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NOT until he had covered at least a quarter of a mile did Neewa stop.
To Miki it seemed as though they had come suddenly out of day into the gloom of evening. That part of the forest into which Neewa's flight had led them was like a vast, mysterious cavern. Even Challoner would have paused there, awed by the grandeur of its silence, held spellbound by the enigmatical whispers that made up its only sound. The sun was still high in the heavens, but not a ray of it penetrated the dense green canopy of spruce and balsam that hung like a wall over the heads of Miki and Neewa. About them was no bush, no undergrowth; under their feet was not a flower or a spear of grass. Nothing but a thick, soft carpet of velvety brown needles under which all life was smothered. It was as if the forest nymphs had made of this their bedchamber, sheltered through all the seasons of the year from wind and rain and snow; or else that the were-wolf people – the loup-garou – had chosen it as their hiding-place and from its weird and gloomy fastnesses went forth on their ghostly missions among the sons of men.
Not a bird twittered in the trees. There was no flutter of life in their crowded branches. Everything was so still that Miki heard the excited throbbing of life in his own body. He looked at Neewa, and in the gloom the cub's eyes were glistening with a strange fire. Neither of them was afraid, yet in that cavernous silence their comradeship was born anew, and in it there was something now that crept down into their wild little souls and filled the emptiness that was left by the death of Neewa's mother and the loss of Miki's master. The pup whined gently, and in his throat Neewa made a purring sound and followed it with a squeaky grunt that was like the grunt of a little pig. They edged nearer, and stood shoulder to shoulder facing their world. They went on after a little, like two children exploring the mystery of an old and abandoned house. They were not hunting, yet every hunting instinct in their bodies was awake, and they stopped frequently to peer about them, and listen, and scent the air.
To Neewa it all brought back a memory of the black cavern in which he was born. Would Noozak, his mother, come up presently out of one of those dark forest aisles? Was she sleeping here, as she had slept in the darkness of their den? The questions may have come vaguely in his mind. For it was like the cavern, in that it was deathly still; and a short distance away its gloom thickened into black pits. Such a place the Indians called muhnedoo – a spot in the forest blasted of all life by the presence of devils; for only devils would grow trees so thick that sunlight never penetrated. And only owls held the companionship of the evil spirits.
Where Neewa and Miki stood a grown wolf would have paused, and turned back; the fox would have slunk away, hugging the ground; even the murderoushearted little ermine would have peered in with his beady red eyes, unafraid, but turned by instinct back into the open timber. For here, in spite of the stillness and the gloom, there was life. It was beating and waiting in the ambush of those black pits. It was rousing itself, even as Neewa and Miki went on deeper into the silence, and eyes that were like round balls were beginning to glow with a greenish fire. Still there was no sound, no movement in the dense overgrowth of the trees. Like the imps of muhnedoo the monster owls looked down, gathering their slow wits – and waiting.
And then a huge shadow floated out of the dark chaos and passed so close over the heads of Neewa and Miki that they heard the menacing purr of giant wings. As the wraith-like creature disappeared there came back to them a hiss and the grating snap of a powerful beak. It sent a shiver through Miki. The instinct that had been fighting to rouse itself within him flared up like a powder-flash. Instantly, he sensed the nearness of an unknown and appalling danger.
There was sound about them now-movement in the trees, ghostly tremours in the air, and the crackling, metallic snap-snap-snap over their heads. Again Miki saw the great shadow come and go. It was followed by a second, and a third, until the vault under the trees seemed filled with shadows; and with each shadow came nearer that grating menace of powerfully beaked jaws. Like the wolf and the fox he cringed down, hugging the earth. But it was no longer with the whimpering fear of the pup. His muscles were drawn tight, and with a snarl he bared his fangs when one of the owls swooped so low that he felt the beat of its wings. Neewa responded with a sniff that a little later in his life would have been the defiant whoof of his mother. Bear-like he was standing up. And it was upon him that one of the shadows descended – a monstrous feathered bolt straight out of darkness.
Six feet a way Miki's blazing eyes saw his comrade smothered under a gray mass, and for a moment or two he was held appalled and lifeless by the thunderous beat of the gargantuan wings. No sound came from Neewa. Flung on his back, he was digging his claws into feathers so thick and soft that they seemed to have no heart or flesh. He felt upon him the presence of the Thing that was death. The beat of the wings was like the beat of clubs: they drove the breath out of his body, they blinded his senses, yet he continued to tear fiercely with his claws into a fleshless breast.
In his first savage swoop Oohoomisew, whose great wings measured five feet from tip to tip, had missed his death-grip by the fraction of an inch. His powerful talons that would have buried themselves like knives in Neewa's vitals closed too soon, and were filled with the cub's thick hair and loose hide. Now he was beating his prey down with his wings until the right moment came for him to finish the killing with the terrific stabbing of his beak. Half a minute of that and Neewa's face would be torn into pieces.
It was the fact that Neewa made no sound, that no cry came from him, that brought Miki to his feet with his lips drawn back and a snarl in his throat. All at once fear went out of him and in its place came a wild and almost joyous exultation. He recognized their enemy – a bird. To him birds were a prey, and not a menace. A dozen times in their journey down from the Upper Country Challoner had shot big Canada geese and huge-winged cranes. Miki. had eaten their flesh. Twice he had pursued wounded cranes, yapping at the top of his voice, and they had run from him. He did not bark or yelp now. Like a flash he launched himself into the feathered mass of the owl. His fourteen pounds of flesh and bone landed with the force of a stone, and Oohoomisew was torn from his hold and flung with a great flutter of wings upon his side.
Before he could recover his balance Miki was at him again, striking full at his head, where he had struck at the wounded crane. Oohoomisew went flat on his back and for the first time Miki let out of his throat a series of savage and snarling yelps. It was a new sound to Oohoomisew and his blood-thirsty brethren watching the struggle from out of the gloom. The snapping beaks drifted farther away, and Oohoomisew, with a sudden sweep of wings, vaulted into the air.
With his big forefeet planted firmly and his snarling face turned up to the black wall of the tree-tops Miki continued to bark and howl defiantly. He wanted the bird to come back. He wanted to tear and rip at its feathers, and as he sent out his frantic challenge Neewa rolled over, got on his feet and with a warning squeal to Miki once more set off in flight. If Miki was ignorant in the matter, he at least understood the situation. Again it was the instinct born of countless generations. He knew that in the black pits about them hovered death – and he ran as he had never run before in his life. As Miki followed, the shadows were beginning to float nearer again. Ahead of them they saw a glimmer of sunshine.
The trees grew taller, and soon the day began break- ing through so that there were no longer the cavernous hollows of gloom about them. If they had gone on another hundred yards they would have come to the edge of the big plain, the hunting grounds of the owls. But the flame of self-preservation was hot in Neewa's head; he was still dazed by the thunderous beat of wings; his sides burned where Oohoomisew's talons had scarred his flesh; so, when he saw in his path a tangled windfall of tree trunks he dived into the security of it so swiftly that for a moment or two Miki wondered where he had gone.
Crawling into the windfall after him Miki turned and poked out his head. He was not satisfied. His lips were still drawn back, and he continued to growl. He had beaten his enemy. He had knocked it over fairly, and had filled his jaws with its feathers. In the face of that triumph he sensed the fact that he had run away in following Neewa, and he was possessed with the desire to go back and have it out to a finish. It was the blood of the Airedale and the Spitz growing stronger in him, fearless of defeat; the blood of his father, the giant hunting-hound Hela. It was the demand of his breed, with its mixture of wolfish courage and fox-like persistency – backed by the powerful jaws and Herculean strength of the Mackenzie hound, and if Neewa had not drawn deeper under the windfall he would have gone out again and yelped his challenge to the feathered things from which they had fled.
Neewa was smarting under the red-hot stab of Oohoomisew's talons, and he wanted no more of the fight that came out of the air. He began licking his wounds, and after a while Miki went back to him and smelled of the fresh, warm blood. It made him growl. He knew that it was Neewa's blood, and his eyes glowed like twin balls of fire as they watched the opening through which they had entered into the dark tangle of fallen trees.
For an hour he did not move, and in that hour, as in the hour after the killing of the rabbit, he grew. When at last he crept out cautiously from under the windfall the sun was sinking behind the western forests. He peered about him, watching for movement and listening for sound. The sagging and apologetic posture of puppyhood was gone from him. His overgrown feet stood squarely on the ground; his angular legs were as hard as if carven out of knotty wood; his body was tense, his ears stood up, his head was rigidly set between the bony shoulders that already gave evidence of gigantic strength to come. About him he knew was the Big Adventure. The world was no longer a world of play and of snuggling under the hands of a master. Something vastly more thrilling had come into it now.
After a time he dropped on his belly close to the opening under the windfall and began chewing at the end of rope which dragged from about his neck. The sun sank lower. It disappeared. Still he waited for Neewa to come out and lie with him in the open. As the twilight thickened into deeper gloom he drew himself into the edge of the door under the windfall and found Neewa there. Together they peered forth into the mysterious night.
For a time there was the utter stillness of the first hour of darkness in the northland. Up in the clear sky the stars came out in twos and then in glowing constellations. There was an early moon. It was already over the edge of the forests, flooding the world with a golden glow, and in that glow the night was filled with grotesque black shadows that had neither movement nor sound. Then the silence was broken. From out of the owl-infested came a strange and hollow sound. Miki had heard the shrill screeching and the tu-who-o-o, tu-who-o-o, tu-who-o-o of the little owls, the trap-pirates, but never this voice of the strong-winged Jezebels and Frankensteins of the deeper forests – the real butchers of the night. It was a hollow, throaty sound – more a moan than a cry; a moan so short and low that it seemed born of caution, or of fear that it, would frighten possible prey. For a few minutes pit after pit gave forth each its signal of life, and then there was a silence of voice, broken at intervals by the faint, crashing sweep of great wings in the spruce and balsam tops as the hunters launched themselves up and over them in the direction of the plain.
The going forth of the owls was only the beginning of the night carnival for Neewa and Miki. For a long time they lay side by side, sleepless, and listening. Past the windfall went the padded feet of a fisher-cat, and they caught the scent of it; to them came the far cry of a loon, the yapping of a restless fox, and the mooing of a cow moose feeding in the edge of a lake on the farther side of the plain. And then, at last, came the thing that made their blood ran faster and sent a deeper thrill into their hearts.
It seemed a vast distance away at first – the hot. throated cry of wolves on the trail of meat. It was swinging northward into the plain, and this shortly brought the cry with the wind, which was out of the north and the west. The howling of the pack was very distinct after that, and in Miki's brain nebulous visions and almost unintelligible memories were swiftly wakening into life. It was not Challoner's voice that he heard, but it was a voice that he knew. It was the voice of Hela, his giant father; the voice of Numa, his mother; the voice of his kind for a hundred and a thousand generations before him, and it was the instinct of those generations and the hazy, memory of his earliest puppyhood that were impinging the thing upon him. A little later it would take both intelligence and experience to make him discriminate the hair-breadth difference between wolf and dog. And this voice of his blood was coming! It bore down upon them swiftly, fierce and filled with the blood-lust of hunger. He forgot Neewa. He did not observe the cub when he slunk back deeper under the windfall. He rose up on his feet and stood stiff and tense, unconscious of all things but that thrilling tongue of the hunt-pack. Wind-broken, his strength failing him, and his eyes wildly searching the night ahead for the gleam of water that might save him, Ahtik, the young caribou bull, raced for his life a hundred yards ahead of the wolves. The pack had already flung itself out in the form of a horse-shoe, and the two ends were beginning to creep up abreast of Ahtik, ready to close in for the hamstring – and the kill. In these last minutes every throat was silent, and the young bull sensed the beginning of the end. Desperately he turned to the right and plunged into the forest Miki heard the crash of his body and he hugged close to the windfall. Ten seconds later Ahtik passed within fifty feet of him, a huge and grotesque form in the moonlight, his coughing breath filled with the agony and hopelessness of approaching death. As swiftly as he had come he was gone, and in his place followed half a score of noiseless shadows passing so quickly that to Miki they were like the coming and the going of the wind.
For many minutes after that he stood and listened but again silence had fallen upon the night. After a little he went back into the windfall and lay down beside Neewa.
Hours that followed he passed in restless snatches of slumber. He dreamed of things that he had forgotten. He dreamed of Challoner. He dreamed of chill nights and the big fires; he heard his master's voice and he felt again the touch of his hand; but over it all and through it all ran that wild hunting voice of his own kind.
In the early dawn he came out from under the windfall and smelled of the trail where the wolves and the caribou had passed. Heretofore it was Neewa who had led in their wandering; now it was Neewa that followed. His nostrils filled with the heavy scent of the pack, Miki travelled steadily in the direction of the plain. It took him half an hour to reach the edge of it. After that he came to a wide and stony out-cropping of the earth over which he nosed the spoor to a low and abrupt descent into the wider range of the valley.
Here he stopped.
Twenty feet under him and fifty feet away lay the partly devoured carcass of the young bull. It was not this fact that thrilled him until his heart stood still. From out of the bushy plain had come Maheegun, a renegade she-wolf, to fill herself of the meat which she had not helped to kill. She was a slinking, hollow-backed, quick-fanged creature, still rib-thin from the sickness that had come of eating a poison. bait; a beast shunned by her own kind – a coward, a murderess even of her own whelps. But she was none of these things to Miki. In her he saw in living flesh and bone what his memory and his instinct recalled to him of his mother. And his mother had come before Challoner, his master.
For a minute or two he lay trembling, and then he went down, as he would have gone to Challoner; with great caution, with a wilder suspense, but with a strange yearning within him that the man's presence would have failed to rouse. He was very close to Maheegun before she was conscious that he was near. The Mother-smell was warm in his nose now; it filled him with a great joy; and yet – he was afraid. But it was not a physical fear. Flattened on the ground, with his head between his fore-paws, he whined.
Like a flash the she-wolf turned, her fangs bared the length of her jaws and her bloodshot eyes aglow with menace and suspicion. Miki had no time to make a move or another sound. With the suddenness of a cat the outcast creature was upon him. Her fangs slashed him just once – and she was gone. Her teeth had drawn blood from his shoulder, but it was not the smart of the wound that held him for many moments as still as if dead. The mother-smell was still where Maheegun had been. But his dreams had crumbled. The thing that had been Memory died away at last in a deep breath that was broken by a whimper of pain. For him, even as for Neewa, there was no more a Challoner, and no longer a mother. But there remained – the world! In it the sun was rising. Out of it came the thrill and the perfume of life. And close to him – very close – was the rich, sweet smell of meat.
He sniffed hungrily. Then he
turned, and saw Neewa's black and pudgy body tumbling down the slope of the dip
to join him in the feast.