The Golden Nugget


When the sun was directly overhead, Red Fawn spread her lunch of frybread, venison, and some berries she had picked. The spot she selected was a flat boulder, warmed by the sun. She had tied fishing lines to the lower branches of the willow trees growing close to the water. When the boughs began to shake violently, she would know a fish was on the line.

Red Fawn stiffened suddenly as she heard metal strike rock. Horses! she thought, and shod ones, so they are not Indian ponies! She swept her food into a rock crevice and darted away into the willow trees to hide. The Indian girl hugged the ground and watched a small group of white men dismount and lead their horses to the river to drink. One man, an old Indian, remained on his horse, hands tied behind his back. Red Fawn muffled a gasp as the horse turned toward her. The captive was Lone Tree, her father’s uncle!

Lone Tree was an elder of her tribe, a wise, honest, and highly respected brave. The men are not soldiers or settlers. Why have they taken him and bound him like a criminal? she wondered. Red Fawn winced as Lone Tree was pushed from his horse and sent sprawling. The old Indian struggled to a sitting position, his face impassive. There was laughter as the leader teased the Indian with water, then splashed it to the ground.

Red Fawn felt like weeping. How could these renegades have so little respect for Lone Tree’s dignity and gray braids? The girl watched as the men cooked and ate their supper and then relaxed around the fire. No food was offered to Lone Tree.

Suddenly Red Fawn sensed a change in him. The Indian had not moved, but his muscles had tensed; and his eyes glowed like live coals as he stared at the boulder where she had started to eat. Red Fawn looked and saw two crushed berries and a few telltale crumbs she had not swept away! Lone Tree’s eyes darted to the dangling fishing lines, then searched among the willows.

Red Fawn did not dare move, but she signaled with the chirp of a brown thrush. A slight smile rippled across the weathered face of Lone Tree. Friendly eyes were watching, although he did not know who it was. He was not alone. There was hope.

He would not feel so optimistic if he knew it was only me, Red Fawn thought sadly, wishing her brothers were with her. How can I free Lone Tree from six armed men? All she had were her skinning knife and strips of rawhide line. The situation seemed hopeless.

The leader of the men got up and approached the bound Indian. He dangled a cut thong with a gleaming gold nugget attached that Lone Tree always wore around his neck. He shouted harsh questions that Lone Tree answered truthfully, as he had many times before.

The men had attacked and taken him prisoner three days ago when he had approached their camp in friendship. He told them again, “I do not know where the nugget of yellow metal came from. My father wore it, and his father before him. It was theirs and now it is mine, until it passes on to my eldest son.”

“He’s still lying!” another man shouted, lunging toward the helpless man. “There’s got to be more nuggets where this one came from. Probably a whole mountain of the stuff. Beat the truth out of him!”

A younger man, who had done the cooking, stepped forward and pulled the angry man back. “You won’t get truth from this man by beating him nor by starving or thirsting him to death either. And if you kill him, we’ll never find the lode. So don’t touch him again!” he threatened. “I intend to get my share of that gold. The stuff has no value to these Indians, so I’ll see that he’s given food and water until he decides to talk. He will, sooner or later, when he sees that he can’t return to his kin until he gives us the information.”

“So it’s only the yellow metal they want,” Red Fawn whispered, relieved to know that Lone Tree had not innocently broken some law of the white man. If he had done no wrong and was not being taken to the soldiers, then she would break no law by freeing him—if she could. She considered the thought of showing herself and leading the captors to a stream where she had seen tiny flakes of the yellow stuff in the sand. But, instinctively, she realized that it would not be enough to satisfy their greed or gain Lone Tree’s freedom. It would only give them another hostage and possibly seal Lone Tree’s fate unless he lied and pretended to know where many gold nuggets were. She did not want to cause Lone Tree to lie.

Red Fawn’s cramped muscles cried out for relief, but she stayed motionless as the men quarreled and finally agreed to set up camp for the night. At dark Lone Tree was tied to a stake with his back toward her hiding place. The other men slept close to the fire, but their leader, to Red Fawn’s despair, spread his bedroll close to the old man.

The girl waited until the restless men sank into deep sleep before inching her way backward to a clearing where the hobbled horses were grazing. She cut them free and used Lone Tree’s pony to quietly herd them away from the camp. At a safe distance, she flicked slapping branches to send them loping northward.

The weakened Lone Tree had not dozed off. Certain that his unknown rescuer would come, he waited patiently. A small hand touched his shoulder, then his numbed hands were cut free. His eyes widened in surprise when he saw Red Fawn’s face in the flickering firelight. He had assumed that the reassuring signal had come not from this slip of a girl but from some young brave out hunting alone.

Standing before Red Fawn on trembling legs that threatened to buckle, the old brave was ashamed of his weakness and stiffened joints. He tried not to lean too heavily on his young rescuer as they slipped toward the hidden pony, but he could never have made the short distance alone. His hands and feet were tortured, and felt as though pierced by many hot needles when the blood returned to them.

“Stretch your muscles and be ready to ride fast when I return,” Red Fawn whispered, turning back.

Lone Tree feared for her safety and was curious about her determination to return to the white man’s camp, but he kept silent. She has done the impossible by rescuing me alone, he thought. Still, I wonder what it is that she feels she must do. Whatever it is, I will trust her and wait.

Red Fawn soon raced back, flung herself up behind Lone Tree, and sent the spotted pony into a gallop. They were well on their way when they heard angry shouts and gunshots from the camp. “Indians! Indians!” the thrashing leader bellowed, when the wad of dry grass was removed from his mouth and the rawhide loops cut from his wrists and ankles.

“You have nothing of ours. We have nothing of yours,” Red Fawn shouted back, dangling the broken thong with its swinging yellow nugget that she had removed from the leader’s saddlebag.

A look of awe was on Lone Tree’s face, as Red Fawn placed in his wrinkled hand the necklace passed down from his father and from his father’s father.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Craig Fetzer