Chapter XVI. Christmas Eve
 

Peter Sinclair was now in a serious predicament. Fortune had favoured him so long that to be thus blocked by a mean little stump was too much for his excitable nature. He raged and railed against everything and everybody in general. But the tall stately trees were silent witnesses to his passionate outbursts, and poor sympathisers. When sober thoughts at length came to him, he began to realise the seriousness of his position. Out of hearing of the camp, on a trail seldom travelled; a sprained ankle; the short December day closing down, and the unknown terrors of the lone forest. The perspiration stood out in beads upon his forehead as he viewed the situation.

At last he started to limp along the trail, but at every step he staggered into the snow and fell heavily forward. He tried to crawl, but so slow was his progress and so weary did he become that this was soon abandoned. And there he lay, thinking as he had never thought before. His business was forgotten, and several times he remembered the sick man lying in the bunk at Camp Number Two. And all this time the sun sank lower to rest, and long shadows stole among the great trees like fearful monsters creeping upon him. He became cold, too, and his body shivered, while his teeth chattered incessantly.

When it seemed to him that he had lain there on the snow for hours, he heard a noise, and looking along the trail he saw a little red dog bounding straight toward him. How often had he spurned just such a cur with his foot, on the city streets, but never did any creature seem so good to Sinclair as did that lean canine specimen before him.

"Good doggie," he called. "Come here, doggie."

But the animal remained at a safe distance, barking furiously, at the same time casting glances back along the trail as if expecting some one from that quarter. Soon a sturdy figure appeared in sight with a rabbit over his shoulder. He stopped in amazement at the scene before him, unable to comprehend its meaning.

"Come here, sonny," Sinclair called out, fearing the boy would take fright and disappear.

But the lad stood perfectly still as if turned to stone.

"For heaven's sake!" Sinclair continued, "come and help a poor stricken man who can't walk."

At this appeal the boy drew nearer, and seeing that it was only a man lying in the snow, the startled expression faded from his face.

"What's the matter, and watcher want?" he asked.

"I've sprained my ankle and can't walk," was the reply. "Is there any house near? Can't you bring some one to help me?"

At this the lad became electrified into new life. His senses returned, and he grasped the situation in an instant.

"Gee whiz!" he exclaimed. "Mighty lucky I came to my rabbit snares to-night instead of t'morrer. Y'see, that's Christmas Day, and we don't do no work then."

"Lucky for me you came to-night, my boy," Sinclair replied, and then he remembered how he had denounced the day but a short time before. "But I can't stay in this place all night. Can't you get somebody to help me?"

"Y'bet," the boy responded. "Buck and Bright'll help y'outer this fix. Jes' wait a minute."

At this he hurried away, and although he was gone not much over half an hour it seemed to Sinclair like an age before "Haw, Buck! G'up, Bright! Git up thar!" sounded upon his ears.

Presently he beheld the forms of two panting steers, plunging and wallowing through the snow, each crowding the other in an endeavour to maintain the firm footing on the narrow trail. When they caught sight of the dark object lying before them, they stopped, sniffed the air, and bolted to the right. But the boy with considerable skill, the result of long practice, wheeled them about, and after much shouting and exertion headed them homeward.

"Hi, thar!" he called to the prostrate man. "Kin ye manage t'git to th' sled? These steers is mighty scart, and I must stan' by an' hold 'em."

With a great effort Sinclair began to crawl slowly along the trail, and when about exhausted reached the sled.

"Hol' on now," the boy ordered, as he cracked his whip and the steers started forward. It was a rough trip, over knolls, striking stumps here and there, and squeezing between trees, when the sled had to be freed by much twisting and manoeuvring; but Sinclair thought it the best ride he had ever taken.

"Mother's lookin' fer y'," remarked the lad, when they had finally gained the good road. "She's got the best sofy out, an' was warmin' things up when I left."

Sinclair made no reply. He was cold, stiff, and too much exhausted to enter into conversation. Not until he was stretched out on the big cosy sofa in front of the cheerful fire, after his sprained ankle had been bathed and well rubbed, did he become talkative.

"My good woman," he began, "how can I ever repay you for your great kindness?"

"Oh, that's nothing," she returned with a cheerful smile. "I'm so glad Stephen went to his snares to-night. It's Christmas Eve, you see, and though I'm sorry you're hurt, yet it's nice to have some one with me and the children. It's very lonely here sometimes, and," she added after a pause, "he was here last Christmas. But," she quickly continued, afraid she had said too much to a stranger, "I hope you feel more comfortable now, sir."

"Oh, yes," Sinclair replied. "My foot is quite easy: But would you mind making me a cup of hot tea? I feel so chilly, and the tea will do me a world of good. It always helps me."

As he uttered these words a change passed over the woman's face, which Sinclair was not slow to observe.

"Never mind," he hastened to remark. "I don't wish to trouble you."

"Dear me, sir, it's not that," the woman replied, somewhat confused, as she sat down upon a splint-bottom chair, and plucked at her apron. "It's not the trouble I mind; it's something else. You see, it's this," she continued, while a flush passed over her care-worn face. "He left us last February, after one month's illness, and what with the doctor's bills and funeral expenses it was hard scraping. We tried our best to get along, and ploughed and sowed last spring. But it was a bad year for us. The frost destroyed our buckwheat and potatoes when they were just in blossom; a fine cow died, and the foxes killed our geese and turkeys. But we had our logs, and we always felt that we could fall back on them if the worst came. Then just as we had made up our minds to sell a strip to that new Light and Power Company another blow fell."

"What was that?" Sinclair quickly asked, as a new light dawned upon his mind.

"It was a letter, sir, that I received from Mr. Sinclair, the manager of the city Light and Power Company, and who does a big lumbering business besides. He told me that a new line had been run by a surveyor between the shore lots and the old Dinsmore Manor, and that all of those logs which I had hoped to sell belong to him. He warned me not to sell or cut one, as he would prosecute me at once if I did. His men have already begun work, and I am helpless to stop them. It is no use for me to go to law as I have no money, and it takes money to fight a man like that. Would you like to see the letter, sir?"

"No, no," Sinclair hastily replied. "That man is a dev----. Excuse me, madam, but I mean he is a hard man."

"Well, you see," the woman continued, "things got so bad that we had to give up every little luxury, and the few dollars we could make from eggs and butter went for flour, clothing and taxes. Tea we found too expensive, and it was given up. That is the reason why I can't give you any to-night, sir. And the poor children are so disappointed. Never before were they without presents at Christmas time. But this year----" Here the woman stopped and put her apron to her face. It was for only an instant, however, for quickly removing it she continued: "But gracious me! here I've been bothering you with my long tale of woe, when you, poor man, have troubles enough of your own. I have some fresh bread, butter, milk and preserves, which you shall have at once," and the little woman bustled away, leaving Sinclair alone with his thoughts.

"Isn't it about time the mailman was along?" the mother asked that evening, after the chores had been done, and the children were sitting quietly in the room for fear of waking the stranger who had fallen asleep upon the sofa.

"I believe I hear his bells now!" Stephen cried, as he rushed to the door. Presently he came running back, his face aglow with excitement. "A bundle, Mother!" he shouted. "A big bundle! Come and help me."

The confusion thus made awakened Sinclair, who opened his eyes just in time to see a good-sized bundle carried into the room, securely bound with stout cords.

"There must be some mistake," exclaimed the surprised woman to the mailman who had entered.

"No, mum," he replied. "It's yours all right. I found it at the shore where a freightin' team left it. I don't generally carry such things. But says I to myself, 'That's fer Widder Bean, and she's goin' to have it to-night if Tim Harking knows anything.' So thar 'tis. I must be off now. A merry Christmas to ye all," and with that the big-hearted man hurried away.

"Dear me!" cried Mrs. Bean. "What can it be, and who could have sent it?"

"Let's open it, mother," Steve suggested. "Mebbe we'll find out then."

Together they all set to work, and after much tugging and labour the knots were loosened and the bundle fell apart.

Then what a sight met their eyes. Clothes of various sizes and quality were neatly piled together; complete suits for the boys; dresses for Betty and Dora, and another for their mother, besides a good supply of underwear for the whole family.

"Well, bless my heart!" Mrs. Bean exclaimed. "Who in the world has done this? There must be some mis----"

"A doll!" shrieked Dora.

"A knife!" yelled Stephen, as he seized the precious treasure, felt its keen edge and examined the handle.

Then a paper fluttered out of the bundle and fell on the floor at Mrs. Bean's feet. As she picked it up and read the contents, a light broke over her puzzled face, and her hand trembled.

"What's the matter, Mother?" Jimmy asked, noting her agitation.

"Nothing, my boy," she replied. "Only I'm so overcome at the good Lord giving us such kind friends on this Christmas Eve. This is such a lovely letter from Miss Sinclair, and she says that all these things are from the Helping Hand Society of St. Saviour's Church. Isn't it good of them?"

A groan from the sofa startled her.

"Is your ankle worse, sir?" she enquired, going to the side of the afflicted man.

"Y-y-es," Sinclair replied; "but I feel better now. I didn't mean to disturb you."

"And look here!" Stephen cried, who had at length reached the bottom of the bundle. "Well, I declare! Two packages of Red Rose tea! Hurrah! Now we kin have some fer Christmas."

"And you, poor man," she said turning to Sinclair, "shall have a good strong cup just as soon as I can make it. It seems to me I must be dreaming," and the excited woman bustled off to the kitchen.

"Fool! fool!" Sinclair mused to himself as he sipped the delicious beverage. "I thought such gifts went only to rogues and lazy rascals. I was wrong. And yet, some of that tea has reached one of the biggest fools and rogues in the whole country, and that is Peter Sinclair."

"And now, children," said Mrs. Bean, when the excitement of the evening had somewhat subsided, "it's getting late. Let's have a Christmas hymn, and then Dora must go to bed. You don't mind, sir, I hope. We always sing several hymns on Christmas eve, and last year he was here to start them, for he had a good voice."

"Oh, no," Sinclair replied. "I don't mind, so go ahead."

The mother started and all joined in; and as the words of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" floated forth, old memories came drifting into the mind of the silent listener on the sofa. He forgot for a time his surroundings and saw only the little parish church, of his boyhood days, decked with fresh bright evergreens, and heard the choir singing the familiar carols. Several faces stood forth in clear relief; his parents', honest and careworn; his rector's, transfigured with a holy light; and one, fresh and fair, encircled by a wreath of light-brown tresses.

He came to himself with a start, thinking the choir was singing "Glory to the New-Born King," when it was only the little group at his side finishing their hymn. Tears were stealing down his cheeks, which he quickly brushed away, lest his emotion should be observed.

That night, when the house was quiet, Sinclair drew forth a small note-book and wrote a few lines to the foreman of Camp Number Three. "Send word to the other camps as quickly as possible, and tell the men they need not come back till next Monday." He then brought forth a thin book and made out a cheque for no small amount, payable to Mrs. Bean on account.

Little did Peter Sinclair realise that the letter written to the foreman would never reach its destination, and that months would pass before the cheque would be presented for payment.