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NANETTE, the woman, saw Jacques come out of the edge of the timber late in the afternoon, dragging something on the snow behind him. In her heart, ever since her husband had begun to talk about him, she had kept secret to herself a pity for the wild dog. Long before the last baby had come she had loved a dog. It was this dog that had given her the only real affection she had known in the company of The Brute, and with barbarous cruelty Le Beau had driven it from her. Nanette herself had encouraged it to seek freedom in the wilderness, as Netah had at last sought his. Therefore she had prayed that the wild dog of the trapline might escape.
As Le Beau came nearer she saw that what he drew after him upon the snow was a sledge-drag made of four lengths of sapling, and when, a moment later, she looked down at its burden, she gave a little cry of horror.
Miki's four feet were tied so firmly to the pieces of sapling that he could not move. A cord about his neck was fastened to one of the crossbars, and over his jaws Le Beau had improvised a muzzle of unbreakable babiche thong. He had done all this before Miki regained consciousness after the clubbing. The woman stared, and there was a sudden catch in her breath after the little cry that had fallen from her lips. Many times she had seen Jacques club his dogs, but never had she seen one clubbed like this. Miki's head and shoulders were a mass of frozen blood. And then she saw his eyes. They were looking straight up at her. She turned, fearing that Jacques might see what was in her face.
Le Beau dragged his burden straight into the cabin. and then stood back and rubbed his hands as he looked at Miki on the floor. Nanette saw that he was in a strangely good humour, and waited.
"By the Blessed Saints, but you should have seen him kill Netah – almost," he exulted. "Oui; he had him down by the throat quicker than you could flash your eye, and twice he was within an inch of my life when I fought him with the club. Dieu!
I say, what will happen to Durant's dog when they meet at Post Fort O' God? I will make a side wager that he kills him before the second-hand of le Facteur's watch goes round twice. He is splendid! Watch him, Nanette, while I go make a corral for him alone. If I put him in with the pack he will kill them all."
Miki's eyes followed him as he disappeared through the cabin door. Then he looked swiftly back to Nanette. She had drawn nearer. Her eyes were shining as she bent over him. A snarl rose in Miki's throat, and died there. For the first time he was looking upon WOMAN. He sensed, all at once, a difference as vast as the world itself. In his bruised and broken body his heart stood still. Nanette spoke to him. Never in his life had he heard a voice like hers – soft and gentle, with a breaking sob in it; and then – miracle of miracles – she had dropped on her knees and her hands were at his head!
In that instant his spirit leapt back through the generations – back beyond his father, and his father's father; back to that far day when the blood in the veins of his race was "just dog," and he romped with children, and listened to the call of woman, and worshipped at the shrine of human-kind. And now the woman had run quickly to the stove, and was back again with a dish of warm water and a soft cloth, and was bathing his head, talking to him all the time in that gentle, half-sobbing voice of pity and of love. He closed his eyes – no longer afraid. A great sigh heaved out of his body. He wanted to put out his tongue and lick the slim white hands that were bringing him peace and comfort. And then the strangest thing of all happened. In the crib the baby sat up and began to prattle. It was a new note to Miki, a new song of Life's springtide to him, but it thrilled him as nothing else in all the world had ever thrilled him before. He opened his eyes wide and whined.
A laugh of joy – new and strange even to herself – came into the woman's voice, and she ran to the crib and returned with the baby in her arms. She knelt down beside him again, and the baby, at sight of this strange plaything on the floor, thrust out its little arms, and kicked its tiny moccasined feet, and cooed and laughed and squirmed until Miki strained at his thongs to get a little nearer that he might touch this wonderful creature with his nose. He forgot his pain. He no longer sensed the agony of his bruised and beaten jaws. He did not feel the numbness of his tightly bound and frozen leg. Every instinct in him was centred in these two.
And the woman, now, was beautiful. She understood; and the gentle heart throbbed in her bosom, forgetful of The Brute. Her eyes glowed with the soft radiance of stars. Into her pale cheeks came a sweet flush. She sat the baby down, and with the cloth and warm water continued to bathe Miki's head. Le Beau, had he been human, must have worshipped her then as she knelt there, all that was pure and beautiful in motherhood, an angel of mercy, radiant for a moment in her forgetfulness of him. And Le Beau did enter – and see her – so quietly that for a space she did not realize his presence; and with him staring down on her she continued to talk and laugh and half sob, and the baby kicked and prattled and flung out its little arms wildly in the joy of these exciting moments.
Le Beau's thick lips drew back in an ugly leer and he gave a savage curse. Nanette flinched as if struck a blow.
"Get up, you fool!" he snarled.
She obeyed, shrinking back with the baby in her arms. Miki saw the change, and the greenish fire returned into his eyes when he caught sight of Le Beau. A deep and wolfish snarl rose in his throat. Le Beau turned on Nanette. The glow and the flush had not quite gone from her eyes and cheeks as she stood with the baby hugged up to her breast, and her big shining braid had fallen over her shoulder, glistening with a velvety fire in the light that came through the western window. But Le Beau saw nothing of this.
"If you make a poos (a house-kitten) of that dog – a thing like you made of Minoo, the breedbitch, I will –"
He did not finish, but his huge hands were clinched, and there was an ugly passion in his eyes. Nanette needed no more than that. She understood. She had received many blows, but there was the memory of one that never left her, night or day. Some day, if she could ever get to Post Fort O' God, and had the courage, she would tell le Facteur of that blow – how Jacques Le Beau, her husband, struck it at the nursing time, and her bosom was so hurt that the baby of two years ago had died. She would tell it, when she knew she and the baby would be safe from the vengeance of the Brute. And only le Facteur – the Big Man at Post Fort O' God a hundred miles away – was powerful enough to save her.
It was well that Le Beau did not read this thought in her mind now. With his warning he turned to Miki and dragged him out of the cabin to a cage made of saplings in which the winter before he had kept two live foxes. A small chain ten feet in length he fastened around Miki's neck and then to one of the sapling bars before he thrust his prisoner inside the door of the prison and freed him by cutting the babiche thongs with a knife.
For several minutes after that Miki lay still while the blood made its way slowly through his numbed and half-frozen limbs. At last he staggered to his feet, and then it was that Le Beau chuckled jubilantly and turned back to the cabin.
And now followed many days that were days of hell and torment for him – an unequal struggle between the power of The Brute and the spirit of the Dog.
"I must break you – Ow! by the Christ! I will break you!" – Le Beau would say time and again when he came with the club and the whip. "I will make you crawl to me – oui, and when I say fight you will fight!"
It was a small cage, so small that Miki could not get away from the reach of the club and the whip. They maddened him – for a time, and Le Beau's ugly soul was filled with joy as Miki launched himself again and again at the sapling bars, tearing at them with his teeth and frothing blood like a wolf gone mad. For twenty years Le Beau had trained fighting dogs, and this was his way. So he had done with Netah until The Killer was mastered, and at his call crept to him on his belly.
Three times, from a window in the cabin, Nanette looked forth on these horrible struggles between the man and the dog, and the third time she buried her face in her arms and sobbed; and when Le Beau came in and found her crying he dragged her to the window and made her look out again at Miki, who lay bleeding and half dead in the cage. It was a morning on which he started the round of his traps, and he was always gone until late the following day. And never was he more than well out of sight than Nanette would run out and go to the cage.
was then that Miki forgot The Brute. At times so beaten and blinded that he
could scarcely stand or see, he would crawl to the bars of the cage and caress
the soft hands that Nanette held in fearlessly to him. And then, after a
little, Nanette began to bring the baby out with her, bundled up like a little
Eskimo, and in his joy Miki whimpered and wagged his tail and grovelled in his
worship before these two.
It was in the second week of his captivity that the wonderful thing happened. Le Beau was gone, and there was a raging blizzard outside to which Nanette dared not expose the baby. So she went to the cage, and with a heart that beat wildly, she unbarred the door – and brought Miki into the cabin! If Le Beau should ever discover what she had done –!
The thought made her shiver.
After this first time she brought him into the cabin again and again. Once her heart stood still when Le Beau saw blood on the floor, and his eyes shot at her suspiciously. Then she lied.
"I cut my finger she said," and a moment later, with her back to him, she did cut it, and when Jacques looked at her hand he saw a cloth about the finger, with blood-stain on it.
After that Nanette always watched the floor carefully.
More and more this cabin, with the woman and the baby in it, became a paradise for Miki. Then came the time when Nanette dared to keep him in the cabin with her all night, and lying close to the precious cradle Miki never once took his eyes from her. It was late when she prepared for bed. She changed into a long, soft robe, and then, sitting near Miki, with her bare little feet in the fireglow, she took down her wonderful hair and began brushing it. It was the first time Miki had seen this new and marvellous garment about her. It fell over her shoulders and breast and almost to the floor in a shimmering glory, and the scent of it was so sweet that Miki crept a few inches nearer, and whimpered softly. After she had done brushing it Miki watched her as her slim fingers plaited it into two braids; and then, before she put the light out, a still more curious thing happened. She went to her bed, made of saplings, against the wall, and from its hiding place under the blankets drew forth tenderly a little ivory Crucifix. With this in her hands she knelt upon the log floor, and Miki listened to her prayer. He did not know, but she was asking God to be good to her baby – the little Nanette in the crib.
After that she cuddled the baby up in her arms, and put out the light, and went to bed; and through all the hours of the night Miki made no sound that would waken them.
In the morning, when Nanette opened her eyes, she found Miki with his head resting on the edge of the bed, close to the baby that was nestled against her bosom.
That morning, as she built the fire, something strange and stirring in Nanette's breast made her sing. Le Beau would be away until dark that night, and she would never dare to tell him what she and the baby and the dog were going to do. It was her birthday. Twenty-six; and it seemed to her that she had lived the time of two lives! And eight of those years with The Brute! But to-day they would celebrate, they three. All the morning the cabin was filled with a new spirit – a new happiness.
Years ago, before she had met Le Beau, the Indians away back on the Waterfound had called Nanette "Tanta Penashe" (" the Little Bird") because of the marvellous sweetness of her voice. And this morning she sang as she prepared the birthday feast; the sun flooded through the windows, and Miki whimpered happily and thumped his tail, and the baby cackled and crowed, and The Brute was forgotten. In that forgetfulness Nanette was a girl again, sweet and beautiful as in those days when old Jackpine, the Cree – who was now dead – had told her that she was born of the flowers. The wonderful dinner was ready at last, and to the baby's delight Nanette induced Miki to sit on a chair at the table. He felt foolish there, and he looked so foolish that Nanette laughed until her long dark lashes were damp with tears; and then, when Miki slunk down from the chair, feeling his shame horribly, she ran to him and put her arms around him and pleaded with him until he took his place at the table again.
So the day passed until mid-afternoon, when Nanette cleared away all signs of the celebration and locked Miki in his cage. It was fortunate she was ahead of time, for scarcely was she done when Le Beau came into the edge of the clearing, and with him was Durant, his acquaintance and rival from the edge of the Barrens farther north. Durant had sent his outfit on to Port O' God by an Indian, and had struck south and west with two dogs and a sledge to visit a cousin for a day or two. He was on his way to the Post when he came upon Le Beau on his trapline.
Thus much Le Beau told Nanette, and Nanette looked at Durant with startled eyes. They were a good pair, Jacques and his guest, only that Durant was older. She had become somewhat accustomed to the brutality in Le Beau's face, but she thought that Durant was a monster. He made her afraid, and she was glad when they went from the cabin.
"Now I will show you the bête that is going to kill your poos as easily as your lead-whelp killed that rabbit to-day, m'sieu," exulted Jacques. "I have told you but you have not seen!"
And he took with him the club and the whip.
Like a tiger fresh out of the jungles Miki responded to the club and the whip to-day, until Durant himself stood aghast, and exclaimed under his breath: "Mon Dieu! he is a devil!"
From the window Nanette saw what was happening, and out of her rose a cry of anguish. Sudden as a burst of fire there arose in her – triumphant at last and unafraid – that thing which for years The Brute had crushed back: her womanhood resurrected! Her soul broken free of its shackles! Her faith, her strength, her courage! She turned from the window and ran to the door, and out over the snow to the cage; and for the first time in her life she struck at Le Beau, and beat fiercely at the arm that was wielding the club.
"You beast!" she cried. "I tell you, you shall not! Do you hear? YOU SHALL NOT!"
Paralyzed with amazement, The Brute stood still. Was this Nanette, his slave? This wonderful creature with eyes that were glowing fire and defiance, and a look in her face that he had never seen in any woman's face before? Non – impossible! Hot rage rose in him, and with a single sweep of his powerful arm he flung her back so that she fell to the earth. With a wild curse he lifted the bar of the cage door.
"I will kill him, now; I will kill him!" he almost shrieked. "And it is you – YOU – you she-devil! who shall eat his heart alive! I will force it down your throat: I will –"
He was dragging Miki forth by the chain. The club rose as Miki's head came through. In another instant it would have beaten his head to a pulp – but Nanette was between it and the dog like a flash, and the blow went wild. It was with his fist that Le Beau struck out now, and the blow caught Nanette on the shoulder and sent her frail body down with a crash. The Brute sprang upon her. His fingers gripped in her thick, soft hair.
And then from Durant came a warning cry. It was too late. A lean gray streak of vengeance and retribution, Miki was at the end of his chain and at Le Beau's throat. Nanette heard! Through dazed eyes she saw! She reached out gropingly and struggled to her feet, and looked just once down upon the snow. Then, with a terrible cry, she staggered toward the cabin.
When Durant gathered courage to drag Le Beau out of Miki's reach Miki made no movement to harm him. Again, perhaps, it was the Beneficent Spirit that told him his duty was done. He went back into his cage, and lying there on his belly looked forth at Durant.
And Durant, looking at the blood-stained snow and the dead body of The Brute, whispered to himself again:
"Mon Dieu! he is a devil!"
the cabin, Nanette was upon her knees before the crucifix.