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NOMADS OF THE NORTH
IT WAS late in the month of March, at the dying out of the Eagle Moon, that Neewa the black bear cub got his first real look at the world. Noozak, his mother, was an old bear, and like an old person she was filled with rheumatics and the desire to sleep late. So instead of taking a short and ordinary nap of three months this particular winter of little Neewa's birth she slept four, which, made Neewa, who was born while his mother was sound asleep, a little over two months old instead of six weeks when they came out of den.
In choosing this den Noozak had gone to a cavern at the crest of a high, barren ridge, and from this point Neewa first looked down into the valley. For a time, coming out of darkness into sunlight, he was blinded. He could hear and smell and feel many things before he could see. And Noozak, as though puzzled at finding warmth and sunshine in place of cold and darkness, stood for many minutes sniffing the wind and looking down upon her domain.
For two weeks an early spring had been working its miracle of change in that wonderful country of the northland between Jackson's Knee and the Shamattawa River, and from north to south between God's Lake and the Churchill.
It was a splendid world. From the tall pinnacle of rock on which they stood it looked like a great sea of sunlight, with only here and there patches of white snow where the winter winds had piled it deep. Their ridge rose up out of a great valley. On all sides of them, as far as a man's eye could have reached, there were blue and black patches of forest, the shimmer of lakes still partly frozen, the sunlit sparkle of rivulet and stream, and the greening open spaces out of which rose the perfumes of the earth. These smells drifted up like tonic and food to the nostrils of Noozak the big bear. Down there the earth was already swelling with life. The buds on the poplars were growing fat and near the bursting point; the grasses were sending out shoots tender and sweet; the camas were filling with juice; the shooting stars, the dog-tooth violets, and the spring beauties were thrusting themselves up into the warm glow of the sun, inviting Noozak and Neewa to the feast. All these things Noozak smelled with the experience and the knowledge of twenty years of life behind her – the delicious aroma of the spruce and the jackpine; the dank, sweet scent of water-lily roots and swelling bulbs that came from a thawed out fen at the foot of the ridge; and over all these things, overwhelming their individual sweetnesses in a still greater thrill of life, the smell of the heart itself!
And Neewa smelled them. His amazed little body trembled and thrilled for the first time with the excitement of life. A moment before in darkness, he found himself now in a wonderland of which he had never so much as had a dream. In these few minutes Nature was at work upon him. He possessed no knowledge, but instinct was born within him. He knew this was his world, that the sun and the warmth were for him, and that the sweet things of the earth were inviting him into his heritage. He puckered up his little brown nose and sniffed the air, and the pungency of everything that was sweet and to be yearned for came to him.
And he listened. His pointed ears were pricked forward, and up to him came the drone of a wakening earth. Even the roots of the grasses must have been singing in their joy, for all through that sunlit valley there was the low and murmuring music of a country that was at peace because it was empty of men. Everywhere was the rippling sound of running water, and he heard strange sounds that he knew was life; the twittering of a rock-sparrow, the silver-toned aria of a black-throated thrush down in the fen, the shrill paean of a gorgeously coloured Canada jay exploring for a nesting place in a brake of velvety balsam. And then, far over his head, a screaming cry that made him shiver. It was instinct again that told him in that cry was danger. Noozak looked up, and saw the shadow of Upisk, the great eagle, as it flung itself between the sun and the earth. Neewa saw the shadow, and cringed nearer to his mother.
And Noozak – so old that she had lost half her teeth, so old that her bones ached on damp and chilly nights, and her eyesight was growing dim – was still not so old that she did not look down with growing exultation upon what she saw. Her mind was travelling beyond the mere valley in which they had wakened. Off there beyond the walls of forest, beyond the farthest lake, beyond the river and the plain, were the illimitable spaces which gave her home. To her came dully a sound uncaught by Neewa – the almost unintelligible rumble of the great waterfall. It was this, and the murmur of a thousand trickles of running water, and the soft wind breathing down in the balsam and spruce that put the music of spring into the air.
At last Noozak heaved a great breath out of her lungs and with a grunt to Neewa began to lead the way slowly down among the rocks to the foot of the ridge.
In the golden pool of the valley it was even warmer than on the crest of the ridge. Noozak went straight to the edge of the slough. Half a dozen rice birds rose with a whir of wings that made Neewa almost upset himself. Noozak paid no attention to them. A loon let out a squawky protest at Noozak's soft-footed appearance, and followed it up with a raucous screech that raised the hair on Neewa's spine. And Noozak paid no attention to this. Neewa observed these things. His eye was on her, and instinct had already winged his legs with the readiness to run if his mother should give the signal. In his funny little head it was developing very quickly that his mother was a most wonderful creature. She was by all odds the biggest thing alive – that is, the biggest that stood on legs, and moved. He was confident of this for a space of perhaps two minutes, when they came to the end of the fen. And here was a sudden snort, a crashing of bracken, the floundering of a huge body through knee-deep mud, and a monstrous bull moose, four times as big as Noozak, set off in lively flight. Neewa's eyes all but popped from his head. And still Noozak paid no attention!
It was then that Neewa crinkled up his tiny nose and snarled, just as he had snarled at Noozak's ears and hair and at sticks he had worried in the black cavern. A glorious understanding dawned upon him. He could snarl at anything he wanted to snarl at, no matter how big. For everything ran away from Noozak his mother.
All through this first glorious day Neewa was discovering things, and with each hour it was more and more impressed upon him that his mother was the unchallenged mistress of all this new and sunlit domain. Noozak was a thoughtful old mother of a bear who had reared fifteen or eighteen families in her time, and she travelled very little this first day in order that Neewa's tender feet might toughen up a bit. They scarcely left the fen, except to go into a nearby clump of trees where Noozak used her claws to shred a spruce that they might get at the juice and slimy substance just under the bark. Neewa liked this dessert after their feast of roots and bulbs, and tried to claw open a tree on his own account. By mid-afternoon Noozak had eaten until her sides bulged out, and Neewa himself –between his mother's milk and the many odds and ends of other things – looked like an over-filled pod. Selecting a spot where the declining sun made a warm oven of a great white rock, lazy old Noozak lay down for a nap, while Neewa, wandering about in quest of an adventure of his own, came face to face with a ferocious bug.
The creature was a giant wood-beetle two inches long. Its two battling pincers were jet black, and curved like hooks of iron. It was a rich brown in colour and in the sunlight its metallic armour shone in a dazzling splendour. Neewa, squatted flat on his belly, eyed it with a swiftly beating heart The beetle was not more than a foot away, and advancing! That was the curious and rather shocking part of it. It was the first living thing he had met with that day that had not run away. As it advanced slowly on its two rows of legs the beetle made a clicking sound that Neewa heard quite distinctly. With the fighting blood of his father, Soominitik, nerving him on to the adventure he thrust out a hesitating paw, and instantly Chegawasse, the beetle, took upon himself a most ferocious aspect. His wings began humming like a buzz-saw, his pincers opened until they could have taken in a man's finger, and he vibrated on his legs until it looked as though he might be performing some sort of a dance. Neewa jerked his paw back and after a moment or two Chegawasse calmed himself and again began to advance!
Neewa did not know, of course, that the beetle's field of vision ended about four inches from the end of his nose; the situation, consequently, was appalling. But it was never born in a son of a father like Soominitik to run from a bug, even at nine weeks of age. Desperately he thrust out his paw again, and unfortunately for him one of his tiny claws got a half-Nelson on the beetle and held Chegawasse on his shining back so that he could neither buzz nor click.
A great exultation swept through Neewa. Inch by inch he drew his paw in until the beetle was within reach of his sharp little teeth. Then he smelled of him.
That was Chegawasse's opportunity. The pincers closed and Noozak's slumbers were disturbed by a sudden bawl of agony. When she raised her head Neewa was rolling about as if in a fit. He was scratching and snarling and spitting. Noozak eyed him speculatively for some moments, then reared herself slowly and went to him. With one big paw she rolled him over – and saw Chegawasse firmly and determinedly attached to her offspring's nose. Flattening Neewa on his back so that he could not move she seized the beetle between her teeth, bit slowly until Chegawasse lost his hold, and then swallowed him.
From then until dusk Neewa nursed his sore nose. A little before dark Noozak curled herself up against the big rock, and Neewa took his supper. Then he made himself a nest in the crook of her big, warm forearm. In spite of his smarting nose he was a happy bear, and at the end of his first day he felt very brave and very fearless, though he was but nine weeks old. He had come into the world, he had looked upon many things, and if he had not conquered he at least had gone gloriously through the day.