“Oh, I know where we are now.” Umka said, “We’re almost to the place where we picked up the new dogs.”
Sasha was eager to see her former home, pack and people. It had been nearly two moons since she and Anchu had left the Homestead to join Tun’s team. She recalled how she could have sworn she’d smelled Jiak at Festival in Tunkan. That just couldn’t be, or the scent of their passing here would linger on the trail.
The team was beginning to grow weary, having been on the trail most of a day, immediately following the strenuous race. Rol had not stopped for a break the whole trip. He was eager to get to Bek and Nina’s, and didn’t think like a musher. Experienced drivers know a team could not be pushed too hard, or one might find oneself unexpectedly without transportation. The team sensed a certain urgency from Tun and Rol, and forgave the young man’s errors, pressing on without complaint in spite of tired, aching muscles.
As the group topped the next rise, Rol was overjoyed to see the dense, near-black spruce forest not too far distant. Tun had said there would be just a single trail henceforth to the moraine. Sasha yipped with excitement, and did a little hop. Anchu, too, wiggled and barked, anxious to see Mother and all the dogs of the old Homestead.
The sun remained a quarter set as the team transited the forest. Its golden glow illuminated the snow and woods, a deep amber cast thrown on everything. The cloud cover continued to move off to the east, and temperatures plummeted as the unblanketed Earth was now exposed to deep space. The Spirit Lights danced and fluttered through the heavens, green and gold, red and purple, their great fingers of light arching over Sasha and the team. Behind the fluid atmospheric light show could be seen stars, welcoming the return of night to Kamchatka, the steppes, the Katmai and the Chukchi Sea. The sun refused to dip more than a quarter of itself below the horizon. It would be a dozen more days or so before it would set in totality.
Soon the team emerged from the forest and beheld the vast moraine, their destination in sight. Sasha was beside herself with anticipation as they reached the sidecut trail descending the valley wall. She half-expected to see Mother still standing in the place on the trail from which she bade her offspring farewell. No such vision welcomed her, and though she knew it seemed unlikely, she felt some disappointment nonetheless. Sasha began to notice some peculiarities, some things that just seemed irregular, which started her thinking.
“There’s no scent on this trail from any recent passing. This is the East Trapline trail, and would be run at least once a week.” The trail itself was dusted with the day’s snow, and otherwise looked untrod. No runner marks or paw prints in the soft earth. Once at the bottom of the sidecut, the team pulled Rol across the flat expanse of the valley floor, now less than a mile from the island of Spruce Trees encircling the Homestead.
Then a strange scent met the noses of the team. So unusual was it that they all took notice. Aside from the smells of a large group of people that were unfamiliar, came an animal scent none on the team had hitherto known. It was a strong scent, indicating a likelihood that a number of these mysterious animals accompanied the party. There was a similarity to moose, maybe a little like reindeer, yet it differed enough to eliminate those species.
“Something strange here.” Sasha spoke aloud, more to herself than another. “What odd new animals could have been here? Why can’t I smell Bek, Nina or Jiak? Or even Nona the Cat?”
“And there’s no smoke.” added Anchu.
Now Sasha looked to the spruce stand and sniffed the air in rapidly repeated short bursts. There was no smell of the ever-present Home fire, no plume of smoke rising from the center of the grove.
“Who are these people? And what is that animal?” Dak posed the questions to his team, especially the oldest, Stone. “These are not people of our peninsula. I’ve never smelled some of these things.” His nose was almost touching the snow as he pulled the sled.
“Strangers.” Stone stated, with a tone expressing concern. Caution was in order.
“It’s so fun to meet new people!” Umka added, with inflections of excitement and welcome wonder.
As they entered the spruce stand, there were more signs on the trail, here where the wind did not obfuscate all with drifting snow. Two furrows could be seen, the tracks of a sledge. They were immediately recognizable as foreign due to their extreme width.
“Nobody from here to the End of the Cliff would use a sled that wide. It won’t even fit on some trails.” Stone shared his observations as the team rounded the last turn leading to the Homestead, and the buildings came into view.
Sasha and Anchu simultaneously barked out calls to Mother, Lema, Kotka and their people. They were all, Rol included, struck by the silence. No barks pealed forth welcomes or warnings, no people walked to the edge of the yard to greet the visitors.
Dak passed the door of the cabin and stopped, the rest of the team following suit without direction from Rol. Sasha’s heart nearly stopped as she looked to the cabin and saw the door standing wide open, snow covering the floor, drifted into piles around the wood stove, the table legs, the woodbox and the pantry door.
An eerie stillness hung in the air and over the team. All barking had ceased, all eight of them dumbstruck in consternation. As they looked around, they beheld one unsettling thing after another. Every dog house was empty. The primary team and secondary team were gone, as well as the other dozen dogs; the retirees, breeding stock, those on the mend, adopted orphans. Both Bek and Jiak’s sleds were gone. The smells of the strangers were strongest here. They had gathered, lingered, rested, conducted business.
“Hello?” Rol called tentatively, remaining on the runners of the sled. He peered into the empty cabin, and the shed where the door also stood open wide. “Hello!” he called more loudly. At this, Sasha, Anchu and Dak were compelled to bark a reinforcement to Rol’s voice. In the orange glow of the late summer night, the silent homestead seemed surreal.
“Am I dreaming?” Sasha asked aloud.
“If this is your dream I hope you wake up soon. I’m tired.” Larik replied.
Rol hesitantly disembarked and walked to the cabin. He leaned a hand against the doorframe and poked his head inside, and again called “Hello?”. The two tiny rooms could be seen in entirety from the door. “Bek? Jiak?” Rol called into the empty dwelling. He looked more closely into the home. It appeared as though the occupants vanished in the midst of an ordinary day. A few items remained on the table from a meal. A sewing kit laid open, the thread of the needle drawn through a new sole being attached to an old boot hung off the side of the table. A full bucket of dog chow waited to be served, now frozen solid beside the door.
“They’re gone.” Rol spoke aloud again. Perhaps to the team, perhaps making notes. Perhaps some human sound to fill the disconcerting void. He should be having energetic conversations now with Bek and Nina, petting the cat as they plied the welcome guest with hot food and beverages.
To say Sasha was disappointed would be a gross understatement. She felt she missed Jiak, Bek, Nina, even Nona the Cat, more now than she ever had. With this also came a nervousness, an anxiousness, bordering on fright. There were just so many odd circumstances here. Everyone, all the people, all the dogs, had simply vanished without reason or trace.
Then in the woods behind the dogs’ yard she saw movement. Low, and black and white, it was a dog. He was carefully placing trees between himself and these newcomers. Cautiously eyeing and assessing them. Suddenly, the head lifted.
“Sasha?” the black and white husky called out.
“Kotka!” Sasha barked in a joyous reply, repeated it as she hopped on her forelegs and whipped her tail in a wag of elation. The fugitive residents had returned, and Kotka was first to have arrived!
Kotka remained where he was, in the woods, behind a tree.
“Who is here with you? People, I mean.” He spoke in low tones, stared at the racing sled, his ears folded back on his head.
“It’s Rol. Tun sent us with him from Tunkan to fetch Bek and Jiak to Festival.”
“They’re all gone.” Kotka continued, slowly walking forward, scanning his horizons as one under threat, watching Rol for suspicious motives. “Strangers came and took them all. Many strangers. Rude, loud, shouting and shoving people.” Now Sasha noticed how disheveled Kotka appeared, and he was visibly shaking, trembling with fear. “Bek called them ‘Soldiers’.”