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THAT night came a cold and drizzling rain from out of the north and the east. In the wet dawn Challoner came out to start a fire, and in a hollow under a spruce root he found Miki and Neewa cuddled together, sound asleep.
It was the cub who first saw the man-beast, and for a brief space before the pup roused himself Neewa's shining eyes were fixed on the strange enemy who had so utterly changed his world for him. Exhaustion had made him sleep through the long hours of that first night of captivity, and in sleep he had forgotten many things. Put now it all came back to him as he cringed deeper into his shelter under the root, and so softly that only Miki heard him he whimpered for his mother.
It was the whimper that roused Miki. Slowly he untangled himself from the ball into which he had rolled, stretched his long and overgrown legs, and yawned so loudly that the sound reached Challoner's ears. The man turned and saw two pairs of eyes fixed upon him from the sheltered hollow under the root. The pup's one good ear and the other that was half gone stood up alertly, as he greeted his master with the boundless good cheer of an irrepressible comradeship. Challoner's face, wet with the drizzle of the gray skies and bronzed by the wind and storm of fourteen months in the northland, lighted up with a responsive grin, and Miki wriggled forth weaving and twisting himself into grotesque contortions expressive of happiness at being thus directly smiled at by his master.
With all the room under the root left to him Neewa pulled himself back until only his round head was showing, and from this fortress of temporary safety his bright little eyes glared forth at his mother's ' murderer.
Vividly the tragedy of yesterday was before him again – the warm, sun-filled creek bottom in which he and Noozak, his mother, were hunting a breakfast of crawfish when the man-beast came; the crash of strange thunder, their flight into the timber, and the end of it all when his mother turned to confront their enemy. And yet it was not the death of his mother that remained with him most poignantly this morning. It was the memory of his own terrific fight with the white man, and his struggle afterward in the black and suffocating depths of the bag in which Challoner had brought him to his camp. Even now Challoner was looking at the scratches on his hands. He advanced a few steps, and grinned down at Neewa, just as he had grinned good-humouredly at Miki, the angular pup.
Neewa's little eyes blazed.
"I told you last night that I was sorry," said Challoner, speaking as if to one of his own kind.
In several ways Challoner was unusual, an out-of-the-ordinary type in the northland. He believed, for instance, in a certain specific psychology of the animal mind, and had proven to his own satisfaction that animals treated and conversed with in a matter-of-fact human way frequently developed an understanding which he, in his unscientific way, called reason.
"I told you I was sorry," he repeated, squatting on his heels within a yard of the root from under which Neewa's eyes were glaring at him, "and I am. I'm sorry I killed your mother. But we had to have meat and fat. Besides, Miki and I are going to make it up to you. We're going to take you along with us down to the Girl, and if you don't learn to love her you're the meanest, lowest-down little cuss in all creation and don't deserve a mother. You and Miki are going to be brothers. His mother is dead, too – plum starved to death, which is worse than dying with a bullet in your lung. And I found Miki just as I found you, hugging up close to her an' crying as if there wasn't any world left for him. So cheer up, and give us your paw. Let's shake!"
Challoner held out his hand. Neewa was as motionless as a stone. A few moments before he would have snarled and bared his teeth. But now he was dead still. This was by all odds the strangest beast he had ever seen. Yesterday it had not harmed him, except to put him. into the bag. And, now it did not offer to harm him. More than that, the talk it made was not unpleasant, or threatening. His eyes took in Miki. The pup had squeezed himself squarely between Challoner's knees and was looking at him in a puzzled, questioning sort of way, as if to ask: "Why don't you come out from under that root and help get breakfast?"
Challoner's hand came nearer, and Neewa crowded himself back until there was not another inch of room for him to fill. Then the miracle happened. The man-beast's paw touched his head. It sent a strange and terrible thrill through him. Yet it did not hurt. If he had not wedged himself in so tightly he would have scratched and bitten. But he could do neither.
Slowly Challoner worked his fingers to the loose hide at the back of Neewa's neck. Miki, surmising that something momentous was about to happen, watched the proceedings with popping eyes. Then Challoner's fingers closed and the next instant he dragged Neewa forth and held him at arm's length, kicking and squirming, and setting up such a bawling that in sheer sympathy Miki raised his voice and joined in the agonized orgy of sound. Half a minute later Challoner had Neewa once more in the prison-sack, but this time he left the cub's head protruding, and drew in the mouth of the sack closely about his neck, fastening it securely with a piece of babiche string. Thus three quarters of Neewa was imprisoned in the sack, with only his head sticking out. He was a cub in a poke.
Leaving the cub to roll and squirm in protest Challoner went about the business of getting breakfast. For once Miki found a proceeding more interesting than that operation, and he hovered about Neewa as he struggled and bawled, trying vainly to offer him some assistance in the matter of sympathy. Finally Neewa lay still, and Miki sat down close beside him and eyed his master with serious questioning if not actual disapprobation.
The gray sky was breaking with the promise of the sun when Challoner was ready to renew his long journey into the southland. He packed his canoe, leaving Neewa and Miki until the last. In. the bow of the canoe he made a soft nest of the skin taken from the cub's mother. Then he called Miki and tied the end of a worn rope around his neck, after which he fastened the other end of this rope around the neck of Neewa. Thus he had the cub and the pup on the same yard-long halter. Taking each of the twain by the scruff of the neck he carried them to the canoe and placed them in the nest he had made of Noozak's hide.
"Now you youngsters be good," he warned. "We're going to aim at forty miles to-day to make up for the time we lost yesterday."
As the canoe shot out a
shaft of sunlight broke through the sky low in the east.