(Return to Web Text-ures)
AS THEY stood in the warm sunshine of this first day of June, watching the last of Makoos as he fled across the creek bottom, Neewa felt very much like an old and seasoned warrior instead of a pot-bellied, round-faced cub of four months who weighed nine pounds and not four hundred.
It was many minutes after Neewa had sunk his ferocious little teeth deep into the tenderest part of the old he-bear's toe before Noozak could get her wind sufficiently to grunt. Her sides were pumping like a pair of bellows, and after Makoos had disappeared beyond the creek Neewa sat down on his chubby bottom, perked his funny cars forward, and eyed his mother with round and glistening eyes that were filled with uneasy speculation. With a wheezing groan Noozak turned and made her way slowly toward the big rock alongside which she had been sleeping when Neewa's fearful cries for help had awakened her. Every bone in her aged body seemed broken or dislocated. She limped and sagged and moaned as she walked, and behind her were left little red trails of blood in the green grass. Makoos had given her a fine pummeling.
She lay down, gave a final groan, and looked at Neewa, as if to say:
"If you hadn't gone off on some deviltry and upset that old viper's temper this wouldn't have happened. And now – look at me!"
A young bear would have rallied quickly from the effects of the battle, but Noozak lay without moving all the rest of that afternoon, and the night that followed. And that night was by all odds the finest that Neewa had ever seen. Now that the nights were warm, he had come to love the moon even more than the sun, for by birth and instinct he was more a prowler in darkness than a hunter of the day. The moon rose out of the east in a glory of golden fire. The spruce and balsam forests stood out like islands in a yellow sea of light, and the creek shimmered and quivered like a living thing as it wound its way through the glowing valley. But Neewa had learned his lesson, and though the moon and the stars called to him he hung close to his mother, listening to the carnival of night sound that came to him, but never moving away from her side.
With the morning Noozak rose to her feet, and with a grunting command for Neewa to follow she ,with climbed the sun-capped ridge. She was in no mood for travel, but away back in her head was an unexpressed fear that villainous old Makoos might return, and she knew that another fight would do her up entirely, in which event Makoos would make a breakfast of Neewa. So she urged herself down the other side of the ridge, across a new valley, and through a cut that opened like a wide door into a rolling plain that was made up of meadows and lakes and great sweeps of spruce and cedar forest. For a week Noozak had been making for a certain creek in this plain, and now that the presence of Makoos threatened behind she kept at her journeying until Neewa's short, fat legs could scarcely hold up his body. It was mid-afternoon when they reached the creek, and Neewa was so exhausted that he had difficulty in climbing the spruce up which his mother sent him to take a nap. Finding a comfortable crotch he quickly fell asleep – while Noozak went fishing.
The creek was alive with suckers, trapped in the shallow pools after spawning, and within an hour she had the shore strewn with them. When Neewa came down out of his cradle, just at the edge of dusk, it was to a feast at which Noozak had already stuffed herself until she looked like a barrel. This was his first meal of fish, and for a week thereafter he lived in a paradise of fish. He ate them morning, noon, and night, and when he was too full to eat he rolled in them. And Noozak stuffed herself until it seemed her hide would burst. Wherever they moved they carried with them a fishy smell that grew older day by day, and the older it became the more delicious it was to Neewa and his mother. And Neewa grew like a swelling pod. In that week he gained three pounds. He had given up nursing entirely now, for Noozak – being an old bear – had dried up to a point where she was hopelessly disappointing.
It was early in the evening of the eighth day that Neewa and his mother lay down in the edge of a grassy knoll to sleep after their day's feasting. Noozak was by all adds the happiest old bear in all that part of the northland. Food was no longer a problem for her. In the creek, penned up in the pools, were unlimited quantities of it, and she had encountered no other bear to challenge her possession of it. She looked ahead to uninterrupted bliss in their happy hunting grounds until midsummer storms emptied the pools, or the berries ripened. And Neewa, a happy little gourmand, dreamed with her.
It was this day, just as the sun was setting, that a man on his hands and knees was examining a damp patch of sand five or six miles down the creek. His sleeves were rolled up, baring his brown arms half. way to the shoulders and he wore no hat, so that the evening breeze ruffled a ragged head of blond hair that for a matter of eight or nine months had been cut with a hunting knife.
Close on one side of this individual was a tin pail, and on the other, eying him with the keenest interest, one of the homeliest and yet one of the most companionable-looking dog pups ever born of a Mackenzie hound father and a mother half Airedale and half Spitz.
With this tragedy of blood in his veins nothing in the world could have made the pup anything more than "just dog." His tail, Stretched out straight on the sand, was long and lean, with a knot at every joint; his paws, like an overgrown boy's feet, looked like small boxing-gloves; his head was three sizes too big for his body, and accident had assisted Nature in the perfection of her masterpiece by robbing him of a half of one of his ears. As he watched his master this half of an ear stood up like a galvanized stub, while the other – twice as long – was perked forward in the deepest and most interested enquiry. Head, feet, and tail were Mackenzie hound, but the ears and his lank, skinny body was a battle royal between Spitz and Airedale. At his present inharmonious stage of development he was the doggiest dog-pup outside the alleys of a big city.
For the first time in several minutes his master spoke, and Miki wiggled from stem to stern in appreciation of the fact that it was directly to him the words were uttered.
"It's a mother and a cub, as sure as you're a week old, Miki," he said. "And if I know anything about bears they were here some time to-day!"
He rose to his feet, made note of the deepening shadows in the edge of the timber, and filled his pail with water. For a few moments the last rays of the sun lit up his face. It was a strong, hopeful face.
In it was the joy of life. And now it was lighted up with a sudden inspiration, and a glow that was not of the forest alone came into his eyes, as he added;
"Miki, I'm lugging your homely carcass down to the Girl because you're an unpolished gem of good nature and beauty – and for those two things I know she'll love you. She is my sister, you know. Now, if I could only take that cub along with you –"
He began to whistle as he turned with his pail of water in the direction of a thin fringe of balsams a hundred yards away.
Close at his heels followed Miki.
Challoner, who was a newly appointed factor of the Great Hudson's Bay Company, had pitched his camp at the edge of the lake close to the mouth of the creek. There was not much to it – a battered tent, a still more battered canoe, and a small pile of dunnage. But in the last glow of the sunset it would have spoken volumes to a man with an eye trained to the wear and the turmoil of the forests. It was the outfit of a man who had gone unfearing to the rough edge of the world. And now what was left of it was returning with him. To Challoner there was something of human comradeship in these remnants of things that had gone through the greater part of a year's fight with him. The canoe was warped and battered and patched; smoke and storm had blackened his tent until it was the colour of rusty char, and his grub sacks were next to empty.
Over a small fire the contents of a pan and a pot were brewing when he returned with Miki at his heels, and close to the heat was a battered and mended reflector in which a bannock of flour and water was beginning to brown. In one of the pots was coffee, in the other a boiling fish.
Miki sat down on his angular haunches so that the odour of the fish filled his nostrils. This, he had discovered, was the next thing to eating. His eyes, as they followed Challoner's final preparatory movements, were as bright as garnets, and every third or fourth breath he licked his chops, and swallowed hungrily. That, in fact, was why Miki had got his name. He was always hungry, and apparently always empty, no matter how much he ate. Therefore his name, Miki, "The drum."
It was not until they had eaten the fish and the bannock, and Challoner had lighted his pipe, that he spoke what was in his mind.
"To-morrow I'm going after that bear," he said. Miki, curled up near the dying embers, gave his tail a club-like thump in evidence of the fact that he was listening.
"I'm going to pair you up with the cub, and tickle the Girl to death."
Miki thumped his tail harder than before.
"Fine," he seemed to say.
"Just think of it," said Challoner, looking over Miki's head a thousand miles away, "Fourteen months – and at last we're going home. I'm going to train you and the cub for that sister of mine. Eh, won't you like that? You don't know what she's like, you homely little devil, or you wouldn't sit there staring at me like a totem-pole pup! And it isn't in your stupid head to imagine how pretty she is. You saw that sunset to-night? Well, she's prettier than that if she is my sister. Got anything to add to that, Miki? If not, let's say our prayers and go to bed!"
Challoner rose and stretched himself. His muscles cracked. He felt life surging like a giant within him.
And Miki, thumping his tail
until this moment, rose on his
overgrown legs and followed his master into their shelter.
* * * * * * * * * * *
It was in the gray light of the early summer dawn when Challoner came forth again, and rekindled the fire. Miki followed a few moments later, and his master fastened the end of a worn tent-rope around his neck and tied the rope to a sapling. Another rope of similar length Challoner tied to the corners of a grub sack so that it could be carried over his shoulder like a game bag, With the first rose-flush of the sun he was ready for the trail of Neewa and his mother. Miki set up a melancholy wailing when he found himself left behind, and when Challoner looked back the pup was tugging and somersaulting at the end of his rope like a jumping-jack. For a quarter of a mile up the creek he could hear Miki's entreating protest.
To Challoner the business of the day was not a matter of personal pleasure, nor was it inspired alone by his desire to possess a cub along with Miki. He needed meat, and bear pork thus early in the season would be exceedingly good; and above all else he needed a supply of fat. If he bagged this bear, time would be saved all the rest of the way do to civilization.
It was eight o'clock when he struck the first unmistakably fresh signs of Noozak and Neewa. It was at the point where Noozak had fished four or five days previously, and where they had returned yesterday to feast on the "ripened" catch. Challoner was elated. He was sure that he would find the pair along the creek, and not far distant. The wind was in his favour, and he began to advance with greater caution, his rifle ready for the anticipated moment. For an hour he travelled steadily and quietly, marking every sound and movement ahead of him, and wetting his finger now and then to see if the wind had shifted. After all, it was not so much a matter of human cunning. Everything was in Challoner's favour.
In a wide, flat part of the valley where the creek split itself into a dozen little channels, and the water rippled between sandy bars and over pebbly shallows, Neewa and his mother were nosing about lazily for a breakfast of crawfish. The world had never looked more beautiful to Neewa. The sun made the soft hair on his back fluff up like that of a purring cat, He liked the plash of wet sand under his feet and the singing gush of water against his legs. He liked the sound that was all about him, the breath of the wind, the whispers that came out of the spruce-tops and the cedars, the murmur of water, the twit-twit of the rock rabbits, the call of birds; and more than all else the low, grunting talk of his mother.
It was in this sun-bathed sweep of the valley that Noozak caught the first whiff of danger. It came to her in a sudden twist of the wind – the smell of man!
Instantly she was turned into rock. There was still the deep scar in her shoulder which had come, years before, with that same smell of the one enemy she feared. For three summers she had not caught the taint in her nostrils and she had almost forgotten its existence. Now, so suddenly that it paralyzed her, it was warm and terrible in the breath of the wind.
In this moment, too, Neewa seemed to sense the nearness of an appalling danger. Two hundred yards from Challoner he stood a motionless blotch of jet against the white of the sand about him, his eyes on his mother, and his sensitive little nose trying to catch the meaning of the menace in the air.
Then came a thing he had never heard before – a splitting, cracking roar – something that was almost like thunder and yet unlike it; and he saw his mother lurch where she stood and crumple down all at once on her fore legs.
The next moment she was up, with a wild whoof in her voice that was new to him – a warning for him to fly for his life.
Like all mothers who have known the comradeship and love of a child, Noozak's first thought was of him. Reaching out a paw she gave him a sudden shove, and Neewa legged it wildly for the near-by shelter of the timber. Noozak followed. A second shot came, and close over her head there sped a purring, terrible sound. But Noozak did not hurry. She kept behind Neewa, urging him on even as that pain of a red-hot iron in her groin filled her with agony. They came to the edge of the timber as Challoner's third shot bit under Noozak's feet.
A moment more and they were within the barricade of the timber. Instinct guided Neewa into the thickest part of it, and close behind, him Noozak fought with the last of her dying strength to urge him on. In her old brain there was growing a deep and appalling shadow, something that was beginning to cloud her vision so that she could not see, and she knew that at last she had come to the uttermost end of her trail. With twenty years of life behind her, she struggled now for a last few seconds. She stopped Neewa close to a thick cedar, and as she had done many times before she commanded him to climb it. Just once her hot tongue touched his face in a final caress. Then she turned to fight her last great fight. Straight into the face of Challoner she dragged herself, and fifty feet from the spruce she stopped and waited for him, her head drooped between her shoulders, her sides heaving, her eyes dimming more and more, until at last she sank down with a great sigh, barring the trail of their enemy. For a space, it may be, she saw once more the golden moons and the blazing suns of those twenty years that were gone; it may be that the soft, sweet music of spring came to her again, filled with the old, old song of life, and that Something gracious and painless descended upon her as a final reward for a glorious motherhood on earth.
When Challoner came up she was dead.
From his hiding place in a crotch of the spruce Neewa looked down on the first great of tragedy of his life, and the advent of man. The two-legged beast made him cringe deeper into his refuge, and his little heart was near breaking with the terror that had seized upon him. He did not reason. It was by no miracle of mental process that he knew something terrible had happened, and that this tall, two-legged creature was the cause of it. His little eyes were blazing, just over the level of the crotch. He wondered why his mother did not get up and fight when this new enemy came. Frightened as he was he was ready to snarl if she would only wake up – ready to hurry down the tree and help her as he had helped her in the defeat of Makoos, the old he-bear. But not a muscle of Noozak's huge body moved as Challoner bent over her. She was stone dead.
Challoner's face was flushed with exultation. Necessity had made of him a killer. He saw in Noozak a splendid pelt, and a provision of meat that would carry him all the rest of the way to the southland. He leaned his rifle against a tree and began looking about for the cub. Knowledge of the wild told him it would not be far from its mother, and he began looking into the trees and the near-by thickets. In the shelter of his crotch, screened by the thick branches, Neewa made himself as small as possible during the search. At the end of half an hour Challoner disappointedly gave up his quest, and went back to the creek for a drink. before setting himself to the task of skinning Noozak.
No sooner was he gone than Neewa's little head shot up alertly. For a few moments he watched, and then slipped backward down the trunk of the cedar to the ground. He gave his squealing call, but his mother did not move. He went to her and stood beside her motionless head, sniffing the man-tainted air. Then he muzzled her jowl, butted his nose under her neck, and at last nipped her ear – always his last resort in the awakening process. He was puzzled. He whined softly, and climbed upon his mother's big, soft back, and sat there. Into his whine there came a strange note, and then out of his throat there rose a whimpering cry that was like the cry of a child.
Challoner heard that cry as he came back, and something seemed to grip hold of his heart suddenly, and choke him. He had heard children crying like that; and it was the motherless cub!
Creeping up behind a dwarf spruce he looked where Noozak lay dead, and saw Neewa perched on his, mother's back. He had killed many things in his time, for it was his business to kill, and to barter in the pelts of creatures that others killed. But he had seen nothing like this before, and he felt all at once as if he had done murder.
"I'm sorry," he breathed softly, "you poor little devil; I'm sorry!"
It was almost a prayer – for forgiveness. Yet there was but one thing to do now. So quietly that Neewa failed to hear him he crept around with the wind and stole up behind. He was within a dozen feet of Neewa before the cub suspected danger. Then it was too late. In a swift rush Challoner was upon him, and, before Neewa could leave the back of his mother, had smothered him in the folds of the grub sack.
In all his life Challoner had never experienced a livelier five minutes than the five that followed. Above Neewa's grief and his fear there rose the savage fighting blood of old Soominitik, his father. He clawed and bit and kicked and snarled. In those five minutes he was five little devils all rolled into one, and by the time Challoner had the rope fastened about Neewa's neck, and his fat body chucked into the sack, his hands were scratched and lacerated in a score of places.
In the sack Neewa continued to fight until he was. exhausted, while Challoner skinned Noozak and cut from her the meat and fats which he wanted. The beauty of Noozak's pelt brought a glow into his eyes: In it he rolled the meat and fats, and with babiche thong bound the whole into a pack around which he belted the dunnage ends of his shoulder straps. Weighted under the burden of sixty pounds of pelt and meat he picked up his rifle – and Neewa. It had been early afternoon when he left. It was almost sunset when he reached camp. Every foot of the way, until the last half mile, Neewa fought like a Spartan.
Now he lay limp and almost lifeless in his sack, and when Miki came up to smell suspiciously of his prison he made no movement of protest. All smells were alike to him now, and of sounds he made no distinction. Challoner was nearly done for. Every muscle and bone in his body had its ache. Yet In his face, sweaty and grimed, was a grin of pride.
"You plucky little devil," he said, contemplating the limp sack as he loaded his pipe for the first time that afternoon. "You – you plucky little devil!"
He tied the end of Neewa's rope halter to a sapling, and began cautiously to open the grub sack. Then he rolled Neewa out on the ground, and stepped back. In that hour Neewa was willing to accept a truce so far as Challoner was concerned. But it was not Challoner that his half-blinded eyes saw first as he rolled from his bag. It was Miki! And Miki, his awkward body wriggling with the excitement of his curiosity, was almost on the point of smelling of him!
Neewa's little eyes glared. Was that ill-jointed lop-eared offspring of the man-beast an enemy, too? Were those twisting convolutions of this new creature's body and the club-like swing of his tail an invitation to fight? He judged so. Anyway, here was something of his size, and like a flash he was at the end of his rope and on the pup. Miki, a moment before bubbling over with friendship and good cheer, was on his back in an instant, his grotesque legs paddling the air and his yelping cries for help rising in a wild clamour that filled the golden stillness of the evening with an unutterable woe.<>Challoner stood dumbfounded. In another moment he would have separated the little fighters, but something happened that stopped him. Neewa, standing squarely over Miki, with Miki's four overgrown paws held aloft as if signalling an unqualified surrender, slowly drew his teeth from the pup's loose hide. Again he saw the man-beast. Instinct, keener than a clumsy reasoning, held him for a few moments without movement, his beady eyes on Challoner. In midair Miki wagged his paws; he whined softly; his hard tail thumped the ground as he pleaded for mercy, and he licked his chops and tried to wriggle, as if to tell Neewa that he had no intention at all to do him harm. Neewa, facing Challoner, snarled defiantly. He drew himself slowly from over Miki. And Miki, afraid to move, still lay on his back with his paws in the air.
Very slowly, a look of wonder in his face, Challoner drew back into the tent and peered through a rent in the canvas.
The snarl left Neewa's face. He looked at the pup. Perhaps away back in some corner of his brain the heritage of instinct was telling him of what he had lost because of brothers and sisters unborn – the comradeship of babyhood, the play of children, And Miki must have sensed the change in the furry little black creature who a moment ago was his enemy. His tail thumped almost frantically, and he swung out his front paws toward Neewa. Then, a little fearful of what might happen, he rolled on his side. Still Neewa did not move. Joyously Miki wriggled.
A moment later, looking
through the slit in the canvas, Challoner saw them cautiously, smelling, noses.