I ran across the story presented below while gathering materials for Keepa’s Christmas feature this year. Ellen Lee Sanders (better known as Ellen Jakeman) is a familiar name in turn-of-the-last-century Mormon fiction and poetry: she was a longtime assistant to Susa Young Gates in establishing and producing the Young Woman’s Journal, and she wrote a considerable amount of fiction and poetry for the YWJ, the Juvenile Instructor, the Relief Society Magazine and the Improvement Era.
Her writing is of far better literary quality than much of the fiction in these magazines for that era, and I suspect that anything she submitted anywhere was probably published without much editorial scrutiny. I started typing this one without having read it through, expecting it to be exactly what I wanted as part of Keepa’s Christmas, and I was interested in watching the story unfold.
By the end, though, I knew I couldn’t use the story, at least not as entertainment.
Remember, the Juvenile Instructor, the source for this story, was aimed at children, from toddlers to their mid-teens. Under what theory of child development was it appropriate to publish a story for children where rape was a plot point? or where suicide (or murder, if the character could not steel herself to suicide) was presented as the noble, admirable, acceptable way to resolve the characters’ difficulties? And in the event some young reader later faced assault, did she flash back to this story, with its implicit judgment that she was an unvirtuous woman and had better have killed herself than “let” a rapist “dishonor” her?
Now that I’ve spoiled the drama for you, I’ll be very interested in your evaluation of this story, including whether you find my shock and condemnation too strong or not strong enough. All reactions to this story in other directions, or to our changing norms for dealing with rape and suicide, are welcome, too, of course.
From the Juvenile Instructor, December 1910 –
Christmas on the Border
By Ellen Lee Sanders [Ellen Jakeman]
Mary Ann had been brave enough while the bustle of preparation for the journey to town was going on; but as she watched the wagon turn a bend in the road and disappear from view, and she could no longer hear the groans of the boy who had been hurt, the thought of spending a night at the ranch without either father, mother or brother, made her heart sink.
her only companions were her younger sister, Esther, and the big, brave dog, who was standing by her side licking her hand and in this dumb way trying to comfort her, and tell her he meant to do as master had told him when he sent him back from f9ollowing the team: “I don’t need you, Leone, go back and take care of Mary Ann.”
It was Christmas eve, too, and while they had decided to spend Christmas at the ranch, they had not intended to spend it alone.
For a week past the girls had been making preparations for the event, and this morning had written, and were about to dispatch to the town, eight miles away, a dozen notes of invitation to dear friends (not forgetting a fiddler), when the accident occurred that had spoiled everything.
How her brother, a boy of twelve who was to be their courier, could have made a perfectly gentle animal buck, jump and snort like a fresh caught range animal, could not be learned, but the boy had been thrown while still in sight of the house, and hurt so badly that his parents felt obliged to take him to town for such help as could be found there.
So Mary Ann was left alone, to care for the farm animals, protect her younger sister and comfort herself for her disappointment as best she could.
She squeezed back the tears, and called a smile to her face as her sister Esther came and stood by her, with lips quivering, and slipped her hand into the strong protecting clasp of her older sister.
The valley was bare, but the distant peaks were white with snow, and the sun looked coldly through a chilly mist-veil that told their experienced eyes there would soon be snow in the valleys.
“How silent everything is!” said Esther.
“Yes,” said Mary Ann, briskly, “and if you will listen to absolute silence a while you will hear every sound that was ever started traveling around the earth. Let’s go and look at the ballroom,” she said with a gay laugh. This is one of the occasions of which that Scotchman wrote when he said: “The plans of mice and men oft gang aglea.”
The milk room of this fort-like farm house (and our pioneer fathers built with a fine disregard for space or material), built of sun-dried bricks and hewn timbers, was eighteen by twenty feet, with milk shelves built against two blank walls from floor to roof. The rows of shining pans were shut in by screen doors of rough but serviceable workmansh8ip. The benches ranged against the wall, the bare floors and unpainted woodwork were scrubbed to whiteness and immaculate cleanness, and the blank surface of the white-washed walls was relieved by festoons of evergreens. This was to have been the ball room. A splendid young pine did duty as a Christmas tree, standing in a corner opposite the door that opened into the kitchen. It was gay with paper lace, chains and flowers, and garnished with many mysterious parcels.
The two girls viewed their elaborate preparations and turned away, the festive arrangement giving emphasis to their loneliness.
The living room had been converted into a dining room, and the long milk tables as white as white pine could be scrubbed, but guiltless of covering, were already partly spread for the feast that was even then slowly browning in the big Dutch oven built into one corner of the room.
Two hams and a saddle of venison (bought of the Indians who roamed about as long as the valleys were bare of snow), two turkeys, a small pig, and a round of veal, were like a happy family, all huddled together in the dim capacious depths. Chci9kens too numerous to count were slowly steaming in a large iron kettle on the back of the stove, while on the front of the stove in another big kettle a huge plum pudding stuffed with wild berries and tied in a bag as our grandmothers used to do was boiling briskly.
Pumpkin pies, custard pies, and other pies with delicious berries between their nut-brown covers, stood in prim brown rows on some of the lower milk shelves, all having been baked the day before; but the pride of their hearts was a huge cake, four stories high, each story a different kind of cake, with separate dressing, and as good as it was big.
Mary Ann was sixteen and had spun the wool and woven a web of cloth, men’s wear, and had made cheese of a quality to bring good prices in the Salt Lake market, while Esther could make butter as good as her mother, and had knit any quantity of stockings, turning the heel and narrowing the toes in symmetrical lines, and these accomplishments, not to speak of others, entitled them to the rank and dignity and distinction of young women; but as they listened to the silence they felt quite childish and incompetent, and would have given much if they had remembered to ask their parents to send someone up to stay with them.
Under nearly all circumstances work is a blessing. it certainly was to the two girls through the long, lonely day. They were obliged to finish the cooking already begun before the accident, and more to help fill up the time than anything else, Mary Ann proposed that the table setting should be made as complete as possible. “For,” said she, “if brother is not too badly hurt, mother may think to send the notes out anyhow.”
So the pickles and salads, the cream, cheese and butter (home-made and gilt-edged) were put upon the long tables to keep company with the dishes, pies, apples, and their tower of cake.
Early in the afternoon (for night falls swiftly among the mountains), the cows were milked, pigs and chickens fed, and all securely shut and fastened into their strong, warm pens and stables, and as the purple twilight deepened, and the stars began to come out, the girls went into the house to get rid of the long lonesome howl of wolves on distant ridges.
The wooden shutters to the windows were closed over the glass, and securely hooked on the inside, the heavy doors were closed, locked and barred, and fires of resinous pine were lighted in all the rooms, to dispel, if possible, the gloom and dread that was upon them.
Without appetite, and every nerve tense, these pioneer girls were trying to eat and each pretend to the other that everything was all right, when they heard the tramping of horses feet coming at a good brisk trot along the road that led from town.
“Oh! Mary Ann, father and mother have sent the young folks up,” said Esther, with a burst of gladness that revealed the depth of dejection and depression against which she had been struggling, and before Mary Ann could speak or lay a detaining hand on her arm, she had thrown the door wide open, not even hearing the rumbling growl of the dog that lay on the door step.
There would have been time for her to have shut and fastened the door again, had she not been so paralyzed by surprise and fear as to render her incapable of prompt action.
The rattle and jingle of bridle bits, and the creaking of leather announced horsemen, as they came to a halt in the yard; but the guttural “How” that was flung at the two girls out of the darkness, proclaimed their guests Indians.
Mary Ann thought a volume in the half minute it took her to put her sister behind her out of sight, and answer the greeting with such calmness and dignity as could be assumed at short notice, and unconsciously copying her mother, turned to her sister, and in a low tone of authority told her that if she could not control herself better she had better go into the other room, for the worst thing she could do was to show fear.
“Who’s afraid?” said Esther, scornfully. “Ain’t all the Indians friendly now, anyhow?” but her cheeks were white and her teeth chattered in spite of her utmost efforts.
The Indian who had spoken rode into the broad belt of light that streamed out through the open doorway, and Mary Ann recognized him as an Indian that had been raised by a white family in a neighboring settlement. He had been bought from his unnatural parents for a pan of flour, and had repaid the care they bestowed on his helpless infancy and worthless boyhood, by being lazy, dishonest, and ungrateful, and rounding out a long list of petty crimes by stealing a horse and saddle, and going back to his own people.
Indian Bill could talk English as well as any white man, but pretended he could not when in the company of white people, thereby learning many things it would have been just as well for the settlers if he had never known. He had shunned the town from whence he had purloined the horse and saddle, but many and villainous were the reports that came of his exploits in other localities.
Mary Ann knew him at once, but with a duplicity equal to his own, she did not by word or look betray her knowledge.
“Where Mormon?” grunted Indian Bill in the manner and with the accent of an uncivilized Indian, meaning to enquire for the head of the house.
“Gone to town,” said Mary Ann calmly.
“When come,” Bill asked again, eying the girl maliciously.
“Tonight – soon,” the girl replied, looking at the clock as if to note the time.
She did not dare to speak to Esther or even to look around to reassure her, for the Indian was watching her narrowly, and she felt that he would gauge his daring by her timidity.
While she was undergoing this scrutiny, to her inexpressible relief, Esther began humming a tune as with great unconcern she rattled kettle lids and bake pans, as though being alone at a ranch with a band of red Indians for Christmas guests was quite an ordinary occurrence.
Mary Ann had hoped that her statement about her father’s returning would send the Indians about their business, but Bill turned to the silent grim outlines of human beings in the outer darkness, and talked to them in their own tongue.
Every frontier settler in early days picked up some Indian words, and Mary Ann had been no exception. She heard Bill tell his band to off saddle and feed their horses, that all the men were gone, and would not be back that night; to take anything they could find to eat or that they could take away with them, but not to let fire get to the stacks as that would be seen at the town.
After he had already given the order he turned to Mary Ann and asked with such an impudent leer if he could have feed for the horses, that she felt like striking him, but answered graciously that he could, striving to appear unconcerned that he might not know that she understood.
“We camp here,” said Bill, sliding from his horse, and almost forgetting to play that he could not talk English.
“Well, don’t build your camp-fires too near the stacks,” said Mary Ann, making a motion to go inside, and laying her hand on the door to close it, but Indian Bill, who had given his horse to another Indian to care for, interposed his shoulder, and rudely pushed the door wide open.
The dog had stood quietly by Mary Ann till now, but growled and showed such an unmistakable desire to attack the Indian, that he drew back angrily, and pulling a revolver form his belt, took aim at the dog, but Mary Ann pushed up his arm.
“Don’t you dare to shoot my dog,” she said sternly, and with blazing eyes. “is that what you do when I give you feed for your horses?”
“You, tell paro be still. All Indian build fire. I come in. Eat. Have coffee. Plate. Me chief,” he said proudly, snuffing the fragrant aroma of the well cooked and seasoned feast.
Mary Ann thought very rapidly. The Indians in a general sense were friendly to the white people, but this Bill, outlaw chief of a renegade band, was not bound by even the lax and flimsy restraints of a chief’s treaty. To protect herself, her sister and her father’s property by force would be impossible even if they were all safely on the other side of a barred door. By diplomacy, flattery, or bribery she might.
She told Leone to be quiet, which he did with a very bad grace and told the chief to be seated.
The door between kitchen and milkroom stood open, and Indian Bill could see the Christmas tree, its colored paper decorations lit up by the ruddy blaze of the pine fire in the open fireplace.
“Clismus tlee!” said the Indian, surprised into this betrayal of himself and the memories of his childhood.
“Yes,” said Mary Ann, “this is the night when the Great Spirit sent His Son to be born a little baby and live among the people of the earth to make them good. Then he died, so that they might all come back some time and live in the good place where this Father lives. Then there will be no stealing, no killing, all good,” she said, trying to plant seed thoughts in the Indian’s cruel mind.
“No kill enemy?” asked Bill shyly.
“No, all men will be brothers.”
“Huh!” he said with the tone and look that might have greeted a fairy story.
“That was many, many snows ago,” said Mary Ann, trying to keep up a conversation. “He will come to the earth again, to his red children as well as to His white children. Then all will be peace, and – ”
“You lie,” said Bill. “He no come; Mormon no come.”
Swallowing the affront, Mary Ann smiled sweetly, and said: “Oh! yes he will, and now because it is Christmas when the great Spirit sent His Son, go and call in your braves, and they shall eat and have coffee and be all my brothers tonight.”
“You are never going to invite all that dirty gang of Indians in here, are you, Mary Ann?” said Esther horrified.
“No shut door,” said Bill, handling his revolver significantly.
“No,” said Mary Ann, and turning to Esther, said: “Yes, why not?” knowing the ruffian was standing by the door listening. Father will be here soon, and they are all friendly Indians. But when she heard him shouting to his band, under cover of the noise and his diverted attention, she said to her sister in a rapid undertone: “We are safer with all of them here in the house than with this one demon alone. he does not fear white people, and has all the vices of the worst of them. Get mother’s little pistol out of the bureau drawer. I have her spanish dagger, and if the worst comes to the worst, we can save ourselves from dishonor.”
“Can’t you think of some other plan?”
“No, I can’t; but if you can I will help you. We will serve this dinner as slowly as we can, entertain them to the best of our ability and detain them as long as possible. My only hope is help from town.”
“It is certainly an occasion to put on one’s most fascinating manner,” grumbled Esther, as she crossed the room to keep Bill, who was just entering, from seeing that they had been talking together.
The Indians came in and stood in a huddle about the door, silent, suspicious and scornful.
“I wish I had a handful of strychnine,” said Esther as she passed her sister on a trip to the dining room. “I’m not going to let the old coyotes have both those turkeys,” and Esther hid one in the darkest corner of the milk shelves. “Nor both these venison hams, either,” and one slid into retirement with the turkey.
The girls were nearly an hour getting things ready, and would no doubt have been another hour, if their savage guests had not begun to show signs of impatience.
They talked among themselves of the girls, and began spreading over the room, getting in the way and obliging the girls to walk around them. The few English words they knew were of the lowest, and they repeated them over and over, evidently fully acquainted with their meaning, and desiring to annoy.
“I have an idea,” said Mary Ann, that just one quart of w-h-i-s-k-e-y,” she spelled, for Bill was keen to hear all they said, “would precipitate what those wolves have in mind and are not brave enough to do.”
“What say? What say?” asked Bill suspiciously.
One of the Indians were more bold than the others, as Esther passed from the stove to the dining room with a milk pan full of steamed chicken and hot soup, reached over and took a leg of chicken that stuck up conveniently out of the dish, with his dirty fingers, and Esther promptly threw the hot soup over his half naked body.
His antics and screams of pain were greeted by the other Indians with howls of laughter, and when the burned ruffian drew his knife to kill the girl, they jeered him for fighting a squaw, and Bill, finding the fellow was in the minority, put him out of the house, and the rest trooped into supper.
“Why did you?” gasped Mary Ann under cover of the exodus.
“I just had to,” stormed Esther in a whisper. I couldn’t stand their insolence any longer.”
Bill marched to the head of the table as he had seen officials do at public dinners in his civilized days, and took, his seat with quite as grand an air as those he was trying to imitate. He assumed his knife and fork and the others tried, but soon gave it up for the more accustomed hunting knife and fingers. There were many grunts of satisfaction over the various meat dishes, the coffee, hot biscuits and butter, but there were some dishes that did not suit them so well. Salads and beet pickles they threw on the table, floor, and about the room, the dishes which had contained them following.
Bill seemed to be suspicious of some trap, for he never allowed both the girls to go out of the dining room at one time, and had laid his revolver by his plate.
The girls poured coffee, brought milk and more hot biscuits, and finally had to see their culinary pride smashed by the fist of a burly savage, and the Christmas cake eaten as hogs eat cooked squash.
Well, the longest meal must come to an end, and when there were unmistakable signs that the Indians were about filled up, Mary Ann asked her sister in great perplexity what could they do to attract their attention a little longer – gain a little time.
When they passed each other again, Esther said with an almost hysterical giggle: “you might make them an after dinner speech or preach a Christmas sermon.”
Mary Ann, like the drowning man, was ready to catch at straws. So she began telling them of the Savior and such broad facts as she thought even they might understand, and insisted that Bill should interpret, but it fell flat. They did not believe a word she said, and considered it gross impudence for a squaw to attempt to teach braves, and spat, and made so much noise that she could not be heard.
Esther brought Mary Ann a guitar, saying almost jocosely, “Do you remember the story of the old negro who charmed the wolves who were after him, with music?”
Mary Ann swept her hand across the strings and her savage guests were all attentive. And those two girls sang songs and hymns, whose every syllable was a mighty prayer; sang the songs of Zion till their souls, like that of Jephtha’s daughter wakened, and looking into the face of death could say and feel: “Father, Thy will be done.”
It was not the braves who tired of the music, but Indian Bill told them rudely to stop, and ordered the men out of the house, grinning approval when they took knives, cups, chunks of food, and finally, a quantity of clothing that was hanging on the wall behind a door.
“You take the plunder and I’ll have the squaws,” he called after them as they scrambled out.
The two girls had backed into a corner to keep from being trodden underfoot, and Esther remarked: “I know Brigham Young has always been telling us to feed the red brethren so we shan’t have to fight them, but I wish he could see them express their gratitude. I would fight them if I had just half a show,” but Mary Ann was white as death, for she had understood Indian Bill’s last remark.
“Have you your pistol, Esther?” she whispered as she watched the Indians one after another file out with the booty they had selected.
“Yes,” was the low reply.
“Can you do it? I – I think the time has about come for us to save our father’s daughters from dishonor. If you can’t do it, dear, I will,” she said tenderly.
“I can do it, but would like to shoot that beast first.”
“No use, there are all the others and you have only one bullet.”
“Can you,” asked Esther, as she turned slowly with her back to Bill, and put up her hand for her pistol.
“Yes,” said Mary Ann, “when I know that my little sister is out of their power,” and her voice was full of infinite tenderness and compassion.
The last Indian passed out leering back at the chief, kicked over a chair and slammed the door behind him.
Leone had been silent through the turmoil of the barbarous feast; now with neck bristles erect, threatening growls, and teeth a-grin, he stood between the girls and Indian Bill, the menace of whose purpose was so apparent.
“Put that dog out doors,” he said without a trace of Indian in his speech, addressing Mary Ann.
As she did not move to comply he drew his revolver and shot the dog dead at her feet.
For a moment the girls gazed on the dog’s quivering body, on the face of their enemy so full of evil determination, and then Mary Ann kissed her sister’s face, and said: “the time is come,” and drew her dagger, as Esther cocked the tiny pistol.
Then surprise stayed their hands, for without noticing them, Indian Bill stood listening intently, and then without so much as a glance at the two desperate girls whom he had driven to suicide, made a bee line for the door, and out he shot into the darkness, making the call of a timber wolf as he went.
And while the girls were still wondering, they heard again the sound of rapidly ridden horses, the creak of saddle leather, the jingle of spurs and bridle chains, and harmonious and joyous laughter.
At last, and late, but not too late, the guests had arrived, and never were visitors more welcome!
Men never traveled, worked, or went on pleasure bent in those good old days without guns and ammunition; so as soon as the situation was made clear, they made a judicious reconnoiter for their red brethren, but could find no trace of them except the lavish provender they had given their horses. Bullies are always cowards, and the dozen Indians who would rob a lonely farm house, insult and abuse a couple of young girls, and perhaps murder them, fled at the approach of men.
Well, the young folks wanted to hearten up those two girls. They placed a strong guard to prevent a surprise party in case Indian Bill should decide to return, went to work and cleaned up the house, cooked vegetables, and with the venison ham and turkey that Esther had hidden, chicken left in the kettle, and pudding still boiling, made a very satisfactory meal about two o’clock in the morning. They voted Esther a medal for thinking to hide the turkey, and praised both the girls for their courage.
Incredible as it may seem, those young people danced and laughed, and enjoyed the mysteries of the Christmas tree, changing the guard every half hour till morning, so that no one should miss their share of the fun.
At sunrise Leone was buried with military honors, and but for the death of this faithful friend, one might have almost been persuaded that the happenings of the night were only a bad dream.