W INTER had come. The deer were on their winter feeding grounds. Could you have been there, you would, until you had watched them awhile, have wondered where they could find anything to eat. As far as could be seen, and far, far beyond that, there was nothing but snow.
But the deer people minded this not at all. They knew that the snow was but a blanket to protect and keep in splendid condition the food they loved best, the reindeer moss as it is called, which carpeted the ground, the lichens which nature had provided specially for the reindeer and caribou.
Tuktu liked to go out and watch them paw down through the snow. "See, Aklak," she cried, "they know just where they will find the best food. Do you suppose they never make mistakes?"
"The deer are wise with a wisdom not given us," replied Aklak. "Perhaps they make mistakes sometimes, but it is not often. I heard such an odd thing the other day. It makes me laugh every time I think of it."
"Tell me, for I want to laugh too," cried Tuktu. "What was it, Aklak?"
Aklak chuckled. "You remember the visitors that came in great ships last summer," said he. Tuktu nodded. "Well, one of them who never had seen reindeer before, asked if the deer used their horns to shovel away the snow in winter. He said that he had been told this, and that many people believed it to be so. It is a lucky thing it isn't so, or those big, old bucks would go hungry now that they have dropped their horns. But just look at the way they are pawing up that moss over there. I guess it is a good thing they haven't their horns, or they would be so greedy and selfish that they would get all the best of the food. See, Tuktu! See that young spikehorn over there driving away the old buck from that moss he has uncovered!"
Sure enough, a youngster with only two sharp spikes for horns was butting a big old buck who had just pawed away the snow from a bed of reindeer moss. Those spikes were sharp and they made the old buck grunt. Having no horns himself, he could not fight back except by striking with his forefeet, and these the youngster took care to avoid. So finally the old fellow gave up and went to look for a new supply of food while the youngster ate undisturbed.
"I have wondered a great many times," said Tuktu, "why it is that the old bucks drop their wonderful antlers so long before the mother deer and the young spikehorns do. But I guess I know now. It is because they are the strongest, and so they are made to look after the weaker ones, whether they want to or not."
Aklak nodded. "That's it I guess," said he. "By and by those little spikes will drop. Then the only ones to have horns will be the mothers. Theirs will not drop until after the fawns are born. Do you know why the reindeer always face the wind when they are feeding?"
"So that the wind may bring them the scent of any enemies that may be ahead of them," replied Tuktu promptly.
Aklak nodded. "That is one reason, but it isn't the only reason," said he. The wind keeps their eyes clear of drifting snow. So they always face the wind, no matter how bitter it may be. They are a wise people, the deer people. They know how to take care of themselves. They cannot see as well as some other animals, but they can smell and hear better than most. Their wild cousins, the caribou, are the same way. When we are hunting them we have to take the greatest care that they neither hear nor smell us."
The children were standing on the outer edge of the herd. As always, Tuktu was watching for a glimpse of Speedfoot, the splendid deer she felt sure the Good Spirit had chosen. Now, for the first time she mentioned it to Aklak. He knew the deer she meant. He had hoped that some day he might have it for his own. So now when Tuktu told him that she was sure it had been chosen by the Good Spirit, and that she had been unable to find it anywhere in the herd, he straightway began keeping watch himself.
Together they passed back and forth through the grazing herd. They are a gentle people, these reindeer folk. The children could quite safely go about among them as freely as they pleased. There was nothing to fear.
Long they searched, but in the end Aklak had to admit that Speedfoot was missing. "It may be that Amarok, the wolf, has gotten him," said he. "Or it may be that he has strayed into one of the other herds. We cannot know until the deer are driven into the corrals and counted."
Tuktu merely smiled. "I know," said she. "Amarok has never set tooth in him, and he has not strayed to another herd. He is one of the chosen of the Good Spirit. You shall see, Aklak, that I am right when the count comes."
"But not even the count will tell us if Amarok has killed him," said he.
There was a faraway look in Tuktu's eyes and a half-smile hovering around her lips. "You will find him next summer when we move over near the Valley of the Good Spirit," said she. "Then will you know that I speak truly. He is of the chosen eight, the blessed deer of the Good Spirit."