I'LL DO MY BEST
“Benton! You have a visitor,” Benton's Grandmother called out to him as she closed the front door and ushered the tall man inside.
In his room, Benton frowned and put down the vintage copy of 'Microbes, Ferments and Moulds' he had borrowed from his Grandmother's library. He loved to read. When he was in his room reading silently to himself, it was his Mother's voice that he imagined in his head. His Mother used to read to him all the time and this was the only way he could think of to ensure that he never forgot the sound of her voice. So, whether it was this fascinating volume he was currently studying, or 'The Wizard of Oz', his Mother was still reading to him.
Benton walked out of his room and stopped dead in his tracks when he saw who his visitor was. "Hello Benton," the tall Inuit man smiled and extended his hand for a handshake.
"Hello Sir," Benton said nervously, returning the handshake.
"Oh come now Benton," replied the man with a slight frown, "we don't need to be so formal do we? Whatever happened to Akela?"
Benton dropped his eyes to the floor. "I'm no longer a Scout Sir," he reminded the man.
Jim Lightfeather sighed. Benton Fraser had been the best Scout he'd ever had in his troupe, but the poor boy had been deeply affected by an incident just over a year ago involving one of the other boys, a boy Benton had considered a friend, so he had left the Scouts. "You know that I threw Steve out, as soon as I heard about what happened," Lightfeather said gently. Benton nodded. "What he did was..." Lightfeather couldn't think of a word strong enough to express his disgust. In fact, Steve and his family had since left the village.
Fraser's Grandmother suddenly feigned a coughing fit. It was obvious to Benton that she was attempting to distract Lightfeather from the subject of Steve and the otter and he appreciated her efforts. The physical scar had healed, but the incident had had such a profound overwhelming effect on him. The immediate aftermath had left him feeling desperately lonely. Steve had been his best friend, or so he had thought. How could he have been such a bad judge of character? His Grandmother had assured him that at the age of ten, no one could be expected to really know what people were like and Benton had made a promise to himself that he would never get caught out like that again.
However, in the weeks and months afterwards, Benton had been overwhelmed by the amount of support he'd received from his peers. Previously, few of them had ever spoken to him, but many of the other children had been so shocked by the callous way Steve had killed an otter that Benton had been nursing back to health and then attacked Benton with it, that they couldn't help but feel sympathy for him. Benton began to realise that, despite first impressions, there was some good in almost everyone. He even considered some of the other children as friends now, not close friends, but they'd learnt to be more tolerant of some of his more eccentric ways and he'd quickly discovered that actually people who at first appeared to have nothing at all in common with him weren't so different underneath.
Benton really didn't want to talk about it though, not now and especially not with his former Akela. If he hadn't ever joined the Scouts he would never have rescued the otter and the whole thing would never have happened. After that day, Scouts had lost it's appeal.
After being reassured that Benton's Grandmother was in fact fine, Lightfeather refused her offer of bark tea. “No thank you Mrs Fraser,” he said, “actually, if it's alright with you, I'd like to borrow Benton for a while. That is if you're not doing homework Benton?”
“No Sir,” replied Benton, shaking his head. He'd finished all his homework hours ago, but even though he really didn't want to go with the man, he just couldn't lie about it.
“I have something I need your help with,” Lightfeather continued, “it's quite important.”
Benton sighed and looked to his Grandmother for help, but she gave him one of her looks. One of those looks that meant she knew what was best for him. In this case, what was best for him was apparently going with Jim Lightfeather. Benton sighed and silently pulled on his boots and coat. Lightfeather smiled. “Walk with me Benton,” he said holding the door open.
Benton stepped out into the cold air. He liked the cold air, it reminded him of his Mother...
...It reminded him of a time when he would play outside with his Mother and Father, the three of them running and laughing, oblivious to the heartache that was just around the corner. It had been weeks since his Father had been home...
“Missing your Dad?” Lightfeather said suddenly.
Benton stopped in his tracks and looked at the man, stunned by his perceptiveness. “I am,” he replied, “but my Grandmother tells me he'll be back soon. He's arrested six dangerous fugitives this month.” Benton was standing tall now and smiling with pride.
“He's a good man,” Lightfeather agreed, “we all feel safer knowing Robert Fraser is looking out for us.”
They walked some more, the lightly snow covered ground creating a soft carpet for them to walk on. Benton loved walking in snow, it reminded him of his Mother...
...They used to walk in the snow together, sometimes just into the village to fetch supplies and sometimes high up onto the ridge to look out for birds.
“Sir,” Benton refocussed his mind on the present and looked at his former Scout leader, “you said you had something important to discuss?”
“Yes,” replied Lightfeather, “I'll get straight to the point. The Scout troupe currently has no members. Technically I guess there is no troupe. I wanted to ask you if you'd reconsider your decision to leave.”
Benton baulked at the question. He'd been so proud the first day he'd put on his Scouts uniform. He felt a little like his Father and Buck Frobisher, it was his equivalent of their Mountie uniforms and he wanted to honour his uniform by doing his very best every moment he was wearing it, just as his Father and Buck did in theirs. It had been a difficult decision to leave the Scouts, but at the time he'd felt that he could never go back, that he could never put that uniform on again. However, now that the option had been put to him, he realised that he wasn't quite so against the idea as he had once been. “I'm not sure Sir,” he answered honestly, “but I thought you said there was no troupe any more?”
“That's true,” Lightfeather nodded, “but that's why I need you.” Benton didn't understand. “I've been talking to an old friend of mine,” continued the man, “we grew up together, he moved away a few years ago, but he's back here now with his family and he thinks his children would benefit from joining our Scout troupe.”
“Benefit?” Benton was curious about Lightfeather's choice of word there.
The man hesitated for a moment. “They had some difficulties settling in where they were, that's one of the main reasons for them returning here. Unfortunately, my friend's son has been in some trouble. If he had something to keep him occupied, something like the Scouts...” Lightfeather trailed off momentarily. “You know how good it is to keep yourself busy,” he said, smiling warmly at Benton. The boy nodded. “He's about your age Benton, I think you two could get along.”
As they walked through the village, Lightfeather was pleased when Benton began to reminisce about his time in the Scouts. Their troupe had always been small, but they had still been able to do all of the things that you'd expect. Benton had taken great pride in sewing each of his merit badges along the arm of his shirt. “I'll do it,” he said, quietly. “I'd very much like to be a Scout again.”
Lightfeather smiled. “Excellent,” he said, “our first meeting is tomorrow after school.”
As Benton got ready to go to that first Scout meeting, he was a bundle of nervous energy. He stood in front of the mirror and buttoned up his shirt proudly, his sleeve laden with badges. Lightfeather hadn't told him much about the other boy and his sister other than that they were currently being home schooled by their Father after the trouble they'd had at their previous school, but now he wanted them to start mixing with other children so they didn't feel isolated.
As Benton tied his bootlaces, his Grandmother was standing behind him with her arms folded, lecturing him about how to behave with the new children. “Don't forget that other children are intimidated by your intelligence,” she said at one point. Benton rolled his eyes. He didn't consider his intelligence to be superior to many other children, but some of them seemed to disagree. He simply enjoyed learning and had an uncanny ability to retain and recall information. He was discovering fast however that there were times when doing that was useful and times when it wasn't. He remembered that Steve used to hate it.
He waved to his Grandmother as he ran down the path excitedly, holding his Scout hat on his head with one hand as the wind had become rather blustery. As he approached the hall, his excitement was overtaken by nerves again, but the door opened and Jim Lightfeather was standing there. He gave Benton the Scout salute and Benton smiled and saluted back. “Come in,” said Lightfeather, “the others will be here in a minute.”
“What are we going to do this evening?” asked Benton as he hung up his coat.
“I thought we'd just tell them about some of the things we do,” suggested Lightfeather, scattering some rugs on the floor, “and maybe you could demonstrate some knots? Every Scout has to be able to tie knots.”
Benton nodded. “I'm not sure I can remember many of them?” he said nervously.
“Of course you can,” replied Lightfeather. Benton wasn't so sure. He could never remember if the rabbit had to go around the tree first, or through the tree...or was it a squirrel? Oh dear. Maybe he should start with some of the more simple knots.
Just then the door opened and a tall skinny boy walked in together with his younger sister. The boy had his long black hair tied behind his head in a ponytail and he wore jeans and mukluks. The girl's hair was a similar length, but hung loosely over her shoulders and she was wearing a long skirt and had dirty white trainers on her feet. The girl smiled nervously at Benton and Lightfeather, but the boy barely managed to make eye contact.
“Hello,” beamed Lightfeather, “please come in and sit down.” The girl walked over and made herself comfortable on the rug, but her brother hung back, his shoulders slumped. Lightfeather crossed the small room to where he stood. “I'm Jim Lightfeather,” he introduced himself, “but as your Scout leader you should call me Akela.”
“I haven't said I'm joining yet,” the boy scowled, “we're only here because my Father insisted and my sister didn't want to come on her own.” He nodded towards his sister who was awkwardly twisting her fingers in silence, while Benton busied himself unnecessarily arranging short lengths of rope in a parallel lines, ready for the knot tying activity.
Suddenly, the boy felt a pang of compassion for his sister. It hadn't been easy since they'd moved back to the village. She'd had to leave a lot of friends behind and he couldn't help feeling it was his fault that they'd had to return anyway. He'd never fitted in in the city and he'd got in with the wrong crowd, ending up in trouble all the time. He had happy memories from when they used to live here before, but his sister was too young to remember. He glared at Lightfeather and slumped down on the rug next to his sister.
Benton decided that the awkward silence was too much to bear, so he swallowed hard and extended his hand to the boy. “Benton Fraser,” he said with a smile.
The boy nodded and shook Benton's hand, still retaining a stony look. “Innusiq,” he introduced himself, “and this is my sister, June.”
“Innusiq?” Benton repeated, “meaning 'one who walks in light?” He wasn't totally sure of the translation.
“'One who walks in fire',” Innusiq corrected him, quietly surprised that a white kid would even get that close. Benton nodded and took in the information.
June smiled and also shook hands with Benton. Jim Lightfeather allowed himself a small sigh of relief. He could see the glimmer of progress.
The newly reformed Scout troupe met once a week and Innusiq grew to look forward to those meetings, although he never said as much to either his Father or Jim Lightfeather. He liked Benton, he seemed very knowledgeable and respectful about his people, unlike most of the other white kids he'd ever known. June seemed to have a tiny crush on him too and Innusiq took great pleasure in teasing her about it at every opportunity. Benton of course was completely oblivious to her feelings.
Occasionally, the two boys argued. Well, Innusiq did most of the arguing, while Benton managed to remain calm, interjecting now and then with a pedantic observation which only served to annoy Innusiq even more. Sometimes, if Innusiq became particularly rattled, he would refer to Benton as 'the white boy'. Benton couldn't understand why he felt the need to do that. Whilst as an observation, it was accurate, it was clearly meant as an insult. Benton was hurt and confused, but Jim Lightfeather was quick to point out that Innusiq was just insecure. He didn't go into too many details, but Benton figured that he must have experienced some sort of racially motivated abuse where they used to live. He made a mental note to try to be more sympathetic in future.
One thing that bothered Benton was that Innusiq refused to commit to formally joining the group and June felt obliged to do whatever her brother did. They worked towards learning some of the skills required to pass merit badges, but of course they couldn't be presented with them until they were official Scouts. Benton proudly wore his uniform to every meeting, but Innusiq and June wore only casual clothes. Benton felt like the outsider in his own Scout troupe.
After a few weeks, Lightfeather announced that they would be going on a camping trip. Just one night, but he was going to take them deep into the forest as he'd been told a herd of caribou were living there and he wanted to observe them at close quarters. The children excitedly made plans.
As dawn broke on the morning of the trip Benton had already packed his bag, he only needed a few essential items and he sat by the door, waiting for the others to arrive. His Grandfather appeared wiping his hands on a rag. He'd been outside all night working on an engine that he'd rescued from an old boat before it was scrapped. With a bit of tinkering he was hoping he could fit it to their fishing boat, but for now all he had was lots of greasy parts all over the floor of his workshop and even more grease all over his hands. His wife was not very pleased with him. “Have a good time son,” he smiled at his grandson.
Benton nodded his silent reply with a grin. Benton's Grandfather was suddenly taken aback with how much he reminded him of Robert when he was that age. Robert and his Father used to go camping all the time, but since Benton had been living with them, he hadn't been able to take his grandson as often as he'd have liked to. He was old now and arthritis played havoc with his body so more often than not they went fishing, although those fishing trips were some of the best days of Benton's childhood. The old man felt so sorry for Benton sometimes and he used to get angry with Robert for being away so much, although over the years he'd grown to understand his son's reasons and he respected them.
There was a knock at the door and Benton leapt to his feet to answer it and at the same time his Grandmother came rushing out from the kitchen, brandishing a paper bag. “Here,” she said thrusting the package into his hands. “I made enough for all of you. That poor June looks undernourished if you ask me.”
“Thanks,” he smiled at her, although secretly he was concerned about what his Grandmother may have prepared for him. She always looked at food as being functional, it was fuel for the body and nothing more. It didn't really matter what it looked, or smelled, or tasted like in her opinion as long as it provided the right balance of nutrients. Benton opened the door. “Hello Akela,” he beamed at Jim Lightfeather, “I'm ready.”
“Good,” replied Lightfeather. He looked at Mr and Mrs Fraser, “we'll be back by sundown tomorrow,” he assured them. He was slightly scared of Mrs Fraser actually, she could be a fierce woman and he remembered her from when he was at school and she used to come in once a week to help them with Latin. He'd never understood why they'd had to learn Latin, but he'd never dare to cross Mrs Fraser then and he wasn't about to start now.
Innusiq and June were waiting for them at the end of the path and with a final wave to his grandparents, Benton strapped his pack onto his back and ran to join them.
They headed out of the village and up into the woods. It was a lovely morning, the sun rose slowly through the trees, sending a dappled light over the three young Scouts and their leader. Benton loved walking in the woods, it reminded him of his Mother...
...He could remember when he was very young they would walk out on days like these. Today as they walked, Lightfeather immersed himself in his role as Akela. Not a minute went by without him pointing out something educational. There was one discussion about tree fungus that Benton chose to stay out of because Lightfeather had been slightly inaccurate with some of his information. It was close enough so Benton decided to let it pass for the sake of maintaining harmony in the group.
After about three hours or so, it was Innusiq who spotted the first of the caribou. They flung themselves on the ground and froze, watching as the young male walked around, oblivious to their presence. June had brought her camera and managed to take a few photographs. Then a fawn wandered into view and June's heart melted. Immediately, she got to her feet and tried to get closer, but her sudden movement startled the animals and they darted off into the trees. June tried to follow, but she didn't get very far and they were out of sight. The others ran after her, laughing at her enthusiasm.
Jim Lightfeather stopped for a moment and watched the three of them. It was good to see them enjoying themselves. Benton had become less introverted since he'd rejoined the Scouts and Innusiq seemed like a different boy to the one with the attitude that had arrived at that first meeting, all those weeks ago. “Who's hungry?” he called out and all three children ran back to him shouting and laughing. They made themselves comfortable on some fallen trees and unpacked the food that each of them had been carrying. Lightfeather had been gathering berries and nuts all morning and they hungrily tucked in to the meal. “Tonight, I thought we'd try to catch a muskrat?” suggested Lightfeather. “There are enough roots leaves around to make a nice stew.”
“Sounds delicious,” smiled June. She glanced across at Benton. He was ravenously eating whatever it was that his grandmother had packed for him. He'd shared with the others of course, but Innusiq and June had turned their noses up at the burnt substance and only Lightfeather had actually tasted it, immediately regretting his decision. Benton was used to her food and the taste didn't bother him at all. June liked Benton, she thought he was cute. At ten years old, she was old enough to think boys were cute, much to her Father's despair and Benton had caught her eye. He was always polite and kind to her, unlike her brother who spent most of his time annoying her on purpose.
As they cleared away the lunch things, Jim Lightfeather suddenly became aware that Benton had stopped helping and instead was standing quietly, staring back the way they had come. “Is everything alright?” Lightfeather asked.
Benton was startled by the sound of his voice and turned. “Yes Akela,” he replied. Then he hung his head. “No,” he added. Lightfeather smiled. Benton never could tell a lie. He put his hand gently on the young boy's shoulder. “Akela, why do some people hurt other people? Why do people do that?”
Lightfeather drew a sharp breath. He hadn't been expecting that at all. He'd assumed that Benton was thinking about his Father again, or even his Mother. Benton never talked about what happened to his Mother, he'd found it easier to keep those thoughts private, but he often spoke of his Father, of how proud he was of him and about how much he missed him when he was away. “Well,” Lighfeather began, not quite sure how to answer the young boy's question, “some people don't mean to hurt other people, but they have other problems and they don't see any other way out.” He stopped and frowned. “You know, perhaps you'd be better off discussing this with your Father?” he suggested, “As an officer of the law, he has much wider knowledge about what drives people to commit crimes.”
Benton looked straight into his Akela's eyes. “My Father's not here right now,” he said earnestly. Lightfeather nodded apologetically. Benton thought for a moment. “So maybe if those people had someone to help them with their problems, they wouldn't go out and hurt other people? Criminals wouldn't need to steal money for food if someone gave them food would they.”
Lightfeather smiled at Benton's naivety. “I'm afraid it's not quite that simple,” he said, “but essentially, I suppose that's true. Unfortunately, not everyone knows who to turn to for help and many people don't like asking for help anyway.”
Benton nodded thoughtfully. He understood that. He hated asking for help too, he hated other people to see him unable to do something, unable to cope with something. That's why he was so often quiet and introverted, Lightfeather thought to himself. If Benton had a problem he certainly did not want to discuss it with anyone. He preferred to cope alone. Lightfeather hoped that as he grew older he would learn that sometimes you needed to let someone else in. The old saying about a problem shared being a problem halved was a good one. Of course it came from an old Inuit saying.
Benton looked up at him again. “Akela,” he said, “Steve didn't ask anyone for help. His problem must have been so bad to make him...to make him do what he did.” Benton couldn't bring himself to say it out loud. “Maybe I could have helped him...”
Jim Lightfeather put his hand in the air to stop him. “No,” he said, determinedly, “no Benton, not everyone can be helped.”
Benton thought about that statement for a moment and the more he thought about it, the more he thought that if it were true is was an incredibly sad fact. He just didn't want to believe it. He couldn't believe it. Something inside of him that day made him determined to prove his Akela wrong on this.
As they continued through the forest, Jim Lightfeather began to tell them stories, traditional stories that he'd learnt from his parents and grandparents growing up. Benton loved to hear the Inuit stories, they reminded him of his Mother...
...She always told him bedtime stories, sometimes she used the traditional Inuit tales and sometimes she told tales from other countries. Even his Father sometimes told them to him when he was home. Innusiq however had heard them all before. He respected his heritage and he would defend the rights of his people at every turn, but some of these old stories were silly, he thought. Talking animals and mystical spirits were exactly the things that the white kids used to tease and bully him with when they lived in the city. He rolled his eyes as Lightfeather told another story. June however loved to hear the stories and she even told one of her favourites, the story of the Qalupalik. Her Mother used to tell it to her when she was younger and Benton enjoyed hearing her interpretation.
Eventually, they came to a clearing and Lightfeather decided that it would be a perfect spot for them to make their camp. They set about building a fire and arranging their bedrolls. Benton and Innusiq gathered sticks and twine and began to construct shelter. Benton loved camping, it reminded him of his Mother...
...They often used to camp out under the stars together. His Mother used to say she felt claustrophobic in the cabin all the time. His Father was even worse and would often get up in the night, leaving his wife asleep in bed and settle on the ground outside the cabin. Benton used to hear him out there sometimes and he wanted to go out too, but he thought he'd probably get into trouble if he did. Even at five years old, he knew that his father liked to be on his own sometimes.
June had constructed a support for the water pot and she filled it with water and hung it carefully over the flames. As the camp started to take shape, Benton was looking forward to some bark tea. He loved bark tea, it reminded him of his Mother...
...She used to make bark tea for his Father after he'd returned from a difficult day at work. It always seemed to help him relax and put that sparkle back in his eyes. Benton hadn't seen that old sparkle since his Mother's death. He missed that, he missed the man his Father used to be.
Jim Lightfeather walked over to June with four tin mugs and looked over her shoulder. “Is it boiling yet?” he asked.
“Um,” June peered into the pot, “well, I don't think so,” she replied, frowning, “I mean it doesn't seem to be getting very warm at all? I don't know why Akela?”
Lightfeather got to his knees beside her and placed the mugs on the floor. He took one look at the support that June had built and smiled. June's Inuit heritage was deceptive. Having lived for most of her young life in the city, she was uncomfortable in situations such as these. Innusiq at least had spent a few years in their home village, long enough for it to feel like home. “June, it's too tall,” he said, lifting the water pot down and making some adjustments to the sticks. “The pot is far too high above the fire, it'll never boil if it's up there.”
Innusiq giggled and looked at Benton. “Girls,” he said, rolling his eyes and Benton laughed, although he did feel a little sorry for June who clearly couldn't boil a pot of water if the future of western civilization depended on it. “She'll never get her cooking badge,” added Innusiq with another snigger.
“Neither of you can earn badges until you take the pledge and become Scouts,” Benton pointed out. He'd really hoped that Innusiq would have changed his mind by now as he still felt that he was the only real Scout in their troupe and that made him feel lonely. He didn't want to feel lonely any more.
Innusiq's face fell. He knew he and June had been unofficial members of the Scouts for far too long, but something was holding him back. Maybe he saw Scouts as something that white kids did. There had been a Scout troupe in the city where they used to live, but it had been full of white kids. Of course, he and June were the only two Inuit children in their previous school so it was hardly surprising really.
Finally, thanks to some rebuilding by their Akela, the water finally boiled and Benton made bark tea for everyone except Innusiq who had cocoa. Lightfeather finished his tea first and got to his feet. “I'll go and take a look up there,” he said, pointing over a ridge to the west of their campsite, “hopefully I'll find signs of muskrats and we can catch ourselves some dinner.”
“What if there aren't any muskrats Akela?” asked June, patting her rumbling stomach.
Lightfeather laughed. “Well in that case I'm sure we can find a nest of furry nightcrawlers.”
Benton and Innusiq looked at each other and groaned. Nightcrawlers were chewy and tasteless, they both agreed. They really hoped there were muskrats out there. Innusiq was still surprised that Benton had even eaten nightcrawlers. He still looked at him as a white boy, just like the other children in the city. Even though they got on really well and had forged a friendship, it was still there in the back of his mind and of course Benton was well aware of it. Innusiq would still throw that insult back in his face if they had a disagreement. Benton was trying to be less irritating, but as he was never quite sure what would irritate Innusiq it was proving difficult. Occasionally, they had big arguments. Now was really not a good time for one of those, but it didn't stop them.
“Hey Benton,” Innusiq said, picking up Jim Lightfeather's guitar, “you can play this can't you?”
“I've been learning for several years,” agreed Benton.
“Play something,” Innusiq handed the instrument to his friend.
Benton took it, but then placed it on the ground. “I'm sorry, Innusiq but that's Akela's guitar, it wouldn't be proper for me to play it.”
Innusiq laughed. “Oh, it wouldn't be proper,” he said sarcastically, “and Benton Fraser is always proper.”
Benton looked hurt. “You're suggesting that doing the right thing is somehow...wrong?” he said.
“Jeez Benton!” exclaimed Innusiq, “lighten up, I was kidding.”
Benton didn't think it was funny. “My grandparents have brought me up to do what's right,” he began to protest. “My Father too.”
“Your Father's never here,” snapped Innusiq, getting annoyed now. “When was the last time you even saw him? An Inuit father would never abandon his kid.”
Benton saw red now. He wasn't going to let anyone insult his family, his Father, the man he was so proud of. “My Father has not abandoned me,” he said, “he is out there protecting all of us from criminals. He comes home at every opportunity.” That last statement may well have been untrue, but Benton believed it, he had to.
Innusiq laughed incredulously. Benton sounded so pompous. “So your Father's a Mountie, yeah we know, you've told us about a hundred times now. Doesn't mean he's better than my Dad.”
“I didn't suggest that he was,” replied Benton, indignantly.
Innusiq was in full flow now though. “My ancestors were living here before any white man ever set foot in these woods,” he said, “my Dad would make a better Mountie than yours.”
“Innusiq, I don't believe a person's lineage bears any relevance to their ability to act as an officer of the law,” Benton's voice remained calm and composed, unlike Innusiq's which was getting higher as he got angrier.
“Well you would say that, white boy,” he snarled at Benton, “we all know that they don't let us “natives” be cops.” He mimed quotation marks around the word “natives” for emphasis.
“That's not true,” replied Benton indignantly, “the admissions policy for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police does not discriminate on the grounds of race, nor on any grounds for that matter.”
Innusiq was hopping from one foot to the other now, agitated and sweating. “Are you that stupid?” he asked angrily, “so you honestly think that we get treated the same as you? You really are a dumb white boy.”
Fraser got to his feet now. “Why do you do that?” he asked Innusiq, “why do you call me that when you want to insult me. You and I have different coloured skin, but is that really such a problem for you?”
“For me?” Innusiq got his face close to Benton's now, “it's not a problem for me at all,” he said, lowering his voice, “its your problem.”
June was now standing beside them. “Innusiq stop it!” she screamed at her brother, “please don't do this. Benton is our friend.”
“That's what they all said,” hissed Innusiq, “they all said they were my friends. Then look what they did to us.” He squared up to Benton now, clenching his fists and breathing rapidly.
“Please,” begged June, “please stop.” She turned to plead directly to Benton. “Please say you're sorry and he'll stop.”
“June, I have nothing to apologise for,” replied Benton indignantly. He wasn't going to take the punishment for something he hadn't done. He wasn't going to back down now and take the fall for Innusiq. He used to do that for Steve and Steve, it turned out, was not his friend at all. This time he was going to stand up for himself.
“That's right,” replied Innusiq, “you white kids think you're so right about everything all the time.” He took a step back and raised his fists aggressively.
“Benton,” said June, tears forming in her eyes, “he used to do this all the time at school. Please don't fight, please, we're having such a nice day.”
“Stay out if it June,” Innusiq yelled at his sister and she couldn't hold back her tears any more.
Benton took one look at the crying girl and raised his fists too. He couldn't stand by and let anyone make a girl cry without making it quite clear to them that it was unacceptable. “If we're going to do this, we should perhaps set a few rules?” he suggested, the adrenaline starting to pump through his body.
“Rules?” Innusiq laughed, “rules are for white boys,” and he swung a punch. Innusiq had a strong left hook, but Benton was too quick for him and he ducked his head out of the way, sending Innusiq staggering around. Benton threw a punch too and Innusiq tried to dodge it, but he wasn't quite quick enough and he was just caught by Benton's fist on the edge of his jaw. June screamed, shocking Benton.
“I...I'm sorry Innusiq,” he said, his voice full of remorse.
“Is that it?” yelled Innusiq who was still enraged, “one lucky punch and you're giving up?” Benton was speechless as Innusiq lunged towards him again.
June screamed again. “Stop it!” she yelled, sobbing now and physically trying to hold her brother back.
Benton ducked out of the way of Innusiq's fist for the second time, but then they all froze as they heard the voice of Jim Lightfeather. He sounded mad, really mad. “What is going on?” he yelled, running back down over the ridge towards their camp. He stopped by a large tree to catch his breath. “What is wrong with you boys? I thought I could trust you?” Benton and Innusiq hung their heads in shame. “Pack up your things,” he growled. No one moved. Lightfeather began running down the ridge back into camp, “I said pack up your things,” he repeated, louder this time, “we're leaving,” but as he said those words, he stumbled over a tree root that was partially hidden by leaves. Normally he would have noticed it, but he was distracted. He tumbled down the hill, yelling out in agony and rolling over and over before his fall was halted by a tree.
“Akela!” Benton yelled, watching in horror with the other children. The three of them ran up to Lightfeather. “Are you alright Sir?” Benton fell to his knees beside the man, but he already knew the answer was no. He'd already noticed the blood.
“It's my leg,” Lightfeather mumbled, desperately trying to stay conscious.
Benton nodded and gingerly moved to Lightfeather's feet. Blood was soaking through his jeans now and his foot was lying at an unnatural angle. Benton knew this was a serious injury. He took his pocketknife from his back pocket and carefully cut open Lightfeather's trouser leg, recoiling at the sight of bone protruding through the skin, just above his ankle. June buried her head into her brother's shoulder. “June,” said Benton, “please could you bring the first aid pack up here.”
June was grateful for something to do and she ran off. “What are we going to do?” asked Innusiq in a shaky voice as Benton carefully removed the man's boot.
“Um, um...” Benton was trying to stay calm. He'd passed his first aid badge with flying colours, even taking the advanced first aid course, a course designed for much older Scouts, but now, faced with a real situation, his mind was blank.
June returned with the first aid pack and Benton found a large dressing pad that he placed over the wound. Lightfeather was beginning to lose consciousness now. “Akela,” said Benton urgently, “Akela, stay awake,” he urged, slapping the man on the cheek.
Benton steeled himself and took another look at Lightfeather's injury. “It's bad isn't it,” whispered the man.
“Um, it's not good,” agreed Benton, “you've suffered a compound fracture, but don't worry, we're going to get you out of here,” he said, trying to sound reassuring. He wasn't sure if he'd succeeded.
“What? In the dark?” said Innusiq incredulously.
“Innusiq is right,” replied Lightfeather, “you can't...too far...”
Benton looked up at the sky and then scowled at Innusiq. Of course he was right. There was no way that the three of them could possibly hope to carry their Akela all the way back through the woods in the pitch black. Benton wasn't even sure he could track the right way anyway, otherwise he'd consider leaving Lightfeather in Innusiq's care and going to fetch help, but the last thing he wanted was to get hopelessly lost. He looked at Lightfeather and nodded. “I'm sorry Sir,” he mumbled.
Lightfeather smiled weakly. “Why are you apologising?” he asked. Benton shrugged. Lightfeather tried to sit up but he was gently pushed back by Benton, although not before he'd caught sight of the mess his leg was in.
“Don't try to move Akela,” said Benton. “We can at least get you back down to the camp and I'll make you as comfortable as I can. Then we'll set off at first light.”
“Benton,” Lightfeather had to breathe deeply to talk, “you remember your first aid training...you need to reset the bone.”
Benton went a little pale. He knew Lightfeather was right of course, he knew that he couldn't leave the man's leg like that overnight and it should probably be done before they tried to carry him back down to their camp so that it could be dressed properly with a splint to immobilise it. “I'm not sure that I can,” replied Benton honestly. Training was one thing, but this very real and very serious situation was another thing entirely.
“Of course you can,” Lightfeather encouraged, his eyes drooping. “You remember how.”
Benton nodded, they'd had an excellent first aid instructor, he knew all the theory. “Innusiq,” he said, turning to his friend, “I'm going to need something to use as a splint.”
“I'll see if I can find a straight tree branch,” said Innusiq, getting to his feet.
Benton looked at June who was shaking with fear. “June,” he said gently, “when this is over, I think we'd all like some bark tea,” Benton nodded back towards their fire, “maybe you could be in charge of that please?”
The trembling girl nodded silently and walked back to the camp. Benton knew that the next few minutes were not going to be pretty and he didn't want June to witness them at too close a distance. He caught Lightfeather's eye and the man realised what he'd done and why and he managed a small smile.
June set about filling the boiling pot again and hung it over the fire, trying to make sure this time that it was close enough to the fire for the heat to be effective. She saw her brother return to the scene of the accident carrying a thin tree branch. The next thing she heard was a blood curdling yell as Benton reset Jim Lightfeather's broken leg. He and Innusiq worked well together and Benton wrapped the wound with bandages before using the branch to immobilise the leg.
The two boys carefully carried their Akela the short distance back into their camp. June had arranged her rucksack at the foot of his bedroll, remembering from her first aid training that his leg would need to be raised. They lowered him down and did their best to make him more comfortable. He was fighting hard to remain conscious again, the pain was becoming unbearable. He looked from Benton to Innusiq as June attempted to make tea. “What...why were you fighting?” he said in a croaky voice.
Both boys had completely forgotten their argument now, considering what had since ensued. Benton suddenly felt terrible. If it wasn't for their silly argument, none of this would have happened. He glanced at his friend and saw that Innusiq was feeling just as bad. “Um, it was my fault Akela...” began Benton, but Innusiq interrupted him.
“No, it was my fault,” he said, “I'm sorry Akela, I was being stupid.” Benton tried to speak again, but Jim Lightfeather weakly raised his hand to stop them both.
“Enough,” he whispered and the two boys nodded, full of remorse.
“How's that tea coming along June?” asked Benton. June peered into the pot. The water still wasn't boiling and she just shrugged. She had no idea what she was doing wrong this time.
“Um, we still need to eat,” said Innusiq suddenly, “I'm going to look for food.”
“No muskrats,” mumbled Lightfeather and Innusiq sighed with disappointment. He'd caught muskrats once before with his Father, but other than that he really had no hunting experience. In fact he knew that Benton would probably be better at this task, but he wanted to prove he could do it and besides he would rather Benton stayed here to take care of Lightfeather as he knew he wouldn't be very good at that either.
Benton thought about trying to stop him, but then he thought that he really shouldn't. He didn't know best all the time and they were in a difficult situation now so he had to trust his friend. He was very worried about his Akela. He was drifting in and out of consciousness and had lost a fair amount of blood.
While Innusiq went to find food, Benton helped June with making the tea, quickly adjusting the boiling pot so that the water boiled in less than a minute. Benton managed to get Lightfeather to sip some tea which he was pleased with as the man appeared to be getting dehydrated. As they waited, Benton noticed that June was becoming jittery. She would jump at every slight noise or movement in the trees. She was scared, he concluded, but then so was he. He was terrified that the man he respected so much was going to die and it would be his fault. If only he hadn't fought with Innusiq. If only he hadn't allowed the other boy's comments to get under his skin. He looked at June and tried a supportive smile and she seemed to appreciate it.
Innusiq returned eventually with a small squirrel that he'd trapped and a large collection of roots and leaves. Benton smiled. It wasn't much but at least they could make something to eat. Although he didn't really have much of an appetite at the moment, he knew he would need his strength for tomorrow. Innusiq prepared the meal and the three children forced themselves to eat. Benton was able to rouse Lightfeather long enough for him to drink some of the juices from the stew. The man was grateful. “Don't worry,” he said to Benton in a shaky voice, “everything will be fine.” Benton wanted that to be true and he drew emotional strength from the man's positivity.
They cleared things away and prepared for bed. Innusiq suggested that he and Benton should take turns in staying awake and Benton volunteered to take the first shift. “What time is it?” asked June.
Innusiq looked at his watch and Benton looked up at the stars. “About ten o'clock,” both boys said, almost in unison.
Innusiq looked at Benton, slightly stunned. “You can tell the time just by looking at the stars?” he said, incredulously. He knew his uncle could do it, but apart from recognising a few major constellations, the sky was indecipherable to Innusiq. He was, yet again, very impressed with his friend's abilities.
“It's quite simple really,” replied Benton and he proceeded to try to explain the basics to Innusiq and June, who listened with fascination.
Eventually Innusiq and June settled down in their sleeping bags and Benton stoked the fire and tried to stay calm. He listened to the sounds of the woods at night trying to recognise each and every nocturnal call. He kept checking on Lightfeather, he wasn't sure if the man was sleeping or unconscious at times, but at least he was alive. At first light they would start making their way back towards civilisation. He woke Innusiq up at the agreed time, although Innusiq had barely slept anyway. June however seemed to have been able to fall asleep and the boys were grateful for that. There was a big difference between being a twelve year old boy, almost thirteen in Innusiq's case and being a ten year old girl. Right now, Benton would have given anything to be in June's position. He looked at the stars again. He loved looking at the stars...it reminded him of his Mother...
...They used to look at the sky together of course, but that wasn't the only reason. It was something his grandmother once said to him. She was not known at all for sentimentality, however after discovering young Benton weeping one day soon after his mother had died, lost and alone and frightened, she'd taken him outside into the night and pointed to a twinkling star. “Every time you look at that star, I want you to remember that your Mother wouldn't want you to be sad.” Benton still remembered those words and he would often go outside in the middle of the night just to stare at the stars.
The next morning,as the sun began to rise, Benton and June went to gather some sturdy tree branches and anything else they could find to construct a stretcher to carry their Akela home. Benton quickly lashed everything together using a variety of knots and he was quite pleased with the results. Jim Lightfeather was still very weak, but hadn't got any worse overnight, much to everyone's relief. He was able to eat a small amount of oatmeal and drink some water and then Benton and Innusiq lifted him onto the makeshift stretcher. “Should I change the bandages?” Benton asked him.
Lightfeather nodded reluctantly. “Going to be a while...before we get back...” he took a deep breath, it was a struggle to speak. “There should be...more bandages in the first aid pack.”
Benton nodded and scrambled for the supplies. He noticed that Innusiq had gathered some more roots and succulents. “What are you doing Innusiq?” he asked his friend as he began to unwrap Lightfeather's injury.
Innusiq didn't answer immediately. He shuffled his feet uncomfortably and Benton frowned. "Um, nothing," Innusiq replied eventually, "it was a stupid idea." Benton shrugged. He recognised some of the items and he knew they weren't really suitable for cooking so he was puzzled. Innusiq sighed. "I tried to gather some things that I remember my Grandmother telling me about," he explained, "things with medicinal qualities."
Benton's face brightened. "Oh, of course," he said. His own grandmother had begun to teach him about the properties of various plants, but he'd never had to use that minimal knowledge before. Benton left his Akela for a minute and crossed to Innusiq, picking up the selection of items one at a time. "This one acts as a sedative in the right quantities," he said, getting excited now, "it could help with the pain, but we'd need to mix it with something else or the body won't absorb it quickly enough."
"That's what these are for," replied Innusiq, handing Benton some succulent leaves. "At least I think so anyway."
“But what is the property of this root?” asked Benton.
“I believe they contain a substance known to fight infection,” replied Innusiq, “if you mix it with these,” added the boy, passing him a handful of narrow veined leaves. Then he hung his head. “I can't remember,” he sighed, “I may have this all wrong.”
Benton glanced across at Lightfeather and then back to Innusiq. "You have to try," he encouraged. “I had an injury that became badly infected once,” he added, looking sadly at the floor, “and it left a very nasty scar that I'm told will fade only a little over time.” Slowly he lifted all the layers of clothing he was wearing to display an ugly red mark on his chest. The otter's teeth had plunged into Benton's flesh after Steve had swung it with such force and left a deep wound, but when the infection had set in, the healing process had been hampered and the scar was bigger and redder than it would otherwise have been. Benton hated that there was such an obvious visual reminder of what had happened. He hated that the incident had scarred him physically as well as mentally. He quickly rearranged his clothing to cover it up again.
June was shocked. She looked at her brother. “Please try,” she begged him.
"No!" Innusiq got to his feet quickly, "I don't know what I'm doing with all of this really, it was a dumb idea."
Benton didn't know what to say. He looked at Innusiq for a moment, but his friend seemed determined, so instead he went back to Lightfeather. “Everything alright?” she man whispered to him.
“Fine,” replied Benton as he worked. He was just about to start applying clean bandages when Innusiq appeared behind him and thrust a cup into his hand. Benton peered into it to see it contained a thick greenish paste. He looked up at Innusiq questioningly.
“I don't know if it's going to work,” Innusiq mumbled.
Benton smiled . “Thank you,” he said and Innusiq hurried away to help his sister pack away the last of their camping things.
Benton had no idea how they made it back home. Progress was slow. Jim Lightfeather was, despite his name, rather heavy, especially for two young boys to carry over uneven ground. They rested often, making sure that they were all drinking enough water. Lightfeather seemed more alert at times. Innusiq hoped that the remedy he'd made had gone some way to helping. After several hours, just as Benton and Innusiq began to think that their legs couldn't take any more, June suddenly squealed.
Immediately, the boys stopped and carefully lowered the stretcher to the ground. “What is it?” asked Innusiq urgently.
“I know where we are!” exclaimed June, “this is where we come to look for butterflies. Come on Innusiq, surely you recognise these trees?”
Innusiq suddenly realised that he couldn't even think straight and he slumped to his knees. Benton looked at him with concern, but he couldn't muster the energy to ask if he was alright. June stood with her hands on her hips and shook her head. “Stay here,” she said, “I'll go and get help.” Benton and Innusiq didn't have the strength to argue with her so they both just nodded and June ran off. Benton sat next to Lightfeather, physically and mentally exhausted. Lightfeather looked at him and managed a weak smile and Benton nodded a silent acknowledgement.
The next thing Benton remembered was waking up in his own bed with his grandmother standing over him holding a mug of tea. “Well it's about time you woke up,” she said, frowning.
Benton blinked deeply and tried to focus his eyes. “Akela?” it came out like a croaky whisper.
“He's fine,” replied Benton's grandmother, “he's had surgery. You saved his life you know.”
“Innusiq?” Benton's voice sounded even more urgent now, “and June? We did it together...”
“They're both alright,” his grandmother assured him, “probably still sleeping, just like you.” She rolled her eyes, but Benton saw the tiny twitch of a smile at the corner of her mouth.
Although Scout meetings were temporarily suspended while Jim Lightfeather recuperated, Benton and Innusiq continued to spend their free time together. Benton loved to spend time with Innusiq's family and he would sit and talk with his friend's parents and grandparents for hours, while Innusiq got bored of listening to tales of the past and the traditional nonsense that he hated so much. Some things he didn't consider to be nonsense any more however, although he would never tell Benton or his family this.
Innusiq made a huge decision during this time too, he decided to go to school. He and June had been home schooled since they'd moved back from the city, because Innusiq in particular had got into trouble at his old school and his parents had thought it best to keep him out of school initially, but now he wanted to go. The village school was small and he only really knew Benton, but after a few nervous days he started to fit in. June followed her brother and she too was pleased to be making friends again.
The boys visited Jim Lightfeather often as he slowly recovered from his injury. He made no secret of the fact that he felt he owed them and June his life. He wouldn't hear their protestations to the contrary, their argument that if only they hadn't been fighting that day it wouldn't have happened at all fell on deaf ears. Lightfeather maintained that the circumstances were irrelevant, but their actions in the aftermath had been exemplary. The boys continued to have a few little disagreements, but as they were two very different people that was hardly surprising and they never had a huge argument again.
One day, the boys were at Benton's cabin, talking about some homework when June came running up the path. Benton saw her out of his bedroom window and he and Innusiq hurried to the door to let her in. “I've been looking all over for you,” she said, slightly out of breath. “We have to get to the hall, we have a Scout meeting!”
Benton and Innusiq looked at each other with puzzled frowns. “Now?” queried Innusiq.
“Yes, right now!” replied June, urgently.
“I'll get changed,” said Benton, racing back to his room and putting on his Scout uniform in record time.
At the hall, the three children arrived to find Jim Lightfeather already there. “There you are,” he smiled when they arrived. “I have some important announcements.” The children were all still very puzzled. “We haven't been able to have a meeting since our little adventure and besides, I had to place a large order with Scout headquarters.”
“An order for what Akela?” asked Benton.
Lightfeather hobbled over to them using his walking stick and smiled. “Badges Benton,” he said. He beckoned for them to follow him and they walked with him to a small table that he had laid out with a huge pile of Scout merit badges. He gave the Scout salute to Benton and laughed as Benton blushed slightly. One by one he presented eleven badges to Benton, all of which he'd earned during the course of their camping adventure. Benton was so proud, he was speechless. “I have one more,” said Lightfoot handing over another badge to Benton.
It was a different shape to the merit badges and Benton took a minute to realise what it was. “The Bronze Cross?” said Benton, his eyes wide.
Lightfoot smiled and nodded. “The highest honour I can give you, for gallantry and heroism.”
“Akela, I can't accept this,” Benton began, but Lightfoot waved his hand to stop him. Benton knew that look, he knew he wasn't going to win an argument over this. He wished his Father was here to see this...and his Mother... He clutched the award tightly in his hand.
Then Lightfoot turned to Innusiq. “I have another one of those here for you, together with your merit badges.” he said, hesitating slightly. “You've earned them, but of course I can't award any of them to you...you're not a Scout?”
Innusiq looked at Benton and then back to Lightfoot. Then he stood to attention, gave the Scout salute and then, as Lightfoot and Benton saluted back, Innusiq recited the Scout promise, “I promise that I'll do my best...”