She was a half-breed Indian girl, with hardly a rag to her back. To the ladies of the Band of United Endeavor who questioned her, she said her name was Loka, and she did not know where she belonged, unless it was on Bayou Choctaw.
She had appeared one day at the side door of Frobissaint’s “oyster saloon” in Natchitoches, asking for food. Frobissaint, a practical philanthropist, engaged her on the spot as tumbler-washer.
She was not successful at that; she broke too many tumblers. But, as Frobissaint charged her with the broken glasses, he did not mind, until she began to break them over the heads of his customers. Then he seized her by the wrist and dragged her before the Band of United Endeavor, then in session, around the corner. This was considerate on Frobissaint’s part, for he could have dragged her just as well to the police station.
Loka was not beautiful, as she stood in her red calico rags before the scrutinizing band. Her coarse, black, unkempt hair framed a broad, swarthy face without a redeeming feature, except eyes that were not bad; slow in their movements, but frank eyes enough. She was big-boned and clumsy.
She did not know how old she was. The minister’s wife reckoned she might be sixteen. The judge’s wife thought that it made no difference. The doctor’s wife suggested that the girl have a bath and change before she be handled, even in discussion. The motion was not seconded. Loka’s ultimate disposal was an urgent and difficult consideration.
Some one mentioned a reformatory. Every one else objected.
Madame Laballière, the planter’s wife, knew a respectable family of ‘Cadians living some miles below, who, she thought, would give the girl a home, with benefit to all concerned. The ‘Cadian woman was a deserving one, with a large family of small children, who had all her own work to do. The husband cropped in a modest way. Loka would not only be taught to work at the Padues’, but would receive a good moral training beside.
That settled it. Every one agreed with the planter’s wife that it was a chance in a thousand; and Loka was sent to sit on the steps outside, while the band proceeded to the business next in order.
Loka was afraid of treading upon the little Padues when she first got amongst them, - there were so many of them, - and her feet were like leaden weights, encased in the strong broghans with which the band had equipped her.
Madame Padue, a small, black-eyed, aggressive woman, questioned her in a sharp, direct fashion peculiar to herself.
“How come you don’t talk French, you?” Loka shrugged her shoulders.
“I kin talk English good’s anybody; an’ lit’ bit Choctaw, too,” she offered, apologetically.
“Ma foi, you kin fo’git yo’ Choctaw. Soona the betta for me. Now if you willin’, an’ ent too lazy an’ sassy, we’ll git ‘long somehow. Vrai sauvage ça,” she muttered under her breath, as she turned to initiate Loka into some of her new duties.
She herself was a worker. A good deal more fussy one than her easy-going husband and children thought necessary or agreeable. Loka’s slow ways and heavy motions aggravated her. It was in vain Monsieur Padue expostulated:-
“She’s on’y a chile, remeba, Tontine.”
“She’s vrai sauvage, that’s w’at. It’s got to be work out of her,” was Tontine’s only reply to such remonstrance.
The girl was indeed so deliberate about her tasks that she had to be urged constantly to accomplish the amount of labor that Tontine required of her. Moreover, she carried to her work a stolid indifference that was exasperating. Whether at the wash-tub, scrubbing the floors, weeding the garden, or learning her lessons and catechism with the children on Sundays, it was the same.
It was only when intrusted with the care of little Bibine, the baby, that Loka crept somewhat out of her apathy. She grew very fond of him. No wonder; such a baby as he was! So good, so fat, and complaisant! He had a way of clasping Loka’s broad face between his pudgy fists and savagely biting her chin with his hard, toothless gums! Such a way of bouncing in her arms as if her were mounted upon springs! At his antics the girl would laugh a wholesome, ringing laugh that was good to hear.
She was left alone to watch and nurse him one day. An accommodating neighbor who had become the possessor of a fine new spring wagon passed by just after the noon-hour meal, and offered to take the whole family on a jaunt to town. The offer was all the more tempting as Tontine had some long-delayed shopping to do; and the opportunity to equip the children with shoes and summer hats could not be slighted. So away they all went. All but Bibine, who was swinging in his branle with only Loka for company.
This branle consisted of a strong circular piece of cotton cloth, securely but slackly fastened to a large, stout hoop suspended by three light cords to a hook in a rafter of the gallery. The baby who has not swung in a branle does not know the quintessence of baby luxury. In each of the four rooms of the house was a hook from which to hang this swing.
Often it was taken out under the trees. But to-day it swung in the shade of the open gallery; and Loka sat beside it, giving it now and then a slight impetus that sent it circling in slow, sleep-inspiring undulations.
Bibine kicked and cooed as long as he was able. But Loka was humming a monotonous lullaby; the branle was swaying to and fro, the warm air fanning him deliciously; and Bibine was soon fast asleep.
Seeing this, Loka quietly let down the mosquito net, to protect the child’s slumber from the intrusion of the many insects that were swarming in the summer air.
Singulary enough, there was no work for her to do; and Tontine, in her hurried departure, had failed to provide for the emergency. The washing and ironing were over; the floors had been scrubbed, and the rooms righted; the yard swept; the chickens fed; vegetables picked and washed. There was absolutely nothing to do, and Loka gave herself up to the dreams of idleness.
As she sat comfortably back in the roomy rocker, she let her eyes sweep lazily across the country. Away off to the right peeped up, from amid densely clustered trees, the pointed roofs and long pipe of the steam-gin of Laballière’s. No other habitation was visible except a few low, flat dwellings far over the river, that could hardly be seen.
The immense plantation took up all the land in sight. The few acres that Baptiste Padue cultivated were his own, that Laballière, out of friendly consideration, had sold to him. Baptiste’s fine crop of cotton and corn was “laid by” just now, waiting for rain; and Baptiste had gone with the rest of the family to town. Beyond the river and the field and everywhere about were dense woods.
Loka’s gaze, that had been slowly traveling along the edge of the horizon, finally fastened upon the woods, and stayed there. Into her eyes came the absent look of one whose thought is projected into the future or the past, leaving the present blank. She was seeing a vision. It had come with a whiff that the strong south breeze had blown to her from the woods.
She was seeing old Marot, the squaw who drank whiskey and plaited baskets and beat her. There was something, after all, in being beaten, if only to scream and fight back, as at that time in Natchitoches, when she broke a glass on the head of a man who laughed at her and pulled her hair, and called her “fool names”.
Old Marot wanted her to steal and cheat, to beg and lie, when they went out with the baskets to sell. Loka did not want to. She did not like to. That was why she had run away – and because she was beaten. But – but ah! the scent of the sassafras leaves hanging to dry in the shade! The pungent camomile! The sound of the bayou tumbling over that old slimy log! Only to lie there for hours and watch the glistening lizards glide in and out was worth a beating.
She knew the birds must be singing in chorus out there in the woods where the grey moss was hanging, and the trumpet-vine trailing from the trees, spangled with blossoms. In spirit she heard the songsters.
She wondered if Choctaw Joe and Sambite played dice every night by the campfire, as they used to do; and if they still fought and slashed each other when wild with drink. How good it felt to walk with moccasined feet over the springy turf, under the trees! What fun to trap the squirrels, to skin the otter; to take those swift flights on the pony that Choctaw Joe had stolen from the Texans!
Loka sat motionless; only her breast heaved tumultuously. Her heart was aching with savage homesickness. She could not feel just then that the sin and pain of that life were anything beside the joy of its freedom.
Loka was sick for the woods. She felt she must die if she could not get back to them, and to her vagabond life. Was there anything to hinder her? She stooped and unlaced the brogans that were chafing her feet, removed them and her stockings, and threw the things away from her. She stood up all a-quiver, panting, ready for flight.
But there was a sound that stopped her. It was little Bibine, cooing, sputtering, battling hands and feet with the mosquito net that he had dragged over his face. The girl uttered a sob as she reached down for the baby she had grown to love so, and clasped him in her arms. She could not go and leave Bibine behind.
Tontine began to grumble at once when she discovered that Loka was not at hand to receive them on their return.
“Bon!” she exclaimed. “Now w’ere is that Loka? Ah, that girl, she aggravates me too much. Firs’ thing she knows I’m goin’ sen’ her straight back to them ban’ of lady w’ere she come frum.”
“Loka!” she called, in short, sharp tones, as she traversed the house and peered into each room. “Lo-ka!” She cried loudly enough to be heard half a mile away when she got out upon the back gallery. Again and again she called.
Baptiste was exchanging the discomfort of his Sunday coat for the accustomed ease of shirt sleeves.
“Mais don’t git so excite, Tontine,” he implored. “I’m sho she’s yonda to the crib shellin’ co’n, or somew’ere like that.””
“Run, François, you, an’ see to the crib,” the mother commanded. “Bibine mus’ be starve! Run to the hen-house an’ look, Juliette. Maybe she’s fall asleep in some corna. That’ll learn me ‘notha time to go trus’ une pareille sauvage with my baby, va!”
When it was discovered that Loka was nowhere in the immediate vicinity, Tontine was furious.
“Pas possible she’s walk to Laballière, with Bibine!” she exclaimed.
“I’ll saddle the hoss an’ go see, Tontine,” interposed Baptiste, who was beginning to share his wife’s uneasiness.
“Go, go, Baptiste,” she urged. “An’ you, boys, run yonda down the road to ole Aunt Judy’s cabin an’ see.”
It was found that Loka had not been seen at Laballière’s , nor at Aunt Judy’s cabin; that she had not taken the boat, that was still fastened to its moorings down the bank. Then Tontine’s excitement left her. She turned pale and sat quietly down in her room, with an unnatural calm that frightened the children.
Some of them began to cry. Baptiste walked restlessly about, anxiously scanning the country in all directions. A wretched hour dragged by. The sun had set, leaving hardly an afterglow, and in a little while the twilight that falls so swiftly would be there.
Baptiste was preparing to mount his horse, to start out again on the round her had already been over. Tontine sat in the same state of intense abstraction when François, who had perched himself among the lofty branches of a chinaberry-tree, called out: “Ent that Loka ‘way yon’a, jis’ come out de wood? climbin’ de fence down by de melon patch?”
It was difficult to distinguish in the gathering dusk if the figure were that of man or beast. But the family was not left long in suspense. Baptiste sped his horse away in the direction indicated by François, and in a little while he was galloping back with Bibine in his arms; as fretful, sleepy and hungry a baby as ever was.
Loka came trudging on behind Baptiste. He did not wait for explanations; he was too eager to place the child in the arms of its mother. The suspense over, Tontine began to cry; that followed naturally, of course. Through her tears she managed to address Loka, who stood all tattered and disheveled in the doorway: “W’ere you been? Tell me that.”
“Bibine an’ me,” answered Loka, slowly and awkwardly, “we was lonesome – we been take lit’ ‘broad in de wood.”
“You did n’ know betta ‘an to take ‘way Bibine like that? W’at Ma’ame Laballière mean, anyhow, to sen’ me such a objec’ like you, I want to know?”
“You go’n’ sen’ me ‘way?” asked Loka, passing her hand in a hopeless fashion over her frowzy hair.
“Par example! straight you march back to that ban’ w’ere you come from. To give me such a fright like that! pas possible.”
“Go slow, Tontine; go slow,” interposed Baptiste.
“Don’ sen’ me ‘way frum Bibine,” entreated the girl, with a note in her voice like a lament.
“To-day,” she went on, in her dragging manner, “I want to run ‘way bad, an’ take to de wood; an’ go yonda back to Bayou Choctaw to steal an’ lie agin. It’s on’y Bibine w’at hole me back. I could n’ lef’ ‘im. I could n’ do dat. An’ we jis’ go take lit’ ‘broad in de wood, das all, him an’ me. Don’ sen’ me ‘way like dat!”
Baptiste led the girl gently away to the far end of the gallery, and spoke soothingly to her. He told her to be good and brave, and he would right the trouble for her. He left her standing there and went back to his wife.
“Tontine,” he began with unusual energy, “you got to listen to the truth – once fo’ all.” He had evidently determined to profit by his wife’s lachrymose and wilted condition to assert his authority.
“I want to say who’s masta in this house – it’s me,” he went on. Tontine did not protest; only clasped the baby a little closer, which encouraged him to proceed.
“You been grind that girl too much. She ent a bad girl – I been watch her close, ‘count of the chil’ren; she ent bad. All she want, it’s li’le mo’ rope. You can’t drive a ox with the same gearin’ you drive a mule. You got to learn that, Tontine.”
He approached his wife’s chair and stood beside her.
“That girl, she done tole us how she was temp’ to-day to turn canaille – like we all temp’ sometime’. W’at was it save her? That li’le chile w’at you hole in yo’ arm. An’ now you want to take her guarjun angel ‘way f’om her? Non, non ma femme,” he said, resting his hand gently upon his wife’s head. “We got to rememba she ent like you an’ me, po’ thing; she’s one Injun, her.”