Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Carolyn Sherwin Bailey

Big Hawk's Decoration

"S EE to it, Preserve, that you win a colored ribbon from the schoolmaster to-day," Mistress Edwards said as she turned from her task of polishing the pewter platter to look at the boy who stood in the doorway of the log cabin.

"This is the day, I hear, on which the good-conduct ribbons are given out for the month, brightly dyed ones for the boys and girls whose lessons have been well learned, and black for the dunces. There is no chance of your coming home to me to-night without a ribbon of merit, is there?" The Colonial mother crossed the room and put her hands on her lad's shoulder, looking anxiously into his honest brown eyes.

"No, mother," Preserve answered. "At least I have hopes of winning a ribbon. Not once this month have I failed in my sums, and I can read my chapters in the Bible as well as any child in school."

"That is good!" Mistress Edwards said, pulling the boy's long, dark cloak more closely about him and smoothing the cloth of his tall hat.

Preserve Edwards was a Puritan lad of many years ago. The log cabin that he was leaving to walk two miles through the clearing and across the woods to school was but a rough home. A few straight chairs and a hard settle, made of logs and standing by the fireplace, a deal table and the few pewter utensils, were almost the only furnishings of the living room. In one corner stood an old musket. Mistress Edwards looked toward it now in fear.


The log cabin was but a rough home.

"Do you come home as soon as school is out, Preserve. I pray you do not linger on the way to play hare and hounds with the other boys and girls of the village. Remember, my boy, that your father is away with the horse these two days to fetch back a piece of linsey-woolsey cloth and some flour from Boston for me. He is not likely to come home for some days yet, and I am full of strange dread at what I saw in the cornfield this morning."

"What did you see, mother?" Preserve's eyes opened wide with wonder.

"It was not so much what I saw, but what it portended for us," Mistress Edwards said. "It was only a flash of color, like painted feathers, among the withered stalks of corn. It minded me of Big Hawk's headdress. If he were to find out that we were alone, one helpless woman and a boy of twelve here, I think it would go badly with us."

Preserve laughed bravely. Then he reached up to kiss his mother good-bye.

"It was no more than a red-winged blackbird that you saw," he said, "or perhaps it was a bright tanager. The birds are getting ready to flock now, for they feel the autumn chill in the air. But I will hurry home—with my ribbon," Preserve added.

Then he ran down the little path to the gate in the paling that surrounded the cabin, his speller under his arm, and his high-heeled, buckled shoes making the dry leaves scatter as he went.

It was a long road and a lonely one to the log schoolhouse. Preserve took his way through the cornfield where the dried stalks, rattling in the cold wind, made him think of the songs that he had heard Big Hawk and his tribe sing the last time they attacked the little Colonial settlement. That had been some months since, now, and Preserve could find no traces of footprints or any other marks of Indians in the cornfield.

"My mother had a fear for nothing," Preserve said to himself. He went through a bit of woods, next, and pulled a small square of bark from one of the many birch trees that stood there, so white and still. It was for Preserve to write his sums upon in school, and as he hurried on he repeated his tables over and over to be sure that he knew them well.

There were log cabins scattered here and there, and from these came other boys and girls who followed Preserve on the way to school. Deliverance Baxter joined Preserve. She wore a long, scant, gray frock, and her yellow hair was tucked tightly inside a close, white cap. A white kerchief was folded neatly around her neck, and she, also, wore big buckles on her black slippers. Her eyes twinkled roguishly, though, as she chatted to Preserve.

"There is no doubt at all, Preserve, but that you will wear home the long streamers of red ribbon on your cape this afternoon. I have been quite as perfect as you in my lessons for the last month, but, woe is me, I did a great wrong yesterday. You know that Master Biddle, our schoolmaster, has just purchased a big wig from Boston town. The queue in the back is unusually long and tied with such a large bow that it caught my eye when I was getting a pile of copy books from behind his desk. I know not, Preserve, what witchery was in my fingers, but I tied Master Biddle's queue to his chair. When he stood up, why, his wig was greatly disarranged; and I must needs stay after school until dusk, sitting on the dunce's stool. I am most sorry, and will never be so witch-like again. You see I stand small chance of the ribbon, now, Preserve."


"I tied Master Biddle's queue to his chair."

The boy laughed, but he took the little girl's hand comfortingly in his. Reaching in his lunch bag, he took out a red apple and slipped it into the big pocket that hung at her side.

"You were always a bit roguish in spite of your Puritan dress and sober living, Deliverance," he said. "Never mind about the ribbon. If I should win it, why there is all the more chance of its being yours the next time. Here we are! See to it, Deliverance, that you tie no more queues to-day. Oh, see how finely Master Biddle is dressed for giving out the prizes!" Preserve said as they reached the schoolhouse door and took their places behind the rude desks, built of boards and resting on pegs in the floor.

Other children were quietly taking their places in the little schoolroom, the smaller ones perched on hard benches made of logs. They all looked in awe at the schoolmaster who stood on a platform facing them. He wore a smart velvet coat with long tails, and inside it could be seen a waist coat which was very long and a fine white shirt with stiffly-starched ruffles. His knee breeches were of velvet like his coat, and there were silver buckles at the knees as well as on his shoes. A stiffly-ironed stock was wound about his neck, and worn to keep his head stiff and straight as became the dignity of the times. Above all was his white powdered wig, neatly braided in the back.

Looking at Master Biddle alone was enough to make the children of the Colonies sit up very straight and recite their lessons as well as they could. There was a prayer first, and then the boys and girls recited their reading, spelling, and arithmetic. Their pencils were thick plummets of lead and their copy books were made of foolscap paper, sewed in the shape of books and carefully ruled by hand. At eleven o'clock came recess, and at the end of the afternoon the awarding of the good-conduct ribbons.

"For perfect deportment," Master Biddle announced as he pinned a bow of blue ribbon to one boy's cape.

"For poor lessons!" he said, sadly, as he fastened a black bow to another. Then he held up a red bow with especially long, streaming ends.

"For perfect deportment, and for perfect lessons," he said, as he fastened the red ribbon bow to Preserve Edward's cape.

To-day it would seem but a small prize, but in the eyes of these Puritan boys and girls of so many years ago, the bow of ribbon, its streamers of red gayly flying over the long cape of a boy or the dull linsey-woolsey frock of a little girl, was a mark of great honor indeed. Ribbons were scarce and high in price in those days. Colors for children were almost forbidden, and for their elders as well. So Preserve walked out of the school door at the end of the day with his head very high and started home as proudly as any soldier wearing a decoration for bravery.

He did not notice how the dusk was settling down all about him. The trees on either side made dark shadows and there was no sound except the whir of a partridge's wing or the rattle of a falling nut. He did not hear the soft footfall behind him until Deliverance, breathless and her face white with fear, was upon him. She laid a soft hand on his shoulder and whispered in his ear:

"I beg you, Preserve, to let me walk with you. I know that it is not far to my cabin, but all the way through these woods I have heard strange sounds and I fancy, even now, that I see shapes behind the trees and bushes."

Preserve took the timid little girl's hand and tried to laugh away her fears.

"So was my mother afraid this morning, at nothing," he said. "She was of a mind that she saw Indians—Oh!" the boy's voice was suddenly hushed.

Towering in the path in front of the children like a great forest tree dressed in its gorgeous cloak of gaudy autumn leaves, stood the Indian chief, Big Hawk. He wore his war paint and his festival headdress of hawk's feathers. Slung over his blanket were his bow and a quiver full of new arrows. It seemed little more than a second before the edges of the path and the deep places among the trees on either side were alive with the Indians of Big Hawk's tribe.

Big Hawk looked at the frightened children, indicating with gestures what was his plan. He pushed back the white cap from Deliverance's pale forehead and laid his hand on the little girl's sunny hair. Then he pointed toward his tribe's camping place in the west. He wanted to take Deliverance there and hold her for a ransom. To Preserve he made gestures showing that he wished him to lead the way to the Edwards' cabin that they might plunder it before going back that night.


He pointed toward his tribe's camping place.

Deliverance clung, crying, to Preserve. He tried to be brave, but it was a test for a man's courage, and he was only a boy.

It was a second's thought and a strange whim of a savage that saved the two. The wind of the fall blowing through the trees caught the ends of Preserve's ribbon of honor and sent them, fluttering like tongues of flame, against the dark of the tree trunks. The color caught Big Hawk's eye, and he touched the bow on Preserve's cloak with one hand.

Quick as a flash a thought came to Preserve. He drew back from Big Hawk's touch and put his own hands over the ribbon as if to guard it.

"Heap big chief!" Preserve's voice rang out, brave and clear. Then, after waiting a second, he unpinned the red bow and held it, high, before Big Hawk's face.

"Big Hawk, heap bigger chief!" he said, as he went boldly up to the Indian and fastened the ribbon on his blanket. Then he motioned to Big Hawk to return to his camp and show the rest of the tribe his new decoration. A slow smile overspread Big Hawk's painted face. Then he turned and, motioning to his braves to follow him, went silently back through the woods, leaving Preserve and Deliverance alone, and safe.

Deliverance was the first to speak.

"My heart does beat so fast I can scarcely breathe, Preserve. Oh, but you are a brave boy! What shall we do now?" the little girl asked.

"Run!" said Preserve, without a moment's hesitation. "We had best run like rabbits, Deliverance!"

Hand in hand, the two scampered along, Preserve helping the little girl over the rough places, until the light from a candle in Deliverance's cabin was in sight. Her father had come home early, and when the children told him of their adventure, he set out to warn the rest of the settlers of the danger so bravely averted, and put them on guard against the Indians.

Preserve went on home, alone. His mother stood in the cabin door, anxious because he was so late.

"No ribbon? Oh, my lad, why have you disappointed me?" she said when she saw him.

"Big Hawk wears my decoration," Preserve said, as he told his story. "But I think that Master Biddle would have rather that little Mistress Deliverance, for all her witching, had his red bow," he finished, laughing.