By Helen Hinckley Jones
The Story So Far: John and Prudy Wayne, living with their aunt and uncle in Tombstone, Arizona, have one great desire. They want to save enough money to help their parents to come from England to America. At the corner of the corral they hide two hollow Indian stones which they call the “counting house.” In it they have a gold coin, given to Prudy when her singing helps a woman to have faith in Jesus, and several silver coins earned by John when he and Uncle Simon were freighting from Tuba to Flagstaff.
When it seems that there will never be any more money in the counting house, Prudy finds a purse filled with gold nuggets. The temptation to keep it is very strong; but they return it to its owner in Tombstone. He is so pleased with their honesty that he offers them a chance to run the Red Rock Trading Post, and trade with the Indians.
The children were wild with excitement when Uncle Simon and Aunt Aggie decided to take over the Indian Trading Post at Red Rock. Uncle Simon wrote to Mr. Joseph Drew, and the ten days it took to get an answer seemed like weeks. Mr. Drew wrote that he had waited for Uncle Simon to accept the offer and that he would be in Tuba just as soon as he could get the materials together to stock the post. He asked Uncle Simon and John each to take a wagon into Utah where his agent would load them with sugar and calico and flour and beads and knives and other things for the Indian trade.
Prudy waited impatiently for their return, and built the Indian trading post in her own imagination. It would be a fine log building, perhaps the size of the Tombstone Hotel. Around it there would be great trees, and the Indians that came in to trade would be friendly squaws, each with a papoose on her back. The men would be like Hiawatha, the girls like Pocahontas.
At last Uncle Simon and John were back with their loaded wagons, and soon after, Mr. Joseph Drew arrived from Tombstone.
It was early afternoon when the wagons rolled up to the Red Rock trading post. Prudy couldn’t believe they had reached their destination. Yet, there was Red Rock, a tremendous crag that rose abruptly from the desert floor. The post was a little way – perhaps a quarter of a block – from the rock. It was new and raw and ugly. The walls were of yellowish-red and sun-dried brick up as high as a man’s shoulders. Above that they were of rough plank. The roof was covered with greyish green brush and there was more of the yellowish earth heaped on the brush. Across the front of the little building there was a low porch, made by propping a slanting roof up with two by fours still barked on one side.
There wasn’t a tree close to the post, but the hill that rose slowly behind it was dotted with mesquite bushes, and farther up, in a sort of draw, there was a small grove of stunted trees.
There wasn’t even an Indian in sight. Prudy looked at John, her disappointment showing on her face. John pointed with his thumb to Mr. Drew, who was opening the heavy plank door which led from the porch to the trading room. His grin said, “Wait until we’ve seen the inside.”
The trading room was small and dark and empty except for shelves along one side and a counter in one end. The walls were of plank studded with nails and hooks and pegs, and the floor was of hard dirt.
“The Indians seldom pay for what they buy,” Mr. Drew was explaining. “They’ll be coming in with their saddles, beaded belts and moccasins, even their hunting knives, and asking for credit. You have to mark up what each purchase is worth on the article and hold the thing here until later, when they’ll come back to redeem it.”
“I see,” Uncle Simon said. “What you really do is loan the Indians money on their things and give them the value in the provisions and other goods they wish to buy.”
Mr. Drew nodded. “That’s it.”
Uncle Simon frowned. “I was never very good at arithmetic.”
Aunt Aggie laughed. “Well, Prudy and John are in this business with us and they both know their figures real well.”
“This is where you’ll live,” Mr. Drew said, pushing aside a blanket which hung at the back door of the trading room.
Aunt Aggie studied the long narrow room with a window on either side and a door at the far end. Prudy couldn’t tell whether Aunt Aggie liked the bare, empty, plank-lined room or not because she only said, “You can put up a partition, Simon, on the other side of the fireplace, to make the children a bedroom. And I’ll want you to put a wood floor in this room.”
“You’ll probably bump your head on the rafters, then, madam,” Mr. Drew said with a smile.
“Well, I’ll have a wood floor, that’s certain,” Aunt Aggie declared. And then Prudy and John, too, knew that Aunt Aggie would never be satisfied until she had made the ugly room into a neat, attractive home; and they knew, too, that Uncle Simon would be building a wooden floor just as soon as he could get the planks.
That evening Mr. Drew took off his fine coat and waistcoat and helped Uncle Simon to put up more shelves for the goods they had brought in the wagons. Aunt Aggie and Prudy helped to carry the things in and arrange them on the new shelves and along the counter of the trading room.
It was late before Prudy heard a discreet shuffle of feet at the door. When she looked up, she almost screamed. There stood an Indian looking as unlike Hiawatha as one could imagine. He was dressed in white man’s clothing, much too big for him and very dirty. Even in her moment of sudden surprise Prudy wondered if he had something else to put on while Aunt Aggie washed the outfit he was wearing. The Indian’s face was more black than brown, and it was seamed like a badly weathered cliff.
Mr. Drew, turning at the same time, greeted the old Indian heartily. “Well, Toby, there you are! We missed you this afternoon.”
“Away,” Toby answered, gesturing with a quick hand to the north, then quickly folding the hand over his other arm.
“This is Mr. and Mrs. Taylor and their niece and nephew, Prudy and John Wayne. They are going to run this post for me. You do as they say.”
“Do,” Toby agreed.
“You can trust them. What they say they always do. Mormons. You understand?”
Toby nodded, a sudden smile changing the creases and folds in his face for just an instant.
“You will sleep in the trading room, Toby, and see that everything is all right. Tomorrow you can start on a little trip to tell all the Indians in the neighborhood that the post is ready to do business.”
The next day Mr. Drew and Toby, traveling in opposite directions, left, and for several days Prudy and John and Uncle Simon and Aunt Aggie spent their time getting everything in order. Uncle Simon and John built the floor in the living quarters and Aunt Aggie and Prudy made curtains for the windows and arranged pots and kettles about the fireplace, and soon the room began to look like a real home.
After a while Toby came back, and then the Indians began to come in. Just as Mr. Drew had said, at this season they had nothing to trade, so they brought their possessions to leave as a guarantee that they would be back to pay later. Uncle Simon allowed John and Prudy to do a great deal of the business, and long before Uncle Simon or Aunt Aggie could even tell what the Indians wanted, the children were learning many Indian words.
Slowly the trading room filled with saddles and bridles, moccasins and belts. The flour and rice and beans and sugar were crowded into one end and the room began to take on the powerful, disagreeable odor of sweaty horse leather. It worried Aunt Aggie, but Prudy and John learned to like it, and preferred to stay in the trading room rather than in the clean, scrubbed living quarters.
The Indians weren’t at all what Prudy had expected. The men all seemed old, the women even older. Often there were babies and little children, but there seemed to be almost no Indians between about ten years old and middle age.
Aunt Aggie spent little time in the trading room, but sometimes she took her needlework out onto the porch and the Indian women would stop to examine and admire it.
One day a worried Indian talked a long time to Toby, gesturing often toward Red Rock. Finally Toby called Prudy aside. “Little one,” he said, and he gestured with his hands to show a very small child. “Eye.” He pointed. “Needs medicine – bad.”
“I’ll tell Aunt Aggie,” Prudy promised.
She ran to find Aunt Aggie, who was gathering brush to start the supper fire. She told her of the Indian child with the sore eyes somewhere near Red Rock. Aunt Aggie looked a little afraid, but she took her boric acid water and some clean white cloth and went with Prudy to find Toby. Toby led them off toward Red Rock.
Pitched as close to the rock as possible was a dirty tepee. Toby held the flap aside while Aunt Aggie and Prudy went in. Inside, a squaw with a shawl over her shoulders squatted on the ground, a tiny, wizened child of two or three clutched in her arms.
The woman looked hostile, but Aunt Aggie’s smile disarmed her. Prudy watched while her aunt’s capable, quiet hands washed out the inflamed little eyes. She called Toby to interpret her words to the woman, then she explained how to continue the treatment. She left the clean white cloth and a part of the boric acid crystals with the Indian mother.
As they left the tepee, Aunt Aggie turned to Prudy. “It breaks my heart to see these Indians with white men’s diseases and no idea of how to take care of them.”
She squinted over toward the sun. “Supper’s going to be late,” she said. “Let’s hurry.”
Prudy began running, and Aunt Aggie, laughing, came running after her. It seemed funny to see Aunt Aggie forget her dignity and run like a girl.
Suddenly Aunt Aggie fell to her knees. In spite of the sharp pain in her ankle she laughed. “I must have stepped in a prairie dog hole.”
Prudy, still laughing, attempted to help her to stand; but tears came to the woman’s eyes and she cried out, “I’m afraid I’ve twisted my ankle, Prudy. You’d better leave me here and run for Uncle Simon.”
Prudy hesitated, wondering if she could call loudly enough to be heard at the post.
“Run,” Aunt Aggie cried, her voice sharp with pain.
Prudy ran, then, and in a few minutes returned panting behind Uncle Simon. Uncle Simon lifted Aunt Aggie as if she were a child and carried her back to the post. She lay upon her bed, white with pain, her ankle swollen to many times its normal size. “If I were only in Tuba,” she kept saying. “If I were only in Tuba, I think Ella would know what to do for me.”
“Well, we’ll go to Tuba. We’ll just shut up the post and leave now.” Uncle Simon turned to Prudy. “Go find Toby.”
“You aren’t going to close the post, Simon,” Aunt Aggie said. “After all, we owe something to Mr. Drew.”
“Well, you aren’t going to suffer like this if I can help it–”
Prudy stood on one foot, reluctant to go after Toby. “Why don’t you leave John and me to take care of the station?”
Uncle Simon looked at her for a minute before he said, “I should say not. You are children, both of you.”
Aunt Aggie said, “I don’t think it’s such a bad suggestion. Prudy is good at figures and John has a ‘feel’ for trading. Old Toby will be here with them, and we won’t be away long.”
Uncle Simon considered. “Well, all right,” he said at last. Prudy went running to pack Aunt Aggie’s things into her straw valise. Uncle Simon called John to hitch the horses to the lightest wagon. In less than an hour Uncle Simon and Aunt Aggie were off toward Tuba, Aunt Aggie with her swollen foot propped on a pillow, her face set with pain.
The children felt lonely after the wagon had driven away into the desert haze, but when Old Toby came in to sleep in the trading room they felt less alone and very much safer.
The folks did not return the next day, or the next. A week went by and John and Prudy carried on the business of the trading post as usual. None of the Indians asked after the grown-ups nor questioned the value that John placed upon their goods.
Two weeks went by, still no Aunt Aggie and Uncle Simon. “I’m worried about Aunt Aggie. I feel sure that something has happened to her,” Prudy said to John one day as they were rearranging the stock on the shelves.
“Do you know what I think?”John asked. “I think her foot was broken or something and they’ve had to go back to Utah or somewhere to have it taken care of.”
Prudy nodded soberly. “I thought they must have gone farther than Tuba when they didn’t come back that first day. If they’ve gone clear back to Utah – Oh, John, they’ll be gone forever!”
John’s fingers went to his ear. “Prudy, I haven’t wanted to tell you, but our meat is gone. There isn’t much that’s edible left in the store except sugar, and we can’t live on that.”
“We could get some cornmeal and mutton and milk and maybe some cheese from the Indians,” Prudy suggested. “Uncle Simon’s done that before.”
“I thought of that, but we haven’t anything the Indians want to trade for it. The store stock is so low. The Indians have been bringing in their saddles and things for a long time and we haven’t any new stock. Why, the trading room is full of stuff that has been left with us and that hasn’t been redeemed.”
Toby had entered quietly and listened to the children. His seamed old face showed his intelligent understanding of what they were saying. “Sell,” he said now. He shrugged his wiry old shoulders. “Indians make good bargain. Never come back.”
“Do you mean that the Indians who have left their things here think they’ve made such a good bargain that they won’t be back to redeem them?” John asked.
Old Toby nodded. “Never come back, maybe. Sell saddles.”
“Prudy, do you think we should? Should we sell some of the things to the Indians close about and get cornmeal and meat and milk?”
Prudy looked at Toby. He nodded again. “Never come back, maybe,” he said. “Sell.”
“Well,” John said, pulling at his ear, “the Indians promised to come back much sooner than this. Maybe Toby’s right and they aren’t coming back. We might as well do as he says.”
All the next day Prudy and John thought about what Toby had said. They hated to sell any of the Indian’s possessions without asking Uncle Simon; but then, Toby probably knew more about Indian trading than their uncle did.
It was about sunset when two Indian women, an old one and a young one, came riding up to the post. Prudy had seen both of them many times before, so she greeted them with a smile and an Indian greeting. “You buy?” the old woman asked, and she motioned Prudy to follow her out of the post.
Both Prudy and John obeyed the signal. The Indian women had tethered their horses a little way from the porch, and when they reached the animals the squaw pointed to a hind quarter of a dressed sheep. “You buy?” she asked again.
“She’s the woman Uncle Simon always bought meat from,” Prudy said. She turned to the woman. “Come in trading house,” she said.
The squaw took the meat from the back of her horse and followed the children back to the trading room. John pointed to the sugar barrel. He scooped up some in the tin scoop and let it fall slowly back into the barrel. “Sugar?” he asked.
The woman shook her head.
Prudy pointed to the bolts of calico. Very often the Indian women would stand for hours admiring the yards of bright print. Then the squaw shook her head again. “No want,” she said.
Toby had been watching. Now he stepped forward. He held up one of the Indian bridles. “How much?” he asked.
“John, do you think we should sell those things?” Prudy asked in a worried whisper.
“Leave Toby alone. I think he knows what he’s doing.”
The old woman fingered the bridle. “Good,” she said, making a satisfied grunting noise in her throat. She beckoned to the young squaw. “Pretty?” she asked, repeating a word that both Prudy and Aunt Aggie used often to describe their goods.
The young woman studied the bridle. “Good,” she said. She looked over the Indian goods hanging on the walls until she saw a similar bridle. “Buy?”she said.
“Corn?” John asked.
“Corn.” The young woman nodded. She talked to the old squaw for a time, then came back to John. The word she said was new to the children but Toby interpreted it. “Corn tomorrow.”
The old woman put the meat on the counter and took the bridle in both her hands. John shook his head. “Not enough. Meat, not enough.”
“Wait.” The squaw was back in a few minutes with a small blanket of beautiful design.
Prudy cried, “How lovely! Oh, John, I’d love that blanket!”
“But we’ve got to eat, and the bridle isn’t worth both the blanket and the meat.”
“She’d give it to you. She doesn’t know it isn’t worth it.”
John looked disgusted. “Have you forgotten already what Mr. Drew said about being honest with the Indians? I’m going to charge only the market value of these Indian things if we have to sell them, and not a bit more.”
Prudy bit her lip. “I keep forgetting, John. Sometimes remembering is so hard for me.”
John gave her shoulder a hurried pat. He turned to Toby. “Tell the woman to take the bridle. We’ll take the meat now and some more meat later. The blanket is too much.”
Toby gave the Indian woman John’s message. She nodded, gestured to the young squaw, and went out carrying the bridle.
The next day the young squaw came back with a large bag of dried corn and a smaller one of ground meal. John gave her the bridle she had chosen, making the same arrangement for another bag of meal a little later.
The week passed. Still Uncle Simon and Aunt Aggie didn’t return. Another week went by and John sold a few more of the Indian things. There was practically none of the original stock of white man’s goods left except a few rifles, some powder and shot and some knives; and the Indians didn’t seem to want those things.
Prudy spent much of her time watching the Tuba road and hoping for her aunt and uncle’s return. One morning she saw a puff of dust on the horizon over Tuba direction. At first as she watched it grow and come closer, she thought that it might be the wagon returning. However, it came so much faster than the wagon that she gave up the idea and called John.
“Must be Indians,” he said. “Lucky day. Maybe some of those fellows are coming to redeem their goods. We haven’t seen any Indians for months except those in the close neighborhood.”
John’s guess was right. It was Indians, come with goods to redeem their possessions. When they had all dismounted and pushed into the trading room, the place was full of them. They had blankets to trade for the goods they had left, and John was busy putting a value upon the things they had brought.
The largest of the young Indian braves stood for a long time studying the walls, then he strode over to John. “Bridle,” he said.
John looked up from the trade he was making. “Look for it again,” he suggested and motioned to Toby to help the man in his search.
The brave talked to Toby for a minute and Prudy knew that he must be describing his bridle. She thought she saw Old Toby’s face change under its blackness. Then she knew. This brave had come back after one of the bridles that she and John had sold for food. Why hadn’t it occurred to her and John before that the coming of these Indians might mean trouble? With the room full of strange Indians, friends of the man whose bridle had been sold, it didn’t take a very bright person to know that she and John and Old Toby were all in a very dangerous position.
She edged up to John. “We sold the bridle that man wants,” she said quietly.
John turned swiftly. “Oh, Prudy, whatever shall we do?”