“And then I saw it—the Shadow.”
The speaker’s eyes appeared to snap. Johnny Thompson leaned forward in his chair. “It glided through the fog without a sound.” The voice droned on, “Not a sound, mind you! We had a small boat with powerful motors. I stepped on the gas. Our motors roared. We were after that shadow.”
“And then?” Johnny Thompson whispered.
“For all I know,” the black-eyed man murmured, leaning back in his chair, “we might have cut that shadow square in two. Anyway, that’s the last we saw of it for that day.
“But think of it!” he exclaimed after a second’s pause. ”Think of the thing just disappearing in the fog like that!”
He was a romantic figure, this man Blackie. The boys of Matanuska Valley in Alaska loved this gathering of an evening about the red-hot stove in the store. And no part of the evening’s entertainment was ever half so thrilling as Blackie’s stories.
“It was spring then,” Blackie added, “late May, when the salmon run was on.”
“It was a whale after salmon, that shadow,” someone suggested.
“No, sir!” Blackie fairly shouted. “It was too fast for a whale! Some sort of Oriental craft, I shouldn’t wonder. Though how they’d make it go without a sound is beyond me.
“Ah well,” he sighed, “I’ll be rid of these by spring.” He kicked at the crutches beside his chair. “Then I’ll be after ’em again, those bloomin’ Orientals and their gliding shadows.”
“You going back into the Coast Guard Service?” Johnny asked eagerly.
“I sure am!” Blackie agreed heartily. “Boy! That’s the life! A speedy boat with two or three airplane motors in her hull, a good crew, plenty of gas, the wide open sea and enough trouble to keep your eyes open day and night. Man! Oh, man!”
“Take me along,” Johnny suggested impulsively.
“Me too!” put in Lawrence, his slim, bright-eyed cousin.
“What do you know about boats?” Blackie asked.
“Plenty,” was Johnny’s prompt reply. “Been on ’em all my life, power boats on the Great Lakes, Carib Indian sailboats in the Caribbean, skin-boats way up north. It’s all the same.
“And Lawrence here,” he added after a brief pause, “he knows about motors.”
“I—I was assistant mechanic in an airplane hangar for a season,” Lawrence agreed modestly.
“Well, it—might—be—arranged,” Blackie replied slowly. “Don’t know about pay. You sort of have to be on regular for that. But up here in the north, things can’t always be done according to department regulations. Anyway, it’s worth thinking about.”
“Thank—oh, thank you,” Lawrence stammered. Johnny knew how he was feeling at that moment. He, Johnny, had met adventure in many climes. Lawrence had lived a quiet life. Really to sail on a coast guard boat in search of Orientals suspected of stealing salmon, smuggling or spying off the Alaskan shores, to chase gray shadows that pass in the fog! Worth thinking of? Well, you’d just know it was!
Johnny was still thinking of all this when two hours later, he crept beneath the blankets in the small log cabin room occupied by Lawrence and himself.
“That would be great!” he was telling himself. In fancy, he allowed his mind to wander. Bristol Bay, a hundred and fifty miles wide and a hundred and fifty long, fishing boats on the water, canneries on the shore and back behind all this in the fog somewhere, beyond the three-mile line, great dark bulks that were Oriental ships. Why these ships? No one knew exactly. “Spying out our shore-line,” some said, “stealing our salmon,” said others. And perhaps they were smugglers. It was known that these ships carried smaller crafts that could be lowered to the water. “Could do anything, go anywhere, these small boats,” Johnny assured himself.
“And the Shadow, that mysterious gray form that goes streaking through the fog. What could it be?
“Ah, well,“ he settled deeper among the blankets. “It’s a long time till spring, and here, right in Matanuska Valley is exciting adventure aplenty.”
As if reading his thoughts, Lawrence murmured dreamily, “We’ll go after him again tomorrow.”
“Yes,” Johnny agreed, “tomorrow.”
“Lawrence! Look! There he is!” Johnny pointed excitedly up the glistening expanse of frozen river. Tomorrow had come. They were on the river.
“Wh—where?” Lawrence whispered.
“You don’t have to whisper.” Johnny laughed low. “He’s way up there. I can scarcely see him with the glass. Here! Take it. See that pool of water on the right side?”
“Yes—yes, I see.” Lawrence took the field glasses.
“At this end of that pool. I saw him move. Look quick!”
For a space of ten seconds Lawrence studied that pool. “Yes,” he exclaimed at last, “he is there! I saw him move over to the right.”
“Lawrence!” Johnny’s voice was tense with emotion. “I’m going after him!”
Johnny bent over to tighten a skate strap. “Here! Give me the bag. You follow me, but not too fast. You can keep the glasses. I won’t need them.”
“Al—all right, Johnny. Be careful! You—”
But Johnny was away. Skating from the hips, scarcely lifting a foot from the ice, he appeared to glide without effort over the glass-like surface of the river.
The boy’s spirits rose. They were “after him again.” And “he” was a grand prize indeed.
“If only we can get him,” Johnny was thinking. “If we only can.”
The distant future quite forgotten, Johnny was living intensely in the glorious present. Lawrence followed slowly. He, too, was a skillful skater. The river at this point was frozen solidly. No need for thought here. At once his mind was busy with memories of the not-too-distant past and plans for the future.
Life for him had been strange. Eight months before he had been on the broad, dry prairies of the Dakotas. Now he was skating on the Matanuska River in Alaska. Nor was this just an adventurous winter trip. The Matanuska Valley was his home and would be, he hoped, for years to come. Six miles back and up a half mile from the river was their claim and the sod-covered log cabin they called home.
“We are pioneers!” he whispered to himself. “Pioneers!” he repeated softly. How he loved that word. How much it meant to them all; freedom, new life, fresh hope and in the end a home all their own. “And paid for,” he declared sturdily.
Yes, when the government had announced a resettlement project in this rich valley and the Lawsons who had been driven from their farm home by drouth and dust heard of it they had joined up. And here they were: father, mother and son, with cousin Johnny thrown in for good measure.
“Been here six months,” Lawrence thought. “Got a little start. And next year!” Ah, yes, next year. His face sobered. So much depended on the future. And they needed so many things.
“We’ll not go in debt,” his father had insisted stoutly. “Not for a single thing we can do without.”
But now the boy’s mind came back with a snap to the immediate present. As he looked ahead he saw nothing of Johnny. For a second his heart fluttered. Had his good pal come upon an unsuspected air-hole? Had he gone through? Was he, at this moment, caught by the swift current, shooting along rapidly beneath the ice?
“You have to know your river,” an old-timer had said to them. “Every foot of it.” Did Johnny know it well enough, or—
Of a sudden he let out a low, happy laugh. Some distance ahead, showing among the branches of a fallen fir tree, he had caught a glimpse of Johnny’s plaid mackinaw.
“He—he’s all right,” he breathed. “Just getting a look.”
Johnny was now within a hundred yards of that dark pool, where, he hoped, their prize still lurked.
“He must see him with the naked eye,” Lawrence murmured as he glided into the shadow of a shelving bank. Here, steadying himself with one hand, he held the glass to his eyes with the other.
Then, with hand trembling so it seemed the glass would drop, he exclaimed, “Man! Oh, man! It’s a silver fox and a beauty! If only he gets him! If he does!”
They were hunters, these boys. “Strange hunters!” some might say. “No guns! No traps!” This valley was alive with rich, fur-bearing animals. With guns and traps one might reap a winter’s harvest. Without guns or traps how was it to be done! This had been the question uppermost in their minds some weeks before. In the end they had found the answer, or thought they had. And a strange answer it was.
They had arrived, this little family of four homesteaders, along with hundreds of others in the Matanuska Valley, too late in the spring to clear land and raise a crop. They had been obliged to content themselves with a large garden and an acre of potatoes.
Such potatoes as those had been! “We’ll sell two hundred bushels!” Lawrence had exulted. “That will go a long way toward buying a small tractor. Then just watch our smoke!”
“Oh, no you won’t!” Jack Morgan, an old-time settler in the valley, had laughed.
“What? Why not?” the boy demanded.
“Who’ll you sell ’em to?” the old-timer asked in a kindly voice.
“Why, we—we’ll ship ’em out.”
“You can’t, son,” Jack’s voice rumbled. “That’s the trouble. At present there’s no market for farm products here. Never has been. That’ll be worked out in time, now the government is interested. But just now we have to eat our own potatoes.”
“But how do you get any money?” Lawrence had demanded.
“Trap foxes, minks, martin. Good money in trappin’,” was the old-timer’s reply.
Of course, the boys had come rushing home bursting with the news that they could make money all winter long trapping.
To their surprise they saw Lawrence’s father’s smiling face draw into sober lines.
“No, boys,” he said quietly. “Not that. Anything but trapping. It’s too cruel. I’d rather you went out with a gun.”
“But we haven’t a gun,” Lawrence protested.
“That’s right,” the father agreed. “And it’s not to be regretted.
“You see, boys,” his face took on a strange look, “when I was about ten years old I had a dog I thought the world and all of. He didn’t cost a lot of money. Never won any prizes at dog shows. But his hair was kinky, his eyes alive with fun and his bark a joyous sound to hear. No boy ever had a more faithful friend than good old Bing.
“And then,” his voice grew husky, “well, you see there was a man who lived all by himself down by the river, Skunk McGee they called him. Never amounted to much, he didn’t. But he trapped enough skunks and muskrats to pay for his groceries.
“Our farm was along the river, on both sides. Father told him more than once not to set his traps on our farm.
“One time in the dead of winter, way down below zero, old Bing didn’t come home. I was worried but father said, ‘He’s gone to the neighbors and they took him in on account of its being so cold.’
“But he hadn’t,” Mr. Lawson’s tone changed abruptly. “He was in one of Skunk McGee’s traps. And when we found him he was dead, frozen hard as a rock.
“And so you see, boys,” he added quietly, “I’ve always hated traps. I never see one even now but I seem to see poor old Bing with one foot in it, whining and shivering out there all alone.”
From that day on the thought of traps was banished from their minds.
But the foxes? Did they vanish? No indeed! The foxes saw to it that they were not forgotten.
Before the summer was at an end some families, unaccustomed to the pioneer life, lost courage and decided to return to their original homes. Among these were two families who had brought with them small flocks of chickens. By careful planning the Lawsons were able to buy the chickens. Having built a stout log henhouse and a small wire enclosure for sunny days, they felt better than ever prepared for the winter.
“Chicken for Thanksgiving and Christmas and eggs all winter long! What luck!” Lawrence rejoiced.
The chickens, no doubt, were something of a surprise to the foxes. But had they not always preyed upon ptarmigan? And were not chickens just big plump ptarmigan? Perhaps this was the way they reasoned. At any rate, one night Lawrence heard a loud squawking and rushed out just in time to see a plump white hen vanish into the night. A fox had her by the neck.
“Something must be done about that,” he insisted at once. “If we can’t trap the foxes, what then?”
“Take them alive,” was his father’s prompt reply.
“Alive! Alive!” both boys cried.
“I can’t see why not,” was Lawrence’s father’s quiet reply. “Of course, you’ll have to wear tough, moose-hide mittens and keep your noses out of reach, but—”
“We’ll do it,” Lawrence exclaimed. “But then,” his face sobered, “how’ll we ever catch up with a fox?”
“When I was a boy,” said his father, “we used to catch muskrats on skates.”
“Muskrats on skates?” Lawrence laughed.
“We were on the skates,” his father corrected with a smile. “The rats were on the ice, you see,” he leaned forward. “We worked it this way. We’d watch until the muskrat came out of his hole to get a drink. He’d go to an open pool of water at the edge of the ice. We’d wait until he’d started back across the ice. Then we’d come swooping down on him. He’d get frightened and sprawl all over the ice—no wild creature can handle himself well on the ice. So we had him.
“Once,” he chuckled, “Bob Barnett saw something moving on the ice. It was just getting dark. He thought it was a rat. He come swooping down upon it and—” he paused to chuckle. “Well, it turned out to be a skunk. The skunk objected to his intrusion. So Bob went home to bury his clothes—just for a scent.”
The boys joined in the laugh that followed but they were not slow in following this suggestion. They found, however, that great skill and caution were needed in this type of hunting.
They made progress slowly. After catching two muskrats, a snow-shoe rabbit and two ground-squirrels, they decided to start a small zoo all their own.
“Who knows?” Lawrence enthused. “We may catch some truly rare creature. The keepers of zoos are always on the lookout for live specimens. We may sell enough to get that bright new tractor down at Palmer after all.”
“A tractor!” Johnny doubted. “Oh! No! Surely not that much!”
“And yet,” Lawrence now thought as he stood watching for Johnny’s next move on the river ice, “there he is creeping up on a silver fox. What is a real, live silver fox worth?” To this exciting question he could form no accurate answer. He had a hazy recollection of reading somewhere about one that was sold for $3000.00.
“No such luck as that,” he whispered.
Just now, however, his attention was directed toward the silver fox that, still very much at liberty, had taken a good drink from the pool and was standing, nose in air, apparently looking, listening, smelling. Had he smelled trouble? Would he drop into the pool to swim across and disappear on the farther bank, or would he start back across that glistening stretch of ice? Lawrence felt his heart leap as he saw the fox drop his head. The big moment was at hand.
“He—he’s going across!” he exclaimed in a hoarse whisper. “It means so much!” His thoughts went into a tailspin. Not only would they possess a real, live silver fox for which, beyond doubt, some zoo would pay handsomely, but their flock of chickens would be safe, for they could tell by the size of the tracks that he was the one that was getting the chickens. He was a sly one, indeed, this fox. Three times in the last month, in spite of their every effort to prevent it, he had carried off a fat old hen.
“He—Johnny’s starting,” Lawrence said, as, gliding silently from cover, he prepared to follow his cousin on his swift, silent, breathless quest.
It was a truly wonderful sight, those two boys moving as if pushed by an unseen hand closer, ever closer to the unsuspecting fox.
Moving swiftly, Johnny reached a fallen cottonwood tree. Just then the fox, pausing in his course, once more sniffed the air. “I might get him if I rushed him now,” he thought, “and I might miss.” This was true. The fox was but a third of the way across the ice. He was still too close to the pool. The plan was to allow him to reach the very center of the river, then to rush him. Startled, he would start quickly for some shore. Losing all sense of caution, he would begin to sprawl upon the ice. As the boy came rushing on with the speed of the wind, he would stoop over, snatch at the fox and speed on. He must seize the fox just back of his ears. Could he do it? As he stood there hidden his pulse pounded madly. He, too, had seen that it was a silver fox.
“He—he’s smelled me!” The boy’s voice rose in a sudden shrill shout. “Come on, Lawrence! I’m going after him! Bring the bag!”
Gripping a large, moose-hide sack, Lawrence went speeding after him.
As for Johnny, with breath-taking suddenness, he saw the distance between him and the fox fade. A hundred yards, fifty, twenty, and—“Now!” he breathed. “Now!”
The fox was not a foot from the edge of the pool when, still speeding wildly, the boy bent down and made one wild grab.
“Got him!” he shouted exultantly. But wait! Ten seconds more and the fox’s ivory teeth were flashing in his very face. He seemed to feel them tearing at his nose. There was nothing to do but drop him. With a suddenness, startling even to the fox, the boy let go.
Down dropped the fox. On sped the boy. When Lawrence reached the spot the fox had vanished into a hole and Johnny was skating slowly, mournfully back.
“Never mind,” Lawrence consoled. “We’ll get him another time.”
“But a silver fox and a beauty!” Johnny exclaimed. “Think of losing him!”
“I have thought.” Lawrence was able to grin in spite of his disappointment. “It would have meant a lot and now—” he chuckled, “now we know it’s a real silver fox after our chickens. We’ll have to lock them in a vault.”
“Not as bad as that,” said Johnny. “But Lawrence,” his voice dropped. “This must remain a deep secret. Not a word to anyone. If Jim and Jack Mayhorn knew about this there’d be a trap on every foot of the river.”
“Never a word,” Lawrence agreed.
They were a rather disconsolate pair as they pulled off their skates a half hour later.
“To think!” Johnny groaned. “I had my hands on five hundred dollars, perhaps a thousand dollars worth of fox and had to drop it because it was too hot.”
“The price of a tractor,” Lawrence agreed. “It’s too bad.”
It was too bad indeed. All day, five days in the week, they worked hard at clearing land. The trees were coming down. After the spring thaw thousands of stumps must be pulled. A tractor would do that work. After that it would draw the plows.
“If only I hadn’t lost him!” Johnny groaned.
“Aw! Forget it!” Lawrence exclaimed. “Come on! Let’s go home by the camp.”
The “camp,” as they had come to call it, was a three-sided shelter built on a corner of their forty-acre claim. It had been built, and apparently abandoned, only a few months before their arrival. Such a snug shelter was it that the boys had often sought its protection from storms. Once, with a roaring fire before its open side, they had spent a night sleeping on its bed of evergreen boughs.
The place never lost its fascination. Who had built it? Trader, hunter, trapper or gold prospector? To this question they could form no answer. Would he some day return? To this, strangely enough on this very afternoon they were to discover the answer, at least that which appeared to be the answer. As they were looking it over for the twentieth time Lawrence suddenly exclaimed, “Look! Here’s a bit of cloth tacked to this post. And there’s a note written on it in indelible ink!”
Johnny did look. “Read it!” he exclaimed.
“I will,” Lawrence began to read. “Can’t quite make it out,” he murmured. “Oh, yes, this is it.
“‘I WILL BE BACK ON JULY 1st. BILL.’”
“So he’s coming back,” Johnny’s tone was strange.
“Coming back,” Lawrence agreed. “All right, Bill, old boy,” he laughed. “We’ll keep your snug little camp ship-shape till you arrive.”
And for this bit of service, had they but known it, they were to receive a very unusual reward.
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