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TO MIKI and Neewa, especially Neewa, there seemed nothing extraordinary in the fact that they were together again, and that their comradeship was resumed. Although during his months of hibernation Neewa's body had grown, his mind had not changed its memories or its pictures. It had not passed through a mess of stirring events such as had made the winter a thrilling one for Miki, and so it was Neewa who accepted the new situation most casually. He went on feeding as if nothing at all unusual had happened during the past four months, and after the edge had gone from his first hunger he fell into his old habit of looking to Miki for leadership. And Miki fell into the old ways as though only a day or a week and not four months had lapsed in their brotherhood. It is possible that he tried mightily to tell Neewa what had happened. At least he must have had that desire – to let him know in what a strange way he had found his old master, Challoner, and how he had lost him again. And also how he found the woman, Nanette, and the little baby Nanette, and how for a long time he had lived with them and loved them as he had never loved anything else on earth.
It was the old cabin, far to the north and east, that drew him now – the cabin in which Nanette and the baby had lived; and it was toward this cabin that he lured Neewa during the first two weeks of their hunting. They did not travel quickly, largely because of Neewa's voracious spring appetite and the fact that it consumed nine tenths of his waking hours to keep full on such provender as roots and swelling buds and grass. During the first week Miki grew either hopeless or disgusted in his hunting. One day he killed five rabbits and Neewa ate four of them and grunted piggishly for more.
If Miki had stood amazed and appalled at Neewa's appetite in the days of their cubhood and puppyhood a year ago, he was more than astounded now, for in the matter of food Neewa was a bottomless pit. On the other hand he was jollier than ever, and in their wrestling matches he was almost more than a match for Miki, being nearly again as heavy. He very soon acquired the habit of taking advantage of this superiority of weight, and at unexpected moments he would hop on Miki and pin him to the ground, his fat body smothering him like a huge soft cushion, and his arms holding him until at times Miki could scarcely squirm. Now and then, hugging him in this embrace, he would roll over and over, both of them snarling and growling as though in deadly combat. This play, though he was literally the under dog, delighted Miki until one day they rolled over the edge of a deep ravine and crashed in a dog-and-bear avalanche to the bottom. After that, for a long time, Neewa did not roll with his victim. Whenever Miki wanted to end a bout, however, all he had to do was to give Neewa a sharp nip with his long fangs and the bear would uncoil himself and hop to his feet like a spring. He had a most serious respect for Miki's teeth.
But Miki's greatest moments of joy were where Neewa stood up man-fashion. Then was a real tussle. And his greatest hours of disgust were when Neewa stretched himself out in a tree for a nap.
It was the beginning of the third week before they came one day to the cabin. There was no change in it, and Miki's body sagged disconsolately as he and Neewa looked at it from the edge of the clearing. No smoke, no sign of life, and the window was broken now – probably by an inquisitive bear or a wolverine. Miki went to the window and stood up to it, sniffing inside. The smell was still there – so faint that he could only just detect it. But that was all. The big room was empty except for the stove, a table and a few bits of rude furniture. All else was gone. Three or four times during the next half hour Miki stood up at the window, and at last Neewa – urged by his curiosity – did likewise. He also detected the faint odour that was left in the cabin. He sniffed at it for a long time. It was like the smell he had caught the day he came out of his den – and yet different. It was fainter, more elusive, and not so unpleasant.
For a month thereafter Miki insisted on hunting in the vicinity of the cabin, held there by the "pull" of the thing which he could neither analyze nor quite understand. Neewa accepted the situation good-naturedly for a time. Then he lost patience and surrendered himself to a grouch for three whole days during which he wandered at his own sweet will. To preserve the alliance Miki was compelled to follow him. Berry time – early July – found them sixty miles north and west of the cabin, in the edge of the country where Neewa was born.
But there were few berries that summer of bebe nak um geda (the summer of drought and fire). As early as the middle of July a thin, gray film began to hover in palpitating waves over the forests. For three weeks there had been no rain. Even the nights were hot and dry. Each day the factors at their posts looked out with anxious eyes over their domains, and by the first of August every post had a score of half-breeds and Indians patrolling the trails on the watch for fire. In their cabins and teepees the forest dwellers who had not gone to pass the summer at the posts waited and watched; each morning and noon and night they climbed tall trees and peered through that palpitating gray film for a sign of smoke. For weeks the wind came steadily from the south and west, parched as though swept over the burning sands of a desert. Berries dried up on the bushes; the fruit of the mountain ash shriveled on its stems; creeks ran dry; swamps turned into baked peat, and the poplar leaves hung wilted and lifeless, too limp to rustle in the breeze. Only once or twice in a lifetime does the forest dweller see poplar leaves curl up and die like that, baked to death in the summer sun. It is Kiskewahoon (the Danger Signal). Not only the warning of possible death in a holocaust of fire, but the omen of poor hunting and trapping in the winter to come.
Miki and Neewa were in a swamp country when the fifth of August came. In the lowland it was sweltering. Neewa's tongue hung from his mouth, and Miki was panting as they made their way along a black and sluggish stream that was like a great ditch and as dead as the day itself. There was no visible sun, but a red and lurid glow filled the sky – the sun struggling to fight its way through the smothering film that had grown thicker over the earth. Because they were in a "pocket" – a sweep of tangled country lower than the surrounding country – Neewa and Miki were not caught in this blackening cloud. Five miles away they might have heard the thunder of cloven hoofs and the crash of heavy bodies in their flight before the deadly menace of fire. As it was they made their way slowly through the parched swamp, so that it was midday when they came out of the edge of it and up through a green fringe of timber to the top of a ridge. Before this hour neither had passed through the horror of a forest fire. But it seized upon them now. It needed no past experience. The cumulative instinct of a thousand generations leapt through their brains and bodies. Their world was in the grip of Iskootao (the Fire Devil). To the south and the east and the west it was buried in a pall like the darkness of night, and out of the far edge of the swamp through which they had come they caught the first livid spurts of flame.
From that direction, now that they were out of the "pocket," they felt a hot wind, and with that wind came a dull and rumbling roar that was like the distant moaning of a cataract. They waited, and watched, struggling to get their bearings, their minds fighting for a few moments in the gigantic process of changing instinct into reasoning and understanding. Neewa, being a bear, was afflicted with the near-sightedness of his breed, and he could see neither the black tornado of smoke bearing down upon them nor the flames leaping out of the swamp. But he could smell, and his nose was twisted into a hundred wrinkles, and even ahead of Miki he was ready for flight. But Miki, whose vision was like a hawk's, stood as if fascinated.
The roaring grew more distinct. It seemed on all sides of them. But it was from the south that there came the first storm of ash rushing noiselessly ahead of the fire, and after that the smoke. It was then that Miki turned with a strange whine but it was Neewa now who took the lead – Neewa, whose forebears had ten thousand times run this same wild race with death in the centuries since their world was born. He did not need the keenness of far vision now. He knew. He knew what was behind, and what was on either side, and where the one trail to safety lay; and in the air he felt and smelled the thing that was death. Twice Miki made efforts to swing their course into the east, but Neewa would have none of it. With flattened ears he went on north. Three times Miki stopped to turn and face the galloping menace behind them, but never for an instant did Neewa pause. Straight on – north, north, north – north to the higher lands, the big waters, the open plains. They were not alone. A caribou sped past them
with the swiftness of the wind itself. "Fast, fast, fast!" – Neewa's instinct cried; "but – endure! For the caribou, speeding even faster than the fire, will fall of exhaustion shortly and be eaten up by the flames. Fast – but endure!"
And steadily, stoically, at his loping gait Neewa led on.
A bull moose swung half across their trail from the west, wind-gone and panting as though his throat were cut. He was badly burned, and running blindly into the eastern wall of fire.
Behind and on either side, where the flames were rushing on with the pitiless ferocity of hunnish regiments, the harvest of death was a vast and shuddering reality. In hollow logs, under windfalls, in the thick tree-tops, and in the earth itself, the smaller things of the wilderness sought their refuge – and died. Rabbits became leaping balls of flame, then lay shrivelled and black; the marten were baked in their trees; fishers and mink and ermine crawled into the deepest corners of the windfalls and died there by inches; owls fluttered out of their tree-tops, staggered for a few moments in the fiery air, and fell down into the heart of the flame. No creature made a sound – except the porcupines; and as they died they cried like little children.
In the green spruce and cedar timber, heavy with the pitch that made their thick tops spurt into flame like a sea of explosive, the fire rushed on with a tremendous roar. From it in a straight race – there was no escape for man or beast. Out of that world of conflagration there might have risen one great, yearning cry to heaven: Water – Water – WATER! Wherever there was water there was also hope and life. Breed and blood and wilderness feuds were forgotten in the great hour of peril. Every lake became a haven of refuge.
To such a lake came Neewa, guided by an unerring instinct and sense of smell sharpened by the rumble and roar of the storm of fire behind him. Miki had "lost" himself; his senses were dulled; his nostrils caught no scent but that of a world in flames – so, blindly, he followed his comrade. The fire was enveloping the lake along its western shore, and its water was already thickly tenanted. It was not a large lake, and almost round. Its diameter was not more than two hundred yards. Farther out – a few of them swimming, but most of them standing on bottom with only their heads out of water – were a score of caribou and moose. Many other shorter-legged creatures were swimming aimlessly, turning this way and that, paddling their feet only enough to keep afloat. On the shore where Neewa and Miki paused was a huge porcupine, chattering and chuckling foolishly, as if scolding all things in general for having disturbed him at dinner. Then he took to the water. A little farther up the shore a fisher-cat and a fox hugged close to the water line, hesitating to wet their precious fur until death itself snapped at their heels; and as if to bring fresh news of this death a second fox dragged himself wearily out on the shore, as limp as a wet rag after his swim from the opposite shore, where the fire was already leaping in a wall of flame. And as this fox swam in, hoping to find safety, an old bear twice as big as Neewa, crashed panting from the undergrowth, plunged into the water, and swam out. Smaller things were creeping and crawling and slinking along the shore; little red-eyed ermine, marten, and mink, rabbits, squirrels, and squeaking gophers, and a horde of mice. And at last, with these things which he would have devoured so greedily running about him, Neewa waded slowly out into the water.
Miki followed until he was submerged to his shoulders. Then he stopped. The fire was close now, advancing like a race-horse. Over the protecting barrier of thick timber drove the clouds of smoke and ash. Swiftly the lake became obliterated, and now out of that awful chaos of blackness and smoke and heat there rose strange and thrilling cries; the bleating of a moose calf that was doomed to die and the bellowing, terror-filled response of its mother; the agonized howling of a wolf; the terrified barking of a fox, and over all else the horrible screaming of a pair of loons whose home had been trans-formed into a sea of flame.
Through the thickening smoke and increasing heat Neewa gave his call to Miki as he began to swim, and with an answering whine Miki plunged after him, swimming so close to his big black brother that his muzzle touched the other's flank. In midlake Neewa did as the other swimming creatures were doing – paddled only enough to keep himself afloat; but for Miki, big of bone and unassisted by a life-preserver of fat, the struggle was not so easy. He was forced to swim to keep afloat. A dozen times he circled around Neewa, and then, with something of the situation driven upon him, he came up close to the bear and rested his forepaws on his shoulders.
The lake was now encircled by a solid wall of fire. Blasts of flame shot up the pitch-laden trees and leapt for fifty feet into the blistering air. The roar of the conflagration was deafening. It drowned all sound that brute agony and death may have made. And its heat was terrific. For a few terrible minutes the air which Miki drew into his lungs was like fire itself. Neewa plunged his head under water every few seconds, but it was not Miki's instinct to do this. Like the wolf and the fox and the fisher-cat and the lynx it was his nature to die before completely submerging himself.
Swift as it had come the fire passed; and the walls of timber that had been green a few moments before were black and shrivelled and dead; and sound swept on with the flame until it became once more only a low and rumbling murmur.
To the black and smouldering shores the live things slowly made their way. Of all the creatures that had taken refuge in the lake many had died. Chief of those were the porcupines. All had drowned. Close to the shore the heat was still intense, and for hours the earth was hot with smouldering fire. All the rest of that day and the night that followed no living thing moved out of the shallow water. And yet no living thing thought to prey upon its neighbour. The great peril had made of all beasts kin.
A little before dawn of the
day following the fire relief came. A deluge of rain fell, and when day broke
and the sun shone through a murky heaven there was left no sign of what the
lake had been, except for the dead bodies that floated on its surface or lined
its shores. The living things had returned into their desolated wilderness –
and among them, Neewa and Miki.