Becky edged closer to her father on the hard seat of the buckboard, trying to convince herself she was not afraid. As they rounded a bend in the road, the trees hid even the tall church spire. It was as though Jacksonville no longer existed.
Pa seemed unaware of her fears. His tanned face creased into familiar lines as he smiled down at her. “Sure is nice having company,” he said.
“Do you think Mrs. Arnold will be all right?”
“With your Ma watching her?” Pa laughed. “Isn’t a better nurse this side of the Cascades.”
Silence fell between them. The only sounds were those made by the rumbling wheels and the clanking harness chains.
If only Ma hadn’t gone to nurse Mrs. Arnold, Becky thought. Then I would be home now, safe behind the walls of our log cabin, instead of going with Pa on his daily trip to pan for gold.
It was early in the day, but Becky pulled at the brim of her calico sunbonnet. The summer sun was hot in southern Oregon, and Ma had warned her not to get sunburned. She stared ahead at the road that became rough as they left the town behind. Trees lined one side, their branches stretching like hungry arms toward the shallow creek that glittered to her right.
Becky jumped as a shadow passed overhead, then shielded her eyes to watch a hawk swoop low over the trees. She wished she could be as brave and proud as the hawk. There was nothing to be afraid of, she assured herself once more. After all, there hadn’t been any trouble with Indians for almost two years now, and she was foolish to fear anything else with her father beside her. Still, she felt uneasy.
They had traveled for nearly two hours when Pa pulled the buckboard to the side of the road. He jumped to the ground, and his strong arms swung her down beside him. He pulled a pick and shovel from the back of the wagon and handed Becky the battered pan he used for gold panning. “Will you carry the pan?” he asked.
Becky nodded, pleased to be helpful, then followed close behind as her father pushed through the bushes that lined the creek bed. Loose stones rolled beneath Becky’s feet, but she fought to keep up with him. She didn’t want to be left behind. They walked a few yards upstream until they reached a point where the rushing water curved in its course, creating a tiny cove. “Why don’t you sit over there on that big rock?” Pa suggested. “Can’t have you falling in. Your mother would skin us both alive if I brought you home soaking wet.”
Obediently Becky perched on the flat gray rock. She touched the velvety texture of the moss growing in the crevices of the stone—how soft it felt!
Pa crouched beside the stream and patiently swirled the pan, letting water spill over its side. He poked at the sand in the bottom of the pan before he scooped up another shovelful of gravel and began the process again.
Becky stretched her cramped muscles and wiggled her toes. The rock was hard, and she wished she had brought a book to read. Occasionally her father turned to smile at her, and once he showed her a tiny glimmer of color he found in the bottom of the pan.
At last he glanced at the sky and rose from his crouched position. “Why don’t you run back to the wagon,” he suggested, “and fetch the lunch pails? It’s time we had something to eat.”
Becky hesitated. Surely he doesn’t expect me to go back to the wagon all by myself, she worried.
A slight frown of irritation wrinkled Pa’s forehead. “Well, go on,” he urged. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
She took a deep breath and slid off her rock. She couldn’t admit how frightened she felt. He would never understand. She moved downstream, picking her way carefully, her skirt held up to the top of her sturdy boots. Her father waved once and turned back to his work.
When Becky rounded a bend, she knew she had almost reached the wagon. She quickened her steps and tried not to think of anything except getting back to Pa.
A rustle in the bushes made her stop, and a flicker of movement caught her eye. A snake! Is it a rattlesnake coiled there, ready to spring? she wondered. Becky’s heart seemed to stop beating and she was unable to move. Then she saw a patch of brown fur and forced herself to edge closer. Cautiously she pushed the bushes aside. A small brown and black animal crouched on the ground, its foot caught in a snare. Its dark eyes were wide with fear as it stared at the girl.
Becky knew it was a river otter. She had seen their hides stretched to dry behind Parker’s Store and knew a lot of the townspeople trapped them for their pelts. But she had never seen a live one before. “Poor thing,” she crooned, and crouched down and extended her hand carefully.
The animal backed away as far as the snare would allow, and its lip quivered in a weak snarl.
“I won’t hurt you,” Becky said quietly as she reached for the vine that held the otter’s foot. Perhaps she should get Pa to set it free. But she knew he would tell her this was someone else’s trap and that they had no right to release the animal. Yet she couldn’t bear to leave it here like this.
As Becky grasped the snare, she worried that the otter would try to sink its teeth into her hand. Instead, the animal cringed against the rocky ground, shivering with fear. Her fingers trembled as she fought to loosen the loop from the otter’s foot. At last she pulled it free and waited for the animal to run away, but it continued to cower in the bushes.
A rock shifted behind her and Becky whirled around. She looked up into the black eyes of an Indian. Maybe it’s one of his traps, she thought. The man’s scowling face made her catch her breath, but she rose to her feet and stood between him and the injured otter. Run, little otter! she thought fiercely. Run, before he catches you again.
The man’s gaze fell on the snare Becky held in her hands, then moved to the animal she attempted to shield. “You set him free.” It was a statement, rather than a question, but Becky nodded, unable to speak.
Slowly the scowl faded from the man’s face. He took the snare from Becky’s lifeless fingers and studied it for a moment. Then he hurled it into the stream where the current quickly carried it out of sight.
“It is good,” the Indian said abruptly. “The otter is my brother. I am named for him—Swift Otter.”
Becky watched him, uncertain what he would do next. She heard the rustle of leaves behind her and saw the otter disappear into the bushes.
“You have saved his life,” Swift Otter said. “He will be wiser now.” He studied her for a moment in silence, then said, “You are brave for so small a girl.”
The Indian turned and walked away from Becky. She stared after him. She wanted to call out, to ask him where he came from, but he was gone.
At last Becky moved toward the wagon. Swift Otter had called her brave. All her fears were still there, but he hadn’t seen them. She suddenly realized that in her concern for the trapped animal she had forgotten to be afraid. Perhaps in time she could learn to be brave—as brave as Swift Otter thought she was.
A shadow passed overhead, and this time Becky didn’t jump. She raised her face and watched the hawk swoop across the clear blue sky.