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IT WAS the Flying-Up Moon – deep and slumbering midsummer – in all the land of Keewatin From Hudson Bay to the Athabasca and from the Right of Land to the edge of the Great Barrens, forest, plain, and swamp lay in peace and forgetfulness under the sun-glowing days and the star-filled nights of the August Mukoo-sawin. It was the breeding moon, the growing moon, the moon when all wild life came into its own once more. For the trails of this wilderness world – so vast that it reached a thousand miles east and west and as far north and south – were empty of human life. At the Hudson Bay Company's posts – scattered here and there over the illimitable domain of fang and claw – had gathered the thousands of hunters and trappers, with their wives and children, to sleep and gossip and play through the few weeks of warmth and plenty until the strife and tragedy of another winter began. For these people of the forests it was Mukoo-sawin – the great Play Day of the year; the weeks in which they ran up new debts and established new credits at the posts; the weeks in which they foregathered at every post as at a great fair-playing, and making love, and marrying, and fattening up for the many days of hunger and gloom to come.
It was because of this that the wild things had come fully into the possession of their world for a space. There was no longer the scent of man in all the wilderness. They were not hunted. There were no traps laid for their feet, no poison-baits placed temptingly where they might pass. In the fens and on the lakes the wildfowl squawked and honked unfearing to their young, just learning the power of wing; the lynx played with her kittens without sniffing the air for the menace of man; the cow moose went openly into the cool water of the lakes with their calves; the wolverine and the marten ran playfully over the roofs of deserted shacks and cabins; the beaver and the otter tumbled and frolicked in their dark pools; the birds sang, and through all the wilderness there was the drone and song of Nature as some Great Power must at first have meant that Nature should be. A new generation of wild things had been born. It was a season of youth, with tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of little children of the wild playing their first play, learning their first lessons, growing up swiftly to face the menace and doom of their first winter. And the Beneficent Spirit of the forests, anticipating what was to come, had prepared well for them. Everywhere there was plenty. The blueberries, the blackberries; the mountain-ash and the saskatoons were ripe; tree and vine were bent low with their burden of fruit. The grass was green and tender from the summer rains. Bulbous roots were fairly popping out of the earth; the fens and the edges of the lakes were rich with things to eat, overhead and underfoot the horn of plenty was emptying itself without stint.
In this world Neewa and Miki found a vast and unending contentment. They lay, on this August afternoon, on a sun-bathed shelf of rock that overlooked a wonderful valley. Neewa, stuffed with luscious blueberries, was asleep. Miki's eyes were only partly closed as he looked down into the soft haze of the valley. Up to him came the rippling music of the stream running between the rocks and over the pebbly bars below, and with it the soft and languorous drone of the valley itself. He napped uneasily for half an hour, and then his eyes opened and he was wide awake. He took a sharp look over the valley. Then he looked at Neewa, who, fat and lazy, would have slept until dark. It was always Miki. who kept him on the move. And now Miki barked at him gruffly two or three times, and nipped at one of his ears.
"Wake up!" he might have said. "What's the sense of sleeping on a day like this? Let's go down along the creek and hunt something."
Neewa roused himself, stretched his fat body, and Yawned. Sleepily his little eyes took in the valley. Miki got up and gave the low and anxious whine which always told his companion that he wanted to be on the move. Neewa responded, and they began making their way down the green slope into the rich bottom between the two ridges.
They were now almost six months of age, and in the matter of size had nearly ceased to be a cub and a Pup. They were almost a dog and a bear. Mica's angular legs were getting their shape; his chest had filled out; his neck had grown until it no longer seemed too small for his big head and jaws, and his body had increased in girth and length until he was twice as big as most ordinary dogs of his age. Neewa had lost his round, ball-like cubbishness, though he still betrayed far more than Miki the fact that he was not many months lost from his mother. But he was no longer filled with that wholesome love of peace that had filled his earlier cubhood. The blood of Soominitik was at last beginning to assert itself, and he no longer sought a place of safety in time of battle – unless the grimness of utter necessity made it unavoidable. In fact, unlike most bears, he loved a fight. If there were a stronger term at hand it, might be applied to Miki, the true son of Hela. Youthful as they were, they were already covered with scars that would have made a veteran proud. Crows and owls, wolf-fang and fisher-claw had all left their marks, and on Miki's side was a bare space eight inches long left as a souvenir by a wolverine.
In Neewa's funny round head there had grown, during the course of events, an ambition to have it out some day with a citizen of his own kind; but the two opportunities that had come his way were spoiled by the fact that the other cubs' mothers were with them. So now, when Miki led off on his trips of adventure, Neewa always followed with another thrill than that of getting something to eat, which so long had been his one ambition. Which is not to say that Neewa had lost his appetite. He could eat more in one day than Miki could eat in three, mainly because Miki was satisfied with two or three meals a day while Neewa preferred one – a continuous one lasting from dawn until dark. On the trail he was always eating something.
A quarter of a mile along the foot of the ridge, in a stony coulée down which a tiny rivulet trickled, there grew the finest wild currants in all the Shamattawa country. Big as cherries, black as ink, and swelling almost to the bursting point with luscious juice, they hung in clusters so thick that Neewa could gather them by the mouthful. Nothing in all the wilderness is quite so good as one of these dead-ripe black currants, and this coulée wherein they grew so richly Neewa had preempted as his own personal property. Miki, too, had learned to eat the currants; so to the coulée they went this afternoon, for such currants as these one can eat even when one is already full. Besides, the coulée was fruitful for Miki in other Ways. There were many young Partridges and rabbits in it – "fool hens" of tender flesh and delicious flavour which he caught quite easily, and any number of gophers and squirrels.
To-day they had scarcely taken their first mouthful of the big juicy currants when an unmistakable sound came to them. Unmistakable because each recognized instantly what it meant. It was the tearing down of currant bushes twenty or thirty yards higher up the coulée. Some robber had invaded their treasure-house, and instantly Miki bared his fangs while Neewa wrinkled up his nose in an ominous snarl. Soft-footed they advanced toward the sound until they came to the edge of a small open space which was as flat as a table. In the centre of this space was a clump of currant bushes not more than a yard in girth, and black with fruit; and squatted on his haunches there, gathering the laden bushes in his arms, was a young black bear about four sizes larger than Neewa.
In that moment of consternation and rage Neewa did not take size into consideration. He was much in the frame of mind of a man returning home to discover his domicile, and all it contained, in full possession of another. At the same time here was his ambition easily to be achieved – his ambition to lick the daylight out of a member of his own kind. Miki seemed to sense this fact, Under ordinary conditions he would have led in the fray, and before Neewa had fairly got started, would have been at the impudent interloper's throat. But now something held him back, and it was Neewa who first shot out – like a black bolt – landing squarely in the ribs of his unsuspecting enemy.
(Old Makoki, the Cree runner, had he seen that attack, would instantly have found a name for the other bear–"Petoot-awapis-kum," which means, literally: "Kicked-off-his-Feet." Perhaps he would have called him "Pete" for short. For the Cree believes in fitting names to fact, and Petoot-awapis-kum certainly fitted the unknown bear like a glove.)
Taken utterly by surprise, with his mouth full of berries, he was bowled over like an overfilled bag under the force of Neewa's charge. So complete was his discomfiture for the moment that Miki, watching the affair with a yearning interest, could not keep back an excited yap of approbation. Before Pete could understand what had happened, and while the berries were still oozing from his mouth. Neewa was at his throat – and the fun began.
Now bears, and especially young bears, have a way of fighting that is all their own. It reminds one of a hair-pulling contest between two well-matched ladies. There are no rules to the game – absolutely none. As Pete and Neewa clinched, their hind legs began to do the fighting, and the fur began to fly. Pete, being already on his back – a first-class battling position for a bear – would have possessed an advantage had it not been for Neewa's ferocious hold at his throat. As it was, Neewa sank his fangs in to their full length, and scrubbed away for dear life with his sharp hind claws. Miki drew nearer at sight of the flying fur, his soul filled with joy. Then Pete got one leg into action, and then the other, and Miki's jaws came together with a sudden click. Over and over the two fighters rolled, Neewa holding to his throat-grip, and not a squeal or a grunt came from either of them.
Pebbles and dirt flew along with hair and fur. Stones rolled with a clatter down the coulée. The very air trembled with the thrill of combat. In Miki's attitude of tense waiting there was something now of suspicious anxiety. With eight furry legs scratching and tearing furiously, and the two fighters rolling and twisting and contorting themselves like a pair of windmills gone mad, it was almost impossible for And to tell who was getting the worst of it – Neewa or Pete; at least he was in doubt for a matter of three or four minutes.
Then he recognized Neewa's voice. It was very faint, but for all that it was an unmistakable bawl of pain.
Smothered under Pete's heavier body Neewa began to realize, at the end of those three or four minutes, that he had tackled more than was good for him. It was altogether Pete's size and not his fighting qualities, for Neewa had him out-pointed there. But, he fought on, hoping for some good turn of luck, until at last Pete got him just where he wanted him and began raking him up and down his sides until in another three minutes he would have been half skinned if Miki hadn't judged the moment ripe for intervention. Even then Neewa was taking his punishment without a howl.
In another instant Miki had Pete by the ear. It was a grim and terrible hold. Old Soominitik himself would have bawled lustily in the circumstances.
Pete raised his voice in a howl of agony. He forgot everything else but the terror and the pain of this new something that had him by the ear, and he rent the air with his outcry. His lamentation poured in an unbroken spasm of sound from his throat. Neewa knew that Miki was in action.
He pulled himself from under the young interloper's body – and not a second too soon. Down the coulée, charging like a mad bull, came Pete's mother. Neewa was off like a shot just as she made a powerful swing at him. The blow missed, and the old bear turned excitedly to her bawling offspring. Miki, hanging joyously to his victim, was oblivious of his danger until Pete's mother was almost upon him. He caught sight of her just as her long arm shot out like a wooden beam. He dodged; and the blow intended for him landed full against the side of the unfortunate Pete's head with a force that took him clean off his feet and sent him flying like a football twenty yards down the coulée.<>Miki did not wait for further results. Quick as a flash he was in a currant thicket tearing down the little gulch after Neewa. They came out on the plain together, and for a good ten minutes they did not halt in their flight long enough to look back. When they did, the coulée was a mile away. They sat down, panting. Neewa's red tongue was hanging out in his exhaustion. He was scratched and bleeding; loose hair hung all over him. As he looked at Miki there was something in the dolorous expression of Neewa's face which was a confession of the fact that he realized Pete had licked him.