Rising Fawn heard the big man’s prayer before she reached the clearing where Melissa, her white friend, lived. “Oh, no!” the Indian girl whispered, as she saw the little group gathered around an open grave. It looked like an ugly scar in the glistening snow.
Who died? Rising Fawn wondered. She stayed hidden in the pine trees and quickly ran her eyes over each member of the family. The mother was missing! And Melissa was holding a tiny, wailing bundle. The blond girl wiped away her own tears and reached down to comfort a small sister. The other children clung together, tearstained and bewildered, as their frozen-faced father began to fill in the lonely grave. His steamy breath spiraled into the cold air as he worked.
Rising Fawn retreated to the riverbank. The grief of the white family was her own. She had hidden and watched them from the first day their clumsy covered wagon creaked into Elk Valley. That they had come to stay was evident. The parents had immediately set about cutting trees and building a cabin. How hard they worked! Even the smallest of the seven blond children helped to gather stones from the river for the chimney and fireplace, and that was how Rising Fawn met Melissa. When the children were called away for meals or to help with other things, the Indian girl selected and piled up stones to help them.
It was Melissa, the eldest, who had slipped back to the river to spy on their mysterious helper. Rising Fawn remembered how frightened the girl had looked when she found herself confronting an Indian! Rising Fawn smiled and pointed to the pile of stones—her gift to the hardworking white children.
She and Melissa had been secret friends throughout the summer and fall, and now it was winter. Gradually the girls had learned to communicate, although neither spoke the other’s language.
Rising Fawn understood why she was never invited to visit the cabin by the way Melissa started, face flushing with guilt, when she was called by her parents. Usually Melissa ran away quickly and often without even a good-bye wave. Such actions told Rising Fawn that the parents either feared or disliked Indians, so Melissa could not tell them about her friend.
It made Rising Fawn sad to think that white people so readily believed all the evil things they had heard about Indians before moving west. Hers was a peaceful tribe. Her heart held only friendship for the new white settlers.
Melissa had not come to the river since the first snow fell, and the Indian girl missed her. The family’s clothing was not right for such frigid weather. They wore no furs or pelts. Perhaps that was why she no longer saw her friend.
Rising Fawn and her brother made a pair of snowshoes for Melissa. She, her mother, and an aunt also made nine pairs of skin mittens for the white family, laced together with the rabbit fur inside for added warmth. Long before dawn the Indian girl slipped up to the cabin door and left the gifts and a large packet of venison. She waited many afternoons but Melissa had never used the snowshoes to come to their meeting place by the river.
The Indian girl came as often as she could, through light snows or blizzards, to leave some meat or a few smoked fish at the cabin door when her family had enough to share. But she always hurried away, for Rising Fawn was afraid of the bearded white giant of a man who seemed to dislike Indians.
Rising Fawn swept snow from a log and sank down to consider the calamity that had befallen her friend. Melissa would have to be the mother of the family now. It was an awesome job for a young girl. Pioneer life was difficult, even for strong women. I will help Melissa! I will even if her father forbids it! the Indian girl vowed, tears slipping down dusky cheeks.
But the baby! How can it live without its mother? she worried. The family had no cattle—not even one cow—only the pair of oxen. Rising Fawn arose and walked back toward the cabin, her snowshoes leaving webbed tracks.
Smoke curled from the chimney, but there was no sign of the children. Rising Fawn shrank back behind a pine tree and watched the father pick up his axe and head into the forest. He looked dazed. Cords of wood were stacked by the door. Rising Fawn’s face softened with understanding. They needed no firewood. The man’s need was to be alone with his grief. Working with the axe would help.
The girl’s heart hammered as she removed her snowshoes and knocked on the cabin door. Would Melissa be afraid? How long would her father be gone? Melissa was working at the fireplace, her back to the room, when a small boy opened the door. Rising Fawn stepped inside and closed it. Melissa turned and dropped a ladle when she saw her. How thin and pale the white girl was! Melissa stared at her friend, then ran to her, weeping.
The Indian girl clasped her close for a moment. Then she gently pushed her away, still holding her hands. They had very little time. With signs, Rising Fawn told Melissa that she had watched her mother’s burial. She pointed at the baby and explained that her aunt, a new mother, who was young and strong, could easily feed both babies until the child was old enough to eat soft foods. Could she, Rising Fawn, take the child to her village?
Melissa’s tearstained face brightened with hope, then her shoulders slumped. Her father considered all Indians to be unfeeling savages. He would never allow it. And if he did not, this small new brother would not live and grow old enough to run, laugh, and play. Her mother would have died for nothing!
Both girls froze as the door crashed open and the father stormed in. His face was flushed with anger. He had followed Rising Fawn’s tracks back to the cabin. The children huddled together, big-eyed, as their father lashed out at their older sister. Rising Fawn felt sick. She had caused her friend added grief. Her face was expressionless, but her eyes reflected scorn for this man who would allow his child to die because of prejudice. The insults she couldn’t understand didn’t matter. Proudly, she held herself as tall as possible, her black eyes fastened on the man’s blazing blue ones. The silence that followed his angry words seemed to hold everything in suspension. Rising Fawn tried not to hear the infant’s weak and hungry wails as she left.
It was dusk when Rising Fawn heard the shout that a white man was approaching the village. She was glad that it was Brown Fox who entered her mother’s hogan with Melissa’s father carrying the baby! Brown Fox spoke English. The girl laid aside the moccasin she was beading and stood to listen as Brown Fox spoke the white man’s words.
“He says that his daughter, who is now the only mother his children have, was very angry with him after you left. For the first time he has seen that her temper matches his own.” Brown Fox translated further, “She reminded him of the food that has been left at their door when they had no meat. She said that she would not permit the baby her mother died giving birth to, to die also and that she would bring it here herself to be nursed by an Indian mother, if he did not have the courage and good sense to do so himself.”
Brown Fox waited patiently as the shamefaced father continued slowly. “He says he has been a very foolish man and that his daughter is wiser than he. He asks you to forgive him and to take his son to your aunt until he is older. You and your people are welcome at his cabin. If we need his help or his oxen, he will gladly oblige us. He wants to be a friend and neighbor.”
Rising Fawn smiled and took the tiny bundle the white man was holding so awkwardly. She cradled it in her arms and laid her cheek against the baby’s blond hair. “Tell Melissa’s father that we will care for his child as for one of our own. He brings us a weak, motherless infant. We will return a strong and healthy son to him. Tell him that Rising Fawn speaks these words: We have always been his friends—and now he is ours.”