She's Special, That One... With his promotion to Indian agent, Carlyle's problems grew. But so did his visions and his hopes. Who could lack for hope amid the quiet adventure of watching Victoria Rider growing up?
W. O. MITCHELL
THROUGHOUT his childhood and his early adult years Carlyle Sinclair had kept the fact that he was one-quarter Indian an uneasy secret. He had, of course, confessed it to his wife before their marriage and Grace had assured him it was neither a cause for self-consciousness nor for regret. But not until years later had he brought himself to make a public avowal of his blood; then, characteristically, he had followed up the announcement by accepting a job as principal at the Paradise Valley Reserve—“to teach my people.” But teaching his people was a laborious and often discouraging task. They showed him much of their kindliness and dignity, but they showed him, too, much of their inertia and fatalism. He had literally to blackmail them into sending their children to school and to bully them out of letting their harvest rot while they trekked olí en masse to a nearby rodeo.
THERE HAD been many changes since Sheridan’s retirement as agent; with determination and unflagging energy Carlyle had thrown himself into the role of agent and teacher combined, finding himself an astonishing variety of duties and routines. In the year since Sheridan had left he had come to appreciate the persistent and bewildering weight of a thousand dependent people with their tireless needs, their endless demands, problems and annoyances. Now he
was teacher, judge, nurse, and police; he found that he was called upon as mentor and magistrate and banker and minister.
Looking back over the first three years at Paradise he was not sure at what precise point he had resolved to become the head of the agency. Perhaps the determination had been born on the afternoon he had approached Mrs. Sheridan about the Indians’ crop, or again when Mr. MacTaggart at the stampede had agreed to make the requested announcement that would send the Indians home. When he had gone to Mrs. Sheridan on their return from the town then, he had known quite clearly that it would be impossible for him to carry on as he had t he first year, isolating himself from the rest of the reserve’s administration and blindly confining himself to his school duties.
He had seen Mrs. Sheridan the next afternoon; Arthur had again been occupied with his afternoon nap. Mrs. Sheridan had told him this with a deliberate air that indicated she wished to speak with him alone; he sensed determination in her tone and an underlying note he could not recognize.
“He’s asleep now,” she said. “We’ll talk hert?. No need to disturb him.” Carlyle recognized the note; under t he forcefulness lay a protective anxiety. “You got them back.” Her small green eyes were unblinking. “I didn’t think you would, but you did. If I know them, they still won’t harvest their oats, but they had to come back. You won.” She dropped her eyes to the table top. “Yes you won. You know— ” her clear lovely voice Continuai on page 40
She's Special, That One ...
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seemed to skip a notch and losing intensity, took on a sudden conversational lightness — “Arthur couldn’t have. Ever. I don’t mean now—at first either. He’s been a capable good man in this work—not quite hard enough perhaps. Paradise Valley isn’t the only reserve he’s worked on, you know. There have been others. We were twenty years on the first—Johnson Reserve. We were back there two years ago. It had changed. Since Arthur’s time there. I wish you could have seen them crowd around him—the older ones—to shake his hand.” She paused a moment. “They were—they’re very fond of him.” She said this as though it were a negligible and unimportant bit of information. “Their baseball team— they had a baseball game for us. The team had been undefeated for three years. Arthur had taught them to play —their fathers twenty years before. They’d learned well—not just batting and pitching and—the terms—you know—kill the umpire—he’s got a glass arm. Arthur was very pleased. He has a good record with the department—it’s not brilliant or—it’s a good record.” She drew a deep breath, the full hosom swelling; she released it audibly. “He will retire next spring. I intend him to finish without a blemish on his record. I think he has at least that coming to him, don’t you?”
For a moment he did not realize that she had ended on a question. When he did, he nodded.
“And I’ll do anything I can to make certain he does! Anything!”
“I understand,” Carlyle said to her.
“Do you? Do you? Can you?”
“You haven’t spent most of your life with these people. You haven’t fought your way through red tape and departmental lethargy and—and—the inattention—had your high purpose and unselfish dedication ignored! You haven’t ended up helplessly—fruitlessly —looked back to see that you’ve done nothing! A minor cog in a civil-service machine—without effect—worked all those years without any effect at allunnoticed—spit in the wind! I don’t think—perhaps twenty years from now, you might understand then—but not now! When you’re tired—sick and tired—very very tired and you know that you—that it didn’t matter if you had lived or died—done everything— done utterly nothing—that you could have been added—subtracted—multiplied, still your effect would be the same—not the slightest difference to the lives of these people! Then! When it was too late to know!”
He saw with embarrassed disbelief that two clear tears were slowly, reluctantly sliding down her broad cheeks.
“That’s the pepper, boy—kill the umpire—two down and one to go! Arthur had to buy them their first bat and ball. When they needed uniforms, he didn’t have the money to spare on his department salary. He went out the way they went out with their begging letters—to the town businessmen. He got the uniforms by begging for them. And now-—that’s the only thing—the only proof that he ever worked for them! A game!” She almost spat out the word with her contempt. “The pitcher’s got a glass arm. He retires next fall and there will be a banquet for him and a good watch perhaps.” Quite unheeding of the drying tears on her cheeks, she stared at him. Her face suddenly tightened with intensity
almost as fierce as that preceding a blow. “He’s going to get his banquet! At least he shall get that! I’m telling you, because he shall!”
“Of course,” Carlyle managed. “That’s how it will be.”
He saw her relax; her broad gypsy face softened. “Thank you. I shall depend on your forebearance till then. Arthur has to have a successor; I have a great deal to say how he—whom he will recommend.”
So there had been no great surprise a year later when Fyfe on his last visit before Sheridan’s retirement, had asked Carlyle if he would care to make an application for the post. There were others ahead of him, the supervisor explained, with greater seniority—hut the situation was unique. The reserve was small and could not actually support both teacher and agent; Sinclair had convinced Fyfe and others that he had a natural bent for handling
Indians; he’d already spent two years in Paradise Valley and was familiar with the reserve and its people. In the light of these considerations and Sheridan’s recommendation, Fyfe was advising Ottawa to appoint Carlyle agent. The appointment with its increase in salary, came through just a week after the banquet honoring Sheridan’s thirtyfive years’ service to the Indian cause. The Reverend Mr. Dingle referred in solemn and kindly phrases to long and faithful work in the vineyard; other officials spoke their pieces. An old chief made a brief address through an interpreter; the latter had been a complete surprise to Sheridan; he had been brought in from the Johnson Reserve where Arthur had gone as a young agent more than thirty years before. The Indians each spoke of the baseball team which had begun under Sheridan and now held the Junior League championship of the northern part of the province. At the end of the ceremony he was presented not with a gold watch but with an elk-hide fringed jacket, beaded gloves and slippers, a good-luck pouch redolent of Paradise Valley sweet graas. Sanders, the doctor, had got very drunk and after singing the Volga Boatmen up to his tuxedo waist in the tepid water of the bathtub in Fyfe’s room had lost himself in the maze of hotel corridors. He was discovered finally in a broom closet by the thirdfloor chambermaid coming on duty at six o’clock the next morning.
The larger agency house had been boarded up and was unoccupied after the Sheridans’ departure forever from Parad ise Valley; Grace had asked to stay on in the log house, a request which Fyfe had granted without comment or surprise. The dispensary cabinets had been moved from the old house and into their own kitchen. The tapping came at the back door morning and
afternoon and evening: callers for green j liniment and for white liniment, cough j medicine for the baby and for the adult, ginger to make hot infusions for chills, mustard and belladonna plasters, teenaged girls in threes and fives and ¡ dozens wanting the flat boxes filled j with unguent of roses to scent and j beautify them for the young men in the j lantern-lit interior of the dancing tent. ! “Aspirin please, Mr. Sinclair.” “Drops for the earache, Mr. Sin¡ clair.” “Grease for the baby — sat in the campfire, Mr. Sinclair.” “Proud flesh on this wire cut the horse got—lots of peroxide, please, Mr. ; Sinclair.” His forms and records and monthly j reports had tripled with his new posij tion; a full day at the end of each month was necessary to take care of them. In the first week of his new duties he had sent for MacLean Powderface. “How many head of cattle here, MacLean?” MacLean’s eyes lifted to the kitchen ceiling. He calculated for several moments; eyes lowered, forehead contracted, mouth pursed, head beginning to jerk. “Ah-hah-huh-how-guh—.” His tongue popped free. “ ’Bout a hundred.” “All right,” said Carlyle. “I want you to get a crew together—repair the fence on the hold-up field—then run them in.” MacLean nodded violent agreement. “I want them counted in and I want them counted out.” He had finally gotten together his own crew and in three weeks had the fence repaired. The count showed eighty-eight head. The same day he made an inventory of the contents of the blacksmith shop. Not a tenth of the tools in Sheridan’s old list were there. He told MacLean and Herbert Tailfeather to replace the missing boards with the lumber the department had finally supplied, gave them the padlock he wanted put on the door. When he checked a week later, the shop was still gaping with holes; there was no padlock installed. “They agree with you on everything,” he told Grace. “Yes—yes—then go their own sweet way—every time!” He sent for MacLean. “MacLean, how much do you get for doing what you do around here?” “Fuh-fuh-huh—twenty a month.” “I see. Well, I want that tool shop fixed up. We’re going to fix up a lot of things around here in time.” “That’s right, Mr. Sinclair.” “I mean it. And it’s your job to get crews together and see that they work at it.” “It’s hard to get them to do anything, Mr. Sinclair. They say they will help then they ...” “I haven’t been agent very long here, MacLean, and I’m sizing things up.” “They sort of forget, Mr. Sinclair. Also they don’t work so good unless they get paid for it.” “It will pay them later.” “Sure—that’s what I tell them all the time. They don’t see it.” “They will. Now—the way I’ve been sizing things up, I think you’re getting paid twenty dollars a month and you’re not doing what you’re getting paid twenty dollars a month for.” “I do my best.”
“It isn’t good enough,” Carlyle said shortly. “I’m getting the department to increase it to sixty dollars a month and I’m going to pick out three men. MacLean, I asked for that shop to be fixed up weeks ago—I asked for the hold-up field to he fixed up and it took a long time. I’m now looking for three
men to help me run this reserve that will get things done. I’m beginning to think perhaps you won’t be one of them.” By late afternoon the next day the blacksmith shop had been repaired; the new padlock hung from the door. Grace and Carlyle began to visit with the ranchers around them; at every opportunity he talked cattle with the men, asked their advice. He recommended, with Fyfe’s approval, that their bulls be sold and new ones bought. By late winter he had received a requisition for posts and rails to be paid out to those Indians willing to go cutting the rails to be used for the repair of the agency fences. He had made plans for summer fallowing, explaining to Herbert and MacLean and Wayne Lefthand, his three lieutenants, that if it were not done there would be no cheques for that month or for any month until the summer fallowing was done. Their life in tepees bothered him; several times he had suggested to MacLean and Herbert that there was no reason they shouldn’t cut logs and build themselves houses. He knew by their eyes that they were filled with utter incomprehension and he cast about vainly in his mind for some way of persuading them to action. When he crowded MacLean about the building of a log house, the Indian explained that it was probably a good thing, hut that he and his family felt a building would be unhealthy for them. “Why?” “Well — stuffy — they’re kind of stuffy for us—used to the tent. Kids would get colds and coughs out of bein’ stuffy. I—hu-hah-suh-suh-slep’ in bunkhouses lots. Kind of like a heavy weight down on top of your chest. Couldn’t sleep worth a damn. Couldn’t breathe good and loose.” He dropped it then; there was resistance in them all that was going to take time and planning to overcome. MacLean seemed genuinely contrite that he could not accommodate Carlyle by building a log cabin; as though to soften the new agent’s disappointment he put in a garden the following spring. Mrs. Powderface and Gatine and Toots cultivated it throughout the summer. In the fall MacLean came to Carlyle with concern on his face. He had a tremendous crop of carrots and turnips —-eighty bushels of potatoes. “We got no place for all this stuff,” he said to Carlyle. “Leave it outside it’s gonna freeze—put it inside this winter no room for us in the tent and we’re gonna freeze.” Carlyle suggested that he store his vegetables in the agency root house. When winter’s hard times struck the band and there was no work for any of them with the neighboring ranches, more and more called on MacLean to borrow a few potatoes or carrots. MacLean was generous at first, then began charging them against future earnings, scratching their accounts on the root house door with a nail. The following spring more than a dozen gardens were planted and more or less cared for; the root house was filled to the roof; that fall the dispensary did a roaring business in diarrhea mixture as adult and infant stomachs, familiar with only beans and bannock and elk, cramped on the steady diet of foreign and health-giving vegetables. The change that Carlyle had wrought in two years brought him praise from Fyfe, from Dingle, particularly from Dr. Sanders. “Get them into houses, Sinclair,” the doctor said often. “Get a hospital here and you’ve really done something.”
“If we could get them to come to us,” Dingle said, “to have their alliances
solemnized. If only I could persuade some of them, then the others would follow.”
There had been one major change in Carlyle’s class of children; the fall before the Sheridans’ departure, Hugh began to attend. He was familikr now with the sight of his son’s white face turned up to him among the dark ones; the fair hair and direct blue eyes startled him no more in unguarded moments, though now and again he would be visited at wider and wider intervals by the unsettling perception of his boy as a pale variant, abnormal and unique. From the first day of his attendance Hugh had been isolated by the others; although the older children had a sketchy command of English those his own age and at school for the first time had none. The first week he had stayed in the schoolroom at recess time, thus creating an expectant sort of impasse each day between himself seated at his desk and his father at the front of the room, drawn to him but helpless to do anything for him now that the child had entered the pupil world, a world that must touch that of his father-teacher only at the permitted lesson points. When he told Hugh that he had better go outside with the others, the child went obediently, only to stand apart, watching the Indian boys at play, the girls crouched over the willow-stick game.
Grace did not seem to share his concern for Hugh. “It will work out, dear,” she told him.
“But it’s rough on him in the meantime.”
“Perhaps. I don’t think it’ll do him any great harm. He’ll be all right— eventually. Children have a common meeting ground. He isn’t going to need any adult help.”
The trouble, of course, was that he could not be sure that he wished his child to. mix with them, become one of them, and yet he could not see ahead any halfway point where his son might be free of isolation and yet not . . . not . . . but his mind always shied away, deliberately turned elsewhere to relieve itself of the tension of the problem.
In school work, he saw with satisfaction the ease with which his son managed the primary lessons; in only one area did he fail to lead the rest of his group. When they worked at their desks with crayons or when Carlyle sent them to the board with colored chalk, Hugh’s awkward and ill-proportioned efforts were disgraceful beside the exquisite drawings of the Indian children. This creative disparity did
not worry his father, for after all it was not a talisman of intelligence or of character any more than the Indian children’s skill in the saddle, the Chicken dance, or the art of roping.
Through the west window of the schoolroom, he often watched the children, his eyes on Hugh standing apart. The boy seemed entranced by the Chicken-dance play and the others bouncing jauntily around the old washtub ringing to the beating sticks. For several days Carlyle saw him throughout morning and afternoon recess, mouth partly open, eyes rapt as he stared. In the first week of October Carlyle glanced through the window, failed to see Hugh at his usual place on the edge of the dancing children, then caught a glimpse of a fair head at the end of the Prairie Chicken train. His son’s head was forward, face turned upward like the rest; his right hand held a twig to his rump for the prairie chicken tailfeathers; elbows were crooked into quivering wings; his shoes stuttered among the dancing moccasins. How in hell had the child picked it up so quickly! Carlyle quickly recalled the days of intent watching; he imagined private periods of awkward rehearsal and practice in secret. It would only take moments for the swift sure beat of the sticks to set the rhythm for uncertain feet. Confused by shocked wonderment, all this passed through his mind in the few seconds he stood at the window; then he had slammed from the room and run across the school ground so swiftly that he had not caught the attention of a single childish drummer, dancer, or singer. Almost a complete round of the dance went on after he had grabbed Hugh by the shoulder, yanked him from the dancing circle.
Back in the schoolroom, his son looked up to him with startled eyes, innocent of understanding.
“No more of that, Hugh!” His voice was harsh. “You understand! It’s not for you! I don’t want you to do it any more!”
Eyes wide with astonishment, the boy was wordless; Carlyle felt his anger deepen with a new feeling of frustrated helplessness. It was as though his son’s wondering face asked him for an explanation he was unable to give.
“What made you do that. What made you—why did you ...”
“They invited me.”
“Toots—Howard—asked me if I wanted. So I did. I could do it. I did it.” The wonderment had left his face now; his eyes sparkled as though he remembered again the high ululating
excitement of the song in his ears, the drum fierce in his blood. “How did they ask you? Which one?” “Howard.” “Howard can’t speak English. Howard’s—how could he—how could he ask you!” “Not speaking.” “Then how?” A faint frown wrinkled the boy’s forehead, and it was his turn to helplessly find an explanation for his father. “Like—I just—the way we do.” “Do what?” “With his eyes. Like that.” He was silent, evidently assessing the adequacy of the explanation. “Anyway I knew. Before Toots said did I want to dance.” “I see.” Carlyle looked away; he saw that the enamel alarm clock on his desk had ticked ten minutes past the end of the recess period. “No more, son,” he said in a normal voice. “Shouldn’t I?” “No.” It was a flat and forbidding negative, carried no softness. “Is it wrong?” “I don’t want you to.” “Is there anything wrong with it?” Hugh persisted. “I don’t want you to and that’s enough.” “Shouldn’t they?” “Shouldn’t they what?” “Toots and Howard—shouldn’t the others do it—-aren’t you going to let them either do it?” “It’s all right for them. It’s not for you. Take your seat. No—he held out the bell. “Ring this for me.”
HUGH’S face lighted with pleasure and Carlyle realized that this was the first time he had given his son the honor of calling the children in from play. God, how did he explain to him! How did he go about telling the boy! i With his eyes—like that! She’d been right. Perhaps she could straighten ! this out. If she was so clever about ! these things —then perhaps she had an I answer for this one! Grace had no answer; she failed j utterly to see any problem at all. “You were worried because he wasn’t ! one of them before—now you’re upset because he’s mixing with them.” “Rut he doesn’t have to—he —I don’t want him dancing with them — doing that sort of thing!” “If that’s the way they play then he’ll have to join them—.” “Well, he’s not!” “Then you’re back to the same situation—you seemed to think it was rough on him before. I would think it still was.” “It is! it would be!” “Perhaps, Car—perhaps you’d better work on it from the Indian children first . . .” “How?” “If they didn’t dance, then perhaps Hugh could play with them and it wouldn’t bother you. Are you going to j stop them from dancing?” “I don’t see how I . . . ” “You might ask the department for sports equipment — bat — ball — you might get them interested in something else besides dancing.” The department had supplied him with the equipment; he had explained softball to them; inside of one week the dancing was forgotten; even the youngest of them —boys and girls —had the unerring eye. Their pitchers got no chance to throw them more than one ball. He seldom saw a foul struck; the infallible bat connected squarely with every pitch.
By Christmas tests there was no J doubt that Toots Powderface and Victoria Rider were his most gifted pupils. In Grade Four now, they stood first and second in their class. Toots
seemed to have grown little in three years; in the last year Victoria had shot up; still slender and breastless she had lost some of her pallor, her freckles not quite so startling. She still showed her white blood in her skin color and in the fineness of cheekbone and chin. She did not seem to have quite reached the giggling point in maturity and boy interest the other fourteen-year-old girls showed.
On his visits Fyfe never failed to ask Carlyle for a special report on her progress.
“She’s special, that one,” Fyfe said frequently, and Carlyle agreed with him.
Her name came up during Fyfe’s last fall visit before Christmas and just after Sanders had been through with the X-ray.
“Did the Riders get X-rayed?” Carlyle nodded. “There were only fifteen out of the works.” As he spoke he remembered the Indians staring at the mobile unit before the school; he saw Sanders taking off his jacket and shirt to stand before the machine in a vain effort to convince them that it was harmless. “Riders were one family. Powderfaces except for MacLean were another.”
“What did Victoria’s X-ray show?” “All right,” said Carlyle. “She used to have an anaemic condition, but Sanders says that’s pretty well cleared up now. Susan’s a good mother. I think they try to speak English at home. Her brother, Wesley, who started this fall seems to understand. There was something I wanted to suggest about Victoria and Toots Powderface.”
I think they could both manage Four and Five this year. They’re through the Four reader—the arithmetic—I’d like to start them on Five after Christmas.”
Fyfe was silent as he contemplated Carlyle’s suggestion. “They likely to miss any time?”
“No—MacLean sticks close to the reserve to get his sixty a month. The Riders—I could talk with Susan and though it might mean sacrifice—I rather think she would make the effort to stay till the end of the spring term.
1 zaiah doesn’t care much one way or the other— but Susan’s determined and I t hink Susan pretty well runs the family. We—Grace and I have been taking a special interest in Victoria a little more interest. She’s cleaning t he boards for me—sweeping the schoolroom starting the fires.”
“I’ve tried the men—the older boys it was a mess. Victoria’s done it the past term. We pay her a dollar a week. I’d like to see Victoria—” He stopped, not quite willing to confide in Fyfe his plans for the girl. More and more his thoughts had been directed toward Victoria’s future. “1 want her to go on as long as we can manage it.”
“Fine—fine,” said Fyfe. “Suppose you try her out in Five with the Powderface boy. I’ll help all 1 can.” When the supervisor had left, Carlyle told Grace; he told her also of how he hoped to get Victoria through Grade Nine and then, if Susan were willing, have her sent to residential school to finish her high school.
“She’s good, Grace—she’s very good. If —I don’t see why she couldn’t make it—I want her to go to university or— into some kind of training—nursing perhaps. She can do it! She can do it!”
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