By the time my cabin appeared in the trees, my stomach was gnawing on itself. A man could work up a fierce hunger traipsing through the forest and slogging through creeks every day.
I stashed my burden of furs and snatched up an armload of firewood, and within minutes, crimson-tinged shadows flickered on the log walls. Thick slices of bacon sputtered in the pan, spitting gobs of fat into the fire. I figured some fried biscuits would go down nicely, too.
I pulled the flour box across the rough plank that served as a kitchen workbench.
The box lid was askew. A dusting of flour trailed across the plank.
I was attentive about such things, especially since flour was usually weevily when bought; there was no call for inviting more critters into the mix.
My stomach growled demandingly, and I scooped flour into a tin bowl and added lard and salt. Soon, the aroma of frying biscuits mingled with woodsmoke, bacon, and coffee. My mouth smarted in anticipation, and I resisted the urge to eat straight from the frying pan. Respectable behaviour is always fitting, even while eking out a miserable life setting traplines and scrounging in creeks for a flake or two of gold.
My hunger finally quieted, I sat back to read an ancient newspaper. I knew the stories of faraway wars and clever inventions by heart, and I dozed, lulled by a full belly and the glowing fire.
I jerked awake. Something was watching me.
Only bears and beavers lived nearby, but they’d not be snooping around. The hair on my neck prickled, but I wasn’t one for being afraid, so I took off my bog-soddened boots and crawled into bed.
Immediately, I heard scrabbling sounds. I peered into the darkness, and inches away from my face, two glittering eyes stared back. Abandoning my fearlessness, I leaped up, shrieking in an unmanly manner.
I lit the lantern. Sitting on the rough plank, bold as brass, was a rat.
“Git, varmint,” I screeched, but the critter groomed itself unconcernedly, its tail slithering through tiny claws. Finally, satisfied with its preening, it ambled across the plank, scrambled down the chair leg, and strolled across the floor.
I chucked my boot, but the rat didn’t flinch.
The thought of the little beast helping itself to my provisions and sneaking around my cabin disturbed me.
I got my gun.
I poked around in the dark, hoping to smack the critter door-wards with the gun stock. But, the rat was gone, probably escaping through a knothole or diving into the flour again.
I hid in bed, tucking the blanket tightly around my toes.
In the morning, the rat was back on the plank, observing me with beady eyes.
It watched me build a fire and boil coffee. It watched me eat cold bacon and biscuits.
It was patient, but I could be more patient.
Grinning, I pinched off a crumb of biscuit and set it on the plank’s edge. Maybe if I fed the varmint, it’d leave my supplies alone.
When I returned that night, I found my kindling piled in an untidy heap in the corner.
“Makin’ yourself at home, eh, varmint?”
The rat invited itself to supper, perching expectantly on the plank as I tucked into my biscuits and beans. When I neared the final bite, boot-button eyes glistened accusingly. I set down the last morsel, and the rat scampered off to its pile of twigs with its prize.
Then my watch disappeared.
I chopped off a corner of my blanket and left it by the pile of sticks.
Buttons vanished from my shirts.
I made two extra biscuits each night.
My penknife went missing.
I cut dried apples into rat-size tidbits.
It was an acceptable truce and tolerable, in spite of the musky smell emanating from the rat’s midden. I was just as odorous, I’m sure.
The rat never bothered the flour again.
One day, the rat wasn’t waiting when I came home. I was saddened and missed its companionable presence. I even missed its whippy tail and bright eyes.
When I left the forest, ending my trapping and prospecting days for good and hoping to find a more lucrative livelihood elsewhere, I dismantled the midden.
Hidden in the tangled and rank rubble, along with the frayed scrap of blanket, was my watch, knife, and buttons.
And a very large gold nugget.
Large enough to buy a shipload of flour.
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