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HAD Makoki, the leather-faced old Cree runner between God's Lake and Fort Churchill, known the history of Miki and Neewa up to the point where they came to feast on the fat and partly devoured carcass of the young caribou bull, he would have said that Iskoo Wapoo, the Good Spirit of the beasts, was watching over them most carefully. For Makoki had great faith in the forest gods as well as in those of his own tepee. He would have given the story his own picturesque version, and would have told it to the little children of his son's children; and his son's children would have kept it in their memory for their own children later on.
It was not in the ordained nature of things that a black bear cub, and a Mackenzie hound pup with a dash of Airedale and Spitz in him should "chum up" together as Neewa and Miki had done. Therefore, he would have said, the Beneficent Spirit who watched over the affairs of four-legged beasts must have had an eye on them from the beginning. It was she – Iskoo Wapoo was a goddess and not a god – who had made Challoner kill Neewa's mother, the big black bear; and it was she who had induced him to tie the pup and the cub together on the same piece of rope, so that when they fell out of the white man's canoe into the rapids they would not die, but would be company and salvation for each other. Neswa-pawuk ("two little brothers") Makoki would have called them; and had it come to the test he would have cut off a finger before harming either of them. But Makoki knew nothing of their adventures, and on this morning when they came down to the feast he was a hundred miles away, haggling with a white man who wanted a guide. He would never know that Iskoo Wapoo was at his side that very moment, planning the thing that was to mean so much in the lives of Neewa and Miki.
Meanwhile Neewa and Miki went at their breakfast as if starved. They were immensely practical. They did not look back on what had happened, but for the moment submerged themselves completely in the present. The few days of thrill and adventure through which they had gone seemed like a year. Neewa's yearning for his mother had grown less and less insistent, and Miki's lost master counted for nothing now, as things were going with him. Last night was the big, vivid thing in their memories – their fight for life with the monster owls, their flight, the killing of the young caribou bull by the wolves, and (with Miki) the short, bitter experience with Maheegun, the renegade she-wolf. His shoulder burned where she had torn at him with her teeth, But this did not lessen his appetite. Growling as he ate, he filled himself until he could hold no more. Then he sat back on his haunches and looked in the direction Maheegun had taken.
It was eastward, toward Hudson Bay, over a great plain that lay between two ridges that were like forest walls, yellow and gold in the morning sun. He had never seen the world as it looked to him now. The wolves had overtaken the caribou on a scarp on the high ground that thrust itself out like a short fat thumb from the black and owl-infested forest, and the carcass lay in a meadowy dip that overhung the plain. From the edge of this dip Miki could look down – and so far away that the wonder of what he saw dissolved itself at last into the shimmer of the sun and the blue of the sky. Within his vision lay a paradise of marvellous promise; wide stretches of soft, green meadow; clumps of timber, park-like until they merged into the deeper forest that began with the farther ridge; great patches of bush radiant with the colouring of June; here and there the gleam of water, and half a mile away a lake that was like a giant mirror set in a purplish-green frame of balsam and spruce.
Into these things Maheegun, the she-wolf, had gone. He wondered whether she would come back. He sniffed the air for her. But there was no longer the mother-yearning in his heart. Something had already begun to tell him of the vast difference between the dog and the wolf. For a few moments, still hopeful that the world held a mother for him, he had mistaken her for the one he had lost. But he understood-now. A little more and Maheegun's teeth would have snapped his shoulder, or slashed his throat to the jugular. Tebah-Gone-Gawin (the One Great Law) was impinging itself upon him, the implacable law of the survival of the fittest. To live was to fight – to kill; to beat everything that had feet or wings. The earth and the air held menace for him. Nowhere, since he had lost Challoner, had he found friendship except in the heart of Neewa, the motherless cub. And he turned toward Neewa now, growling at a gay-plumaged moose-bird that was hovering about for a morsel of meat.
A few minutes before, Neewa had weighed a dozen pounds; now he weighed fourteen or fifteen. His stomach was puffed out like the sides of an overfilled bag, and he sat humped up in a pool of warm sunshine licking his chops and vastly contented with himself and the world. Miki rubbed up to him, and Neewa gave a chummy grunt. Then he rolled over on his fat back and invited Miki to play. It was the first time; and with a joyous yelp Miki jumped into him. Scratching and biting and kicking, and interjecting their friendly scrimmage with ferocious growling on Miki's part and pig-like grunts and squeals on Neewa's, they rolled to the edge of the dip. It was a good hundred feet to the bottom – a steep, grassy slope that ran to the plain – and like two balls they catapulted the length of it. For Neewa it was not so bad. He was round and fat, and went easily.
With Miki it was different. He was all legs and skin and angular bone, and he went down twisting and somersaulting and tying himself into knots until by the time he struck the hard strip of shale at the edge of the plain he was drunk with dizziness and the breath was out of his body. He staggered to his feet with a gasp. For a space the world was whirling round and round in a sickening circle. Then he pulled himself together, and made out Neewa a dozen feet away.
Neewa was just awakening to the truth of an exhilarating discovery. Next to a boy on a sled, or a beaver on its tail, no one enjoys a "slide" more than a black bear cub, and as Miki rearranged his scattered wits Neewa climbed twenty or thirty feet up the slope and deliberately rolled down again! Miki's jaws fell apart in amazement. Again Neewa climbed up and rolled down – and Miki ceased to breathe altogether. Five times he watched Neewa go that twenty or thirty feet up the grassy slope and tumble down. The fifth time he waded into Neewa and gave him a rough-and-tumble that almost ended in a fight.
After that Miki began exploring along the foot of the slope, and for a scant hundred yards Neewa humoured him by following, but beyond that point he flatly refused to go. In the fourth month of his exciting young life Neewa was satisfied that Nature had given him birth that he might have the endless pleasure of filling his stomach. For him, eating was the one and only excuse for existing. In the next few months he had a big job on his hands if he kept up the record of his family, and the fact that Miki was apparently abandoning the fat and juicy carcass of the young bull filled him with alarm and rebellion. Straightway he forgot all thought of play and started back up the slope on a mission that was 100 per cent. business.
Observing this, Miki gave up his idea of exploration and joined him. They reached the shelf of the dip twenty yards from the carcass of the bull, and from a clutter of big stones looked forth upon their meat. In that moment they stood dumb and paralyzed. Two gigantic owls were tearing at the carcass. To Miki and Neewa these were the monsters of the black forest out of which they had escaped so narrowly with their lives. But as a matter of fact they were not of Oohoomisew's breed of night-seeing pirates. They were Snowy Owls, unlike all others of their kind in that their vision was as keen as a hawk's in the light of broad day. Mispoon, the big male, was immaculately white. His mate, a size or two smaller, was barred with brownish-slate colour – and their heads were round and terrible looking because they had no ear-tufts. Mispoon, with his splendid wings spread half over the carcass of Ahtik, the dead bull, was rending flesh so ravenously with his powerful beak that Neewa and Miki could hear the sound of it. Newish, his mate, had her head almost buried in Ahtik's bowels. The sight of them and the sound of their eating were enough to disturb the nerves of an older bear than Neewa, and he crouched behind a stone, with just his head sticking out.
In Miki's throat was a sullen growl. But he held it back, and flattened himself on the ground. The blood of the giant hunter that was his father rose in him again like fire. The carcass was his meat, and he was ready to fight for it. Besides, had he not whipped the big owl in the forest? But here there were two. The fact held him flattened on his belly a moment or two longer, and in that brief space the unexpected happened.
Slinking up out of the low growth of bush at the far edge of the dip he saw Maheegun, the renegade she-wolf. Hollow-backed, red-eyed, her bushy tail hanging with the sneaky droop of the murderess, she advanced over the bit of open, a gray and vengeful shadow. Furtive as she was, she at least acted with great swiftness. Straight at Mispoon she launched herself with a snarl and snap of fangs that made Miki hug the ground still closer.
Deep into Mispoon's four-inch armour of feathers Maheegun buried her fangs. Taken at a disadvantage Mispoon's head would have been torn from his body before he could have gathered himself for battle had it not been for Newish. Pulling her bloodstained head from Ahtik's flesh and blood she drove at Maheegun with a throaty, wheezing scream – a cry that was like the cry of no other thing that lived. Into the she-wolf's back she sank her beak and talons and Maheegun gave up her grip on Mispoon and tore ferociously at her new assailant. For a space Mispoon was saved, but it was at a terrible sacrifice to Newish. With a single lucky slash of her long-fanged jaws, Maheegun literally tore one of Newish's great wings from her body. The croak of agony that came out of her may have held the death-note for Mispoon, her mate; for he rose on his wings, poised himself for an instant, and launched himself at the she-wolf's back with a force that drove Maheegun off her feet. Deep into her loins the great owl sank his talons, gripping at the renegade's vitals with an avenging and ferocious tenacity. In that hold Maheegun felt the sting of death. She flung herself on her back; she rolled over and over, snarling and snapping and clawing the air in her efforts to free herself of the burning knives that were sinking still deeper into her bowels. Mispoon hung on, rolling as she rolled, beating with his giant wings, fastening his talons in that clutch that death could not shake loose. On the ground his mate was dying. Her life's blood was pouring out of the hole in her side, but with the dimming vision of death she made a last effort to help Mispoon. And Mispoon, a hero to the last, kept his grip until he was dead.
Into the edge of the bush Maheegun dragged herself. There she freed herself of the big owl. But the deep wounds were still in her sides. The blood dripped from her belly as she made her way down into the thicker cover, leaving a red trail behind her. A quarter of a mile away she lay down under a clump of dwarf spruce; and there, a little later, she died.
To Neewa and Miki – and especially to the son of Hela – the grim combat had widened even more that subtle and growing comprehension of the world as it existed for them. It was the unforgettable wisdom of experience backed by an age-old instinct and the heredity of breed. They had killed small things – Neewa, his bugs and his frogs and his bumble-bees; Miki, his rabbit – they had fought for their lives; they had passed through experiences that, from the beginning, had been a gamble with death; but it had needed the climax of a struggle such as they had seen with their own eyes to open up the doors that gave them a new viewpoint of life.
It was many minutes before Miki went forth and smelled of Newish, the dead owl. He had no desire now to tear at her feathers in the excitement of an infantile triumph and ferocity. Along with greater understanding a new craft and a new cunning were born in him. The fate of Mispoon and his mate had taught him the priceless value of silence and of caution, for he knew now that in the world there were many things that were not afraid of him, and many things that would not run away from him. He had lost his fearless and blatant contempt for winged creatures; he had learned that the earth was not made for him alone, and that to hold his small place on it he must fight as Maheegun and the owls had fought. This was because in Miki's veins was the red fighting blood of a long line of ancestors that reached back to the wolves.
In Neewa the process of deduction was vastly different. His breed was not the fighting breed, except as it fought among its own kind. It did not make a habit of preying upon other beasts, and no other beast preyed upon it. This was purely an accident of birth – the fact that no other creature in all his wide domain was powerful enough, either alone or in groups, to defeat a grown black bear in open battle. Therefore Neewa learned nothing of fighting in the tragedy of Maheegun and the owls. His profit, if any, was in a greater caution. And his chief interest was in the fact that Maheegun and the two owls had not devoured the young bull. His supper was still safe.
With his little round eyes on the alert for fresh trouble he kept himself safely hidden while he watched Miki investigating the scene of battle, From the body of the owl Miki went to Ahtik, and from Ahtik he sniffed slowly over the trail which Maheegun had taken into the bush. In. the edge of the cover he found Mispoon. He did not go farther, but returned to Neewa, who by this time had made up his mind that he could safely come out into the open.
Fifty times that day Miki rushed to the defense of their meat. The big-eyed, clucking moose-birds were most annoying. Next to them the Canada jays were most persistent. Twice a little gray-coated ermine, with eyes as red as garnets, came in to get his fill of blood. Miki was at him so fiercely that he did not return a third time. By noon the crows had got scent or sight of the carcass and were circling overhead, waiting for Neewa and Miki to disappear. Later, they set up a raucous protest from the tops of the trees in the edge of the forest.
That night the wolves did not return to the dip. Meat was too plentiful, and those that were over their gorge were off on a fresh kill far to the west. Once or twice Neewa and Miki heard their distant cry.
Again through a star-filled radiant night they watched and listened, and slept at times. In the soft gray dawn they went forth once more to their feast.
And here is where Makoki, the old Cree runner, would have emphasized the presence of the Beneficent Spirit. For day followed day, and night followed night, and Ahtik's flesh and blood put into Neewa and Miki a strength and growth that developed marvellously. By the fourth day Neewa had become so fat and sleek that he was half again as big as on the day he fell out of the canoe. Miki had begun to fill out. His ribs could no longer be counted from a distance. His chest was broadening and his legs were losing some of their angular clumsiness. Practice on Ahtik's bones had strengthened his jaws. With his development he felt less and less the old puppyish desire to play – more and more the restlessness of the hunter. The fourth night he heard again the wailing hunt-cry of the wolves, and it held a wild and thrilling note for him.
With Neewa, fat and good humour and contentment were all synonymous. As long as the meat held out there was no very great temptation for him beyond the dip and the slope. Two or three times a day he went down to the creek; and every morning and afternoon – especially about sunset – he had his fun rolling downhill. In addition to this he began taking his afternoon naps in the crotch of a small sapling. As Miki could see neither sense nor sport in tobogganing, and as he could not climb a tree, he began to spend more and more time in venturing up and down the foot of the ridge. He wanted Neewa to go with him on these expeditions. He never set out until he had entreated Neewa to come down out of his tree, or until he had made an effort to coax him away from the single trail he had made to the creek and back. Neewa's obstinacy would never have brought about any real unpleasantness between them. Miki thought too much of him for that; and if it had come to a final test, and Neewa had thought that Miki would not return, he would undoubtedly have followed him.
It was another and a more potent thing than an ordinary quarrel that placed the first great barrier between them. Now it happened that Miki was of the breed which preferred its meat fresh, while Neewa liked his "well hung." And from the fourth day onward, what was left of Ahtik's carcass was ripening, on the fifth day Miki found the flesh difficult to eat; on the sixth, impossible. To Neewa it became increasingly delectable as the flavour grew and the perfume thickened. On the sixth day, in sheer delight, he rolled in it. That night, for the first time, Miki could not sleep with him.
The seventh day brought the climax. Ahtik now fairly smelled to heaven. The odour of him drifted, up and away on the soft June wind until all the crows in the country were gathering. It drove Miki, slinking like a whipped cur, down into the creek bottom. When Neewa came down for a drink after his morning feast Miki sniffed him over for a moment and then slunk away from him again. As a matter of fact, there was small difference between Ahtik and Neewa now, except that one lay still and the other moved. Both smelled dead; both were decidedly "well hung." Even the crows circled over Neewa, wondering why it was that he walked about like a living thing.
That night Miki slept alone under a clump of bush in the creek bottom. He was hungry and lonely, and for the first time in many days he felt the bigness and emptiness of the world. He wanted Neewa.
He whined for him in the starry silence of the long hours between sunset and dawn. The sun was well up before Neewa came down the hill. He had finished his breakfast and his morning roll, and he was worse than ever. Again Miki tried to coax him away but Neewa was disgustingly fixed in his determination to remain in his present glory. And this morning he was more than usually anxious to return to the dip. All of yesterday he had found it necessary to frighten the crows away from his meat, and to-day they were doubly persistent in their efforts to rob him. With a grunt and a squeal to Miki he hustled back up the hill after he had taken his drink.
His trail entered the dip through the pile of rocks from which Miki and he had watched the battle between Maheegun and the two owls, and as a matter of caution he always paused for a few moments among these rocks to make sure that all was well in the open. This morning he received a decided shock. Ahtik's carcass was literally black with crows. Kakakew and his Ethiopic horde of scavengers had descended in a cloud, and they were tearing and fighting and beating their wings about Ahtik as if all of them had gone mad. Another cloud was hovering in the air; every bush and near-by sapling was bending under the weight of them, and in the sun their jet-black plumage glistened as if they had just come out of the bath of a tinker's pot. Neewa stood astounded. He was not frightened; he had driven the cowardly robbers away many times. But never had there been so many of them. He could see no trace of his meat. Even the ground about it was black.
He rushed out from the rocks with his lips drawn back, just as he had rushed a dozen or more times before. There was a mighty roar of wings. The air was darkened by them, and the ravenish screaming that followed could have been heard a mile away. This time Kakakew and his mighty crew did not fly back to the forest. Their number gave them courage. The taste of Ahtik's flesh and the flavour of it in their nostrils intoxicated them, to the point of madness, with desire. Neewa was dazed. Over him, behind him, on all sides of him they swept and circled, croaking and screaming at him, the boldest of them swooping down to beat at him with their wings. Thicker grew the menacing cloud, and then suddenly it descended like an avalanche. It covered Ahtik again. In it Neewa was fairly smothered He felt himself buried under a mass of wings and bodies, and he began fighting, as he had fought the owls. score of pincer-like black beaks fought to get at his hair and hide; others stabbed at his eyes; he felt his ears being pulled from his head, and the end of his nose was a bloody cushion within a dozen seconds. The breath was beaten out of him; he was blinded, and dazed, and every square inch of him was aquiver with its own excruciating pain. He forgot Ahtik. The one thing in the world he wanted most was a large open space in which to run.
Putting all his strength into the effort he struggled to his feet and charged through the mass of living things about him. At this sign of defeat many of the crows left him to join in the feast. By the time he was half way to the cover into which Maheegun had gone all but one had left him. That one may have been Kakakew himself. He had fastened himself like a rat-trap to Neewa's stubby tail, and there he hung on like grim death while Neewa ran. He kept his hold until his victim was well into the cover. Then he flopped himself into the air and rejoined his brethren at the putrified carcass of the bull.
If ever Neewa had wanted Miki he wanted him now. Again his entire viewpoint of the world was changed. He was stabbed in a hundred places. He burned as if afire. Even the bottoms of his feet hurt him when he stepped on them, and for half an hour he hid himself under a bush, licking his wounds and sniffing the air for Miki.
Then he went down the slope into the creek bottom, and hurried to the foot of the trail he had made to and from the dip. Vainly he quested about him for his comrade. He grunted and squealed, and tried to catch the scent of him in the air. He ran up the creek a distance, and back again. Ahtik counted as nothing now.
Miki was gone.