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IT WAS late the night of the big feast at Post Fort O' God that MacDonnell, the factor, sent for Challoner. Challoner was preparing for bed when an Indian boy pounded on the door of his shack and a moment later gave him the message. He looked at his watch. It was eleven o'clock. What could the Factor want of him at that hour, he wondered? Flat on his belly near the warm box stove Miki watched his new-found master speculatively as he pulled on his boots. His eyes were wide open now. Challoner had washed from him the blood of the terrific fight of that afternoon.
"Something to do with that devil of a Durant," growled Challoner, looking at the battle-scarred dog. "Well, if he hopes to get you again, Miki, he's barking up the wrong tree. You're mine!"
Miki thumped his hard tail on the floor and wriggled toward his master in mute adoration. Together they went out into the night.
It was a night of white moonlight and a multitude of stars. The four great fires over which the caribou had roasted for the savage barbecue that day were still burning brightly. In the edge of the forest that ringed in the Post were the smouldering embers of a score of smaller fires. Back of these fires were faintly outlined the gray shadows of teepees and tents. In these shelters the three hundred half-breeds and Indians who had come in from the forest trails to the New Year carnival at the Post were sleeping. Only here and there was there a movement of life. Even the dogs were quiet after the earlier hours of excitement and gluttony.
Past the big fires, with their huge spits still stand,. ing, Challoner passed toward the Factor's quarters. Miki sniffed at the freshly picked bones. Beyond these bones there was no sign of the two thousand pounds of flesh that had roasted that day on the spits. Men, women, children, and dogs had stuffed themselves until there was nothing left. It was the silence of Mutai – the "belly god" – the god who eats himself to sleep each night – that hovered strangely over this Post of Fort O' God, three hundred miles from civilization.
There was a light in the Factor's room, and Challoner entered with Miki at his heels. MacDonnell, the Scotchman, was puffing moodily on his pipe. There was a worried look in his ruddy face as the younger man seated himself, and his eyes were on Miki.
"Durant has been here," he said. "He's ugly. I'm afraid of trouble. If you hadn't struck him –" Challoner shrugged his shoulders as he filled his own pipe from the Factor's tobacco.
"You see – you don't just understand the situation at Fort O' God," went on MacDonnell. "There's been a big dog fight here at New Year for the last fifty years. It's become a part of history, a part of Fort O' God itself, and that's why in my own fifteen years here I haven't tried to stop it. I believe it would bring on a sort of – revolution. I'd wager a half of my people would go to another post with their furs. That's why all the sympathy seems to be with Durant. Even Grouse Piet, his rival, tells him he's a fool to let you get away with him that way. Durant says that dog is his."
MacDonnell nodded at Miki, lying at Challoner's feet.
"Then he lies," said Challoner quietly.
"He says he bought him of Jacques Le Beau."
"Then Le Beau sold a dog that didn't belong to him."
For a moment MacDonnell was silent. Then he said:
"But that wasn't what I had you come over for, Challoner. Durant told me something that froze my blood to-night. Your outfit starts for your post up in the Reindeer Lake county to-morrow, doesn't it?"
"In the morning."
"Then could you, with one of my Indians and a team, arrange to swing around by way of the Jackson's Knee? You'd lose a week, but you could overtake your outfit before it reached the Reindeer – and it would be a mighty big favour to me. There's a – a hell of a thing happened over there."
Again he looked at Miki.
"Gawd!" he breathed.
Challoner waited. He thought he saw a shudder pass through the Factor's shoulders.
"I'd go myself – I ought to, but this frosted lung of mine has made me sit tight this winter, Challoner. I ought to go. Why –" (a sudden glow shot into his eyes) – "I knew this Nanette Le Beau when she was so high, fifteen years ago. I watched her grow up, Challoner. If I hadn't been married – then –I'd have fallen in love with her. Do you know her, Challoner? Did you ever see Nanette Le Beau?" Challoner shook his head.
"An angel – if God ever made one," declared MacDonnell through his red beard. "She lived over beyond the Jackson's Knee with her father. And he died, froze to death crossing Red Eye Lake one night. I've always thought Jacques Le Beau made her marry him after that. Or else she didn't know, or was crazed, or frightened at being alone. Anyway, she married him, It was five years ago I saw her last. Now and then I've heard things, but I didn't believe – not all of them. I didn't believe that Le Beau beat her, and knocked her down when he wanted to. I didn't believe he dragged her through the snow by her hair one day until she was nearly dead. They were just rumours, and he was seventy miles away. But I believe them now. Durant came from their place, and I guess he told me a whole lot of the truth – to save that dog."
Again he looked at Miki.
"You see, Durant tells me that Le Beau caught the dog in one of his traps, took him to his cabin, and tortured him into shape for the big fight. When Durant came he was so taken with the dog that he bought him, and it was while Le Beau was driving the dog mad in his cage to show his temper that Nanette interfered. Le Beau knocked her down, and then jumped on her and was pulling her hair and choking her when the dog went for him and killed him. That's the story. Durant told me the truth through fear that I'd have the dog shot if he was an out-and-out murderer. And that's why I want you to go by way of the Jackson's Knee. I want you to investigate, and I want you to do what you can for Nanette Le Beau. My Indian will bring her back to Fort O' God."
With Scotch stoicism MacDonnell had repressed whatever excitement he may have felt. He spoke quietly. But the curious shudder went through his shoulders again. Challoner stared at him in blank amazement.
"You mean to say that Miki – this dog – has killed a man?"
"Yes. He killed him, Durant says, just as he killed Grouse Piet's wolf-dog in the big fight to-day. Ugh!" As Challoner's eyes fell slowly upon Miki, the Factor added: "But Grouse Piet's dog was better than the man. If what I hear about Le Beau was true he's better dead than alive. Challoner, if you didn't think it too much trouble, and could go that way – and see Nanette –"
"I'll go," said Challoner, dropping a hand to Miki's head.
For half an hour after that MacDonnell told him the things he knew about Nanette Le Beau. When Challoner rose to go the Factor followed him to the door.
"Keep your eyes open for Durant," he warned. "That dog is worth more to him than all his winnings to-day, and they say his stakes were big. He won heavily from Grouse Piet, but the half-breed is thick with him now. I know it. So watch out."
Out in the open space, in the light of the moon and stars, Challoner stood for a moment with Miki's forepaws resting against his breast. The dog's head was almost on a level with his shoulders.
"D'ye remember when you fell out of the canoe, Boy?" he asked softly. "Remember how you 'n' the cub were tied in the bow, an' you got to scrapping and fell overboard just above the rapids? Remember? By Jove! those rapids pretty near got me, too. I thought you were dead, sure – both of you. I wonder what happened to the cub?"
Miki whined in response, and his whole body trembled.
"And since then you've killed a man," added Challoner, as if he still could not quite believe. "And I'm to take you back to the woman. That's the funny thing about it. You're going back to her, and if she says kill you –"
He dropped Miki's forefeet and went on to the cabin. At the threshold a low growl rose in Miki's throat. Challoner laughed, and opened the door. They went in, and the dog's growl was a menacing snarl. Challoner had left his lamp burning low, and in the light of it he saw Henri Durant and Grouse Piet waiting for him. He turned up the wick, and nodded.
"Good evening. Pretty late for a call, isn't it?" Grouse Piet's stolid face did not change its expression. It struck Challoner, as he glanced at him, that in head and shoulders he bore a grotesque resemblance to a walrus. Durant's eyes were dully ablaze. His face was swollen where Challoner had struck him. Miki, stiffened to the hardness of a knot, and still snarling under his breath, had crawled under Challoner's bunk. Durant pointed to him, "We've come after that dog," he said.
"You can't have him, Durant," replied Challoner, trying hard to make himself appear at ease in a situation that sent a chill up his back. As he spoke he was making up his mind why Grouse Piet had come with Durant. They were giants, both of them; more than that – monsters. Instinctively he had faced them with the small table between them. "I'm sorry I lost my temper out there," he continued. "I shouldn't have struck you, Durant. It wasn't your fault – and I apologize. But the dog is mine. I lost him over in the Jackson's Knee country, and if Jacques Le Beau caught him in a trap, and sold him to you, he sold a dog that didn't belong to him. I'm willing to pay you back what you gave for him, just to be fair. How much was it?"
Grouse Piet had risen to his feet. Durant came to the opposite edge of the table, and leaned over it.
Challoner wondered how a single blow had knocked him down.
"Non, he is not for sale." Durant's voice was low; so low that it seemed to choke him to get it out, It was filled with a repressed hatred. Challoner saw the great cords of his knotted hands bulging under the skin as he gripped the edge of the table. "M'sieu, we have come for that dog. Will you let us take him?"
"I will pay you back what you gave for him, Durant. I will add to the price."
"Non. He is mine. Will you give him back now?"
Scarcely was the word out of his mouth when Durant flung his whole weight and strength against the table. Challoner had not expected the move – just yet. With a bellow of rage and hatred Durant was upon him, and under the weight of the giant he crashed to the floor. With them went the table and lamp. There was a vivid splutter of flame and the cabin was in darkness, except where the moonlight flooded through the one window. Challoner had looked for something different. He had expected Durant to threaten before he acted, and, sizing up the two of them, he had decided to reach the edge of his bunk during the discussion. Under the pillow was his revolver. It was too late now. Durant was on him, fumbling in the darkness for his throat, and as he flung one arm upward to get a hook around the Frenchman's neck he heard Grouse Piet throw the table back. The next instant they were rolling in the moonlight on the floor, and Challoner caught a glimpse of Grouse Piet's huge bulk bending over them. Durant's head was twisted under his arm, but one of the giant's hands had reached his throat. The half-breed saw this, and he cried out something in a guttural voice. With a tremendous effort Challoner rolled himself and his adversary out of the patch of light into darkness again. Durant's thick neck cracked. Again Grouse Piet called out in that guttural, questioning voice. Challoner put every ounce of his energy into the crook of his arm, and Durant did not answer.
Then the weight of Grouse Piet fell upon them, and his great hands groped for Challoner's neck. His thick fingers found Durant's beard first, then fumbled for Challoner, and got their hold. Ten seconds of their terrific grip would have broken his neck. But the fingers never closed. A savage cry of agony burst from Grouse Piet's lips, and with that cry, ending almost in a scream, came the snap of great jaws and the rending snarl of fangs in the darkness. Durant heard, and with a great heave of his massive body he broke free from Challoner's grip, and leapt to his feet. In a flash Challoner was at his bunk, facing his enemies with the revolver in his hand.
Everything had happened quickly. Scarcely more than a minute had passed since the overturning of the table, and now, in the moment when the situation had turned in his favour, a sudden swift and sickening horror seized upon Challoner. Bloody and terrible there rose before him the one scene he had witnessed that day in the big cage where Miki and the wolf-dog had fought. And there – in that darkness of the cabin he heard a moaning cry and the crash of a body to the floor.
"Miki, Miki," he cried. "Here! Here!"
He dropped his revolver and sprang to the door, flinging it wide open.
"For God's sake get out!" he cried. "Get out!"
A bulk dashed past him into the night. He knew it was Durant. Then he leapt to the dark shadows an the floor and dug his two hands into the loose hide at the back of Miki's neck, dragging him back, and shouting his name. He saw Grouse Piet crawling toward the door. He saw him rise to his feet, silhouetted for a moment against the starlight, and stagger out into the night. And then he felt Miki's weight slinking down to the floor, and under his hands the dog's muscles grew limp and saggy. For two or three minutes he continued to kneel beside him before he closed the cabin door and lighted another lamp. He set up the overturned table and placed the lamp on it. Miki had not moved. He lay flat on his belly, his head between his forepaws, looking up at Challoner with a mute appeal in his eyes. Challoner reached out his two arms.
In an instant Miki was up against him, his forefeet against his breast, and with his arms about the dog's shoulders Challoner's eyes took in the floor. On it were wet splashes and bits of torn clothing.
His arms closed more tightly.
"Miki, old boy, I'm
much obliged," he said.