“I’ll be glad to get home and out of this harness.” Sasha said, as the team left the lean-to at what seemed a very early hour. The dogs were well-rested and eager to be finished with the trip. With that prospect in range, their moods brightened a bit, though still dampened by Larik’s noticeable absence. They resolved to put forth their best to hasten along the last leg, and they moved swiftly up the familiar mountain. The new snow and cold air made the going easy. The light sled with the young rider cruised easily past places that so recently had been bare ground or spongy swamps. Finally crossing Tear-In-The-Rocks Creek, they knew rest was within reach, and barked calls of relief to one another.
Along the way, Rol discovered three more jacket-fringe trail markers. He’d checked at each location for any evidence of stashed goods, finding none, and was still unaware he was bound for Tun’s home on the mountain. As the group crested the last hill, the Lodge came into view. They stopped and stared with disbelief. It was a complete surprise to Rol, and it nearly shocked him, thinking this was only a wilderness trail wending its way eastward. Even to the dogs who knew the place as Home, the sight was astounding.
The entire campus was percolating with people and dogs engaged in various activities, moving about or gathered in small groups around some item of interest. Immediately they were recognized as the populace of Tunkan. It seemed the entire village had picked up and relocated to Tun’s lair. Two yarangas were erected behind the Run-In, and smoke curled from their tops. Children played and dogs barked, grownups engaged in work and conversation. The smell of cooking food was unbearably intoxicating.
Sasha and Rol searched the crowd eagerly, scanning for those most dear. He his mother, father and sister, and she Mother, Jiak or Tun. Kotka was on the move, out front and free-reined. He would have sprinted if not for his bad leg, and made a fast, limping run to the welcome respite. The team streaked behind him into the crowded yard. Heads turned as they made their entrance, and between expressions of astonished surprise could be heard their names and thankful glee.
“There’s Dak! And Stone!”
“That’s Tun’s team!”
“It’s Rol! He’s alive!”
“Rol is alive! They’ve returned!”
Several people raced to the party, swarming over Rol as if he’d just been freed from burial beneath an avalanche, inquiring as to his condition and grasping his arms. Rapidly the word of his return spread, and the excited crowd grew larger and became louder. Rol was ushered to the Lodge as helping hands removed his parka, others his boots. Before he was seated one person was handing him a cup of hot tea as another offered him a hearty soup and bread. A mother washed his face and brushed back his hair before planting a kiss on his forehead.
In the yard, several Rol-sized young men attended to the dogs. Harnesses were removed and dishes of chow and bowls of water were made ready to a chorus of congratulations, compliments, and words of appreciation and admiration. A steady parade of unknown dogs and familiar ones swarmed around and streamed past the new arrivals. The Dog House was overrun, dogs too numerous to count. The team quaffed long drinks of water and ate with abandon. All but Alexei.
Now, back at their own home, he missed Larik tremendously. Here where his bed lay empty. And here on the porch where he should be lying, complaining about the over-crowding, and shooing dogs away from his dish. In spite of the fact an entire village of people and dogs surrounded him, Alexei somehow felt alone. Suddenly it seemed as if a little light had gone out of the world. Even his team and his favorite people could not fill the void.
Sasha continued to search the crowded campus for dogs and people she knew. There were faces of friends and they were welcome, but she could not find those she desperately sought. Mother. Tun. Jiak and Bek, Lema and her old pack, Nina or Tati. Her world was fragmented and confused, upset and toppled. On her arrival Home, she expected that finally all the quandaries and mysteries would be settled and made clear. She would be caught again in Tun’s gaze, held in his loving arms. She would see Mother, and kiss her face, and catch up on all that has passed since their parting. She would be greeted by Jiak and Bek and Nina, and be showered with affection which she would lavishly return in equal measure. She would be assured that all is well once again, and life could go back to normal.
Instead, it seemed things were as far from normal as they could be. Running for days on end with Rol. A nice boy, but somehow lacking as a musher and leader. Now she and the team had returned home, and Tun was still nowhere to be found. The Homestead vacant, but for the traumatized Kotka. Tunkan completely destroyed and left empty, save Chimlik, alone with a handful of dogs. And Larik. Leaving Larik behind. Sure, he was in a village and in company of other dogs, his safety was not threatened. But to lose a part of the team always meant heartache. And finally, the Lodge. What was once retreat and respite now was crowded and loud. Yes, they were all friends, humans, dogs and reindeer alike, but Sasha was looking forward to the serenity of their home. Now, instead of safety and security was uncertainty and further mystery. Where was Tun? Where were all the members of the old Homestead? Is this now the way they are to live? With a hundred dogs in the house?
She made her way around the campus, in and out of the buildings, through the surrounding wood, searching fruitlessly. The sun was beginning to set, and all the dogs and people began to settle down for the evening. At last she came to the place where Alexei stood, staring down the backtrail.
“I feel a little safer now at Home, Lexi.” She looked down the trail to see what held his attention so. “Still, the world is all mixed up. New and changing.” Seeing nothing, she scratched at her shoulder, irritated from living in the harness night and day.
Nothing broke Alexei’s singular focus. He seemed to ignore Sasha’s comments and replied with his eyes still fixed on the trail.
“Larik will be home soon. I can feel it.”