Benny's Wigwam by Mary Catherine Lee

"Now, Pettikins," said Benny Briggs, on the first day of vacation, "come along if you want to see the old Witch."

Pettikins got her little straw hat, and holding Benny's hand with a desperate clutch, trotted along beside him, giving frequent glances at his heroic face to keep up her courage. Her heart beat hard as they took their way across to the island. The island is really no island at all, but a lonely, lovely portion of Still Harbor, between Benny's home and Grandma Potter's, which by means of a small inlet and a little creek, and one watery thing and another, is so nearly surrounded by water as to feel justified in calling itself an island. They crossed over the little bridge that took them to this would-be island, and following an almost imperceptible wood path, came within sight of the Witch's hut. It was a deserted, useless, wood-chopper's hut, which the mysterious creature whom the children called a witch had taken possession of not long before. Here Fanny drew back. "O Benny, I am afraid," said she.

"Humph! she can't hurt you in the daytime," said Benny. "She ain't no different in the daytime from any other old woman. It's only nights she is a witch."

Fanny allowed herself to be led a few steps further, and then drew back again. "O Benny," said she, "there's her broomstick! there it is, right outside o' the door—and O Benny, Benny, there's her old black cat!"

"Wal, what on it, hey? What on it?" creaked a dreadful voice close behind them. Then, indeed, Fanny shrieked and tried to run, but Benny's hand held her fast. She hid her face against Benny's arm and sobbed.

It was the old Witch her very self. She looked at them out of her glittering eyes—O how she did look at them!—with her head drooped until her chin rested on her chest. This seemed to bring the arrows of her eyes to bear upon the enemy with greater force and precision.

"There ain't any law ag'in my having a cat and a broomstick, is there?" she asked in a voice like the cawing of a crow, bringing her staff down with a thump at the words "cat" and "broomstick." "What are you skeered of?"

"Why, you're queer, you know," said Benny desperately.

"Queer, queer?" piped the Witch; and then she laughed, or had a dreadful convulsion, Benny couldn't tell which, ending in a long, gurgling "Hoo-oo-oo!" on a very high key. "Now, s'pose you tell me what is 't makes me queer," said she, sitting down on a log and extracting from the rags on her bosom a pipe, which she prepared to smoke.

"Whew!" whistled Benny, "'twould take me from now till Christmas; I'd rather you'd tell me."

The crone lighted her pipe. The match flaring upon her wrinkled, copper-colored face and its gaunt features made her hideous. Poor little Fanny, who ventured to peep out at this moment, sobbed louder, and begged to go to her mother. The old woman puffed away at her pipe, fixing her gaze upon the children.

"Got a mother, hey?" said she.

"Yes."

"And a father?"

"Yes."

"Um-m-m."

She puffed and gazed.

"You wouldn't like to see 'em shot?"

At this Benny stood speechless, and Fanny set up such a cry to go home that Benny was afraid he should have to take her away—that is, if the Witch would let him. He began to consider his chances. Still the more terrible the old Witch seemed, the more Benny wanted to see and hear her. He whispered to Fanny:

"She won't hurt you, Pettikins—she can't; I won't let her. Hush a minute, and see what I'm going to say to her!"

Fanny hushed a little, and Benny fixed an audacious gaze upon the Witch—or a gaze which he meant should be audacious. "What is the matter with you?" said he.

The old woman removed her pipe and sat holding it with her forefinger lapped over it like a hook.

"They call it 'exterminated,'" said she, pushing back the broad-brimmed, high-crowned man's hat that she wore, and showing her gray, ragged locks. "I'm exterminated. You don't know what that is, I s'pose?"

"Exterminated, ex-ter-min-ated," said Benny, scratching his head, "why, to—to—drive out—to—ah—put an end to—to—to—destroy utterly."

"I don't know what your book meaning is. I didn't get mine from books. I got it all the way along—began to get it when I wasn't much bigger'n that little gell," said the Witch, pointing at Fanny with her pipe. "I didn't know what it meant when I first heard it, but I know now. Hoo-oo-oo-oo!"

"I wish you'd tell us about it," said Benny. "Tell us about beginning to learn it when you wa'n't much bigger'n Pettikins."

"That's when the colonel said we must move west'ard," said the witch, laying her pipe down on the log, leaning her elbows on her knees, and resting her bony jaws in the palms of her hands. "Injuns, before they're exterminated, stick to their homes like other folks."

THEY ENCOUNTER THE WITCH.

THEY ENCOUNTER THE WITCH.

"You ain't an Injun, be you!" gasped Benny, with a look and tone which expressed volumes of consternation and disappointment at her utter failure to come up to his ideal Indian. Why, she wasn't the least bit like the pictures! She wasn't like the magnificent figures he had seen in front of the cigar stores in New Haven. Where were all her feathers and things—her red and yellow tunic, her gorgeous moccasons, her earrings and noserings and bracelets and armlets and beads? Why, she was ju-u-u-ust as ragged and dirty!

All this and more Benny's tone expressed when he said: "Why, you ain't an Injun, be you?"

"Well, I was. I ain't nothing at all now. I ain't even a squaw, and they said they was going to make a Christian on me. I was a Chetonquin."

"Oh, yes," said Benny, looking at her now with the interest attaching to one who had worn the feathers, and beads, and moccasons, and rings. "Well, what did you do when the colonel told you to go West?"

"We had a fight."

That was satisfactory to Benny. "Which whipped?" he asked, with his own native briskness, as if this, now, was common ground, and he was ready to talk at his ease.

"Which a'most always whips? It was a hard fight. I hid behind a big tree and watched it. When I saw my father shot I started to go to him and a shot struck me. See there!" said she, pushing up her coarse gray locks and showing a deeper, wider seam than the creases and wrinkles on her face. "A bullet grazed me hard and I was stunned and blinded with the blood, and couldn't run, but my people had to. They didn't any on 'em see or know about me, I s'pose, and I laid there and sorter went to sleep. Colonel Hammerton took a notion to pick me up when he rode over the ground he had soaked with the blood of my people—ground that belonged to my people," shrieked the woman, straightening herself up and shaking her fists in the air.

Benny liked that. Even Fanny gazed at the strange creature with fascination. And when the Indian's excitement abated and she ceased to mutter and chatter to herself and sunk her face into her palms again, gazing absently on the ground, Fanny pulled Benny's sleeve and whispered, "Ask her what he did then, after he picked her up."

"What did he do with you then?" ventured Benny.

The old woman started, and gazed at them curiously, as if she had forgotten all about them, and had to recall them out of the distant past. "What did who do?" said she.

"What did Colonel Hammerton do with you when he picked you up?"

"Oh, I didn't know who picked me up—thought 'twas some of my people, I s'pose. Colonel Hammerton carried me off to the fort, and then took me to Washington: said he was going to make a Christian on me. I had to stay in houses—sleep in houses!—like being nailed up in a box. Ugh! what a misery 'tis to be made a Christian on! Hoo-oo-oo-oo-oo! You wouldn't want to know all the racks and miseries and fights and grinds on it. I guess they got sick on it themselves, for after I'd tried a many times to get away from houses, and been brought back, I tried again and they let me go, and I've been a-going ever since. I asked for my people, and they told me they was exterminated, every one on 'em. Yes, I've been a-going ever since, but I can't go any more. I hope they'll let me stay in these forests 'till the Great Spirit takes me away to my people. He can't find me in the houses, but if I keep out in the forest, I hope he'll find me soon. It's been a weary, long time."

"Are you two hundred years old?" asked Benny softly. "That's what folks say."

"Two hunderd? Hoo-oo-oo-oo! two hunderd? I'm ten hundered, if I'm a day," said the poor old creature. "But don't be afeard on me—I hope there won't be anybody afeard on me here, for then they'd be driving on me off, or shutting me up again somewhere where the Great Spirit can't find me. Tell your people not to be skeered on me—ask 'em to let me stay here."

The sad old eyes looked wistfully at Benny, whose generous heart took up the poor Indian's cause at once.

"You can stay here fast enough," said he. "I know who these woods belong to—some o' my relations. There won't anybody be afraid of you. Me 'n 'Bijah'll take care of you."

"O, bless you!" said she. "I thought I'd got to the right place when I got here—it looked like it—it felt like it. It seemed a'most as if I most expected to see wigwams. A-h-h-h-h, if I could sleep in a wigwam!"

Benny felt that he could sympathize with her in that. He and the boys had played Indians and 'Bijah had built wigwams for them in the wood, and he had greatly wished and entreated to be allowed to sleep all night in one. But he could not guess at the longing of the aged to go back to the things dear and familiar to them in childhood; he did not know that all the old Indian's days were spent in dreaming of those things, and that she often wandered all night in the woods, fancying herself surrounded by the wigwams of her people—searching anxiously for that of her father. Though Benny could understand nothing of the pathetic sadness, he felt a strong desire to offer consolation and cheer, and he said, "I can build wigwams. Me 'n 'Bijah'll make you a wigwam!"

But the aged Chetonquin muttered to herself in a tuneless quaver, and shook her head doubtingly.

"What! She don't believe it!" Benny exclaimed to himself. "Don't believe that 'Bijah can make wigwams! We'll show her!"

And he was so eager to be about it that he took leave directly of his strange acquaintance, who seemed lost in reverie, and to have forgotten him entirely.

When Mr. and Mrs. Briggs heard Benny's story of the poor Indian woman, their excellent hearts were at once filled with compassion for so forlorn a creature. Mr. Briggs had very radical theories about equal mercy and justice for each member of the human race.

"It isn't likely," he often said, "that some have a right to be in this world and others haven't;" and he immediately set himself to illustrate his theories in the case of the Chetonquin.

Mrs. Briggs said there could be not doubt that she needed other things besides wigwams, which conjecture was found to be sadly true upon investigation. An attempt was made to put this last of the Chetonquins into more comfortable quarters, but she received the suggestion with dismay, and prayed so earnestly to be left on the spot she seemed to think was like her own native forest, that it was decided to make her as comfortable as possible there, since it was early summer and no harm could come from exposure. When the weather was cold again, she would be glad to be sheltered elsewhere. So Mr. and Mrs. Briggs, Grandma Potter and 'Bijah, took care that she needed nothing, and left her to be happy in her own way.

Her shattered mind, little by little, let go of everything save the memories of her childhood. All the people of the neighboring region, old and young, came to understand and respect the sorrows of the poor creature they had talked of as a witch. But the most friendly people seemed to disturb her—to break in upon her dreams—and children, especially, were not allowed to visit her.

Benny could not forego, however, the pleasure he had promised himself, of getting 'Bijah to help him make a fine wigwam in the woods, and saying to old Winneenis—as she called herself—"There! what d'ye call that? There's a wigwam for ye, 'n me 'n 'Bijah made it, too!"

Benny might make as many wigwams as he pleased, Mr. Briggs said, "but he was not to go near or disturb old Winneenis."

One extremity of the island was in the vicinity of Grandma Potter's, and Benny passed a good many days of his vacation at Grandma's. One day Benny said to 'Bijah, "Now you can make that wigwam, can't you, 'Bijah? You said you would when the hay was all in, and it is all in, ain't it? Le's make it to-day over there in the woods, on the island. The boys are coming over to-morrow, and I want to have it done before they get here. Say, will you, 'Bijah?"

"Wal, I'd know but I can," said 'Bijah.

"I want a real one," said Benny, "life-size, just like them you saw when you was out there to Dakota—none o' your baby-houses."

'Bijah went up-stairs into the barn chamber, humming The Sweet By and By, and Benny accompanied him in doing both. 'Bijah opened an enormous chest and pulled out a lot of old buffalo and other robes, the worn-out and moth-eaten accumulation of years, not to say generations, and sitting down, took out his jack-knife and ripped the ragged linings out of several that were pretty well divested of their fur, and making a pile of skins, old horse blankets and lap rugs, he said, "Now, then, sir, we'll have a wigwam fit for old Black Hawk himself."

And you may be sure 'Bijah was as good as his word. He got out old Tom and the wagon, and he and Benny and the skins and blankets all got in and drove over to the woods on the island, and there 'Bijah cut poles and made the finest wigwam ever seen this side of the Rocky Mountains—or the other side either, for that matter. They spread blankets on the ground inside, and Benny declared it wanted nothing but a few Indians and tomahawks and bows and arrows lying round to make it look just like the picture in his g'ography.

Benny's last thought was of his wigwam that night as he slid off into the delicious sleep that only rosy-cheeked, tired boys know. He dreamed he was the chief of a powerful tribe, and that he found old Winneenis, not old any longer, but a little girl like Fanny, crying in the forest because she couldn't find her way to her people, and that he took her by the hand and led her home. Her shout of rapture when she found herself once more with her people, wakened Benny, and he saw it was morning, and the shout he had heard instead of being that of little Winneenis, was grandma's voice calling him to get up. He was rather disappointed to find he wasn't a powerful chief, but he consoled himself with the thought of his uncommonly fine wigwam, and hurried down stairs to see what time it was, for the boys were to come on the early train, and he meant to go right over to the woods with them.

He had scarcely finished his breakfast when the boys arrived, and they all started for the woods in great glee.

On the way, Benny told them the story of old Winneenis, and the boys were full of wonder, interest, and curiosity to see her.

Upon reaching the wigwam, they admired its outside, agreed that nothing in that style of architecture could surpass it.

"And now," said Benny, "see how nice 'tis inside," and he took a peep in himself. "Why," whispered he, drawing back, "she's here—she's here in the wigwam, sound asleep, and she looks awful glad. Sh-sh"—with a warning shake of his finger—"we mustn't disturb her; father said I mustn't. Le's go away and wait till she wakes up."

They each took a peep at the old Indian woman and went away softly.

They remained in sight of the wigwam, exhausting every device for wearing away the time, and Joe's watch was frequently consulted. Time and patience wore away together.

"There," said Charlie, at last, "we've waited long enough; we ought to wake her up now."

"It might make her crazy again to see such a lot of us, and I—I don't like to," said Benny. "I'll go 'n ask 'Bijah what to do."

They went and brought 'Bijah, who said he should think likely she would want to sleep a spell, she must be pretty well beat out, pokin' around all night. He'd heard her making them queer noises o' hern—something like a hoarse kind o' Phœbe bird, it sounded, in the distance.

"I shouldn't be surprised," he began, in a low tone, stooping and peering in at the wigwam; but, contrary to his words, he did look very much surprised indeed.

He stepped into the wigwam and touched the sleeper gently. Then he shook his head at the boys and motioned them away, and when he came out, they understood from his look, that old Winneenis was dead.

Wandering, as was her wont at night, she had come upon Benny's wigwam, standing in the clear moonlight, and to her longing, bewildered mind it had probably seemed the wigwam of her father. Who can ever know the joy, the feeling of peace, and rest, and relief, with which she laid her tired bones down in it, and fell asleep, a care-free child once more, and thus passed from its door into the happy hunting-grounds? And Benny always felt glad the wigwam had been built.