English Literature

The Basket Woman by Mary Austin

The Basket Woman by Mary Austin.jpg


The homesteader’s cabin stood in a moon-shaped hollow between the hills and the high mesa; and the land before it stretched away golden and dusky green, and was lost in a blue haze about where the river settlements began. The hills had a flowing outline and melted softly into each other and higher hills behind, until the range broke in a ragged crest of thin peaks white with snow. A clean, wide sky bent over that country, and the air that moved in it was warm and sweet.

The homesteader’s son had run out on the trail that led toward the spring, with half a mind to go to it, but ran back again when he saw the Basket Woman coming. He was afraid of her, and ashamed because he was afraid, so he did not tell his mother that he had changed his mind.

“There is the mahala coming for the wash,”[Pg 4] said his mother; “now you will have company at the spring.” But Alan only held tighter to a fold of her dress. This was the third time the Indian woman had come to wash for the homesteader’s wife; and, though she was slow and quiet and had a pleasant smile, Alan was still afraid of her. All that he had heard of Indians before coming to this country was very frightful, and he did not understand yet that it was not so. Beyond a certain point of hills on clear days he could see smoke rising from the campoodie, and though he knew nothing but his dreams of what went on there, he would not so much as play in that direction.

The Basket Woman was the only Indian that he had seen. She would come walking across the mesa with a great cone-shaped carrier basket heaped with brushwood on her shoulders, stooping under it and easing the weight by a buckskin band about her forehead. Sometimes it would be a smaller basket carried in the same fashion, and she would be filling it with bulbs of wild hyacinth or[Pg 5] taboose; often she carried a bottle-necked water basket to and from the spring, and always wore a bowl-shaped basket on her head for a hat. Her long hair hung down from under it, and her black eyes glittered beadily below the rim. Alan had a fancy that any moment she might pick him up with a quick toss as if he had been a bit of brushwood, and drop him over her shoulder into the great carrier, and walk away across the mesa with him. So when he saw her that morning coming down the trail from the spring, he hung close by his mother’s skirts.

“You must not be afraid of her, Alan,” said his mother; “she is very kind, and no doubt has had a boy of her own.”

The Basket Woman showed them her white, even teeth in a smile. “This one very pretty boy,” she said; but Alan had made up his mind not to trust her. He was thinking of what the teamster had said when he had driven them up from the railroad station with their belongings the day they came to their new home and found the Basket Wo[Pg 6]man spying curiously in at the cabin windows.

“You wanter watch out how you behaves yourself, sonny,” said the teamster, wagging a solemn jaw, “she’s likely to pack you away in that basket o’ her’n one of these days.” And Alan had watched out very carefully indeed.

It was not a great while after they came to the foothill claim that the homesteader went over to the campoodie to get an Indian to help at fence building, and Alan went with him, holding fast by his father’s hand. They found the Indians living in low, foul huts; their clothes were also dirty, and they sat about on the ground, fat and good-natured. The dogs and children lay sleeping in the sun. It was all very disappointing.

“Will they not hurt us, father?” Alan had said at starting.

“Oh, no, my boy; you must not get any such notion as that,” said the homesteader; “Indians are not at all now what they were once.”[Pg 7]

Alan thought of this as he looked at the campoodie, and pulled at his father’s hand.

“I do not like Indians the way they are now,” he said; and immediately saw that he had made a mistake, for he was standing directly in front of the Basket Woman’s hut, and as she suddenly put her head out of the door he thought by the look of her mysterious, bright eyes that she had understood. He did not venture to say anything more, and all the way home kept looking back toward the campoodie to see if anything came of it.

“Why do you not eat your supper?” said his mother. “I am afraid the long walk in the hot sun was too much for you.” Alan dared not say anything to her of what troubled him, though perhaps it would have been better if he had, for that night the Basket Woman came for him.

She did not pick him up and toss him over her shoulder as he expected; but let down the basket, and he stepped into it of his own accord. Alan was surprised to find that he was not so much afraid of her after all.[Pg 8]

“What will you do with me?” he said.

“I will show you Indians as they used to be,” said she.

Alan could feel the play of her strong shoulders as they went out across the lower mesa and began to climb the hills.

“Where do you go?” said the boy.

“To Pahrump, the valley of Corn Water. It was there my people were happiest in old days.”

They went on between the oaks, and smelled the musky sweet smell of the wild grapevines along the water borders. The sagebrush began to fail from the slopes, and buckthorn to grow up tall and thicker; the wind brought them a long sigh from the lowest pines. They came up with the silver firs and passed them, passed the drooping spruces, the wet meadows, and the wood of thimble-cone pines. The air under them had an earthy smell. Presently they came out upon a cleared space very high up where the rocks were sharp and steep.

“Why are there no trees here?” asked Alan.[Pg 9]

“I will tell you about that,” said the Basket Woman. “In the old flood time, and that is longer ago than is worth counting, the water came up and covered the land, all but the high tops of mountains. Here then the Indians fled and lived, and with them the animals that escaped from the flood. There were trees growing then over all the high places, but because the waters were long on the earth the Indians were obliged to cut them down for firewood. Also they killed all the large animals for food, but the small ones hid in the rocks. After that the waters went down; trees and grass began to grow over all the earth, but never any more on the tops of high mountains. They had all been burned off. You can see that it is so.”

From the top of the mountain Alan could see all the hills on the other side shouldering and peering down toward the happy valley of Corn Water.

“Here,” said the Basket Woman, “my people came of old time in the growing season of the year; they planted corn, and the[Pg 10]streams came down from the hills and watered it. Now we, too, will go down.”

They went by a winding trail, steep and stony. The pines stood up around and locked them closely in.

“I see smoke arising,” said Alan, “blue smoke above the pines.”

“It is the smoke of their hearth fires,” said the Basket Woman, and they went down and down.

“I hear a sound of singing,” said the boy.

“It is the women singing and grinding at the quern,” she said, and her feet went faster.

“I hear laughter,” he said again, “it mixes with the running of the water.”

“It is the maidens washing their knee-long hair. They kneel by the water and stoop down, they dip in the running water and shake out bright drops in the sun.”

“There is a pleasant smell,” said Alan.

“It is pine nuts roasting in the cones,” said the Basket Woman; “so it was of old time.”[Pg 11]

They came out of the cleft of the hills in a pleasant place by singing water. “There you will see the rows of wickiups,” said the Basket Woman, “with the doors all opening eastward to the sun. Let us sit here and see what we shall see.”

The women sat by the wickiups weaving baskets of willow and stems of fern. They made patterns of bright feathers and strung wampum about the rims. Some sewed with sinew and needles of cactus thorn on deerskin white and fine; others winnowed the corn. They stood up tossing it in baskets like grains of gold, and the wind carried away the chaff. All this time the young girls were laughing as they dried their hair in the sun. They bound it with flowers and gay strings of beads, and made their cheeks bright with red earth. The children romped and shouted about the camp, and ran bare-legged in the stream.

“Do they do nothing but play?” said Alan.

“You shall see,” said the Basket Woman.[Pg 12]

Away up the mountain sounded a faint halloo. In a moment all the camp was bustle and delight. The children clapped their hands; they left off playing and began to drag up brushwood for the fires. The women put away their weaving and brought out the cooking pots; they heard the men returning from the hunt. The young men brought deer upon their shoulders; one had grouse and one held up a great basket of trout. The women made the meat ready for cooking. Some of them took meal and made cakes for baking in the ashes. The men rested in the glow of the fires, feathering arrows and restringing their bows.

“That is well,” said the Basket Woman, “to make ready for to-morrow’s meat before to-day’s is eaten.”

“How happy they are!” said the boy.

“They will be happier when they have eaten,” said she.

After supper the Indians gathered together for singing and dancing. The old men told tales one after the other, and the children[Pg 13] thought each one was the best. Between the tales the Indians all sang together, or one sang a new song that he had made. There was one of them who did better than all. He had streaked his body with colored earth and had a band of eagle feathers in his hair. In his hand was a rattle of wild sheep’s horn and small stones; he kept time with it as he leapt and sang in the light of the fire. He sang of old wars, sang of the deer that was killed, sang of the dove and the young grass that grew on the mountain; and the people were well pleased, for when the heart is in the singing it does not matter much what the song is about. The men beat their hands together to keep time to his dancing, and the earth under his feet was stamped to a fine dust.

“He is one that has found the wolf’s song,” said the Basket Woman.

“What is that?” asked Alan.

“It is an old tale of my people,” said she. “Once there was a man who could not make any songs, so he got no praise from the tribe,[Pg 14] and it troubled him much. Then, as he was gathering taboose by the river, a wolf went by, and the wolf said to him, ‘What will you have me to give you for your taboose?’ Then said the man, ‘I will have you to give me a song.’

“‘That will I gladly,’ said the wolf. So the wolf taught him, and that night he sang the wolf’s song in the presence of all the people, and it made their hearts to burn within them. Then the man fell down as if he were dead, for the pure joy of singing, and when deep sleep was upon him the wolf came in the night and stole his song away. Neither the man nor any one who had heard it remembered it any more. So we say when a man sings as no other sang before him, ‘He has the wolf’s song.’ It is a good saying. Now we must go, for the children are all asleep by their mothers, and the day comes soon,” said the Basket Woman.

“Shall we come again?” said Alan. “And will it all be as it is now?”

“My people come often to the valley of[Pg 15] Corn Water,” said she, “but it is never as it is now except in dreams. Now we must go quickly.” Far up the trail they saw a grayness in the eastern sky where the day was about to come in.

“Hark,” said the Basket Woman, “they will sing together the coyote song. It is so that they sing it when the coyote goes home from his hunting, and the morning is near.

“The coyote cries …
He cries at daybreak …
He cries …
The coyote cries” …

sang the Basket Woman, but all the spaces in between the words were filled with long howls,—weird, wicked noises that seemed to hunt and double in a half-human throat. It made the hair on Alan’s neck stand up, and cold shivers creep along his back. He began to shake, for the wild howls drew near and louder, and he felt the bed under him tremble with his trembling.

“Mother, mother,” he cried, “what is that?”[Pg 16]

“It is only the coyotes,” said she; “they always howl about this time of night. It is nothing; go to sleep again.”

“But I am afraid.”

“They cannot hurt you,” said his mother; “it is only the little gray beasts that you see trotting about the mesa of afternoons; hear them now.”

“I am afraid,” said Alan.

“Then you must come in my bed,” said she; and in a few minutes he was fast asleep again.


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