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AFTER the fight in the coulée there was no longer a thought on the part of Neewa and Miki of returning to the Garden of Eden in which the black currants grew so lusciously. From the tip of his tail to the end of his nose Miki was an adventurer, and like the nomadic rovers of old he was happiest when on the move. The wilderness had claimed him now, body and soul, and it is probable that he would have shunned a human camp at this stage of his life, even as Neewa would have shunned it. But in the lives of beasts, as well as in the lives of men, Fate plays her pranks and tricks, and even as they turned into the vast and mystery-filled spaces of the great lake and waterway-country, to the west, events were slowly shaping themselves into what was to be perhaps the darkest hour of gloom in the life of Miki, son of Hela.
Through six glorious and sun-filled weeks of late summer and early autumn – until the middle of September – Miki and Neewa ranged the country westward, always heading toward the setting sun, the country of Jackson's Knee, of the Touchwood and the Clearwater, and God's Lake. In this country they saw many things. It was a region a hundred miles square which the handiwork of Nature had made into a veritable kingdom of the wild. They came upon great beaver colonies in the dark and silent places; they watched the otter at play; they came upon moose and caribou so frequently that they no longer feared or evaded them, but walked out openly into the meadows or down to the edge of the swamps where they were feeding. It was here that Miki learned the great lesson that claw and fang were made to prey upon cloven hoof and horn, for the wolves were thick, and a dozen times they came upon their kills, and even more frequently heard the wild tongue of the hunting-packs. Since his experience with Maheegun he no longer had the desire to join them. And now Neewa no longer insisted on remaining near meat when they found it. It was the beginning of the Kwaska-Hao in Neewa – the instinctive sensing of the Big Change.
Until early in October Miki could see but little of this change in his comrade. It was then that Neewa became more and more restless, and this restlessness grew as the chill nights came, and autumn breathed more heavily in the air. It was Neewa who took the lead in their peregrinations now, and he seemed always to be questing for something – a mysterious something which Miki could neither smell nor see. He no longer slept for hours at a time. By mid. October he slept scarcely at all, but roved through most of the hours of night as well as day, eating, eating, eating, and always smelling the wind for that elusive thing which Nature was commanding him to seek and find. Ceaselessly he was nosing under windfalls and among the rocks, and Miki was always near him, always on the qui vive for battle with the thing that Neewa was hunting out. And it seemed to be never found.
Then Neewa turned back to the east, drawn by the instinct of his forefathers; back toward the country of Noozak, his mother, and of Soominitik, his father; and Miki followed. The nights grew more and more chill. The stars seemed farther away, and no longer was the forest moon red like blood. The cry of the loon had a moaning note in it, a note of grief and lamentation. And in their shacks and tepees the forest people sniffed the air of frosty mornings, and soaked their traps in fish-oil and beaver-grease, and made their moccasins, and mended snowshoe and sledge, for the cry of the loon said that winter was creeping down out of the North. And the swamps grew silent. The cow moose no longer mooed to her young. In place of it, from the open plain and "burn" rose the defiant challenge of bull to bull and the deadly clash of horn against horn under the stars of night. The wolf no longer howled to hear his voice. In the travel of padded feet there came to be a slinking, hunting caution. In all the forest world blood was running red again.
And then – November.
Perhaps Miki would never forget that first day when the snow came. At first he thought all the winged things in the world were shedding their white feathers. Then he felt the fine, soft touch of it under his feet, and the chill. It sent the blood rushing like a new kind of fire through his body; a wild and thrilling joy – the exultation that leaps through the veins of the wolf when the winter comes.
With Neewa its effect was different – so different that even Miki felt the oppression of it, and waited vaguely and anxiously for what was to come. And then, on this day of the first snow, he saw his comrade do a strange and unaccountable thing. He began to eat things that he had never touched as food before. He lapped up soft pine needles, and swallowed them. He ate of the dry, pulpy substance of rotted logs. And then he went into a great cleft broken into the heart of a rocky ridge, and found at last the thing for which he had been seeking. It was a cavern – deep, and dark, and warm.
Nature works in strange ways. She gives to the birds of the air eyes which men may never have, and she gives to the beasts of the earth an instinct which men may never know. For Neewa had come back to sleep his first Long Sleep in the place of his birth – the cavern in which Noozak, his mother, had brought him into the world.
His old bed was still there,
the wallow in the soft sand, the blanket of hair Noozak had shed; but the smell
of his mother was gone. In the nest where he was born Neewa lay down, and for
the last time he grunted softly to Miki, It was as if he felt upon him the
touch of a hand, gentle but inevitable, which he could no longer refuse to
obey, and to Miki was saying, for the last time: "Good-night!"
* * * * * * * * * * *
That night the pipoo kestin – the first storm of winter-came like an avalanche from out of the North. With it came a wind that was like the roaring of a thousand bulls, and over all the land of the wild there was nothing that moved. Even in the depth of the cavern Miki heard the beat and the wail of it and the swishing of the shot-like snow beyond the door through which they had come, and he snuggled close to Neewa, content that they had found shelter.
With the day he went to the slit in the face of the rock, and in his astonishment he made no sound, but stared forth upon a world that was no longer the world he had left last night. Everywhere it was white – a dazzling, eye-blinding white. The sun had risen. It shot a thousand flashing shafts of radiant light into Miki's eyes. So far as his vision could reach the earth was as if covered with a robe of diamonds. From rock and tree and shrub blazed the fire of the sun; it quivered in the tree-tops, bent low with their burden of snow; it was like a sea in the valley, so vivid that the unfrozen stream running through the heart of it was black. Never had Miki seen a day so magnificent. Never had his heart pounded at the sight of the sun as it pounded now, and never had his blood burned with a wilder exultation.
He whined, and ran back to Neewa. He barked in the gloom of the cavern and gave his comrade a nudge with his nose. Neewa grunted sleepily. He stretched himself, raised his head for an instant, and then curled himself into a ball again. Vainly Miki protested that it was day, and time for them to be moving. Neewa made no response, and after a while Miki returned to the mouth of the cavern, and looked back to see if Neewa was following him. Then, disappointed, he went out into the snow. For an hour he did not move farther than ten feet away from the den. Three times he returned to Neewa and urged him to get up and come out where it was light. In that far corner of the cavern it was dark, and it was as if he were trying to tell Neewa that he was a dunce to lie there still thinking it was night when the sun was up outside. But he failed. Neewa was in the edge of his Long Sleep – the beginning of Uske-pow-a-naew, the dream land of the bears.
Annoyance, the desire almost to sink his teeth in Neewa's ear, gave place slowly to another thing in Miki. The instinct that between beasts is like the spoken reason of men stirred in a strange and disquieting way within him. He became more and more uneasy. There was almost distress in his restlessness as he hovered about the mouth of the cavern. A last time he went to Neewa, and then he started alone down into the valley.
He was hungry, but on this first day after the storm there was small chance of him finding anything to eat. The snowshoe rabbits were completely buried under their windfalls and shelters, and lay quietly in their warm nests. Nothing had moved during the hours of the storm. There were no trails of living things for him to follow, and in places he sank to his shoulders in the soft snow. He made his way to the creek. It was no longer the creek he had known. It was edged with ice. There was something dark and brooding about it now. The sound it made was no longer the rippling song of summer and golden autumn. There was a threat in its gurgling monotone – a new voice, as if a black and forbidding spirit had taken possession of it and was warning him that the times had changed,, and that new laws and a new force had come to claim sovereignty in the land of his birth.
He drank of the water cautiously. It was cold – ice-cold. Slowly it was being impinged upon him that in the beauty of this new world that was his there was no longer the warm and pulsing beat of the heart that was life. He was alone. ALONE! Everything else was covered up; everything else seemed dead.
He went back to Neewa and lay close to him all through the day. And through the night that followed he did not move again from the cavern. He went only as far as the door and saw celestial spaces ablaze with stars and a moon that rode up into the heavens like a white sun. They, too, seemed no longer like the moon and stars he had known. They were terribly still and cold. And under them the earth was terribly white and silent.
With the coming of dawn he tried once more to awaken Neewa. But this time he was not so insistent. Nor did he have the desire to nip Neewa with his teeth. Something had happened – something which he could not understand. He sensed the thing, but he could not reason it. And he was filled with a strange and foreboding fear.
He went down again to hunt. Under the glory of the moon and stars it had been a wild night of carnival for the rabbits, and in the edge of the timber Miki found the snow beaten hard in places with their tracks. It was not difficult for him to stalk his breakfast this morning. He made his kill, and feasted. He killed again after that, and still again. He could have gone on killing, for now that the snow betrayed them, the hiding-places of the rabbits were so many traps for them. Miki's courage returned. He was fired again with the joy of life. Never had he known such hunting, never had he found such a treasure-house before, not even in the coulée where the currants grew. He ate until he could eat no more, and then he went back to Neewa, carrying with him one of the rabbits he had slain. He dropped it in front of his comrade, and whined. Even then Neewa did not respond, except to draw a deeper breath, and change his position a little.
That afternoon, for the first time in many hours, Neewa rose to his feet, stretched himself, and sniffed of the dead rabbit. But he did not eat. To Miki's consternation he rolled himself round and round in his nest of sand and went to sleep again.
The next day, at about the same time, Neewa roused himself once more. This time he went as far as the mouth of the den, and lapped up a few mouthfuls of snow. But he still refused to eat the rabbit. Again it was Nature telling him that he must not disturb the pine needles and dry bark with which he had padded his stomach and intestines. And he went to sleep again. He did not get up after that.
Day followed day, and, growing lonelier as the winter deepened, Miki hunted alone. All through November he came back each night and slept with Neewa. And Neewa was as if dead, except that his body was warm, and he breathed, and made little sounds now and then in his throat. But this did not satisfy the great yearning that was becoming more and more insistent in Miki's soul, the overwhelming desire for company, for a brotherhood on the trail. He loved Neewa. Through the first long weeks of winter he returned to him faithfully; he brought him meat. He was filled. with a strange grief – even greater than if Neewa had been dead.
For Miki knew that he was alive, and he could not account for the thing that had happened. Death he would have understood, and from death he would have gone away – for good.
So it came that one night, having hunted far, Miki remained away from the den for the first time, and slept under a deep windfall. After that it was still harder for him to resist the call. A second and a third night he went away; and then came the time – inevitable as the coming and going of the moon and stars – when understanding at last broke its way through his hope and his fear, and something told him that Neewa would never again travel with him as through those glorious days of old, when shoulder to shoulder they had faced together the comedies and tragedies of life in a world that was no longer soft and green and warm with a golden sun, but white and still, and filled with death.
Neewa did not know when Miki went away from the den for the last time. And yet it may be that even in his slumber the Beneficent Spirit may have whispered that Miki was going, for there were restlessness and disquiet in Neewa's dreamland for Many days thereafter.
"Be quiet – and
sleep!" the Spirit may have whispered. "The Winter is long. The
rivers are black and chill, the lakes are covered with floors of ice, and the
waterfalls are frozen like great white giants. Sleep! For Miki must go his way,
just as the waters of the streams must go their way to the sea. For he is Dog.
And you are Bear. Sleep!"