The Souvenir of Western Women/Wannetta (a story)
The Story of Wannetta
By JULIA C. LA BARRE
ONE September morning in 1844, the sturdy figure of a young Englishman might have been seen swinging along over the dim trail blazed out by Dr. Marcus Whitman and his devoted band of pathfinders. His bronzed face, untrimmed hair and beard, and travel-worn apparel, showing the ravages of time and weather, proved him a successful follower of far-seeing, loyal Whitman; and his strong, manly face, clear, honest eyes and cheery whistle, all testified to the pluck and enterprise that alone achieved the impossible. A powder horn hung on one side and a bullet pouch made of untanned fawn skin hung on the other. He carried a gun of modern English manufacture over his shoulder and a knife thrust into a rude sheath hung at his belt. As the sun drew near the meridian he stopped, looked from the sun, high in the heavens, back over the trail he had come, as if to calculate the length of nooning he might indulge in. His conclusions seemed to be satisfactory, for he stood his gun against a tree and threw himself on the green sward beside it, deep in the shadow of a cluster of trees. He was hungry, but a tempting dinner hung alluringly from some bushes, bending with their weight of luscious fruit, and the trickling of a little mountain stream told him he might drink like a lord.
It was one of those hazy days, late in summer, when the mountains and the woods seem so far, far away; when the marvelous mirage enchants the vision and the very clouds mischievously enlist in the ranks of the unreal and reality is a myth. The young Englishman, John Minto, who possessed a poetic soul, yielded to the fascinations of the day and lost himself in dreams of his own conjuring.
Prominent in these dreams figured the owner of a pair of soft brown eyes that had looked so saucily into his that very morning as he begged her to be serious just once, and answer truly before he left her. Evidently the look in the bright face belied the "no" the lips had spoken, for the lover's dreams seemed pleasant ones.
Suddenly the sound of approaching horses aroused the young man, and he sprang to his feet and caught up his gun just as the lithe figure of a mounted Indian swept into view followed by a loose pony. Minto admired the fearless grace of the rider and the beauty of his mount, while he prepared to receive friend or foe, whichever came. On came the rider with immobile face and averted eyes, as if utterly unconscious of the white man's presence: but, just as he came opposite Minto, he swung off his horse without checking his pace, and saluted. Minto returned the salutation and motioned to the newcomer to be seated. The Indian gravely declined the courtesy and went down to the bank of the stream. Stationing himself in position to command all approach, lie laid down his gun. Plunging his slender brown hands into the water he washed his face vigorously and wiped it on the corner of a gayly-colored blanket. He then took out a small comb and tiny mirror, such as the Hudson's Bay Company were finding in great demand in their traffic among the Indians, and proceeded to complete a toilet worthy of Beau Brummel, much to the amusement of Minto. The latter was surprised to find such indications of refinement in an Indian. His surprise rapidly developed into admiration when the young brave came into view again.
The Indian was a magnificent specimen of the Nez Perces—tall, straight and fair of face. He wore leggings, moccasins and a sort of shirt or tunic of the same shade of soft buckskin, heavily beaded in bright colors. From a beaded belt, which was a piece of real art, hung a sheathed knife, and he carried a gun which, when he rode, rested on the pony in front of him. A gay blanket, hung over one shoulder, completed this picturesque dress. That these physical graces were supplemented by fine qualities was evident in the expression of an intellectual face and an unconscious dignity of bearing, and Minto gave involuntary homage to this specimen of Nature's noblemen by rising as he approached. He had picked up some English by association with the fur traders and missionaries, and they could converse enough to understand each other. It came about that they both were en route to the Nez Perces encampment, where Minto expected to be joined by Daniel Clarke before proceeding on to the Willamette Valley.
Minto offered his gun for the trail pony. The offer was declined, but he was invited to ride it while they traveled together, a courtesy gladly accepted. They ate heartily of a dinner furnished by the Indian, of dried fish, kouse, or camas bread, a kind of cake made of sweet anise root, supplemented by a dessert drawn from Nature's bountiful resources about them, and they washed it down with copious draughts of the ale of primitive Adam. They resumed their journey early in the afternoon and reached the camp while the sun was still high. Here the Indian stopped and Minto dismounted, acknowledging his thanks for courtesies received. His companion bowed gravely and disappeared into a tepee. Minto threw himself on the grass to await Clarke's coming before proceeding on his journey. As he lay there, watching these grave, silent people, an Indian girl emerged from the tepee which his erstwhile friend had entered and offered him some ripe blue berries in a curiously woven basket. The striking beauty of the girl filled him with admiring wonder. He had seen pretty Indian girls, as Indians go, but this rare beauty of face and figure was enhanced by a sweet modesty that seemed out of harmony with her surroundings. Minto felt that he had found the Juliet that prompted the young Romeo's unusual adorning. 'Twas but the familiar story so old, yet ever new. Minto awaited the girl's return for the basket, wondering how he should express his appreciation of this un-ostentatious hospitality extended through so charming a messenger. Her bearing forbade the offer of the usual barter, but a happy thought prompted him to lay some fine new trout hooks in the basket, and a flash of pleased acknowledgement in the eye of this fair young Hagar more than repaid him. That she was a bondwoman, a captive enslaved, he knew by those unmistakable signs so easily read by the initiated.
This tribe had not escaped from the ravages of the dreadful "Coldsticks," a disease that had greatly reduced the tribes of Oregon, not only in numbers, but in aggressive virility. It had consequently proved a potent ally to the Americans who had come to share their country with them, and who were rapidly taking the lion's share. Mourning for the dead and dying was heard on every side. No need of hired mourners here, for all were bereaved alike. Minto's companion of the morning, the chief's son and heir, had been summoned home because the old chief himself had at last succumbed to this fatal malady. All the great keel-al-lys had been banished amid the curses of their people, for neither their medicines nor their weird machinations could ease the sufferings of the great father, and he was only waiting for the coming of his son before going to the great "Sah-la-tyee." The old chief lay on a bed of skin in his capacious lodge. He might have been thought an old Roman hero dying in the midst of his cam}). Not only was the resemblance in the barbaric grandeur of his surroundings, but in the figure and visage of this old warrior. The cast of the features would have been Roman had they not been Indian. There was a massive grandeur that bespake strength, leadership and greatness of soul. The stalwart figure lay motionless while the longing eyes were turned toward the entrance. His look brightened as his son entered with bowed head. The attendant squaws retired, leaving the two together with no other presence than the slim figure of an Indian boy, who sat in the corner of the lodge, his great dark eyes fixed in unutterable sadness on the dying chief. It was not all grief at the loss of his master that brought that look of despair on the young face. The boy knew that, if his master died, he, as his favorite slave, must go with him to attend him in his spirit world. The old chief talked in broken uneven tones to his son upon whom was to fall the mantle of his authority, while the young prince sat, his head dropped upon his knees, his proud dignity all gone. The tones grew weaker and soon ceased, but the mourner sat there, the personification of manly grief. At sundown a wail from the squaws outside the lodge announced to the Indians that their chief was dead. The low chanting wail was taken up and sped on and on until it encircled the entire camp. A slight girlish figure darted from one of the huts and crouched against the wall of the chief's lodge, where sat the silent figure of the slave boy! Softly the girl called, "Talax, are you there?" "Yes, my sister." "Are you afraid?" "No. Talax is the son of a brave warrior and chief of a mighty people; I want to live to take my sister back to our father's lodge, and 'tis hard to die bound and a captive." Sobs betrayed the presence of the listener, but no one molested her. When she could speak again she asked: "Is Swift Eagle there?" "Yes, my sister." The girl rose slowly and stole steadily into the lodge and threw herself in the utter abandon of grief at the feet of the silent mourner. He longed to raise the prostrate figure, for he was a man, and he loved the beautiful girl. But Indian etiquette forbade such a demonstration of sentiment, and with rare masterfulness he sat as immobile as a bronze god while the sobbing girl poured out an eloquent plea for the life of her brother. "O save my brother! Save him for me! Take another and save him!"
"I cannot, Wannetta," came in low, decisive tones; "I cannot. Quapama needs Talax. The old chief must have a brave, loving attendant in the land of Sah-la-tyee. He asked for Talax and I cannot keep him. The UrcHt Sah-latyee will take care of him."
Crushed by failure of the attempt to save her brother, Wannetta drew her abundant hair over her face that others might not see her swollen eyes and returned to her place outside of the wall of skins. The wailing continued through the night, rising sometimes to the shrill tones of the beasts of the forests bereft of their mates. The weird tones of these wild people were like the voices of Nature blended in human cadences. At sunrise canoes were moored to the nearest bank of the river, and the body of the dead chieftain, robed in beautiful furs, was carried tenderly by strong men and laid in his own canoe. With it were placed all his personal belongings, a quantity of food, and finally, the Indian boy. Over all was spread the glossy black skin of his favorite horse, which a bullet had sent to the spirit world when his master's life went out. The other canoes were manned by stalwart braves, and this unique funeral barge was towed down the river to Memaloose Island, where the dead chief was gathered to his fathers. The unhappy captive, securely bound, was placed beside the bier and left to starve that he might still attend his captor whom he had served so faithfully.
When the young chief returned to the camp he saw a girlish figure lying prostrate on the turf in swoon-like abandonment. He must remember his dignity as chief now, and smothering the promptings of the lover, he entered his lodge with stately tread and seated himself on a sort of rude throne to receive the homage of his people. At night, when the encampment was wrapped in silence except for the moans of the sick and the movements of the attendant squaws, a slight figure stole to the river bank, loosened a canoe, and with muffled oars rowed toward the island of the dead. Wannetta was skilled in handling a boat, but knowing the long, long journey before her, she carefully conserved her strength. As she approached the island her heart sank at the uncanny stillness of this awesome place. She stole like a specter through the shadows until she reached the house of the dead, where she called softly, "Talax, are you there?" "Yes, my sister." This reassured, the girl crept in and clasped her brother in loving arms. The brave boy, who could face an awful doom with stoic compusure, was unnerved by loving sympathy and sobbed aloud. "Here, let me cut these thongs. 'Can you stand.Now here is food and drink," and she laid before him camas bread and dried venison and a skin containing water. As the half famished boy devoured the food she told him she was going to plead again with Swift Eagle, and if he refused to save the boy she would do it alone. "He loves me, he will do it. Be brave! My brother shall not die." Then she flitted away to resume the doubly tiresome journey back up the river.
Swift Eagle noticed with pleasure that the girl was less sad. She even smiled when he passed her and he ventured to approach her, as she sat apart, and plead his love. She listened with a far away look in her soft, dreamy eyes, and answered: "Swift Eagle is a mighty chief; he is strong and proud. Wannetta is but a captive maid like a snared bird, but she loves the noble Swift Eagle with a great love. She will be his wife if he will grant one thing." "Swift Eagle is strong to protect his little Wannetta and proud to do what she wills." "'Tis the promise of a mighty chief, and the heart of Wannetta is very glad. Let my brother go to our father's lodge and where Swift Eagle goes, Wannetta will go and will serve him as long as she lives."
The face of the young chieftain did not show displeasure, but a grave wonder. "But I cannot bring back the dead." Then she told him all that she had done with such winning grace that Swift Eagle could not find it in his heart to reprove her, for he was but a man with a loving heart.
Quietly, at dead of night, with the gentle Wannetta by his side, Swift Eagle rowed to Memaloose. Together they wended their way to the tomb, and there found Talax awake and alert, for his trained ear had detected the stealthy approach of footsteps. As silently they rowed back to shore where they had left a full equipment for the long and dangerous journey the boy must prepare to take. Talax clasped his sister in a long, last embrace, then, putting her hand in that of the young chief, he took his gun and disappeared in the shadows of the woods. Wannetta watched him as long as she could discern his figure in the darkness, then turned and followed her lover, though her homesick heart was with the youthful brave speeding toward the lodge of their chieftain father.