First light. I sat up, keeping quiet. My breath made smoke. Ice studded the iron roofing nails of our loft. Rhoda’s face was ruddy atop her quilt. We’d had a great frost. Was I too late? I must hurry. I slipped off my pallet, pulled on drawers, breeches, wool shirt. Slid belly-bump down the ladder and tiptoed to the front chamber, where a fresh fire crackled. No sound from behind the curtain where Mother and Father slept. Father would be in the barn already. He’d expect me to help him with the chores. But still‘Twas my birthday, and the sun barely peeking over the hill. Surely I could skip the chores this once. It might be my last chance, ‘til spring.
Jody’s tail thumped and I stilled her with my hand. “Good dog. You stay,” I whispered. I wiggled into my jacket, lifted the latch, and went out.
The world was white and shining. Frost coated every blade of grass, whitewashed the tips of corn tassels so they looked like the tails of Mishquashim, the red fox. Sheep muttered in the barn and one of the oxen bellowed as I dashed past. Would Father see me? I stayed low, zigzagged through the cornstalks, and ducked into the woods under the hemlocks. Safe so far.
I crept to the stream bank, keeping to the shadows. A skim of ice floated over the deepest part of the pool, and the water rippled free only in the open. Would I find him?
Dead leaves clogged the branches of my fishweir. “If luck is with me, he’ll show himself,” I whispered. But what if he’d already gone to sleep for the winter?
I slid onto the flat rock and lay on my belly, waiting for the sun to reach the pool. First it stroked the high leaves of the maple with gold, then it warmed my moccasins, next my breeches. Finally, it touched my shoulders and lit the pool, making the ice sparkleThere! Mr. Trout slipped from his hiding place under the roots of the maple. Long as my forearm, he swam slow and regal as a real king, not like that silly King George we trounced in the war. The spots on Mr. Trout’s back flickered in the sunshine. I licked my lips, tasting him already. You’re mine. Mother would chide me, remind me to thank Cautantowwit, our creator, for bringing me this trout. Was Cautantowwit with me? Thank you, I told him, just to be sure, but fixed my eyes on Mr. Trout. Slow and careful, I rose onto my knees. Pushed up my sleeve. Lowered my handSnap! A branch broke. Ker-plash! A stone fell into the pool, soaked me from chin to belly. The trout slipped away. I jumped to my feet.
“Who’s there?” “Caught you!” A strange boy jeered at me. He hopped from foot to foot on the far bank, like someone dancing on hot coals. “Fool!” I shook my fist at him. “What did you do that for?” “Cuz you’re a dirty Injun, that’s why. A savage.” He spat at me, but his spittle blew turned on him in the wind.
I bit the inside of my cheeks so he’d not see how his words stung me. What an ugly face! He was pale as corn samp, and his yellow hair stuck up in a cowlick on the back of his head. “We’ve a gander looks like you,” I called. “For two shillings, I’ll dust your back.” His mouth gave a sudden twist, his eyes opened wide, and he dashed away, his head tucked as if I might really throw him downthough I was on the far side of the brook. Was he that afraid of me? I laughed. “Buffle brain!” I jeered at him. “Yellow coward!” He clapped his hands over his ears and disappeared under the hemlocks.
I leaned against the maple. My heart chattered loud as the squirrel complaining over my head. Who was that? I rubbed my jacket with my hands, as if that word he’d spat at me had stained the deerskin. Injun. A word no one spoke in our house.
He’d left two wooden buckets on the far bank. I crossed the log Father had felled last spring and lifted a bail. The bucket was empty. “He’ll be thirstyand come back.” I set the bucket down and puzzled it out. The ugly gander boy was fetching water, for someone close bybut who, and where?
Only seventeen families in Griswold and no boys near my own age. The blacksmith complained of his four daughters. Mr. Sykes, who carried the freight to Boston, had only little Ephraim, smaller than my sister Rhoda. Timothy Ellis, at the farm next to ours, was taller than Father now. And where was someone to live, here on our hill?
Then I knew. The abandoned cabin in the woods, once belonging to Mr. Amidon, where Father and I hunt for turkeys. The Amidon family left town two years hence, soon after the raid.
The raid. I didn’t like to think on that terrible day, or what happened after. Father said it was past, and we should forget. But none of us could.
The Amidons had no children when they moved off, sso it must be a different family. When Father and I were up to the cabin last spring, it was hardly fit for swine. “Swine.” I laughed out loud. “AAAAAbout right for that gander boy.” I peered into the pool as I crossed the log, but Mr. Trout had gone back to sleep. I jogged for the house, my hands empty and cold.
Not even breakfast timeand my birthday already spoiled.
Injuns, ready to dust my back. They might kill me!
I took off running, away from that boy and his yelling, but the noises chased after me, piling on so fast I covered my ears. Like it happened yesterday, I heard it all again: Gunshots, women screaming bloody murder, oxen bawling. I seen it, too: our house afire. Ma hiding in the privy while the Injun scooped me up, tossed me onto his horse like a sack a barley, the hatchet in his hand. Worst of all, our dead neighbor stared up at me, his eyes bugged out, face all twisted. I fell down under a tree and squinched my eyes shut but I couldn’t chase away that fright. No matter the war was over, the raid long past, still the nightmare followed me day and night, sleeping or waking. It come on when I weren’t even thinking on it. Eyes closed or open, I still saw Uncle Abner stumble around our foreyard, heard him bellow loud as his own ox. Saw the Injuns chase after Abner with spears, heard him howl for me as the Injun carted me away. Would I never forget?
“Hiram! Hi-i-ram!” I uncupped my ears. Sat up and listened. Rubbed my eyes. I weren’t on that Injun horse, but laying on the wet ground. And I weren’t in Royalton. No, we was miles upriver, in some new place called Griswold. There weren’t no house on fire, just red leaves in a maple tree. No screamsjust a sight of jays, scolding me. And in the distance, Pa. Calling me home.
“Hiram!” Pa hailed me again. I put my fingers in my mouth and whistled, the way Uncle Abner taught me afore the raid, afore the fire that ruint our farm and sent us running back to Connecticut like dogs with their tails tucked under their bellies.
I followed Pa’s voice through the timber. What a fool I was. Skairt by a boy hardly bigger than me. Was he even there, or had I seen it all in my dream?
I jogged down the hill. It weren’t until I reached the clearing that I remembered the buckets. I’d forgot to fill them, forgot to tote them home. Pa would lay the switch on me for sure.
But I was lucky this time. Pa and Ma was right where I’d left them, out in the foreyard having words. I ducked behind a big oak. Pa’s back was to me and his shoulders was slumped. “I told you we should stay in Connecticut,” Ma said. “But no. You had to haul us back to Vermont, to a place more God-forsaken than the one we lost two years hence.” Her hands made fists acrost her apron and her face was fierce under her bonnet.
“Hannah. Please. What choice did we have?” “Aren’t you ashamed? Look at this. Grass so high in our chamber, it’s food for our ox. Is that any way to live?” I peeked out from behind the tree and followed Ma’s pointing hand. Sure enough, through the open door I spied Jed inside the house, his tail swishing while he ate up what should a been our new floor. And Ma was right. The cabin weren’t much to look at: holes in the roof, the door hanging from one hinge, and gaps between the logs big enough for me to stick my fist through. No wonder she was mad.
Ma caught sight of me. “Hiram, come over here!” “Yes ma’am.” I dragged my feet. “Go inside,” Ma said. “Tell me. Is this a house, or a pig sty?” “Looks like a barn for the ox,” I told her.
Pa sighed. “It’s all we’ve got.” He pointed at the wagon. “Hiram, fetch some sacks.” Our wagon was piled with goods Pa hoped to sell when we opened our new store. I hoisted a heavy one, full of barley seed, and followed Ma inside. Pa clapped his hands and shooed Jed out into the clearing.
Ma started in wailing. “Look at this!” she cried. I set down the sack and stared. A big old stump sat in the middle of the chamber, rooted in the ground like a tree could grow right through the holes in the roof.
“I guess it might work for a table, since we ain’t got a real one,” Pa said.
He meant it for a joke but Ma plopped herself down on the stump, pulled her apron over her face, and bawled. Pa tugged his ear so hard, I thought he might tear it off.
“There’s naught but bad luck in these hills,” Ma cried. “It’s sorrowful enough we lost our first house in the raidnow we have to live like animals! And you know I despise these dark woods. So close to where they scalped my brother” “Ma! Uncle Abner weren’t scalped,” I said. “Didn’t I tell you, I seen him myself? Those Injuns put him on a horse and stole him away to Canada with the other prisoners.” But Ma weren’t listening. She was laying into Pa again. “What do you plan to eat all winter?” she asked. “We should never have left my people.” “We’ve brought plenty of food.” Pa’s eyes flashed. Didn’t Ma see he were about to lose his temper? “And you know we wore out our welcome. Your people couldn’t keep us another winter. Too many mouths to feed, with the men coming home from the war. They wouldn’t stand for another.” “Another what?” I asked. “Another baby,” Ma said. She turned to me. “Your Pa had no business bringing me here in my condition.” She set her hands on her belly.
Her condition? I stared at Pa. His cheeks was red. “Ma’s having a baby?” I asked.
Pa cleared his throat. “Yes. You’ll have a little brother or sister soon.” I felt stupid. Ma’s heavy, but she wears so many petticoats and shawls I can’t hardly see what she looks like. “You could have told me,” I said. They didn’t say nothing, just looked away from me and from each other, too, even though there weren’t much to see in that rundown chamber. “Then I guess we better fix the door,” I said. “We don’t want some wolf marching in while Ma’s asleep.” Truth is, I didn’t want no wolf sneaking up on me, but I didn’t say so.
“True,” Pa said. “And tomorrow we’ll mend the chimbley. It ain’t fit for a fire. Still, we can’t complain. They give me the land free, if I promised to set up a store in town. Hannah, you rest on that stump a while. Hiram, come with me. We’ll gather wood and build a fire in the clearing to heat the water.” Water. My throat was dry. If only I’d filled the buckets! I followed him outside.
“I’m sorry about this place,” Pa told me. “I’ll tan the hide of that no-count Mr. Fletcher with his false promises. But where else could we go?” I shrugged. Ma and Pa had been having this fight since the last full moon.
“Did you find the brook?” Pa asked.
“I did.” That much was true. I looked up the hill. The woods was dark, just as Ma said. And if I’d seen an Injun boythen he must have a family. There might be a whole sight of them, just like in the raid. Would they steal our new baby?
I’d have to go back up the hill. Not just for the waterbut to see if that boy was real, or someone chasing me from my bad dreams. I couldn’t tell Pa about him yet. Not if I’d conjured him up. “The buckets are in the shade,” I told Pa. True again, though the shade was nowhere near.
“Leave them be,” Pa said. “Let’s gather wood for a fire. Your ma will feel right smart if we get a good blaze going. You pick up dry tinder while I find my flint.” I did as he asked but my eyes strayed to the hill where I’d left the buckets. I couldn’t leave them there all day. Would those voices chase after me again? They was almost worse than the real Injun who kidnapped me.
Then I thought of something. If the boy was real, we couldn’t stay here. Pa would never make Ma live near no Injuns, would he? Not after they burned our house, kilt our cows. Not after they kidnapped Uncle Abner, stole him away forever. Pa wouldn’t do that. Would he?
Copyright © 2005 by Liza Ketchum. Reprinted by permission of Clarion Books / Houghton Mifflin Company.