had hair that was long and black and shiny with grease.  The woman had a red band around her head and the man had on an old felt hat.  They were, even by the loose standards of the two pioneer women, unbelieva­bly dirty. 

            The man held his hand up in greeting.   There was no sign of a weapon on either of them.   The man pointed to his stomach, then moved his hand to his mouth and chewed. 

            Olga asked, "What's he doing?"

            "He's asking for food."  Christina stepped closer to the Indians.  They looked frail.   They were not at all like the vicious bloodthirsty savages she had expected.  Reassured by their appearance, she moved within five feet of them and looked into the man's eyes.  He stared back passively.  There was no fear or hate.   Then she looked into the woman's eyes and was surprised by the look of pleading.  The woman's large eyes brought back memories of Bossy as she lay dying.  These people were hungry.  Hunger she could understand.  Her nervousness had disappeared, but she still felt a need to be cautious.  Not taking her eyes off them, she shouted to Olga, "I think if we give them some food, they will move on."

            "No, I will not feed savages," Olga protested.

             "Olga, look at them.  Look at their eyes.  They're harmless, hungry people.  Feed them; let them move on.  You have extra bread and there's meat.  Please, I don't want to see them go on hungry.  It will be a long way before they find anyone with food to give them again."

            Olga hesitated.  Finally she decided that Christina was determined to feed them.  She felt a need to keep her contented.  After all, if more Indians came, Christina with her gun was her only protection.  She gave up her opposition with a, "All right, but I don't think it's a good idea."

             Olga went into her kitchen and brought out bread and cold meat.  She indicated to the Indians that they could not eat near the house.  As they ate, she watched them carefully and indicated to Christina by her facial expression her disgust at the way the Indians wolfed down the food using their hands.

            Christina watched, thankful that she no longer had to go days without a good meal.  She was pleased to be able to help them.   For her the message in their eyes had turned them into two hungry people like herself.   She no longer  saw the two savages that Olga saw.  "Olga, just think; they've had their old life taken away by us coming here."

            Olga looked at her as if Christina were losing her mind.  She was treating these wild people as if they were as good as Christians.  She locked her jaw and held back from saying, "I'll be glad when Meyer gets back.  He talks sense about Indians."

            The next day two more figures moved on the horizon.  Chris­tina quickly recognized by their hats that it was Andrew Bakke and his oldest son, Elmer.

            After Christina explained about their visitors, Andrew went on, "Well, those weren't the ones you'd been warned about.  We heard the story about them on our way home.  A week ago a couple of Indians some distance west of here got hold of some firewater and went on a toot.  You know liquor makes an Indian crazy.   Well, those two stole some cattle and burned down one settler's shack.  Wasn't no one home when they did it, so no one got hurt.  The sheriff got them back on the reservation by now.  I don't know where the Indians you fed might have come from."

            After hearing of her adventures with the gun, Andrew said,   "If we get more savages visiting us, some might be more than hungry.  You've got to learn to shoot the gun better.  I will teach you how to hit the rock."            

"No, I don't want to know more.   Someone else will have to shoot at the Indians."


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