When Sasha awoke, the camp was devoid of people. Dak was gone, too, presumably with Tun. The rest of the dogs remained, tethered by their leads. Most were sleeping, although Umka was up, looking eagerly into the village and the hubbub of activity. His tail swung side to side slowly, an unconscious action as he watched people and dogs and reindeer going about the business of Festival.
Unbeknownst to the dogs, Tun had found the best doctor he could, a grandmother called Vetna, from Ogrut, a tiny village far to the north. He took Tati to Vetna’s camp to be cared for. Through the long, sunlit night, the young woman slept, all the while shivering, her teeth chattering. Tun sat the whole time beside Tati, and continued to remain by her side as Vetna prepared herbal infusions and poultices to apply to the patient.
A runner was sent to deliver word to Tati’s father, Sarut. He had received word that his wife, at home in Kantuc, had taken ill. He had left Tunkan while Tati was running the race, asking Tun to look after her, and to bring her home to Kantuc if he was unable to return. Tun assured Sarut that he would care for Tatiana as if she were his own, to which he replied “I know you will. Thank you, Tun.”
Tun headed back to his camp, summoning Rol and beginning to pack provisions in a sled bag. When the young man arrived, Tun had a serious look on his face, and addressed Rol in a low voice. His speech was slow, metered, as it is when one is thinking deeply and simultaneously composing sentences. His hands moved, not quickly but steadily as he continued loading the bag onto the racing sled.
“I am concerned about my friend Bek and his family. I would have gone to their home today but for Tati taking ill. Now Sarut has been called to Kantuc, and I am responsible for caring for her, and therefore cannot leave. Will you go to Bek’s in my stead? Will you check that they are alright, or find out if they are not?”
“Surely there must be a simple reason for their delay.” Rol expressed in comforting tones to the big man. He had never seen Tun vexed by anxiety. It was a little unsettling to think the situation was so worrisome that Tun could be shaken by it. What tragedy must have passed to affect the ever-smiling giant so? “Perhaps Nina’s had a baby. Or a dog a litter of pups.” he said encouragingly.
“Perhaps the latter!” Tun managed a giggle, briefly unfurrowing his brow. “Still, Jiak would have come with a team. For the race.”
The young man grew uncomfortable, unaccustomed to dealing with such weighty, grown-up matters. He was, however, coming of age, and understood that he would need to learn to navigate such things. He would need to be bold and brave and decisive as men like Tun, Bek, and his own father.
“I’ll go as quickly as I can. I can leave now.” While Tun did not smile, his stern face relaxed a little at the welcome assistance. “But the racing sled…”. Rol placed his hand on the back bow, and could swear he could feel the energy of years of racing, countless dogs, the many drivers.
“It will be much faster than the cargo sled.” Tun answered his unspoken query. “This is more important than keepsakes.”
Without further conversation, Tun and Rol harnessed the team, each man deep within his own thoughts. In silence, they hitched them to the ornate sled. The dogs sensed something odd. Tun packed a sled but didn’t break camp. Now he was hitching them up to race when there were no other signs of racing in the entire village. Where was Tati? Why did Tun seem so forlorn? Why is Rol readying to board the racing sled? As they finished preparations for departure, they again addressed one another.
“Do you know the way to Bek’s? The homestead in the moraine, west of the Dezhnevo trail?
“I know of the place, though I’ve never been there.” Rol replied.
“West from Silver Creek crossing, through the forest and down into the valley. There’s only one trail once you reach the forest.” Tun spoke as he checked tug lines and the condition of the dogs’ paws. “It will take most of a day to get there, so I hope to see you at the end of tomorrow or the day after. I’ll stay here in Tunkan.” He paused, and looked across the village to Vetna’s camp.
“Or I may need to go to Kantuc.” he thought aloud. “I’ll leave a sign for you if I do.” his eyes wandered from the sled to Rol to Vetna’s camp as he spoke, focusing on none of them. “Find Chimlik. He’ll know if I’ve gone, and where.” Tun referred Rol to the person that amounted to Chief in Tunkan, the Donat. This was really more of a mayoral position, being selected by the village populace for leadership.
“I’ve packed three days’ provisions for you and the dogs.” the wheels turned behind Tun’s eyes as he spoke in a level tone. “But I have no more bread. Only salmon and jerky. You should have some biscuits…” the big man spoke almost unconsciously. Meandering and repeating thoughts as he added Rol to the list of those who would consume his waking and sleeping hours with his worry for their safety.
Rol felt himself growing, aging, maturing with each passing minute. No longer the boy fulfilling demands of adults. No longer the young man without skills or means. Now a revered leader, a hero, called on him, entrusting him with the most valuable things in his life; his dog team, his racing sled, and most importantly, the security of those he loved.
“I’ll be just fine, Tun.” he heard himself say. Or rather, he heard a man that sounded not unlike his own father and this mentor before him. A man that understood community and loyalty and commitment. “You take care of Tati,” he continued emboldened by this hitherto unknown sense of duty that filled his entire being now, to every corner of his soul. “and yourself. Thank you for calling on me Tun. Rest assured, I will not fail you.”
“You can never fail me, Rol.” Tun looked into his eyes, “so long as your heart is true. Do your best.”
Suddenly, Rol, who had felt a little taller, a little stronger, sensed the child within. A flash of fear struck him in the gut, charged with such an important duty. Self-doubt rocked him, leaving him uncertain about his ability to do all of this.
“Thank you, Rol. Your father should be very proud of you.” Tun stood, towering over the youth, removed his mitt, and held out his hand. As the glow of the low sun and the flickering fire illuminated the big man’s face, Rol could see in it the anguish he carried as he held Rol’s hand in his own. In the next moment, he saw this soften with relief that here was someone whom he could trust to care for such delicate things, our loved ones. And in that moment, Rol began the lifelong internal dialogue known to all men.
The man here standing addressed the child within. To share joys and laughter with child-like wonder. To reassure the child that there was now a grownup to care for it, always. Grown Rol grabbed Tun’s hand with a strong grip, reminding child Rol that all the teaching and learning and growing has led to this moment, and many more grownup moments that lay ahead.
“It’s what we do.” Rol commanded the finish to the conversation. The time for talk had passed. “Get up, dogs. Let’s go! Hike!” The team rose, but paused, confused. Alexei and Umka took a couple of steps at the command, but Dak simply looked to Tun, his mouth hanging half-open in a dog smile.
“Go! Go with Rol, go!” Tun gestured and clapped his mitted hands together. Dak took two steps and the line behind him tightened, unmoving. Stone and Larik shifted their weight between paws, looked at Rol, then at Tun. “Yes! Yes!” continued the giant, “Go to Bek’s with Rol!”
Sasha heard Bek’s name among the human words. In a moment, it came to her; Tun wanted the team to take Rol to the Homestead. She swung her head rapidly addressing the team, and barked her “Let’s go!” bark.
“What are we supposed to be doing?” asked Anchu.
“We’re going to Bek and Nina’s.” Sasha replied in an excited but businesslike tone.
“We’re going Home? Now? But what about Tun?”
“I don’t know, brother. I’m not certain what the plan is, but I know this is what Tun is asking of us. That’s enough for me.”
“Me, too!” Dak called from the lead with an edge in his voice, and implied impatience.
“Me, too.” Anchu replied to his sister, Dak and the team, resolving himself to duty and abandoning questions.
“Me, too!” said Stone, and then Umka, followed by the remaining three.
“Come on you dogs, mush!” newly-minted grownup Rol took his responsibility seriously, “Hike! Let’s go!”
Now the team burst from the start, snow and mud flying as they raced their way across the village, and away from Tun. The gray sky hung silently over them, as a few small snowflakes began to fall. He stood and watched the team disappear, and remained until their barks and calls could no longer be heard.
Tun looked skyward, stretched his arms as wide as he could.
“Great Spirit, watch over these innocents.”