By Helen Hinckley Jones
The Story So Far: Prudy and John Wayne, who want more than anything else to earn enough money to bring their parents from England to America, are running the Red Rock Indian Trading Post with the help of Old Toby, an Indian interpreter. Their Uncle and Aunt have been away from the post for some time, due to their aunt’s injured ankle.
When their food supply gives out the children, at the suggestion of Old Toby,trade some Indian goods which were not redeemed at the specified time, for meat and cornmeal. The Indians who left the goods come back to redeem them. The children are very frightened and pray to Heavenly Father to tell them what to do.
Old Toby brings in the Indians who have the things the children traded to them for the meat and meal. The Indians start trading among themselves and everybody is happy.
Prudy is able to save the life of an Indian baby who has the croup and the grateful mother gives her some lovely moccasins.
“I wonder how Aunt Aggie’s getting along,” Prudy said as she and John stood in front of the Indian post one afternoon gazing out over the stretches of yellow sand toward Tuba. “It surely seems funny here without her and Uncle Simon.” She shivered a little, though the June sun was warm and not even a little breeze was blowing. “John, don’t you feel – well, lonely?”
John shook his head to throw the shock of white hair out of his eyes. “Yes, I do, Prudy, but it isn’t because Uncle Simon and Aunt Aggie haven’t come back from Tuba. Most times I’d think it was a real adventure for us to run this Indian trading post alone with nobody here but Old Toby. But now –”
“Now?” Prudy questioned.
“You know how strange the Indians have been acting. Yesterday they just rode by without even looking this way. That was bad enough. But today they’ve been coming nearer and nearer and looking at us.” He pointed with a sunburned arm. “See that one coming now? Watch him.”
Prudence and John moved back against the front of the building hoping that their brown clothing would make them seem a part of the log wall. Prudy put her hand out and without a word John took it and held it tightly in his.
The Indian circled closer, then all at once reined in his pony until it danced on its hind feet. For a moment the rearing animal stood like a picture against the yellow sand and blue sky, then, with the rider hanging close to his neck, rushed straight toward the post. When he was less than thirty feet from where John and Prudy stood, the rider reined the horse again. With his brilliant eyes he seemed to measure John and Prudy from head to foot, then he turned and rode away as rapidly as he had come.
“John, I’m afraid,” Prudy said as soon as she could catch her breath.
“I’m not really afraid,” John answered, trying to make his chin stop quivering so that his words would come out strong enough to comfort his sister. “But I do wish he had been one of the friendly Indians that come to the post all the time.”
“I wish he had been the lovely squaw that made my moccasins for me,” Prudy said.
“Well, he’s no squaw and he isn’t a friendly Indian, either. He’s a stranger and a warrior and I know from the way he looked at us that he knows you and I are alone here.”
“What’s he planning to do?”
“I’m afraid that he’ll ride back and tell the others that there is nobody at this post but two children; then a lot more will come back and take the knives and guns and powder that we have here in the post.”
A voice broke in on them: “Boy right. He knows all.”
Prudy and John jumped, their hearts thumping in their throats with fright. It was an Indian voice that had spoken and for a second they didn’t realize that it was only Old Toby, the trusty Indian. Then Prudy turned to the old man. “What shall we do Toby? We can’t keep them from taking anything they want, just the three of us. Oh, I wish–”
“Talk slow. Toby not–” The old Indian shook his head to show that he couldn’t follow Prudy’s rapid words.
John held out his hands and raised his shoulders in a helpless gesture. Toby understood. He put his hand on John’s arm. “Brave children. Can do much.”
“But what?”John asked.
Prudy looked out over the sand. “Oh, I wish we could get to Tuba. Do you suppose we could, John?”
“Twenty-seven miles without even a horse? There wouldn’t be a chance.” He drew his brows down into a deep pucker. “We might be able to get to Goldman’s, though, because that’s down the gully for a long ways, and–”
For a moment Prudy was all excitement. “The minute it gets dark,” she suggested, “well–” Then her voice trailed off. “But we can’t, John. Don’t you remember Uncle Simon said, ‘You two take care of things until I can get back.’ We couldn’t sneak off and leave the post.”
John pulled at his ear helplessly. “I don’t see how we’re going to take care of things. The Indians’ll come in and see those things in the trading room and help themselves and we won’t be able to stop them.”
“Well,” Prudy almost shouted, “what if they didn’t see those things?” Prudy’s head lifted as it always did when she was saying, “I dare you!”
“What do you mean?”
“Let’s hide the things they’d want. Let’s take every knife, gun and bit of powder and hide it. When the Indians come they won’t see a thing to steal.”
The old Indian watched Prudy, trying to follow the rush of words. He stuck his tongue out and touched it with a bent, dirty finger. “Too fast. too much,” he said.
John translated. “She says, ‘Take guns, take knives, put in hole.’”
Toby nodded and Prudy cried out, “That’s exactly what we could do. We could bury them.” She looked around for a place that might conceal the dangerous material.
John followed her into the post. The floor of the trading room was of hard packed dirt. “We could dig under here,” he suggested.
Prudy shook her head. “Oh, John, you haven’t any imagination,” she sighed. Then she explained, “If the Indians came in here they’d find the things gone and this ground all loosened up. It wouldn’t take a very bright Indian to guess what had happened.”
John’s finger found his ear. “You’re right too much of the time, Prudy,” he admitted. “What place had you thought of?”
She went through the blanket-hung doorway and into the living room. Uncle Simon had built a wood floor there for Aunt Aggie after they had taken over the post. “Uncle Simon didn’t know how handy this wood floor would be,” Prudy said, dropping to her knees and beginning to pull at the tightly nailed boards.
“You get ideas faster than I do,” John said, “but you’re like all girls when it comes to knowing how to go about things. Here, let me at it.”
Prudy moved away and John put the end of an iron bar under the board. He and Toby pushed on the bar and the board came up. It was only a few minutes until the two had lifted a large part of the floor. “Now we’ll get the stuff and put it here on the ground, then we’ll nail the floor back,”John said, dropping the bar and going toward the trading room.
“Not so fast,” Prudy cautioned him. “You said something about ‘put in hole,’ I believe. You’ve still got to dig the hole.”
“Why?” John asked, anxious to get the weapons out of sight.
“Because the boards don’t fit tightly together and there’s knot holes in them, too. Any gleam of light might go through the crack and shine back from a knife blade or gun stock.”
“Right again,” John said. “But we must hurry.” He handed a pick to Toby and he took a shovel. The two went to work. While they dug, Prudy brought the weapons from the case in the trading room. She couldn’t reach the guns and the knives that were on the wall. That would be up to John and Toby.
It was only a few minutes until the hole was more than three feet deep and longer than the longest rifle, but it seemed a long time to Prudy, carrying in guns and knives, wrapping them in cloth and blankets, and running every few seconds to the front of the post to see if any more Indians were coming in sight. Four or five rode past in the distance, their horses seeming almost a part of the sand; but none came close.
When the work was finished and the boards back in place, Prudy and John set about to rearrange the material in the trading room so that the disappearance of the weapons would not be noticed at once. It was dark before the barrels and boxes and piles of blankets, saddles and hides were arranged and everything was in place.
“Good,” Toby said, and nodded his lined old face in approval.
“Good,” said John, looking thoughtfully at the big blisters on the palms of his hands. It had been hard work.
“I’m afraid to go to bed,” Prudy said. “All the time I keep remembering a story our school teacher told us – a true story. Once a ship belonging to John Jacob Astor was sailing up the Pacific Coast, filled with knives and things to trade to the Indians. Once when the ship stopped, the Indians all went out in small boats and started trading – and all they traded for was knives, so–”
John put his hand over Prudy’s mouth. “Stop,” he ordered. “I’ll admit I’m afraid, too, and you don’t need to tell that story at a time like this.”
Prudy laughed.” Are you so afraid you want to light the candle?” she teased.
“No light.” It was Toby who gave the order, and there was no laughter in his tone. He stood in the doorway and peered into the lengthening shadows of the desert. “Toby, Toby scared,” the old Indian said. “Scared plenty.”
John and Prudy sobered at once. They knew that danger was really close if Toby sensed it. “We’ll feel better when we’ve said our prayers,” John said. He closed the outside door and latched it, and moving carefully through the darkness he led the way into the living room.
The two young people knelt to say their evening prayer together. Toby watched for a minute, then knelt with them. After they had prayed they did feel better. They were not afraid even when old Toby slipped noiselessly away into the trading room and left them.
When Prudy awakened in the morning John was beside her bed. “I don’t know how I know it, but something seemed to tell me in the night that Toby would take care of us,” he said, sitting on the foot of her bed. “It came to me as strongly as if a voice had spoken it.”
“Why, John.” Prudy’s gray eyes widened. “I feel the same way. I was just waiting for morning to tell you.”
The forenoon passed without anything happening and the children were almost ready to laugh at themselves for taking the precautions of the evening before, when Toby called them to the front of the post. This time it wasn’t one Indian, but twenty or more who circled the post, drawing nearer with each circle. As John and Prudy watched, the riders drew in their mounts just as the one man had done the day before. For a second there was a ring of pawing horses, front hoofs beating the air; then every animal was faced toward the post and the air was filled with the terrible thud of their hoofs as they closed in.
John put his arm around Prudy’s shoulder. “It’s going to be all right,” he said. “You know our feeling about Toby.”
The Indian riders drew in their horses just a few feet from the post. They slid off the bare backs of their mounts and came toward the post, swinging their bodies in a peculiar, insolent manner. Before they even reached the trading room, “Guns,” they demanded loudly. “Knives. Powder.”
Prudy, usually so much quicker than John, hung to his arm and let him do the talking.
“Sugar?” John offered. “Flour? Biscuits? Calico?”
John shook his head. “No got. No got.” The Indians wouldn’t understand him so he turned to Toby. “Tell them to search. Say, ‘Find if you can.’”
Toby spoke to the Indians and they fell at once to searching. They examined every inch of the trading room floor to make sure that there was no unexpected hiding place; they patted the rugs and furs that hung on the wall. They peered into the living room. Finally they grunted and turned away, anger burning like hot coals in their eyes.
Prudy and John watched them as they mounted their horses. “Be back, be back!” one brave called in English, shaking his black fist at them.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he would be,” John said, sighing, “but at least we’re safe now.”
“We’ll be safe with Toby. He’ll think of something,” Prudy said.
It was not until almost evening that they missed Toby. Neither of them had seen him since the Indians had ridden away from the trading post.