The Leather Purse


I wish you didn’t have to go to the Madsens’ ranch without me,” Mother said, “but I can’t leave Baby Jody.”

“That’s all right, Mother,” Hilda said. “It’s only a mile.”

“And we’ll hurry,” added Peter.

But Mother still looked worried. Hilda knew Mother was thinking about the renegade Indians who had been giving the settlers trouble that summer of 1858.

Mother lifted a stoneware crock off a shelf and took out a soft deerskin purse closed with a buckskin thong.

“Let me carry the purse, Mother,” Peter pleaded.

“No!” Hilda said crossly as she grabbed the purse. “You might lose it. Then what would Father do for boots and a coat?”

Peter was ten years old and was miffed at his twelve-year-old sister’s lack of confidence in him. He followed Hilda in silence as they left their cabin and started up the hill. Mother had told them to stay on the hill’s crest and to be watchful. Loose stones and prickly sagebrush made walking between cedar and juniper trees difficult, but the trees made Hilda feel that she and her brother would not be easily seen.

They were almost at the top of the hill when Hilda turned to tell Peter to hurry. Her brother, his round face pale, pointed below them. Hilda’s stomach tightened when she saw what Peter was pointing at.

Three Indians, their backs toward the children, crouched behind a pile of boulders beside the cattle trail. In plain view below them was the Madsen ranch, and between the waiting Indians and the ranch rode the two oldest Madsen boys, herding cows toward the corral.

Hilda realized that as soon as John and Lars got a little closer, the Indians would try to steal the cows. They might even hurt the boys to get their horses.

“What should we do, Peter?” whispered Hilda. They looked at the leather purse she held. Inside were coins that they had worked all summer to earn. Brother Madsen was to take the money to Salt Lake City the next morning so that missionaries leaving for England, where Father was serving his own mission, could deliver the money to him. It was important to warn Lars and John about the waiting Indians, but it was also important to get the money to Brother Madsen.

Tears started down Peter’s round cheeks. “No renegades are going to stop Father from getting that money,” he cried.

Hilda didn’t scold Peter about his tears. She felt like crying herself. Day after day she and her brother had followed herds of sheep around the valley in order to pick wool from the branches and bushes that the sheep brushed against.

Every evening the children had stuffed the wool they had gathered into a sack. Bit by bit the amount grew. Then a couple of days ago they had helped Mother wrestle the heavy sack into their wagon for the drive to the co-op store.

“You must have worked all summer to gather so much wool, Mrs. Hancock,” Brother Cox said when he weighed it.

“I didn’t gather an ounce of that wool,” Mother replied, smiling at her children. “Hilda and Peter picked every bit of it.”

“Their father will be very proud of them.”

“He certainly will,” said Mother. “My husband wrote that he needs a warm coat and sturdy new boots for the cold English winter. The children gathered the wool to help pay for them.”

Brother Cox smiled. “Money for this much wool will buy him boots and a coat, with some left over.”

He handed several coins to Mother, who put them into the leather purse—the one Hilda now clutched with both hands as she and Peter stared at the crouching Indians.

“Father must have boots and a coat,” Peter insisted, “or he will get cold and wet, the way he did last winter.”

Hilda agreed. She remembered the letter Father had written in late spring. It had made Mother cry. He said he had walked so many miles preaching the gospel that his boots were worn through, and cold, wet feet and the flu had forced him to his bed.

Peter added stoutly, “But first we must warn Lars and John about the Indians!”

“How can we get past the Indians, Peter?”

Her brother stuck his chin out. “If we slip down the other side of the ridge, they won’t see us.”

Hilda hoped Peter was right. She didn’t think about her brother being only ten years old now as she struggled to follow him down the steep slope. She had trouble making her way silently through thorny bushes and stiff sagebrush, carrying the deerskin purse in her hand. Finally she stopped to tie the buckskin thong to her wrist, then hurried after Peter, who was running in the soft sand of a dry streambed.

The Madsen boys were directly ahead of them now. Peter shouted, “Lars! John! Renegades!” He pointed up the hill.

Instantly the Madsen boys turned their horses. Lars swung Peter up behind him; John did the same with Hilda. The boys began to shout, turning the cows away from the hill and hazing them down the slope.

The next few moments were filled with noise and excitement. Hilda held her arms tightly around John’s waist. Hoarse, angry cries from the Indians as they watched their prey escape sounded above the clatter of racing hooves.

Then they were safely at the ranch. After he helped them down from the horses, Brother Madsen hugged Hilda and shook Peter’s hand. “You two certainly have made it my privilege to carry your money to Salt Lake City,” he said.

Hilda looked at her arm and gasped. The leather purse was gone! She turned and, with no explanation, began to run back up the hill. Her knees felt weak, and her heart pounded. Oh, what if the money is lost forever! she agonized. She didn’t even think about the renegades. Her only thought was of her father spending his last winter in England with worn-out boots and no coat.

Peter realized what had happened and caught up with Hilda. They searched the ground and the bushes. Up the dry streambed they ran. No purse.

As they started up the slope where the undergrowth was the thickest, Hilda began to cry. They were nearly to the place where she had tied the purse to her wrist, when Peter stopped and said, “Hilda, we need help.”

“Yes,” she sobbed. “Go ask Brother Madsen to—”

“I don’t mean help from him.” Peter looked very grown-up as he said, “Hilda, we’ll ask Heavenly Father.”

Together the children knelt down. Hilda scarcely felt the stiff branches and sharp rocks under her knees as her brother prayed aloud for help to find the leather purse.

They stood up. Silently they continued to climb the slope. Hilda turned her head. Almost hidden beneath a gooseberry bush was the leather purse.

It was Peter who carried the purse back to the Madsen ranch and he who handed the purse to Brother Madsen.

“This money will be on its way to your father first thing tomorrow,” Brother Madsen promised. “John and Lars will take you home, in case those renegades are still up to some mischief. Anything else we can do to help?”

Hilda looked at her brother, then shook her head. “No thank you,” she said. “We’ve already been helped.”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Paul Mann