Sasha was so exhausted, emotionally from the upheaval; leaving home, joining a new team, as well as physically from the demands of the rigorous Lodge Trail, that she slept deeply. The nudge of a nose against her own awakened her to the sight of brother Anchu, calling for her to rise. As she did, she saw she was last to do so, and felt a bit self-conscious about it. She didn’t want to make a poor impression on her new teammates.
Tun had already packed the sled for travel, and was in the process of hitching up the team. Before long, they were back on the move, facing the last arduous stretch of the trail. On they pressed over soft snow and wet ice, mud and rock, all uphill. It was a difficult haul, and they stopped frequently to rest. Most of a day was spent on this, the shortest leg of their trip. As they crossed tiny Tear-in-the-rocks Creek, now running and babbling with the gaiety of the season, the Original Five recognized their proximity to home, and began barking eagerly. As the team crested the last rise, Sasha had her first look at The Lodge.
It was an incongruously large building in the center of the clearing. The Lodge was titanic by local standards, two stories tall and large enough to serve as bunkhouse for thirty men. Around the clearing were a number of outbuildings; sheds, a run-in for horses and mules, an outhouse and a wellhouse. Twenty-five years prior, an expeditionary force built the outpost for mineral exploration. Geologists had suggested many potentials here. Gold, silver, and perhaps oil beneath the bedrock. In just six years, the operation was abandoned, having produced only a small fraction of the expected, not enough to pay for the outhouse, let alone all the other buildings, tools, supplies and labor.
The place had been vacant just a year when Tun came upon it. He was at first simply fascinated with the scale and size of the buildings and grounds. Most dwellings in the arctic were built to be only as large as necessary, with low ceilings to retain heat well. Inside, the buildings looked as if the workers would return the next day. Papers and books were ordered, chairs neatly pushed up to desks, bunks were made up, with a wool blanket on each. The kitchen contained all the pots, pans and other hardware required to feed forty working men, their dogs, mules and horses.
“Is this a trading post?” Sasha asked of Stone.
“No. No, this is home.” he answered. “That one’s Tun’s house, and that one,” Stone indicated a building slightly larger than her own original homestead, “that’s the Dog House.”
“The Dog House?” Sasha replied, astounded and confused. “Do you have giant dogs here?”
“Nope. Just us. Great isn’t it? I’ve seen lots of single-dog houses, and people usually live in a building this size.” In comparison to The Lodge, the Dog House was modest. A single story with three rooms.
“Where’s the yard? Where do dogs get tethered?”
“We’re all on free rein here.” Stone said it so casually, having known no other life, but it sparked great excitement in Sasha. To be able to roam around, chase rabbits, come and go as you please, this is every dog’s dream life. Better, even, than that of their wild cousins. The best of both worlds. Run and hunt and sleep at will, like the free and wild, yet hand-fed and housed in weatherproof structures.
Dak was heading straight for the Dog House, ready to eat and rest. Tun called for the team to continue past, and to the next building, the storehouse. Before the team stopped moving, Tun stepped off the runners with his trademark “Whoa now. Dogs down.” As the sled came to a halt, Tun was already at Larik’s tug line, and he unhitched it at the harness. He then proceeded up the line, unhooking the dogs.
As they were released, each had their own response. Larik trotted over to the dogs’ house and sniffed around the porch lazily before laying down on it. Alexei immediately broke into a run, and within seconds had disappeared into the forest. Umka, always happy and always excited about everything, followed Tun like a puppy, tail wagging, speaking “woo-woo”, hopping up to throw his forepaws on him.
Tun came to Anchu before Sasha, and unhooked his line. Anchu stood, as trained, and waited to be led to a dog house and clipped to a lead. As Tun proceeded to Stone and Sasha, Anchu remained frozen in place. Tun went about unloading the sled into the storehouse as the dogs ran, played and rested.
Sasha was excited just to run. She felt drunk with freedom and free will, and she bolted down the trail as fast as her legs would carry her. The unfamiliar trail made an abrupt turn to avoid a big drop-off, and was covered in half-melted, slushy snow. As Sasha dug in to make the turn, she slipped, unaccustomed to slush, and her forelegs flew out from under her. Her chin hit the wet ground as her hind quarters continued their forward momentum, and she somersaulted into the rocky mud.
She was immediately reminded of her first lesson with Kotka, face-planting in the snow to raucous laughter. She laughed out loud at the thought. As she picked herself up and shook off the snow and mud, she thought of how much Kotka’s friendship meant to her. It was heartwarming to know that there would be many memories and many occasions to laugh out loud, thanks to this alliance. Though separated by time and space, true friendship travels in the hearts of friends. Bonds which forever remain unbroken.
Sasha looked back at the campus to see Anchu, still standing in front of the sled, awaiting commands. She trotted over to him.
“Things are different here, with Tun.” she said. She stood close to him, looked him in the eye, sniffed his face, “We’re free. Free to do as we please.” She beamed with vitality, yet was comforting in tone.
“I can go home?” asked Anchu, somewhat rhetorically and sarcastically, sniveling through tears.
“Yes,” she answered him, brushing back his ears, “yes you can. Tun is no fool. He has given you and I the choice. That’s true liberty.” Her admiration for the man and this gesture glowed in the sound of her voice.
“I can go home?” This news suddenly made Anchu’s heartaches lessen. Just knowing he could do so made him feel better already.
Sasha looked at the doghouse, felt the freedom of being untethered, and thought of Tun’s smiling face and gentle hands.
“But Brother,” she said, the word rang with love and caring, kinship and family, “we are Home.”