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May 20, 2024


By Barbara Link

The Montana countryside slid by -- brown hills, cottonwood trees in dry creek beds, an occasional windmill turning slowly, pumping water for the cows. Mary Agnes Lone Hill, a twelve year-old Indian girl traveling alone, didn't even know where she was going -- maybe Nebraska or Oklahoma. The agent had handed her ticket to the train conductor and didn't allow her to see the destination.

She tracked her progress east by the grain elevator in each town and by the names on the railroad stations. First Wolf Point, then Culbertson, still in Montana, then Williston, North Dakota, then Minot, which Mary Agnes didn't know if it was in North Dakota or Minnesota. At one crossing a pronghorn antelope, thin legs spread wide, stared at the train like it was another living thing.

Mary Agnes could smell her lunch. She'd checked the contents already -- a bologna sandwich on white bread, a cold plum and two sugar cookies. The brown paper sack felt soggy and she ate one of the cookies. She kept her head down and didn't look at the other passengers. Already she missed Auntie. She missed her friends and her Grandma too, although, Grandma had become one of the other-side people years ago.

She groped for her Grandma's face, but mostly what she remembered of her six years with Grandma Lillian Turns Plenty was smells. She tried harder and suddenly she could picture the shack where Lillian had lived. It stood behind a stand of cottonwood trees on a dirt road that cut through the center of the Crow Reservation in Hardin, Montana. The outside walls of the shack were covered with layers of tarpaper held in place by long thin poles. Inside was just one room with a sagging bed in one corner and a wood stove, table and chairs in the other.

A pair of hunting mittens dangled from a hook on the wall. Tanned leather on the palms and fur on the backside, Mary Agnes recalled the day when she pulled the mittens off the hook and rubbed her face with the leather. Smoke, wood smoke was buried in the soft mittens.

"What do you want with them old mittens? You're a bad Indian today, Mary Agnes. Just like your ma."

Mary Agnes petted her nose with the mittens. "I don't have a mother."

"You did but she ran away." Grandma tossed her braid over her shoulder. "Give me those old mittens. Today I teach you something useful and then we put up the teepee."

"I want to play." Mary Agnes pouted.

"See what I've done with the chokecherries we picked yesterday."

Mary Agnes scuffed the toe of her shoe on the linoleum floor.

"The church lady showed all the squaws about canning. We pretended it was foolish. I won't tell her I made jelly." She pulled one of Mary Agnes' braids. "Never let the whites know our business."

"You stand here and get to work," Grandma slid a kitchen chair over to the rough concrete sink and patted the seat, "Wash these jars." She pumped some water into the metal sink.

Mary Agnes stood on the chair and slowly rinsed each jar, running her hand inside to remove the dust and spider webs. They'd been in the root cellar all winter. Grandma took the bowl of juice that had been strained through an old dishtowel and dumped it in a large kettle. She put some sticks in the stove and stirred up the fire. Then she stirred sugar into the mixture.

"This is gonna be good on our corn cakes." She poked her finger in the juice.

Mary Agnes leaned over to get a lick. "Sour," she sputtered.

Grandma dumped in more sugar and boiled the mixture. Then she let it cool before she poured it into jars.

"Can I do that?" Mary Agnes asked. Grandma handed her a small cream pitcher and Mary Agnes dipped and poured carefully, like each drop was red gold. Then grandma put the jars in the canner and turned up the flames. She added water almost to the top. She and Mary Agnes listened to the jars rattling in the boiling water.

"Do you want a sandwich, bad little Indian?"


Grandma opened the icebox quickly so the hot air wouldn't melt the chunk of ice. "Cheese. I'm out of bologna 'till I get my lease money. Three more days. The store man won't give me anything on credit. Maybe I sell him those mittens."

Mary Agnes looked frightened. "I like cheese."

Grandma cut slices from a loaf of bread.

They sat at the kitchen table. Then Grandma removed the jars from the canner and set them on the counter. Mary Agnes pulled her chair over and stood on it to dry the jars. She rubbed the warm glass thoroughly and set them in a line. Then she started moving them around.

"Mary Agnes, what are you doing?"

"I'm spelling," she said. "See my M? Now I make an A." She rearranged the jars. "What's the next letter in my name?"

Grandma emptied the canner. She didn't know the next letter. She'd never learned to read.

"Just dry them," she said gruffly. "Then you can go play, you bad Indian. I don't like those church ladies telling you to make words. I teach you whatever you need to know."

Grandma sat heavily in her chair and lit her pipe. Mary Agnes took an empty jar and slipped out the door. She stood quietly by the scraggly hollyhocks until a fat bee landed on a bright pink flower. Using the lid, she scooped it into her jar and repeated her actions until she had captured nine bees. But when she tried for one more, the lid slipped and the jar shattered. The bees swarmed out and she ran to the front of the house and scrambled under the porch. Later she L crept back in the kitchen. Grandma was asleep in her chair, her gray braids hanging over her face. Lined up on the kitchen counter the jars of chokecherry jelly glowed like red jewels.

When Grandma woke up Mary Agnes pestered her again about her mother.

"Your ma met a crazy Flathead Indian at a sun dance. Down by St. Ignatius. I never saw her again." Grandma Lillian gave Mary Agnes a push. "No more questions. Let's get the teepee up just like Old Coyote taught me."

Mary Agnes squatted on the ground. She rubbed her earlobe until it was soft and pink as the hollyhock. She loved the feel of the soft flesh.

"Help me pull, Mary Agnes."

Mary Agnes tugged on one corner of the old elk hides that had been roughly stitched together. She pulled so hard she bent her fingernails back. Then she pulled on another corner. Slowly the teepee took shape. Next Grandma anchored the poles and pulled out the sides.

"Pound, Mary Agnes. Pound the stakes in the ground."

Mary Agnes pounded. The hammer was as big as her small hand. Sometimes she'd hit the stake, sometimes the ground. The pounding and ringing of metal on metal felt good. Finally it was finished and she and Grandma crawled inside. It was dark and cool. Mary Agnes leaned against Grandma's back and slid her heels back and forth in the dirt. She reached for Grandma's earlobe, but Lillian Turns Plenty slapped Mary Agnes's hand.

"Stop that. Don't act like a baby."

"I'm six." Mary Agnes held up her hands and counted on her fingers.

Grandma pushed Mary Agnes to one side of the tent and groaned a little as she lay down with her hands on her stomach. "Bad medicine in here. Something growing."

"Can I feel?" Mary Agnes touched the bulge. "What's that, Grandma?"

"Tomorrow we go to the medicine man."

"The teacher says you need a doctor. What's a cancer?"

Grandma pushed Mary Agnes's hand away. "Stay away from them. Haven't I told you that?"

"They give me green suckers." Mary Agnes hugged her knees to her chest. Her knees were knobby and full of scabs where she knelt in the gravel to look for agates.

Mary Agnes stayed with Grandma most of the day in the teepee. The muted sunlight created its own yellow dream world. Mary Agnes studied the painted designs. She recognized the sun, the elk with the big antlers, a hunter with bow and arrow. She turned slowly in a circle until the elk seemed to be moving, running away from the hunter. The sun moved away from the elk and she whirled faster and faster until the elk and the hunter seemed to race the sun. Then dizzy and stumbling she fell in a heap. Eventually, she slept too.

Mary Agnes kicked the seat in front of her in time with the clack-clack of the train. Thud, thud, thud. No one paid any attention to her. She kicked the seat again. Harder this time. She didn't care if she scuffed the new black shoes. She hated the childish oxfords. The shoes had arrived last week just after the visit from the Bureau of Indian Affairs agent. He had sat in Auntie's kitchen with the bad news.

"We've made arrangements for Mary Agnes to attend seventh grade at an Indian School. She'll do better away from home."

Auntie looked sad. She knew the BIA had complete jurisdiction over tribe members. They could and did take any child away from her family.

"If I got paid all my lease money, I could have sent her to summer camp, then she wouldn't have gotten into trouble." Auntie fingered a pack of matches. "Do you have any tobacco for an old Indian?"

"She'll do fine at school. Be home in a few years." The agent gave Auntie Grace the forms to sign and then pushed three packs of smokes across the table to her.

It was late afternoon before Mary Agnes ventured to the train bathroom that was two cars over. On the way she spotted some Indian kids. They sat together -- two small girls in one seat and a boy, maybe her age, maybe a little younger in the other seat. She didn't say hi. On the way back the train curved to the right and Mary Agnes didn't. She fell in the lap of a middle-aged lady wearing an elegant brown coat and matching hat.

"I'm sorry," she said. The white lady pushed Mary Agnes off her lap with gloved hands, a look of distaste on her face. "I'm really sorry," Mary Agnes said again and hurried down the aisle, her face red.

At dusk she opened another paper sack, labeled supper. Two carrot sticks, a wilted stalk of celery, a peanut butter sandwich and a leathery oatmeal cookie. She gobbled it all because she was starving. The lights went off at nine and the passengers settled themselves with blankets and pillows. Mary Agnes was dozing when the conductor shook her shoulder.

"You change here. Let's go."

Mary Agnes stood on the platform under the sign, Grand Forks. At least she knew the town even if she didn't know the state. She had her cardboard box secured with twine at her feet. The other Indian kids were there too. It was late and very chilly for September and the station was locked. The kids huddled together on the bench like a pile of old clothes. Eventually, they stirred and learned each other's names. The young one was Margaret, her sister Karen and the boy was Leo. They were from the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation in the Bears Paw Mountains, central Montana.

"Where are we going?" Mary Agnes asked.

"Nebraska," Leo said. "I saw our tickets. We're going to a boarding school."

"I know that, but why?" Mary Agnes asked. "Why are you kids going? Did you get in trouble?"

Leo laughed. "Our dad got in trouble -- he came home when the war ended last year but now he's in jail. We had no one to live with. Could have lived on our own. Like The Boxcar Children."

"I read that," Mary Agnes said. "It's only a book. The BIA would hunt us down. Like wolves. They round us up and stick us in pens."

"My cousin said that some kids died of homesickness at the school. They missed their land place," Leo announced.

Hearing all this bad news, Margaret started to cry. Karen settled her on the bench with a jacket for a pillow. She fell asleep with her thumb in her mouth.

Leo and Mary Agnes stood under the dim light on the station wall. They watched the bats circle the light. "Why did you get sent away?" Leo asked.

Mary Agnes paused, then spoke slowly, "My friend, Gail Fast Horse, she's fourteen -- we met some boys at night." She giggled, "I sneaked out my bedroom window. We only played mumbelety peg in the park and stuff. And the four of us squeezed in Clifford's pickup and rode around I mean, his uncle's pickup. And listened to the radio."

Leo looked envious. "I heard about you night kids."

"Nothing bad happened." Mary Agnes said. "They were Gail's friends anyway." She decided not to mention her first sip of beer. How the can was cold and the frothy liquid spread in her mouth and some wet air got in her nose and it stung, then Gail took away the can, and suddenly, Mary Agnes wanted more and she licked the small amount of foam in the corner of her mouth and waited, as the can circled and it was shiny and dark, dark silver and hands clutched it and held it and she watched intently as it got nearer and it tasted bad but good and she wanted more and felt sad when someone took it out of her hand and she kept waiting and drinking until her tongue poked into the can and it hurt and then someone said look at her and laughed and they all laughed and her hand was with someone's hand and they fell back on the ground their legs long on the ground and the sky wheeled and their hands pumped the air and it felt like music and their arms and feet moved to the song, the song everywhere, in their legs too and they were dancing, grass dancing.

While Leo listened he jumped around to keep warm. His flannel shirt was too short in the sleeves and he wasn't wearing socks.

"How old are you?" Mary Agnes asked.

"Who cares?" Leo said. "I'm smart and strong." He made a fist. "We could sneak off now. I bet there are some caves around here. I know how to trap and skin rabbits."

"He's twelve." Karen said. "He has to repeat sixth grade."

Leo made a punching motion in her direction and she made one back. Pretty soon they were all awake and shadow boxing. The moon gave just enough light to make dim shadows. Laughing and dodging they avoided the shadow fists. Then they walked the tracks, carefully putting one foot in front of the other their arms out for balance. When they tired of that they had races, one kid on each track -- racing the other to the end of the platform. Two hours later they heard a train and gripped the rails to feel the tremor.

It was late afternoon when they arrived. Genoa, the sign on the station said. A beat-up school bus waited.

Mary Agnes trudged to a back seat on the bus. She was stiff and dirty. They had no breakfast or place to wash up and very little sleep. She felt worse than the night she'd had too much beer. She looked at the other kids. Leo didn't look so brave in the noon sunlight. Margaret and Karen were holding hands. At least I won't be alone here, she thought; I'll be with Indians. They'll be no white kids to tease us.

The bus driver let them off at the principal's office. They went in one by one then left for the dorms. Mary Agnes was the last to be interviewed. In her rumpled clothes she stood before the secretary, Mrs. Francis, according to her desk sign.

"Mary Agnes, do you have an Indian name?"

"Yes, it's --"

"Don't say it. Never speak it here. No Indian languages are allowed." Then Mrs. Francis asked her questions about her grade level and typed the answers onto a form. She ripped it out of her typewriter and put it in a folder. "There, now that's done. Here is your uniform. Put it on and give me your clothes."

Mary Agnes looked around. "Where's the girl's bathroom?"

"Never mind that. Just slip out of those dirty clothes -- no one's likely to come in."

Mary Agnes laid out the new clothes on the chair so she could dress in a hurry. A white cotton blouse and a plain black wool jumper. She unbuttoned her own white nylon blouse, shrugged it off and folded it carefully.

"The underwear too." She turned her back to Mrs. Francis and pulled off her old panties and stepped into the new ones. They felt scratchy. The undershirt was snug and when she got to the jumper it was too short.

"Good, you don't need a brassiere yet. I didn't know you were so tall; most of your people are short. I'll see what I can do about a larger size, but I do have sixty-five students to take care of. Give me your things," she put her hand gently on Mary Agnes' back, "they can be donated."

Mary Agnes carefully folded her undershirt and panties inside her plaid skirt and placed her blouse on top. She didn't see why she had to give them up; they were her best clothes.

Mary Agnes smoothed the brown army blanket on her cot. She stood in line for the bathroom. She was at the end, as usual. Spending an extra five in bed did that when twelve girls had to share one bathroom. She straightened her black wool jumper. It pulled up but she didn't mind because she wore her nightie underneath -- to help with the scratchiness.

It was October, Mary Agnes's second month at the school. Even without looking at a clock Mary Agnes knew she'd spent too much time getting ready. She hurried to the class building. The ground was frosty and she slipped and fell, skinning her knees. Brushing the dirt off her uniform, she realized that she was late again.

"Mary Agnes." Miss Kleppin, the eighth grade teacher, had buckteeth and a perpetual frown under her brown sausage curls. The kids were afraid of her. She hit hard with her ruler and was also known to slap the face of an errant student.

"Hold out your hand," she said to Mary Agnes.

Mary Agnes flinched at each hit. She felt the tears well up, but she swallowed them. The class was required to count the hits: ...eighteen, nineteen, twenty. The last three smacks were the hardest. Finally, it was over and Mary Agnes returned to her seat.

She looked out the window at the compound. The brick classroom building was across from the dorms -- two long low buildings with tarpaper roofs. Each housed about thirty students. The yard between was for recess and free time. At the moment the grass was fall dry and brown. Mary Agnes wondered where they would play in the winter. At one end of the yard was a cottonwood tree. Someone had hung a tire from a branch and they called it the playground. The laundry was in a small brick building adjacent to the dorms. Around the perimeter of the grounds was a barbed wire fence. They were never allowed to leave the school without permission. She dried her tears and nose on her sleeve and looked around the room at the brown faces, black hair, and the shabby clothes. Why did they need a fence? Really, none of the kids had a place to go.

Article © Barbara Link. All rights reserved.
Published on 2016-12-05
Image(s) are public domain.
7 Reader Comments
Ralph Bland
07:09:46 PM
Beautifully written! This is the best thing I've read in a long long time.
Diana Landau
12:25:27 PM
Great story! I want to keep reading and find out what happens to Mary Agnes!
12:36:48 AM
Storytelling the way it should be. Barbara has the gift.
Jane Ilindstrom
01:16:37 AM
Amazing story.
What a talented writer!!
k jennings
02:10:20 PM
Barbara Link produced vivid images in a concise short story, what a great writer!
Elaine Rose
02:23:06 AM
Fantastic story.. I want to read on tooooooo!
Keep writing.... Hugs
Steven Smith
03:40:22 AM
Again, Barb, thanks. Your fine work brings back so many connections; I want more.
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