When Sasha awoke in camp in Tunkan, she saw the sun had migrated to the opposite horizon. It was morning, and Tun was hitching the team to the racing sled. While working, he frequently lifted his head and looked into the meandering crowds in the village, searching the faces for one in particular. A call came from the center of the village, the race official calling all entrants to weigh in.
Drivers would stand on a small platform on a plank, resembling a child’s teeter-totter. Others would pile stones on the opposite end, until the weight of the heaviest driver was determined. After this, each driver would stand on the scale, and weight would be added until all were equal. These handicap stones would be placed on the sled, and this way all drivers were equal in weight to start the race. One by one the drivers stood for the first round, determining the handicapped weight. Then again, each would climb onto the platform to receive their handicap weights. Only three drivers remained in the line, and Tun continued to look about anxiously.
He found Rol, and asked if he would drive his sled in the race, as the driver he’d expected was nowhere to be found. Rol shrank a little at the request, having little experience mushing. He assured Tun he’d be willing to do whatever he asked, but felt he was not a very skilled driver, and didn’t want to bring the team down. “We haven’t missed a race at Festival as long as we’ve been coming. We don’t have to win, Rol. Do your best. That’s all anyone can ask of you.”
With that, Rol stood in the line behind one other driver, as the handicapping was completed. As the driver ahead of him stepped on the scale, someone came running to him from the edge of the village.
“I’m here! I’m here!” she said, and Sasha leaped up to look. It was Tatiana, Jiak’s love interest from Kantuc! “Hey! Hey!” Sasha barked, but Tati did not turn to her, the barking lost among the dozens of barks coming from excited teams ready to race. She started to run to Tati, only to be arrested, having forgotten she was hitched to the sled. She had to get Tati’s attention, and she barked repeatedly, sprang up and down on her forelegs. “Hey! Hey! It’s Me! Over here!”.
Tun turned from preparation of the sled at the sound of the repetitive barking. He looked up to see Tati climbing on the scale, and he let out a whoop of joy and greeting for her. She turned and waved energetically, tossed her handicap stones in a deerskin sack, and ran over to Tun.
“I almost didn’t make it!” she said breathlessly, as Tun wrapped his arms around her. “Our sled broke through the ice on Flat Creek and we almost lost it!”
“Oh my goodness! I’m so glad you’re okay.” Tun answered. “Where’s your father?”
“He took the team to the river for water.” Tatiana replied. “And to let them settle their nerves. Two went into the water with the sled, but the rest pulled the wreck from the edge of disaster!”
It was then Tati saw Sasha. At first glance, she saw another dog in harness, then she realized just who it was. A bit out of place, since she had always seen the dog with Bek or Jiak.
“Is that Sasha? My Sasha?” At this, Sasha melted. Her tail wagged as quickly as it could, and she threw herself on her side, turned her belly up for a good rub. Tatiana went to her, and hugged her several times between kisses and belly rubs. The rest of the team wanted attention, too, and they all loved Tati, their regular driver now for the last four Festival races. They wagged and whimpered and crowded around her as best they could, their movement limited by the harness.
“They’re ready to start the race.” Tun addressed Tati. “I’m glad you made it. A couple of new dogs this year, as you’ve seen. Unknown commodities.”
“Oh, Sasha is young, but she’s a real musher. Who is the other dog?”
“That’s Anchu, Sasha’s brother.”
“Well, if he can run as good as he looks, we’re on our way to a win!”
Another call was heard from the center of the village. All drivers were ordered to their sleds and instructed to join the queue for starting positions. More than a dozen sled teams, some larger and some smaller than Tun’s, lined up along the street. The noise was nearly deafening as every team barked with eager anticipation. Occasionally the competitors would get too close, and two or more dogs would try to charge each other. Rarely, they would have enough lead to reach one another, but fights were quickly quelled by the drivers.
Tati climbed onto the slim racing sled, threw the bag of stones on it.
“Okay team! Eik! Line ’em up.” The dogs felt they were already lined up. Had been for quite some time as far as they were concerned. They added their barks to the cacophony filling the village. Tati directed them to the line, and they took their place. Then they waited. This seemed the longest part of the entire day, as they continued to stand still while teams were released one by one.
“Why can’t we just all go at once?” asked Alexei, as much to the ether as to any one individual, continuing his consternation at the workings of the race. Three more teams ahead of them. More waiting. Two more teams. Waiting. One more.
Sasha was excited and nervous about her first race. She felt she was a confident musher on the Trapline Trails, but wondered if that was anything like racing. She didn’t want to drag the team down. She was concerned also for Brother Anchu, even less experienced than she. She had no instruction on this racing thing. She needed some reassurance, some direction.
She called out to Stone. “What do we do if we…”
“Go!” came the call from the race official.
“Eik! Eik! Eik! Eik!” Tati ordered the team with rapidly repeating commands. She placed both hands on the back bow and sprang from the starting position like a sprinter, pushing the sled so hard and fast that the line slacked a bit before the dogs tensioned it.
Sasha worked her legs as fast as she could, but still felt the slack in the line. She pressed harder and the harness tightened around her chest. Then it slacked again, even with Tati on the runners.
“Come on, Sis!” Anchu called to her loudly “Let’s win this race!” and Sasha realized that Anchu was running so fast and pulling so hard that it was he who caused her line to slack behind her.
“Pace yourself!” Dak called in short staccato commands, “It’s a long race. Save your wind.”
Tati weighed next to nothing, and even with the handicap stones, the sled seemed light as air. Anchu could not stop himself from pressing harder. His energy and speed were contagious, and soon the whole team, Dak included, threw caution to the wind, and they ran flat out onto the foot of the glacier. Here, with the wet snow atop the frozen ice, and the runners greased with lard, the team gained more speed. Tatiana was astonished at the pace, and called to the team to “Take it easy now.”
They would hear none of it. Even the most experienced dogs on the team could not resist Anchu’s spirit of competition, and they all poured on the power.
Sasha realized she was running flat out. It was exciting and exhilarating and she paid no attention to social graces. Her mouth hung open, panting, her tongue flapped where it pleased, drool flew from her mouth and her smile stretched so wide it made her face hurt. She looked up and down the gangline to see six other dogs running top speed, flapping their tongues, flinging drool and smiling ear-to-ear.
“This is one of the best feelings I’ve ever known.” She thought to herself.
“Lift your heads!” was all Dak could squeak out between gulps of air.
“Proud for Mother!” came the breathless replies. “Proud for Tun!”
And with that, their pace quickened further.
In the first mile, they overtook two teams. At first the others would look over their shoulders, pick up their pace a bit. As Tun’s team came streaking past them, their mouths opened in wonder. As they watched the team dash away, their stamina waned, paces slowed.
As they approached the hill climb, the team got their second wind.