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IN MANY years there had not been such a storm in all the Northland as that which followed swiftly in the trail of the first snows that had driven Neewa into his den – the late November storm of that year which will long be remembered as Kusketa Pippoon (the Black Year), the year, of great and sudden cold, of starvation and of death.
It came a week after Miki had left the cavern wherein Neewa was sleeping so soundly. Preceding that, when all the forest world lay under its mantle of white, the sun shone day after day, and the moon and stars were as clear as golden fires in the night skies. The wind was out of the west. The rabbits were so numerous they made hard floors of the snow in thicket and swamp. Caribou and moose were plentiful, and the early cry of wolves on the hunt was like music in the ears of a thousand trappers in shack and teepee.
With appalling suddenness came the unexpected. There was no warning. The day had dawned with a clear sky, and a bright sun followed the dawn. Then the world darkened so swiftly that men on their traplines paused in amazement. With the deepening gloom came a strange moaning, and there was something in that sound that seemed like the rolling of a great drum – the knell of an impending doom. It was thunder. The warning was too late. Before men could turn back to safety, or build themselves shelters, the Big Storm was upon them. For three days and three nights it raged like a mad bull from out of the north. In the open barrens no living creature could stand upon its feet. The forests were broken, and all the earth was smothered. All things that breathed buried themselves – or died for the snow that piled itself up in windrows and mountains was round and hard as leaden shot, and with it came an intense cold.
On the third day it was sixty degrees below zero in the country between the Shamattawa and Jackson's Knee. Not until the fourth day did living things begin to move. Moose and caribou heaved themselves up out of the thick covering of snow that had been their protection; smaller animals dug their, way out of the heart of deep drifts and mounds; a half of the rabbits and birds were dead. But the most terrible toll was of men. Many of those who were caught out succeeded in keeping the life within their bodies, and dragged themselves back to teepee and shack. But there were also many who did not return – five hundred who died between Hudson Bay and the Athabasca in those three terrible days of the Kusketa Pippoon.
In the beginning of the Big Storm Miki found himself in the "burnt" country of Jackson's Knee, and instinct sent him quickly into deeper timber. Here he crawled into a windfall of tangled trunks and tree-tops, and during the three days he did not move. Buried in the heart of the storm, there came upon him an overwhelming desire to return to Neewa's den, and to snuggle up to him once more, even though Neewa lay as if dead. The strange comradeship that had grown up between the two – their wanderings together all through the summer, the joys and hardships of the days and months in which they had fought and feasted like brothers – were memories as vivid in his brain as if it had all happened yesterday. And in the dark windfall, buried deeper and deeper under the snow, he dreamed.
He dreamed of Challoner, who had been his master in the days of his joyous puppyhood; he dreamed of the time when Neewa, the motherless cub, was brought into camp, and of the happenings that had come to them afterward; the loss of his master, of their strange and thrilling adventures in the wilderness, and last of all of Neewa's denning-up. He could not understand that. Awake, and listening to the storm, he wondered why it was that Neewa no longer hunted with him, but had curled himself up into a round ball, and slept a sleep from which he could not rouse him. Through the long hours of the three days and nights of storm it was loneliness more than hunger that ate at his vitals. When on the morning of the fourth day he came out from under the windfall his ribs were showing and there was a reddish film over his eyes. First of all he looked south and east, and whined.
Through twenty miles of snow he travelled back that day to the ridge where he had left Neewa. On this fourth day the sun shone like a dazzling fire. It was so bright that the glare of the snow pricked his eyes, and the reddish film grew redder. There was only a cold glow in the west when he came to the end of his journey. Dusk had already begun to settle over the roofs of the forests when he reached the ridge where Neewa had found the cavern. It was no longer a ridge. The wind had piled the snow up over it in grotesque and monstrous shapes. Rocks and bushes were obliterated. Where the mouth of the cavern should have been was a drift ten feet deep. Cold and hungry, thinned by his days and nights of fasting, and with his last hope of comradeship shattered by the pitiless mountains of snow, Miki turned back over his trail. There was nothing left for him now but the old windfall, and his heart way no longer the heart of the joyous comrade and brother, of Neewa, the bear. His feet were sore and bleeding, but still he went on. The stars came out; the, night was ghostly white in their pale fire; and it was cold – terribly cold. The trees began to snap. Now and then there came a report like a pistol-shot as the frost snapped at the heart of timber. It was thirty degrees below zero. And it was growing colder. With the windfall as his only inspiration Miki drove himself on. Never had he tested his strength or his endurance as he strained them now. Older dogs would have fallen in the trail or have sought shelter or rest. But Miki was the true son of Hela, his giant Mackenzie hound father, and he would have continued until he triumphed – or died.
But a strange thing happened. He had travelled twenty miles to the ridge, and fifteen of the twenty miles back, when a shelf of snow gave way under his feet and he was pitched suddenly downward. When he gathered his dazed wits and stood up on his half frozen legs he found himself in a curious place. He had rolled completely into a wigwam-shaped shelter of spruce boughs and sticks, and strong in his nostrils was the smell of meat. He found the meat not more than a foot from the end of his nose. It was a chunk of frozen caribou flesh transfixed on a stick, and without questioning the manner of its presence he gnawed at it ravenously. Only Jacques Le Beau, who lived eight or ten miles to the east, could have explained the situation. Miki had rolled into one of his trap-houses, and it was the bait he was eating.
There was not much of it, but it fired Miki's blood with new life. There was smell in his nostrils now, and he began clawing in the snow. After a little his teeth struck something hard and cold. It was steel – a fisher trap. He dragged it up from under a foot of snow, and with it came a huge rabbit. The snow had so protected the rabbit that, although several days dead, it was not frozen stiff. Not until the last bone of it was gone did Miki's feast end. He even devoured the head. Then he went on to the windfall, and in his warm nest slept until another day.
That day Jacques Le Beau – whom the Indians called "Muchet-ta-aao" (the One with an Evil Heart) – went over his trapline and rebuilt his snow-smothered "houses" and re-set his traps.
It was in the afternoon that Miki, who was hunting, struck his trail in a swamp several miles from the windfall. No longer was his soul stirred by the wild yearning for a master. He sniffed, suspiciously, of Le Beau's snowshoe tracks and the crest along his spine trembled as he caught the wind, and listened. He followed cautiously, and a hundred yards farther on came to one of Le Beau's kekeks or trap-shelters. Here too, there was meat – fixed on a peg. Miki reached in. From under his fore-paw came a vicious snap and the steel jaws of a trap flung sticks and snow into his face. He snarled, and for a few moments he waited, with his eyes on the trap. Then he stretched himself until he reached the meat, without advancing his feet. Thus he had discovered the hidden menace of the steel jaws, and instinct told him how to evade them.
For another third of a mile he followed Le Beau's tracks. He sensed the presence of a new and thrilling danger, and yet he did not turn off the trail. An impulse which he was powerless to resist drew him on. He came to a second trap, and this time he robbed the bait-peg without springing the thing which he knew was concealed close under it. His long fangs clicked as he went on. He was eager for a glimpse of the man-beast. But he did not hurry. A third, a fourth, and a fifth trap he robbed of their meat.
Then, as the day ended, he swung westward and covered quickly the five miles between the swamp and his windfall.
Half an hour later Le Beau came back over the line. He saw the first empty kekek, and the tracks in the snow.
"Tonnerre! – a wolf!" he exclaimed. "And in broad day!"
Then a slow look of amazement crept into his face, and he fell upon his knees in the snow and examined the tracks.
"Non!" he gasped. "It is a dog! A devil of a wild dog – robbing my traps!"
He rose to his feet, cursing. From the pocket of his coat he drew a small tin box, and from this box he took a round ball of fat. In the heart of the fat was a strychnine capsule. It was a poison-bait, to be set for wolves and foxes.
Le Beau chuckled exultantly as he stuck the deadly lure on the end of the bait-peg.
"Ow, a wild dog," he growled. "I will teach him. To-morrow he will be dead."
On each of the five ravished bait-pegs he placed a strychnine capsule rolled in its inviting little ball of fat.