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THAT same night, ten miles to the west, Miki slept under a windfall of logs and tree, tops not more than half a mile from Le Beau's trapline.
In the early dawn, when Le Beau left his cabin, accompanied by Netah, The Killer, Miki came out from under his windfall after a night of troublous dreams. He had dreamed of those first weeks after he had lost his master, when Neewa was always at his side; and the visions that had come to him filled him with an uneasiness and a loneliness that made him whine as he stood watching the dark shadows fading away before the coming of day. Could Le Beau have seen him there, as the first of the cold sun struck upon him, the words which he had repeated over and over to The Killer would have stuck in his throat. For at eleven months of age Miki was a young giant of his breed. He weighed sixty pounds, and none of that sixty was fat. His body was as slim and as lean as a wolf's. His chest was massive, and over it the muscles rolled like babiche cord when he moved. His legs were like the legs of Hela, the big Mackenzie hound who was his father; and with his jaws he could crack a caribou bone as Le Beau might have cracked it with a stone. For eight of the eleven months of his life the wilderness had been his master; it had tempered him to the hardness of living steel; it had wrought him without abeyance to age in the mould of its pitiless schooling had taught him to fight for his life, to kill that he might live, and to use his brain before he used his jaws. He was as powerful as Netah, The Killer, who was twice his age, and with his strength he possessed a cunning and a quickness which The Killer would never know. Thus had the raw wilderness prepared him for this day.
As the sun fired up the forest with a cold flame Miki set off in direction of Le Beau's trapline. He came to where Le Beau had passed yesterday and sniffed suspiciously of the man-smell that was still strong in the snowshoe tracks. He had become accustomed to this smell, but he had not lost his suspicion of it. It was repugnant to him, even as it fascinated him. It filled him with an inexplicable fear, and yet he found himself powerless to run away from it. Three times in the last ten days he had seen the man-brute himself. Once he had been hiding within a dozen yards of Le Beau when he gassed.
This morning he headed straight for the swamp through which Le Beau's traps were set. There the rabbits were thickest, and it was in the swamp that they most frequently got in Jacques's kekeks – the little houses he built of sticks and cedar boughs to keep the snow off his baits. They were so numerous that they were a pest, and each time that Le Beau made his trip over the line he found at least two out of every three traps sprung by them, and therefore made useless for the catching of fur, But where there were many rabbits there were also fishers and lynx, and in spite of the rage which the plague of rabbits sent him into, Le Beau continued to set his traps there. And now, in addition to the rabbits, he had the wild dog to contend with.
His heart was fired by a vengeful anticipation as he hurried on through the glow of the early sun, with The Killer at his heels, led by a babiche thong.
Miki was nosing about the first trap-house as Netah and Le Beau entered the edge of the swamp, three miles to the east.
It was in this kekek that Miki had killed the fisher-cat the previous morning. It was empty now. Even the bait-peg was gone, and there was no sign of a trap. A quarter of a mile farther on he came to a second trap-house, and this also was empty. He was a bit puzzled. And then he went on to the third house. He stood for several minutes, sniffing the air still more suspiciously, before he drew close to it. The man-tracks were thicker here. The snow was beaten down with them, and the scent of Le Beau was so strong in the air that for a space Miki believed he was near. Then he advanced so that he got a look into the door of the trap-house. Squatted there, staring at him with big round eyes, was a huge snowshoe rabbit. A premonition of danger held Miki back. It was something in the attitude of Wapoos, the old rabbit. He was not like the others he had caught along Le Beau's line. He was not struggling in a trap; he was not stretched out, half frozen, and he was not dangling at the end of a snare. He was all furred up into a warm and comfortable looking ball. As a matter of fact, Le Beau had caught him with his hands in a hollow log, and had tied him to the bait peg with a piece of buck-skin string; and after that, just out of Wapoos's reach, he had set a nest of traps and covered them with snow.
Nearer and nearer to this menace drew Miki, in spite of the unaccountable impulse that warned him to keep back. Wapoos, fascinated by his slow and deadly advance, made no movement, but sat as if frozen into stone. Then Miki was at him. His powerful jaws closed with a crunch. In the same instant there came the angry snap of steel and a fisher-trap closed on one of his hind feet. With a snarl he dropped Wapoos and turned upon it. Snap-snap-snap went three more of Jacques's nest of traps. Two of them missed. The third caught him by a front paw. As he had caught Wapoos, and as he had killed the fisher-cat, so now he seized this new and savage enemy between his jaws. His fangs crunched on the cold steel; he literally tore it from his paw so that blood streamed forth and strained the snow red. Madly he twisted himself to get at his hind foot. On this foot the, fisher-trap had secured a hold that was unbreakable. He ground it between his jaws until the blood ran from his mouth. He was fighting it when Le Beau came out from behind a clump of spruce twenty yards away with The Killer at his heels.
The Brute stopped. He was panting, and his eyes were aflame. Two hundred yards away he had heard the clinking of the trap-chain.
"Ow! he is there," he gasped, tightening his hold on The Killer's lead thong. "He is there, Netah, you Red Eye! That is the robber devil you are to kill – almost. I will unfasten you, and then – Go to!"
Miki, no longer fighting the trap, was eyeing them as they advanced. In this moment of peril he felt no fear of the man. In his veins the hot blood raged with a killing madness. The truth leapt upon him in a flash of instinctive awakening. These two were his enemies instead of the thing on his foot – the man-beast, and Netah, The Killer. He remembered as if it were yesterday. This was not the first time he had seen a man with a club in his hand. And Le Beau held a club. But he was not afraid. His steady eyes watched Netah. Unleashed by his master, The Killer stood on stiff legs a dozen feet away, the wiry crest along his spine erect, his muscles tense.
Miki heard the man-beast's voice.
"Go to, you devil! Go to!"
Miki waited, without the quiver of a muscle. Thus much he had learned of his hard lessons in the wilderness – to wait, and watch, and use his cunning. He was flat on his belly, his nose between his forepaws. His lips were drawn back a little, just a little; but he made no sound, and his eyes were as steady as two points of flame. Le Beau stared. He felt suddenly a new thrill, and it was not the thrill of his desire for vengeance. Never had he seen a lynx or a fox or a wolf in a trap like that. Never had he seen a dog with eyes like the eyes that were on Netah. For a moment he held his breath.
Foot by foot, and then almost inch by inch, The Killer crept in. Ten feet, eight, six – and all that time Miki made no move, never winked an eye. With a snarl like that of a tiger, Netah came at him.
What happened then was the most marvellous thing that Jacques Le Beau had ever seen. So swiftly that his eyes could scarcely follow the movement, Miki had passed like a flash under the belly of Netah, and turning then at the end of his trap chain he was at The Killer's throat before Le Beau could have counted ten. They were down, and The Brute gripped the club in his hand and stared like one fascinated. He heard the grinding crunch of jaws, and he knew they were the Wild Dog's jaws; he heard a snarl choking slowly into a wheezing sob of agony, and he knew that the sound came from The Killer. The blood rose into his face. The red fire in his eyes grew livid – a blaze of exultation, of triumph.
"Tonnerre de Dieu! he is choking the life out of Netah!" he gasped. "Non, I have never seen a dog like that. I will keep him alive; and he shall fight Durant's poos over at Post Fort O' God! By the belly of Saint Gris, I say –"
The Killer was as good as dead if left another minute. With upraised club Le Beau advanced. As he sank his fangs deeper into Netah's throat Miki saw the new danger out of the corner of his eye. He loosed his jaws and swung himself free of The Killer as the club descended. He only partly evaded the smashing blow, which caught him on the shoulder and knocked him down. Quick as a flash he was on his feet and had lunged at Le Beau. The Frenchman was a master with the club. All his life he had used it, and he brought it around in a sudden side-swing that landed with terrific force against Miki's head. The blood spurted from his mouth and nostrils. He was dazed and half blinded. He leapt again, and the club caught him once more. He heard Le Beau's ferocious cry of joy. A third, a fourth, and a fifth time he went down under the club, and Le Beau no longer laughed, but swung his weapon with a look that was half fear in his eyes. The sixth time the club missed, and Miki's jaws closed against The Brute's chest, ripping away the thick coat and shirt as if they had been of paper, and leaving on Le Beau's skin a bleeding gash. Ten inches more – a little better vision in his blood-dimmed eyes – and he would have reached the man's throat. A great cry rose out of Le Beau. For an instant he felt the appalling nearness of death.
"Netah! Netah!" he cried, and swung the club wildly.
Netah did not respond. It may be that in this moment he sensed the fact that it was his master who had made him into a monster. About him was the wilderness, opening its doors of freedom. When Le Beau called again The Killer was slinking away, dripping blood as he went – and this was the last that Le Beau saw of him. Probably he joined the wolves, for The Killer was a quarter-strain wild.
Beau got no more than a glimpse of him as he disappeared. His club-arm shot out
again, a clean miss; and this time it was pure chance that saved him. The trap-chain
caught, and Miki fell back when his hot breath was almost at The Brute's
jugular. He fell upon his side. Before he could recover himself the club was
pounding his head into the snow. The world grew black. He no longer had the
power to move. Lying as if dead he still heard over him the panting, exultant
voice of the man-beast. For Le Beau, black though his heart was, could not keep
back a prayerful cry of thankfulness that he was victor – and had missed death,
though by a space no wider than the link of a chain.