A Place of Our Own


We were nearly halfway through the journey from Utah to our homestead in New Mexico. For several days we had found no water, and our barrels were low. The men were becoming anxious. We knew from the map that we were coming into Indian territory.

When we reached the edge of the reservation the wagons stopped for our leaders to consult. Because of his experience with Indians, Papa was chosen to go ahead and see what arrangements he could make. As we slowly drove on, we had a feeling that we were being watched.

“I hope the village ahead has plenty of water,” Papa said.

“I hope they are friendly,” Mama replied.

“I’m prepared to take care of that even if they’re not,” Papa assured her.

“How?” Mama asked.

“I have a trick up my sleeve,” he answered, but he would tell her no more.

In a few moments we saw a cluster of huts up ahead. And about the same time two little girls with black braids ran from the shadows toward the village.

“Messengers,” Papa observed.

“What do we do now?” Ed asked.

“Wait,” Papa said and pulled the horses to a stop. He jumped down, climbed in the back of the wagon, and came out carrying his unfinished basket and a hank of straw.

“You children stay in the wagon,” he instructed firmly. And we settled in a spot where we could watch what was going on.

Papa sat down on the ground and began weaving. It seemed to me like a silly time and place to finish his basket, but I had learned that patience answers many questions, so I watched and waited.

Before long five or six braves came riding up on their ponies and formed a circle around Papa.

“You cannot cross Indian land,” one insisted.

Papa said nothing but kept on with his work.

“Go back,” another brave said, pointing in the direction we’d come from. “Do not cross Indian land.”

Papa nodded to acknowledge he had heard but he stayed where he was. Nothing moved but his hands. I had watched him make many baskets, and I knew that his fingers could fly as fast as frightened quail. Now he was weaving slowly, exaggerating the in and out movements as he laced the wide strips between the twisted upright ribs.

The belligerent expression on the Indians’ faces changed to curiosity. One by one they slid off their ponies and came closer. After they had watched awhile, Papa handed the basket to one of the braves, who copied the motions he had been watching. The Indian smiled at his handiwork. Then the basket was passed around the circle, with each brave taking a turn at the weaving and all of them becoming excited and pleased.

Papa began a new basket and handed some straw to one of the Indians to start one too. Before long each brave was sitting cross-legged on the ground, busy on a basket. Papa had motioned to Ed and me to climb down from the wagon, and we slipped out quietly and stood by his side. Other Indians came one by one and soon quite a crowd was watching the activity.

I turned to look toward the village and saw a large squaw coming toward me with a loop stretched open between her hands. Smiling, she came closer and closer, holding the noose high as if to place it over my head and around my neck. To choke me, I thought, and began to shake with fear. Please, Heavenly Father, save me, I silently prayed. My hands tightened on Papa’s arm, and he sensed my fright.

“It’s all right, Dora,” he assured me. “She won’t hurt you.”

By now the squaw was close enough so that I could see she was holding a beautiful necklace of dried berries and seeds. She placed it over my head saying, “Pretty, pretty.” I guess she had never seen yellow hair before.

All of a sudden I felt that she was a special person, and I wanted to do something for her. I climbed into the wagon and found the mirror I had brought rolled up in my sweater so it wouldn’t break. It was a round one with a handle. I handed it to the squaw and when she looked at it and saw her face reflected back, she was delighted. She showed it around with great pride, pointing to her image and laughing.

While the braves worked and the others watched, Papa spoke to them in gentle tones. “We want to be friends and will do you no harm. We are moving to New Mexico and would like to cross your land. We have our food and supplies with us. We need to stop tonight to rest our horses and fill our water barrels. We will leave tomorrow. Other wagons are behind waiting to hear your answer.”

At this point, five more braves and the chief rode up at a gallop. They began to talk rapidly in their own language with the weavers, who jumped up, showing off their baskets. After some discussion the chief turned to Papa and asked, “What are you teaching?”

“Basketmaking,” Papa said. “How to make baskets.”

“Basket,” one brave repeated, pointing to what he had done.

“You are good,” the chief said. “You can camp here tonight. There is plenty of water.” Then he motioned for Papa to mount one of the ponies, and they rode back together to get the rest of the camp to join us.

Soon after we left the Indian reservation, Sister Owens in the next wagon became ill, and we camped for several days.

Some of the braves rode over from the reservation to get help with their baskets. Papa didn’t have much straw left to give them, but they had already decided that bear grass would do just as well. Papa showed them how to do a braided edge around the top of their baskets. He took out a pocketknife to trim the ends, and a little Indian boy who had come with his father looked so pleased with the knife that Papa let him keep it. Later that day the boy’s father returned with a strange-looking three-pronged stick that he gave to Papa, explaining how he could use it to find water for digging a well.

“I can probably use this later,” Papa said as he fastened it securely to the wagon.

After we left this place the weather became hotter and the land drier. We had one more stop for supplies before we came to a stretch of desert, and Papa was able to replenish our ice supply. We had left Salt Lake City with a hundred-pound block of ice in a tub to keep our meat cool. Since it was wrapped in newspapers and burlap bags, it melted slowly and lasted quite a while. Ice was harvested from frozen streams and lakes just before the spring thaw and packed in sawdust in dirt-covered sheds. Most towns had a supply that lasted until the next winter, so we were able to buy it as we needed it along the way. That day we were very glad we had some.

The desert sun was hot. Heat waves curled up in ghostly spirals. We choked on the dust stirred up by the wagons and animals. Papa chipped off pieces of ice for us to suck on. They tasted so good that soon all the other children were coming to our wagon for ice chips.

“You’ll give it all away and then we won’t have any,” Caroline complained to Papa.

“Now, now,” he replied. “They don’t have any, and we can share.”

Our trip was nearly over when the wagons drew up in a long line by the homestead office in Harmony, New Mexico. After the families finished their business inside, they drove away to locate their new home. As our friends left one by one, they called to the rest of us, “See you in church.” We had passed the meetinghouse so we all knew where to go on Sunday.

Our wagon was the last to leave. Mr. Talbot, the officer in charge, went with us to show us our land and then take us to our temporary living quarters. The family in our house had not moved out yet, but an arrangement had been made for us to live in a dugout on a neighbor’s property. With great eagerness we set out on the last dozen miles of our trip to find our new place.

When we first saw the piece of land, I must say it didn’t look like the Garden of Eden I was expecting. Mr. Talbot pointed to a stick with a red rag tied to it. “Your property begins right there at that stake,” he told us, “and extends half a mile east, north, west, then south to make a square.”

“Half a mile, hon,” Papa said to Mama. “That’s four Salt Lake City blocks. Sixteen square blocks in all!”

Papa slowed the horses to a walk as he looked over the piece of land. “Seems pretty level,” he said. “Won’t take any clearing either. Not much here but weeds and cactus.”

“It’s a good piece,” Mr. Talbot said. “Needs a little work is all.”

Papa stopped the wagon and jumped down. He kicked the dirt with his boot, picked up a handful and let it trickle through his fingers. “Good sandy loam for growing things,” he said.

“Here’s the gate and back there’s the house,” Mr. Talbot explained. “It’s not very big. You’ll have to add on. The Evans should be out in a month or so.”

We could see the lone building surrounded by a tangle of weeds. It was just the right size for a playhouse.

“Papa’ll build a new one and let us have that one to play in,” Caroline said to Ed and me.

“Goody!” I squealed and jumped up and down at the thought.

Papa climbed into the wagon and we started off to find the dugout we were going to live in. When we saw it, it looked like a playhouse too. A steep roof sloped down to the ground on two sides. At one end was a door and dirt steps that led down to a room that had been dug out of the ground. A window in the opposite end gave the only light.

“Who are our neighbors?” Papa asked.

“Neighbors?” Mr. Talbot seemed puzzled.

“Up there where the smoke’s coming out of the chimneys,” Papa explained.

I looked in the direction he pointed and saw some more slanty roofs with gray wisps puffing up into the sky.

“Oh,” he laughed. “That’s just some of the old Indians who stayed here when the others moved onto the reservation.”

“How come?” Papa asked.

“They’re pretty old and didn’t want to go, so the new owners let them stay. They won’t bother you any—can hardly move around even.”

“How many are there?”

“Just five. All squaws. Each one has a brave assigned to her, who comes down once a week with supplies.”

“Do they live together?”

“No, each one has a separate house. Just leave them alone. They’re perfectly harmless.”

Ed was looking at me in a way that meant here was a new adventure that needed to be explored, and I was looking back at him as though to say I’d have to think about it first.

We soon unpacked our wagon and Papa hooked up the smokestack of the stove to the chimney, ready for Mama to start cooking. It was hard to believe we were here at last.

Before dinner we knelt down to thank the Lord for our safe arrival at our new home.

(To be continued.)

[illustrations] Illustrated by Paul Mann