Monday, March 5, 2018

The Corn Crib by Sharon Frame Gay

Fourteen-year-old Izzy Cuthbert recounts the ransacking of her Nebraskan farm by a group of Sioux; by Sharon Frame Gay.

Journal of Elizabeth Cuthbert

The day the Sioux attacked our farm, I was in the hog pen with my mother, tossing scraps to the pigs from last night's supper. Mama grabbed my arm and pulled me towards the small corn crib in the corner of the pen. She shoved me in, covered my body with cobs.

"Indians are coming. Don't you move even one bit, Izzy. Lie still and don't come out, no matter what you hear until me or Papa call your name."

Before I could blink, she closed the door and ran off, skirt rustling against her legs like the corn husks in the field behind us. Through a small crack in the slats, I saw her boots heading for the barn.

She shouted for my father and older brother. "Jake! Isaac!"

Our horses bolted in the corral, kicking up dust and galloping round and round, whinnying at the Indian ponies as they thundered towards the farm.

Shots rang out right away. I could tell from the boom that it was Papa's rifle, and right behind it the tinnier sound of Isaac's old repeater. There was a storm of gunfire. Then silence, sudden and final. I figured Papa and Isaac were already dead because they would never give up so easy.

Then there were noises everywhere - the Sioux calling to each other, horses snorting and stomping. The sound of feet pounding from one building to the next. The sudden whoop when they found Mama hiding in the barn.

I huddled deeper in the corn. The hogs panicked, pushing at the small crib as they tried to run away. Down by my leg, I felt movement as a snake slithered over my knee and spun up through the cobs, poking its head into a shaft of sunlight.

I don't know how many Indians there were. From the noise they were making, they were ransacking the house and rustling through the barn, looking for hooch and food and whatever else they might find. Lately there had been a Sioux uprising. Renegades were attacking farms and ranches here in Nebraska, and travelers up and down the Oregon Trail. I hoped they would take what they needed, then leave Mama and me alone.

The hogs squealed and snorted, shoved at the crib again. Somebody was here in the pen with them. Squeezing my eyes shut, I bit my lip to keep from crying, stayed as still as could be. Counted the seconds, and prayed he'd leave.

A hog screamed in agony. I heard a knife ripping into flesh, the smell of blood running copper on the air until my head spun with fear. Tears leaked out, ran into my neck.

Then the latch to the crib opened, cool air rushed in. A hand grabbed my leg. Fingernails scratched at me as the cobs were yanked back. I looked straight up into his face, the last light of day piercing a white feather woven into his black hair, and opened my mouth to scream. He put his hand over my lips and shook his head.

He shoved me back, hard, and I winced. Then he pulled corn cobs back over me, latched the door and walked away.

Later that night after the sun went down, I heard Mama screaming. Her cries went on and on until I wanted to cover my ears and jump out of the crib and run as far away as I could, but I dare not move. The snake was somewhere in here with me, and I hoped it wasn't a rattler. I wasn't about to find out, so I kept as still as I could. The Indian had latched the door from the outside, so I was trapped. What if he left me here in the corn crib and just rode off? Nobody would ever find me.

My mother stopped screaming. I prayed she had fainted, but I feared the worst.

I was fourteen, almost a woman, and old enough to understand what the Sioux probably did to Mama. I knew they would likely do the same to me. The Indian who found me might be saving me for himself, or bring me up to the house later, after they finished with my poor mother. I willed myself to take just one breath, then another, chest tight and heart racing like a spring thaw creek.

The Indians were whooping it up in the house. Once in a while a shot rang out, then laughter. The air was thick with the smell of roasting pig.

As the night wore on, even the Sioux got quiet. All I heard was the stomping of the horses, and the frightened grunts of the hogs. I thought about kicking out a board in the corn crib, try to squeeze my way out and run away. I was afraid that any noise I made would wake those Indians and stir up the snake. Maybe it was best to wait until morning. They might leave when the sun came up and I could escape then.

It was deep night now, hours had gone by, my body cold and aching. I thought I heard something outside the corn crib. A footstep. The hogs grunted, moved around the pen. I strained to listen but my heart beat so hard, it was all I could hear.

The latch opened, the cobs parted, and an arm dragged me up and out so quick all I could do was swallow my scream. It was the same Indian. He shoved his hand against my mouth again, dragged me out of the pen towards the back of the barn. He put his finger to his lips, shook his head, like he was telling me to be quiet.

I nodded, my whole body quaking like one of those preachers in a traveling tent.

He threw me up in front of him on his pinto and we trotted away, as slow and quiet as a ride to church, only his muscles felt tight as a war drum and the horse was all a-quiver. I looked around, but didn't see any of the other Sioux with us.

Once we broke over the rise, he nudged the pony into a lope and we covered the prairie in hungry bites, hoof beats the only sound under the night sky. I leaned forward, afraid to touch him, clutched the pony's mane. There was a three quarter moon in the sky, just enough light to make out trees, rock outcroppings. My shoulders ached as I was jolted across the rough ground, the pinto's head bobbing up and down, the Indian's arm around my waist.

He slowed down when the sky blushed with morning, then headed into a forest that bordered the foothills. The pony picked its way over brush and roots. Inside the stand of trees, it was quiet as death. A few birds called out to each other that strangers were around, turning silent as we brushed by. I kept thinking this was a dream, and prayed the sun would wake me, set me back on the farm with my family.

The Indian stopped in a small clearing and jumped off, pulled me from the pony and set me down hard on the ground. He looped a rope around my wrist and tied the other end to a belt at his waist.

I got a good look at him then. He had a thick scar that ran from forehead to chin, so deep that it pulled one side of his mouth down, a bit of spittle trickling out. He swiped at it with a hand, turned angry eyes to me. There was blood spattered all over his deerskin shirt. I wondered who it belonged to and prayed it was the hog and not Mama. Around his neck was a small wooden figure on a piece of rawhide. It looked like a child's toy. There was a knife in a sheath on the belt and a flintlock rifle in a buckskin sling across his back. Two red slashes of war paint stood out on each cheek. It seeped into the scar like blood. The white feather woven in his hair quivered when he moved like a living thing.

He took a small bit of jerky from a pouch with filthy fingernails, tossed me a piece. It landed in the dirt, and I dusted it off, popped it in my mouth. It tasted bad. I couldn't swallow, but was scared to spit it out, afraid he might slit my throat for acting rude, so I kept it in the side of my cheek for a while like a chipmunk. When he turned away I spit it in my hand, buried it under a leaf. He turned back towards me, pointed to his pony, yanked on the rope around my wrist.

"Why? Where we going?" I asked.

He scowled, dragged me up by an arm, tossed me back on the pony, then jumped up behind me.

All day long we drifted through the trees slow and easy. I figured we were hiding from something or someone and waiting for nightfall in these woods. I wondered where the others were, if we were meeting them somewhere. Small rays of sunlight broke through the pines and the pinto's mane glistened when the light caught it. I felt the warmth of the Indian's legs on either side of me. His foul breath fluttered against the back of my neck. My stomach rumbled with hunger, though I was sick with fear. I had a headache, and the heat from the pony made my thighs sweat.

I'd been thinking for hours. Thinking about everything. Every step we took away from the farm was a step away from my family. Finally I gathered all my courage, because I had to know the truth. Even if I died right then and there. I took a breath, braced myself for what might happen next.

"Did you kill my family?" I asked, my heart beating so hard I thought it might rip through my dress. The words cut through the forest so loud I swear it echoed. I didn't know if he talked English or could even talk at all, with that big scar and spittle running down his chin.

Silence.

Did he understand what I asked? I figured that silence was as good as admitting it if he knew what I was saying, and if he didn't talk English, I'll never know for sure what happened while I was in that corn crib. I was scared that my family was dead. Or maybe somehow they survived, and it was just me who was going to die.

I started to cry. Tears slid down my cheek and landed on his hand in front of me as he guided the pony. It pooled up on his skin like a tiny pond but he didn't flick it off. It just sat there until the heat from his body dried it up, leaving a silvery trail of heartache along his wrist.

We stopped again by some fallen logs. The Indian jumped off, pulled me down with him. He turned his back, peed against a tree, then gestured for me to squat behind a log. Shaking, I pulled down my drawers, watched him look away as I relieved myself. When I finished, he threw me another piece of jerky. This time I chewed it up and swallowed, even though it tasted like the devil. He led me over to a stream, and I cupped my hands, drank in thirsty gulps. I saw his reflection in the water. Our eyes met.

I hated him. I wanted to grab the knife from the belt, plunge it deep in his belly, gallop back to the corn crib and that snake, jump in, and pretend that it was yesterday and nothing had happened yet.

I touched the rope around my wrist. It was tight, holding me captive, helpless. When I stood up, my head barely reached his chest. He shoved me ahead of him back to where the pony stood in a clearing.

We mounted up, climbing higher into the hills, hooves ringing out against the rocks, tree line falling away to higher ground. The path narrowed, shrubs scratching at my legs.

The pinto stumbled, and I was thrown back against his chest. His arm tightened across my breasts and lingered there. Fear shot up all the way to my heart.

"Are you going to hurt me now, too? Tell me so I can pray to my Lord and set things straight."

More silence. I dug my nails into the pony's hide. He tossed his head, snorted, stepped sideways.

The Sioux loosened his arm from my chest, but kept me tight against him. His deerskin shirt rubbed against my back. After a time, I figured that if he wanted to rape and kill me, he would have taken his pleasure right there in the hog pen and left it at that, so maybe I was safe for a while. Maybe I could escape. I thought about the farm, the corn crib, and my family.

I started to shiver again, only this time it wouldn't stop. The shakes just kept coming like geese in a November sky until I was limp as laundry.

Then I did the strangest thing. Something I will never figure out, no matter how long I live. Scared as I was, I fell asleep, just like that. It was almost like I wanted to run away in my mind, so my body just closed up on me, and I collapsed.

When I woke up, it was pitch dark and the pinto was stepping out of the thick woods and into a moonlit field. A coyote howled off in the distance. An owl swooped by on its way back to roost, a sign that morning was coming.

Dawn was breaking when we came to a halt on top of a knoll. Trees lined the soft rim of the hills, the sun seeping over and spilling across the fields.

In the distance was the small settlement of Florence. The pony nickered softly as we started down the rise.

We got closer to the village, then the Indian reined in, and with a swift motion grabbed me around my waist with one arm, lowered me to the ground. I stumbled, fell, got up and brushed off my skirt. Stared up at him.

He leaned down and cut the rope off my wrist with his knife. Then jerked his chin towards Florence, swatted at the air like he wanted me to run from him. I just stood there like I was nailed to the ground. He glared at me, motioned again, brushed some drool off his chin.

I nodded, took one step, then two. Turned back, peered up in his face one more time. Knew I would remember it forever. Then I lifted my skirts and ran like Satan himself was after me.

Something brushed against my leg, tore through my skirt.

"Get down!" somebody hollered. I took to the ground as a hail of bullets sailed over my head.

It ended as fast as it began. The smell of gunfire was everywhere, then the sound of footsteps.

"You okay, girl?"

I opened my eyes and stared at a pair of white man boots by my face and nodded. He hauled me up and walked me over to a group of men, all of them talking at once.

"God damned Indian. Good thing we saw him coming down the hill. We got him good. Don't know what he planned to do with this girl here. What's your name, child? What the hell happened?"

I babbled then, looking like one of those rag dolls whose head bobs around cause it's not been properly sewed. I told them about Papa and Isaac and Mama, and the snake in the corn crib.

Sobbing, I said "thank you" over and over again, but it wasn't aimed at them.

I talked on and on and then fell silent. All my words had left my lips and my throat closed up and wouldn't let any more come out.

That day I quit talking for good.

Folks were coming out of their houses now, walking up to the field to see what happened. Women fussed over me, straightened my dress, picked bits of corn husk out of my hair.

Several men took off on horses with their rifles, headed towards our farm. I feared they would find nothing there but death, and the Sioux likely vanished like any hope.

They tied a rope around the Indian's feet and dragged his body through town behind a horse. Everybody cheered. His head bumped along the ruts in the road like he was riding a bronco. Up and down, up and down, hard, and with each bounce, people clapped. The white feather fell out of his hair into the road and fluttered in the breeze, filthy and torn, streaked with blood. I picked it up, put it in my pocket.

The pinto waited up on the hill all that day, head down and reins dragging. I kept peering out the window of the boarding house, wondering if he was standing guard until the other Sioux would come looking for revenge and kill all of us in town, one by one, as we slept. I slid under the bed and kept still all night long, as if there was a snake under there with me.

The next morning the pony was gone. I could breathe free again, only taking my air never was the same after that. I felt each breath, each heart beat, and kept thinking it was all going to stop, just like it did for Mama and Papa and Isaac, and wondered what that might feel like.

I should have died back there with all of them. I don't know why that Sioux spared me, and I'm still not sure it was the right thing to do. Some days I feel so scared and lonely that I wish I had perished that day, too.

A week later, right after the sun came up, I climbed the hill outside of town. I dug a small hole under a cottonwood tree, and buried the white feather. Placed four wildflowers on top. A light breeze ruffled the petals, brushed against my face like a sad goodbye. Far up in the sky, a hawk circled the field, crying out like it was calling someone home, then flew away.

God stored all my words in my heart now instead of my mouth. So now I write it all down. The pen scratches at the paper and it reminds me of the dry husks in the corn crib. The ink flows out like blood and dries but won't disappear, no matter how much I wish it could change things.

Izzy Cuthbert, Nebraska, 1864

10 comments:

  1. A well written story from the powerfully expressed POV of Izzy. It might be interesting to read a parallel piece in the voice of a young person from the Sioux people - reflecting the appropriation and theft of their lands and resources by pioneers? Also, the cruel treatment that they too experienced (largely expunged from formal history texts). Many thanks for a taut and emotional narrative expressing a thread of a complex historical tapestry. many thanks,
    Ceinwen

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  2. A sad tragedy with no winners. Very well written. Some horrible details portrayed matter-of-factly make them even more effective.

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  3. Ceinwen and Dave, thanks so much for your comments. I was truly hoping to portray what you said, Dave - "A sad tragedy with no winners". Both sides lose. An act of daring and kindness on behalf of the Sioux warrior costs him his life. Suspicion, anger and violence on both sides was a real heartache during those turbulent times.

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  4. Well done once again, Sharon. Thank you.

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  5. This was a well written story drawing on suspense and building tension, keeping me glued to the narrative. A tale of historical events, illustrating the tragedies of the period.
    James.

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  6. a powerfully written, thought provoking piece.burying the feather was a marvellous way to end a truly compelling read.
    Mike McC

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  7. Thank you everybody for your kind comments! I hope that Izzy went on to have a good life and maybe find her voice once again! I appreciate you reading my story!

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  8. The setting and terrain were
    well-described. You could sense the journey, leading to a poignant end.

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  9. Thank you, Edward, for your kind words!

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