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THE next morning Miki set out again for the trapline of Jacques Le Beau. It was not the thought of food easily secured that tempted him. There would have been a greater thrill in killing for himself. It was the trail, with its smell of the man-beast, that drew him like a magnet. Where that smell was very strong he wanted to lie down, and wait. Yet with his desire there was also fear, and a steadily growing caution. He did not tamper with the first kekek, nor with the second. At the third Le Beau had fumbled in the placing of his bait, and for that reason the little ball of fat was strong with the scent of his hands. A fox would have turned away from it quickly. Miki, however, drew it from the peg and dropped it in the snow between his forefeet. Then he looked about him, and listened for a full minute. After that he licked the ball of fat with his tongue. The scent of Le Beau's hands kept him from swallowing it as he had swallowed the caribou meat. A little suspiciously he crushed it slowly between his jaws. The fat was sweet. He was about to gulp it down when he detected another and less pleasant taste, and what remained in his mouth he spat out upon the snow. But the acrid bite of the poison remained upon his tongue and in his throat. It crept deeper – and he caught up a mouthful of snow and swallowed it to put out the burning sensation that was crawling nearer to his vitals.
Had he devoured the ball of fat as he had eaten the other baits he would have been dead within a quarter of an hour, and Le Beau would not have gone far to find his body. As it was, he was beginning to turn sick at the end of the fifteen minutes. A premonition of the evil that was upon him drew him off the trail and in the direction of the windfall. He had gone only a short distance when suddenly his legs gave way under him, and he fell. He began to shiver. Every muscle in his body trembled. His teeth clicked. His eyes grew wide, and it was impossible for him to move. And then, like a hand throttling him, there came a strange stiffness in the back of his neck, and his breath hissed chokingly out of his throat. The stiffness passed like a wave of fire through his body. Where his muscles had trembled and shivered a moment before they now became rigid and lifeless. The throttling grip of the poison at the base of his brain drew his head back until his muzzle was pointed straight up to the sky. Still he made no cry. For a space every nerve in his body was at the point of death.
Then came the change. As though a string had snapped, the horrible grip left the back of his neck; the stiffness shot out of his body in a flood of shivering cold, and in another moment he was twisting and tearing up the snow in mad convulsions. The spasm lasted for perhaps a minute. When it was over Miki was panting. Streams of saliva dripped from his jaws into the snow. But he was alive. Death had missed him by a hair, and after a little he staggered to his feet and continued on his way to the windfall.
Thereafter Jacques Le Beau might place a million poison capsules in his way and he would not touch them. Never again would he steal the meat from a bait-peg.
Two days later Le Beau saw where Miki had fought his fight with death in the snow and his heart was black with rage and disappointment. He began to follow the footprints of the dog. It was noon when he came to the windfall and saw the beaten path where Miki entered it. On his knees he peered into the cavernous depths – and saw nothing. But Miki, lying watchfully, saw the man, and he was like the black, bearded monster who had almost killed him with a club a long time ago. And in his heart, too, there was disappointment, for away back in his memory of things there was always the thought of Challoner – the master he had lost; and it was never Challoner whom he found when he came upon the man smell.
Le Beau heard his growl, and the man's blood leapt excitedly as he rose to his feet. He could not go in after the wild dog, and he could not lure him out. But there was another way. He would drive him out with fire!
Deep back in his fortress, Miki heard the crunch of Le Beau's feet in the snow. A few minutes later he saw the man-beast again peering into his lair.
"Bête, bête," he called half tauntingly, and again Miki growled.
Jacques was satisfied. The windfall was not more than thirty or forty feet in diameter, and about it the forest was open and clear of undergrowth. It would be impossible for the wild dog to get away from his rifle.
A second time he went around the piled-up mass of fallen timber. On three sides it was completely smothered under the deep snow. Only where Miki's trail entered was it open.
Getting the wind behind him Le Beau made his iskoo of birch-bark and dry wood at the far end of the windfall. The seasoned logs and tree-tops caught the fire like tinder, and within a few minutes the flames began to crackle and roar in a manner that made Miki wonder what was happening. For a space the smoke did not reach him. Le Beau, watching, with his rifle in his bare hands, did not for an instant let his eyes leave the spot where the wild dog must come out.
Suddenly a pungent whiff of smoke filled Miki's nostrils, and a thin white cloud crept in a ghostly veil between him and the opening. A crawling, snake-like rope of it began to pour between two logs within a yard of him, and with it the strange roaring grew nearer and more menacing. Then, for the first time, he saw lightning flashes of yellow flame through the tangled debris as the fire ate into the heart of a mass of pitch-filled spruce. In another ten seconds the flames leapt twenty feet into the air, and Jacques Le Beau stood with his rifle half to his shoulder, ready to kill.
Appalled by the danger that was upon him, Miki did not forget Le Beau. With an instinct sharpened to fox-like keenness his mind leapt instantly to the truth of the matter. It was the man-beast who had set this new enemy upon him; and out there, just beyond the opening, the man-beast was waiting. So, like the fox, he did what Le Beau least expected. He crawled back swiftly through the tangled tops until he came to the wall of snow that shut the windfall in, and through this he burrowed his way almost as quickly as the fox himself would have done it. With his jaws he tore through the half-inch outer crust, and a moment later stood in the open, with the fire between him and Le Beau.
The windfall was a blazing furnace, and suddenly Le Beau ran back a dozen steps so that he could see on the farther side. A hundred yards away he saw Miki making for the deeper forest.
It was a clear shot. At that distance Le Beau would have staked his life that it was impossible for him to miss. He did not hurry. One shot, and it would be over. He raised his rifle, and in that instant a wisp of smoke came like the lash of a whip with the wind and caught him fairly in the eyes, and his bullet passed three inches over Miki's head. The whining snarl of it was a new thing to Miki. But he recognized the thunder of the gun – and he knew what a gun could do. To Le Beau, still firing at him through the merciful cloud of smoke, he was like a gray streak flashing to the thick timber Three times more Le Beau fired. From the edge of a dense clump of spruce Miki flung back a defiant howl. He disappeared as Le Beau's last shot shovelled up the snow at his heels.
The narrowness of his escape from the man-beast did not frighten Miki out of the Jackson's Knee country. If anything, it held him more closely to it. It gave him something to think about besides Neewa and his aloneness. . As the fox returns to peer stealthily upon the deadfall that has almost caught him, so the trapline was possessed now of a new thrill for Miki. Heretofore the man-smell had held for him only a vague significance; now it marked the presence of a real and concrete danger. And he welcomed it. His wits were sharpened. The fascination of the trapline was deadlier than before.
From the burned windfall he made a wide détour to a point where Le Beau's snowshoe trail entered. the edge of the swamp; and here, hidden in a thick clump of bushes, he watched him as he travelled homeward half an hour later.
From that day he hung like a grim, gray ghost to the trapline. Silent-footed, cautious, always on the alert for the danger which threatened him, he haunted Jacques Le Beau's thoughts and footsteps with the elusive persistence of a were-wolf – a loup-garou of the Black Forest. Twice in the next week Le Beau caught a flash of him. Three times he heard him howl. And twice he followed his trail until, in despair and exhaustion, he turned back. Never was Miki caught unaware. He ate no more baits in the trap-houses. Even when Le Beau lured him with the whole carcass of a rabbit he would not touch it, nor would he touch a rabbit frozen dead in a snare. From Le Beau's traps he took, only the living things, chiefly birds and squirrels and the big web-footed snowshoe rabbits. And because a mink jumped at him once, and tore open his nose, he destroyed a number of minks so utterly that their pelts were spoiled. He found himself another windfall, but instinct taught him now never to go to it directly, but to approach it, and leave it, in a roundabout way.
Day and night Le Beau, the man-brute, plotted against him. He set many poison-baits. He killed a doe, and scattered strychnine in its entrails. He built deadfalls, and baited them with meat soaked in boiling fat. He made himself a "blind" of spruce and cedar boughs, and sat for long hours, watching with his rifle. And still Miki was the victor.
One day Miki found a huge fisher-cat in one of the traps. He had not forgotten the battle of long ago with Oochak, the other fisher-cat, or the whipping he had received. But there was no thought of vengeance in his heart on the early evening he became acquainted with Oochak the Second. Usually he was in his windfall at dusk, but this afternoon a great and devouring loneliness had held him on the trail. The spirit of Kuskayetum – the hand of the mating-god – was pressing heavily upon him; the consuming desire of flesh and blood for the companionship of other flesh and blood. It burned in his veins like a fever. It took away from him all thought of hunger or of the hunt. In his soul was a vast unfilled yearning.
It was then that he came upon Oochak. Perhaps it was the same Oochak of months ago. If so, he had grown even as Miki had grown. He was splendid, with his long silken fur and his sleek body, and he was not struggling, but sat awaiting his fate without excitement. To Miki he looked warm and soft and comfortable. It made him think of Neewa, and the hundred and one nights they had slept together. His desire leapt out to Oochak. He whined softly as he advanced. He would make friends. Even with Oochak, his old enemy, he would lie down in peace and happiness, so great was the gnawing emptiness in his heart.
Oochak made no response, nor did he move, but sat furred up like a huge soft ball, watching Miki as he crept nearer on his belly. Something of the old puppishness came back into the dog. He wriggled and thumped his tail, and as he whined again he seemed to say.
"Let's forget the old trouble, Oochak. Let's be friends. I've got a fine windfall – and I'll kill you a rabbit."
And still Oochak did not move or make a sound; At last Miki could almost reach out with his forepaws and touch him. He dragged himself still nearer, and his tail thumped harder.
"And I'll get you out of the trap," he may have been saying. "It's the man-beast's trap – and I hate him."
And then, so suddenly that Miki had no chance to guard himself, Oochak sprang the length of the trap-chain and was at him. With teeth and razor-edged claws he tore deep gashes in Miki's nose. Even then the blood of battle rose slowly in him, and he might have retreated had not Oochak's teeth got a hold in his shoulder. With a roar he tried to shake himself free, but Oochak held on. Then his jaws snapped at the back of the fisher-cat's neck. When he was done Oochak was dead.
He slunk away, but in him there was no more the thrill of the victor. He had killed, but in killing he had found no joy. Upon him – the four-footed beast had fallen at last the oppression of the thing that drives men mad. He stood in the heart of a vast world, and for him that world was empty. He was an outcast. His heart crying out for comradeship, he found that all things feared him or hated him. He was a pariah; a wanderer without a friend or a home. He did not reason these things but the gloom of them settled upon him like black night.
He did not return to his windfall. In a little open he sat on his haunches, listening to the night sounds, and watching the stars as they came out. There was an early moon, and as it came up over the forest, a great throbbing red disc that seemed filled with life, he howled mournfully in the face of it. He wandered out into a big burn a little later, and there the night was like day, so clear that his shadow followed him and all other things about him cast shadows. And then, all at once, he caught in the night wind a sound which he had heard many times before.
It came from far away, and it was like a whisper at first, an echo of strange voices riding on the wind. A hundred times he had heard that cry of the wolves. Since Maheegun, the she-wolf, had gashed his, shoulder so fiercely away back in the days of his puppy-hood he had evaded the path of that cry.
He had learned, in a way, to hate it. But he could not wipe out entirely the thrill that came with that call of the blood. And to-night it rode over all his fear and hatred. Out there was COMPANY. Whence the cry came the wild brethren were running two by two, and three by three, and there was COMRADESHIP. His body quivered. An answering cry rose in his throat, dying away in a whine, and for an hour after that he heard no more of the wolf-cry in the wind. The pack had swung to the west – so far away that their voices were lost. And it passed – with the moon straight over them – close to the shack of Pierrot, the half-breed.
In Pierrot's cabin was a white man, on his way to Fort O' God. He saw that Pierrot crossed himself. and muttered.
"It is the mad pack," explained Pierrot then. "M'sieu, they have been keskwao since the beginning of the new moon. In them are the spirits of devils."
He opened the cabin door a little, so that the mad cry of the beasts came to them plainly. When he closed it there was in his eyes a look of strange fear. "Now and then wolves go like that – keskwao (stark mad) – in the dead of winter," he shuddered. "Three days ago there were twenty of them, m'sieu, for I saw them with my own eyes, and counted their tracks in the snow. Since then they been murdered and torn into strings by the others of the pack. Listen to them ravin'! Can you tell me why, m'sieu? Can you tell me why wolves sometimes go mad in the heart of winter when there is no heat or rotten meat to turn them sick? Non? But I can tell you. They are the loups-garous; in their bodies ride the spirits of devils, and there they will ride until the bodies die. For the wolves that go mad in the deep snows always die, m'sieu. That is the strange part of it. They die!"
And then it was, swinging eastward from the cabin of Pierrot, that the mad wolves of Jackson's Knee came into the country of the big swamp wherein trees bore the Double-X blaze of Jacques Le Beau's axe. There were fourteen of them running in the moonlight. What it is that now and then drives a wolf-pack mad in the dead of winter no man yet has wholly learned. Possibly it begins with a "bad" wolf; just as a "bad" sledge-dog, nipping and biting his fellows, will spread his distemper among them until the team becomes an ugly, quarrelsome horde. Such a dog the wise driver kills – or turns loose.
The wolves that bore down upon Le Beau's country were red-eyed and thin. Their bodies were covered with gashes, and the mouths of some frothed blood. They did not run as wolves run for meat. They were a sinister and suspicious lot, with a sneaking droop to their haunches, and their cry was not the deep-throated cry of the hunt-pack but a ravening clamour that seemed to have no leadership or cause. Scarcely was the sound of their tongues gone beyond the hearing of Pierrot's ears than one of the thin gray beasts rubbed against the shoulder of another, and the second turned with the swiftness of a snake, like the "bad" dog of the traces, and struck his fangs deep into the first wolf's flesh. Could Pierrot have seen, he would have understood then how the four he had found had come to their end.
Swift as the snap of a whip-lash the fight between the two was on. The other twelve of the pack stopped. They came back, circling in cautiously and grimly silent about their fighting comrades. They ranged themselves in a ring, as men gather about a fistic battle; and there they waited, their jaws drooling, their fangs clicking, a low and eager whining smothered in their throats. And then the thing happened. One of the fighting wolves went down. He was on his back – and the end came. The twelve wolves were upon him as one, and, like those Pierrot had seen, he was torn to pieces, and his flesh devoured. After that the thirteen went on deeper into Le Beau's country.
Miki heard them again, after that hour's interval of silence. Farther and farther he had wandered from the forest. He had crossed the "burn," and was in the open plain, with the rough ridges cutting through and the big river at the edge of it. It was not so gloomy out here, and his loneliness weighed upon him less heavily than in the deep timber.
And across this plain came the voice of the wolves. He did not move away from it to-night. He waited, silhouetted against the vivid starlight at the crest of a rocky knoll, and the top of this knoll was so small that another could not have stood beside him without their shoulders touching. On all sides of him the plain swept away in the white light of the stars and moon; never had the desire to respond to the wild brethren urged itself upon him more fiercely than now. He Hung back his head, until his black-tipped muzzle pointed up to the stars, and the voice rolled out of his throat. But it was only half a howl. Even then, oppressed by his great loneliness, there gripped him that something instinctive which warned him against betrayal. After that he remained quiet, and as the wolves drew nearer his body grew tense, his muscles hardened, and in his throat there was the low whispering of a snarl instead of a howl. He sensed danger. He had caught, in the voice of the wolves, the ravening note that had made Pierrot cross himself and mutter of the loups-garous, and he crouched down on his belly at the top of the rocky mound.
Then he saw them. They were sweeping like dark and swiftly moving shadows between him and the forest. Suddenly they stopped, and for a few moments no sound came from them as they packed themselves closely on the scent of his fresh trail in the snow. And then they surged in his direction; this time there was a still fiercer madness in the wild cry that rose from their throats. In a dozen seconds they were at the mound. They swept around it and past it, all save one – a huge gray brute who shot up the hillock straight at the prey the others had not yet seen. There was a snarl in Miki's throat as he came. Once more he was facing the thrill of a great fight. Once more the blood ran suddenly hot in his veins, and fear was driven from him as the wind drives smoke from a fire. If Neewa were only there now, to fend at his back while he fought in front! He stood up on his feet. He met the up-rushing pack-brute head to head. Their jaws clashed, and the wild wolf found jaws at last that crunched through his own as if they had been whelp's bone, and he rolled and twisted back to the plain in a dying agony. But not until another gray form had come to fill his place. Into the throat of this second Miki drove his fangs as the wolf came over the crest. It was the slashing, sabre-like stroke of the north-dog, and the throat of the wolf was torn open and the blood poured out as if emptied by the blade of a knife. Down he plunged to join the first, and in that instant the pack swept up and over Miki, and he was smothered under the mass of their bodies.
Had two or three attacked him at once he would have died as quickly as the first two of his enemies had come to their end. Numbers saved him in the first rush. On the level of the plain he would have been torn into pieces like a bit of cloth, but on the space at the top of the kopje, no larger than the top of a table, he was lost for a few seconds under the snarling and rending horde of his enemies. Fangs intended for him sank into other wolf-flesh; the madness of the pack became a blind rage, and the assault upon Miki turned into a slaughter of the wolves themselves. On his back, held down by the weight of bodies, Miki drove his fangs again and again into flesh. A pair of jaws seized him in the groin, and a shock of agony swept through him, It was a death-grip, sinking steadily into his vitals. Just in time another pair of jaws seized the wolf who held him, and the hold in his groin gave way.
That moment Miki felt himself plunging down the steep side of the knoll, and after him came a half of what was left alive of the pack.
The fighting devils in Miki's brain gave way all at once to that cunning of the fox which had served him even more than claw and fang in times of great danger. Scarcely had he reached the plain before he was on his feet, and no sooner had he touched his feet than he was off like the wind in direction of the river. He had gained a fifty-yard start before the first of the wolves discovered his flight. There were only eight that followed him now. Of the thirteen mad beasts five were dead or dying at the foot of the hillock. Of these Miki had slain two. The others had fallen at the fangs of their own brethren.
Half a mile away were the steep cliffs of the river, and at the edge of these cliffs was a great cairn of rocks in which for one night Miki had sought shelter. He had not forgotten the tunnel into the tumbled mass of rock debris, nor how easily it could be defended from within. Once in that tunnel he would turn in the door of it and slaughter his enemies one by one, for only one by one could they attack him. But he had not reckoned with that huge gray form behind him that might have been named Lightning, the fiercest and swiftest of all the mad wolves of the pack. He sped ahead of his slower-footed companions like a streak of light, and Miki had made but half the distance to the cairn when he heard the panting breath of Lightning behind him. Even Hela, his father, could not have run more swiftly than Miki, but great as was Miki's speed, Lightning ran more swiftly. Two thirds of the distance to the cliff and the huge wolf's muzzle was at Miki's flank. With a burst of speed Miki gained a little. Then steadily Lightning drew abreast of him, a grim and merciless shadow of doom.
A hundred yards farther on and a little to the right was the cairn. But Miki could not run to the right without turning into Lightning's jaws, and he realized now that if he reached the cairn his enemy would be upon him before he could dive into the tunnel and face about. To stop and fight would be death, for behind he could hear the other wolves. Ten seconds more and the chasm of the river yawned ahead of them.
At its very brink Miki swung and struck at Lightning. He sensed death now, and in the face of death all his hatred turned upon the one beast that had run at his side. In an instant they were down. Two yards from the edge of the cliff, and Miki's jaws were at Lightning's throat when the pack rushed upon them. They were swept onward. The earth flew out from under their feet, and they were in space. Grimly Miki held to the throat of his foe. Over and over they twisted in mid-air, and then came a terrific shock. Lightning was under. Yet so great was the shock, that, even though the wolf's huge body was under him like a cushion, Miki was stunned and dazed. A minute passed before he staggered to his feet. Lightning lay still, the life smashed out of him. A little beyond him lay the bodies of two other wolves that in their wild rush had swept over the cliff.
Miki looked up. Between him and the stars he could see the top of the cliff, a vast distance above him. One after the other he smelled at the bodies of the three dead wolves. Then he limped slowly along the base of the cliff until he came to a fissure between two huge rocks. Into this he crept and lay down, licking his wounds. After all there were worse things in the world than Le Beau's trapline. Perhaps there were even worse things than men.
After a time he stretched his great head out between his fore-paws, and slowly the starlight grew dimmer, and the snow less white, and he slept.