Read an Excerpt
The Strange Letter
HIS NAME is Peter Lundy and he has just turned twelve, and he thought the letter he’d found was meant for him. It began, Dear, dear Peter . . .
There was no mistaking his mother’s fine, round handwriting, and it was like her to plant surprises in secret, yet where he’d be sure to find them. Sometimes he came upon a picture she’d sketched, or a piece of rock candy, or a riddle. And one merry Christmas, she made an Indian headdress of magpie feathers and hung it on the hatrack without a word. He knew from the way the headband fitted that she intended it for him. He wore it for weeks, even to bed. But never before had there been a letter.
His mother was always inventing ways for him to enjoy himself. Every spring when he caught the quinsy sore throat, like now, she planned exciting things for him to do. Last year she taught him to slit-braid rawhide into quirts and headstalls.
And this year—this very night when he was still abed but practically well—she handed him her treasure chest with its gold hasp, and a gold key in the shape of a question mark. “Likely you’ll laugh at my tomboy keepsakes,” she said. “Some go ’way back to when I was eleven, twelve.”
As Peter turned the key and lifted the lid, a curious feeling came over him. The treasures he saw might well have been his own—that is, if his father had permitted the hoarding of stones flecked pink and green, and a miniature nest that must have belonged to a hummer bird, and hairs from a horse’s tail, and a blue-racer snakeskin. He was pleased to find a tiny exercise book with childish printing on the cover:
Historick Dates to Remember
Columbus landed in the New World 1492
First horses landed at Santo Domingo 1493
Funny, Peter thought, that his mother would care when or where the first horses landed. Or was it her schoolmaster who cared?
Rummaging deeper into the chest, he came upon a piece of oiled paper folded over several times. Gingerly he laid the paper open and found a coil of hair so silken he couldn’t help stroking it with his fingertips. The color matched the gold of a California sorrel he’d once seen—not flaxen, like the mane or tail, but pure glinty gold. Now he spied a tag. In his mother’s handwriting he read, Peter Lundy. His first haircut. November 13, 1847. Age two years; eight months.
Peter laughed to himself, blushing for admiring his own baby hair! He looked around the room to see if anyone were watching. But Grandma Lundy was dozing in her rocker, the almanac forked over her head like a tepee to shut out the firelight. Baby Aileen slept too, while his mother foot-rocked the cradle and worked on his new shirt. He noticed that his mother’s hair almost matched the lock he held, except that hers was coppered some by the firelight.
He tucked the curl back into the paper and placed it where he’d found it. He was about to close the chest when his eye fell upon a pocket in the lid, and edging out of it the letter.
His excitement mounted as he unfolded it and saw the pictures flying across the pages. It was like finding a book written just for him. He settled deeper into bed, squirming and pawing like a dog until the cornhusks made a snug nest around him. He pulled up the buffalo robe covering. Then, holding the pages aslant to catch the candlelight, he began again:
Dear, dear Peter . . .
He could hear his mother say the words with a bird-lilt to her voice. But as he read on, a nameless fear spread over him. This didn’t sound like her at all. Why, she was forever humming or singing, until Pa said she made him jumpy. Could it be that her happiness was all make-believe? He read the disturbing sentence again, wondering how anyone who sang most all day could write:
There is nothing half so sad as living. I feel like one forsaken . . .
Was the letter planted on purpose? Did his mother figure that writing him about her feelings was easier than talking them out?
. . . Jethro, as you know, has never been the same since that terrifying experience.
Why did she say Jethro instead of your father? And what experience did he have?
Far out on the plain a coyote wailed his thin, quavering note. Usually the sound sent him off to sleep, like the wind of the prairie. But tonight the familiar howl chilled him.
Peter longed to cry out, “Ma! Oh, Ma! What was it that happened to Pa?” But his throat choked on the words. The woolen sock around his neck was suffocating him. Having the quinsy used to be cozy; he felt isolated and free of his father. Would the “terrifying experience” explain why Pa seldom spoke—or else burst into rages?
Half fearful of learning more, yet driven by curiosity, Peter read on.
Jethro continues to brood over the past that scarred him. His anger toward the world grows instead of lessens. My heart comes into my mouth whenever he enters the house, for I never know if the bitterness will be in him. He does crazy-wild things then. The last time he stamped like a buffalo on my bleeding-heart bush that had just begun bearing necklaces of pink hearts. It was my strongest link with home. Remember how we used to open up the flowers?
Anger suddenly welled in Peter. So that was it! That’s what had happened to the bush his mother prized. Why, all summer everyone’s leftover bath water was saved for the bleeding hearts. Grandma loved them, too. When they blossomed, she and Ma acted like children, taking one of the flowers apart to show Peter how each was made up of two pink rabbits, two Cinderella slippers, a pair of drop earrings, and a green bottle. His father, coming in unexpectedly one day, caught them separating the petals. “A fine thing to teach a lad!” he said, his eyes cold as glass. “If there’s anything I can’t abide, it’s a milksop of a boy.”
Peter remembered how his mother had gone to her loom then, giving no answer at all.
He read on.
How I miss the dear United States, and especially Syracuse. They seem far away as the moon. Sometimes I feel I’m drowning in an ocean of buffalo grass. From here at Rawhide Creek to the Laramie Mountains, as far as the eye can reach, there is not a tree in sight. Only a lone wild plum tree and a few willows weeping along the creeks that always seem either dry or flooding their banks.
Daily I watch the westward trek of covered wagons, and the weary emigrants expecting paradise around the next bend, or Indians! The footsore horses, mules, and oxen are the worst sufferers. It was not their idea to go West. Yesterday Peter and I saw a kitten actually riding on the face of a plodding horse. The kitten’s hind paws were steadied on the horse’s noseband. The two creatures seemed to take comfort, one from the other—somewhat the way young Peter and I do. He is the light of my life, and I never cease to wonder at the miracle of his understanding.
Peter swallowed hard. Suddenly he understood the letter was not his. It was intended for his Uncle Peter!
When I think of Peter’s future, I tremble for him. He admires the strength of his father but is bewildered by his coldness one moment and his hot temper the next, and his constant criticism. Yet the boy manages to eke out his own happiness. He loves this great wild-horse country where the eagles nest. The prairie is his element, his school. In a howling gale he’ll stand utterly still and listen, the way you and I would to a symphony. He is fascinated, too, by the people—the hunters and trappers, the bullwhackers and mountain men, but most of all by the Indians. They are around us at all times. Peter drums and sings with them. They call him Yellow Hair and tousle him in affection.
Peter turned another page in guilty eagerness.
When Indians come to the house for food, I have no fear of them, but if we were to meet in the wilderness, I’d be terrified. The one time I saw Chief Red Cloud in a savage mood was the day someone stole his horse from our hitching rack. He caught the thief and revenge came swift and deadly.
Just last week some Sioux big chiefs, including Red Cloud, Red Dog and Brave Bear, broke bread with us. (It was more than bread, I might add.) I felt sorry for them, padding around in the morning chill with nothing to cover them but a breechcloth; so it did my heart good to watch them clean their plates of good nourishing rice with raisins and drink it down with a whole boilerful of hot coffee.
“Pooty damn good!” they said by way of good-bye, taking one of my spoons along with them and sheepishly returning it next day.
Baby Aileen and Grandma may waken at any moment, so I’ll answer your questions in haste.
Peter glanced up, as if the letter were being written this moment. Aileen and Grandma were still asleep.
Yes! Jethro’s Trading Post and Smithy is busy as a hive. Being on the westbound trail, there’s a constant stream of wagons to mend, harness to repair, and animals to shoe. Peter and his Dalmatian are stout helpers, although Jethro doesn’t admit it. The dog, a starveling named Dice, was given Peter by a gambler. He is quite a hypnotist, staring the horses into submission when they are being shod.
Don’t worry about us in our soddy-house; it is warm in winter and cool in summer. At the moment it is falling into disrepair and will need fresh sodding before another winter. Sometimes a brave sunflower grows right out of the roof!
Your little niece, Aileen, is eight months old now, plump as a berry, with the dark hair and eyes of Jethro, who adores her.
Grandma Lundy has just turned eighty-six. She lives in a childlike world of her own. When Jethro rants and storms, she crawls into her cocoon and sleeps, or pretends sleep. Sometimes I think Peter is the most adult member of our family.
Peter was struck with the sudden knowing that children of the plains grow up quicker. If Ma thought of him as “adult,” he’d ask right out, “What was the terrifying experience Pa had?” Just as soon as he read the one page that was left, he’d ask.
Please understand, dear brother, that I sympathize with Jethro’s black moods—if only they didn’t recur so often when I am tutoring Peter in reading, and we are both laughing over some droll saying of Rip Van Winkle’s or Natty Bumppo’s. Someday, when Peter is old enough, I shall tell him the whole hideous story. But oh! meanwhile, why does Jethro have to look upon Peter as a competitor for my affection? Certain it is I give my love to both, each to his needs. I long to be a strong bridge between them, but somehow the rift keeps widening until I am at a loss which way to turn.
I’ve not spoken of this to anyone, much less written it.
An outrider stopped yesterday to say that Blodgett’s Express would come flying by tomorrow, going east. So you should receive this letter within the month. By then my life may hopefully be better.
Your loving sister,
P.S. I still have our funny old glass cat. She sits by the fire scaring away the mice in the night. And I love our old clock that chimes the hours and the quarters.
Peter blinked. He felt as if he had been reading forever, and now was caught in a web so tight and sticky that nothing could wrench him free. He folded and quickly hid the letter in the pocket of the chest where he’d found it. He wondered why it had never been sent. Did Blodgett’s never come by? Did Ma just stow away the letter and forget it?
He closed and locked the lid. He pinched the candle into darkness. Making no sound, he placed the chest on the stool beside his bed. Without saying good night, he turned face down into his pillow. Tears burned his eyes. He tried to swallow, but couldn’t for the pain. It was not the quinsy anymore, but a deeper misery he couldn’t understand. The mother he worshiped was keeping a secret locked away from him, a secret that might make him less afraid of his father. Or—the thought terrified him—could it make him more afraid?
“I’ve got to leave home,” he told himself, “to make things easier for Ma. Pa won’t get angry so often. I’ll join up with an emigrant family heading west . . . to Fort Bridger, maybe. Or maybe to California. I can round up their cattle and drive ’em; and I’ll even gather buffalo chips for their fires. Or maybe I’ll join the Sioux tribe; they’re good to young boys.”
He felt the beginnings of homesickness even before he left. Baby Aileen was awake now, making gurgling noises. Too bad she would grow up never knowing she had a big brother, name of Peter. Someday he might come home, man-grown, and surprise her and Ma. Or maybe he’d never come home at all.