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´╗┐Title: How John Norton the Trapper Kept His Christmas
Author: Murray, W. H. H. (William Henry Harrison), 1840-1904
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "How John Norton the Trapper Kept His Christmas" ***

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[Illustration: Cover art]



[Frontispiece: John Norton]



HOW

JOHN NORTON THE TRAPPER

KEPT HIS CHRISTMAS



BY

W. H. H. MURRAY



BOSTON:

DE WOLFE, FISKE & CO.

364 AND 365 WASHINGTON STREET.



COPYRIGHT, 1890,

BY DE WOLFE, FISKE & CO.



HOW JOHN NORTON THE TRAPPER
  KEPT HIS CHRISTMAS.



I.

A cabin.  A cabin in the woods.  In the cabin a great fireplace piled
high with logs, fiercely ablaze.  On either side of the broad
hearth-stone a hound sat on his haunches, looking gravely, as only a
hound in a meditative mood can, into the glowing fire.  In the centre
of the cabin, whose every nook and corner was bright with the ruddy
firelight, stood a wooden table, strongly built and solid.  At the
table sat John Norton, poring over a book,--a book large of size, with
wooden covers bound in leather, brown with age, and smooth as with the
handling of many generations.  The whitened head of the old man was
bowed over the broad page, on which one hand rested, with the
forefinger marking the sentence.  A cabin in the woods filled with
firelight, a table, a book, an old man studying the book.  This was the
scene on Christmas Eve.  Outside, the earth was white with snow, and in
the blue sky above the snow was the white moon.

"It says here," said the Trapper, speaking to himself, "it says here,
'Give to him that lacketh, and from him that hath not, withhold not
thine hand.'  It be a good sayin' fur sartin; and the world would be a
good deal better off, as I conceit, ef the folks follered the sayin' a
leetle more closely."  And here the old man paused a moment, and, with
his hand still resting on the page, and his forefinger still pointing
at the sentence, seemed pondering what he had been reading.  At last he
broke the silence again, saying,--

"Yis, the world would be a good deal better off, ef the folks in it
follered the sayin';" and then he added, "There's another spot in the
book I'd orter look at to-night; it's a good ways furder on, but I
guess I can find it.  Henry says that the furder on you git in the
book, the better it grows, and I conceit the boy may be right; for
there be a good deal of murderin' and fightin' in the fore part of the
book, that don't make pleasant readin', and what the Lord wanted to put
it in fur is a good deal more than a man without book-larnin' can
understand.  Murderin' be murderin', whether it be in the Bible or out
of the Bible; and puttin' it in the Bible, and sayin' it was done by
the Lord's commandment, don't make it any better.  And a good deal of
the fightin' they did in the old time was sartinly without reason and
ag'in jedgment, specially where they killed the women-folks and the
leetle uns."  And while the old man had thus been communicating with
himself, touching the character of much of the Old Testament, he had
been turning the leaves until he had reached the opening chapters of
the New, and had come to the description of the Saviour's birth, and
the angelic announcement of it on the earth.  Here he paused, and began
to read.  He read as an old man unaccustomed to letters must
read,--slowly and with a show of labor, but with perfect contentment as
to his progress, and a brightening face.

"This isn't a trail a man can hurry on onless he spends a good deal of
his time on it, or is careless about notin' the signs, fur the words be
weighty, and a man must stop at each word, and look around awhile, in
order to git all the meanin' out of 'em--yis, a man orter travel this
trail a leetle slow, ef he wants to see all there is to see on it."

Then the old man began to read:--

"'Then there was with the angels a multitude of the heavenly
host,'--the exact number isn't sot down here," he muttered; "but I
conceit there may have been three or four hunderd,--'praisin' God and
singin', Glory to God in the highest, and on 'arth, peace to men of
good will.'  That's right," said the Trapper.  "Yis, peace to men of
good will.  That be the sort that desarve peace; the other kind orter
stand their chances."  And here the old man closed the book,--closed it
slowly, and with the care we take of a treasured thing; closed it,
fastened the clasps, and carried it to the great chest whence he had
taken it, putting it away in its place.  Having done this, he returned
to his seat, and, moving the chair in front of the fire, he looked
first at one hound, and then at the other, and said, "Pups, this be
Christmas Eve, and I sartinly trust ye be grateful fur the comforts ye
have."

He said this deliberately, as if addressing human companions.  The two
hounds turned their heads toward their master, looked placidly into his
face, and wagged their tails.

[Illustration: The two hounds turned their heads toward their master.]

"Yis, yis, I understand ye," said the Trapper, "Ye both be comfortable,
and, I dare say, that arter yer way ye both be grateful, fur, next to
eatin', a dog loves the heat, and ye be nigh enough to the logs to be
toastin'.  Yis, this be Christmas Eve," continued the old man, "and in
the settlements the folks be gittin' ready their gifts.  The young
people be tyin' up the evergreens, and the leetle uns be onable to
sleep because of their dreamin'.  It's a pleasant pictur', and I
sartinly wish I could see the merrymakin's, as Henry has told me of
them, some time, but I trust it may be in his own house, and with his
own children."  With this pleasant remark, in respect to the one he
loved so well, the old man lapsed into silence.  But the peaceful
contentment of his face, as the firelight revealed it, showed plainly
that, though his lips moved not, his mind was still active with
pleasant thoughts of the one whose name he had mentioned, and whom he
so fondly loved.  At last a more sober look came to his countenance,--a
look of regret, of self-reproach, the look of a man who remembers
something he should not have forgotten,--and he said,--

"I ax the Lord to pardin me, that in the midst of my plenty I have
forgot them that may be in want.  The shanty sartinly looked open
enough the last time I fetched the trail past the clearin', and though
with the help of the moss and the clay in the bank she might make it
comfortable, yit, ef the vagabond that be her husband has forgot his
own, and desarted them, as Wild Bill said he had, I doubt ef there be
victuals enough in the shanty to keep them from starvin'.  Yis, pups,"
said the old man, rising, "it'll be a good tramp through the snow, but
we'll go in the mornin', and see ef the woman be in want.  The boy
himself said, when he stopped at the shanty last summer, afore he went
out, that he didn't see how they was to git through the winter, and I
reckon he left the woman some money, by the way she follered him toward
the boat; and he told me to bear them in mind when the snow came, and
see to it they didn't suffer.  I might as well git the pack-basket out,
and begin to put the things in't, fur it be a goodly distance, and an
early start will make the day pleasant to the woman and the leetle uns,
ef vict'als be scant in the cupboard.  Yis, I'll git the pack-basket
out, and look round a leetle, and see what I can find to take 'em.  I
don't conceit it'll make much of a show, fur what might be good fur a
man, won't be of sarvice to a woman; and as fur the leetle uns, I don't
know ef I've got a single thing but vict'als that'll fit 'em.  Lord! ef
I was near the settlements, I might swap a dozen skins fur jest what I
wanted to give 'em; but I'll git the basket out, and look round and see
what I've got."

In a moment the great pack-basket had been placed in the middle of the
floor, and the Trapper was busy overhauling his stores to see what he
could find that would make a fitting Christmas gift for those he was to
visit on the morrow.  A canister of tea was first deposited on the
table, and, after he had smelled of it, and placed a few grains of it
on his tongue, like a connoisseur, he proceeded to pour more than half
of its contents into a little bark box, and, having carefully tied the
cover, he placed it in the basket.

"The yarb be of the best," said the old man, putting his nose to the
mouth of the canister, and taking a long sniff before he inserted the
stopple--"the yarb be of the best, fur the smell of it goes into the
nose strong as mustard.  That be good fur the woman fur sartin, and
will cheer her sperits when she be downhearted; fur a woman takes as
naterally to tea as an otter to his slide, and I warrant it'll be an
amazin' comfort to her, arter the day's work be over, more specially ef
the work had been heavy, and gone sorter crosswise.  Yis, the yarb be
good fur a woman when things go crosswise, and the box'll be a great
help to her many and many a night beyend doubt.  The Lord sartinly had
women in mind when he made the yarb, and a kindly feelin' fur their
infarmities, and, I dare say, they be grateful accordin' to their
knowledge."

A large cake of maple-sugar followed the tea into the basket, and a
small chest of honey accompanied it.

"That's honest sweetenin'," remarked the Trapper with decided emphasis;
"and that is more'n ye can say of the sugar of the settlements,
leastwise ef a man can jedge by the stuff they peddle at the clearin'.
The bees be no cheats; and a man who taps his own trees, and biles the
runnin' into sugar under his own eye, knows what kind of sweetenin'
he's gittin'.  The woman won't find any sand in her teeth when she
takes a bite from that loaf, or stirs a leetle of the honey in the cup
she's steepin'."

Some salt and pepper were next added to the packages already in the
basket.  A sack of flour and another of Indian-meal followed.  A
generous round of pork, and a bag of jerked venison, that would balance
a twenty-pound weight, at least, went into the pack.  On these, several
large-sized salmon-trout, that had been smoked by the Trapper's best
skill, were laid.  These offerings evidently exhausted the old man's
resources, for, after looking round a while, and searching the cupboard
from bottom to top, he returned to the basket, and contemplated it with
satisfaction, indeed, yet with a face slightly shaded with
disappointment.

"The vict'als be all right," he said, "fur there be enough to last 'em
a month, and they needn't scrimp themselves either.  But eatin' isn't
all, and the leetle uns was nigh on to naked the last time I seed 'em;
and the woman's dress, in spite of the patchin', looked as ef it would
desart her, ef she didn't keep a close eye on't.  Lord!  Lord! what
shall I do? fur there's room enough in the basket, and the woman and
the leetle uns need garments; that is, it's more'n likely they do, and
I haven't a garment in the cabin to take 'em."

"Hillo!  Hillo!  John Norton!  John Norton!  Hillo!"  The voice came
sharp and clear, cutting keenly through the frosty air and the cabin
walls.  "John Norton!"

"Wild Bill!" exclaimed the Trapper.  "I sartinly hope the vagabond
hasn't been a-drinkin'.  His voice sounds as ef he was sober; but the
chances be ag'in the signs, fur, ef he isn't drunk, the marcy of the
Lord or the scarcity of liquor has kept him from it.  I'll go to the
door, and see what he wants.  It's sartinly too cold to let a man stand
in the holler long, whether he be sober or drunk;" with which remark
the Trapper stepped to the door, and flung it open.

"What is it, Wild Bill? what is it?" he called.  "Be ye drunk, or be ye
sober, that ye stand there shoutin' in the cold with a log cabin within
a dozen rods of ye?"

"Sober, John Norton, sober.  Sober as a Moravian preacher at a funeral."

"Yer trappin' must have been mighty poor, then, Wild Bill, for the last
month, or the Dutchman at the clearin' has watered his liquor by a
wrong measure for once.  But ef ye be sober, why do ye stand there
whoopin' like an Indian, when the ambushment is onkivered and the
bushes be alive with the knaves?  Why don't ye come into the cabin,
like a sensible man, ef ye be sober?  The signs be ag'in ye, Wild Bill;
yis, the signs be ag'in ye."

"Come into the cabin!" retorted Bill.  "An' so I would mighty lively,
ef I could; but the load is heavy, and your path is as slippery as the
plank over the creek at the Dutchman's, when I've two horns aboard."

"Load!  What load have ye been draggin' through the woods?" exclaimed
the Trapper.  "Ye talk as ef my cabin was the Dutchman's, and ye was
balancin' on the plank at this minit."

"Come and see for yourself," answered Wild Bill, "and give me a lift.
Once in your cabin, and in front of your fire, I'll answer all the
questions you may ask.  But I'll answer no more until I'm inside the
door."

"Ye be sartinly sober to-night," answered the Trapper, laughing, as he
started down the hill, "fur ye talk sense, and that's more'n a man can
do when he talks through the nozzle of a bottle.

"Lord-a-massy!" exclaimed the old man as he stood over the sled, and
saw the huge box that was on it.  "Lord-a-massy, Bill! what a tug ye
must have had! and how ye come to be sober with sech a load behind ye
is beyend the reckinin' of a man who has knowed ye nigh on to twenty
year.  I never knowed ye disappoint one arter this fashion afore."

"It is strange, I confess," answered Wild Bill, appreciating the humor
that lurked in the honesty of the old man's utterance.  "It is strange,
that's a fact, for it's Christmas Eve, and I ought to be roaring drunk
at the Dutchman's this very minit, according to custom; but I pledged
him to get the box through jest as he wanted it done, and that I
wouldn't touch a drop of liquor until I had done it.  And here it is
according to promise, for here I am sober, and here is his box."

"H'ist along, Bill, h'ist along!" exclaimed the Trapper, who suddenly
became alive with interest, for he surmised whence the box had come.
"H'ist along, Bill, I say, and have done with yer talkin', and let's
see what ye have got on yer sled.  It's strange that a man of your
sense will stand jibberin' here in the snow with a roarin' fire within
a dozen rods of ye."

Whatever retort Wild Bill may have contemplated, it was effectually
prevented by the energy with which the Trapper pushed the sled after
him.  Indeed, it was all he could do to keep it off his heels, so
earnestly did the old man propel it from behind; and so, with many a
slip and scramble on the part of Wild Bill, and a continued muttering
on the part of the Trapper about the "nonsense of a man's jibberin' in
the snow arter a twenty-mile drag, with a good fire within a dozen rods
of him," the sled was shot through the doorway into the cabin, and
stood fully revealed in the bright blaze of the firelight.

"Take off yer coat and yer moccasins, Wild Bill," exclaimed the
Trapper, as he closed the door, "and git in front of the fire; pull out
the coals, and set the tea-pot a-steepin'.  The yarb will take the
chill out of ye better than the pizen of the Dutchman.  Ye'll find a
haunch of venison in the cupboard that I roasted to-day, and some
johnny-cake; I doubt ef either be cold.  Help yerself, help yerself,
Bill, while I take a peep at the box."

No one can appreciate the intensity of the old man's feelings in
reference to the mysterious box, unless he calls to mind the strictness
with which he was wont to interpret and fulfil the duties of
hospitality.  To him the coming of a guest was a welcome event, and the
service which the latter might require of the host both a sacred and
pleasant obligation.  To serve a guest with his own hand, which he did
with a natural courtesy peculiar to himself, was his delight.  Nor did
it matter with him what the quality of the guest might be.  The
wandering trapper or the vagabond Indian was served with as sincere
attention as the richest visitor from the city.  But now his feelings
were so stirred by the sight of the box thus strangely brought to him,
and by his surmise touching who the sender might be, that Wild Bill was
left to help himself without the old man's attendance.

It was evident that Bill was equal to the occasion, and was not aware
of the slightest neglect.  At least, his actions were not, by the
neglect of the Trapper, rendered less decided, or the quality of his
appetite affected, for the examination he made of the old man's
cupboard, and the familiarity with which he handled the contents, made
it evident that he was not in the least abashed, or uncertain how to
proceed; for he attacked the provisions with the energy of a man who
had fasted long, and who has at last not only come suddenly to an ample
supply of food, but also feels that for a few moments, at least, he
will be unobserved.  The Trapper turned toward the box, and approached
it for a deliberate examination.

"The boards be sawed," he said, "and they come from the mills of the
settlement, for the smoothin'-plane has been over 'em."  Then he
inspected the jointing, and noted how truly the edges were drawn.

"The box has come a goodly distance," he said to himself, "fur there
isn't a workman this side of the Horicon that could j'int it in that
fashion.  There sartinly orter be some letterin', or a leetle bit of
writin', somewhere about the chest, tellin' who the box belonged to,
and to whom it was sent."  Saying this, the old man unlashed the box
from the sled, and rolled it over, so that the side might come
uppermost.  As no direction appeared on the smoothly planed surface, he
rolled it half over again.  A little white card neatly tacked to the
board was now revealed.  The Trapper stooped, and on the card read,--

        JOHN NORTON,
  TO THE CARE OF WILD BILL.


"Yis, the 'J' be his'n," muttered the old man, as he spelled out the
word J-o-h-n, "and the big 'N' be as plain as an otter-trail in the
snow.  The boy don't make his letters over-plain, as I conceit, but the
'J' and the 'N' be his'n."  And then he paused for a full minute, his
head bowed over the box.  "The boy don't forgit," he murmured, and he
wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.  "The boy don't forgit."  And
then he added, "No, he isn't one of the forgittin' kind.  Wild Bill,"
said the Trapper, as he turned toward that personage, whose attack on
the venison haunch was as determined as ever, "Wild Bill, this box be
from Henry!"

"I shouldn't wonder," answered that individual, speaking from a mass of
edibles that filled his mouth.

"And it be a Christmas gift!" continued the old man.

"It looks so," returned Bill, as laconically as before.

"And it be a mighty heavy box!" said the Trapper.

"You'd 'a' thought so, if you had dragged it over the mile-and-a-half
carry.  It was good sleddin' on the river, but the carry took the stuff
out of me."

"Very like, very like," responded the Trapper; "fur the gullies be deep
on the carry, and it must have been slippery haulin'.  Didn't ye git a
leetle 'arnest in yer feelin's, Bill, afore ye got to the top of the
last ridge?"

"Old man," answered Bill as he wheeled his chair toward the Trapper,
with a pint cup of tea in the one hand, and wiping his mustache with
the coat-sleeve of the other, "I got it to the top three times, or
within a dozen feet from the top, and each time it got away from me and
went to the bottom agin; for the roots was slippery, and I couldn't git
a grip on the toe of my moccasins; but I held on the rope, and I got to
the bottom neck and neck with the sled every time."

"Ye did well, ye did well," responded the Trapper, laughing; "fur a
loaded sled goes down-hill mighty fast when the slide is a steep un,
and a man who gits to the bottom as quick as the sled must have a good
grip, and be considerably in 'arnest.  But ye got her up finally by the
same path, didn't ye?"

"Yes, I got her up," returned Bill.  "The fourth time I went for that
ridge, I fetched her to the top, for I was madder than a hornet."

"And what did ye do, Bill?" continued the Trapper.  "What did ye do
when ye got to the top?"

"I jest tied that sled to a sapling so it wouldn't git away agin, and I
got on to the top of that box, and I talked to that gulch a minit or
two in a way that satisfied my feelings."

"I shouldn't wonder," answered the Trapper, laughing, "fur ye must have
been a good deal riled.  But ye did well to git the box through, and ye
got here in time, and ye've 'arnt yer wages; and now, ef ye'll tell me
how much I am to pay ye, ye shall have yer money, and ye needn't scrimp
yourself on the price, Wild Bill, for the drag has been a hard un; so
tell me yer price, and I'll count ye out the money."

"Old man," answered Bill, "I didn't bring that box through for money,
and I won't take a"--

Perhaps Wild Bill was about to emphasize his refusal by some verbal
addition to the simple statement, but, if it was his intention, he
checked himself, and said, "a cent."

"It's well said," answered the Trapper; "yis, it's well said, and does
jestice to yer feelin's, I don't doubt; but an extra pair of breeches
one of these days wouldn't hurt ye, and the money won't come amiss."

"I tell ye, old man," returned Wild Bill earnestly, "I won't take a
cent.  I'll allow there's several colors in my trousers, for I've
patched in a dozen different pieces off and on, and I doubt, as ye
hint, if the patching holds together much longer; but I've eaten at
your table and slept in your cabin more than once, John Norton, and
whether I've come to it sober or drunk, your door was never shut in my
face, and I don't forget either that the man who sent you that box
fished me from the creek one day, when I had walked into it with two
bottles of the Dutchman's whiskey in my pocket, and not one cent of
your money or his will I take for bringing the box in to you."

"Have it yer own way, ef ye will," said the Trapper; "but I won't
forgit the deed ye have did, and the boy won't forgit it neither.
Come, let's clear away the vict'als, and we'll open the box.  It's
sartinly a big un, and I would like to see what he has put inside of
it."

The opening of the box was a spectacle such as gladdens the heart to
see.  At such moments the countenance of the Trapper was as facile in
the changefulness of its expression as that of a child.  The passing
feelings of his soul found an adequate mirror in his face, as the white
clouds of a summer day find full reflection in the depth of a tranquil
lake.  He was not too old or too learned to be wise, for the wisdom of
hearty happiness was his,--the wisdom of being glad, and gladly showing
it.

As for Wild Bill, the best of his nature was in the ascendant, and with
the curiosity and pleasure of a child, and a happiness as sincere as if
the box was his own, he assisted at the opening.

"The man who made this box did the work in a workmanlike fashion," said
the Trapper, as he strove to insert the edge of his hatchet into the
jointing of the cover, "fur he shet these boards together like the
teeth of a bear-trap when the bars be well 'iled.  It's a pity the boy
didn't send him along with the box, Wild Bill, fur it sartinly looks as
ef we should have to kindle a fire on it, and burn a hole in through
the cover."

At last, by dint of great exertion, and with the assistance of Wild
Bill and the poker, the cover of the box was wrenched off, and the
contents were partially revealed.

"Glory to God, Wild Bill!" exclaimed the Trapper.  "Here be yer
breeches!" and he held up a pair of pantaloons made of the stoutest
Scotch stuff.  "Yis, here be yer breeches, fur here on the waistband be
pinned a bit of paper, and on it be written, 'Fur Wild Bill.'  And here
be a vest to match; and here be a jacket; and here be two pairs of
socks in the pockets of the jacket; and here be two woollen shirts, one
packed away in each sleeve.  And here!" shouted the old man, as he
turned up the lapel of the coat, "Wild Bill, look here!  Here be a
five-dollar note!" and the old man swung one of the socks over his
head, and shouted, "Hurrah for Wild Bill!"  And the two hounds,
catching the enthusiasm of their master, lifted their muzzles into the
air, and bayed deep and long, till the cabin fairly shook with the
joyful uproar of man and dogs.

It is doubtful if any gift ever took the recipient more by surprise
than this bestowed upon Wild Bill.  It is true that, judged by the law
of strict deserts, the poor fellow had not deserved much of the world,
and certainly the world had not forgotten to be strictly just in his
case, for it had not given him much.  It is a question if he had ever
received a gift before in all his life, certainly not one of any
considerable value.  His reception of this generous and thoughtful
provision for his wants was characteristic both of his training and his
nature.

The old Trapper, as he had ended his cheering, flung the pantaloons,
the vest, the jacket, the socks, the shirts, and the money into his lap.

For a moment the poor fellow sat looking at the warm and costly
garments that he held in his hands, silent in an astonishment too
profound for speech, and then, recovering the use of his organs, he
gasped forth,--

"I swear!" and then broke down, and sobbed like a child.

The Trapper, kneeling beside the box, looked at the poor fellow with a
face radiant with happiness, while his mouth was stretched with
laughter, utterly unconscious that tears were brimming his own eyes.

"Old Trapper," said Wild Bill, rising to his feet, and holding the
garments forth in his hands, "this is the first present I ever received
in my life.  I have been kicked and cussed, sneered at and taunted, and
I deserved it all.  But no man ever gave me a lift, or showed he cared
a cent whether I starved or froze, lived or died.  You know, John
Norton, what a fool I've been, and what has ruined me, and that when
sober I'm more of a man than many who hoot me.  And here I swear, old
man, that while a button is on this jacket, or two threads of these
breeches hold together, I'll never touch a drop of liquor, sick or
well, living or dying, so help me God! and there's my hand on it."

"Amen!" exclaimed the Trapper, as he sprang to his feet, and clasped in
his own strong palm the hand that the other had stretched out to him.
"The Lord in his marcy be nigh ye when tempted, Bill, and keep ye true
to yer pledge!"

[Illustration: Clasped in his own strong palm]

Of all the pleasant sights that the angels of God, looking from their
high homes, saw on earth that Christmas Eve, perhaps not one was dearer
in their eyes than the spectacle here described,--the two sturdy men
standing with their hands clasped in solemn pledge of the reformation
of the one, and the helping sympathy of the other, above that
Christmas-box in the cabin in the woods.

It is not necessary to follow in detail the Trapper's further
examination of the box.  The reader's imagination, assisted by many a
happy reminiscence, will enable him to realize the scene.  There was a
small keg of powder, a large plug of lead, a little chest of tea, a bag
of sugar, and also one of coffee.  There were nails, matches, thread,
buttons, a woollen under-jacket, a pair of mittens, and a cap of
choicest fur, made of an otter's skin that Henry himself had trapped a
year before.  All these and other packages were taken out one by one,
carefully examined, and characteristically commented on by the Trapper,
and passed to Wild Bill, who in turn inspected and commented on them,
and then laid them carefully on the table.  Beneath these packages was
a thin board, constituting a sort of division between its upper and
lower half.

"There seems to be a sort of cellar to this box," said the Trapper, as
he sat looking at the division.  "I shouldn't be surprised ef the boy
himself was in here somewhere, so be ready, Bill, fur anything, fur the
Lord only knows what's underneath this board."  Saying which, the old
man thrust his hand under one end of the division, and pulled out a
bundle loosely tied with a string, which became unfastened as the
Trapper lifted the roll from its place in the box, and, as he shook it
open, and held its contents at arm's length up to the light, the
startled eyes of Wild Bill, and the earnest gaze of the Trapper, beheld
a woman's dress!

"Heavens and 'arth, Bill!" exclaimed the Trapper, "what's this?"  And
then a flash of light crossed his face, in the illumination of which
the look of wonder vanished, and, dropping upon his knees, he flung the
dividing board out of the box, and his companion and himself saw at a
glance what was underneath.

Children's shoes, and dresses of warmest stuffs; tippets and mittens; a
full suit for a little boy, boots and all; a jack-knife and whistle;
two dolls dressed in brave finery, with flaxen hair and blue eyes; a
little hatchet; a huge ball of yarn, and a hundred and one things
needed in the household; and underneath all a Bible; and under that a
silver star on a blue field, and pinned to the silk a scrap of paper,
on which was written,--

"Hang this over the picture of the lad."

"Ay, ay," said the Trapper in a tremulous voice, as he looked at the
silver star, "it shall be done as ye say, boy; but the lad has got
beyend the clouds, and is walkin' a trail that is lighted from eend to
eend by a light clearer and brighter than ever come from the shinin' of
any star.  I hope we may be found worthy to walk it with him, boy, when
we, too, have come to the edge of the Great Clearin'."

To the Trapper it was perfectly evident for whom the contents of the
box were intended; but the sender had left nothing in doubt, for, when
the old man had lifted from the floor the board that he had flung out,
he discovered some writing traced with heavy pencilling on the wood,
and which without much effort he spelled out to Wild Bill,--

"Give these on Christmas Day to the woman at the dismal hut, and a
merry Christmas to you all."

"Ay, ay," said the Trapper, "it shall be did, barrin' accident, as ye
say; and a merry Christmas it'll make fur us all.  Lord-a-massy! what
will the poor woman say when she and her leetle uns git these warm
garments on?  There be no trouble about fillin' the basket now; no, I
sartinly can't git half of the stuff in.  Wild Bill, I guess ye'll have
to do some more sleddin' to-morrow, fur these presents must go over the
mountain in the mornin', ef we have to harness up the pups."  And then
he told his companion of the poor woman and the children, and his
intended visit to them on the morrow.

"I fear," he said, "that they be havin' a hard time of it, 'specially
ef her husband has desarted her."

"Little good would he do her, if he was with her," answered Wild Bill,
"for he's a lazy knave when he's sober, and a thief as well, as you and
I know, John Norton; for he's fingered our traps more than once, and
swapped the skins for liquor at the Dutchman's; but he's thieved once
too many times, for the folks in the settlement has ketched him in the
act, and they put him in the jail for six months, as I heard day before
yesterday."

"I'm glad on't; yis, I'm glad on't," answered the Trapper; "and I hope
they'll keep him there till they've larnt him how to work.  I've had my
eye on the knave fur a good while, and the last time I seed him I told
him ef he fingered any more of my traps, I'd larn him the commandments
in a way he wouldn't forgit; and, as I had him in hand, and felt a
leetle like talkin' that mornin', I gin him a piece of my mind, techin'
his treatment of his wife and leetle uns, that he didn't relish, I
fancy, fur he winced and squirmed like a fox in a trap.  Yis, I'm glad
they've got the knave, and I hope they'll keep him till he's answered
fur his misdoin'; but I'm sartinly afeered the poor woman be havin' a
hard time of it."

"I fear so, too," answered Wild Bill; "and if I can do anything to help
you in your plans, jest say the word, and I'm your man to back or haul,
jest as you want me."

And so it was arranged that they should go over the mountain together
on the morrow, and take the provisions and the gifts that were in the
box to the poor woman; and, after talking awhile of the happiness their
visit would give, the two men, happy in their thoughts, and with their
hearts full of that peace which passeth the understanding of the
selfish, laid themselves down to sleep; and over the two,--the one
drawing to the close of an honorable and well-spent life, the other
standing at the middle of a hitherto useless existence, but facing the
future with a noble resolution,--over the two, as they slept, the
angels of Christmas kept their watch.



II.

On the other side of the mountain stood the dismal hut; and the stars
of that blessed eve had shone down upon the lonely clearing in which it
stood, and the smooth white surface of the frozen and snow-covered lake
which lay in front of it, as brightly as they had shone on the cabin of
the Trapper; but no friendly step had made its trail in the surrounding
snow, and no blessed gift had been brought to its solitary door.

As the evening wore on, the great clearing round about it remained
drearily void of sound or motion, and filled only with the white
stillness of the frosty, snow-lighted night.  Once, indeed, a wolf
stole from underneath the dark balsams into the white silence, and,
running up a huge log that lay aslant a ledge of rocks, looked across
and round the great opening in the woods, stood a moment, then gave a
shivering sort of a yelp, and scuttled back under the shadows of the
forest, as if its darkness was warmer than the frozen stillness of the
open space.  An owl, perched somewhere amid the pine-tops, snug and
warm within the cover of its arctic plumage, engaged from time to time
in solemn gossip with some neighbor that lived on the opposite shore of
the lake.  And once a raven, roosting on the dry bough of a
lightning-blasted pine, dreamed that the white moonlight was the light
of dawn, and began to stir his sable wings, and croak a harsh welcome;
but awakened by his blunder, and ashamed of his mistake, he broke off
in the very midst of his discordant call, and again settled gloomily
down amid his black plumes to his interrupted repose, making by his
sudden silence the surrounding silence more silent than before.  It
seemed as if the very angels, who, we are taught, fly abroad over all
the earth that blessed night, carrying gifts to every household, had
forgotten the cabin in the woods, and had left it to the cold
hospitality of unsympathetic nature.

[Illustration: Running up a huge log that lay aslant a ledge of rocks]

Within the lonely hut, which thus seemed forgotten of Heaven itself,
sat a woman huddling her young--two girls and a boy.  The fireplace was
of monstrous proportions, and the chimney yawned upward so widely that
one looking up the sooty passage might see the stars shining overhead.
A little fire burned feebly in the huge stone recess: scant warmth
might such a fire yield, kindled in such a fireplace, to those around
it.  Indeed, the little flame seemed conscious of its own inability,
and burned with a wavering and mistrustful flicker, as if it was
discouraged in view of the task set before it, and had more than half
concluded to go out altogether.

The cabin was of large size, and undivided into apartments.  The little
fire was only able to illuminate the central section, and more than
half of the room was hidden in utter darkness.  The woman's face, which
the faint flame over which she was crouched revealed with painful
clearness, showed pale and haggard.  The induration of exposure and the
tightening lines of hunger sharpened and marred a countenance which, a
happier fortune would have kept even comely.  It had that old look
about it which comes from wretchedness rather than age, and the
weariness of its expression was pitiful to see.  Was it work or vain
waiting for happier fortunes that made her look so tired?  Alas! the
weariness of waiting for what we long for, and long for purely, but
which never comes!  Is it the work or the longing--the long
longing--that has put the silver in your head, friend, and scarred the
smooth bloom of your cheeks, my lady, with those ugly lines?

"Mother, I'm hungry," said the little boy, looking up into the woman's
face.  "Can't I have just a little more to eat?"

"Be still," answered the woman sharply, speaking in the tones of vexed
inability.  "I've given you almost the last morsel in the house."

The boy said nothing more, but nestled up more closely to his mother's
knee, and stuck one little stockingless foot out until the cold toes
were half hidden in the ashes.  O warmth! blessed warmth! how pleasant
art thou to old and young alike!  Thou art the emblem of life, as thy
absence is the evidence and sign of life's cold opposite.  Would that
all the cold toes in the world could get to my grate to-night, and all
the shivering ones be gathered to this fireside!  Ay, and that the
children of poverty, that lack for bread, might get their hungry hands
into that well-filled cupboard there, too!

In a moment the woman said, "You children had better go to bed.  You'll
be warmer in the rags than in this miserable fireplace."

The words were harshly spoken, as if the very presence of the children,
cold and hungry as they were, was a vexation to her; and they moved off
in obedience to her command.

O cursed poverty!  I know thee to be of Satan, for I myself have eaten
at thy scant table, and slept in thy cold bed.  And never yet have I
seen thee bring one smile to human lips, or dry one tear as it fell
from a human eye.  But I have seen thee sharpen the tongue for biting
speech, and harden the tender heart.  Ay, I've seen thee make even the
presence of love a burden, and cause the mother to wish that the puny
babe nursing her scant breast had never been born.  And so the children
went to their unsightly bed, and silence reigned in the hut.

"Mother," said one of the girls, speaking out of the
darkness,--"mother, isn't this Christmas Eve?"

"Yes," answered the woman sharply.  "Go to sleep."  And again there was
silence.

Happy is childhood, that amid whatever deprivation and misery it can so
weary itself in the day that when night comes on it can lose in the
forgetfulness of slumber its sorrows and wants!

Thus, while the children lost the sense of their unhappy surroundings,
including the keen pangs of hunger, for a time, and under the tattered
blankets that covered them saw, perhaps, visions of enchanting lands,
and in their dreams feasted at those wonderful tables which hungry
children see only in sleep, to the poor woman sitting at the failing
fire there came no surcease of sorrow, and no vision threw even an
evanescent brightness over the hard, cold facts of her surroundings.
And the reality of her condition was dire enough, God knows.  Alone in
the wilderness, miles from any human habitation, the trails covered
deep with snow, her provisions exhausted, actual suffering already upon
them, and starvation staring them squarely in the face.  No wonder that
her soul sank within her; no wonder that her thoughts turned toward
bitterness.

"Yes, it's Christmas Eve," she muttered, "and the rich will keep it
gayly.  God sends them presents enough; but you see if he remembers me!
Oh, they may talk about the angels of Christmas Eve flying abroad
to-night, loaded with gifts, but they'll fly mighty high above this
shanty, I reckon; no, they won't even drop a piece of meat as they soar
past,"  And so she sat muttering and moaning over her woes, and they
were heavy enough,--too heavy for her poor soul, unassisted, to
lift,--while the flame on the hearth grew thinner and thinner, until it
had no more warmth in it than the shadow of a ghost, and, like its
resemblance, was about to flit and fade away.  At last she said, in a
softened tone, as if the remembrance of the Christmas legend had
softened her surly thoughts and sweetened the bitter mood,--

"Perhaps I'm wrong to take on so.  Perhaps it isn't God's fault that I
and my children are deserted and starving.  But why should the innocent
be punished for the guilty, and why should the wicked have enough and
to spare, while those who do no evil go half naked and starved?"

Alas, poor woman! that puzzle has puzzled many besides thee, and many
lips besides thine have asked that question, querulously or
entreatingly, many a time; but whether they asked it in vexation and
rebellion of spirit, or humbly besought Heaven to answer, to neither
murmur nor prayer did Heaven vouchsafe a response.  Is it because we
are so small, or, being small, are so inquisitive, that the Great
Oracle of the blue remains so dumb when we cry?

At this point the poor little flame, as if unable to abide the cold
much longer, flared fitfully, and uneasily shifted itself from brand to
brand, threatening with many a flicker to go out; but the woman, with
her elbows on her knees, and her face settled firmly between her hands,
still sat with eyes that saw not the feeble flame at which they so
steadily gazed.

"I will do it, _I will do it!_" she suddenly exclaimed.  "I will make
one more effort.  They shall not starve while I have strength to try.
Perhaps God will aid me.  They say he always does at the last pinch,
and he certainly sees that I am there now.  I wonder if he's been
waiting for me to get just where I am before he helped me?  There is
one more chance left, and I'll make the trial.  I'll go down to the
shore where I saw the big tracks in the snow.  It's a long way, but I
shall get there somehow.  If God is going to be good to me, he won't
let me freeze or faint on the way.  Yes, I'll creep into bed now, and
try and get a little sleep, for I must be strong in the morning."  And
with these words the poor woman crept off to her bed, and burrowed
down, more like an animal than a human being, beside her little ones,
as they lay huddled close together and asleep, down in the rags.

What angel was it that followed her to her miserable couch, and stirred
kindly feelings in her bosom?  Some sweet one, surely; for she shortly
lifted herself to a sitting posture, and, gently drawing down the old
blanket with which the children, for warmth's sake, had wrapped their
heads, looked as only a mother might at the three little faces lying
side by side, and, bending tenderly over them, she placed a gentle kiss
upon the forehead of each; then she nestled down again in her own
place, and said, "Perhaps God will help me."  And with this sentence,
half a prayer and half a doubt, born on the one hand from that sweet
faith which never quite deserts a woman's bosom, and on the other from
that bitter experience which had made her seem in her own eyes deserted
of God, she fell asleep.

She, too, dreamed; but her dreaming was only the prolongation of her
waking thoughts; for long after her eyes closed she moved uneasily on
her hard couch, and muttered, "Perhaps God will.  Perhaps"--

Sad is it for us who are old enough to have tasted the bitterness of
that cup which life sooner or later presents to all lips, and have
borne the burden of its toil and fretting, that our vexations and
disappointments pursue us even in our slumber, disturbing our sleep
with reproachful visions and the sound of voices whose upbraiding robs
us of our otherwise peaceful repose.  Perhaps somewhere in the years to
come, after much wandering and weariness, guided of God, we may come to
that fountain of which the ancients dreamed, and for which the noblest
among them sought so long, and died seeking; plunging into which, we
shall find our lost youth in its cool depths, and, rising refreshed and
strengthened, shall go on our eternal journey re-clothed with the
beauty, the innocence, and the happiness of our youth.

The poor woman slept uneasily, and with much muttering to herself; but
the rapid hours slid noiselessly down the icy grooves of night, and
soon the cold morning put its white face against the frozen windows of
the east, and peered shiveringly forth.  Who says the earth cannot look
as cold and forbidding as the human countenance?  The sky hung over the
frozen world like a dome of gray steel, whose invisibly matched plates
were riveted here and there by a few white, gleaming stars.  The
surface of the snow sparkled with crystals that flashed colorlessly
cold.  The air seemed armed, and full of sharp, eager points that
pricked the skin painfully.  The great tree-trunks cracked their sharp
protests against the frosty entrances being made beneath their bark.
The lake, from under the smothering ice, roared in dismay and pain, and
sent the thunders of its wrath at its imprisonment around the
resounding shores.  A bitter morn, a bitter morn,--ah me! a bitter morn
for the poor!

The woman, wakened by the gray light, moved in the depths of the
tattered blankets, sat upright, rubbed her eyes with her hands, looked
about her as if to recall her scattered senses, and then, as thought
returned, crept stealthily out of the hole in which she had lain, that
she might not wake the children, who, coiled together, slumbered on,
still closely clasped in the arms of blessed unconsciousness.

"They had better sleep," she said to herself.  "If I fail to bring them
meat, I hope they will never wake!"

Ah! if the poor woman could only have foreseen the bitter
disappointment, or that other something which the future was to bring
her, would she have made that prayer?  Is it best for us, as some say,
that we cannot see what is coming, but must weep on till the last tear
is shed, uncheered by the sweet fortune so nigh, or laugh unchecked
until the happy tones are mingled with, and smothered by, the rising
moan?  Is it best, I wonder?

She noiselessly gathered together what additions she could make to her
garments, and then, taking down the rifle from its hangings, opened the
door, and stepped forth into the outer cold.  There was a look of brave
determination in her eyes as she faced the chilly greeting the world
gave her, and with more of hopefulness than had before appeared upon
her countenance, she struck bravely off along the lake shore, which at
this point receded toward the mountain.

For an hour she kept steadily on, with her eyes constantly on the alert
for the least sign of the wished and prayed-for game.  Suddenly she
stopped, and crouched down in the snow, peering straight ahead.  Well
might she seek concealment, for there, standing on a point of land that
jutted sharply out into the lake, not forty rods away, unscreened and
plain to view, stood a buck of such goodly proportions as one even in
years of hunting might not see.

The woman's eyes fairly gleamed as she saw the noble animal standing
thus in full sight; but who may tell the agony of fear and hope that
filled her bosom!  The buck stood lordly erect, facing the east, as if
he would do homage to, or receive homage from, the rising sun, whose
yellow beams fell full upon his uplifted front.  The thought of her
mind, the fear of her heart, were plain.  The buck would soon move;
when he moved, which way would he move?  Would he go from or come
toward her?  Would she get him, or would she lose him?  Oh, the agony
of that thought!

"God of the starving," burst from her quivering lips, "let not my
children die!"

Many prayers more ornate rose that day to Him whose ears are open to
all cries.  But of all that prayed on that Christmas morn, whether with
few words or many, surely, no heart rose with the seeking words more
earnestly than the poor woman kneeling as she prayed, rifle in hand,
amid the snow.

"God of the starving, let not my children die!"

That was her prayer; and, as if in answer to her agonizing petition,
the buck turned and began to advance directly toward her, browsing as
he came.  Once he stopped, looked around, and snuffed the air
suspiciously.  Had he scented her presence, and would he bound away?
Should she fire now?  No; her judgment told her she could not trust the
gun or her aim at such a range.  He must come nigher,--come even to the
big maple, and stand there, not ten rods away; then she felt sure she
should get him.  So she waited.  Oh, how the cold ate into her!  How
her teeth chattered as the chills ran their torturing  courses through
her thin, shivering frame!  But still she clutched the cold barrel, and
still she watched and waited, and still she prayed,--

"God of the starving, let not my children die!"

Alas, poor woman!  My own body shivers as I think of thine, and my pen
falters to write what misery befell thee on that wretched morn.

Did the buck turn?  Did he, having come so tantalizingly near, retrace
his steps?  No.  He continued to advance.  Had Heaven heard her prayer?
Her soul answered it had; and with such feelings in it toward Him to
whom she had appealed as she had not felt in all her life before, she
steadied herself for the shot.  For even as she prayed, the deer came
on,--came to the big maple, and lifted his muzzle to its highest reach
to seize with his tongue a thin streamer of moss that lay against the
smooth bark.  There he stood, his blue-brown side full toward her,
unconscious of her presence.  Noiselessly she cocked the piece.
Noiselessly she raised it to her face, and with every nerve drawn to
its tightest tension, sighted the noble game, and--_fired_.

[Illustration: The deer came to the big maple]

Had the frosty air watered her eye? was it a tear of joy and gratitude
that dimmed the clearness of its sight? or were the half-frozen fingers
unable to steady the cold barrel at the instant of its explosion?  We
know not.  We only know that in spite of prayer, in spite of noblest
effort, she missed the game.  For, as the rifle cracked, the buck gave
a snort of fear, and with swift bounds flew up the mountain; while the
poor woman, dropping the gun with a groan, fell fainting on the snow.



III.

At the same moment the rifle sounded, two men, the Trapper with his
pack, and Wild Bill with his sled heavily loaded, were descending the
western slope of the mountain, not a mile from the clearing in which
stood the lonely cabin.  The sound of the piece brought them to a halt
as quickly as if the bullet had cut through the air in front of their
faces.  For several minutes both stood in the attitude of listening.

"Down into the snow with ye, pups!" exclaimed the Trapper, in a hoarse
whisper.  "Down into the snow with ye, I say!  Rover, ef ye lift yer
muzzle agin, I'll warm yer back with the ramrod.  By the Lord, Bill,
the buck is comin' this way; ye can see his horns lift above the leetle
balsams as he breaks through the thicket yender.  Ef he strikes the
runway, he'll sartinly come within range;" and the old Trapper slipped
his arms from the pack, and, lowering it to the earth, sank on his
knees beside it, where he waited as motionless as if the breath had
departed his body.

Onward came the game.  As the Trapper had suggested, the buck, with
mighty and far-reaching bounds, cleared the shrubby obstructions, and,
entering the runway, tore up the familiar path with the violence of a
tornado.  Onward he came, his head flung upward, his antlers laid well
back, tongue lolling from his mouth, and his nostrils smoking with the
hot breaths that burst in streaming columns from them.  Not until his
swift career had brought him exactly in front of his position did the
old man stir a muscle.  But then, quick as the motion of the leaping
game, his rifle jumped to his cheek, and even as the buck was at the
central point of his leap, and suspended in the air, the piece cracked
sharp and clear, and the deer, stricken to his death, fell with a crash
to the ground.  The quivering hounds rose to their feet, and bayed long
and deep; Wild Bill swung his hat and yelled; and for a moment the
woods rang with the wild cries of dogs and man.

[Illustration: The piece cracked sharp and clear]

"Lord-a-massy, Bill, what a mouth ye have when ye open it!" exclaimed
the Trapper, as he leisurely poured the powder into the still smoking
barrel.  "Atween ye and the pups, it's enough to drive a man crazy.  I
should sartinly think ye had never seed a deer shot afore, by the way
ye be actin'."

"I've seen a good many, as you know, John Norton; but I never saw one
tumbled over by a single bullet when at the very top of his jump, as
that one was.  I surely thought you had waited too long, and I wouldn't
have given a cent for your chances when you pulled.  It was a wonderful
shot, John Norton, and I would take just such another tramp as I have
had, to see you do it again, old man."

"It wasn't bad," returned the Trapper; "no, it sartinly wasn't bad, fur
he was goin' as ef the Old Harry was arter him.  I shouldn't wonder ef
he had felt the tech of lead down there in the holler, and the smart of
his hurt kept him flyin'.  Let's go and look him over, and see ef we
can't find the markin's of the bullit on him."

In a moment the two stood above the dead deer.

"It is as I thought," said the Trapper, as he pointed with his ramrod
to a stain of blood on one of the hams of the buck.  "The bullit drove
through his thigh here, but it didn't tech the bone, and was a sheer
waste of lead, fur it only sot him goin' like an arrer.  Bill, I
sartinly doubt," continued the old man, as he measured the noble animal
with his eye, "I sartinly doubt ef I ever seed a bigger deer.  There's
seven prongs on his horns, and I'd bet a horn of powder agin a
chargerful that he'd weigh three hundred pounds as he lies.  Lord, what
a Christmas gift he'll be fur the woman!  The skin will make a blanket
fit fur a queen to sleep under, and the meat, jediciously cared for,
will last her all winter.  We must manage to git it to the edge of the
clearin', anyhow, or the wolves might make free with our venison, Bill.
Yer sled is a strong un, and it'll bear the loadin', ef ye go keerful."

The Trapper and his companion set themselves to their task with the
energy of men accustomed to surmount every obstacle, and in a short
half-hour the sled, with its double loading, stopped at the door of the
lonely cabin.

"I don't understand this, Wild Bill," said the Trapper.  "Here be a
woman's tracks in the snow, and the door be left a leetle ajar, but
there be no smoke in the chimney, and they sartinly ain't very noisy
inside.  I'll jest give a knock or two, and see ef they be stirrin';"
and, suiting the action to the word, he knocked long and loud on the
large door.  But to his noisy summons there came no response, and
without a moment of farther hesitation he shoved open the door, and
entered.  "God of marcy!  Wild Bill," exclaimed the Trapper, "look in
here!"

A huge room dimly lighted, holes in the roof, here and there a heap of
snow on the floor, an immense fireplace with no fire in it, and a group
of scared, wild-looking children huddled together in the farther
corner, like young and timid animals that had fled in affright from the
nest where they had slept, at some fearful intrusion.  That is what the
Trapper saw.

"I"--Whatever Wild Bill was about to say, his astonishment, and we may
add his pity, were too profound for him to complete his ejaculation.

"Don't ye be afeerd, leetle uns," said the Trapper, as he advanced into
the centre of the room to more fully survey the wretched place.  "This
be Christmas morn, and me and Wild Bill and the pups have come over the
mountain to wish ye all a merry Christmas.  But where be yer mother?"
queried the old man, as he looked kindly at the startled group.  "We
don't know where she is," answered the older of the two girls; "we
thought she was in bed with us, till you woke us.  We don't know where
she has gone."

"I have it, I have it, Wild Bill!" exclaimed the Trapper, whose eyes
had been busy scanning the place while talking with the children.  "The
rifle be gone from the hangings, and the tracks in the snow be hern.
Yis, yis, I see it all.  She went out in hope of gittin' the leetle uns
here somethin' to eat, and that was her rifle we heerd, and her bullet
made that hole in the ham of the buck.  What a disappointment to the
poor creetur when she seed she hadn't hit him!  Her heart eena'most
broke, I dare say.  But the Lord was in it--leastwise, he didn't go
ag'in the proper shapin' of things arterwards.  Come, Bill, let's stir
round lively, and get the shanty in shape a leetle, and some vict'als
on the table afore she comes.  Yis, git out yer axe, and slash into
that dead beech at the corner of the cabin, while I sorter clean up
inside.  A fire is the fust thing on sech a mornin' as this; so scurry
round, Bill, and bring in the wood as ef ye was a good deal in 'arnest,
and do ye cut to the measure of the fireplace, and don't waste yer time
in shortenin' it, fur the longer the fireplace, the longer the wood;
that is, ef ye want to make it a heater."

His companion obeyed with alacrity; and by the time the Trapper had
cleaned out the snow, and swept down the soot from the sides of the
fireplace, and put things partially to rights, Bill had stacked the dry
logs into the huge opening, nearly to the upper jamb, and, with the
help of some large sheets of birch-bark, kindled them to a flame.
"Come here, leetle uns," said the Trapper, as he turned his
good-natured face toward the children,--"come here, and put yer leetle
feet on the h'arthstun, fur it's warmin', and I conceit yer toes be
about freezin'."

It was not in the power of children to withstand the attraction of such
an invitation, extended with such a hearty voice and such benevolence
of feature.  The children came promptly forward, and stood in a row on
the great stone, and warmed their little shivering bodies by the
abundant flames.

"Now, leetle folks," said the Trapper, "jest git yerselves well warmed,
then git on what clothes ye've got, and we'll have some
breakfast,--yis, we'll have breakfast ready by the time yer mother gits
back, fur I know where she be gone, and she'll be hungry and cold when
she gits in.  I don't conceit that this little chap here can help much,
but ye girls be big enough to help a good deal.  So, when ye be warm,
do ye put away the bed to the furderest corner, and shove out the table
in front of the fire, and put on the dishes, sech as ye have, and be
smart about it, too, fur yer mother will sartinly be comin' soon, and
we must be ahead of her with the cookin'."

What a change the next half-hour made in the appearance of the cabin!
The huge fire sent its heat to the farthest corner of the great room.
The miserable bed had been removed out of sight, and the table, drawn
up in front of the fire, was set with the needed dishes.  On the
hearthstone a large platter of venison steak, broiled by the Trapper's
skill, simmered in the heat.  A mighty pile of cakes, brown to a turn,
flanked one side, while a stack of potatoes baked in the ashes
supported the other.  The teapot sent forth its refreshing odor through
the room.  The children, with their faces washed and hair partially, at
least, combed, ran about with bare feet on the warm floor, comfortable
and happy.  To them it was as a beautiful dream.  The breakfast was
ready, and the visitors sat waiting for the coming of her to whose
assistance the angel of Christmas Eve had sent them.

"Sh!" whispered the Trapper, whose quick ear had caught the sound of a
dragging step in the snow.  "She's comin'!"

Too weary and faint, too sick at heart and exhausted in body to observe
the unaccustomed signs of human presence around her dwelling, the poor
woman dragged herself to the door, and opened it.  The gun she still
held in her hand fell rattling to the floor, and, with eyes wildly
opened, she gazed bewildered at the spectacle.  The blazing fire, the
set table, the food on the hearthstone, the smiling children, the two
men!  She passed her hands across her eyes as one waking from sleep.
Was she dreaming?  Was this cabin the miserable hut she had left at
daybreak?  Was that the same fireplace in front of whose cold and
cheerless recess she had crouched the night before?  And were those two
strangers there men, or were they angels?  Was what she saw real, or
was it only a fevered vision born of her weakness?

Her senses actually reeled to and fro, and she trembled for a moment on
the verge of unconsciousness.  Indeed, the shock was so overwhelming
that in another instant she would have swooned and fallen to the floor
had not the growing faintness been checked by the sound of a human
voice.

"A merry Christmas to ye, my good woman," said the Trapper.  "A merry
Christmas to ye and yourn!"

The woman started as the hearty tones fell on her ear, and, steadying
herself by the door, she said, speaking as one partially dazed,--

"Are you John Norton the Trapper, or are you an ang--"

"Ye needn't sight agin," interrupted the old man.  "Yis, I'm old John
Norton himself, nothin' better and nothin' wuss; and the man in the
chair here by my side is Wild Bill, and ye couldn't make an angel out
of him, ef ye tried from now till next Christmas.  Yis, my good woman,
I'm John Norton, and this is Wild Bill, and we've come over the
mountain to wish ye a merry Christmas, ye and yer leetle uns, and help
ye keep the day; and, ye see, we've been stirrin' a leetle in yer
absence, and breakfast be waitin'.  Wild Bill and me will jest go out
and cut a leetle more wood, while ye warm and wash yerself; and when ye
be ready to eat, ye may call us, and we'll see which can git into the
house fust."

So saying, the Trapper, followed by his companion, passed out of the
door, while the poor woman, without a word, moved toward the fire, and,
casting one look at her children, at the table, at the food on the
hearthstone, dropped on her knees by a chair, and buried her face in
her hands.

"I say," said Wild Bill to the Trapper, as he crept softly away from
the door, to which he had returned to shut it more closely, "I say,
John Norton, the woman is on her knees by a chair."

"Very likely, very likely," returned the old man reverently; and then
he began to chop vigorously at a huge log, with his back toward his
comrade.

Perhaps some of you who read this tale will come some time, when weary
and heart-sick, to something drearier than an empty house, some bleak,
cold day, some lonely morn, and with a starving heart and benumbed
soul,--ay, and empty-handed, too,--enter in only to find it swept and
garnished, and what you most needed and longed for waiting for you.
Then will you, too, drop upon your knees, and cover your face with your
hands, ashamed that you had murmured against the hardness of your lot,
or forgotten the goodness of Him who suffered you to be tried only that
you might more fully appreciate the triumph.

"My good woman," said the Trapper, when the breakfast was eaten, "we've
come, as we said, to spend the day with you; and accordin' to
custom--and a pleasant un it be fur sartin--we've brought ye some
presents.  A good many of them come from him who called on ye as he and
me passed through the lake last fall.  I dare say ye remember him, and
he sartinly has remembered ye.  Fur last evening when I was makin' up a
leetle pack to bring ye myself,--fur I conceited I had better come over
and spend the day with ye,--Wild Bill came to my door with a box on his
sled that the boy had sent in from his home in the city; and in the box
he had put a great many presents fur him and me; and in the lower half
of the box he had put a good many presents fur ye and yer leetle uns,
and we've brought them all over with us.  Some of the things be fur
eatin' and some of them be fur wearin'; and that there may be no
misunderstanding I would say that all the things that be in the
pack-basket there, and all the things that be on the sled, too, belong
to ye.  And as I see the woodpile isn't a very big un fur this time of
the year, Bill and me be goin' out to settle our breakfast a leetle
with the axes.  And while we be gone, I conceit ye had better rummage
the things over, and them that be good fur eatin' ye had better put in
the cupboard, and them that be good fur wearin' ye had better put on
yerself and yer leetle uns; and then we'll all be ready to make a fair
start.  Fur this be Christmas Day, and we be goin' to keep it as it
orter be kept.  Ef we've had sorrers, we'll forgit 'em; and we'll
laugh, and eat, and be merry.  Fur this be Christmas, my good woman!
children, this be Christmas!  Wild Bill, my boy, this be Christmas; and
pups, this be Christmas!  And we'll all laugh, and eat, and be merry."

The joyfulness of the old man was contagious.  His happiness flowed
over as waters flow over the rim of a fountain.  Wild Bill laughed as
he seized his axe, the woman rose from the table smiling, the girls
giggled, the little boy stamped, and the hounds, catching the spirit of
their merry master, swung their tails round, and bayed in canine
gladness; and amid the joyful uproar the old Trapper spun himself out
of the door, and chased Wild Bill through the snow like a boy.

The dinner was to be served at two o'clock; and what a dinner it was,
and what preparations preceded!  The snow had been shovelled from
around the cabin, the holes in the roof roughly but effectually
thatched.  A good pile of wood was stacked in front of the doorway.
The spring that bubbled from the bank had been cleared of ice, and a
protection constructed over it.  The huge buck had been dressed, and
hung high above the reach of wolves.  Cedar and balsam branches had
been placed in the corners and along the sides of the room.  Great
sprays of the tasselled pine and the feathery tamarack were suspended
from the ceiling.  The table had been enlarged, and extra seats
extemporized.  The long-unused oven had been cleaned out, and under its
vast dome the red flames flashed and rolled upward.  What a change a
few hours had brought to that lonely cabin and its wretched inmates!
The woman, dressed in her new garments, her hair smoothly combed, her
face lighted with smiles, looked positively comely.  The girls, happy
in their fine clothes and marvellous toys, danced round the room, wild
with delight; while the little boy strutted about the floor in his new
boots, proudly showing them to each person for the hundredth time.

The hostess's attention was equally divided between the temperature of
the oven and the adornment of the table.  A snow-white sheet, one of a
dozen she had found in the box, was drafted peremptorily into service,
and did duty as a tablecloth.  Oh, the innocent and funny make-shifts
of poverty, and the goodly distance it can make a little go!  Perhaps
some of us, as we stand in our rich dining-rooms, and gaze with pride
at the silver, the gold, the cut-glass, and the transparent china, can
recall a little kitchen in a homely house far away, where our good
mothers once set their tables for their guests, and what a brave show
the few extra dishes made when they brought them out on the rare
festive days!

However it might strike you, fair reader, to the poor woman and her
guests there was nothing incongruous in a sheet serving as a
tablecloth.  Was it not white and clean and properly shaped, and would
it not have been a tablecloth if it hadn't been a sheet?  How very nice
and particular some people can be over the trifling matter of a name!
And this sheet had no right to be a sheet; for any one with half an eye
could see at a glance that it was predestined from the first to be a
tablecloth, for it sat as smoothly on the wooden surface as pious looks
on a deacon's face, while the easy and nonchalant way it draped itself
at the corners was perfectly jaunty.

The edges of this square of white sheeting that had thus providentially
found its true and predestined use were ornamented with the leaves of
the wild myrtle, stitched on in the form of scallops.  In the centre,
with a brave show of artistic skill, were the words, "Merry Christmas,"
prettily worked with the small brown cones of the pines.  This, the
joint product of Wild Bill's industry and the woman's taste, commanded
the enthusiastic admiration of all; and even the little boy, from the
height of a chair into which he had climbed, was profoundly affected by
the show it made.

The Trapper had charge of the meat department, and it is safe to say
that no Delmonico could undertake to serve venison in greater variety
than did he.  To him it was a grand occasion, and--in a culinary
sense--he rose grandly to meet it.  What bosom is without its little
vanities? and shall we laugh at the dear old man because he looked upon
the opportunity before him with feeling other than pure
benevolence,--even of complacency that what he was doing was being done
as no one else could do it?

There was venison roasted, and venison broiled, and venison fried;
there was hashed venison, and venison spitted; there was a side-dish of
venison sausage, strong with the odor of sage, and slightly dashed with
wild thyme; and a huge kettle of soup, on whose rich creamy surface
pieces of bread and here and there a slice of potato floated.

"I tell ye, Bill," said the Trapper to his companion, as he stirred the
soup with a long ladle, "this pot isn't actilly runnin' over with
taters, but ye can see a bit occasionally ef ye look sharp and keep the
ladle goin' round pretty lively.  No, the taters ain't over-plenty,"
continued the old man, peering into the pot, and sinking his voice to a
whisper, "but there wasn't but fifteen in the bag, and the woman took
twelve of 'em fur her kittle, and ye can't make three taters look
actilly crowded in two gallons of soup, can ye, Bill?"  And the old man
punched that personage in the ribs with the thumb of the hand that was
free from service, while he kept the ladle going with the other.

"Lord!" exclaimed the Trapper, speaking to Bill, who, having taken a
look into the old man's kettle, was digging his knuckles into his eyes
to free them from the spray that was jetted into them from the
fountains of mirth within that were now in full play,--"Lord! ef there
isn't another piece of tater gone all to pieces!  Bill, ef I make
another circle with this ladle, there won't be a whole slice left, and
ye'll swear there wasn't a tater in the soup."  And the two men, with
their faces within twenty inches, laughed and laughed like boys.

How sweet it is to think that when the Maker set up this strange
instrument we call ourselves, and strung it for service, he selected of
the heavy chords so few, and of the lighter ones so many!  Some muffled
ones there are; some slow and solemn sounds swell sadly forth at
intervals, but blessed be God that we are so easily tickled, and the
world is so funny that within it, even when exiled from home and
friends, we find, as the days come and go, the causes and occasions of
hilarity!

Wild Bill had been placed in charge of the liquids.  What a satire
there is in circumstances, and how those of to-day laugh at those of
yesterday!  Yes, Wild Bill had charge of the liquids,--no mean charge,
when the occasion is considered.  Nor was the position without its
embarrassments, as few honorable positions are, for it brought him face
to face with the problem of the day--dishes; for, between the two cooks
of the occasion, every dish in the cabin had been brought into
requisition, and poor Bill was left in the predicament of having to
make tea and coffee with no pots to make them in.

But Bill was not lacking in wit, if he was in pots, and he solved the
conundrum how to make tea without a teapot in a manner that extorted
the woman's laughter, and commanded the old Trapper's admiration.

In ransacking the lofts above the apartment, he had lighted on several
large, stone jugs, which, with the courage--shall we call it the
audacity?--of genius, he had seized upon; and, having thoroughly rinsed
them, and freed them from certain odors,--which we are free to say Bill
was more or less familiar with,--he brought them forward as substitutes
for kettle and pot.  Indeed, they worked admirably, for in them the
berry and the leaves might not only be properly steeped, but the flavor
could be retained beyond what it might in many of our famous and
high-sounding patented articles.

But Bill, while ingenious and courageous to the last degree, was
lacking in education, especially in scientific directions.  He had
never been made acquainted with that great promoter of modern
civilization--the expansive properties of steam.  The corks he had
whittled out for his bravely extemporized tea and coffee pots were of
the closest fit; and, as they had been inserted with the energy of a
man who, having conquered a serious difficulty, is determined to reap
the full benefit of his triumph, there was at least no danger that the
flavor of the concoctions would escape through any leakage at the
muzzle.  Having thus prepared them for steeping, he placed the jugs in
his corner of the fireplace, and pushed them well up through the ashes
to the live coals.

"Wild Bill," said the Trapper, who wished to give his companion the
needed warning in as delicate and easy a manner as possible, "Wild
Bill, ye have sartinly got the right idee techin' the makin' of tea and
coffee, fur the yarb should be steeped, and the berry too,--leastwise,
arter it's biled up once or twice,--and therefore it be only reasonable
that the nozzles should be closed moderately tight; but a man wants
considerable experience in the business, or he's likely to overdo it
jest a leetle, and ef ye don't cut some slots in them wooden corks
ye've driven into them nozzles, Bill, there'll be a good deal of tea
and coffee floatin' round in your corner of the fireplace afore many
minutes, and I conceit there'll be a man about your size lookin' for a
couple of corks and pieces of jugs out there in the clearin', too."

"Do you think so?" answered Bill incredulously.  "Don't you be scared,
old man, but keep on stirring your soup and turning the meat, and I'll
keep my eye on the bottles."

"That's right, Bill," returned the Trapper; "ye keep yer eye right on
'em, specially on that un that's furderest in toward the butt of the
beech log there; fur ef there's any vartue in signs, that jug be
gittin' oneasy.  Yis," continued the old man, after a minute's pause,
during which his eye hadn't left the jug, "yis, that jug will want more
room afore many minutes, ef I'm any jedge, and I conceit I had better
give it the biggest part of the fireplace;" and the Trapper hastily
moved the soap and his half-dozen plates of cooked meats to the other
end of the hearthstone, whither he retired himself, like one who,
feeling that he is called upon to contend with unknown forces, wisely
beats a retreat.  He even put himself behind a stack of wood that lay
piled up in his corner, like one who does not despise, in a sudden
emergency, an artificial protection.

"Bill," called the Trapper, "edge round a leetle,--edge round, and git
in closer to the jamb.  It's sheer foolishness standin' where ye be,
fur the water will be wallopin' in a minit, and ef the corks be swelled
in the nozzle, there'll be an explosion.  Git in toward the jamb, and
watch the ambushment under kiver."

"Old man," answered Bill, as he turned his back carelessly toward the
fireplace, "I've got the bearin's of this trail, and know what I'm
about.  The jugs are as strong as iron kittles, and I ain't afraid of
their bust"--

Bill never finished the sentence, for the explosion predicted by the
Trapper occurred.  It was a tremendous one, and the huge fireplace was
filled with flying brands, ashes, and clouds of steam.  The Trapper
ducked his head, the woman screamed, and the hounds rushed howling to
the farthest end of the room; while Bill, with half a somersault,
disappeared under the table.

"Hurrah!" shouted the Trapper, lifting his head from behind the wood,
and critically surveying the scene.  "Hurrah, Bill!" he shouted, as he
swung the ladle over his head.  "Come out from under the table, and man
yer battery agin.  Yer old mortars was loaded to the muzzle, and ef ye
had depressed the pieces a leetle, ye'd 'a' blowed the cabin to
splinters; as it was, the chimney got the biggest part of the chargin',
and ye'll find yer rammers on the other side of the mountain."

It was, in truth, a scene of uproarious hilarity; for once the
explosion was over, and the woman and children saw there was no danger,
and apprehended the character of the performance, they joined
unrestrainedly in the Trapper's laughter, in which they were assisted
by Wild Bill, as if he were not the victim of his own over-confidence.

"I say, old Trapper," he called from under the table, "did both guns go
off?  I was gitting under cover when the battery opened, and didn't
notice whether the firing was in sections or along the whole line.  If
there's a piece left, I think I will stay where I am; for I am in a
good position to observe the range, and watch the effect of the shot.
I say, hadn't you better get behind the wood-pile again?"

"No, no," interrupted the Trapper; "the whole battery went at the word,
Bill, and there isn't a gun or a gun-carriage left in the casement.
Ye've wasted a gill of the yarb, and a quarter of a pound of the berry;
and ye must hurry up with another outfit of bottles, or we'll have
nothin' but water to drink at the dinner."

The dinner!  That great event of the day, the crown and diadem to its
royalty, and which became it so well, was ready promptly to the hour.
The table, enlarged as it was to nearly double its original dimensions,
could scarcely accommodate the abundance of the feast.  Ah, if some
sweet power would only enlarge our hearts when, on festive days, we
enlarge our tables, how many of the world's poor, that now go hungry
while we feast, would then be fed!

At one end of the table sat the Trapper, Wild Bill at the other.  The
woman's chair was at the centre of one of the sides, so that she sat
facing the fire, whose generous flames might well symbolize the
abundance which amid cold and hunger had so suddenly come to her.  On
her right hand the two girls sat; on her left, the boy.  A goodly
table, a goodly fire, and a goodly company,--what more could the Angel
of Christmas ask to see?

Thus were they seated, ready to begin the repast; but the plates
remained untouched, and the happy noises which had to that moment
filled the cabin ceased; for the Angel of Silence, with noiseless step,
had suddenly entered the room.  There's a silence of grief, there's a
silence of hatred, there's a silence of dread; of these, men may speak,
and these they can describe.  But the silence of our happiness, who can
describe that?  When the heart is full, when the long longing is
suddenly met, when love gives to love abundantly, when the soul lacketh
nothing and is content,--then language is useless, and the Angel of
Silence becomes our only adequate interpreter.  A humble table, surely,
and humble folk around it; but not in the houses of the rich or the
palaces of kings does gratitude find her only home, but in more lowly
abodes and with lowly folk--ay, and often at the scant table, too--she
sitteth a perpetual guest.  Was it memory?  Did the Trapper at that
brief moment visit his absent friend?  Did Wild Bill recall his wayward
past?  Were the thoughts of the woman busy with sweet scenes of earlier
days?  And did memory, by thus reminding them of the absent and the
past, of the sweet things that had been and were, stir within their
hearts thoughts of Him from whom all gifts descend, and of His blessed
Son, in whose honor the day was named?

O memory! thou tuneful bell that ringeth on forever, friend at our
feasts, and friend, too, let us call thee, at our burial, what music
can equal thine?  For in thy mystic globe all tunes abide,--the
birthday note for kings, the marriage peal, the funeral knell, the
gleeful jingle of merry mirth, and those sweet chimes that float our
thoughts, like fragrant ships upon a fragrant sea, toward heaven,--all
are thine!  Ring on, thou tuneful bell; ring on, while these glad ears
may drink thy melody; and when thy chimes are heard by me no more, ring
loud and clear above my grave that peal which echoes to the heavens,
and tells the world of immortality, that they who come to mourn may
check their tears, and say, "_Why do we weep?  He liveth still!_"

"The Lord be praised fur his goodness!" said the Trapper, whose
thoughts unconsciously broke into speech.  "The Lord be praised fur his
goodness, and make us grateful fur his past marcies, and the plenty
that be here!"  And looking down upon the viands spread before him, he
added, "The Lord be good to the boy, and make him as happy in his city
home as be they who be wearin' and eatin' his gifts in the woods!"

"Amen!" said the woman softly, and a grateful tear fell on her plate.

"A--hem!" said Wild Bill; and then looking down upon his warm suit, he
lifted his voice, and bringing it out in a clear, strong tone, said,
"_Amen! hit or miss!_"

At many a table that day more formal grace was said, by priest and
layman alike, and at many a table, by lips of old and young, response
was given to the benediction; but we doubt if over all the earth a more
honest grace was said or assented to than the Lord heard from the cabin
in the woods.

The feast and the merry-making now began.  The old Trapper was in his
best mood, and fairly bubbled over with humor.  The wit of Wild Bill
was naturally keen, and it flashed at its best as he ate.  The children
stuffed and laughed as only children on such an elastic occasion can.
And as for the poor woman, it was impossible for her, in the midst of
such a scene, to be otherwise than happy, and she joined modestly in
the conversation, and laughed heartily at the witty sallies.

But why should we strive to put on paper the wise, the funny, and the
pleasant things that were said, the exclamations, the laughter, the
story, the joke, the verbal thrust and parry of such an occasion?
These, springing from the centre of the circumstance, and flashed into
being at the instant, cannot be preserved for after-rehearsal.  Like
the effervescence of champagne, they jet and are gone; their force
passes away with the noise that accompanied its out-coming.

Is it not enough to record that the dinner was a success, that the
Trapper's meats were put upon the table in a manner worthy of his
reputation, that the woman's efforts at pastry-making were generously
applauded, and that Wild Bill's tea and coffee were pronounced by the
hostess the best she had ever tasted?  Perhaps no meal was ever more
enjoyed, as certainly none was ever more heartily eaten.

[Illustration: Perhaps no meal was ever more enjoyed]

The wonder and pride of the table was the pudding,--a creation of
Indian-meal, flour, suet, and raisins, re-enforced and assisted by
innumerable spicy elements supposed to be too mysterious to be grasped
by the masculine mind.  In the production of this wonderful
centre-piece,--for it had been unanimously voted the place of
honor,--the poor woman had summoned all the latent resources of her
skill, and in reference to it her pride and fear contended, while the
anxiety with which she rose to serve it was only too plainly depicted
on her countenance.  What if it should prove a failure?  What if she
had made a miscalculation as to the amount of suet required,--a point
upon which she had been somewhat confused?  What if the raisins were
not sufficiently distributed?  What if it wasn't done through, and
should turn out pasty?  Great heavens!  The last thought was of so
overwhelming a character that no feminine courage could encounter it.
Who may describe the look with which she watched the Trapper as he
tasted it, or the expression of relief which brightened her anxious
face when he pronounced warmly in its favor?

"It's a wonderful bit of cookin'," he said, addressing himself to Wild
Bill, "and I sartinly doubt ef there be anything in the settlements
to-day that can equal it.  There be jest enough of the suet, and there
be a plum fur every mouthful; and it be solid enough to stay in the
mouth ontil ye've had time to chew it, and git a taste of the
corn,--and I wouldn't give a cent for a puddin' ef it gits away from
yer teeth fast.  Yis, it be a wonderful bit of cookin'," and, turning
to the woman, he added, "ye may well be proud of it."

What higher praise could be bestowed?  And as it was re-echoed by all
present, and plate after plate was passed for a second filling, the
dinner came to an end with the greatest good feeling and hilarity.



IV.

"Now fur the sled!" exclaimed the Trapper, as he rose from the table.
"It be a good many years since I've straddled one, but nothin' settles
a dinner quicker, or suits the leetle folks better.  I conceit the
crust be thick enough to bear us up, and, ef it is, we can fetch a
course from the upper edge of the clearin' fifty rods into the lake.
Come, childun, git on yer mittens and yer tippets, and h'ist along to
the big pine, and ye shall have some fun ye won't forgit ontil yer
heads be whiter than mine."

It is needless to record that the children hailed with delight the
proposition of the Trapper, or that they were at the appointed spot
long before the speaker and his companion reached it with the sled.

"Wild Bill," said the Trapper, as they stood on the crest of the slope
down which they were to glide, "the crust be smooth as glass, and the
hill be a steep un.  I sartinly doubt ef mortal man ever rode faster
than this sled'll be goin' by the time it gits to where the bank
pitches into the lake; and ef ye should git a leetle careless in yer
steering Bill, and hit a stump, I conceit that nothin' but the help of
the Lord or the rottenness of the stump would save ye from etarnity."

Now, Wild Bill was blessed with a sanguine temperament.  To him no
obstacle seemed serious if bravely faced.  Indeed, his natural
confidence in himself bordered on recklessness, to which the drinking
habits of his life had, perhaps, contributed.

When the Trapper had finished speaking, Bill ran his eye carelessly
down the steep hillside, smooth and shiny as polished steel, and said,
"Oh, this isn't anything extry for a hill.  I've steered a good many
steeper ones, and in nights when the moon was at the half, and the sled
overloaded at that.  It don't make any difference how fast you go," he
added, "if you only keep in the path, and don't hit anything."

"That's it, that's it," replied the Trapper.  "But the trouble here be
to keep in the path, fur, in the fust place, there isn't any path, and
the stumps be pretty thick, and I doubt ef ye can line a trail from
here to the bank by the lake without one or more sudden twists in it,
and a twist in the trail, goin' as fast as we'll be goin', has got to
be taken jediciously, or somethin' will happen.  I say, Bill, what
p'int will ye steer fur?"

Wild Bill, thus addressed, proceeded to give his opinion touching the
proper direction of the flight they were to make.  Indeed, he had been
closely examining the ground while the Trapper was speaking, and
therefore gave his opinion promptly and with confidence.

"Ye have chosen the course with jedgment," said the old man
approvingly, after he had studied the line his companion pointed out
critically for a moment.  "Yis, Bill, ye have a nateral eye for the
business, and I sartinly have more confidence in ye than I had a minit
ago, when ye was talkin' about a steeper hill than this; fur this hill
drops mighty sudden in the pitches, and the crust be smooth as ice, and
the sled'll go like a streak when it gits started.  But the course
ye've p'inted out be a good un, fur there be only one bad turn in it,
and good steerin' orter put a sled round that.  I say," continued the
old man, turning toward his companion, and pointing out the crook in
the course at the bottom of the second dip, "can ye swing around that
big stump there without upsettin' when ye come to it?"

"Swing around?  Of course I can," retorted Wild Bill positively.
"There's plenty room to the left, and"--

"Ay, ay; there be plenty of room, as ye say, ef ye don't take too much
of it," interrupted the Trapper.  "But"--

"I tell you," broke in the other, "I'll turn my back to no man in
steering a sled; and I can put this sled, and you on it, around that
stump a hundred times, and never lift a runner."

"Well, well," responded the Trapper, "have it your own way.  I dare say
ye be good at steerin', and I sartinly know I'm good at ridin'; and I
can ride as fast as ye can steer, ef ye hit every stump in the
clearin'.  Now, childun," continued the old man, turning to the little
group, "we be goin' to try the course; and ef the crust holds up, and
Wild Bill keeps clear of the stumps, and nothin' onusual happens, ye
shall have all the slidin' ye want afore ye go in.  Come, Bill, git yer
sled p'inted right, and I'll be gittin' on, and we'll see ef ye can
steer an old man round a stump as handily as ye say ye can."

The directions of the Trapper were promptly obeyed, and in an instant
the sled was in a right position, and the Trapper proceeded to seat
himself with the carefulness of one who feels he is embarking on a
somewhat uncertain venture, and has grave misgivings as to what will be
the upshot of the undertaking.  The sled was large and strongly built;
and it added not a little to his comfort to feel that he could put
entire confidence in the structure beneath them.

"The sled'll hold," he said to himself, "ef the loadin' goes to the
jedgment."

The Trapper was no sooner seated than Wild Bill threw himself upon the
sled, with one leg under him and the other stretched at full length
behind.  This was a method of steering that had come into vogue since
the Trapper's boyhood, for in his day the steersman sat astride the
sled, with his feet thrust forward, and steered by the pressure of
either heel upon the snow.

[Illustration: One leg under him and the other stretched at full length
behind]

"Hold on, Bill!" exclaimed the Trapper, whose eye this novel method of
steering had not escaped.  "Hold on, and hold up a minit.  Heavens and
'arth! ye don't mean to steer this sled with one toe, do ye, and that,
too, the length of a rifle-barrel astarn?  Wheel round, and spread yer
legs out as ye orter, and steer this sled in an honest fashion, or
there'll be trouble aboard afore ye git to the bottom."

"Sit round!" retorted Bill.  "How could I see to steer if I was sitting
right back of you?  For you're nigh a foot taller than I be, and your
shoulders are as broad as the sled."

"Yer p'ints be well taken, fur sartin," replied the Trapper; "fur it be
no more than reasonable that the man that steers should see where he be
goin', and I am anxious as ye be that ye should.  Yis, I sartinly want
ye to see where ye be goin' on this trip, anyhow, fur the crew be a
fresh un, and the channel be a leetle crooked.  But be ye sartin, Bill,
that ye can fetch round that stump there as it orter be did, with
nothin' but yer toe out behind?  It may be the best way, as ye say, but
it don't look like honest steerin' to a man of my years."

"I have used both ways," answered Bill, "and I give you my word, old
man, that this is the best one.  You can git a big swing with your foot
stretched out in this fashion, and the sled feels the least pressure of
the toe.  Yes, it's all right.  John Norton, are you ready?"

"Yis, yis, as ready as I ever shall be," answered the Trapper, in a
voice in which doubt and resignation were equally mingled.  "It may be
as ye say," he continued; "but the rudder be too fur behind to suit me,
and ef anything happens on this cruise, jest remember, Wild Bill, that
my jedgment"--

The sentence the Trapper was uttering was abruptly cut short at this
point; for Bill had started the sled with a sudden push, and leaped to
his seat behind the Trapper as it glided downward and away.  In an
instant the sled was under full headway, for the dip was a sharp one,
and the crust smooth as ice.  Scarce had it gone ten rods from the
point where it started before it was in full flight, and was gliding
downward with what would have been, to any but a man of the steadiest
nerve, a frightful velocity.  But the Trapper was of too cool and
courageous temperament to be disturbed even by actual danger.  Indeed,
the swiftness of their downward career, as the sled with a buzz and a
roar swept along over the resounding crust, stirred the old man's blood
with a tingle of excitement; while the splendid manner with which Wild
Bill was keeping it to the course settled upon filled him with
admiration, and was fast making him a convert to the new method of
steering.

Downward they flashed.  The Trapper's cap had been blown from his head;
and as the old man sat bolt-upright on his sled, his feet bravely
planted on the round, his face flushed, and his white hair streaming,
he looked the very picture of hearty enjoyment.  Above his head the
face of Wild Bill looked actually sharpened by the pressure of the air
on either cheek as it clove through it; but his lips were bravely set,
and his eyes were fastened without winking on the big stump ahead,
toward which they were rushing.

It was at this point that Wild Bill vindicated his ability as a
steersman, and at the same time barely escaped shipwreck.  At the
proper moment he swept his foot to the left, and the sled, in obedience
to the pressure, swooped in that direction.  But in his anxiety to give
the stump a wide berth, Bill overdid the pressure that was needed a
trifle; for in calculating the curve required he had failed to allow
for the sidewise motion of the sled, and, instead of hitting one stump,
it looked for an instant as if he would be precipitated among a dozen.

"Heave her starn up, Wild Bill! up with her starn, I say," yelled the
Trapper, "or there won't be a stump left in the clearin'."

With a quickness and courage that would have done credit to any
steersman,--for the speed at which they were going was terrific,--Bill
swept his foot to the right, leaning his body well over at the same
instant.  The Trapper instinctively seconded his endeavors, and with
hands that gripped either side of the sled he hung over that side which
was upon the point of going into the air.  For several rods the sled
glided along on a single runner, and then, righting itself with a
lurch, jumped the summit of the last dip, and raced away, like a
swallow in full flight, toward the lake.

Now, at the edge of the clearing that bounded the shore was a bank of
considerable size.  Shrubs and stunted bushes fringed the crest of it.
These had been buried beneath the snow, and the crust had formed
smoothly over them; and as it was upheld by no stronger support than
such as the hidden shrubbery furnished, it was incapable of sustaining
any considerable pressure.

Certainly no sled was ever moving faster than was Wild Bill's, when it
came to this point; and certainly no sled ever stopped quicker, for the
treacherous crust dropped suddenly under it, and the sled was left with
nothing but the hind part of one of the runners sticking up in sight.
But though the sled was suddenly checked in its career, the Trapper and
Wild Bill continued their flight.  The former slid from the sled
without meeting any obstruction, and with the same velocity with which
he had been moving.  Indeed, so little was his position changed, that
one almost might fancy that no accident had happened, and that the old
man was gliding forward to the end of the course with an adequate
structure under him.  But with the latter it "was far different; for,
as the sled stopped, he was projected sharply upward into the air, and,
after turning several somersaults, he actually landed in front of the
Trapper, and glided along on the slippery surface ahead of him.  And so
the two men shot onward, one after the other, while the children
cackled from the hill-top, and the woman swung her bonnet over her
head, and laughed from her position in the doorway.

"Bill," called the Trapper, when by dint of much effort they had
managed to check their motion somewhat, "Bill, ef the cruise be about
over, I conceit we'd better anchor hereabouts.  But I shipped fur the
voyage, and ye be capt'in, and as ye've finally got the right way to
steer, I feel pretty safe techin' the futur."

It was not until they had come to a full stop, and looked around them,
that they realized the distance they had come; for they had in truth
slid nearly across the bay.

"I've boated a good many times on these waters, and under sarcumstances
that called fur 'arnest motion, but I sartinly never went across this
bay as fast as I've did it to-day.  How do ye feel, Bill, how do ye
feel?"

"A good deal shaken up," was the answer, "a good deal shaken up."

"I conceit as much," answered the Trapper, "I conceit as much, fur ye
left the sled with mighty leetle deliberation; and when I saw yer legs
comin' through the air, I sartinly doubted ef the ice would hold ye.
But ye steered with jedgment; yis, ye steered with jedgment, Bill; and
I'd said it ef we'd gone to the bottom."

The sun was already set when they returned to the cabin; for, selecting
a safer course, they had given the children an hour's happy sliding.
The woman had prepared some fresh tea and a lunch, which they ate with
lessened appetites, but with humor that never flagged.  When it was
ended, the old Trapper rose to depart, and with a dignity and
tenderness peculiarly his own, thus spoke:--

"My good woman," he said, "the moon will soon be up, and the time has
come fur me to be goin'.  I've had a happy day with ye and the leetle
uns; and the trail over the mountain will seem shorter, as the pups and
me go home, thinkin' on't.  Wild Bill will stay a few days, and put
things a leetle more to rights, and git up a wood-pile that will keep
ye from choppin' fur a good while.  It's his own thought, and ye can
thank him accordin'ly."  Then, having kissed each of the children, and
spoken a few words to Wild Bill, he took the woman's hand, and said,--

"The sorrers of life be many, but the Lord never forgits.  I've lived
ontil my head be whitenin', and I've noted that though he moves slowly,
he fetches most things round about the time we need 'em; and the things
that be late in comin', I conceit we shall git somewhere furder on.  Ye
didn't kill the big buck this mornin', but the meat ye needed hangs at
yer door, nevertheless."  And, shaking the woman heartily by the hand,
he whistled to the hounds, and passed out of the door.  The inmates of
the cabin stood and watched him, until, having climbed the slope of the
clearing, he disappeared in the shadows of the forest; and then they
closed the door.  But more than once Wild Bill noted that as the woman
stood wiping her dishes, she wiped her eyes as well; and more than once
he heard her say softly to herself.  "God bless the dear old man!"

Ay, ay, poor woman, we join thee in thy prayer.  God bless the dear old
man! and not only him, but all who do the deeds he did.  God bless them
one and all!

Over the crusted snow the Trapper held his course, until he came, with
a happy heart, to his cabin.  Soon a fire was burning on his own
hearthstone, and the hounds were in their accustomed place.  He drew
the table in front, where the fire's fine light fell on his work, and,
taking some green vines and branches from the basket, began to twine a
wreath.  One he twined, and then he began another; and often, as he
twined the fadeless branches in, he paused, and long and lovingly
looked at the two pictures hanging on the wall; and when the wreaths
were twined, he hung them on the frames, and, standing in front of the
dumb reminders of his absent ones, he said, "I miss them so!"

[Illustration: Long and lovingly looked at the two pictures hanging on
the wall]

Ah! friend, dear friend, when life's glad day with you and me is
passed, when the sweet Christmas chimes are rung for other ears than
ours, when other hands set the green branches up, and other feet glide
down the polished floor, may there be those still left behind to twine
us wreaths, and say, "_We miss them so!_"

And this is the way John Norton the Trapper kept his Christmas.





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