(Return to Web Text-ures)
THE morning after their painful experience with the wasp's nest, Neewa and Miki rose on four pairs of stiff and swollen legs to greet a new day in the deep and mysterious forest into which the accident of the previous day had thrown them. The spirit of irrepressible youth was upon them, and, though Miki was so swollen from the stings of the wasps that his lank body and overgrown legs were more grotesque than ever, he was in no way daunted from the quest of further adventure
The pup's face was as round as a moon, and his head was puffed up until Neewa might reasonably have had a suspicion that it was on the point of exploding. But Miki's eyes – as much as could be seen of them – were as bright as ever, and his one good ear and his one half ear stood up hopefully as he waited for the cub to give some sign of what they were going to do. The poison in his system no longer gave him discomfort. He felt several sizes too large – but, otherwise, quite well.
Neewa, because of his fat, exhibited fewer effects of his battle with the wasps. His one outstanding defect was an entirely closed eye. With the other, wide open and alert, he looked about him. In spite of his one bad eye and his stiff legs he was inspired with the optimism of one who at last sees fortune turning his way. He was rid of the man-beast, who had killed his mother; the forests were before him, again, open and inviting, and the rope with which Challoner had tied him and Miki together he had successfully gnawed in two during the night. Having dispossessed himself of at least two evils it would, not have surprised him much if he had seen Noozak, his mother, coming up from out of the shadows of the trees. Thought of her made him whine. And Miki, facing the vast loneliness of his new world, and thinking of his master, whined in reply.
Both were hungry. The amazing swiftness with which their misfortunes had descended upon them had given them no time in which to eat. To Miki the change was more than astonishing; it was overwhelming and he held his breath in anticipation of some new evil while Neewa scanned the forest about them.
As if assured by this survey that everything was right, Neewa turned his back to the sun, which had been his mother's custom, and set out.
Miki followed. Not until then did he discover that every joint in his body had apparently disappeared. His neck was stiff, his legs were like stilts, and five times in as many minutes he stubbed his clumsy toes and fell down in his efforts to keep up with the cub. On top of this his eyes were so nearly closed that his vision was bad, and the fifth time he stumbled he lost sight of Neewa entirely, and sent out a protesting wail. Neewa stopped and began prodding with his nose under a rotten log. When Miki came up Neewa was flat on his belly, licking up a colony of big red vinegar ants as fast as he could catch them. Miki studied the proceeding for some moments. It soon dawned upon him that Neewa was eating something, but for the life of him he couldn't make out what it was. Hungrily he nosed close to Neewa's foraging snout. He licked with his tongue where Neewa licked, and he got only dirt. And all the time Neewa was giving his jolly little grunts of satisfaction. It was ten minutes before he hunted out the last ant and went on.
A little later they came to a small open space where the ground was wet, and after sniffing about a bit, and focussing his one good eye here and there, Neewa suddenly began digging. Very shortly he drew out of the ground a white object about the size of a man's thumb and began to crunch it ravenously between his jaws. Miki succeeded in capturing a fair sized bit of it. Disappointment followed fast. The thing was like wood; after rolling it in his mouth a few times he dropped it in disgust, and Neewa finished the remnant of the root with a thankful grunt.
They proceeded. For two heartbreaking hours Miki followed at Neewa's heels, the void in his stomach increasing as the swelling in his body diminished. His hunger was becoming a torture. Yet not a bit to eat could he find, while Neewa at every few steps apparently discovered something to devour. At the end of the two hours the cub's bill of fare had grown to considerable proportions. It included, among other things, half a dozen green and black beetles; numberless bugs, both hard and soft; whole colonies of red and black ants; several white grubs dug out of the heart of decaying logs; a handful of snails; a young frog; the egg of a ground-plover that had failed to hatch; and, in the vegetable line, the roots of two camas and one skunk cabbage. Now and then he pulled down tender poplar shoots and nipped the ends off. Likewise he nibbled spruce and balsam gum whenever he found it, and occasionally added to his breakfast a bit of tender grass.
A number of these things Miki tried. He would have eaten the frog, but Neewa was ahead of him there. The spruce and balsam gum clogged up his teeth and almost made him vomit because of its bitterness. Between a snail and a stone he could find little difference, and as the one bug he tried happened to be that asafoetida-like creature known as a stink-bug he made no further efforts in that direction. He also bit off a tender tip from a ground-shoot, but instead of a young poplar it was Fox-bite, and shrivelled up his tongue for a quarter of an hour. At last he arrived at the conclusion that, up to date, the one thing in Neewa's menu that he could eat was grass.
In the face of his own starvation his companion grew happier as he added to the strange collection in his stomach. In fact, Neewa considered himself in clover and was grunting his satisfaction continually, especially as his bad eye was beginning to open and he could see things better. Half a dozen times when he found fresh ant nests he invited Miki to the feast with excited little squeals. Until noon Miki followed like a faithful satellite at his heels. The end came when Neewa deliberately dug into a nest inhabited by four huge bumble-bees, smashed them all, and ate them.
From that moment something impressed upon Miki that he must do his own hunting. With the thought came a new thrill. His eyes were fairly open now, and much of the stiffness had gone from his legs. The blood of his Mackenzie father and of his half Spitz and half Airedale mother rose up in him in swift and immediate demand, and he began to quest about for himself. He found a warm scent, and poked about until a partridge went up with a tremendous thunder of wings. It startled him, but added to the thrill. A few minutes later, nosing under a pile of brush, he came face to face with his dinner.
It was Wahboo, the baby rabbit, Instantly Miki was at him, and had a firm hold at the back of Wahboo's back. Neewa, hearing the smashing of the brush and the squealing of the rabbit, stopped catching ants and hustled toward the scene of action. The squealing ceased quickly and Miki backed himself out and faced Neewa with Wahboo held triumphantly in his jaws. The young rabbit had already given his last kick, and with a fierce show of growling Miki began tearing the fur off. Neewa edged in, grunting affably. Miki snarled more fiercely. Neewa, undaunted, continued to express his overwhelming regard for Miki in low and supplicating grunts – and smelled the rabbit. The snarl in. Miki's throat died away. He may have remembered that Neewa had invited him more than once to partake of his ants and bugs. Together they ate the rabbit. Not until the last bit of flesh and the last tender bone were gone did the feast end, and then Neewa sat back on his round bottom and stuck out his little red tongue for the first time since he had lost his mother. It was the cub sign of a full stomach and a blissful mind. He could see nothing to be more desired at the present time than a nap, and stretching himself languidly he began looking about for a tree.
Miki, on the other hand, was inspired to new action by the pleasurable sensation of being comfortably filled. Inasmuch as Neewa chewed his food very carefully, while Miki, paying small attention to mastication, swallowed it in chunks, the pup had succeeded in getting away with about four fifths of the rabbit. So he was no longer hungry. But he was more keenly alive to his changed environment than at any time since he and Neewa had fallen out of Challoner's canoe into the rapids. For the first time he had killed, and for the first time he had tasted warm blood, and the combination added to his existence an excitement that was greater than any desire he might have possessed to lie down in a sunny spot and sleep. Now that he had learned the game, the hunting instinct trembled in every fibre of his small being. He would have gone on hunting until his legs gave way under him if Neewa had not found a napping-place.
Astonished half out of his wits he watched Neewa as he leisurely climbed the trunk of a big poplar. He had seen squirrels climb trees just as he had seen birds fly but Neewa's performance held him breathless; and not until the cub had stretched himself out comfortably in a crotch did Miki express himself. Then he gave an incredulous yelp, sniffed at the butt of the tree, and made a half-hearted experiment at the thing himself. One flop on his back convinced him that Neewa was the tree-climber of the partnership. Chagrined, he wandered back fifteen or twenty feet and sat down to study the situation. He could not perceive that Neewa had any special business up the tree. Certainly he was not hunting for bugs. He yelped half a dozen times, but Neewa made no answer. At last he gave it up and flopped himself down with a disconsolate whine.
But it was not to sleep. He was ready and anxious to go on. He wanted to explore still further the mysterious and fascinating depths of the forest. He no longer felt the strange fear that had been upon him before he killed the rabbit. In two minutes under, the brush-heap Nature had performed one of her miracles of education. In those two minutes Miki had risen out of whimpering puppyhood to new power and understanding. He had passed that elemental stage which his companionship with Challoner had prolonged. He had killed, and the hot thrill of it set fire to every instinct that was in him. In the half hour during which he lay flat on his belly, his head alert and listening, while Neewa slept, he passed half way from puppyhood to dogdom. He would never know that Hela, his Mackenzie hound father, was the mightiest hunter in all the reaches of the Little Fox country, and that alone he had torn down a bull caribou. But he felt it. There was something insistent and demanding in the call. And because he was answering that call, and listening eagerly to the whispering voices of the forest, his quick ears caught the low, chuckling monotone of Kawook, the porcupine.
Miki lay very still. A moment later he heard the soft clicking of quills, and then Kawook came out in the open and stood up on his hind feet in a patch of sunlight.
For thirteen years Kawook had lived undisturbed in this particular part of the wilderness, and in his old age he weighed thirty pounds if he weighed an ounce. On this afternoon, coming for his late dinner, he was feeling even more than usually happy.
His eyesight at best was dim. Nature had never intended him to see very far, and had therefore quilted him heavily with the barbed shafts of his protecting armour. Thirty feet away he was entirely oblivious of Miki, at least apparently so; and Miki hugged the ground closer, warned by the swiftly developing instinct within him that here was a creature it would be unwise to attack.
For perhaps a minute Kawook stood up, chuckling his tribal song without any visible movement of his body. He stood profile to Miki, like a fat alderman. He was so fat that his stomach bulged out in front like the half of a balloon, and over this stomach his hands were folded in a peculiarly human way, so that he looked more like an old she-porcupine than a master in his tribe.
It was not until then that Miki observed Iskwasis, the young female porcupine, who had poked herself slyly out from under a bush near Kawook. In spite of his yews the red thrill of romance was not yet gone from the old fellow's bones, and he immediately started to give an exhibition of his good breeding and elegance. He began with his ludicrous lovemaking dance, hopping from one foot to the other until his fat stomach shook, and chuckling louder than ever. The charms of Iskwasis were indeed sufficient to turn the head of an older beau than Kawook. She was a distinctive blonde; in other words, one of those unusual creatures of her kind, an albino. Her nose was pink, the palms of her little feet were pink, and each of her pretty pink eyes was set in an iris of sky-blue. It was evident that she did not regard old Kawook's passion-dance with favour and sensing this fact Kawook changed his tactics and falling on all four feet began to chase his spiky tail as if he had suddenly gone mad. When he stopped, and looked to see what effect he had made he was clearly knocked out by the fact that Iskwasis had disappeared.
For another minute he sat stupidly, without making a sound. Then to Miki's consternation he started straight for the tree in which Neewa was sleeping. As a matter of fact, it was Kawook's dinner-tree, and he began climbing it, talking to himself all the time. Miki's hair began to stand on end. He did not know that Kawook, like all his kind, was the best-natured fellow in the world, and had never harmed anything in his life unless assaulted first. Lacking this knowledge he set up a sudden frenzy of barking to warn Neewa.
Neewa roused himself slowly, and when he opened his eyes he was looking into a spiky face that sent him into a convulsion of alarm. With a suddenness that came within an ace of toppling him from his crotch he swung over and scurried higher up the tree. Kawook was not at all excited. Now that Iskwasis was gone he was entirely absorbed in the anticipation of his dinner. He continued to clamber slowly upward, and at this the horrified Neewa backed himself out on a limb in order that Kawook might have an unobstructed trail up the tree.
Unfortunately for Neewa it was on this limb that Kawook had eaten his last meal, and he began working himself out on it, still apparently oblivious of the fact that the cub was on the same branch. At this Miki sent up such a series of shrieking yelps from below that Kawook seemed at last to realize that something unusual was going on. He peered down at Miki who was making vain efforts to jump up the trunk of the tree; then he turned and, for the first time, contemplated Neewa with some sign of interest. Neewa was hugging the limb with both forearms and both hind legs. To retreat another foot on the branch that was already bending dangerously under his weight seemed impossible.
It was at this point that
Kawook began to scold fiercely. With a final frantic yelp Miki sat back on his
haunches and watched the thrilling drama above him. A little at a time Kawook
advanced, and inch by inch Neewa retreated, until at last he rolled clean over
and was hanging with his back toward the ground. It was then that Kawook ceased
his scolding and calmly began eating his dinner. For two or three minutes
Neewa kept his hold. Twice he made efforts to pull himself up so that he could
get the branch under him. Then his hind feet slipped. For a dozen seconds he
hung with his two front paws – then shot down through fifteen feet of space to
the ground. Close to Miki he landed with a thud that knocked the wind out of
him. He rose with a grunt, took one dazed look up the tree, and without further
explanation to Miki began to leg it deeper into the forest – straight into the
face of the great adventure which was to be the final test for these two.