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  • 1904
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holy man’s revenue, it was time to bring out the presents.

Ol’ Chief had a fine lynx-skin over his arm. He advanced at a word from Nicholas, and laid it down before the Father.

“No!” said Father Brachet, with startling suddenness; “take it away and try to understand.”

Nicholas approached trembling, but no doubt remembering how necessary it had been to add to the Shaman’s offering before he would consent to listen with favour to Pymeut prayers, he pulled out of their respective hiding–places about his person a carved ivory spoon and an embroidered bird-skin pouch, advanced boldly under the fire of the Superior’s keen eyes and sharp words, and laid the further offering on the lynx-skin at his feet.

“Take zem away,” said the priest, interrupting his brief homily and standing up. “Don’t you understand yet zat we are your friends wizzout money and wizzout price? We do not want zese sings. Shaman takes ivories from ze poor, furs from ze shivering, and food from zem zat starve. And he gives nossing in return–nossing! Take zese sings away; no one wants zem at Holy Cross.”

Ol’ Chief wiped his eyes pathetically. Nicholas, the picture of despair, turned in a speechless appeal to his despised ambassador. Before anyone could speak, the door-knob rattled rudely, and the big bullet-head of a white man was put in.

“Pardon, mon Pere; cet homme qui vient de Minook–faudrait le coucher de suite–mais ou, mon Dieu, ou?”

While the Superior cogitated, “How-do, Brother Etienne?” said Nicholas, and they nodded.

Brother Etienne brought the rest of his heavy body half inside the door. He wore aged, weather-beaten breeches, and a black sweater over an old hickory shirt.

“Ses compagnons l’ont laisse, la, je crois. Mais ca ne durera pas longtemps.”

“Faudra bien qu’il reste ici–je ne vois pas d’autre moyen,” said the Father. “Enfin–on verra. Attendez quelques instants.”

“C’est bien.” Brother Etienne went out.

Ol’ Chief was pulling the Boy’s sleeve during the little colloquy, and saying, “You tell.” But the Boy got up like one who means to make an end.

“You haven’t any time or strength for this–“

“Oh yes,” said Father Brachet, smiling, and arresting the impetuous movement. “Ziz is–part of it.”

“Well,” said the Boy, still hesitating, “they _are_ sorry, you know, _really_ sorry.”

“You sink so?” The question rang a little sceptically.

“Yes, I do, and I’m in a position to know. You’d forgive them if you’d seen, as I did, how miserable and overwhelmed they were when Brother Paul–when–I’m not saying it’s the highest kind of religion that they’re so almighty afraid of losing your good opinion, but it–it gives you a hold, doesn’t it?” And then, as the Superior said nothing, only kept intent eyes on the young face, the Boy wound up a little angrily: “Unless, of course, you’re like Brother Paul, ready to throw away the power you’ve gained–“

“Paul serves a great and noble purpose–but–zese questions are–a–not in his province.” Still he bored into the young face with those kind gimlets, his good little eyes, and–

“You are–one of us?” he asked, “of ze Church?”

“No, I–I’m afraid I’m not of any Church.”

“Ah!”

“And I ought to take back ‘afraid.’ But I’m telling you the truth when I say there never were honester penitents than the Pymeuts. The whole Kachime’s miserable. Even the girl, Ol’ Chief’s daughter she cried like anything when she thought Sister–“

“Winifred?”

“Sister Winifred would be disappointed in her.”

“Ah, yes; Sister Winifred has zem–” he held out his hand, spread the fingers apart, and slowly, gently closed them. “Comme ca.”

“But what’s the good of it if Brother Paul–“

“Ah, it is not just zere Paul comes in. But I tell you, my son, Paul does a work here no ozzer man has done so well.”

“He is a flint–a fanatic.”

“Fanatique!” He flung out an expressive hand. “It is a name, my son. It often means no more but zat a man is in earnest. Out of such a ‘flint’ we strike sparks, and many a generous fire is set alight. We all do what we can here at Holy Cross, but Paul will do what we cannot.”

“Well, give _me_–” He was on the point of saying “Father Wills,” but changed it to “a man who is tolerant.”

“Tolerant? Zere are plenty to be tolerant, my son. Ze world is full. But when you find a man zat can _care_, zat can be ‘fanatique’–ah! It is”–he came a little nearer–“it is but as if I would look at you and say, ‘He has earnest eyes! He will go far _whatever_ road he follow.'” He drew off, smiling shrewdly. “You may live, my son, to be yourself called ‘fanatique.’ Zen you will know how little–“

“I!” the Boy broke in. “You are pretty wide of the mark this time.”

“Ah, perhaps! But zere are more trails zan ze Yukon for a fanatique. You have zere somesing to show me?”

“I promised the girl that cried so–I promised her to bring the Sister this.” He had pulled out the picture. In spite of the careful wrapping, it had got rather crumpled. The Father looked at it, and then a swift glance passed between him and the Boy.

“You could see it was like pulling out teeth to part with it. Can it go up there till the Sister sends for it?”

Father Brachet nodded, and the gorgeous worldling, counselling all men to “Smoke Kentucky Leaf!” was set up in the high place of honour on the mantel-shelf, beside a print of the Madonna and the Holy Child. Nicholas cheered up at this, and Ol’ Chief stopped wiping his eyes. While the Boy stood at the mantel with his back to Father Brachet, acting on a sudden impulse, he pulled the ivory pen-rest out of his shirt, and stuck its various parts together, saying as he did so, “She sent an offering to you, too. If the Ol’ Chief an’ I fail to convince you of our penitence, we’re all willin’ to let this gentleman plead for us.” Whereupon he wheeled round and held up the Woeful One before the Father’s eyes.

The priest grasped the offering with an almost convulsive joy, and instantly turned his back that the Pymeuts might not see the laugh that twisted up his humorous old features. The penitents looked at each other, and telegraphed in Pymeut that after all the Boy had come up to time. The Father had refused the valuable lynx-skin and Nicholas’ superior spoon, but was ready, it appeared, to look with favour on anything the Boy offered.

But very seriously the priest turned round upon the Pymeuts. “I will just say a word to you before we wash and go in to supper.” With a kindly gravity he pronounced a few simple sentences about the gentleness of Christ with the ignorant, but how offended the Heavenly Father was when those who knew the true God descended to idolatrous practices, and how entirely He could be depended upon to punish wicked people.

Ol’ Chief nodded vigorously and with sudden excitement. “Me jus’ like God.”

“Hein?”

“Oh, yes. Me no stan’ wicked people. When me young me kill two ol’ squaws–_witches!_” With an outward gesture of his lean claws he swept these wicked ones off the face of the earth, like a besom of the Lord.

A sudden change had passed over the tired face of the priest. “Go, go!” he called out, driving the Pymeuts forth as one shoos chickens out of a garden. “Go to ze schoolhouse and get fed, for it’s all you seem able to get zere.”

But the perplexed flight of the Pymeuts was arrested. Brother Paul and Brother Etienne blocked the way with a stretcher. They all stood back to let the little procession come in. Nobody noticed them further, but the Pymeuts scuttled away the instant they could get by. The Boy, equally forgotten, sat down in a corner, while the three priests conferred in low-voiced French over the prostrate figure.

“Father Brachet,” a weak voice came up from the floor.

Brother Paul hurried out, calling Brother Etienne softly from the door.

“I am here.” The Superior came from the foot of the pallet, and knelt down near the head.

“You–remember what you said last July?”

“About–“

“About making restitution.”

“Yes.”

“Well, I can do it now.”

“I am glad.”

“I’ve brought you the papers. That’s why–I–_had_ to come. Will you–take them–out of my–“

The priest unbuckled a travel-stained buckskin miner’s belt and laid it on the floor. All the many pockets were empty save the long one in the middle. He unbuttoned the flap and took out some soiled, worn-looking papers. “Are zese in proper form?” he asked, but the man seemed to have dropped into unconsciousness. Hurriedly the priest added: “Zere is no time to read zem. Ah! Mr.–will you come and witness zis last will and testament?”

The Boy got up and stood near. The man from Minook opened his eyes.

“Here!” The priest had got writing materials, and put a pen into the slack hand, with a block of letter-paper under it.

“I–I’m no lawyer,” said the faint voice, “but I think it’s all–in shape. Anyhow–you write–and I’ll sign.” He half closed his eyes, and the paper slipped from under his hand. The Boy caught it, and set down the faint words:–“will and bequeath to John M. Berg, Kansas City, my right and title to claim No. 11 Above, Little Minook, Yukon Ramparts–“

And the voice fell away into silence. They waited a moment, and the Superior whispered:

“Can you sign it?”

The dull eyes opened. “Didn’t I–?”

Father Brachet held him up; the Boy gave him the pen and steadied the paper. “Thank you, Father. Obliged to you, too.” He turned his dimming eyes upon the Boy, who wrote his name in witness. “You–going to Minook?”

“I hope so.”

The Father went to the writing-table, where he tied up and sealed the packet.

“Anybody that’s going to Minook will have to hustle.” The slang of everyday energy sounded strangely from dying lips–almost a whisper, and yet like a far-off bugle calling a captive to battle.

The Boy leaned down to catch the words, yet fainter:

“Good claims going like hot cakes.”

“How much,” the Boy asked, breathless, “did you get out of yours?”

“Waiting till summer. Nex’ summer–” The eyelids fell.

“So it isn’t a fake after all.” The Boy stood up. “The camp’s all right!”

“You’ll see. It will out-boom the Klondyke.”

“Ha! How long have you been making the trip?”

“Since August.”

The wild flame of enterprise sunk in the heart of the hearer.

“Since _August_?”

“No cash for steamers; we had a canoe. She went to pieces up by–” The weak voice fell down into that deep gulf that yawns waiting for man’s last word.

“But there is gold at Minook, you’re sure? You’ve seen it?”

The Father Superior locked away the packet and stood up. But the Boy was bending down fascinated, listening at the white lips. “There is gold there?” he repeated.

Out of the gulf came faintly back like an echo:

“Plenty o’ gold there–plenty o’ gold.”

“Jee-rusalem!” He stood up and found himself opposite the contemplative face of the priest.

“We have neglected you, my son. Come upstairs to my room.”

They went out, the old head bent, and full of thought; the young head high, and full of dreams. Oh, to reach this Minook, where there was “plenty of gold, plenty of gold,” before the spring floods brought thousands. What did any risk matter? Think of the Pymeuts doing their sixty miles over the ice just to apologise to Father Brachet for being Pymeuts. This other, this white man’s penance might, would involve a greater mortification of the flesh. What then? The reward was proportionate–“plenty of gold.” The faint whisper filled the air.

A little more hardship, and the long process of fortune-building is shortened to a few months. No more office grind. No more anxiety for those one loves.

Gold, plenty of gold, while one is young and can spend it gaily–gold to buy back the Orange Grove, to buy freedom and power, to buy wings, and to buy happiness!

On the stairs they passed Brother Paul and the native.

“Supper in five minutes, Father.”

The Superior nodded.

“There is a great deal to do,” the native went on hurriedly to Paul. “We’ve got to bury Catherine to-morrow–“

“And this man from Minook,” agreed Paul, pausing with his hand on the door.

CHAPTER VII

KAVIAK’S CRIME

“My little son, who look’d from thoughtful eyes, And moved and spoke in quiet grown-up wise, Having my law the seventh time disobey’d, I struck him, and dismiss’d
With hard words and unkiss’d….”

Even with the plague and Brother Paul raging at the mission–even with everyone preoccupied by the claims of dead and dying, the Boy would have been glad to prolong his stay had it not been for “nagging” thoughts of the Colonel. As it was, with the mercury rapidly rising and the wind fallen, he got the Pymeuts on the trail next day at noon, spent what was left of the night at the Kachime, and set off for camp early the following day. He arrived something of a wreck, and with an enormous respect for the Yukon trail.

It did him good to sight the big chimney, and still more to see the big Colonel putting on his snow-shoes near the bottom of the hill, where the cabin trail met the river trail. When the Boss o’ the camp looked up and saw the prodigal coming along, rather groggy on his legs, he just stood still a moment. Then he kicked off his web-feet, turned back a few paces uphill, and sat down on a spruce stump, folded his arms, and waited. Was it the knapsack on his back that bowed him so?

“Hello, Kentucky!”

But the Colonel didn’t look up till the Boy got quite near, chanting in his tuneless voice:

“‘Grasshoppah sett’n on a swee’ p’tater vine, Swee’ p’tater vine, swee’ p’tater vine–‘”

“What’s the matter, hey, Colonel? Sorry as all that to see me back?”

“Reckon it’s the kind o’ sorrah I can bear,” said the Colonel. “We thought you were dead.”

“You ought t’ known me better. Were you just sendin’ out a rescue-party of one?”

The Colonel nodded. “That party would have started before, but I cut my foot with the axe the day you left. Where have you been, in the name o’ the nation?”

“Pymeut an’ Holy Cross.”

“Holy Cross? Holy Moses! _You?_”

“Yes; and do you know, one thing I saw there gave me a serious nervous shock.”

“That don’t surprise me. What was it?”

“Sheets. When I came to go to bed–a real bed, Colonel, on legs–I found I was expected to sleep between sheets, and I just about fainted.”

“That the only shock you had?”

“No, I had several. I saw an angel. I tell you straight, Colonel–you can bank on what I’m sayin’–that Jesuit outfit’s all right.”

“Oh, you think so?” The rejoinder came a little sharply.

“Yes, sir, I just do. I think I’d be bigoted not to admit it.”

“So, you’ll be thick as peas in a pod with the priests now?”

“Well, I’m the one that can afford to be. They won’t convert _me!_ And, from my point o’ view, it don’t matter what a man is s’ long’s he’s a decent fella.”

The Colonel’s only answer was to plunge obliquely uphill.

“Say, Boss, wait for me.”

The Colonel looked back. The Boy was holding on to a scrub willow that put up wiry twigs above the snow.

“Feel as if I’d never get up the last rungs o’ this darn ice-ladder!”

“Tired? H’m! Something of a walk to Holy Cross even on a nice mild day like this.” The Colonel made the reflection with obvious satisfaction, took off his knapsack, and sat down again. The Boy did the same. “The very day you lit out Father Orloff came up from the Russian mission.”

“What’s he like?”

“Oh, little fella in petticoats, with a beard an’ a high pot-hat, like a Russian. And that same afternoon we had a half-breed trader fella here, with two white men. Since that day we haven’t seen a human creature. We bought some furs of the trader. Where’d you get yours?”

“Pymeut. Any news about the strike?”

“Well, the trader fella was sure it was all gammon, and told us stories of men who’d sacrificed everything and joined a stampede, and got sold–sold badly. But the two crazy whites with him–miners from Dakotah–they were on fire about Minook. Kept on bragging they hadn’t cold feet, and swore they’d get near to the diggins as their dogs’d take ’em. The half-breed said they might do a hundred miles more, but probably wouldn’t get beyond Anvik.”

“Crazy fools! I tell you, to travel even thirty miles on the Yukon in winter, even with a bully team and old Nick to drive ’em, and not an extra ounce on your back–I tell you, Colonel, it’s no joke.”

“B’lieve you, sonny.”

It wasn’t thirty seconds before sonny was adding: “Did that half-breed think it was any use our trying to get dogs?”

“Ain’t to be had now for love or money.”

“Lord, Colonel, if we had a team–“

“Yes, I know. We’ll probably owe our lives to the fact that we haven’t.”

It suddenly occurred to the Boy that, although he had just done a pretty good tramp and felt he’d rather die than go fifty feet further, it was the Colonel who was most tired.

“How’s everybody?”

“Oh, I s’pose we might all of us be worse off.”

“What’s the matter?”

He was so long answering that the Boy’s eyes turned to follow the serious outward gaze of the older man, even before he lifted one hand and swept it down the hill and out across the dim, grey prospect.

“This,” said the Colonel.

Their eyes had dropped down that last stretch of the steep snow slope, across the two miles of frozen river, and ran half round the wide horizon-line, like creatures in a cage. Whether they liked it or whether they didn’t, for them there was no way out.

“It’s the awful stillness.” The Colonel arraigned the distant ice-plains.

They sat there looking, listening, as if they hoped their protest might bring some signal of relenting. No creature, not even a crystal-coated willow-twig, nothing on all the ice-bound earth stirred by as much as a hair; no mark of man past or present broke the grey monotony; no sound but their two voices disturbed the stillness of the world. It was a quiet that penetrated, that pricked to vague alarm. Already both knew the sting of it well.

“It’s the kind of thing that gets on a fella’s nerves,” said the Colonel. “I don’t know as I ever felt helpless in any part of the world before. But a man counts for precious little up here. Do you notice how you come to listen to the silence?”

“Oh, yes, I’ve noticed.”

“Stop.” Again he lifted his hand, and they strained their ears. “I’ve done that by the hour since you left and the daft gold-diggers went up trail after you. The other fellas feel it, too. Don’t know what we’d have done without Kaviak. Think we ought to keep that kid, you know.”

“I could get on without Kaviak if only we had some light. It’s this villainous twilight that gets into my head. All the same, you know”–he stood up suddenly–“we came expecting to stand a lot, didn’t we?”

The elder man nodded. “Big game, big stakes. It’s all right.”

Eventless enough after this, except for the passing of an Indian or two, the days crawled by.

The Boy would get up first in the morning, rake out the dead ashes, put on a couple of back-logs, bank them with ashes, and then build the fire in front. He broke the ice in the water-bucket, and washed; filled coffee-pot and mush-kettle with water (or ice), and swung them over the fire; then he mixed the corn-bread, put it in the Dutch oven, covered it with coals, and left it to get on with its baking. Sometimes this part of the programme was varied by his mixing a hoe-cake on a board, and setting it up “to do” in front of the fire. Then he would call the Colonel–

“‘Wake up Massa,
De day am breakin’;
Peas in de pot, en de
Hoe-cake bakin””–

for it was the Colonel’s affair to take up proceedings at this point–make the coffee and the mush and keep it from burning, fry the bacon, and serve up breakfast.

Saturday brought a slight variation in the early morning routine. The others came straggling in, as usual, but once a week Mac was sure to be first, for he had to get Kaviak up. Mac’s view of his whole duty to man seemed to centre in the Saturday scrubbing of Kaviak. Vainly had the Esquimer stood out against compliance with this most repulsive of foreign customs. He seemed to be always ready with some deep-laid scheme for turning the edge of Mac’s iron resolution. He tried hiding at the bottom of the bed. It didn’t work. The next time he crouched far back under the lower bunk. He was dragged out. Another Saturday he embedded himself, like a moth, in a bundle of old clothes. Mac shook him out. He had been very sanguine the day he hid in the library. This was a wooden box nailed to the wall on the right of the door. Most of the bigger books–Byron, Wordsworth, Dana’s “Mineralogy,” and two Bibles–he had taken out and concealed in the lower bunk very skilfully, far back behind the Colonel’s feet. Copps’s “Mining” and the two works on “Parliamentary Law” piled at the end of the box served as a pillow. After climbing in and folding himself up into an incredibly small space, Kaviak managed with superhuman skill to cover himself neatly with a patchwork quilt of _Munsey, Scribner, Century, Strand_, and _Overland_ for August, ’97. No one would suspect, glancing into that library, that underneath the usual top layer of light reading, was matter less august than Law, Poetry, Science, and Revelation.

It was the base Byron, tipping the wink to Mac out of the back of the bunk, that betrayed Kaviak.

It became evident that “Farva” began to take a dour pride in the Kid’s perseverance. One morning he even pointed out to the camp the strong likeness between Kaviak and Robert Bruce.

“No, sah; the Scottish chief had to have an object-lesson, but Kaviak–Lawd!–Kaviak could give points to any spider livin’!”

This was on the morning that the Esquimer thought to escape scrubbing, even at the peril of his life, by getting up on to the swing-shelf –how, no man ever knew. But there he sat in terror, like a very young monkey in a wind-rocked tree, hardly daring to breathe, his arms clasped tight round the demijohn; but having Mac to deal with, the end of it was that he always got washed, and equally always he seemed to register a vow that, s’help him, Heaven! it should never happen again.

After breakfast came the clearing up. It should have been done (under this regime) by the Little Cabin men, but it seldom was. O’Flynn was expected to keep the well-hole in the river chopped open and to bring up water every day. This didn’t always happen either, though to drink snow-water was to invite scurvy, Father Wills said. There was also a daily need, if the Colonel could be believed, for everybody to chop firewood.

“We got enough,” was Potts’ invariable opinion.

“For how long? S’pose we get scurvy and can’t work; we’d freeze to death in a fortnight.”

“Never saw a fireplace swalla logs whole an’ never blink like this one.”

“But you got no objection to sittin’ by while the log-swallerin’ goes on.”

The Colonel or the Boy cooked the eternal beans, bacon and mush dinner, after whatever desultory work was done; as a matter of fact, there was extraordinarily little to occupy five able-bodied men. The fun of snow-shoeing, mitigated by frostbite, quickly degenerated from a sport into a mere means of locomotion. One or two of the party went hunting, now and then, for the scarce squirrel and the shy ptarmigan. They tried, with signal lack of success, to catch fish, Indian fashion, through a hole in the ice.

But, for the most part, as winter darkened round them, they lounged from morning till night about the big fireplace, and smoked, and growled, and played cards, and lived as men do, finding out a deal about each other’s characters, something about each other’s opinions, and little or nothing about each other’s history.

In the appalling stillness of the long Arctic night, any passer-by was hailed with enthusiasm, and although the food-supply in the Big Cabin was plainly going to run short before spring, no traveller–white, Indian, or Esquimaux–was allowed to go by without being warmed and fed, and made to tell where he came from and whither he was bound–questions to tax the sage. Their unfailing hospitality was not in the least unexpected or unusual, being a virtue practised even by scoundrels in the great North-west; but it strained the resources of the little camp, a fourth of whose outfit lay under the Yukon ice.

In the state of lowered vitality to which the poor, ill-cooked food, the cold and lack of exercise, was slowly reducing them, they talked to one another less and less as time went on, and more and more–silently and each against his will–grew hyper-sensitive to the shortcomings and even to the innocent “ways” of the other fellow.

Not Mac’s inertia alone, but his trick of sticking out his jaw became an offence, his rasping voice a torture. The Boy’s occasional ebullition of spirits was an outrage, the Colonel’s mere size intolerable. O’Flynn’s brogue, which had amused them, grew to be just part of the hardship and barbarism that had overtaken them like an evil dream, coercing, subduing all the forces of life. Only Kaviak seemed likely to come unscathed through the ordeal of the winter’s captivity; only he could take the best place at the fire, the best morsel at dinner, and not stir angry passions; only he dared rouse Mac when the Nova Scotian fell into one of his bear-with-a-sore-head moods. Kaviak put a stop to his staring angrily by the hour into the fire, and set him to whittling out boats and a top, thereby providing occupation for the morrow, since it was one man’s work to break Kaviak of spinning the one on the table during mealtime, and sailing the other in the drinking-water bucket at all times when older eyes weren’t watching. The Colonel wrote up his journal, and read the midsummer magazines and Byron, in the face of Mac’s “I do not like Byron’s thought; I do not consider him healthy or instructive.” In one of his more energetic moods the Colonel made a four-footed cricket for Kaviak, who preferred it to the high stool, and always sat on it except at meals.

Once in a while, when for hours no word had been spoken except some broken reference to a royal flush or a jack-pot, or O’Flynn had said, “Bedad! I’ll go it alone,” or Potts had inquired anxiously, “Got the joker? Guess I’m euchred, then,” the Boy in desperation would catch up Kaviak, balance the child on his head, or execute some other gymnastic, soothing the solemn little heathen’s ruffled feelings, afterwards, by crooning out a monotonous plantation song. It was that kind of addition to the general gloom that, at first, would fire O’Flynn to raise his own spirits, at least, by roaring out an Irish ditty. But this was seldomer as time went on. Even Jimmie’s brogue suffered, and grew less robust.

In a depressed sort of way Mac was openly teaching Kaviak his letters, and surreptitiously, down in the Little Cabin, his prayers. He was very angry when Potts and O’Flynn eavesdropped and roared at Kaviak’s struggles with “Ow Farva.” In fact, Kaviak did not shine as a student of civilisation, though that told less against him with O’Flynn, than the fact that he wasn’t “jolly and jump about, like white children.” Moreover, Jimmie, swore there was something “bogey” about the boy’s intermittent knowledge of English. Often for days he would utter nothing but “Farva” or “Maw” when he wanted his plate replenished, then suddenly he would say something that nobody could remember having taught him or even said in his presence.

It was not to be denied that Kaviak loved sugar mightily, and stole it when he could. Mac lectured him and slapped his minute yellow hands, and Kaviak stole it all the same. When he was bad–that is, when he had eaten his daily fill of the camp’s scanty store (in such a little place it was not easy to hide from such a hunter as Kaviak)–he was taken down to the Little Cabin, smacked, and made to say “Ow Farva.” Nobody could discover that he minded much, though he learnt to try to shorten the ceremony by saying “I solly” all the way to the cabin.

As a rule he was strangely undemonstrative; but in his own grave little fashion he conducted life with no small intelligence, and learned, with an almost uncanny quickness, each man’s uses from the Kaviak point of view. The only person he wasn’t sworn friends with was the handy-man, and there came to be a legend current in the camp, that Kaviak’s first attempt at spontaneously stringing a sentence under that roof was, “Me got no use for Potts.”

The best thing about Kaviak was that his was no craven soul. He was obliged to steal the sugar because he lived with white people who were bigger than he, and who always took it away when they caught him. But once the sugar was safe under his shirt, he owned up without the smallest hesitation, and took his smacking like a man. For the rest, he flourished, filled out, and got as fat as a seal, but never a whit less solemn.

One morning the Colonel announced that now the days had grown so short, and the Trio were so late coming to breakfast, and nobody did any work to speak of, it would be a good plan to have only two meals a day.

The motion was excessively unpopular, but it was carried by a plain, and somewhat alarming, exposition of the state of supplies.

“We oughtn’t to need as much food when we lazy round the fire all day,” said the Colonel. But Potts retorted that they’d need a lot more if they went on adoptin’ the aborigines.

They knocked off supper, and all but the aborigine knew what it meant sometimes to go hungry to bed.

Towards the end of dinner one day late in December, when everybody else had finished except for coffee and pipe, the aborigine held up his empty plate.

“Haven’t you had enough?” asked the Colonel mildly, surprised at Kaviak’s bottomless capacity.

“Maw.” Still the plate was extended.

“There isn’t a drop of syrup left,” said Potts, who had drained the can, and even wiped it out carefully with halves of hot biscuit.

“He don’t really want it.”

“Mustn’t open a fresh can till to-morrow.”

“No, sir_ee_. We’ve only got–“

“Besides, he’ll bust.”

Kaviak meanwhile, during this paltry discussion, had stood up on the high stool “Farva” had made for him, and personally inspected the big mush-pot. Then he turned to Mac, and, pointing a finger like a straw (nothing could fatten those infinitesimal hands), he said gravely and fluently:

“Maw in de plenty-bowl.”

“Yes, maw mush, but no maw syrup.”

The round eyes travelled to the store corner.

“We’ll have to open a fresh can some time–what’s the odds?”

Mac got up, and not only Kaviak watched him–for syrup was a luxury not expected every day–every neck had craned, every pair of eyes had followed anxiously to that row of rapidly diminishing tins, all that was left of the things they all liked best, and they still this side of Christmas!

“What you rubber-neckin’ about?” Mac snapped at the Boy as he came back with the fresh supply. This unprovoked attack was ample evidence that Mac was uneasy under the eyes of the camp, angry at his own weakness, and therefore the readier to dare anybody to find fault with him.

“How can I help watchin’ you?” said the Boy. Mac lifted his eyes fiercely. “I’m fascinated by your winnin’ ways; we’re all like that.” Kaviak had meanwhile made a prosperous voyage to the plenty-bowl, and returned to Mac’s side–an absurd little figure in a strange priest-like cassock buttoned from top to bottom (a waistcoat of Mac’s), and a jacket of the Boy’s, which was usually falling off (and trailed on the ground when it wasn’t), and whose sleeves were rolled up in inconvenient muffs. Still, with a gravity that did not seem impaired by these details, he stood clutching his plate anxiously with both hands, while down upon the corn-mush descended a slender golden thread, manipulated with a fine skill to make the most of its sweetness. It curled and spiralled, and described the kind of involved and long-looped flourishes which the grave and reverend of a hundred years ago wrote jauntily underneath the most sober names.

Lovingly the dark eyes watched the engrossing process. Even when the attenuated thread was broken, and the golden rain descended in slow, infrequent drops, Kaviak stood waiting, always for just one drop more.

“That’s enough, greedy.”

“Now go away and gobble.”

But Kaviak daintily skimmed off the syrupy top, and left his mush almost as high a hill as before.

It wasn’t long after the dinner, things had been washed up, and the Colonel settled down to the magazines–he was reading the advertisements now–that Potts drew out his watch.

“Golly! do you fellers know what o’clock it is?” He held the open timepiece up to Mac. “Hardly middle o’ the afternoon. All these hours before bedtime, and nothin’ to eat till to-morrow!”

“Why, you’ve just finished–“

“But look at the _time!_”

The Colonel said nothing. Maybe he had been a little previous with dinner today; it was such a relief to get it out of the way. Oppressive as the silence was, the sound of Potts’s voice was worse, and as he kept on about how many hours it would be till breakfast, the Colonel said to the Boy:

“‘Johnny, get your gun,’ and we’ll go out.”

In these December days, before the watery sun had set, the great, rich-coloured moon arose, having now in her resplendent fulness quite the air of snuffing out the sun. The pale and heavy-eyed day was put to shame by this brilliant night-lamp, that could cast such heavy shadows, and by which men might read.

The instant the Big Cabin door was opened Kaviak darted out between the Colonel’s legs, threw up his head like a Siwash dog, sniffed at the frosty air and the big orange moon, flung up his heels, and tore down to the forbidden, the fascinating fish-hole. If he hadn’t got snared in his trailing coat he would have won that race. When the two hunters had captured Kaviak, and shut him indoors, they acted on his implied suggestion that the fish-trap ought to be examined. They chopped away the fresh-formed ice. Empty, as usual.

It had been very nice, and neighbourly, of Nicholas, as long ago as the 1st of December, to bring the big, new, cornucopia-shaped trap down on his sled on the way to the Ikogimeut festival. It had taken a long time to cut through the thick ice, to drive in the poles, and fasten the slight fencing, in such relation to the mouth of the sunken trap, that all well-conducted fish ought easily to find their way thither. As a matter of fact, they didn’t. Potts said it was because the Boy was always hauling out the trap “to see”; but what good would it be to have it full of fish and not know?

They had been out about an hour when the Colonel brought down a ptarmigan, and said he was ready to go home. The Boy hesitated.

“Going to give in, and cook that bird for supper?”

It was a tempting proposition, but the Colonel said, rather sharply: “No, sir. Got to keep him for a Christmas turkey.”

“Well, I’ll just see if I can make it a brace.”

The Colonel went home, hung his trophy outside to freeze, and found the Trio had decamped to the Little Cabin. He glanced up anxiously to see if the demijohn was on the shelf. Yes, and Kaviak sound asleep in the bottom bunk. The Colonel would climb up and have forty winks in the top one before the Boy got in for their game of chess. He didn’t know how long he had slept when a faint scratching pricked through the veil of slumber, and he said to himself, “Kaviak’s on a raid again,” but he was too sodden with sleep to investigate. Just before he dropped off again, however, opening a heavy eye, he saw Potts go by the bunk, stop at the door and listen. Then he passed the bunk again, and the faint noise recommenced. The Colonel dropped back into the gulf of sleep, never even woke for his chess, and in the morning the incident had passed out of his mind.

Just before dinner the next day the Boy called out:

“See here! who’s spilt the syrup?”

“Spilt it?”

“Syrup?”

“No; it don’t seem to be spilt, either.” He patted the ground with his hand.

“You don’t mean that new can–“

“Not a drop in it.” He turned it upside down.

Every eye went to Kaviak. He was sitting on his cricket by the fire waiting for dinner. He returned the accusing looks of the company with self-possession.

“Come here.” He got up and trotted over to “Farva.”

“Have you been to the syrup?”

Kaviak shook his head.

“You _must_ have been.”

“No.”

“You sure?”

He nodded.

“How did it go–all away–Do you know?”

Again the silent denial. Kaviak looked over his shoulder at the dinner preparations, and then went back to his cricket. It was the best place from which to keep a strict eye on the cook.

“The gintlemin don’t feel conversaytional wid a pint o’ surrup in his inside.”

“I tell you he’d be currled up with colic if he–“

“Well,” said O’Flynn hopefully, “bide a bit. He ain’t lookin’ very brash.”

“Come here.”

Kaviak got up a second time, but with less alacrity.

“Have you got a pain?”

He stared.

“Does it hurt you there?” Kaviak doubled up suddenly.

“He’s awful ticklish,” said the Boy.

Mac frowned with perplexity, and Kaviak retired to the cricket.

“Does the can leak anywhere?”

“That excuse won’t hold water ’cause the can will.” The Colonel had just applied the test.

“Besides, it would have leaked on to something,” Mac agreed.

“Oh, well, let’s mosy along with our dinner,” said Potts.

“It’s gettin’ pretty serious,” remarked the Colonel. “We can’t afford to lose a pint o’ syrup.”

“No, _Siree_, we can’t; but there’s one thing about Kaviak,” said the Boy, “he always owns up. Look here, Kiddie: don’t say no; don’t shake your head till you’ve thought. Now, think _hard_.”

Kaviak’s air of profound meditation seemed to fill every requirement.

“Did you take the awful good syrup and eat it up?”

Kaviak was in the middle of a head-shake when he stopped abruptly. The Boy had said he wasn’t to do that. Nobody had seemed pleased when he said “No.”

“I b’lieve we’re on the right track. He’s remembering. Think again. You are a tip-top man at finding sugar, aren’t you?”

“Yes, fin’ shugh.” Kaviak modestly admitted his prowess in that direction.

“And you get hungry in the early morning?”

Yes, he would go so far as to admit that he did.

“You go skylarkin’ about, and you remember–the syrup can! And you get hold of it–didn’t you?”

“To-malla.”

“You mean yesterday–this morning?”

“N–“

“Sh!”

Kaviak blinked.

“Wait and think. Yesterday this was full. You remember Mac opened it for you?”

Kaviak nodded.

“And now, you see”–he turned the can bottom side up–“all gone!”

“Oh-h!” murmured Kaviak with an accent of polite regret. Then, with recovered cheerfulness, he pointed to the store corner: “Maw!”

Potts laughed in his irritating way, and Mac’s face got red. Things began to look black for Kaviak.

“Say, fellas, see here!” The Boy hammered the lid on the can with his fist, and then held it out. “It was put away shut up, for I shut it, and even one of us can’t get that lid off without a knife or something to pry it.”

The company looked at the small hands doubtfully. They were none too little for many a forbidden feat. How had he got on the swing-shelf? How–

“Ye see, crayther, it must uv been yersilf, becuz there isn’t annybuddy else.”

“Look here,” said the Colonel, “we’ll forgive you this time if you’ll own up. Just tell us–“

“Kaviak!” Again that journey from the cricket to the judgment-seat.

“Show us”–Mac had taken the shut tin, and now held it out–“show us how you got the lid off.”

But Kaviak turned away. Mac seized him by the shoulder and jerked him round.

Everyone felt it to be suspicious that Kaviak was unwilling even to try to open the all too attractive can. Was he really cunning, and did he want not to give himself away? Wasn’t he said to be much older than he looked? and didn’t he sometimes look a hundred, and wise for his years?

“See here: I haven’t caught you in a lie yet, but if I do–“

Kaviak stared, drew a long breath, and seemed to retire within himself.

“You’d better attend to me, for I mean business.”

Kaviak, recalled from internal communing, studied “Farva” a moment, and then retreated to the cricket, as to a haven now, hastily and with misgiving, tripping over his trailing coat. Mac stood up.

“Wait, old man.” The Colonel stooped his big body till he was on a level with the staring round eyes. “Yo’ see, child, yo’ can’t have any dinnah till we find out who took the syrup.”

The little yellow face was very serious. He turned and looked at the still smoking plenty-bowl.

“Are yoh hungry?”

He nodded, got up briskly, held up his train, and dragged his high stool to the table, scrambled up, and established himself.

“Look at that!” said the Colonel triumphantly. “That youngster hasn’t just eaten a pint o’ syrup.”

Mac was coming slowly up behind Kaviak with a face that nobody liked looking at.

“Oh, let the brat alone, and let’s get to our grub!” said Potts, with an extreme nervous irritation.

Mac swept Kaviak off the stool. “You come with me!”

Only one person spoke after that till the meal was nearly done. That one had said, “Yes, Farva,” and followed Mac, dinnerless, out to the Little Cabin.

The Colonel set aside a plateful for each of the two absent ones, and cleared away the things. Potts stirred the fire in a shower of sparks, picked up a book and flung it down, searched through the sewing-kit for something that wasn’t lost, and then went to the door to look at the weather–so he said. O’Flynn sat dozing by the fire. He was in the way of the washing-up.

“Stir your stumps, Jimmie,” said the Colonel, “and get us a bucket of water.” Sleepily O’Flynn gave it as his opinion that he’d be damned if he did.

With unheard-of alacrity, “I’ll go,” said Potts.

The Colonel stared at him, and, by some trick of the brain, he had a vision of Potts listening at the door the night before, and then resuming that clinking, scratching sound in the corner–the store corner.

“Hand me over my parki, will you?” Potts said to the Boy. He pulled it over his head, picked up the bucket, and went out.

“Seems kind o’ restless, don’t he?”

“Yes. Colonel–“

“Hey?”

“Nothin’.”

Ten minutes–a quarter of an hour went by.

“Funny Mac don’t come for his dinner, isn’t it? S’pose I go and look ’em up?”

“S’pose you do.”

Not far from the door he met Mac coming in.

“Well?” said the Boy, meaning, Where’s the kid?

“Well?” Mac echoed defiantly. “I lammed him, as I’d have lammed Robert Bruce if he’d lied to me.”

The Boy stared at this sudden incursion into history, but all he said was: “Your dinner’s waitin’.”

The minute Mac got inside he looked round hungrily for the child. Not seeing him, he went over and scrutinised the tumbled contents of the bunks.

“Where’s Kaviak?”

“P’raps you’ll tell us.”

“You mean he isn’t here?” Mac wheeled round sharply.

“_Here?_”

“He didn’t come back here for his dinner?”

“Haven’t seen him since you took him out.” Mac made for the door. The Boy followed.

“Kaviak!” each called in turn. It was quite light enough to see if he were anywhere about, although the watery sun had sunk full half an hour before. The fantastically huge full-moon hung like a copper shield on a steel-blue wall.

“Do you see anything?” whispered Mac.

“No.”

“Who’s that yonder?”

“Potts gettin’ water.”

The Boy was bending down looking for tracks. Mac looked, too, but ineffectually, feverishly.

“Isn’t Potts calling?”

“I knew he would if he saw us. He’s never carried a bucket uphill yet without help. See, there are the Kid’s tracks going. We must find some turned the other way.”

They were near the Little Cabin now.

“Here!” shouted the Boy; “and … yes, here again!” And so it was. Clean and neatly printed in the last light snowfall showed the little footprints. “We’re on the right trail now. Kaviak!”

Through his parki the Boy felt a hand close vise-like on his shoulder, and a voice, not like MacCann’s:

“Goin’ straight down to the fish-trap hole!”

The two dashed forward, down the steep hill, the Boy saying breathless as they went: “And Potts–where’s Potts?”

He had vanished, but there was no time to consider how or where.

“Kaviak!”

“Kaviak!” And as they got to the river:

“Think I hear–“

“So do I–“

“Coming! coming! Hold on tight! Coming, Kaviak!”

They made straight for the big open fish-hole. Farther away from the Little Cabin, and nearer the bank, was the small well-hole. Between the two they noticed, as they raced by, the water-bucket hung on that heavy piece of driftwood that had frozen aslant in the river. Mac saw that the bucket-rope was taut, and that it ran along the ice and disappeared behind the big funnel of the fish-trap.

The sound was unmistakable now–a faint, choked voice calling out of the hole, “Help!”

“Coming!”

“Hold tight!”

“Half a minute!”

And how it was done or who did it nobody quite knew, but Potts, still clinging by one hand to the bucket-rope, was hauled out and laid on the ice before it was discovered that he had Kaviak under his arm–Kaviak, stark and unconscious, with the round eyes rolled back till one saw the whites and nothing more.

Mac picked the body up and held it head downwards; laid it flat again, and, stripping off the great sodden jacket, already beginning to freeze, fell to putting Kaviak through the action of artificial breathing.

“We must get them up to the cabin first thing,” said the Boy.

But Mac seemed not to hear.

“Don’t you see Kaviak’s face is freezing?”

Still Mac paid no heed. Potts lifted a stiff, uncertain hand, and, with a groan, let it fall heavily on his own cheek.

“Come on; I’ll help you in, anyhow, Potts.”

“Can’t walk in this damned wet fur.”

With some difficulty having dragged off Potts’ soaked parki, already stiffening unmanageably, the Boy tried to get him on his feet.

“Once you’re in the cabin you’re all right.”

But the benumbed and miserable Potts kept his eyes on Kaviak, as if hypnotised by the strange new death-look in the little face.

“Well, I can’t carry you up,” said the Boy; and after a second he began to rub Potts furiously, glancing over now and then to see if Kaviak was coming to, while Mac, dumb and tense, laboured on without success. Potts, under the Boy’s ministering, showed himself restored enough to swear feebly.

“H’ray! my man’s comin’ round. How’s yours?” No answer, but he could see that the sweat poured off Mac’s face as he worked unceasingly over the child. The Boy pulled Potts into a sitting posture. It was then that Mac, without looking up, said:

“Run and get whiskey. Run like hell!”

When he got back with the Colonel and the whiskey, O’Flynn floundering in the distance, Potts was feebly striking his breast with his arms, and Mac still bent above the motionless little body.

They tried to get some of the spirit down the child’s throat, but the tight-clenched teeth seemed to let little or nothing pass. The stuff ran down towards his ears and into his neck. But Mac persisted, and went on pouring, drop by drop, whenever he stopped trying to restore the action of the lungs. O’Flynn just barely managed to get “a swig” for Potts in the interval, though they all began to feel that Mac was working to bring back something that had gone for ever. The Boy went and bent his face down close over the rigid mouth to feel for the breath. When he got up he turned away sharply, and stood looking through tears into the fish-hole, saying to himself, “Yukon Inua has taken him.”

“He was in too long.” Potts’ teeth were chattering, and he looked unspeakably wretched. “When my arm got numb I couldn’t keep his head up;” and he swallowed more whiskey. “You fellers oughtn’t to have left that damn trap up!”

“What’s that got to do with it?” said the Boy guiltily.

“Kaviak knew it ought to be catchin’ fish. When I came down he was cryin’ and pullin’ the trap backwards towards the hole. Then he slipped.”

“Come, Mac,” said the Colonel quietly, “let’s carry the little man to the cabin.”

“No, no, not yet; stuffy heat isn’t what he wants;” and he worked on.

They got Potts up on his feet.

“I called out to you fellers. Didn’t you hear me?”

“Y-yes, but we didn’t understand.”

“Well, you’d better have come. It’s too late now.” O’Flynn half dragged, half carried him up to the cabin, for he seemed unable to walk in his frozen trousers. The Colonel and the Boy by a common impulse went a little way in the opposite direction across the ice.

“What can we do, Colonel?”

“Nothing. It’s not a bit o’ use.” They turned to go back.

“Well, the duckin’ will be good for Potts’ parki, anyhow,” said the Boy in an angry and unsteady voice.

“What do you mean?”

“When he asked me to hand it to him I nearly stuck fast to it. It’s all over syrup; and we don’t wear furs at our meals.”

“Tchah!” The Colonel stopped with a face of loathing.

“Yes, he was the only one of us that didn’t bully the kid to-day.”

“Couldn’t go _that_ far, but couldn’t own up.”

“Potts is a cur.”

“Yes, sah.” Then, after an instant’s reflection: “But he’s a cur that can risk his life to save a kid he don’t care a damn for.”

They went back to Mac, and found him pretty well worn out. The Colonel took his place, but was soon pushed away. Mac understood better, he said; had once brought a chap round that everybody said was … dead. He wasn’t dead. The great thing was not to give in.

A few minutes after, Kaviak’s eyelids fluttered, and came down over the upturned eyeballs. Mac, with a cry that brought a lump to the Colonel’s throat, gathered the child up in his arms and ran with him up the hill to the cabin.

* * * * *

Three hours later, when they were all sitting round the fire, Kaviak dosed, and warm, and asleep in the lower bunk, the door opened, and in walked a white man followed by an Indian.

“I’m George Benham.” They had all heard of the Anvik trader, a man of some wealth and influence, and they made him welcome.

The Indian was his guide, he said, and he had a team outside of seven dogs. He was going to the steamship _Oklahoma_ on some business, and promised Father Wills of Holy Cross that he’d stop on the way, and deliver a letter to Mr. MacCann.

“Stop on the way! I should think so.”

“We were goin’ to have supper to-night, anyhow, and you’ll stay and sleep here.”

All Mac’s old suspicions of the Jesuits seemed to return with the advent of that letter.

“I’ll read it presently.” He laid it on the mantel-shelf, between the sewing-kit and the tobacco-can, and he looked at it, angrily, every now and then, while he helped to skin Mr. Benham. That gentleman had thrown back his hood, pulled off his great moose-skin gauntlets and his beaver-lined cap, and now, with a little help, dragged the drill parki over his head, and after that the fine lynx-bordered deer-skin, standing revealed at last as a well-built fellow, of thirty-eight or so, in a suit of mackinaws, standing six feet two in his heelless salmon-skin snow-boots. “Bring in my traps, will you?” he said to the Indian, and then relapsed into silence. The Indian reappeared with his arms full.

“Fine lot o’ pelts you have there,” said the Colonel.

Benham didn’t answer. He seemed to be a close-mouthed kind of a chap. As the Indian sorted and piled the stuff in the corner, Potts said:

“Got any furs you want to sell?”

“No.”

“Where you takin’ ’em?”

“Down to the _Oklahoma_.”

“All this stuff for Cap’n Rainey?”

Benham nodded.

“I reckon there’s a mistake about the name, and he’s Cap’n Tom Thumb or Commodore Nutt.” The Boy had picked up a little parki made carefully of some very soft dark fur and trimmed with white rabbit, the small hood bordered with white fox.

“That’s a neat piece of work,” said the Colonel.

Benham nodded. “One of the Shageluk squaws can do that sort of thing.”

“What’s the fur?”

“Musk-rat.” And they talked of the weather–how the mercury last week had been solid in the trading-post thermometer, so it was “over forty degrees, anyhow.”

“What’s the market price of a coat like that?” Mac said suddenly.

“That isn’t a ‘market’ coat. It’s for a kid of Rainey’s back in the States.”

Still Mac eyed it enviously.

“What part of the world are you from, sir?” said the Colonel when they had drawn up to the supper table.

“San Francisco. Used to teach numskulls Latin and mathematics in the Las Palmas High School.”

“What’s the value of a coat like that little one?” interrupted Mac.

“Oh, about twenty dollars.”

“The Shageluks ask that much?”

Benham laughed. “If _you_ asked the Shageluks, they’d say forty.”

“You’ve been some time in this part of the world, I understand,” said the Colonel.

“Twelve years.”

“Without going home?”

“Been home twice. Only stayed a month. Couldn’t stand it.”

“I’ll give you twenty-two dollars for that coat,” said Mac.

“I’ve only got that one, and as I think I said–“

“I’ll give you twenty-four.”

“It’s an order, you see. Rainey–“

“I’ll give you twenty-six.”

Benham shook his head.

“Sorry. Yes, it’s queer about the hold this country gets on you. The first year is hell, the second is purgatory, with glimpses … of something else. The third–well, more and more, forever after, you realise the North’s taken away any taste you ever had for civilisation. That’s when you’ve got the hang of things up here, when you’ve learned not to stay in your cabin all the time, and how to take care of yourself on the trail. But as for going back to the boredom of cities–no, thank you.”

Mac couldn’t keep his eyes off the little coat. Finally, to enable him to forget it, as it seemed, he got up and opened Father Wills’ letter, devoured its contents in silence, and flung it down on the table. The Colonel took it up, and read aloud the Father’s thanks for all the white camp’s kindness to Kaviak, and now that the sickness was about gone from Holy Cross, how the Fathers felt that they must relieve their neighbours of further trouble with the little native.

“I’ve said I’d take him back with me when I come up river about Christmas.”

“We’d be kind o’ lost, now, without the little beggar,” said the Boy, glancing sideways at Mac.

“There’s nothin’ to be got by luggin’ him off to Holy Cross,” answered that gentleman severely.

“Unless it’s clo’es,” said Potts.

“He’s all right in the clo’es he’s got,” said Mac, with the air of one who closes an argument. He stood up, worn and tired, and looked at his watch.

“You ain’t goin’ to bed this early?” said Potts, quite lively and recovered from his cold bath. That was the worst of sleeping in the Little Cabin. Bedtime broke the circle; you left interesting visitors behind, and sometimes the talk was better as the night wore on.

“Well, someone ought to wood up down yonder. O’Flynn, will you go?”

O’Flynn was in the act of declining the honour. But Benham, who had been saying, “It takes a year in the Yukon for a man to get on to himself,” interrupted his favourite theme to ask: “Your other cabin like this?”

Whereon, O’Flynn, shameless of the contrast in cabins, jumped up, and said: “Come and see, while I wood up.”

“You’re very well fixed here,” said Benham, rising and looking round with condescension; “but men like you oughtn’t to try to live without real bread. No one can live and work on baking-powder.”

There was a general movement to the door, of which Benham was the centre.

“I tell you a lump of sour dough, kept over to raise the next batch, is worth more in this country than a pocket full of gold.”

“I’ll give you twenty-eight for that musk-rat coat,” said Mac.

Benham turned, stared back at him a moment, and then laughed.

“Oh, well, I suppose I can get another made for Rainey before the first boat goes down.”

“Then is it on account o’ the bread,” the Colonel was saying, “that the old-timer calls himself a Sour-dough?”

“All on account o’ the bread.”

They crowded out after Benham.

“Coming?” The Boy, who was last, held the door open. Mac shook his head.

It wasn’t one of the bitter nights; they’d get down yonder, and talk by the fire, till he went in and disturbed them. That was all he had wanted. For Mac was the only one who had noticed that Kaviak had waked up. He was lying as still as a mouse.

Alone with him at last, Mac kept his eyes religiously turned away, sat down by the fire, and watched the sparks. By-and-by a head was put up over the board of the lower bunk. Mac saw it, but sat quite still.

“Farva.”

He meant to answer the appeal, half cleared his throat, but his voice felt rusty; it wouldn’t turn out a word.

Kaviak climbed timidly, shakily out, and stood in the middle of the floor in his bare feet.

“Farva!”

He came a little nearer till the small feet sank into the rough brown curls of the buffalo. The child stooped to pick up his wooden cricket, wavered, and was about to fall. Mac shot out a hand, steadied him an instant without looking, and then set the cricket in front of the fire. He thereupon averted his face, and sat as before with folded arms. He hadn’t deliberately meant to make Kaviak be the first to “show his hand” after all that had happened, but something had taken hold of him and made him behave as he hadn’t dreamed of behaving. It was, perhaps, a fear of playing the fool as much as a determination to see how much ground he’d lost with the youngster.

The child was observing him with an almost feverish intensity. With eyes fixed upon the wooden face to find out how far he might venture, shakily he dragged the cricket from where Mac placed it, closer, closer, and as no terrible change in the unmoved face warned him to desist, he pulled it into its usual evening position between Mac’s right foot and the fireplace. He sank down with a sigh of relief, as one who finishes a journey long and perilous. The fire crackled and the sparks flew gaily. Kaviak sat there in the red glow, dressed only in a shirt, staring with incredulous, mournful eyes at the Farva who had–

Then, as Mac made no sign, he sighed again, and held out two little shaky hands to the blaze.

Mac gave out a sound between a cough and a snort, and wiped his eyes on the back of his hand.

Kaviak had started nervously.

“You cold?” asked Mac.

Kaviak nodded.

“Hungry?”

He nodded again, and fell to coughing.

Mac got up and brought the newly purchased coat to the fire.

“It’s for you,” he said, as the child’s big eyes grew bigger with admiration.

“Me? Me own coat?” He stood up, and his bare feet fluttered up and down feebly, but with huge delight.

As the parki was held ready the child tumbled dizzily into it, and Mac held him fast an instant.

In less than five minutes Kaviak was once more seated on the cricket, but very magnificent now in his musk-rat coat, so close up to Mac that he could lean against his arm, and eating out of a plenty-bowl on his knees a discreet spoonful of mush drowned in golden syrup–a supper for a Sultan if only there had been more!

When he had finished, he set the bowl down, and, as a puppy might, he pushed at Mac’s arm till he found a way in, laid his head down on “Farva’s” knee with a contented sigh, and closed his heavy eyes.

Mac put his hand on the cropped head and began:

“About that empty syrup-can–“

Kaviak started up, shaking from head to foot. Was the obscure nightmare coming down to crush him again?

Mac tried to soothe him. But Kaviak, casting about for charms to disarm the awful fury of the white man–able to endure with dignity any reverse save that of having his syrup spilt–cried out:

“I solly–solly. Our Farva–“

“I’m sorry, too, Kaviak,” Mac interrupted, gathering the child up to him; “and we won’t either of us do it any more.”

CHAPTER VIII

CHRISTMAS

“Himlen morkner, mens Jordens Trakt
Straaler lys som i Stjernedragt.
Himlen er bleven Jordens Gjaest
Snart er det Julens sode Fest.”

It had been moved, seconded, and carried by acclamation that they should celebrate Christmas, not so much by a feast of reason as by a flow of soul and a bang-up dinner, to be followed by speeches and some sort of cheerful entertainment.

“We’re goin’ to lay ourselves out on this entertainment,” said the Boy, with painful misgivings as to the “bang-up dinner.”

Every time the banquet was mentioned somebody was sure to say, “Well, anyhow, there’s Potts’s cake,” and that reflection never failed to raise the tone of expectation, for Potts’s cake was a beauty, evidently very rich and fruity, and fitted by Nature to play the noble part of plum-pudding. But, in making out the bill of fare, facts had to be faced. “We’ve got our everyday little rations of beans and bacon, and we’ve got Potts’s cake, and we’ve got one skinny ptarmigan to make a banquet for six hungry people!”

“But we’ll have a high old time, and if the bill o’ fare is a little … restricted, there’s nothin’ to prevent our programme of toasts, songs, and miscellaneous contributions from bein’ rich and varied.”

“And one thing we can get, even up here”–the Colonel was looking at Kaviak–“and that’s a little Christmas-tree.”

“Y-yes,” said Potts, “you can get a little tree, but you can’t get the smallest kind of a little thing to hang on it.”

“Sh!” said the Boy, “it must be a surprise.”

And he took steps that it should be, for he began stealing away Kaviak’s few cherished possessions–his amulet, his top from under the bunk, his boats from out the water-bucket, wherewith to mitigate the barrenness of the Yukon tree, and to provide a pleasant surprise for the Esquimer who mourned his playthings as gone for ever. Of an evening now, after sleep had settled on Kaviak’s watchful eyes, the Boy worked at a pair of little snow-shoes, helped out by a ball of sinew he had got from Nicholas. Mac bethought him of the valuable combination of zoological and biblical instruction that might be conveyed by means of a Noah’s Ark. He sat up late the last nights before the 25th, whittling, chipping, pegging in legs, sharpening beaks, and inking eyes, that the more important animals might be ready for the Deluge by Christmas.

The Colonel made the ark, and O’Flynn took up a collection to defray the expense of the little new mucklucks he had ordered from Nicholas. They were to come “_sure_ by Christmas Eve,” and O’Flynn was in what he called “a froightful fanteeg” as the short day of the 24th wore towards night, and never a sign of the one-eyed Pymeut. Half a dozen times O’Flynn had gone beyond the stockade to find out if he wasn’t in sight, and finally came back looking intensely disgusted, bringing a couple of white travellers who had arrived from the opposite direction; very cold, one of them deaf, and with frost-bitten feet, and both so tired they could hardly speak. Of course, they were made as comfortable as was possible, the frozen one rubbed with snow and bandaged, and both given bacon and corn-bread and hot tea.

“You oughtn’t to let yourself get into a state like this,” said Mac, thinking ruefully of these strangers’ obvious inability to travel for a day or two, and of the Christmas dinner, to which Benham alone had been bidden, by a great stretch of hospitality.

“That’s all very well,” said the stranger, who shouted when he talked at all, “but how’s a man to know his feet are going to freeze?”

“Ye see, sorr,” O’Flynn explained absent-mindedly, “Misther MacCann didn’t know yer pardner was deaf.”

This point of view seemed to thaw some of the frost out of the two wayfarers. They confided that they were Salmon P. Hardy and Bill Schiff, fellow-passengers in the _Merwin_, “locked in the ice down below,” and they’d mined side by side back in the States at Cripple Creek. “Yes, sir, and sailed for the Klondyke from Seattle last July.” And now at Christmas they were hoping that, with luck, they might reach the new Minook Diggings, seven hundred miles this side of the Klondyke, before the spring rush. During this recital O’Flynn kept rolling his eyes absently.

“Theyse a quare noise without.”

“It’s the wind knockin’ down yer chimbly,” says Mr. Hardy encouragingly.

“It don’t sound like Nich’las, annyhow. May the divil burrn him in tarment and ile fur disappoyntin’ th’ kid.”

A rattle at the latch, and the Pymeut opened the door.

“Lorrd love ye! ye’re a jool, Nich’las!” screamed O’Flynn; and the mucklucks passed from one to the other so surreptitiously that for all Kaviak’s wide-eyed watchfulness he detected nothing.

Nicholas supped with his white friends, and seemed bent on passing the night with them. He had to be bribed with tobacco and a new half-dollar to go home and keep Christmas in the bosom of his family. And still, at the door, he hesitated, drew back, and laid the silver coin on the table.

“No. It nights.”

“But it isn’t really dark.”

“Pretty soon heap dark.”

“Why, I thought you natives could find your way day or night?”

“Yes. Find way.”

“Then what’s the matter?”

“Pymeut no like dark;” and it was not until Mac put on his own snow-shoes and offered to go part of the way with him that Nicholas was at last induced to return home.

The moment Kaviak was ascertained to be asleep, O’Flynn displayed the mucklucks. No mistake, they were dandies! The Boy hung one of them up, by its long leg, near the child’s head at the side of the bunk, and then conferred with O’Flynn.

“The Colonel’s made some little kind o’ sweet-cake things for the tree. I could spare you one or two.”

“Divil a doubt Kaviak’ll take it kindly, but furr mesilf I’m thinkin’ a pitaty’s a dale tastier.”

There was just one left in camp. It had rolled behind the flour-sack, and O’Flynn had seized on it with rapture. Where everybody was in such need of vegetable food, nobody under-estimated the magnificence of O’Flynn’s offering, as he pushed the pitaty down into the toe of the muckluck.

“Sure, the little haythen’ll have a foine Christian Christmas wid that same to roast in the coals, begorra!” and they all went to bed save Mac, who had not returned, and the Boy, who put on his furs, and went up the hill to the place where he kept the Christmas-tree lodged in a cotton-wood.

He shook the snow off its branches, brought it down to the cabin, decorated it, and carried it back.

* * * * *

Mac, Salmon P. Hardy, and the frost-bitten Schiff were waked, bright and early Christmas morning, by the Boy’s screaming with laughter.

The Colonel looked down over the bunk’s side, and the men on the buffalo-skin looked up, and they all saw Kaviak sitting in bed, holding in one hand an empty muckluck by the toe, and in the other a half-eaten raw potato.

“Keep the rest of it to roast, anyhow, or O’Flynn’s heart will be broken.”

So they deprived Kaviak of the gnawed fragment, and consoled him by helping him to put on his new boots.

When the Little Cabin contingent came in to breakfast, “Hello! what you got up on the roof?” says Potts.

“Foot of earth and three feet o’ snow!”

“But what’s in the bundle!”

“Bundle?” echoes the Boy.

“If you put a bundle on the roof, I s’pose you know what’s in it,” says the Colonel severely.

The occupants of the two cabins eyed each other with good-humoured suspicion.

“Thank you,” says the Boy, “but we’re not takin’ any bundles to-day.”

“Call next door,” advised the Colonel.

“You think we’re tryin’ to jolly you, but just go out and see for yourself–“

“No, sir, you’ve waked the wrong passenger!”

“They’re tryin’ it on _us_,” said Potts, and subsided into his place at the breakfast-table.

During the later morning, while the Colonel wrestled with the dinner problem, the Boy went through the thick-falling snow to see if the tree was all right, and the dogs had not appropriated the presents. Half-way up to the cotton-wood, he glanced back to make sure Kaviak wasn’t following, and there, sure enough, just as the Little Cabin men had said–there below him on the broad-eaved roof was a bundle packed round and nearly covered over with snow. He went back eyeing it suspiciously.

Whatever it was, it seemed to be done up in sacking, for a bit stuck out at the corner where the wind struck keen. The Boy walked round the cabin looking, listening. Nobody had followed him, or nothing would have induced him to risk the derision of the camp. As it was, he would climb up very softly and lightly, and nobody but himself would be the wiser even if it was a josh. He brushed away the snow, touching the thing with a mittened hand and a creepy feeling at his spine. It was precious heavy, and hard as iron. He tugged at the sacking. “Jee! if I don’t b’lieve it’s meat.” The lid of an old cardboard box was bound round the frozen mass with a string, and on the cardboard was written: “Moose and Christmas Greeting from Kaviak’s friends at Holy Cross to Kaviak’s friends by the Big Chimney.”

“H’ray! h’ray! Come out, you fellas! Hip! hip! hurrah!” and the Boy danced a breakdown on the roof till the others had come out, and then he hurled the moose-meat down over the stockade, and sent the placard flying after. They all gathered round Mac and read it.

“Be the Siven!”

“Well, I swan!”

“Don’t forget, Boy, you’re not takin’ any.”

“Just remember, if it hadn’t been for me it might have stayed up there till spring.”

“You run in, Kaviak, or you’ll have no ears.”

But that gentleman pulled up his hood and stood his ground.

“How did it get on the roof, in the name o’ the nation?” asked the Colonel, stamping his feet.

“Never hear of Santa Claus? Didn’t I tell you, Kaviak, he drove his reindeer team over the roofs?”

“Did you hear any dogs go by in the night?”

“I didn’t; Nicholas brought it, I s’pose, and was told to cache it up there. Maybe that’s why he came late to give us a surprise.”

“Don’t believe it; we’d have heard him. Somebody from the mission came by in the night and didn’t want to wake us, and saw there were dogs–“

“It’s froze too hard to cut,” interrupted Salmon P. Hardy, who had been trying his jack-knife on one end; “it’s too big to go in any mortal pot.”

“And it’ll take a month to thaw!”

They tried chopping it, but you could more easily chop a bolt of linen sheeting. The axe laboriously chewed out little bits and scattered shreds.

“Stop! We’ll lose a lot that way.”

While they were lamenting this fact, and wondering what to do, the dogs set up a racket, and were answered by some others. Benham was coming along at a rattling pace, his dogs very angry to find other dogs there, putting on airs of possession.

“We got all this moose-meat,” says Potts, when Benham arrived on the scene, “but we can’t cut it.”

“Of course not. Where’s your hand-saw?”

The Boy brought it, and Mr. Benham triumphantly sawed off two fine large steaks. Kaviak scraped up the meat saw-dust and ate it with grave satisfaction. With a huge steak in each hand, the Colonel, beaming, led the procession back to the cabin. The Boy and Mac cached the rest of the moose on the roof and followed.

“Fine team, that one o’ yours,” said Salmon P. Hardy to the trader. “_You’ll_ get to Minook, anyhow.”

“Not me.”

“Hey?”

“I’m not going that way.”

“Mean to skip the country? Got cold feet?”

“No. I’m satisfied enough with the country,” said the trader quietly, and acknowledged the introduction to Mr. Schiff, sitting in bandages by the fire.

Benham turned back and called out something to his guide.

“I thought maybe you’d like some oysters for your Christmas dinner,” he said to the Colonel when he came in again, “so I got a couple o’ cans from the A. C. man down below;” and a mighty whoop went up.

The great rapture of that moment did not, however, prevent O’Flynn’s saying under his breath:

“Did ye be chanct, now, think of bringin’ a dtrop o’–hey?”

“No,” says Benham a little shortly.

“Huh! Ye say that like’s if ye wuz a taytotlerr?”

“Not me. But I find it no good to drink whiskey on the trail.”

“Ah!” says Salmon P. with interest, “you prefer brandy?”

“No,” says Benham, “I prefer tea.”

“Lorrd, now! look at that!”

“Drink spirit, and it’s all very fine and reviving for a few minutes; but a man can’t work on it.”

“It’s the wan thing, sorr,” says O’Flynn with solemnity–“it’s the wan thing on the top o’ God’s futstool that makes me feel I cud wurruk.”

“Not in this climate; and you’re safe to take cold in the reaction.”

“Cowld is ut? Faith, ye’ll be tellin’ us Mr. Schiff got his toes froze wid settin’ too clost be the foire.”

“You don’t seriously mean you go on the trail without any alcohol?” asks the Colonel.

“No, I don’t go without, but I keep it on the outside of me, unless I have an accident.”

Salmon P. studied the trader with curiosity. A man with seven magnificent dogs and a native servant, and the finest furs he’d ever seen–here was either a capitalist from the outside or a man who had struck it rich “on the inside.”

“Been in long?”

“Crossed the Chilcoot in June, ’85.”

“What! twelve year ago?”

Benham nodded.

“Gosh! then you’ve been in the Klondyke?”

“Not since the gold was found.”

“And got a team like that ‘n outside, and not even goin’ to Minook?”

“Guess not!”

What made the feller so damn satisfied? Only one explanation was possible: he’d found a mine without going even as far as Minook. He was a man to keep your eye on.

A goodly aroma of steaming oysters and of grilling moose arose in the air. The Boy set up the amended bill of fare, lit the Christmas candles–one at the top, one at the bottom of the board–and the Colonel announced the first course, though it wasn’t one o’clock, and they usually dined at four.

The soup was too absorbingly delicious to admit of conversation. The moose-steaks had vanished like the “snaw-wreath in the thaw” before anything much was said, save:

“Nothin’ th’ matter with moose, hey?”

“Nop! Bet your life.”

The “Salmi of ptarmigan” appeared as a great wash of gravy in which portions of the much cut-up bird swam in vain for their lives. But the high flat rim of the dish was plentifully garnished by fingers of corn-bread, and the gravy was “galoppshus,” so Potts said.

Salmon P., having appeased the pangs of hunger, returned to his perplexed study of Benham.

“Did I understand you to say you came into this country to _prospect_?”

“Came down the Never-Know-What and prospected a whole summer at Forty Mile.”

“What river did you come by?”

“Same as you go by–the Yukon. Indians up yonder call it the Never-Know-What, and the more you find out about it, the better you think the name.”

“Did you do any good at Forty Mile?”

“Not enough to turn my head, so I tried the Koyukuk–and other diggins too.”

“Hear that, Schiff?” he roared at his bandaged friend. “Never say die! This gen’l’man’s been at it twelve years–tried more ‘n one camp, but now–well, he’s so well fixed he don’t care a cuss about the Klondyke.”

Schiff lit up and pulled hard at the cutty.

O’Flynn had taken Kaviak to the fire, and was showing him how to roast half a petaty in wood ashes; but he was listening to the story and putting in “Be the Siven!” at appropriate moments.

Schiff poured out a cloud of rank smoke.

“Gen’lemen,” he said, “the best Klondyke claims’ll be potted. Minook’s the camp o’ the future. You’d better come along with us.”

“Got no dogs,” sighed the Boy; but the two strangers looked hard at the man who hadn’t that excuse.

Benham sat and idly watched preparations for the next course.

“Say, a nabob like you might give us a tip. How did you do the trick?”

“Well, I’d been playing your game for three years, and no galley slave ever worked half as hard–“

“That’s it! work like the devil for a couple o’ years and then live like a lord for ever after.”

“Yes; well, when the time came for me to go into the Lord business I had just forty-two dollars and sixty cents to set up on.”

“What had you done with the rest?”

“I’d spent the five thousand dollars my father left me, and I’d cleaned up just forty-two dollars sixty cents in my three years’ mining.”

The announcement fell chill on the company.

“I was dead broke and I had no credit. I went home.”

“But”–Mac roused himself–“you didn’t stay–“

“No, you don’t stay–as a rule;”–Mac remembered Caribou–“get used to this kind o’ thing, and miss it. Miss it so you–“

“You came back,” says Salmon P., impatient of generalities.

“And won this time,” whispered Schiff.

For that is how every story must end. The popular taste in fiction is universal.

“A friend at home grub-staked me, and I came in again–came down on the high water in June. Prospected as long as my stuff lasted, and then–well, I didn’t care about starving, I became an A. C. Trader.”

A long pause. This was no climax; everybody waited.

“And now I’m on my own. I often make more money in a day trading with the Indians in furs, fish, and cord-wood, than I made in my whole experience as a prospector and miner.”

A frost had fallen on the genial company.

“But even if _you_ hadn’t any luck,” the Boy suggested, “you must have seen others–“

“Oh, I saw some washing gravel that kept body and soul together, and I saw some … that didn’t.”

In the pause he added, remorseless:

“I helped to bury some of them.”

“Your experience was unusual, or why do men come back year after year?”

“Did you ever hear of a thing called Hope?”