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Give Thanks for What?

By: Ardis E. Parshall - November 20, 2011

From the Relief Society Magazine, October 1942 –

Give Thanks for What?

By Martha Robeson Wright

From the deep-rutted road, one would not know that a house lay beneath the willows and branches that formed a roof for the cave-like place known as a dugout. It was cut deep into the side of the hill, with its door facing east, and any traveler on the country road would pass it without a glance. It was safer that way, of course, though the occupants of the dugout would have enjoyed seeing other white faces oftener. But it was their hope that the Indians’ keen eyes would not detect their hide-out and drop in on them for food; there was no food to spare. Many of the Indians lived more comfortably than most of the settlers in this year of 1860, but the white man’s food seemed to please the red man’s palate.

The November cold had frozen the winter rains into the ground. The rough-hewn walls inside the hovel shone, glistening with frost. No firearms hung above the fireplace as in most pioneer huts. There was no fireplace, just rocks piled in a rectangle high enough to support the thick, green bough from which hung one black iron pot. The smoke found its way through a small hole in the interlaced branches and out through the doorway that was hung with an old buffalo hide.

David Johnstone, Mary, his wife, and their twelve-year-old daughter, Clarissa, sat huddled around the fire. The man was gaunt and hollow-eyed, his body taut against the cold as if defying it to conquer him. His grey eyes expressed a combination of bewilderment and determination. His mouse-colored hair was lifeless and dull. The woman was still pretty, and her eyes, blue as the wild asters, fringed with thick, dark lashes, watched her husband with compassion and pride. She might have been buxom and graceful, but now her figure was emaciated and slightly stooped, wrapped in its thick, woolen shawl.

Mary dished out the steaming mush into thick bowls. The girl, Rissy, reached from the piece of upended short log where she sat and took a bowl in her cupped hands.

“Hum…! It makes a good hand-warmer, Mamma.”

Her mother smiled. “Get some of it inside of you.” She handed a bowl to her husband. “It makes a good stomach-warmer, too.”

Rissy held her face over the steam that arose form the mush, and it lost a little of its pinched look. Her brown hair, braided in two pigtails, hung out on each side of the bowl as she leaned over it. Her undernourished body could not be seen for the long, full woolen skirt that enveloped her. Her slender feet and ankles were wrapped in strips of sacking. Her worn, unlaced shoes lay near the fire. She had been holding her feet as close to the flames as she could get them.

“This morning I wanted to starve before I’d eat another bite of this corn-meal mush,” Rissy said solemnly.

Her father turned his hollow eyes on her face and looked at it intently. Then he searched the face of his wife. He found no reproach. “We must have a change of diet,” he said slowly. “Tomorrow is Thanksgiving.”

Mary opened her mouth, but could not say a word. She had forgotten. Rissy jerked her face quickly from above the steaming bowl. “Thanksgiving, Papa? Why, last year in Boston we …”

Her father nodded. “Yes, Rissy. This,” his hands motioned toward the little room, “is like something in a dream, isn’t it? There are times when I wish I had never heard of Utah.”

“David.” Mrs. Johnstone stood close and placed her gnarled and cracked hands on his shoulder. “David, do you think we did wrong to come here? to give up everything? to live like this?”

They seemed to have forgotten Rissy, who watched them as she ate her porridge without waiting for the molasses to sweeten it. Her parents looked deep into each other’s eyes. Her father slowly shook his head.

“No. It wasn’t wrong. But to watch you suffer, to see Rissy cold and puny, to work so hard, our hands bleeding, our feet full of sores, our backs breaking – I … I can’t understand!”

“It may be to test us,” Mary said.

“Does it seem right that God should demand so much?”

Gently Mary took his thin face in her rough hands. “Don’t lose faith. We’re not complaining. You are so dear to me. It is hard for us to do unaccustomed labor and live under such hard circumstances, but we’ll manage.”

“If we can just last through the winter.”

He turned his head first to the right and then to the left to print a kiss on each of her calloused palms, his sensitive, scholar’s face lighted by an inner glow. “You are my heart,” he said softly.

Mary’s eyes filled with tears. Then she shook her head with a quick gesture as if to fling them away, and looked at her daughter. “Here, Rissy, I’ll put some molasses on your mush. Do you want some, too, David?”

“Mine’s all gone.” Rissy scraped the spoon noisily around the sides of the bowl. “I’m warmer already. I wish we’d worked a few days for Brother Randsome. We could’ve had some potatoes, too, for a change.”

Her father sighed. “We had strength for just so much, Rissy. I hope what we have lasts until spring. It will if we are careful. I shall attempt to find something to do in exchange for food that will relieve the monotony for Thanksgiving Day.”

“Please do not try to walk too far. You aren’t strong enough,” Mary Johnstone said, and added brightly, “Rissy and I shall go to bed and knit. We must finish those stockings before her feet freeze.”

David wrapped himself in a long, heavy coat with a cape around the shoulders. He waited until his wife and child had climbed into the bed that was made of four young tree trunks, bark still on them, set into the ground, with balsam boughs for springs and mattress above the split log sides. He tucked them in with the worn and patched quilts and blankets.

“It won’t be too long. Should Indians come, don’t let fear show in your faces.”

“I hope they won’t come.” Rissy lifted her face for a kiss. “They can’t be as hungry as I am all the time.”

Mary and Clarissa waited until the buffalo-hide door dropped back into place before they began their knitting. Busy people do not have much time to talk at their work, and Rissy and her mother made their needles fly as fast as their cold fingers could manage. It seemed a short time, though most of the afternoon had gone, when Mr. Johnstone came through the door with a dark-green, rough and warty object in his arms.

“Papa!”

“Squash!” he announced, holding it out in both hands.

“What did you do for it?” asked his wife.

“I walked over to Mrs. Berner’s. She’s been querulous of late, her niece complains. Wants the Bible read to her in German; her niece cannot read German. Mrs. Berner is half blind. So I read for three hours and got this lovely squash.”

“Isn’t it beautiful? Could we have it tonight, Mamma?”

Mrs. Johnstone looked at the vegetable, mentally calculating how much it would cook down. “If we have some tonight, there will not be much for a feast tomorrow. If we wait, it’ll seem more like Thanksgiving.”

Rissy tried not to show her disappointment. “How do you cook it, Mamma?”

“Cut it open, scrape out the seeds, cut it into pieces, peel it! It won’t take long to cook. Molasses will sweeten it.”

“Ugh! Molasses makes it too much like corn meal.”

The next morning, after she had dressed, Rissy watched her mother prepare the squash. She had been so restless during the night that her mother had to scold her for turning and tossing. With the three of them in the crude bed, it might tumble down if one turned too much. They had to sleep together to keep warm.

“Here’s some hot water to drink,” Mary Johnstone said. “We can eat this cold corn meal sliced. Then there’ll be room for this lovely squash in the kettle. If we don’t move around too much, perhaps we won’t get very hungry before the squash is done.”

“Tell about the first Thanksgiving, Papa,” Rissy demanded as she took her slice of cold mush and shuddered a little at its slick coldness.

As they chewed down the hardened, cold mush and sipped the hot water, David Johnstone told about the Pilgrims. “A great many of them died the first winter before the friendly Indians showed them how to use corn. English people had never heard of human beings eating corn.”

“Good thing we know.” Rissy gave a sigh as she swallowed. “We’d all be dead.”

“Something to be thankful for,” Mary Johnstone began, and stopped as she saw her husband’s eyes on the buffalo-hide door. It was swaying a little. Someone was outside listening to them. Or was it an animal? Rissy put her hand to her mouth to scream, but her father shook, his head sternly. She stuffed her fist against her lips. David Johnstone placed his cup of water and the small remaining piece of mush on a box that stood by the fire.

“Hello!” he called, and wet his nervous lips. “Come in.”

There was absolute silence for a second. Then the hide moved and a tall Indian stepped into the room. His face was begrimed from the smoke of many fires inside of tepees. He solemnly raised his hand, then walked over to sit on the bed. He looked about him, then with a grunt beckoned toward a second Indian who now stood in the doorway. The second arrival moved with great dignity and sat down beside his companion. David Johnstone arose and cut more mush and handed it to the Indians, passing Rissy as he did so to whisper from the corner of his mouth, “Don’t look so frightened.”

The two dirty brown men gravely accepted the offering of food and bit into it eagerly. A look of surprise that was comical spread over their faces. They spat out the mush, making faces of disgust. It was without salt and clammy. They motioned to David Johnstone, and held out the mush.

David Johnstone nodded. “Yes. It is all we have. We are very poor.”

The second Indian motioned toward the kettle where the squash was bubbling and the steam was rising. “Him food?”

“Squash! Today is Thanksgiving.”

“They can’t understand you, dear,” Mary said. “I hope they hurry and go.”

“No go.” The first Indian grinned as he watched the embarrassed face of the white woman. “Hungry.”

“It will soon be cooked.” Mary Johnstone assured him hurriedly, “and we will gladly share it.”

The two savages nodded, then began to bounce on the bed. Rissy forgot her terror of the Indians in terror that the bed would break. Neither her father nor her mother were strong enough to chop more trees now for a new bed, and the ax was not sharp. She stared in horror at the four posts that were beginning to sway with the movement of the Indians. The Indians stopped bouncing when they saw Rissy’s face. The first Indian pointed a dirty finger at Rissy and demanded: “Papoose sick?”

Rissy sat up in indignation. “I’m not either sick. I’m not sick. I’m hungry. I’m always hungry. None of us get enough to eat. Then you come in and take what we have. You don’t even like it, but we have to eat it. I’m not sick.”

“Clarissa!” Mary Johnstone spoke severely. She never called Rissy by her full name unless she were angry. Rissy’s face colored, and her eyes dropped in shame. “I … I’m sorry.”

The Indians looked at each other, shrugged their shoulders and grinned. “Wynno papoose. Heap wynno papoose,” they said together and then pointed to the pot. “You no eat?” asked the first Indian.

“When it is done.”

The second Indian arose and prowled around the small room. Even in the coldness of the place the white people could smell the strong odor of the Indians’ bodies. He stood in front of David Johnstone. “You no gun? No shoot?”

David Johnstone shook his head. “I have no gun. I traded it for food. I do not like to kill.”

The first man joined the second, and they stood close beside the white man. Mary, feeling something was amiss, went to stand beside her husband.

“Merricats?”

“Merricats?” David repeated, “is that an Indian word?”

They shook their heads. “Merricats? Mormons?” the first one said.

“Do you mean are we Americans or Mormons?”

Both Indians nodded vigorously.

“We are Americans and Mormons,” said David Johnstone.

Before he could say more, the Indians began to grunt and talk in their own language.

Mary stepped toward them to explain further, but they pushed her away. Rissy was too terrified to move.

“You no lie? You Mormon?” the first Indian said, addressing Mr. Johnstone. Mr. Johnstone fearlessly assured him that they were Mormons. Then to his surprise, the second Indian grinned. “We friend,” he said.

Badly shaken, David managed a smile and a handshake of friendship.

“We eat now.” The Indians settled themselves again on the bed and waited for the white woman to serve them. Mrs. Johnstone, somewhat recovered from her fear and surprise, when she saw the visitors meant no harm, ladled out the contents of the kettle with a large wooden spoon and poured molasses on top of each serving. Her bowl contained less than the others. She offered spoons to the Indians, but they preferred picking up the hot squash with their fingers. They ate like gluttons, and when they had finished, they held their bowls for more. Rissy swallowed her food in gulps and wished someone would strike the Indians dead – or something. David and Mary kept their eyes on their food as they ate. The noisy eating of their visitors almost made them ill.

“More!”

Mary showed them the empty kettle. Without further word, they stood and handed their empty bowls to Mary. Then they turned and went out the door. The buffalo robe flapped behind them.

David sat on his stool. His knees were shaking. Mary’s face registered disgust. Rissy began to cry. “To … to spoil our nice Thanksgiving. The mean things! We even forgot to give thanks.”

“And we had thanks to give. They might have harmed us,” said her mother. “Why did you admit you had no gun, David? They could have killed us.”

David smiled wanly. “They knew. They did not see any firearms. They could have overpowered us, had I had a gun.”

“They got their old stomachs full.” Rissy felt of her own stomach.

Mary Johnston put the bowls into a pan, rinsed out the black pot, and after filling it with clean water, put it over the fire to heat. “They did look quite healthy, didn’t they?” she said.

“We don’t even have enough to eat on Thanksgiving Day. I wish we were back in Boston.”

“Rissy.” Her father and mother both spoke together. She threw herself in her mother’s arms.

To save fuel, they went to bed. Rissy and her mother knit on the socks while David told stories of the settlers who went to new lands for religious freedom. Rissy almost forgot her desire for more food.

Then, without warning, the two Indians came again into the dugout. They stalked into the room, carrying the stiff carcass of a young deer. Hurriedly, the white people crawled out of bed and put on their shoes. The small animal filled one side of the room. Without a word the Indians tied its hind legs with a rawhide thong; then stood on the upended log stump that had been Rissy’s seat at dinner and passed the thong over the rafters. The deer swayed gently and starkly. David Johnstone’s face seemed to grow less colorless, his eyes began to shine. Mary clasped her hands in front of her and her lips trembled. Rissy’s mouth was wide open in amazement, and her thin hands were shaking.

The first Indian held out his hand. “You friend. You no kill Indians. White man need meat. Makum strong.”

The second Indian gesticulated, pointing first at the deer and then at the girl. “No gun. No kill venison like Indian can. Venison good for sick papoose. Wynno papoose – no let sick. White man no fat. Squaw no fat. Give all food to Indian. Now Indian give food.” They grinned and nodded their heads vigorously. Then they were gone.

“Wait.” David ran through the door to thank them, but they had disappeared into the forest. He joined his family who stood watching the dangling deer.

“Heavenly Father,” he said softly, “we thank Thee for this day.”

“Amen,” said Mary, and Rissy said it, too, but her mind was on the deer.

“Mamma. How long will it take to cook it?” she asked.



2 Comments »

  1. Wow, I would have made the most worthless pioneer on the face of the planet. I admire people who go through these incredible hardships for their ideals.

    Comment by Ellen — November 20, 2011 @ 8:25 pm

  2. Me, too. I question a lot of details here as to their realism (I think the author sacrificed historical fact for the sake of paralleling Mormon pioneers and 17th century Pilgrims), but yeah, these or other hardships, those who endured them deserve admiration.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 20, 2011 @ 8:46 pm

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