The Signal


Long Bow pushed his way through a tall stand of dried weed stalks. The dry stems rustled together and popped noisily, no matter how carefully he placed his moccasins. It was a difficult place to hunt, but the three rabbits he had taken would be a welcome change from the venison and buffalo meat his family had been eating.

Although the air was still crisp and cold, tightly folded buds marched up reddening tree branches, and the Indian youth rejoiced at seeing tiny green shoots in sheltered places. It had been a harsh winter. The tribe had suffered much illness; many infants and old ones had died.

Long Bow turned his thoughts away from sadness, and he swerved toward a brush pile. One kick should send several rabbits running. He was halted by a sudden flash of light from a hill to his left. When he saw a series of flashes, he was puzzled. His people used pieces of shiny metal to signal, but he could not read this message. Is it an injured brave needing help? he wondered.

The youth left his hunt and started a steep climb up the bluff. Clinging to protruding roots as he searched for toeholds, Long Bow slowly made his way to the summit. He was exhausted by the time he pulled himself up onto level ground.

“It’s a child!” he gasped. “A white child!”

Where he had expected to find an injured brave, a toddler sat near the edge of a precipice, engrossed in playing with something shiny. The strange reflecting glass, unlike anything Long Bow had ever seen, was set in what appeared to be polished silver with a raised floral design. The light was blinding when the sun hit it a certain way.

Long Bow turned to leave. He did not want to get involved with white people, not even a toddler! He had seen the two-day-old trail of a passing wagon train. The girl had evidently wandered away from it.

A squeal of delight stopped Long Bow’s hesitant retreat. The little girl with golden curls had seen him! She rose and ran recklessly over the rocky ground toward the uneasy youth.

“Stay back! You’ll fall!” Long Bow cried, edging away. Instead, the child, who looked to be about two years old, ran even faster, her arms spread wide. Her toe struck a stone, and she pitched toward the edge of the bluff! Long Bow flung himself between the girl and the brink in time to get a strong grip on her long dress as she sailed by.

“What am I going to do with you?” the Indian boy sighed.

The girl sat in his lap, rubbing her tear-stained eyes. “Hungry,” she told him plaintively. The word was strange to him, but the youth understood her meaning. Children were always hungry, and from the dirt on her torn dress, she had probably been lost for more than a day. He searched out a squirrel’s hoard and fed her some hazelnuts stored in it.

Long Bow did not want to take her back to his village, but he could not leave her there to die. “You are going to be nothing but trouble,” he murmured. “If soldiers come, they may accuse my people of stealing you.”

The girl was too heavy for him to carry down the way he had climbed up. He would have to cross the hills and descend by the sloping game trail. It was miles out of his way, but he had no choice. “You see, already you are extra trouble,” he grumbled. But he smiled as the blue-eyed child patted his dusky cheek. He rose, tucked the reflecting glass into his waistband, and hoisted the unwanted charge to his shoulders.

Because he wanted to reach his village before dark, Long Bow loped along less cautiously than he normally traveled. Panic swept over him as the trail curved and he was confronted by a huge grizzly bear and her cubs!

Bears were something the youth knew about and feared. Bears alone were big trouble, and nothing was more dangerous than a female defending her young.

There was no time to retreat. Long Bow raced toward the edge of the bluff as the bear stood erect, growling her rage. The boy knew she couldn’t climb a tree, but there wasn’t one closeby. Their only chance for escape was to go down the bluff to a ledge.

His darting black eyes saw a mass of upended tree roots. The other end of the toppled tree was resting on a ledge! Quickly he dropped the rabbits he had killed, clasped the child in one arm, and began to descend the tree trunk. His heart skipped a beat as the tree creaked and turned slightly under their combined weight. Then the tree began to slide, pulling its roots over the edge of the bluff. Long Bow made a desperate leap for the ledge that the treetop had been resting on.

“We made it!” he murmured shakily, his drumming heart almost drowning out the fierce growls of the bear.

Long Bow pushed the girl into a depression in the face of the bluff as stones began to roll down. He, too, squeezed closer to the bluff as the tree groaned and twisted in the wind, then tore free and crashed down to the valley floor. Now they were trapped on the ledge!

When night came, the youth slept fitfully, keeping the child between him and the wall of the ledge. He shivered from the cold and curled around the girl to warm her. “There is no hope of rescue. We will surely die here,” he murmured, staring up at the stars.

At dawn, Long Bow shared his meager supply of dried venison with the girl. Then he spotted trickles of water dripping down from rocks above the ledge. The youth put several heavy rocks on the girl’s skirt to keep her from falling, then eased his way up far enough to collect precious drops of the water in a hollowed-out rock. How long can we survive? he wondered. If only I hadn’t left the rabbits up on the canyon rim.

The sun was high when Long Bow’s keen eyes saw a group of white men spread out over the valley floor. He was sure that they were searching for the girl. He shouted, but they were too far away to hear him. After a while the men assembled, then slowly turned away from the direction of the bluff. They had apparently decided that further search was useless!

Suddenly Long Bow remembered the flashing light that had first drawn him to the girl. He held the glass toward the sun and rotated the handle. At first no one noticed the flashes. Desperately the youth began to play the light across a deeply shadowed wall of rock in front of the men. The men stopped and stared, then turned, searching for the source. When Long Bow held up the little girl, one man darted ahead of the others, stumbling over the rough terrain.

Later, when he and the girl were safely in the white men’s camp, Long Bow used signs to explain about the flashing light that had brought him to the child. He made bear sounds to show why they had been driven over the edge of the cliff.

As the Indian youth prepared to return to his village, the father, cuddling the napping girl, rose to thank Long Bow again. The man had seen how much Long Bow admired the silver hand mirror, and although the man wished he had more to give Long Bow, it was gratefully given to the youth who had kept his child from certain death.

It was a good gift. Long Bow accepted the mirror with dignity, not realizing that the magnificent signaling device had once been part of a vanity set on a lady’s dressing table.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Larry Winborg