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IT WAS two o'clock in the afternoon. The caribou were roasting brown. In two more hours the feast would begin. The hour of the fight was at hand.
In the centre of the clearing three hundred men, women, and children were gathered in a close circle about a sapling cage ten feet square. Close to this cage, one at each side, were drawn the two smaller cages. Beside one of these cages stood Henri Durant; beside the other, Grouse Piet. They were not bantering now. Their faces were hard and set. And three hundred pairs of eyes were staring at them, and three hundred pairs of ears waiting for the thrilling signal.
It came – from Grouse Piet.
With a swift movement Durant pulled up the door of Miki's cage. Then, suddenly, he prodded him from behind with a crotched stick, and with a single leap Miki was in the big cage. Almost at the same instant the wolf-dog leapt from Grouse Piet's cage, and the two faced each other in the arena. With the next breath he drew Durant could have groaned. What happened in the following half minute was a matter of environment with Miki. In the forest the wolf-dog would have interested him to the exclusion of everything else, and he would have looked upon him as another Netah or a wild wolf. But in his present surroundings the idea of fighting was the last to possess him. He was fascinated by that grim and waiting circle of faces closing in the big cage; he scrutinized it, turning his head sharply from point to point, as if hoping to see Nanette and the baby, or even Challoner his first master. To the wolf-dog Grouse Piet had given the name of Taao, because of the extraordinary length of his fangs; and of Taao, to Durant's growing horror, Miki was utterly oblivious after that first head-on glance. He trotted to the edge of the cage and thrust his nose between the bars, and a taunting laugh rose out of Grouse Piet's throat. Then he began making a circle of the cage, his sharp eyes on the silent ring of faces. Taao stood in the centre of the cage, and not once did his reddish eyes leave Miki. What was outside of the cage held small interest for him. He understood his business, and murder was bred in his heart. For a space during which Durant's heart beat like a hammer Taao turned, as if on a pivot, following Miki's movement, and the crest on his spine stood up like bristles.
Then Miki stopped, and in that moment Durant saw the end of all his hopes. Without a sound the wolf-dog was at his opponent. A bellow rose from Grouse Piet's lips. A deep breath passed through the circle of spectators, and Durant felt a cold chill run up his back to the roots of his hair. What happened in the next instant made men's hearts stand still. In that first rush Miki should have died. Grouse Piet expected him to die, and Durant expected him to die. But in the last fractional bit of the second in which the wolf-dog's jaws closed, Miki was transformed into a thing of living lightning. No man had ever seen a movement swifter than that with which he turned on Taao. Their jaws clashed. There was a sickening grinding of bone, and in another moment they were rolling and twisting together an the earth floor. Neither Grouse Piet nor Durant could see what was happening. They forgot even their own bets in the horror of that fight, Never had there been such a fight at Fort O' God. The sound of it reached to the Company's store. In the door, looking toward the big cage, stood the young white man. He heard the snarling, the clashing of teeth, and his jaws set heavily and a dull flame burned in his eyes. His breath came in a sudden gasp.
"Damn!" he cried, softly.
His hands clenched, and he stepped slowly down from the door and went toward the cage. It was over when he made his way through the ring of spectators. The fight had ended as suddenly as it had begun, and Grouse Piet's wolf-dog lay in the centre of the cage with a severed jugular. Miki looked as though he might be dying. Durant had opened the door and had slipped a rope over his head, and outside the cage Miki stood swaying on his feet, red with blood, and half blind. His flesh was red and bleeding in a dozen places, and a stream of blood trickled from his mouth. A cry of horror rose to the young white man's lips as he looked down at him.
And then, almost in the same breath, there came a still stranger cry.
"Good God! Miki – Miki – Miki –"
Beating upon his brain as if from a vast distance, coming to him through the blindness of his wounds, Miki heard that voice.
The voice! The voice that had lived with him in all his dreams, the voice he had waited for, and searched for, and knew that some day he would find. The voice of Challoner, his master!
He dropped on his belly, whining, trying to see through the film of blood in his eyes; and lying there, wounded almost unto death, his tail thumped the ground in recognition. And then, to the amazement of all who beheld, Challoner was down upon his knees beside him, and his arms were about him, and Miki's lacerated tongue was reaching for his hands, his face, his clothes.
" Miki – Miki – Miki!"
Durant's hand fell heavily upon Challoner's shoulder.
It was like the touch of a red-hot iron to Challoner. In a flash he was on his feet, facing him.
"He's mine," Challoner cried, trying to hold back his passion. "He's mine you – you devil!"
And then, powerless to hold back his desire for vengeance, his clenched fist swung like a rock to Durant's heavy jaw, and the Frenchman went to the ground. For a moment Challoner stood over him, but he did not move. Fiercely he turned upon Grouse Piet and the crowd. Miki was cringing at his feet again. Pointing to him, Challoner cried loudly, so all could hear.
"He's my dog. Where this beast got him I don't know. But he's mine. Look for yourselves! See – see him lick my hand. Would he do that for him? And look at that ear. There's no other ear in all the north cut like that. I lost him almost a year ago, but I'd know him among ten thousand by that ear. By God! – if I had known – "
He elbowed his way through the breeds and Indians, leading Miki by the rope Durant had slipped over the dog's head. He went to MacDonnell, and told him what had happened. He told of the preceding spring, and of the accident in which Miki and the bear cub were lost from his canoe and swept over the waterfall. After registering his claim against whatever Durant might have to say he went to the shack in which he was staying at Fort O' God.
An hour later Challoner sat with Miki's big head between his two hands, and talked to him. He had bathed and dressed his wounds, and Miki could see. His eyes were on his master's face, and his hard tail thumped the floor. Both were oblivious of the sounds of the revellers outside; the cries of men, the shouting of boys, the laughter of women, and the incessant barking of dogs. In Challoner's eyes there was a soft glow.
old boy, you haven't forgotten a thing – not a dam' thing, have you? You were
nothing but an onery-legged pup then, but you didn't forget! Remember what I
told you, that I was going to take you and the cub down to the Girl? Do you
remember? The Girl I said was an angel, and 'd love you to death, and all that?
Well, I'm glad something happened – and you didn't go. It wasn't the same when
I got back, an' she wasn't the same,
Miki. Lord, she'd got married, and had
two kids! Think of that, old scout – two!
How the deuce could she have taken care of you and the cub, eh? And nothing
else was the same, Boy. Three years in God's Country – up here where you burst
your lungs just for the fun of drinking in air – changed me a lot, I guess.
Inside a week I wanted to come back, Miki, Yessir, I was sick to come back. So
I came. And we're going to stick now, Miki. You're going with me up to that new
Post the Company has given me. From now on we're pals. Understand, old scout,