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A QUARTER of a mile away Miki had heard the clamour of the crows. But he was in no humour to turn back, even had he guessed that Neewa was in need of his help. He was hungry from long fasting and, for the present, his disposition had taken a decided turn. He was in a mood to tackle anything in the eating line, no matter how big, but he was a good mile from the dip in the side of the ridge before he found even a crawfish. He crunched this down, shell and all. It helped to take the bad taste out of his mouth.
The day was destined to hold for him still another unforgettable event in his life. Now that he was alone the memory of his master was not so vague as it had been yesterday, and the days before. Brain-pictures came back to him more vividly as the morning lengthened into afternoon, bridging slowly but surely the gulf that Neewa's comradeship had wrought. For a time the exciting thrill of his adventure was gone. Half a dozen times he hesitated on the point of turning back to Neewa. It was hunger that always drove him on a little farther. He found two more crawfish. Then the creek deepened and its water ran slowly, and was darker. Twice he chased old rabbits, that got away from him easily. Once he came within an ace of catching a young one. Frequently a partridge rose with a thunder of wings. He saw moose-birds, and jays, and many squirrels. All about him was meat which it was impossible for him to catch. Then fortune turned his way. Poking his head into the end of a hollow log he cornered a rabbit so completely that there was no escape. During the next few minutes he indulged in the first square meal he had eaten for three days.
So absorbed was he in his feast that he was unconscious of a new arrival on the scene. He did not hear the coming of Oochak, the fisher-cat; nor, for a few moments, did he smell him. It was not in Oochak's nature to make a disturbance. He was by birth and instinct a valiant hunter and a gentleman, and when he saw Miki (whom he took to be a young wolf) feeding on a fresh kill, he made no move to demand a share for himself. Nor did he run away. He, would undoubtedly have continued on his way very soon if Miki had not finally sensed his presence, and faced him.
Oochak had come from the other side of the log, and stood not more than six feet distant. To one who knew as little of his history as Miki there was nothing at all ferocious about him. He was shaped like his cousins, the weazel, the mink, and the skunk. He was about half as high as Miki, and fully as long, so that his two pairs of short legs seemed somewhat out of place, as on a dachshund. He probably weighed between eight and ten pounds, had a bullet head, almost no ears, and atrocious whiskers. Also he had a bushy tail and snapping little eyes that seemed to bore clean through whatever he looked at. To Miki his accidental presence was a threat and a challenge. Besides, Oochak looked like an easy victim if it came to a fight. So he pulled back his lips and snarled.
Oochak accepted this as an invitation for him to move on, and being a gentleman who respected other people's preserves he made his apologies by beginning a velvet-footed exit. This was too much for Miki, who had yet to learn the etiquette of the forest trails.
Oochak was afraid of him. He was running away!
With a triumphant yelp Miki took after him. After all, it was simply a mistake in judgment. (Many two-footed animals with bigger brains than Miki's had made similar mistakes.) For Oochak, attending always to his own business, was, for his size and weight, the greatest little fighter in North America.
Just what happened in the one minute that followed his assault Miki would never be able quite to understand. It was not in reality a fight; it was a one-sided immolation, a massacre. His first impression was that he had tackled a dozen Oochaks instead of one. Beyond that first impression his mind did not work, nor did his eyes visualize. He was whipped as he would never be whipped again in his life. He was cut and bruised and bitten; he was strangled and stabbed; he was so utterly mauled that for a Space after Oochak had gone he continued to rake the air with his paws, unconscious of the fact that the affair was over. When he opened his eyes, and found himself alone, he slunk into the hollow log where he had cornered the rabbit.
In there he lay a good half hour, trying hard to Comprehend just what had happened. The sun was setting when he dragged himself out. He limped. His one good ear was bitten clean through. There were bare spots on his hide where Oochak had scraped the hair off. His bones ached, his throat was sore, and there was a lump over one eye. He looked longingly back over the "home" trail. Up there was Neewa. With the lengthening shadows of the day's end a great loneliness crept upon him. and a desire to turn back to his comrade. But Oochak had gone that way – and he did not want to meet Oochak again.
He wandered a little farther south and east, perhaps a quarter of a mile, before the sun disappeared entirely. In the thickening gloom of twilight he struck the Big Rock portage between the Beaver and the Loon.
It was not a trail. Only at rare intervals did wandering voyageurs coming down from the north make use of it in their passage from one waterway to the other: Three or four times a year at the most would a wolf have caught the scent of man in it. It was there tonight, so fresh that Miki stopped when he came to it as if another Oochak had risen before him. For a space he was turned into the rigidity of rock by a single overwhelming emotion. All other things were forgotten in the fact that he had struck the trail of a man – and, therefore, the trail of Challoner, his master. He began to follow it – slowly at first, as if fearing that it might get away from him. Darkness came, and he was still following it. In the light of the stars he persisted, all else crowded from him but the homing instinct of the dog and the desire for a master.
At last he came almost to the shore of the Loon, and there he saw the campfire of Makoki and the white man.
He did not rush in. He did not bark or yelp; the hard schooling of the wilderness had already set its mark upon him. He slunk in cautiously – then stopped, flat on his belly, just outside the rim of firelight. Then he saw that neither of the men was Challoner. But both were smoking, as Challoner had smoked. He could hear their voices, and they were like Challoner's voice. And the camp was the same – a fire, a pot hanging over it, a tent, and in the air the odours of recently cooked things.
Another moment or two and he would have gone into the firelight. But the white man rose to his feet, stretched himself as he had often seen Challoner stretch, and picked up a stick of wood as big as his arm. He came within ten feet of Miki, and Miki wormed himself just a little toward him, and stood up on his feet. It brought him into a half light, His eyes were aglow with the reflection of the fire. And the man saw him.
In a flash the club he held was over his head; it swung through the air with the power of a giant arm behind it and was launched straight at Miki. Had it struck squarely it would have killed him. The big end of it missed him; the smaller end landed against his neck and shoulder, driving him back into the gloom with such force and suddenness that the man thought he had done for him. He called out loudly to Makoki that he had killed a young wolf or a fox, and dashed out into the darkness.
The club had knocked Miki fairly into the heart of a thick ground spruce. There he lay, making no sound, with a terrible pain in his shoulder. Between himself and the fire he saw the man bend over and pick up the club. He saw Makoki hurrying toward him with another club, and under his shelter he made himself as small as he could. He was filled with a great dread, for now he understood the truth. These men were not Challoner. They were hunting for him – with clubs in their hands. He knew what the clubs meant. His shoulder was almost broken.
He lay very still while the men searched about him. The Indian even poked his stick into the thick ground spruce. The white man kept saying that he was sure he had made a hit, and once he stood so near that Miki's nose almost touched his boot. He went back and added fresh birch to the fire, so that the light of it illumined a greater space about them. Miki's heart stood still. But the men searched farther on, and at last went back to the fire.
For an hour Miki did not move. The fire burned itself low. The old Cree wrapped himself in a blanket, and the white man went into his tent. Not until then did Miki dare to crawl out from under the spruce. With his bruised shoulder making him limp at every step he hurried back over the trail which he had followed so hopefully a little while before. The man-scent no longer made his heart beat swiftly with joy. It was a menace now. A warning. A thing from which he wanted to get away. He would sooner have faced Oochak again, or the owls, than the white man with his club. With the owls he could fight, but in the club he sensed an overwhelming superiority
The night was very still when he dragged himself back to the hollow log in which he had killed the rabbit. He crawled into it, and. nursed his wounds through all the rest of the hours of darkness. In the early morning he came out and ate the rest of the rabbit.
After that he faced the north and west – where Neewa was. There was no hesitation now. He wanted Neewa again. He wanted to muzzle him with his nose and lick his face even though he did smell to heaven. He wanted to hear him grunt and squeal in his funny, companionable way; he wanted to hunt with him again, and play with him, and lie down beside him in a sunny spot and sleep. Neewa, at last, was a necessary part of his world.
He set out.
And Neewa, far up the creek, still followed hopefully and yearningly over the trail of Miki.
Half way to the dip, in a small open meadow that was a glory of sun, they met. There was no very great demonstration. They stopped and looked at each other for a moment, as if to make sure that there was no mistake. Neewa grunted. Miki. wagged his tail. They smelled noses. Neewa responded with a little squeal, and Miki whined. It was as if they had said,
And then Neewa lay down in
the sun and Miki sprawled himself out beside him. After all, it was a funny
world. It went to pieces now and then, but it always came together again. And
to-day their world had thoroughly adjusted itself. Once more they were chums –
and they were happy.