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N - A Northern Christmas

©2010 by Robert D. Wark, last revised August 4, 2010.
A short story, possibly published in a newspaper.  A proof copy was pasted into the diary at December 7, 1898.

A Northern Christmas
The camp stove fire had ceased its steady, subdued roar, and only an occasional bright flame showed itself through the chinks, causing a miniature explosive crackle.  The solitary pot had ceased to boil violently and barely simmered around the edges.  Outside the light breeze, ever and anon stirred to greater activity, gently shook the canvas roof of the tent and tugged lightly at the ropes.  George Colman still re­mained seated on the cracker box, deeply absorbed in thought.  His bearded chin rested on one hand and in the other he held a stew kettle, while he gazed hard at the half-emptied sack of flour in the corner.  His knit brow showed clearly a disturbed mental state.
With the first report of the discovery of the rich gold fields in Alaska he had conceived the idea that his opportunity had come.  This feeling was fostered and encouraged by the fact that matters had not been easy with him for the past few years, and the constant uneasiness for the future, heightened by the re­sponsibility of a family, resolved him to make a bold stroke for fortune.  He successively overcame the tears and entreaties of a wife, the advice of friends, and the vague misgivings of his own judgment.  This, the harder task, accomplished, and his mind fully resolved, he disposed of his business to the best advan­tage, made a comfortable provision for his family for the year or two he expected to be absent, and started with the pioneers in their rush for gold.  It had required a greater exertion of will force than he had expected to leave home.  He had thought of his bachelor days, when he came and went at will, never remaining long enough in one place for a sentiment to take root in his nature, when all parting regrets had vanished with new scenes in the morning.  His heart had then been completely absorbed with the present; but life had changed for him now.  Home ties had unconsciously, gently, but firmly, entwined every fiber of his nature.  When the time came to say “Good-bye,” when his little wife with wide open, staring eyes, clung persistently to his neck, and when he crept upstairs and softly kissed the upturned face of his sleeping boy, he felt as though his heart was breaking.  He had resolved not to show emotion, but in spite of will, tears welled to his eyes, and his words as he bid his wife not to grieve, but hope for the future, were interrupted by sobs.  He was even half minded to give up his trip, but pride, stronger than all emotions, told him there was no retreat.  He pitched sleeplessly all night, and the whistle of the locomotive seemed to him like the shriek of fiends as they carried him faster and farther from home, friends and happiness.
He had reached the seaport town where he embarked for the north, landing at what was considered a convenient point to start overland to an unexplored and supposedly rich country.  Here he met others in the same quest, and fell in with Tom Waldron, with whom he formed a partnership.  Tom was a young man not long out of his teens, with no cares and a great love of adventure.  Next to adventure, he loved a certain black-eyed maiden in the East, and while her reproachful eyes followed him for a time, it was only when time hung heavily on his hands, or excitement itself became monotonous that his mind reverted regretfully to the past.
They had together taken their initial experience in “roughing it,” and at all times George was res­cued from fits of homesickness and depression by Tom’s unfailing good humor and lively spirits.  Traveling through an unknown and mountainous country has its many difficulties and delays, and they were forced to go into winter quarters while still on the trail.  They chose a sheltered spot not far from a trading post, where for years the fur company had its lonely representative carrying the necessities of life and some of the luxuries and trading with the Indians for furs.  They chose this place because of the companionship of even one log cabin and because the company sent a dog train between its posts during the winter, thus affording opportunities of communication with civilization.  They had picked out a grassy range for their horses and hoped to get them safely through the winter, as the poor brutes had been accustomed to “rustle” their living by pawing in the snow.  As winter set in Tom busied himself with setting out rabbit snares and hunting within an easy range of camp.  The days became rapidly shorter and the nights longer, and at times even Tom was weighed down by the great pervading sense of loneliness.
On this particular morning he had taken up the almanac.  “Cold and blustering, with occasional flurries of snow, changing to rain,” he read in the prophetic column.  “Guess that fellow—By Jove!” he in­terrupted himself, “this is Christmas!  And no presents, no turkey, no plum-pudding and no one to do the decent if we should hang up our socks.  Nothing but the same old round of stewed rabbit, beans and bacon.  It won’t do,” he added, with sudden resolution, “we’ve got to blow ourselves.  What’s the use of living if we can’t observe the time-honored customs of our fathers.  I’m going out and corral a grouse, and we’ll have a regular Christmas dinner.”  He strapped on his snowshoes, shouldered a rifle and set off.  George had busied himself in culinary matters in the meantime, but his friend’s reference to Christmas had diverted his thought and he became very preoccupied.  He thought of last year, of his happy home Christmas before dreams of sudden wealth had led him off to this lonely land.  He wondered what his children were doing, and if they still grieved over his absence.  “No,” he reflected, “I have been gone over six months now, and they will have grown accustomed to my absence.”  But this reflection did not seem to afford mental consolation.  He shifted uneasily.  His eyes ceased their close observation of the flour sack, and wandered over the hewn table, the piles of boxes, the disordered heap of blankets, and lastly to the stove.  Here he came to a state of realization.
“Thoughtless!” he reproached himself, “I have burned the beans.  No,” he added ironically, noting the neglected fire, “I guess they are not burned so badly but that they are still edible.  Humph!  Still hard and not ready for the bacon yet.”  And he proceeded to rekindle the fire and put the dried apples on to stew.  He washed the apples, and stepped outside to pour the water from them.  Although it was nearly midday the sun had only been visible only a short time and was close to the treetops in the ravine.  It would soon be obscured behind the high mountain toward which it was now traveling.  From the mountain his gaze dropped to the trail leading from the tent to the main trail to the river below, and until it passed from view behind the first bend on its long stretch to the next trading post, one hundred miles below.
Suddenly he was startled by the loud report of a gun near by, and glancing quickly in the direction from which it came, saw a rabbit jump wildly in the air and falling on its back, made two or three spas­modic kicks, at the same time Tom emerged from the bushes and hastened to take possession of his prize.
“Fair in the head,” he said after a satisfied examination.  “I tried to make a record shot on these two birds,” he resumed, “tried to line them up and take both heads off with one shot.  Just as I pulled the off one moved.  Got one all right, but the other was hit below the belt,” and he ruefully surveyed the shattered wreck of number two.  “The both of them will equal one turk, I guess,” and he proceeded to strip them of their feathers.
“There is a camp of Indians just above here,” he continued.  “Came in from up river.  I met a cou­ple of squaws coming in with regular mule loads on their backs, and followed by a bunch of kids, some of them not half clothed.  You’d think the poor devils would freeze to death.  Came in to buy Christmas pre­sents, I suppose.”
“Poor things!” rejoined the other.  “I suppose Christmas means no more to them than any other day.  By the way, Tom, what would you do if you were in civilization now?”
Tom completed the dressing of the birds by a deft amputation of the legs, and followed George into the tent.  “What would I do?” he repeated.  “Why, I would eat a good breakfast—no bacon—then I would accept an invitation to dinner, where they wouldn’t serve beans, then I would call at a friend’s house and would accept his pressing invitation to have dinner with them.  In the evening I would take the girl to the theater, and after the theater,” he added thoughtfully, “I would—yes, I would have some more lunch.”
“Like the Indian who when told he could have three wishes gratified, said he would take, first, plenty of rum; second, plenty to eat, and, thirdly, more rum,” laughed the other.  “But my programme would be different,” he continued, “I would stay home all day with my family, and in the evening the chil­dren should have their games and Christmas tree.”
“Too tame,” was Tom’s sage verdict.  “Too tame, and not enough to eat.”
“But you have no home ties, and your tastes are naturally different.”
“Is that so,” he said with the last word emphasized with falling inflection.  “Last Christmas my mother gave me a necktie as a token of her maternal affection, my sister gave me a red tie, each of my aunts gave me a green tie with white stripes, the girl, too, as a token of her undying affection, gave me—a tie.  Had a whole trunk full, and every one of them,” he added, thinking he saw an opening for a joke, “were home ties.”
“Hello!  Look at that,” he ejaculated.
George turned and gave expression to an exclamation of surprise.
Standing outside, but visible only by the dirty face that filled the opening of the tent flaps, was an Indian child, and he regarded the interior with a steady, serious gaze.
“Come in!” said Tom, with an accompanying gesture.  The boy turned and spoke a few unintelli­gible words, then walked calmly and seated himself on a box.  He was immediately followed by a compan­ion who took a seat beside him.  Both then began an active observation of everything in sight, speaking excitedly to each other as something surprising caught their gaze.
They were apparently about the same age—probably 10 years, but they had a look of self-reliance uncommon to children of that age.  They wore no hats, but their straight black hair was tumbled in wildest confusion.  They were scantily clad, one having his shoulders wrapped in a dirty blanket, and the other the remains of what was once a coat.  Their trousers were tattered, exposing their bare brown knees, and their feet were encased in ill-fitting moccasins.
“They belong to the same outfit I saw a while ago,” said Tom, “aren’t they rare specimens?  Think what a gold mine they would be back East for exhibition purposes.”
“I’ll bet they are hungry,” said George, noticing that they had ceased their interested observation of Tom’s straggling beard and were wistfully regarding some biscuit and beans in the corner.  “Do you want anything to eat?” addressing himself to the boys.  A grin overspread their faces and one, who appeared to be spokesman, replied with great effort and intensity, “Ungree.”
“Of course, did you ever see an Indian who wasn’t?” was Tom’s remark.  “However, as an experi­ment, try him on one of those sinkers.”
A biscuit was handed each, and as rapidly devoured.
“He has my profound respect.  Now give him a brick.”  This from Tom.
“Suppose we give them a Christmas dinner?” suggested George.
“I guess they would come,” was the dry rejoinder.
George preceded to explain by signs that when dinner was prepared they would be fed.
“Ungree,” was their reply.
They were given another biscuit each, but without waiting to eat it, they arose and left the tent, dis­appearing on a brisk run down the trail toward the Indian encampment.
“I guess we are going to lose our company, after all,” cried George, as they passed from sight.
“Not so easy,” was Tom’s sentiments, “never yet saw an Indian quit the game when there was any­thing to eat in it.  They have probably gone to put the family next to a good thing.”
While George continued dinner preparations, Tom went to cut a dead tree near by for firewood.  He had not been gone long before he returned, and grasping his friend by the coat sleeve, said solemnly, “Come here!”  He led him to the door and silently pointed down the trail.
George gasped.
The two boys were returning, and with them coming on at a swinging walk were three Indians and two more boys.
They composed a startling group.  Their clothes were in a more or less dilapidated condition.  Regardless of the season of the year one wore an old straw hat, on which the brim had entirely gone.  Another had a cap made from the fur of some animal, and the other wore neither hat nor cap, but simply a red handkerchief folded and tied around his head, but so far from confining his hair, it disordered it still more, above and below.  All wore moosehide moccasins, some artistically beaded with fancy designs, in very apparent contrast to the rest of their apparel.  Around a pair of ill-fitting tweed trousers, each wore a belt, plentifully stocked with cartridges and supporting an enormous hunting knife and sheath.  None wore the characteristic dress of the wild Indian as pictured in romance.  Their desire appeared to be to imitate the custom of white men, but their shortcomings and peculiar combinations, presented a most laughable appearance.
As they came quickly up the path, the leader slashing the small bushes on the side as he came, they presented an appearance so fierce that George was led to “wonder if they came for scalps or only something to eat.”
“I’m afraid its something to eat,” said Tom, who knew something of an Indian’s appetite.  “You see there are seven of them and every one of them hungry.  It’s a good thing we have plenty of bannock cooked, and a whole potful of beans.”
They were friendly enough, however, and one, who knew some English, greeted them with a pleasant “Good day,” as they came up, and the others nodded and grinned their salutation.  They quickly accepted an invitation to step inside the tent and at once made themselves comfortable, with an Indian’s ease, on boxes, sacks, blankets or anything affording a seat.
“We’ve got to resort to bacon,” was Tom’s remark, and he began to cut huge slices.  “Better explain to the guests, George, that the grocery man didn’t call today, and we are a little shy on silverware.”
An Indian, however, is unused to such luxuries as tables, chairs and extra dishes.  They balance their plate on their knee or place it on the ground before them.  Those who had not a plate found a kettle lid just as serviceable.  Those lacking a cup drank just as much tea from a condensed milk can, and whether they were supplied with forks or not usually made their fingers answer the purpose.  They accept what you give them, and ask no more, but eat all you give them.  When the bannock was passed they helped themselves liberally, they took more bacon as often as it was passed, when that was done, they ate all the apples, then all the rice, drank all the tea, finished the bannock, and when there was nothing more to offer them stopped.
During all this time they answered a great many questions.  They had come down from the mountains to trade for some goods; the game was scarce; he had killed no grizzly bears; yes, a 44-caliber rifle would kill one if you hit him in the right place; no, he didn’t know where there was gold; there was a trail to the next river, but a white man couldn’t follow it; he had never been to the coast, and a great deal more such information was elicited by George while Tom learned that mountains in their talk was “tsea”; that mosquito was “tsiki”; that sun was “suh,” and snow was “yaas.”  He also asked another the same questions as George, and received an entirely different set of answers.  In the meantime the others conversed among themselves in their strange guttural language, and helped themselves to more beans every time they were passed.
When there was nothing more to eat, they filled their pipes from the beadworked caribou pouches at their belts, and smoked.  Tom played a few lively airs on a harmonica, and an athletic young brave danced a clog.  When he had kept up for a few minutes he was relieved by another, then another, picturesque in their strange natural grace.  And thus a pleasant hour was passed.
Suddenly they arose, and as their spokesman said, “Good bye,” they filed out and started for their camp.
“Wouldn’t they make a warm team at a free lunch counter?” was Tom’s first remark.  “I’m sorry they had to cease operations on account of material to work on, as I was bent on fathoming their capacity.  But listen.”
He hurriedly pushed the tent flaps aside and looked out.  The short day had passed.  The moon, al­ways clear and bright in the northern country, illuminated the mountains with its mellow light and cast sharp contrasty shadows on the snow.  On the still, frosty air was carried the quick jingle-jingle of bells, and with the sharp crack of a whip, a man’s voice called:
Marche, Bruno!”
At the same time a string of four dogs, their heads down, and tongues lolling, struggled up the river bank, pulling a loaded flat sled.  Behind, and controlling the dogs by a rope attached to the load, ran the driver.  They reached the level, and started quickly up the trail toward the trading post.
“It’s a dog team from the lower post,” he exclaimed excitedly, “and they must have mail from the coast.  Come down right away and see if we score.”
He caught up his cap and started up the trail, followed by George, who pulled on his coat as he ran.
Half an hour later they returned, and seating themselves convenient to the candle light commenced to read again their letters from home.
“What’s the meaning of all those crosses at the bottom of the page?” asked George.
“What’s that?  Oh, those!” said Tom, hastily concealing the exposed part, “That’s—why that’s a de­sign for a new pack saddle.”
Just then the tent flaps were pushed open again, and an Indian entered.  He placed a huge burden before them, and merely saying, “Moose meat.  Eatum,” turned and left the tent.
“This has not been so unpleasant a Christmas as I thought it would be,” remarked George.
“Best I’ve spent this year,” assented Tom.
                                                                                                                                                            BRUCE H. WARK.

No doubt this story was inspired by the visit the Indians paid my grandfather.