Yellow Leaf’s Gift


Yellow Leaf was lying on a moss-covered boulder that overhung a deep, clear brook. Dreamily, she watched a huge speckled trout nosing among the pebbles on the bottom of the deep pool. Olive green, with iridescent flecks of color on each side, the trout was so beautiful, Yellow Leaf had no desire to catch it. A pale golden moth fluttered too near the surface. The trout spun upward with incredible speed. “Aiii,” the Indian girl sighed in sorrow as the moth vanished.

A strange squealing sound startled Yellow Leaf and drew her to the top of the hill. Dropping flat, she watched in amazement as a clumsy, bargelike wagon drawn by a pair of oxen pulled to a stop below. The squealing sound she had heard was the iron-bound wheels, badly in need of grease.

Judging from the clouds of dust still hanging in the air, the wagon had come out of the arid, boulder-strewn badlands. The people in the wagon must have traveled all night to have survived; it would have been impossible to travel during the heat of the day.

The wagon had no cover; only charred pieces of canvas clung to the metal hoops across the top of the wagon. There were no water barrels lashed to the sides. Creeping closer, Yellow Leaf saw a telltale arrow piercing the wagon bed.

This family was probably all who had survived from a wagon train. Indian tribes to the east, who were also enemies of her tribe, were on the warpath because of a broken treaty. These Indians must have attacked the wagon train.

Yellow Leaf felt pity for the little family. “They will have little chance of survival here,” she murmured. Yellow Leaf watched the woman, carrying a small baby, herd two other children to the meager shade provided by a large boulder. The man, bent with fatigue, moved about among the rocks, searching.

“Water! They’re dying of thirst!” the girl whispered as she remembered the missing barrels. “If they had horses instead of oxen, the horses would sniff out the water and lead the people to it.”

Yellow Leaf yearned to help, but she didn’t dare. Even if she could speak their language, it wouldn’t help. The man had a gun, and she would almost certainly be shot if she approached. Regretfully she turned to leave.

A feeble wail from the baby stopped her. It sounded like her baby brother. Looking back, she saw that the man was some distance away, still threading his way through the barren rocks. There was water out there, but he wouldn’t know where to find it. He was even going in the wrong direction and would soon drop in his tracks from thirst and weakness.

There was another weak cry from the baby, and Yellow Leaf raced back to the brook. Spilling the lush purple berries from the earthenware pot, she filled it with icy water. Hesitating for only a moment, Yellow Leaf glided silently down the steep slope.

The woman was lying there, curled protectively around her children, her eyes closed, and her lips cracked and swollen. Forgetting all danger, the Indian girl knelt and scooped up water in her hands, letting it splash on the woman’s face. Her skyblue eyes reflected disbelief as they fluttered open and stared into Yellow Leaf’s dark eyes. For a long moment, the girl held her breath, expecting the woman to begin screaming; that would bring the man running with one of the long guns feared by Yellow Leaf’s people.

But the woman’s panic was overcome by concern for her children. Taking a metal cup from the wagon, the mother watched carefully as the older boy and girl drank, making certain they didn’t drink too much. She cared for the baby, and then she wet cloths to cool the heads of the children. Only then did she drink herself.

Preoccupied with watching the children, Yellow Leaf didn’t hear the man approach. She wasn’t aware of the danger until the woman cried out, “No, Frank. No! She brought us water.”

The man seemed dazed as he lowered his rifle. “Water? Where could she find water in this dried-up land? There’s not a sprig of grass anywhere!”

When he too had quenched his thirst, the tall, gaunt man pointed to the clay pot and asked, “Where?” His tired face fell as Yellow Leaf pointed to the bluff.

“We could never get the wagon up there,” he sighed, motioning toward the heavy wagon and the thirsty oxen.

Yellow Leaf understood. Standing up, she walked to the wagon and stood waiting. “She wants us to get in. Maybe she knows a way!” the woman said hopefully.

Walking ahead of the oxen, Yellow Leaf led the way around the barren hills to a gentle slope that led up and then down into a green valley where the brook wound like a silver thread.

“It’s the most beautiful spot I’ve ever seen! It’s exactly the place we’ve dreamed about,” the woman cried in delight.

“Yes. There are trees to build a cabin, and the land wouldn’t take too much clearing. It’s rich ground, too, Sarah. Almost anything should grow here,” the man said softly, his eyes bright with excitement and hope.

Neither noticed when the Indian girl slipped away. Turning for a last glimpse, Yellow Leaf felt tears sting her eyes as she watched the man and woman, hand in hand, lost in their brave dreams for the future. They were the first white people who had ever seen the fertile valley hidden away behind the desolate rocky hills. Would they ever know the anguish Yellow Leaf suffered at giving them her beautiful green land?

A chill swept over Yellow Leaf. Suddenly she felt like the fluttering golden moth.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Ted Nagata