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DURING the first few moments in which the canoe moved swiftly over the surface of the lake an amazing change had taken place in Neewa. Challoner did not see it, and Miki was unconscious of it. But every fibre in Neewa's body was atremble, and his heart was thumping as it had pounded on that glorious day of the fight between his mother and the old he-bear. It seemed to him that everything that he had lost was coming back to him, and that all would be well very soon – for he smelled his mother! And then he discovered that the scent of her was warm and strong in the furry black mass under his feet, and he smothered himself down in it, flat on his plump little belly, and peered at Challoner over his paws.
It was hard for him to understand – the man-beast back there, sending the canoe through the water, and under him his mother, warm and soft, but so deadly still! He could not keep the whimper out of his throat – his low and grief-filled call for her. And there was no answer, except Miki's responsive whine, the crying of one child for another. Neewa's mother did not move. She made no sound. And he could see nothing of her but her black and furry skin – without head, without feet, without the big, bald paws he had loved to tickle, and the ears he had loved to nip. There was nothing of her but the patch of black skin – and the smell.
But a great comfort warmed his frightened little soul. He felt the protecting nearness of an unconquerable and abiding force and in the first of the warm sunshine his back fluffed up, and he thrust his brown nose between his paws and into his mother's fur. Miki, as if vainly striving to solve the mystery of his new-found chum, was watching him closely from between his own fore-paws. In. his comical head – adorned with its one good ear and its one bad one, and furthermore beautified by the outstanding whiskers inherited from his Airedale ancestor – he was trying to come to some sort of an understanding. At the outset he had accepted Neewa as a friend and a comrade and Neewa had thanklessly given him a good mauling for his trouble. That much Miki could forgive and forget. What he could not for, give was the utter lack of regard which Neewa seemed to possess for him. His playful antics had gained no recognition from the cub. When he had barked and hopped about, flattening and contorting himself in warm invitation for him to join in a game of tag or a wrestling match, Neewa had simply stared at him like an idiot. He was wondering, perhaps, if Neewa would enjoy anything besides a fight. It was a long time before he decided to make another experiment.
It was, as a matter of fact, halfway between breakfast and noon. In all that time Neewa had scarcely moved, and Miki was finding himself bored to death. The discomfort of last night's storm was only a memory, and overhead there was a sun unshadowed by cloud. More than an hour before Challoner's canoe had left the lake, and was now in the clear-running water of a stream that was making its way down the southward slope of the divide between Jackson's Knee and the Shamattawa. It was a new stream to Challoner, fed by the large lake above, and guarding himself against the treachery of waterfall and rapid he kept a keen lookout ahead.
For a matter of half an hour the water had been growing steadily swifter, and Challoner was satisfied that before very long he would be compelled to make a portage. A little later he heard ahead of him the low and steady murmur which told him he was approaching a danger zone. As he shot around the next bend, hugging fairly close to shore, he saw, four or five hundred yards below him, a rock-frothed and boiling maelstrom of water.
Swiftly his eyes measured the situation. The rapids ran between an almost precipitous shore on one side and a deep forest on the other. He saw at a glance that it was the forest side over which he must make the portage, and this was the shore opposite him and farthest away. Swinging his canoe at a 45-degree angle he put all the strength of body and arms into the sweep of his paddle. There would be just time to reach the other shore before the current became dangerous. Above the sweep of the rapids he could now hear the growling roar of a waterfall below.
It was at this unfortunate moment that Miki decided to venture one more experiment with Neewa. With a friendly yip he swung out one of his paws.
Now Miki's paw, for a pup, was monstrously big, and his foreleg was long and lanky, so that when the paw landed squarely on the end of Neewa's nose it was like the swing of a prize-fighter's glove. The unexpectedness of it was a further decisive feature in the situation; and, on top of this, Miki swung his other paw around like a club and caught Neewa a jolt in the eye. This was too much, even from a friend, and with a sudden snarl Neewa bounced out of his nest and clinched with the pup.
Now the fact was that Miki, who had so ingloriously begged for mercy in their first scrimmage, came of fighting stock himself. Mix the blood of a Mackenzie hound – which is the biggest-footed, biggest-shouldered, most powerful dog in the northland – with the blood of a Spitz and an Airedale and something is bound to come of it. While the Mackenzie dog, with his ox-like strength, is peaceable and good-humoured in all sorts of weather, there is a good deal of the devil in the northern Spitz and Airedale and it is a question which likes a fight the best. And all at once good-humoured little Miki felt the devil rising in him. This time he did not yap for mercy. He met Neewa's jaws, and in two seconds they were staging a first-class fight on the bit of precarious footing in the prow of the canoe.
Vainly Challoner yelled at
them as he paddled desperately to beat out the danger of the rapids. Neewa and
Miki were too absorbed to hear him. Miki's four paws were paddling the air
again, but this time his sharp teeth were firmly fixed in the loose hide under
Neewa's neck, and with his paws he continued to kick and bat in a way that
promised effectively to pummel the wind out of Neewa had not the thing happened
which Challoner feared. Still in a clinch they rolled off the prow of the canoe
into the swirling current of the stream.
For ten seconds or so they utterly disappeared. Then they bobbed up, a good fifty feet below him, their heads close together as they sped swiftly toward the doom that awaited them, and a choking cry broke from Challoner's lips. He was powerless to save them, and in his cry was the anguish of real grief. For many weeks Miki had been his only chum and comrade.
Held together by the yard-long rope to which they were fastened, Miki and Neewa swept into the frothing turmoil of the rapids. For Miki it was the kindness of fate that had inspired his master to fasten him to the same rope with Neewa. Miki, at three months of age – weight, fourteen pounds – was about 80 per cent. bone and only a half of 1 per cent. fat; while Neewa, weight thirteen pounds, was about 90 per cent. fat. Therefore Miki had the floating capacity of a small anchor, while Neewa was a first-class life-preserver, and almost unsinkable.
In neither of the youngsters was there a yellow streak. Both were of fighting stock, and, though Miki was under water most of the time during their first hundred-yard dash through the rapids, never for an instant did he give up the struggle to keep his nose in the air. Sometimes he was on his back and sometimes on his belly; but no matter what his position, he kept his four overgrown paws going like paddles. To an extent this helped Neewa in the heroic fight he was making to keep from shipping too much water himself. Had he been alone his ten or eleven pounds of fat would have carried him downstream like a toy balloon covered with fur, but, with the fourteen-pound drag around his neck, the problem of not going under completely was a serious one. Half a dozen times he did disappear for an instant when some undertow caught Miki and dragged him down – head, tail, legs, and all. But Neewa always rose again, his four fat legs working for dear life.
Then came the waterfall. By this time Miki had become accustomed to travelling under water, and the full horror of the new cataclysm into which they were plunged was mercifully lost to him. His paws had almost ceased their motion. He was still conscious of the roar in his ears, but the affair was less unpleasant than it was at the beginning. In fact, he was drowning. To Neewa the pleasant sensations of a painless death were denied. No cub in the world was wider awake than he when the final catastrophe came. His head was well above water and he was clearly possessed of all his senses. Then the river itself dropped out from under him and he shot down in an avalanche of water, feeling no longer the drag of Miki's weight at his neck.
How deep the pool was at the
bottom of the waterfall Challoner might have guessed quite accurately. Could
Neewa have expressed an opinion of his own, he would have sworn that it was a
mile. Miki was past the stage of making estimates, or of caring whether it was
two feet or two leagues. His paws had ceased to operate and he had given
himself up entirely to his fate. But Neewa came up again, and Miki followed,
like a bobber. He was about to gasp his last gasp when the force of the
current, as it swung out of the whirlpool, flung Neewa upon a bit of partly
submerged driftage, and in a wild and strenuous effort to make himself safe
Neewa dragged Miki's head out of water so that the pup hung at the edge of the
driftage like a hangman's victim at the end of his rope.