Authors: Carol Ryrie Brink
“I guess I do,” said Tom.
“Tell about the Indians,” urged Hetty, a little tired already of all this talk about a preacher’s livelihood.
“Well, we had more trouble with our Indians than you have had here. Even your massacre scare was nothing to some of the things we went through. But the trouble lay not so much with the Indians themselves as with a few of the white men who had brought Satan with them into the wilderness instead of the Lord God.”
Warren was opening his mouth to ask if Mr. Tanner had seen Satan, but the circuit rider went right on speaking without giving him an opportunity.
“Most of these renegade whites were fur traders; and instead of giving the Indians honest goods in exchange for their furs, they gave them liquor—’firewater,’ the Indians called it. It was a shameful but a not uncommon sight to see a drunken Indian staggering along a forest trail or through the streets of one of the settlements. Fired by strong drink, the savage nature of the Indian broke forth and he was likely to commit any crime or folly. For that reason we very greatly feared the Indians in our region.
“Now one cold winter evening, with snow lying white on the icy ground, it happened that my father was riding home through the forest after an absence of several months. On the way he fell in with a settler of the neighborhood, and they were both glad of the company; for men did not ride abroad much after dark. Ordinarily my father would have stopped before dark at a settler’s cabin, but, being so near his own home, he continued on. The two men had to pass near an Indian encampment on the way, and the settler was afraid and wished to go the long way round.
“‘No,’ my father said. ‘If you are afraid, pray. When you have cast your troubles on the Lord, you will have no fear.’
“Well, no doubt they prayed well; for they passed through the Indian encampment without fear and without difficulty, the Indians only looking at them with dark, forbidding faces.
“‘My friend, you see how easy it becomes,’ said my father.
“‘Right you are, Parson,’ replied the farmer, ‘but I wouldn’t go back through that Indian camp again for a hogshead of salt pork and a dozen sugar loaves.’
“They rode on in silence for perhaps a mile, their horses sometimes floundering in deep snow, sometimes slipping on bare ice. The breath of their mouths whitened the dark air like smoke.
“‘A man would soon freeze on a night like this, did he not keep moving,’ said the settler over his shoulder, for he was riding ahead.
“‘Aye, you are right,’ said my father.
“As he spoke, the settler’s horse suddenly shied at something dark which lay beside the trail.
“The man rode hurriedly by, calling back to my father, ‘Take care! There’s a dead Indian by the wayside.’
“‘Dead?’ said my father. ‘How do you know?’
“He drew in his horse’s bridle rein and prepared to dismount.
“‘In God’s name, Parson Tanner, you’re not going to get down off your horse on a night like this for a dirty Indian, are you? He may be lying in wait to stab you or, if he is dead, the other savages may find you with him and kill you too.’
“But my father got down and tethered his horse, saying to himself,
’They looked on him, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him he had compassion on him …’
“‘I don’t know what you are mumbling, Parson,’ said the settler, ‘but I beg you not to stop now in these woods on such a night.’
“Still my father would not be dissuaded. He knelt beside the Indian and found that he was still breathing, but that he was in a drunken stupor from the white man’s firewater. Another half-hour lying in that bitter cold and he would freeze to death, nor ever wake again in this world.
“‘There is only one thing to do,’ said my father, ‘and that is to lift him up before me on my saddle and carry him back to the encampment, where his friends can look out for him.’
“‘Parson!’ cried the settler. ‘And you so mad against
strong drink! Leave the fellow, I tell you.’ Twill be one less bad Indian.’
“‘Come here,’ said my father, ‘and give me a hand with him.’
“Well, grumbling all the way, the farmer came back and helped my father lift the unconscious savage and lay him across my father’s saddle, and back they went the long dark way to the unfriendly encampment.
“The Indians looked at my father in astonishment as he rode among them again; but when they realized that he had saved one of their number from death, their scowling faces grew less hostile.
“It was late that night when my father reached our cabin. But we children heard him and came helter-skelter out of our makeshift beds.
“‘Pap, have you brought us something to eat?’
“‘The sorghum and salt are used up, Pappy, and there’s only a few handfuls of meal. Mother said you’d bring it all with you when you came, and money for new shoes too.’
“My father sat down by the table, and he looked played out with his long journey.
“‘Get back to your beds, young ones,’ Mother said. ‘Can’t you see he’s tired out?’
“I think already she must have known what we found out the next day, that his pockets were as empty as when he had left us in the early fall.
“Well, it’s hard to go hungry and without shoes in the wintertime. In summer you don’t need shoes and there are berries and nuts and wild plums in the woods even if the crops are poor. But winter is a bitter time. My poor father
was not even a very good hunter and game was scarce that year. Later we boys grew into mighty hunters, as clever to stalk a deer and catch him with an arrow to his heart as any Indian lad. But that winter we were little fellows and the cold and hunger bit into us.
“That winter for the first and the last time I heard my mother question my father’s way of life.
“‘It’s not right, Tanner,’ she said. ‘It’s not right for the Lord to come before a man’s family. If you weren’t off doing the Lord’s business instead of staying at home and attending to your own, your little children would have food in their mouths and shoes on their feet and decent clothes on their backs. And all these people you go and preach to, do they care enough about you to put two bits into the collection plate? No, indeed! Oh, Parson Tanner is a right good exhorter, no doubt; but when it comes to paying him anything, let someone else do it. The Lord will provide!’
“My mother said it with bitter sarcasm in her voice.
“My father continued to sit by the empty table, looking very stern and pale, his eyes resting on the floor.
“‘Yes, Elsa,’ he said in his quiet voice, ‘I still believe it. The Lord will look after His own.’
“It went on so for a few days more, and we were all hungry and crying and at odds with one another. My mother had made some thin gruel—which satisfied none of us—out of the last of the meal and, after we had eaten it, she stood in front of our father with her hands on her hips.
“‘And now what?’ says she. ‘Don’t tell me again that the Lord will provide!’
“I had never seen my father angry before then. Something like blue lightning flashed out of his eyes.
“‘Elsa,’ he said, ‘you’ve made too free with the Lord’s name of late. Get down on your knees, all of you! I’m going to pray.’
“We didn’t hesitate a minute. Even my mother got down awkwardly onto her knees, wiping her eyes with the corner of her apron.
“‘Oh, Lord God,’ my father prayed, ‘there are so many other people in this world who need Thy help that it seems kind of selfish to call Thy attention to us. But we’re here in the wilderness alone, and it’s been a hard winter. Oh, Almighty Lord, forgive us if we beseech Thee to look down upon us here and see our necessity. Forgive us if we have faltered in our faith in Thee. O Lord, provide for us in some way until spring comes and we can provide for ourselves.
“Whether from weakness or from some inner realization of the majesty of that moment, we all stayed on our knees after he had ceased praying. And, while we were still kneeling there, we heard a horse’s hoofs coming along the hard frozen track into the clearing. We children were suddenly frightened. Not one of us moved except Mother, who turned her head with a strange look of expectancy in her eyes.
“The horse’s hoofs stopped at the door and there was a shuffling of moccasined feet in the entryway. I felt my hair
prickle on top of my head where my scalp lock grew. Still not one of us moved.
An Indian stalked in
“The latch clicked off the hasp, and the door was thrust open and banged back against the wall. An Indian stalked in. On his shoulder he had a haunch of venison, which he flung down upon the bare table. He fumbled an instant in a little buckskin pouch he wore at his belt and brought out a small round yellow piece, which he clinked down beside the fresh meat. Our father rose like a person in a dream.
“‘You’re the man I found lying in the woods that night,’ he said, as if he were talking to himself.
“‘White fella good man,’ the Indian said gravely. ‘Me give ’um gift.’
“At that he turned and stalked out, mounted his pony, and rode away among the trees. We cried our thanks after him, but our voices only echoed in the empty woods. We never saw him again.”
A little silence fell as Mr. Tanner ceased speaking.
At last Mrs. Woodlawn broke it by saying, “Mr. Tanner, after such a childhood, I am amazed that you yourself should have become a circuit rider, knowing what the life was like.”
The big preacher smiled at his hostess.
“Ma’am,” he said, “that’s the very best kind of childhood for a traveling preacher to have. It conditions him early. There’s only one way in which I differ from my father—I’ve never asked a woman to share my wandering life with me, and I’ll never have a child of my own to run in the cold woods without shoes.”
“But now that the country’s getting settled so that permanent
churches can be built, why don’t you settle down with it?”
“Me?” said Mr. Tanner. “No, I’ll leave the settling to Mr. Ward.”
He laughed his big comfortable laugh, and in his eyes they saw the look of forest places farther West where trails were just beginning to be blazed.
But the children wanted to return to the story.
Hetty pulled at Mr. Tanner’s sleeve and asked, “What was the yellow thing he took out of his pouch that clinked?”
“A five-dollar gold piece,” said Mr. Tanner. “Five dollars went a long way in those days. It bought us meal and sorghum and salt pork to tide us over until spring.”
“How did an Indian happen onto a five-dollar gold piece?” wondered Tom,
“I don’t know,” said Mr. Tanner. “We accepted it. We weren’t in a mood to question. Besides, you know, there’s an old saying:
Never look a gift horse in the mouth.”
“Especially when it’s from the Lord,” said Warren reverently.
“Go, My Son, into the Forest” or What Warren Did About It
T WAS NOT EASY
to forget Mr. Tanner’s story. It made the children realize the difficulties of a frontier preacher’s life, and it lent a kind of glamour of adventurous sanctity even to young Mr. Jedediah Ward, who had come to be the pastor at Dunnville.
Mr. Ward was a nice young man and a very pleasant preacher. If he did not roar and rave against the sins of the earth in a mighty voice as Mr. Tanner did, he made the golden streets and harps of heaven seem sweeter; and his fine tenor voice added much to the singing of the hymns.
He stayed for a few days with the Woodlawns until the ladies of the congregation had furnished out the little cabin in Dunnville which had been built for him by the men. When it was finished he moved into it, and spread his books and papers all about, and began to cook his own meals. Then the men who had built his cabin started the mightier building of his church.
Mr. Ward was still young enough to arouse Mrs. Woodlawn’s motherly kindness.
She saw his paleness and his thinness and she said aloud.
with a great sigh of sympathy, “That poor, dear young man. I declare to goodness he looks half starved!”
“He just hasn’t filled out yet,” Father said. “He’s like a young tree; he’s been too busy shooting up to send out branches.”
“No,” Mother said firmly. “I am sure he’s but half fed. We’ll have him here to dinner of a Sunday, anyway. It’s the least that we can do for him.”