Red Squirrel had started on her strange mission at dawn. Spring had come and tiny leaves were unfurling like tattered banners, but the air was misty and cold.
The river carried her canoe along swiftly. Now she only used the paddle to steer her fragile craft away from boulders, but it would take two days of hard paddling to return against the strong current. She watched carefully for logs or other hazards ahead. If the canoe overturned, she could not long survive in the icy water, fed by melting snow high in faraway mountains.
Can I find the lonely grave site again? She wondered. Will the wooden cross still be standing to mark it? The Indian girl sighed deeply and rested the paddle across her lap, pondering whether her quest would bring happiness or more sorrow to the white man and woman waiting at her village.
Running Elk, a scout for the army, had brought the couple to see Chief Standing Bear. Their son and his friend had started west almost two years ago. Except for a letter from Kansas, where the two young men had joined a wagon train, they had never heard from them again. The father felt that both of them must have died on their journey, but the mother had stubbornly refused to abandon hope.
A recent letter from a physician in Oregon had renewed the couple’s hope and their fears. The doctor was treating a young man who suffered from amnesia and had no memory of his past. However, the patient carried some papers containing two names. One was a letter addressed to their son, Benjamin Allen. The other was to his friend, Zeb White.
Dr. Barkow’s description of his patient did not help. Both young men were tall and had blue eyes and dark curly hair. Members of the wagon train had disbanded and settled over a wide area before the patient had been brought to the doctor. From the meager information he had gathered, one of a pair of young men on the train had drowned in a flash flood. A carpenter among the group had carved the victim’s name on a wooden cross the party had placed on the grave. If they could find the lonely grave, the couple would know if the doctor’s patient were their son or his friend.
The tribe had gathered and listened as Running Elk translated the white man’s story. The location of the grave was said to be near Tracy’s Ford on the Oregon Trail and downriver from their village. Had one of Chief Standing Bear’s people seen the cross?
Red Squirrel was very shy. She did not want to step forward, although she had seen the grave last fall while gathering nuts. No one else moved. She looked at the sad faces of the youth’s parents and could not remain silent. Hesitantly, eyes downcast, she stepped out of the group of women and children.
“I have seen the place,” she told her chief. “The marker still stood last fall, at one end of a grave covered with a pile of stones. I can find it again.”
The gray-haired couple was filled with dismay when Chief Standing Bear said that the slim young girl would go alone at dawn and return in a few days. They had expected to go along, possibly with a few braves to guide them. The chief sensed their disappointment, but he was tactful enough not to tell them that white people were too clumsy for their bark canoes, especially in the flooding spring current. He considered the girl capable of going alone. True, she could not read, but she was a basket and rug weaver, who carried many beautiful designs in her head. She would remember and be able to draw the lines carved on the grave marker that only the distraught parents could read. The chief arose and entered his tepee, ending the talk.
Now that she was close to her destination, Red Squirrel watched the boulders strewn along the riverbank. When she saw a round one split down the middle like a ripe melon, she expertly used her paddle for a rudder, and the canoe whipped through the cleft rock into still water. It would soon be dark, so the Indian girl used bent twigs and pine boughs to erect a wickiup for shelter. Then she built a cooking fire. She would search out the grave tomorrow.
Early the next morning Red Squirrel’s heart hammered with dread as she approached the mound of stones and stared at the tilted cross. She wished the carved letters could speak to her so she would know if she would carry good news or bad news back to the village. The heavy responsibility overwhelmed Red Squirrel. She did not want to bring more sorrow to the elderly couple. Carefully she went over the letters again and again, making certain she remembered all the strange lines.
A glint of gold at the base of the cross caught her eye. It was a locket with a broken chain. This would be another clue as to which man was buried here, but she worried about taking something from a grave! Reluctantly, she removed her beautiful turquoise necklace and hung it on the cross. Her father had spent many hours polishing and drilling the stones, and she was very proud of it. Leaving it was a great sacrifice, but it made her feel better about taking away the gold one.
When the boys shouted that Red Squirrel had returned, the people gathered near the river to greet her. She was drenched and trembling from cold and fatigue. However, she had fought a fierce two-day battle against the strong waters and won. Red Squirrel’s mother wrapped a blanket around her daughter and tried to lead her away to change into dry clothing, but she refused. Her news—good or bad—must be delivered first. Mrs. Allen almost wept when she looked at the exhausted girl.
Red Squirrel picked up a stick. Then she walked away from the group and smoothed out a place in the soft dirt. Mrs. Allen, her face ashen with mixed hope and dread, started to follow. Gently, her husband drew her back. This girl, who could neither read nor write, was an important key to the knowledge of their son’s fate. Their watching her draw the unfamiliar lines might make her nervous.
When she had finished the drawing, Red Squirrel stood, waiting. She forgot how cold and miserable she was as the troubled parents approached. Her eyes misted at the way they clung together for support. She pulled the blanket tighter around her shoulders and turned away, not wanting to watch them.
Red Squirrel jerked as if she had been struck when the mother suddenly cried out and began to weep. She turned and then whispered a prayer of gratitude when she saw that the woman’s tears were of joy and relief!
“Zeb White! It’s poor Zeb who lies there, not our Ben,” the father murmured. His voice broke from the emotion and strain.
“This necklace had hung on the marker, until the chain broke,” Red Squirrel said. “I left mine in exchange.”
The woman took the necklace and pressed a catch and the locket sprang open to reveal tiny pictures of a man and woman. “Zeb’s parents,” the woman whispered. “Oh, how my heart goes out to them. We’ll send them the locket.”
“Yes,” Mr. Allen agreed softly, wiping his eyes. “Now we’re going to Oregon and get our son and take him home!”
Mrs. Allen went to see Red Squirrel before she and her husband left the village with Running Elk the next morning. She knew that the girl would not accept payment for her help. A gold lapel watch, a gift from her husband on their thirtieth wedding anniversary, was the most treasured piece of jewelry she owned. It opened like the locket, and opposite the watch face was Ben’s baby picture and a curled whisp of his hair.
The mother felt no regret as she pressed the watch into the hand of Red Squirrel’s mother to give to her daughter. The gift Red Squirrel had given them was beyond value.
Their son still lived!