To his delight he got along without the slightest difficulty although he strode with great care. He gained the level and in ten minutes found himself on the top of the hill, where he could see miles and miles of rolling prairie. He turned himself slowly about, to get a view of the country. As his glance swept the horizon, at first it did not fall upon a single, solitary thing except a vast expanse of snow. There was not a tree even. The awful loneliness filled him with dismay. He had about given up when, in the last quarter of the horizon he saw, perhaps a quarter of a mile away, what looked like a fine trickle of blackish smoke that appeared to rise from a shapeless mound that bulged above the monotonous level.
"Smoke means fire, and fire means man," he said, excitedly. The sky was rapidly clearing. A few stars had already appeared. Remembering what he had learned on camp and trail, he took his bearing by the stars; he did not mean to get lost if he left that hill. Looking back, he could see the car, the lamp of which sent broad beams of light through the windows across the snow. Then he plunged down the hill, thanking God in his boyish heart for the snow-shoes and his knowledge of them. It did not take him long to reach the mound whence the smoke rose. It was a sod house, he found, built against a sharp knoll, which no doubt formed its rear wall. The wind had drifted the snow, leaving a half-open way to the door. Noiselessly the boy slipped down to it, drew his feet from the snow-shoes and knocked. There was a burst of sound inside. It made his heart jump, but he was reassured by the fact that the voices were those of children. What they said he could not make out; but, without further ado, he opened the door and entered. It was a fairly large room. There were two beds in it, a stove, a table,a chest of drawers and a few chairs. From one of the beds three heads stared at him. As each head was covered with a wool cap, drawn down over the ears, like his own, he could not make out who they were. There were dishes on the table, but they were empty. The room was cold, although it was evident that there was still a little fire in the stove.
"Oh!" came from one of the heads in the bed. "I thought you were my father. What is your name?"
"My name," answered the boy, "is Henry Ives. I was left behind alone in the railroad car about a mile back, and saw the smoke from your house and here I am."
"Have you brought us anything to burn?" asked the second head.
"Or anything to eat?" questioned the third.
"My name is Mary Wright," said the first speaker, "and these are my brothers George and Philip. Father went away yesterday morning with the team, to get some coal and some food. He went to Kiowa."
"That's where I am going," interrupted Henry.
"Yes," continued Mary, "I suppose he can't get back because of the snow. It's an awful storm."
"We haven't anything to eat, and I don't know when father will be back," said George.
"And it's Christmas Eve," wailed Philip, who appeared to be about seven.
He set up a howl about this which his brother George, who was about nine, had great difficulty in quieting.
"We put the last shovelful of coal in the stove," said Mary Wright, "and got into bed to keep warm."
"I'll go outside while you get up and dress," said Henry considerately, "and then we will try and get to the car. It is warm there, and there is something to eat."
"You needn't go," said the girl; "we are all dressed." She threw back the covers and sprang out of bed. She was very pretty and about Henry's own age, he discovered, although she was pale and haggard with cold and hunger.
"Goody, goody!" exclaimed little Philip, as his feet landed on the floor. "Maybe we'll have some Christmas, too."
"Maybe we will," said Henry, smiling at him. "At least we will have something to eat."
"Well, let's start right away then," urged George.
This brought Henry face to face with a dilemma. "I have only one pair of snow-shoes," he said at last, "and you probably don't know how to use them anyway, and you can't walk on the snow."
"I have a sled," suggested George.
"That won't do," said Henry. "I've got to have something that won't sink
in the snow--that will lie flat, so I can draw you along."
"How about that table?" said the girl.
"Good suggestion," cried Henry.
It was nothing but a common kitchen table. He turned it upside down, took his Scout axe from its sheath, knocked the legs off, fastened a piece of clothesline to the butts of two of them. "Now if I could have something to turn up along the front, so as not to dig into the snow," he said, "it would be fine." He thought a moment. "Where is that sled of yours, George?"
"Here," said George, dragging it forth. The runners curved upwards. Henry cut them off, in spite of Philip's protests. He nailed these runners to the front of the table and stretched rope tightly across them so that he had four up-curves in front of the table.