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THE next morning Challoner's outfit of three teams and four men left north and west for the Reindeer Lake country on the journey to his new post at the mouth of the Cochrane. An hour later Challoner struck due west with a light sledge and a five-dog team for the Jackson's Knee. Behind him followed one of MacDonnell's Indians with the team that was to bring Nanette to Fort O' God.
He saw nothing more of Durant and Grouse Piet, and accepted MacDonnell's explanation that they had undoubtedly left the Post shortly after their assault upon him in the cabin. No doubt their disappearance had been hastened by the fact that a patrol of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police on its way to York Factory was expected at Fort O' God that day.
Not until the final moment of departure was Miki brought from the cabin and tied to the gee-bar of Challoner's sledge. When he saw the five dogs squatted on their haunches he grew rigid and the old snarl rose in his throat. Under Challoner's quieting words he quickly came to understand that these beasts were not enemies, and from a rather suspicious toleration of them he very soon began to take a new sort of interest in them. It was a friendly team, bred in the south and without the wolf strain.
Events had come to pass so swiftly and so vividly in Miki's life during the past twenty-four hours that for many miles after they left Fort O' God his senses were in an unsettled state of anticipation. His brain was filled with a jumble of strange and thrilling pictures. Very far away, and almost indistinct, were the pictures of things that had happened before he was made a prisoner by Jacques Le Beau. Even the memory of Neewa was fading under the thrill of events at Nanette's cabin and at Fort O' God. The pictures that blazed their way across his brain now were of men, and dogs, and many other, things that he had never seen before. His world had suddenly transformed itself into a host of Henri Durants and Grouse Piets and Jacques Le Beaus, two-legged beasts who had clubbed him, and, half-killed him, and who had made him fight to keep the life in his body. He had tasted their blood in his vengeance. And he watched for them now. The pictures told him they were everywhere. He could imagine them as countless as the wolves, and as he had seen them crowded round the big cage in which he had slain the wolf-dog.
In all of this excited and distorted world there was only one Challoner, and one Nanette, and one baby. All else was a chaos of uncertainty and of dark menace. Twice when the Indian came up close behind them Miki whirled about with. a savage snarl. Challoner watched him, and understood.
Of the pictures in his brain one stood out above all others, definite and unclouded, and that was the picture of Nanette. Yes, even above Challoner himself. There lived in him the consciousness of her gentle hands; her sweet, soft voice; the perfume of her hair and clothes and body – the woman of her; and a part of the woman – as the hand is a part of the body – was the baby. It was this part of Miki that Challoner could not understand, and which puzzled him when they made camp that night. He sat for a long time beside the fire trying to bring back the old comradeship of the days of Miki's puppyhood. But he only partly succeeded. Miki was restive. Every nerve in his body seemed on edge. Again and again he faced the west, and always when he sniffed the air in that direction there came a low whine in his throat.
That night, with doubt in his heart, Challoner fastened him near the tent with a tough rope of babiche.
For a long time after Challoner had gone to bed Miki sat on his haunches close to the spruce to which he was fastened. It must have been ten o'clock, and the night was so still that the snap of a dying ember in the fire was like the crack of a whip to his ears. Miki's eyes were wide open and alert. Near the slowly burning logs, wrapped in his thick blankets, he could make out the motionless form of the Indian, asleep. Back of him the sledge-dogs had wallowed their beds in the snow and were silent. The moon was almost straight overhead, and a mile or two away a wolf pointed his muzzle to the radiant glow of it and howled. The sound, like a distant, calling voice, added new fire to the growing thrill in Miki's blood. He turned in the direction of the wailing voice. He wanted to call back. He wanted to throw up his head and cry out to the forests, and the moon, and the starlit sky. But only his jaws clicked, and he looked at the tent in which Challoner was sleeping. He dropped down upon his belly in the snow. But his head was still alert and listening. The moon had already begun its westward decline. The fire burned out until the logs were only a dull and slumbering glow; the hand of Challoner's watch passed midnight, and still Miki was wide-eyed and restless in the thrill of the thing that was upon him. And then at last The Call that was coming to him from out of the night became his master, and he gnawed the babiche in two. It was the call of the Woman – of Nanette and the baby.
In his freedom Miki sniffed at the edge of Challoner's tent. His back sagged. His tail drooped. He knew that in this hour he was betraying the master for whom he had waited so long, and who had lived so vividly in his dreams. It was not reasoning, but an instinctive oppression of fact. He would come back. That conviction burned dully in his brain. But now – to-night – he must go. He slunk off into the darkness. With the stealth of a fox he made his way between the sleeping dogs. Not until he was a quarter of a mile from the camp did he straighten out, and then a gray and fleeting shadow he sped westward under the light of the moon. There was no hesitation in the manner of his going. Free of the pain of his wounds, strong-limbed, deep-lunged as the strongest wolf of the forests, he went on tirelessly. Rabbits bobbing out of his path did not make him pause; even the strong scent of a fisher-cat almost under his nose did not swerve him a foot from his trail. Through swamp and deep forest, over lake and stream, across open barren and charred burns his unerring sense of orientation led him on. Once he stopped to drink where the swift current of a creek kept the water open. Even then he gulped in haste – and shot on. The moon drifted lower and lower until it sank into oblivion. The stars began to fade away. The little ones went out, and the big ones grew sleepy and dull. A great snow-ghostly gloom settled over the forest world.
In the six hours between midnight and dawn he covered thirty-five miles.
And then he stopped. Dropping on his belly beside a rock at the crest of a ridge he watched the birth of day. With drooling jaws and panting breath he rested, until at last the dull gold of the winter sun began to paint the eastern sky. And then came the first bars of vivid sunlight, shooting over the eastern ramparts as guns flash from-behind their battlements, and Miki rose to his feet and surveyed the morning wonder of his world. Behind him was Fort O' God, fifty miles away; ahead of him the cabin – twenty. It was the cabin he faced as he went down from the ridge.
As the miles between him and the cabin grew fewer and fewer he felt again something of the oppression that had borne upon him at Challoner's tent. And yet it was different. He had run his race. He had answered The Call. And now, at the end, he was seized by a fear of what his welcome would be. For at the cabin he had killed a man – and the man had belonged to the woman. His progress became more hesitating. Mid-forenoon found him only half a mile from the home of Nanette and the baby. His keen nostrils caught the faint tang of smoke in the air. He did not follow it up, but circled like a wolf, coming up stealthily and uncertainly until at last he looked out into the little clearing where a new world had come into existence for him. He saw the sapling cage in which Jacques Le Beau had kept him a prisoner; the door of that cage was still open, as Durant had left it after stealing him; he saw the ploughed-up snow where he had leapt upon the man-brute – and he whined.
He was facing the cabin door – and the door was wide open. He could see no life, but he could smell it. And smoke was rising from the chimney. He slunk across the open. In the manner of his going there was an abject humiliation – a plea for mercy if he had done wrong, a prayer to the creatures he worshipped that he might not be driven away.
He came to the door, and peered in. The room was empty. Nanette was not there. Then his ears shot forward and his body grew suddenly tense, and he listened, listened, listened to a soft, cooing sound that was coming from the crib. He swallowed hard; the faintest whine rose in his throat and his claws clicked, clicked, clicked, across the floor and he thrust his great head over the side of the little bed. The baby was there. With his warm tongue he kissed it – just once – and then, with another deep breath, lay down on the floor.
He heard footsteps. Nanette came in with her arms filled with blankets; she carried these into the smaller room, and returned, before she saw him. For a moment she stared. Then, with a strange little cry, she ran to him; and once more he felt her arms about him; and he cried like a puppy with his muzzle against her breast, and Nanette laughed and sobbed, and in the crib the baby kicked and squealed and thrust her tiny moccasined feet up into the air.
"Ao-oo tap-wa-mukun" ("When the devil goes heaven comes in,") say the Crees. And with the death of Le Beau, her husband, the devil had gone out of life for Nanette. She was more beautiful than ever. Heaven was in the dark, pure glow of her eyes. She was no longer like a dog under the club and the whip of a brute, and in the re-birth of her soul she was glorious. Youth had come back to her – freed from the yoke of oppression. She was happy. Happy with her baby, with freedom, with the sun and the stars shining for her again; and with new hope, the greatest star of all. Again on the night of that first day of his return Miki crept up to her when she was brushing her glorious hair. He loved to put his muzzle in it; he loved the sweet scent of it; he loved to put his head on her knees and feel it smothering him. And Nanette hugged him tight, even as she hugged the baby, for it was Miki who had brought her freedom, and hope, and life. What had passed was no longer a tragedy. It was justice. God had sent Miki to do for her what a father or a brother would have done.
And the second night after
that, when Challoner came early in the darkness, it happened that Nanette had
her hair down in that same way; and Challoner, seeing her thus, with the
lamp-glow shining in her eyes, felt that the world had taken a sudden swift
turn under his feet – that through all his years he had been working forward to