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MESHABA, the old Cree, sat on the sunny side of a rock on the sunny side of a slope that looked up and down the valley. Meshaba – who many, many years ago had been called The Giant – was very old. He was so old that even the Factor's books over at Fort O' God had no record of his birth; nor the "post logs" at Albany House, or Cumberland House, or Norway House, or Fort Churchill. Perhaps farther north, at Lac La Biche, at Old Fort Resolution, or at Fort McPherson some trace of him might have been found. His skin was crinkled and weather-worn, like dry buckskin, and over his brown, thin face his hair fell to his shoulders, snow-white. His hands were thin, even his nose was thin with the thinness of age. But his eyes were still like dark garnets, and down through the greater part of a century their vision had come undimmed.
They roved over the valley now. At Meshaba's back, a mile on the other side of the ridge, was the old trapper's cabin, where he lived alone. The winter had been long and cold, and in his gladness at the coming of spring Meshaba had come up the. ridge to bask in the sun and look out over the changing world. For an hour his eyes had travelled up and down the valley like the eyes of an old and wary hawk. The dark spruce and cedar forest edged in the far side of the valley; between that and the ridge rolled the meadowy plain – still covered with melting snow in places, and in others bare and glowing, a dull green in the sunlight, From where he sat Meshaba could also see a rocky scarp of the ridge that projected out into the plain a hundred yards away. But this did not interest him, except that if it had not been in his line of vision he could have seen a mile farther down the valley.
In that hour of Sphinx-like watching, while the smoke curled slowly up from his black pipe, Meshaba had seen life. Half a mile from where he was sitting a band of caribou had come out of the timber and wandered into a less distant patch of low bush. They had not thrilled his old blood with the desire to kill, for there was already a fresh carcass hung up at the back of his cabin. Still farther away he had seen a hornless moose, so grotesque in its spring ugliness that the parchment-like skin of his face had cracked for half an instant in a smile, and out of him had come a low and appreciative grunt; for Meshaba, in spite of his age, still had a sense of humour left. Once he had seen a wolf, and twice a fox, and now his eyes were on an eagle high over his head. Meshaba would not have shot that eagle, for year after year it had come down through time with him, and it was always there soaring in the sun when spring came. So Meshaba grunted as he watched it, and was glad that Upisk had not died during the winter.
"Kata y ati sisew," he whispered to himself, a glow of superstition in his fiery eyes. "We have lived long together, and it is fated that we die together, Oh Upisk. The spring has come for us many times, and soon the black winter will swallow us up for ever." His eyes shifted slowly, and then they rested on the scarp of the ridge that shut out his vision. His heart gave a sudden thump in his body. His pipe fell from his mouth to his hand; and he stared without moving, stared like a thing of rock.
On a flat sunlit shelf not more than eighty or ninety yards away stood a young black bear. In the warm glow of the sunlight the bear's spring coat shone like polished jet. But it was not the sudden appearance of the bear that amazed Meshaba. It was the fact that another animal was standing shoulder to shoulder with Wakayoo, and that it was not a brother bear, but a huge wolf. Slowly one of his thin hands rose to his eyes and he wiped away what he thought must surely be a strange something that was fooling his vision. In all his eighty years and odd he had never known a wolf to be thus friendly with a bear. Nature had made them enemies. Nature had foredoomed their hatred to be the deepest hatred of the forests. Therefore, for a space, Meshaba doubted his eyes. But in another moment he saw that the miracle had truly come to pass. For the wolf turned broadside to him and it was a wolf! A huge, big-boned beast that stood as high at the shoulders as Wakayoo, the bear; a great beast, with a great head, and –
It was then that Meshaba's heart gave another thump, for the tail of a wolf is big and bushy in the springtime, and the tail of this beast was as bare of hair as a beaver's tail!
"Ohne moosh!" gasped Meshaba, under his breath – "a dog!"
He seemed to draw slowly into himself, slinking backward. His rifle stood just out of reach on the other side of the rock.
At the other end of that eighty or ninety yards Neewa and Miki stood blinking in the bright sunlight, with the mouth of the cavern in which Neewa had slept so many months just behind them. Miki was puzzled. Again it seemed to him that it was only yesterday, and not months ago, that he had left Neewa in that den, sleeping his lazy head off. And now that he had returned to him after his own hard winter in the forests he was astonished to find Neewa so big. For Neewa had grown steadily through his four months' nap and he was half again as big as when he went to sleep. Could Miki have spoken Cree, and had Meshaba given him the opportunity, he might have explained the situation.
"You see, Mr. Indian" – he might have said – "this dub of a bear and I have been pals from just about the time we were born. A man named Challoner tied us together first when Neewa, there, was just about as big as your head, and we did a lot of scrapping before we got properly acquainted„ Then we got lost, and after that we hitched up like brothers; and we had a lot of fun and excitement all through last summer, until at last, when the cold weather came, Neewa hunted up this hole in the ground and the lazy cuss went to sleep for all winter. I won't mention what happened to me during the winter. It was a-plenty. So this spring I had a hunch it was about time for Neewa to get the cobwebs out of his fool head, and came back. And here we are!
But tell me this: What makes Neewa so big?"
It was at least that thought – the bigness of Neewa – that was filling Miki's head at the present moment. And Meshaba, in place of listening to an explanation, was reaching for his rifle – while Neewa, with his brown muzzle sniffing the wind, was gathering in a strange smell. Of the three, Neewa saw nothing to be wondered at in the situation itself. When he had gone to sleep four and a half months ago Miki was at his side; and to-day, when he awoke, Miki was still at his side. The four and a half months meant nothing to him. Many times he and Miki had gone to sleep, and had awakened together. For all the knowledge he had of time it might have been only last night that he had fallen asleep.
The one thing that made Neewa uneasy now was that strange odour he had caught in the air. Instinctively he seized upon it as a menace – at least as something that he would rather not smell than smell. So he turned away with a warning woof to Miki. When Meshaba peered around the edge of the rock, expecting an easy shot, he caught only a flash of the two as they were disappearing. He fired quickly.
To Miki and Neewa the report
of the rifle and the moaning whirr of the bullet over their backs recalled
memories of a host of things, and Neewa settled down to that hump-backed,
flat-eared flight of his that kept Miki pegging along at a brisk pace for at
least a mile. Then Neewa stopped, puffing audibly. Inasmuch as he had had
nothing to eat for a third of a year, and was weak from long inactivity, the
run came within an ace of putting him out of business. It was several minutes
before he could gather his wind sufficiently to grunt. Miki, meanwhile, was carefully
smelling of him from his rump to his muzzle. There was apparently nothing
missing for he gave a delighted little yap at the end, and, in spite of his
size and the dignity of increased age, he began frisking about Neewa in a
manner emphatically expressive of his joy at his comrade's awakening.
"It's been a deuce of a lonely winter, Neewa, and I'm tickled to death to
see you on your feet again," his antics said. "What'll we do? Go for
a hunt?" This seemed to be the thought in Neewa's mind, for he headed
straight up the valley until they came to an open fen where he proceeded to
quest about for a dinner of roots and grass; and as he searched he grunted –
grunted in his old, companionable, cubbish way. And Miki, hunting with him,
found that once more the loneliness had gone out of his world.