Sasha quickly descended the mountain with Anchu, Umka, Dak and Stone. With no sled in tow, they moved rapidly and were able to take several shortcuts, and by afternoon, smelled the fish wheel. Or rather, it should be said, they smelled the heaping pile of fish, the stale and putrid aroma filling the surrounding landscape. As they approached, they spotted Alexei, standing not far from the wheel. And there was Larik! He laid in the snow, motionless, as Alexei leaned over him.
“Lexi! Larik!” Sasha called loudly, a couple of the other dogs adding their hoots and bellows, thrilled at having caught up with the errant brothers, overjoyed to have the pack together again.
Alexei lifted his head slowly and regarded the oncoming dogs with a forlorn countenance. His head turned back to look again on Larik, who remained stock still. Alexei sniffed and sounded on the verge of tears.
“This is terrible. We never should have left him!”
“What’s wrong?” Sasha asked, freezing in place, shifting her gaze from Alexei to Larik, laying there without the slightest stir.
“Larik’s dead!” Alexei cried, “He ate too much fish!”
The hitherto joyful group stood in shock, their mouths hanging open. Then at the last of Alexei’s comments, they heard a snicker.
Stone trotted over to Larik, pressed his snout into the corpse’s rib cage.
Larik leaped up, laughing uproariously. Alexei joined in with a howl, and they could hardly contain themselves, falling and rolling on the ground in front of the stunned onlookers, effervescent with delight.
“Oh! I should bite you just for spite!” Stone laughed, as he jumped up to wrestle Larik.
“You guys!” Sasha scolded, “I could have died from the shock! That wasn’t funny!”
“Well, you didn’t die,” Larik chortled, “And we thought it was hysterical!”
“Howl-larious!” Alexei echoed.
The joy of their reunion easily overcame any temporary fright wrought by the gag, and they all pranced and wrestled around one another in joyous revelry. Greetings abounded for Larik, as each had a remark.
“We’re so glad we found you!”
“It wasn’t the same without you.”
“Did you miss us?”
“I voted we go look for Tun instead!”
Larik guffawed and chuffed his way through the wave of mushy emotional stuff.
“I thought Lexi was the only one to remember me.” he pretended to sniffle.
Hence ensued the most jubilant afternoon any could remember of recent days. Oblivious to everything but one another, the day filled with golden moments, laughter and touching, eyes meeting and gazes held. Joviality, favored company, rambunctious playfulness and heartfelt thoughts populated the hours. Gloriously long, rich hours, sharing of mutual affections, embracing the synergy. Indeed, the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Hearts filled to overflowing, inscribing these warm memories indelibly on their souls. This tiny patch woven into the fabric of time, stitched to the quilt of their lives. All seven wore bright smiles as they regarded one another, together again. The wrestling continued between various pairs until they became weary from their exertions.
They all had a filling fish dinner and laid about preening themselves and telling tales of the best of times. Satiated and exhausted, physically and emotionally, one by one they curled beside one another for a welcome afternoon nap.
When again they began to stir, the skies were darkening, the quarter moon had already risen, and the clouds above were painted gray and lavender and purple at the last light. The sky hung low and blanketed the Earth. Though it was very cold, the still air was comfortable. The group formed something of a circle, most lying down, Dak and Stone pacing as they conversed.
“Well, now we need the next step in our plans. Where to from here?” Dak asked.
Six in the party were all ears, and all eyes turned to Sasha. It took a moment for her to realize the question was directed to her, and the group sat awaiting, seemingly expecting her answer. She recalled the first day she and Anchu had met the new team. How The Original Five spoke of the tragic loss of their pack mother, Willow. Alexei concluding with his plea to Sasha, “Will you be our mother now?” Clearly they trusted her guidance, and eagerly anticipated new orders. She gathered her thoughts and was about to begin to detail their options when Larik spoke.
“Why do we need to go anywhere? We could just live here.”
“Plenty of fish!” Alexei added.
“Or,” Larik continued “we could just go up the mountain and live in the forest like the wolves. Wild and free.”
“”And come back here for fish whenever we want!” came Alexei’s follow-up. Misty clouds of vapor floated from their mouths at each expression.
“But The Lodge is Home.” Sasha offered contemplatively. “What about Tun?”
Focus shifted between Sasha and Larik, presenting points and couterpoints.
“Alexei tells me Home is overrun by more dogs and people than the place will hold. And no Tun.”
“Yes, that’s true. Still, Rol is there.”
“Rol? Who needs him? And without Tun, it’s not Home.”
“Suppose Rol or Tun need us?”
“There are lots of dogs.” Larik dismissed the question, “Let them need someone else. They just want more work out of us anyway. Pulling their sleds.”
Between blackened clouds could be seen the first stars of the evening slowly lighting in the heavens. The world had fallen into the silence of night, all activities of the woods in daylight ceased, no bird graced the air, nor their song, and similarly, an uncomfortable silence settled over the group. It hung on the air around them like a fog, as each considered Larik’s remark. One couldn’t argue with the fact that life with humans was work much of the time. Between tasks, however, there was more to the relationship, and this, it seemed, Larik overlooked. There was affection shared in both directions, and sometimes play. Comforts abounded: hot chow, a warm bed, good company, shelter from inclement weather.
“But Tun loves us.” Umka chimed in, not eager to contemplate life separate from people. A lot of good things came along with the association. “Don’t you think he’d miss us?”
“He can get new dogs.” Larik countered nonchalantly, “Just like when Willow and Rika were killed.”
The mention of their names, the reminder of their deaths and the events that preceded today filled their minds. The packs and teams, families and households they belonged to before this longest of winters. The struggling along with a team of five. The welcome new recruits and how they quickly became part of the team, the family, the pack. Sasha and Anchu recalled the lives they were living when these beloved dogs were killed. Though they never knew them, they were part of the pack ancestry.
“How can we be a racing team without a musher or a sled?” Anchu was next to share his thoughts. His newfound skills at dog sledding made him feel accomplished and valuable. Without racing, he would once again be Plain Old Little Anchu.
“What do you guys want to be?” Larik posed the pointed question rather flatly, as if calling for a vote, “Free and wild dogs or pets and workhounds?”
Stone walked to the middle of the circle and stood, slowly shifting his gaze to each of the dogs before him, indicating his desire to be heard.
“You’ve given us a lot to think about. Don’t we deserve to be free?” He walked and paused as he spoke, letting the words sift into the listeners’ ears. “But are we prepared? Are we trained to live as a wild pack,” making eye contact again with the group, he finished, “in the wilderness?”.
“Don’t think of it as the wilderness.” Larik responded with a sparkle in his eye as he stood, took a step toward Dak and turned to the group, “Think of it as Home!”.