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FOR many days after the Great Fire it was Neewa who took the lead. All their world was a black and lifeless desolation and Miki would not have known which way to turn. Had it been a local fire of small extent he would have "wandered" out of its charred path. But the conflagration had been immense. It had swept over a vast reach of country, and for a half of the creatures who had saved themselves in the lakes and streams there was only a death by starvation left.
But not for Neewa and his breed. Just as there had been no indecision in the manner and direction of his flight before the fire so there was now no hesitation in the direction he chose to seek a live world again. It was due north and west – as straight as a die. If they came to a lake, and went around it, Neewa would always follow the shore until he came directly opposite his trail on the other side of the lake – and then strike north and west again. He travelled steadily, not only by day but also by night, with only short intervals of rest, and the dawning of the second morning found Miki more exhausted than the bear.
There were many evidences now that they had reached a point where the fire had begun to burn itself out. Patches of green timber were left standing, there were swamps unscathed by the flames, and here and there they came upon green patches of meadow. In the swamps and timber they feasted, for these oases in what had been a sea of flame were filled with food ready to be preyed upon and devoured. For the first time Neewa refused to stop because there was plenty to eat. The sixth day they were a hundred miles from the lake in which they had sought refuge from the fire.
It was a wonderful country of green timber, of wide plains and of many lakes and streams – cut up by a thousand usayow (low ridges), which made the best of hunting. Because it was a country of many waters, with live streams running between the ridges and from lake to lake, it had not suffered from the drought like the country farther south.
For a month Neewa and Miki hunted in their new paradise, and became fat and happy again.
It was in September that they came upon a strange thing in the edge of a swamp. At first Miki thought that it was a cabin; but it was a great deal smaller than any cabin he had known. It was not much larger than the cage of saplings in which Le Beau had kept him. But it was made of heavy logs, and the logs were notched so that nothing could knock them down. And these logs, instead of lying closely one on the other, had open spaces six or eight inches wide between them. And there was a wide-open door. From this strange contraption there came a strong odour of over-ripened fish. The smell repelled Miki. But it was a powerful attraction to Neewa, who persisted in remaining near it in spite of all Miki could do to drag him away. Finally, disgusted at his comrade's bad taste, Miki sulked off alone to hunt. It was some time after that before Neewa dared to thrust his head and shoulders through the opening. The smell of the fish made his little eyes gleam. Cautiously he stepped inside the queer looking thing of logs. Nothing happened. He saw the fish, all he could eat, just on the other side of a sapling against which he must lean to reach them. He went deliberately to the sapling, leaned over, and then! –
He whirled about as if shot. There was no longer an opening where he had entered. The sapling "trigger" had released an over-head door, and Neewa was a prisoner. He was not excited, but accepted the situation quite coolly, probably having no doubt in his mind that somewhere there was an aperture between the logs large enough for him to squeeze through. After a few inquisitive sniffs he proceeded to devour the fish. He was absorbed in his odoriferous feast when out of a clump of dwarf balsams a few yards away appeared an Indian. He quickly took in the situation, turned, and disappeared.
Half an hour later this Indian ran into a clearing in which were the recently constructed buildings of a new Post. He made for the Company store. In the fur-carpeted "office" of this store a man was bending fondly over a woman. The Indian saw them as he entered, and chuckled. "Sakehewawin" ("the love couple"); that was what they had already come to call them at Post Lac Bain – this man and woman who had given them a great feast when the missioner had married them not so very long ago. The man and the woman stood up when the Indian entered, and the woman smiled at him. She was beautiful. Her eyes were glowing, and there was the flush of a flower in her cheeks. The Indian felt the worship of her warm in his heart.
"Oo-ee, we have caught the bear," he said. "But it is napao (a he-bear). There is no cub, Iskwao Nanette!"
The white man chuckled.
"Aren't we having the darndest luck getting you a cub for a house-pet, Nanette?" he asked. "I'd have sworn this mother and her cub would have been easily caught. A he-bear! We'll have to let him loose, Mootag. His pelt is good for nothing. Do you want to go with us and see the fun, Nanette?"
She nodded, her little laugh filled with the joy of love and life.
"Oui. It will be such fun – to see him go!"
* * * * * * * * * * *
Challoner led the way, with an axe in his hand; and with him came Nanette, her hand in his. Mootag followed with his rifle, prepared for an emergency. From the thick screen of balsams Challoner peered forth, then made a hole through which Nanette might look at the cage and its prisoner. For a moment or two she held her breath as she watched Neewa pacing back and forth, very much excited now. Then she gave a little cry, and Challoner felt her fingers pinch his own sharply. Before he knew what she was about to do she had thrust herself through the screen of balsams.
Close to the log prison, faithful to his comrade in the hour of peril, lay Miki. He was exhausted from digging at the earth under the lower log, and he had not smelled or heard anything of the presence of others until he saw Nanette standing not twenty paces away. His heart leapt up into his panting throat. He swallowed, as though to get rid of a great lump; he stared. And then, with a sudden, yearning whine, he sprang toward her. With a yell Challoner leapt out of the balsams with uplifted axe. But before the axe could fall, Miki was in Nanette's arms, and Challoner dropped his weapon with a gasp of amazement – and one word:
Mootag, looking on in stupid astonishment, saw both the man and the woman making a great fuss over a strange and wild-looking beast that looked as if it ought to be killed. They had forgotten the bear. And Miki, wildly joyous at finding his beloved master and mistress, had forgotten him also. It was a prodigious whoof from Neewa himself that brought their attention to him. Like a flash Miki was back at the pen smelling of Neewa's snout between two of the logs, and with a great wagging of tail trying to make him understand what had happened.
Slowly, with a thought born in his head that made him oblivious of all else but the big black brute in the pen, Challoner approached the trap. Was it possible that Miki could have made friends with any other bear than the cub of long ago? He drew in a deep breath as he looked at them. Neewa's brown-tipped nose was thrust between two of the logs and Miki was licking it with his tongue! He held out a hand to Nanette, and when she came to him he pointed for a space, without speaking.
Then he said:
"It is the cub,
Nanette. You know – the cub I have told you about. They've stuck together all
this time – ever since I killed the cub's mother a year and a half ago, and
tied them together on a piece of rope. I understand now why Miki ran away from
us when we were at the cabin. He went back – to the bear."
To-day if you strike northward from Le Pas and put your canoe in the Rat River or Grassberry waterways, and thence paddle and run with the current down the Reindeer River and along the east shore of Reindeer Lake you will ultimately come to the Cochrane – and Post Lac Bain. It is one of the most wonderful countries in all the northland. Three hundred Indians, breeds and French, come with their furs to Lac Bain. Not a soul among them – man, woman, or child – but knows the story of the "tame bear of Lac Bain" – the pet of l'ange, the white angel, the Factor's wife.
The bear wears a shining collar and roams at will in the company of a great dog, but, having grown huge and fat now, never wanders far from the Post. And it is an unwritten law in all that country that the animal must not be harmed, and that no bear traps shall be set within five miles of the Company buildings. Beyond that limit the bear never roams; and when it comes cold, and he goes into his long sleep, he crawls into a deep warm cavern that has been dug for him under the Company storehouse. And with him, when the nights come, sleeps Miki the dog.