The Best Gift


They that deal truly are [the Lord’s] delight (Prov. 12:22).

It was a beautiful shawl. Chi-wee could see that clear across the trader’s store. Dark blue on one side and glowing red on the other, and with a fringe of the same two colors, it looked warm and soft.

Chi-wee also saw the look in her mother’s eyes as she passed her hand over its surface. In Chi-wee’s heart a fierce little voice said: “My mother shall have that shawl.”

It was trading day for Chi-wee and her mother. In the early morning they had come in the wagon of Mah-pee-ti the sheepherder. They carried with them the pottery that Chi-wee’s mother had made to trade at the store for food and clothing.

It had been a long, bumpety ride from the high mesa town to the canyon store, a ride over the wide desert of many-changing colors, up and down sandy washes. But it was a ride that Chi-wee dearly loved and of which she never tired. There were many living things to see on the way: prairie dogs, lizards, horned toads, sheep, and sometimes, away in the distance, an antelope or a gray coyote. And then there was always the excitement of wondering whether Mah-pee-ti’s old wagon would hold together when they jostled down a deep wash and struggled up on the other side. But for as many years as Chi-wee could remember, the wagon had always made it.

Now Chi-wee came close to the shawl and felt it with her fingers. It was soft and very warm. “Will you buy it, Mother?” she asked eagerly, laying her cheek on the soft wool.

Her mother shook her head a little sadly. “No, my little one. We must trade today for food and not for the things we do not need.”

“But you do need a shawl—this shawl!”

“We will not speak of it anymore,” said her mother, turning away. “We have money for food only, my daughter.” Then Mother spoke to the trader of the flour, sugar, and grain that she needed.

Chi-wee stood looking at the shawl. Somehow, my mother shall have this beautiful shawl, she resolved. While her mother carried some of the food out to the wagon, Chi-wee went to the trader. “What is the price of that shawl?”

“Six dollars,” answered the trader with a kindly smile. “It is all wool and very warm.”

“Will you trade it to me for the necklace that I have on. See, the shells are the color of the sky when the sun comes up.”

The trader stooped and looked at it. “It is beautiful. I can give you two dollars for it. But I could not exchange the shawl for it. I’m sorry.”

Chi-wee felt her heart grow very heavy, and all the way home she had no eyes for the lizards, rabbits, and prairie dogs that scuttled out of the way, nor for the tumbleweeds and cactus or the faraway blue buttes. Her mind was busy with plans to earn money for the wonderful shawl. But how could she earn that much money before someone else bought it?

She could weave a little, but that took a long time, and it took money to buy the colored wools. She could try to make pottery, but she knew that she couldn’t make it well enough to sell.

When next they went to the trader’s, Chi-wee looked eagerly for the shawl. Hot tears stung her eyelids when she could not find it. “That beautiful shawl—has it been sold yet?” she asked the trader.

He looked at her for a moment with a puzzled frown on his face. “The shawl?” A look of remembrance came into his eyes as he answered her. “No, it’s still here. Do you want to buy it?”

“Yes,” she said quickly, looking to see that her mother was beyond hearing. “I want to buy it, but I have not all the money right now. Here!” and with trembling fingers she unclasped the little shell necklace and thrust it into his hand. “Could you keep the shawl a little while for me? I will bring more next time.”

“I will keep the shawl for you until the end of next month. If you can bring me the rest of the money by then, you shall have the shawl.” He turned to assist the other customers who had entered his store.

The next few weeks were busy ones for Chi-wee, happy ones too. Had her mother not been occupied with her own work, she might have noticed that Chi-wee made many trips into the desert for which she gave no explanation, and when she returned, she seemed to be hiding something. When the next trading day came, there was a bump under the little girl’s shawl that had not been there on other trips.

When they reached the trading post, she handed the trader a big jar of wild honey. Her heart was beating fast with excitement and happiness. She did not tell of the pain caused by the needle-sharp cactus quills that stuck her fingers or of the painful lumps on her arm from the stings of angry bees. There was just deep pride in her voice as she said: “I have brought this to pay on the shawl.”

There was a look she did not understand in the trader’s eyes as he took the honey. He turned quickly and spoke to a stranger standing nearby holding a parcel. Finally he turned back to her. “I’m sorry, little girl. I waited until the end of the month. When you didn’t come, well, I just sold the shawl to this gentleman. Wouldn’t you like any of the other shawls in trade for your bracelet and honey?”

To Chi-wee it seemed as if the world turned black. Her mother’s shawl had been sold to this stranger! She could not speak. Words would not come. Everything began to swim through the sudden rush of tears. She saw the stranger walk to the door with his bundle under his arm, and the trader turn to attend to those who waited at his counter. She stumbled out of the store and into the waiting wagon with a storm of anger and grief in her heart. But she did not cry anymore. She sat in silence all the way home.

When they reached home, Mother called her to help with the parcels in the wagon. “And take your package,” she said. “The stranger said that you bought it from the trader. With what did you buy it, little daughter?”

Chi-wee opened her eyes wide and stood as still as a statue while her mother placed the package in her arms. Then she tore off the paper. There was the shawl—her mother’s shawl! Attached to one corner was a little card. On it was written: “It is your love for your mother that has bought this shawl, little girl of the mesa. And it is my love for a little girl like you that gives you back your precious treasure.” And there, beside the shawl, wrapped in a bit of paper, was her pink shell necklace. Now Chi-wee cried hard—but the tears were tears of happiness as she gave the shawl to her mother.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Mitchell Heinze