“All right, Rick. How many were you planning to take on this excursion? And how long are you going to be gone? Christmas is only three days away, and your Mother would be upset if you both weren’t here.”
“Just ten, Dad. I’ll fly, Bethy will co-pilot, and there are seats in the cabin for eight. We are taking Andy and Sarah Mitchell, Will and Sue Bodden, and Jack, Ruth, Pete and Lillian Watts. We thought we’d stay over night. Take sleeping bags, have our picnic, and skate on Valentine lake, then bunk down in a couple of spare rooms at the lodge. We’ll gather driftwood for our fire, and spend some time gathering extra to add to the wood pile there. Save Phineas some work.”
Jim looked proudly at his son. He was a good, thoughtful young man, and Jim knew he could trust him. “That sounds fine, son. Go ahead and make your plans. I’ll phone the airport to have the place checked out and fuelled up. When do you plan to leave?”
“Tomorrow morning, early. I’ll phone Andy, and he and the others can see if anyone has supplies for the lodge. Bethy and I will pack up what we need here, and take it to the airport.”
“Fine, son. Just remember to keep an eye and ear out for weather reports. Things can change fast this time of year.”
“Will do, Dad, and thanks!” Rick grinned, turned and went striding out. Almost eighteen, he was tall, with an athlete’s build and freedom of movement. His hair was dark auburn, his eyes a deep blue, and he had the remains of a deep summer tan.
“Bethy!” he called as soon as he entered the family room. “Dad said yes. It’s a go!” His sister jumped from her chair and spun around in a crazy little dance, shouting “Hooray!” She was sixteen and a budding beauty. Fair, lightly freckled skin, green eyes and a heart shaped face, surrounded by red hair, she had the grace and build of a dancer. Which she was, taking top honours in the National tap and ballet contest that year. She grabbed her cell phone to text a message to the cousins. “Peeps, it’s a Go!” she typed. Replies came in instantly, all cheering. Then she and Rick headed for the pantry to start packing the supplies for the picnic.
Next morning, bright and early, the plane was loaded, everyone buckled in, and they were taxiing down the runway. Soon they were up and away, the snow covered ground dropping below, then changing to water. The flight was short, and less than an hour later they were unloading at the deck beside the lodge. Old Phineas was happily supervising, giving directions for stowing the supplies. He personally took charge of the box of medications from Mr. Travis at the pharmacy, taking it to Phoebe to put away. There were some gaily wrapped parcels to be placed under the tree, gifts from their friends on the mainland.
Just as they were finishing unloading, a fishing boat came in, towing a barge filled with about four cord of wood. Rick looked at it, and suggested that some of them could help unload and stack the wood, getting it done faster.
“Will, Andy, Pete, let’s get to work on the barge now. The rest of you could go start gathering the driftwood for our bonfire. Get a good supply together for us, and see how much more you can gather to add to Phineas’s winter supply. Then you can get our fire started, and we can be that much ahead on the picnic, and skating.”
Everyone set to work and an hour later the last of the wood was stacked, and off in the distance they could see the beginning flames of the bonfire. Rick tied the plane down securely, knowing that it could be wrecked if a storm came up, with strong winds.
Phineas and Phoebe were vociferous in their thanks, and took charge of the young people’s things. “Don’t worry, son” Phineas said. “They’ll all be ready for you when you come in tonight. It’ll be good to have some young folks around for an evening.” His big smile add to the already numerous wrinkles on his weathered face.
“Great, sir,” Rick replied. “See you later!” and off he and the others went, the flames of the bonfire beckoning them on. They were about half-way there when Bethy came running up, out of breath and excited.
“Ricky, there is a young boy there, camping out in the picnic shelter. He’s so thin, and so cold, I don’t know how he has been managing. He was afraid of us, but Sarah managed to get him to come to the fire. We’re trying to find out who he is, and what he’s doing here.”she grabbed his hand and tugged. “Come on, hurry!” she pulled at him, and he ran with her. At the fire, he saw the kid - native Canadian, about twelve, maybe, thin, undernourished, dishevelled and dirty, he huddled on a flat rock, staring at the fire. He flinched when they came running up.
Rick stopped a few feet away, and said “It’s ok, kid. We won’t hurt you. We’ll help you, if you let us. First thing, I think, is to get the food going and feed you. How long have you been on the island?”
The kid looked at him for a long moment, then said “three weeks. I hid on the ferry and when no one was near, I stole some food, then got off and found a place to hide. I was able to catch some fish, but they aren’t so good raw. It’s all I’ve had to eat for over a week, though, so I made myself swallow it.” he shuddered.
“Well, I’m sure we can do better than that for you. But where did you come from? Where are your folks? They must be really worried about you.”
They were all surprised when the kid broke down, sobbing heartbrokenly, and rocking, with his face in his hands. Sarah sat down on the rock beside him and wrapped her arms around him. He buried his face in her shoulder and sobbed for a while as she stroked his back and whispered soothingly.
After a while, the sobbing slowed, then stopped. He sat up and wiped the tears from his cheeks, sniffing. “My family were killed in by hurricane Franklin, nearly the whole village was wiped out. I was taken to the shelter with the few other survivors, but they didn’t want me. They took the clothes I was given, and the blankets, and hardly ever let me get anything to eat. I just couldn’t take it any more, so I ran away.” his voice broke, and he had to take a couple of deep breaths before he could continue.
“I got to that town on the mainland, and saw the ferry. I heard someone say it was the last ferry for the year, and that there was no one there but an old couple in a lodge. I thought I would be able to hunt rabbits and squirrels, and catch fish. I tried to make a fire, but didn’t have any matches. My dad used to do it by rubbing sticks together, but my arms got too sore, and I didn’t even get a spark.”
“Poor kid,” Andy said. “Ok, the grill is hot, lets get those thin slices of steak on. They’ll cook fast, and he can start on one of them. The potatoes will take a while, but, kid, you should eat very slowly, if you have been semi starving.” he flipped a thin piece of steak over, took a slice of warm crusty bread and put the steak on it. “Ok, here, start on this. Ruth, pour him a glass of milk to help get it down.”
Soon they were all eating, and chatting. The boy said his name was Johnny Running Deer, and he was twelve. He had gone to the public school in his village, and was in grade seven. He’d won top honours in a province wide math and science contest. The food and warmth, and the friendliness of the people around him helped him relax, and they drew him out. He had a well developed sense of humour, and seemed to be an honest youngster.
“We are going to the lodge tonight, after we skate for a while. You come with us, and can stay there overnight. We can take you to the mainland with us tomorrow.” Rick said.
Johnny jumped to his feet and backed away. “No, no! I don’t want to go to the mainland. And I’m afraid to go to the lodge. What will the old man say? It’s his house, how can you take me there?”
“Easy, man,” Will said. “First, old Phineas is one of the kindest guys in the world, and his wife Phoebe is just as kind. They would be happy to take you in, I know. Ok, if you don’t want to go to the mainland, fine. But at least come with us to the lodge for the night. And anyway, it isn’t theirs, it belongs to Rick and Bethy’s dad. Phineas and Phoebe are the caretakers. They live there all year and see that it is kept in good repair. There are a lot of things they can’t do anymore, I’ll bet they would be happy to have a pair of young hands around to help out. And Phoebe used to be a school teacher. She could help you keep up with your education. Maybe after you’ve been here for a while, you will decide that it will be ok to go to the mainland for high school. The folks in Darbytown are good, friendly people. They will be only too happy to see that you get to university, if you want. Just come with us tonight, and take it one step at a time. You really can’t stay out here, you’d freeze to death, if you didn’t starve first.”
Johnny looked at Will, then around at the other faces. They all smiled and nodded. “Yes,” Sarah said. “At least try the lodge tonight, get to know Phineas and Phoebe.” He looked at her, then looked down at his feet. After a few moments, he looked up and nodded. “Ok, I know I need to have shelter and food and warmth. If you say the old man is good, then I’ll go with you there. But I’m still afraid to go to the mainland.” They smiled, and let the matter drop. Not too mich later, they were skating, and Johnny was sliding around on the ice, laughing with them.
They let the fire die down, then scooped snow over it, until it was smothered. Gathering everything up including the garbage, they headed for the lodge, it’s windows glowing in welcoming. Phineas and Phoebe were surprised to see Johnny, but they welcomed him so warmly that he relaxed. Phoebe looked in the boxes of clothing left behind by visitors and found three outfits that would fit him. Then she showed him the bathroom and left him, with clean pyjamas, a robe and slippers, to clean himself up. She had also supplied a new toothbrush and toothpaste and a hairbrush. The change in his appearance when he rejoined them in the big kitchen was remarkable.
“My, Johnny, you are a handsome lad,” Phineas said. “They have told us your story. If you are willing, we would love to have yo stay with us, as long as you wish. It gets lonely, and too quiet around here in the winter, with no visitors. Will you stay?”
“Yes, please, I would like to. Thank you for being willing to take in a stranger. I’ll do everything I can to help with the work.” turning to Phoebe, he said “they told me you were a teacher. Would you teach me?”
She smiled. “It would be a great pleasure, Johnny. Teaching was the love of my life, when I was younger. I hated to give it up, but I got old, and they school board made me retire. You have brought new life to us. Yes, you are a stranger. You are the Christmas Stranger, a symbol of the one who came as a stranger for all of us. Welcome to Pringle Lodge, your new home.”