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A Dream of the Woods by Jacob A. Riis

 

Something came over Police Headquarters in the middle of the summer night. It was like the sighing of the north wind in the branches of the tall firs and in the reeds along lonely river-banks where the otter dips from the brink for its prey. The doorman, who yawned in the hall, and to whom reed-grown river banks have been strangers so long that he has forgotten they ever were, shivered and thought of pneumonia.

The Sergeant behind the desk shouted for some one to close the door; it was getting as cold as January. The little messenger boy on the lowest step of the oaken stairs nodded and dreamed in his sleep of Uncas and Chingachgook and the great woods. The cunning old beaver was there in his hut, and he heard the crack of Deerslayer's rifle.

He knew all the time he was dreaming, sitting on the steps of Police Headquarters, and yet it was all as real to him as if he were there, with the Mingoes creeping up to him in ambush all about and reaching for his scalp.

While he slept, a light step had passed, and the moccasin of the woods left its trail in his dream. In with the gust through the Mulberry Street door had come a strange pair, an old woman and a bright-eyed child, led by a policeman, and had passed up to Matron Travers's quarters on the top floor.

Strangely different, they were yet alike, both children of the woods. The woman was a squaw typical in looks and bearing, with the straight, black hair, dark skin, and stolid look of her race. She climbed the steps wearily, holding the child by the hand. The little one skipped eagerly, two steps at a time. There was the faintest tinge of brown in her plump cheeks, and a roguish smile in the corner of her eyes that made it a hardship not to take her up in one's lap and hug her at sight. In her frock of red-and-white calico she was a fresh and charming picture, with all the grace of movement and the sweet shyness of a young fawn.

The policeman had found them sitting on a big trunk in the Grand Central Station, waiting patiently for something or somebody that didn't come. When he had let them sit until he thought the child ought to be in bed, he took them into the police station in the depot, and there an effort was made to find out who and what they were. It was not an easy matter. Neither could speak English. They knew a few words of French, however, and between that and a note the old woman had in her pocket the general outline of the trouble was gathered. They were of the Canaghwaga tribe of Iroquois, domiciled in the St. Regis reservation across the Canadian border, and had come down to sell a trunkful of beads, and things worked with beads. Some one was to meet them, but had failed to come, and these two, to whom the trackless wilderness was as an open book, were lost in the city of ten thousand homes.

The matron made them understand by signs that two of the nine white beds in the nursery were for them, and they turned right in, humbly and silently thankful. The little girl had carried up with her, hugged very close under her arm, a doll that was a real ethnological study. It was a faithful rendering of the Indian pappoose, whittled out of a chunk of wood, with two staring glass beads for eyes, and strapped to a board the way Indian babies are, under a coverlet of very gaudy blue. It was a marvellous doll baby, and its nurse was mighty proud of it. She didn't let it go when she went to bed. It slept with her, and got up to play with her as soon as the first ray of daylight peeped in over the tall roofs.

The morning brought visitors, who admired the doll, chirruped to the little girl, and tried to talk with her grandmother, for that they made her out to be. To most questions she simply answered by shaking her head and holding out her credentials. There were two letters: one to the conductor of the train from Montreal, asking him to see that they got through all right; the other, a memorandum, for her own benefit apparently, recounting the number of hearts, crosses, and other treasures she had in her trunk. It was from those she had left behind at the reservation.

“Little Angus,” it ran, “sends what is over to sell for him. Sarah sends the hearts. As soon as you can, will you try and sell some hearts?” Then there was “love to mother,” and lastly an account of what the mason had said about the chimney of the cabin. They had sent for him to fix it. It was very dangerous the way it was, ran the message, and if mother would get the bricks, he would fix it right away.

The old squaw looked on with an anxious expression while the note was being read, as if she expected some sense to come out of it that would find her folks; but none of that kind could be made out of it, so they sat and waited until General Parker should come in.

General Ely S. Parker was the “big Indian” of Mulberry Street in a very real sense. Though he was a clerk in the Police Department and never went on the war-path any more, he was the head of the ancient Indian Confederacy, chief of the Six Nations, once so powerful for mischief, and now a mere name that frightens no one. Donegahawa—one cannot help wishing that the picturesque old chief had kept his name of the council lodge—was not born to sit writing at an office desk. In youth he tracked the bear and the panther in the Northern woods. The scattered remnants of the tribes East and West owned his rightful authority as chief. The Canaghwagas were one of these. So these lost ones had come straight to the official and actual head of their people when they were stranded in the great city. They knew it when they heard the magic name of Donegahawa, and sat silently waiting and wondering till he should come. The child looked up admiringly at the gold-laced cap of Inspector Williams, when he took her on his knee, and the stern face of the big policeman relaxed and grew tender as a woman's as he took her face between his hands and kissed it.

When the general came in he spoke to them at once in their own tongue, and very sweet and musical it was. Then their troubles were soon over. The sachem, when he had heard their woes, said two words between puffs of his pipe that cleared all the shadows away. They sounded to the paleface ear like “Huh Hoo—ochsjawai,” or something equally barbarous, but they meant that there were not so many Indians in town but that theirs could be found, and in that the sachem was right. The number of redskins in Thompson Street—they all live over there—is about seven.

The old squaw, when she was told that her friend would be found, got up promptly, and, bowing first to Inspector Williams and the other officials in the room, and next to the general, said very sweetly, “Njeawa,” and Lightfoot—that was the child's name, it appeared—said it after her; which meant, the general explained, that they were very much obliged. Then they went out in charge of a policeman to begin their search, little Lightfoot hugging her doll and looking back over her shoulder at the many gold-laced policemen who had captured her little heart. And they kissed their hands after her.

Mulberry Street awoke from its dream of youth, of the fields and the deep woods, to the knowledge that it was a bad day. The old doorman, who had stood at the gate patiently answering questions for twenty years, told the first man who came looking for a lost child, with sudden resentment, that he ought to be locked up for losing her, and, pushing him out in the rain, slammed the door after him.

 
 
 

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