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WITH the coming of Challoner to the cabin of Nanette Le Beau there was no longer a shadow of gloom in the world for Miki. He did not reason out the wonder of it, nor did he have a foreboding for the future. It was the present in which he lived – the precious hours in which all the creatures he had ever loved were together. And yet, away back in his memory of those things that had grown deep in his soul, was the picture of Neewa, the bear; Neewa, his chum, his brother, his fighting comrade of many battles, and he thought of the cold and snow-smothered cavern at the top of the ridge in which Neewa had buried himself in that long and mysterious sleep that was so much like death. But it was in the present that he lived. The hours lengthened themselves out into days, and still Challoner did not go, nor did Nanette leave with the Indian for Fort O' God. The Indian returned with a note for MacDonnell in which Challoner told the Factor that something was the matter with the baby's lungs, and that she could not travel until the weather, which was intensely cold, grew warmer. He asked that the Indian be sent back with certain supplies.
In spite of the terrific cold which followed the birth of the new year Challoner had put up his tent in the edge of the timber a hundred yards from the cabin, and Miki divided his time between the cabin and the tent. For him they were glorious days. And for Challoner –
In a way Miki saw, though it was impossible for him to comprehend. As the days lengthened into a week, and the week into two, there was something in the glow of Nanette's eyes that had never been there before, and in the sweetness of her voice a new thrill, and in her prayers at night the thankfulness of a new and great joy.
And then, one day, Miki looked up from where he was lying beside the baby's crib and he saw Nanette in his master's arms, her face turned up to him, her eyes filled with the glory of the stars, and Challoner was saying something which transformed her face into the face of an angel. Miki was puzzled. And he was more puzzled when Challoner came from Nanette to the crib, and snuggled the baby up in his arms; and the woman – looking at them both for a moment with that wonderful look in her eyes – suddenly covered her face with her hands and sobbed. Half a snarl rose in Miki's throat, but in that moment Challoner had put his arm around Nanette too, and Nanette's arms were about him and the baby, and she was sobbing something which for the life of him Miki could make neither head nor tail of. And yet he knew that he must not snarl or spring. He felt the wonder-thrill of the new thing that had come into the cabin; he gulped hard, and looked. A moment or two later Nanette was on her knees beside him, and her arms were around him, just as they had been around the man. And Challoner was dancing like a boy – cooing to the baby in his arms. Then he, too, dropped down beside Miki, and cried: "My Gawd! Miki – I've got a fam'ly!"
And Miki tried to understand.
That night, after supper, he saw Challoner unbraid Nanette's glorious hair, and brush it. They laughed like two happy children. Miki tried still harder to understand.
When Challoner went to go to his tent in the edge of the forest he took Nanette in his arms, and kissed her, and stroked her shining hair; and Nanette took his face between her hands and smiled and almost cried in her joy.
After that Miki did understand. He knew that happiness had come to all who were in that cabin. Now that his world was settled, Miki took once more to hunting. The thrill of the trail came back to him, and wider and wider grew his range from the cabin. Again he followed Le Beau's old trapline. But the traps were sprung now. He had lost a great deal of his old caution. He had grown fatter. He no longer scented danger in every whiff of the wind. It was in the third week of Challoner's stay at the cabin, the day which marked the end of the cold spell and the beginning of warm weather, that Miki came upon an old dead-fall in a swamp a full ten miles from the clearing. Le Beau had set it for lynx, but nothing had touched the bait, which was a chunk of caribou flesh, frozen solid as a rock. Curiously Miki began smelling of it. He no longer, feared danger. Menace had gone out of his world.
He nibbled. He pulled – and the log crashed down to break his back. Only by a little did it fail. For twenty-four hours it held him helpless and crippled. Then, fighting through all those hours, he dragged himself out from under it. With the rising temperature a soft snow had fallen, covering all tracks and trails. Through this snow Miki dragged himself, leaving a path like that of an otter in the mud, for his hind quarters were helpless. His back was not broken; it was temporarily paralyzed by the blow and the weight of the log.
He made in the direction of the cabin, but every foot that he dragged himself was filled with agony, and his progress was so slow that at the end of an hour he had not gone more than a quarter of a mile. Another night found him less than two miles from the deadfall. He pulled himself under a shelter of brush and lay there until dawn. All through that day he did not move. The next, which was the fourth since he had left the cabin to hunt, the pain in his back was not so great. But he could pull himself through the snow only a few yards at a time. Again the good spirit of the forests favoured him for in the afternoon he came upon the partly eaten carcass of a buck killed by the wolves. The flesh was frozen but he gnawed at it ravenously. Then he found himself a shelter under a mass of fallen tree-tops, and for ten days thereafter he lay between life and death. He would have died had it not been for the buck. To the carcass he managed to drag himself, sometimes each day and sometimes every other day, and kept himself from starving. It was the end of the second week before he could stand well on his feet. The fifteenth day he returned to the cabin.
In the edge of the clearing there fell upon him slowly a foreboding of great change. The cabin was there. It was no different than it had been fifteen days ago. But out of the chimney there came no smoke, and the windows were white with frost. About it the snow lay clean and white, like an unspotted sheet. He made his way hesitatingly across the clearing to the door. There were no tracks. Drifted snow was piled high over the sill. He whined, and scratched at the door. There was no answer. And he heard no sound.
He went back into the edge of the timber, and waited. He waited all through that day, going occasionally to the cabin, and smelling about it, to convince himself that he had not made a mistake. When darkness came he hollowed himself out a bed in the fresh snow close to the door and lay there all through the night. Day came again, gray and empty and still there was no smoke from the chimney or sound from within the log walls, and at last he knew that Challoner and Nanette and the baby were gone.
But he was hopeful. He no longer listened for sound from within the cabin, but watched and listened for them to come from out of the forest. He made short quests, hunting now on this side and now on that of the cabin, sniffing futilely at the fresh and trackless snow and pointing the wind for minutes at a time. In the afternoon, with a forlorn slouch to his body, he went deeper into the forest to hunt for a rabbit. When he had killed and eaten his supper he returned again and slept a second night in the burrow beside the door. A third day and a third night he remained, and the third night he heard the wolves howling under a clear and starfilled sky, and from him there came his first cry – a yearning, grief-filled cry that rose wailingly out of the clearing; the entreaty for his master, for Nanette, and the baby. It was not an answer to the wolves. In its note there was a trembling fear, the voicing of a thing that had grown into hopelessness.
And now there settled upon him a loneliness greater than any loneliness he had ever known. Something seemed to whisper to his canine brain that all he had seen and felt had been but a dream, and that he was face to face with his old world again, its dangers, its vast and soul-breaking emptiness, its friendlessness, its ceaseless strife for existence. His instincts, dulled by the worship of what the cabin had held, became keenly alive. He sensed again the sharp thrill of danger, which comes of aloneness, and his old caution fell upon him, so that the fourth day he slunk around the edge of the clearing like a wolf.
The fifth night he did not sleep in the clearing but found himself a windfall a mile back in the forest. That night he had strange and troubled dreams. They were not of Challoner, or of Nanette and the. baby, nor were they of the fight and the unforgettable things he had seen at the Post. His dreams were of a high and barren ridge smothered in deep snow, and of a cavern that was dark and deep. Again he was with his brother and comrade of days that were gone – Neewa the bear. He was trying to waken him, and he could feel the warmth of his body and hear his sleepy, protesting grunts. And then, later, he was fighting again in the paradise of black currants, and with Neewa was running for his life from the enraged she-bear who had invaded their coulée. When he awoke suddenly from out of these dreams he was trembling and his muscles were tense. He growled in the darkness. His eyes were round balls of searching fire. He whined softly and yearningly in that pit of gloom under the windfall, and for a moment or two he listened, for he thought that Neewa might answer.
For a month after that night he remained near the cabin. At least once each day, and sometimes at night, he would return to the clearing. And more and more frequently he was thinking of Neewa. Early in March came the Tiki-Swao – (the Big Thaw). For a week the sun shone without a cloud in the sky. The air was warm. The snow turned soft underfoot and on the sunny sides of slopes and ridges it melted away into trickling streams or rolled down in "slides" that were miniature avalanches. The world was vibrant with a new thrill. It pulsed with the growing heart-beat of spring, and in Miki's soul there arose slowly a new hope, a new impression a new inspiration that was the thrilling urge of a wonderful instinct. Neewa would be waking now! It came to him at last like a voice which he could understand. The trickling music of the growing streams sang it to him; he heard it in the warm winds that were no longer filled with the blast of winter; he caught it in the new odours that were rising out of the earth; he smelled it in the dank, sweet perfume of the black woods-soil. The thing thrilled him. It called him. And he knew!
NEEWA WOULD BE WAKING NOW!
He responded to the call. It was in the nature of things that no power less than physical force could hold him back. And yet he did not travel as he had travelled from Challoner's camp to the cabin of Nanette and the baby. There had been a definite object there, something to achieve, something to spur him on to an immediate fulfilment. Now the thing that drew him, at first, was an overpowering impulse, not a reality. For two or three days his trail westward was wandering and indefinite. Then it straightened out, and early in the morning of the fifth day he came from a deep forest into a plain, and across that plain he saw the ridge. For a long time he gazed over the level space before he went on.
In his brain the pictures of Neewa were becoming clearer and clearer. After all, it seemed only yesterday or the day before that he had gone away from that ridge. Then it was smothered in snow, and a gray, terrible gloom had settled upon the earth. Now there was but little snow, and the sun was shining, and the sky was blue again. He went on, and sniffed along the foot of the ridge; he had not forgotten the way. He was not excited, because time had ceased to have definite import for him. Yesterday he had come down from that ridge, and to-day he was going back. He went straight to the mouth of Neewa's den, which was uncovered now, and thrust in his head and shoulders, and sniffed. Ah! but that lazy rascal of a bear was a sleepyhead! He was still sleeping. Miki could smell him. Listening hard, he could hear him.
He climbed over the low drift of snow that had packed itself in the neck of the cavern and entered confidently into the darkness. He heard a soft, sleepy grunt and a great sigh. He almost stumbled over Neewa, who had changed his bed. Again Neewa grunted, and Miki whined. He ran his muzzle into Neewa's fresh, new coat of spring fur and smelled his way to Neewa's ear. After all, it was only yesterday! And he remembered everything now! So he gave Neewa's ear a sudden sharp nip with his teeth, and then he barked in that low, throaty way that Neewa had always understood.
"Wake up, Neewa," it all said. "Wake up! The snow is gone, and it's fine out to-day. Wake up!"
And Neewa, stretching
himself, gave a great yawn.