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IT IS doubtful whether in the few moments that followed, any clear-cut mental argument passed through Neewa's head. It is too much to suppose that he deliberately set about assisting the half-dead and almost unconscious Miki from his precarious position. His sole ambition was to get himself where it was safe and dry, and to do this he of necessity had to drag the pup with him. So Neewa tugged at the end of his rope, digging his sharp little claws into the driftwood, and as he advanced Miki was dragged up head foremost out of the cold and friendless stream. It was a simple process. Neewa reached a log around which the water was eddying, and there he flattened himself down and hung on as he had never hung to anything else in his life. The log was entirely hidden from shore by a dense growth of brushwood. Otherwise, ten minutes later Challoner would have seen them.
As it was, Miki had not sufficiently recovered either to smell or hear his master when Challoner came to see if there was a possibility of his small comrade being alive. And Neewa only hugged the log more tightly. He had seen enough of the man-beast to last him for the remainder of his life. It was half an hour before Miki began to gasp, and cough, and gulp up water, and for the first time since their scrap in the canoe the cub began to take a live interest in him. In another ten minutes Miki raised his head and looked about him. At that Neewa gave a tug on the rope, as if to advise him that it was time to get busy if they were expected to reach shore. And Miki, drenched and forlorn, resembling more a starved bone than a thing of skin and flesh, actually made an effort to wag his tail when he saw Neewa.
He was still in a couple of inches of water, and with a hopeful eye on the log upon which Neewa was squatted he began to work his wobbly legs toward it. It was a high log, and a dry log, and when Miki reached it his unlucky star was with him again. Cumbrously he sprawled himself against it, and as he scrambled and scraped with his four awkward legs to get up alongside Neewa he gave to the log the alight push which it needed to set it free of the sunken driftage. Slowly at first the eddying current carried one end of the log away from its pier. Then the edge of the main current caught at it, viciously – and so suddenly that Miki almost lost his precarious footing, the log gave a twist, righted itself, and began to scud down stream at a speed that would have made Challoner hug his breath had he been in their position with his faithful canoe.
In fact, Challoner was at this very moment portaging the rapids below the waterfall. To have set his canoe in them where Miki and Neewa were gloriously sailing he would have considered an inexcusable hazard, and as a matter of safety he was losing the better part of a couple of hours by packing his outfit through the forest to a point half a mile below. That half mile was to the cub and the pup a show which was destined to live in their memories for as long as they were alive.
They were facing each other about amidships of the log, Neewa flattened tight, his sharp claws dug in like hooks, and his little brown eyes half starting from his head. It would have taken a crowbar to wrench him from the log. But with Miki it was an open question from the beginning whether he would weather the storm. He had no claws that he could dig into the wood, and it was impossible for him to use his clumsy legs as Neewa used his – like two pairs of human arms. All he could do was to balance himself, slipping this way or that as the log rolled or swerved in its course, sometimes lying across it and sometimes lengthwise, and every moment with the jaws of uncertainty open wide for him. Neewa's eyes never left him for an instant. Had they been gimlets they would have boxed holes. From the acuteness of this life-and-death stare one would have given Neewa credit for understanding that his own personal safety depended not so much upon his claws and his hug as upon Miki's seamanship. If Miki went overboard there would be left but one thing for him to do – and that would be to follow.
The log, being larger and heavier at one end than at the other, swept on without turning broadside, and with the swiftness and appearance of a huge torpedo. While Neewa's back was turned toward the horror of frothing water and roaring rock behind him, Miki, who was facing it, lost none of its spectacular beauty. Now and then the log shot into one of the white masses of foam and for an instant or two would utterly disappear; and at these intervals Miki would hold his breath and close his eyes while Neewa dug his toes in still deeper. Once the log grazed a rock. Six inches more and they would have been without a ship. Their trip was not half over before both cub and pup looked like two round balls of lather out of which their eyes peered wildly.
Swiftly the roar of the cataract was left behind; the huge rocks around which the current boiled and twisted with a ferocious snarling became fewer; there came open spaces in which the log floated smoothly and without convulsions, and then, at last, the quiet and placid flow of calm water. Not until then did the two balls of suds make a move. For the first time Neewa saw the whole of the thing they had passed through, and Miki, looking down stream, saw the quiet shores again, the deep forest, and the stream, aglow with the warm sun. He drew in a breath that filled his whole body and let it out again with a sigh of relief so deep and sincere that it blew out a scatter of foam from the ends of his nose and whiskers. For the first time he became conscious of his own discomfort. One of his hind legs was twisted under him, and a foreleg was under his chest. The smoothness of the water and the nearness of the shores gave him confidence, and he proceeded to straighten himself. Unlike Neewa he was an experienced voyageur. For more than a month he had travelled steadily with Challoner in his canoe, and of ordinarily decent water he was unafraid. So he perked up a little, and offered Neewa a congratulatory yip that was half a whine.
But Neewa's education had travelled along another line, and while his experience in a canoe had been confined to that day he did know what a log was. He knew from more than one adventure of his own that a log in the water is the next thing to a live thing, and that its capacity for playing evil jokes was beyond any computation that he had ever been able to make. That was where Miki's store of knowledge was fatally defective. Inasmuch as the log had carried them safely through the worst stretch of water he had ever seen he regarded it in the light of a first-class canoe – with the exception that it was unpleasantly rounded on top. But this little defect did not worry him. To Neewa's horror he sat up boldly, and looked about him.
Instinctively the cub hugged the log still closer, while Miki was seized with an overwhelming desire to shake from himself the mass of suds in which, with the exception of the end of his tail and his eyes, he was completely swathed. He had often shaken himself in the canoe; why not here? Without either asking or answering the question he did it.
Like the trap of a gibbet suddenly sprung by the hangman, the log instantly responded by turning half over. Without so much as a wail Miki was off like a shot, hit the water with a deep and solemn chug, and once more disappeared as completely as if he had been made of lead.
Finding himself completely submerged for the first time, Neewa hung on gloriously, and when the log righted itself again he was tenaciously hugging his old place, all the froth washed from him. He looked for Miki – but Miki was gone. And then he felt once more that choking drag on his neck! Of necessity, because his head was pulled in the direction of the rope, he saw where the rope disappeared in the water. But there was no Miki. The pup was down too far for Neewa to see. With the drag growing heavier and heavier – for here there was not much current to help Miki along Neewa hung on like grim death. If he had let go, and had joined Miki in the water, the good fortune which was turning their way would have been missed. For Miki, struggling well under water, was serving both as an anchor and a rudder; slowly the log shifted its course, was caught in a beach-eddy, and drifted in close to a muddy bank.
With one wild leap Neewa was ashore. Feeling the earth under his feet he started to run, and the result was that Miki came up slowly through the mire and spread himself out like an overgrown crustacean while he got the wind back into his lungs. Neewa, sensing the fact that for a few moments his comrade was physically unfit for travel, shook himself, and waited. Miki picked up quickly. Within five minutes he was on his feet shaking himself so furiously that Neewa became the centre of a shower of mud and water.
Had they remained where they were, Challoner would have found them an hour or so later, for he paddled that way, close inshore, looking for their bodies. It may be that the countless generations of instinct back of Neewa warned him of that possibility, for within a quarter of an hour after they had landed he was leading the way into the forest, and Miki was following. It was a new adventure for the pup.
But Neewa began to recover his good cheer. For him the forest was home even if his mother was missing. After his maddening experiences with Miki and the man-beast the velvety touch of the soft pine-needles under his feet and the familiar smells of the silent places filled him with a growing joy. He was back in his old trails. He sniffed the air and pricked up his ears, thrilled by the enlivening sensations of knowing that he was once more the small master of his own destiny. It was a new forest, but Neewa was undisturbed by this fact. All forests were alike to him, inasmuch as several hundred thousand square miles were included in his domain and it was, impossible for him to landmark them all.
With Miki it was different. He not only began to miss Challoner and the river, but became more and more disturbed the farther Neewa led him into the dark and mysterious depths of the timber. At last he decided to set up a vigorous protest, and in line with this decision he braced himself so suddenly that Neewa, coming to the end of the rope, flopped over on his back with an astonished grunt. Seizing his advantage Miki turned, and tugging with the horse-like energy of his Mackenzie father he started back toward the river, dragging Neewa after him for a space of ten or fifteen feet before the cub succeeded in regaining his feet.
Then the battle began. With their bottoms braced and their forefeet digging into the soft earth, they pulled on the rope in opposite directions until their necks stretched and their eyes began to pop. Neewa's pull was steady and unexcited, while Miki, dog-like, yanked and convulsed himself in sudden backward jerks that. made Neewa give way an inch at a time. It was, after all, only a question as to which possessed the most enduring neck. Under Neewa's fat there was as yet little real physical strength. Miki had him handicapped there. Under the pup's loose bide and his overgrown bones there was a lot of pull, and after bracing himself heroically for another dozen feet Neewa gave up the contest and followed in the direction chosen by Miki.
While the instincts of Neewa's breed would have taken him back to the river as straight as a die, Miki's intentions were better than was his sense of orientation. Neewa followed in a sweeter temper when he found that his companion was making an unreasonable circle which was taking them a little more slowly, but just as surely, away from the danger-ridden stream. At the end of another quarter of an hour Miki was utterly lost; he sat down on his rump, looked at Neewa, and confessed as much-with a low whine.
Neewa did not move. His sharp little eyes were fixed suddenly on an object that hung to a low bush half a dozen paces from them. Before the man-beast's appearance the cub had spent three quarters of his time in eating, but since yesterday morning he had not swallowed so much as a bug. He was completely empty, and the object he saw hanging to the bush set every salivary gland in his mouth working. It was a wasp's nest. Many times in his young life he had seen Noozak, his mother, go up to nests like that, tear them down, crush them under her big paw, and then invite him to the feast of dead wasps within. For at least a month wasps had been included in his daily fare, and they were as good as anything he knew of. He approached the nest; Miki followed. When they were within three feet of it Miki began to take notice of a very distinct and peculiarly disquieting buzzing sound. Neewa was not at all alarmed; judging the distance of the nest from the ground, he rose on his hind feet, raised his arms, and gave it a fatal tug.
Instantly the drone which Miki had heard changed into the angry buzzing of a saw. Quick as a flash Neewa's mother would have had the nest under her paws and the life crushed out of it, while Neewa's tug had only served partly to dislodge the home of Ahmoo and his dangerous tribe. And it happened that Ahmoo was at home with three quarters of his warriors. Before Neewa could give the nest a second tug they were piling out of it in a cloud and suddenly a wild yell of agony rose out of Miki. Ahmoo himself had lauded on the end of the dog's nose. Neewa made no sound, but stood for a moment swiping at his face with both paws, while Miki, still yelling, ran the end of his crucified nose into the ground. In another moment every fighter in. Ahmoo's army was busy. Suddenly setting up a bawling on his own account Neewa turned tail to the nest and ran.
Miki was not a hair behind him. In every square inch of his tender hide he felt the red-hot thrust of a needle. It was Neewa that made the most noise.
His voice was one continuous bawl, and to this bass, Miki's soprano wailing added the touch which would have convinced any passing Indian that the loupgarou devils were having a dance.
Now that their foes were in disorderly flight the wasps, who are rather a chivalrous enemy, would have returned to their upset fortress had not Miki, in his mad flight, chosen one side of a small sapling and Neewa the other – a misadventure that stopped them with a force almost sufficient to break their necks. Thereupon a few dozen of Ahmoo's rear guard started in afresh. With his fighting blood at last aroused, Neewa swung out and caught Miki where there was almost no hair on his rump. Already half blinded, and so wrought up with pain and terror that he had lost all sense of judgment or understanding, Miki believed that the sharp dig of Neewa's razor-like claws was a deeper thrust than usual of the buzzing horrors that overwhelmed him, and with a final shriek he proceeded to throw a fit.
It was the fit that saved them. In his maniacal contortions he swung around to Neewa's side of the sapling, when, with their halter once more free from impediment, Neewa bolted for safety. Miki followed, yelping at every jump. No longer did Neewa feel a horror of the river. The instinct of his kind told him that he wanted water, and wanted it badly. As straight as Challoner might have set his course by a compass he headed for the stream, but he had proceeded only a few hundred feet when they came upon a tiny creek across which either of them could have jumped. Neewa jumped into the water, which was four or five inches deep, and for the first time in his life Miki voluntarily took a plunge. For a long time they lay in the cooling rill.
The light of day was dim and hazy before Miki's eyes, and he was beginning to swell from the tip of his nose to the end of his bony tail. Neewa, being so much fat, suffered less. He could still see, and, as the painful hours passed, a number of things were adjusting themselves in his brain. All this had begun with the man-beast. It was the man-beast who had taken his mother from him. It was the man-beast who had chucked him into the dark sack, and it was the man-beast who had fastened the rope around his neck. Slowly the fact was beginning to impinge itself upon him that the rope was to blame for everything.
After a long time they dragged themselves out of the rivulet and found a soft, dry hollow at the foot of a big tree. Even to Neewa, who had the use of his eyes, it was growing dark in the deep forest. The sun was far in the west. And the air was growing chilly. Flat on his belly, with his swollen head between his fore paws, Miki whined plaintively.
Again and again Neewa's eyes went to the rope as the big thought developed itself in his head. He whined. It was partly a yearning for his mother, partly a response to Miki. He drew closer to the pup, filled with the irresistible desire for comradeship. After all, it was not Miki who was to blame. It was the man-beast – and the rope!
The gloom of evening settled more darkly about them, and snuggling himself still closer to the pup Neewa drew the rope between his fore paws. With a little snarl he set his teeth in it. And then, steadily, he began to chew. Now and then he growled, and In the growl there was a peculiarly communicative note, as if he wished to say to Miki:
"Don't you see? – I'm
chewing this thing in two. I'll have it done by morning. Cheer up! There's
surely a better day coming."