Lodge

Epilog

What lies ahead for our intrepid friends?

Sometimes, something lost can be found once again.

Wayward brethren are drawn back into the fold.

A divided pack joins together again.

Dear friends, thought lost forever, return.

So it is our fervent hope that these fragile creatures will once again find peace of mind and heart.

That they may again find a place to call Home.

And that, come what may, they may remain united for as long as this Cosmos will allow.

 

“For the strength of the pack is the wolf.

And the strength of the wolf is the pack.”

                                                                    – Rudyard Kipling

Castle Of The Giant

 

Through midday the troupe trod briskly toward their destination, Tun’s Lodge. Crisp, cold air and unbroken sunshine greeted the pack as they made their way up the mountain. There was more snow on the ground than when last they traversed this route. Along the way each would point out a hunting sign. A scent deposited by a tree, tracks on the ground, evidence of passing and feeding wildlife.

They were jubilant, and conversations bubbled throughout. The re-telling of the hunt, dreams of the future, and curiosity at what they would find at The Lodge dominated the jovial exchanges. They stopped to drink at Tear-In-The-Rocks Creek, most of it now frozen over. Eddies and inlets were sought for open water. All tongues occupied, the chattering voices ceased, and upon getting underway again, a quiet mood settled in. Each dog was lost in their own thoughts of what the future would bring.

It was exciting and a little scary at the same time. So many unknowns. Some of these unknowns were bound to be pleasant surprises, experiences new to all, sometimes learning about themselves in the process. Some of the unknowns were bound to be unpleasant. Things no one had thought of. Troubles not yet imagined. Yet herein lies the essence of adventure and discovery. If we always stick to the familiar trail, we will never see new horizons. If we don’t sometimes test ourselves, how will we know what we are capable of? Each day to come was filled with such bright promise, the wonders yet to discover.

By late afternoon, the pack crested the last hill before the Lodge, and beheld the campus that had become home to the inhabitants of Tunkan. Now they were greeted with another change. Half of the New Lodge Village was empty. All the Chavchu, their reindeer and yarangas included, were already gone. A half dozen dog sleds stood with teams in harness, their owners piling their possessions on board. Two teams were ready, and they started off eastward on the Woods Trail, which ascended still higher, to the summit of Tun’s Mountain.

The team raced across the clearing at the west side, into their former home. Sasha was anxious to find Kotka and speak with him. Umka and Anchu hoped to see Tun. Alexei wanted to do whatever the group did, and begged his brother to come to the Lodge with them. Larik stopped at the edge of the clearing, staring into the village, searching for good reason to go there. Finding none, with his eyes or his heart, he refused, and lingered at the edge of the woods.

Dak desperately wanted to know where Tun went, and hoped with all his will that he would once again find the giant man. Dak felt closest to Tun on a personal level, and worried for his safety. Anchu had not thought much about returning to the Lodge, but upon seeing it was overwhelmed with homesickness. He was overjoyed to be home, and hoped everything could go back to normal now.

Stone’s thoughts ran deeply. This was the strangest time of his long life. Everything in his world had a rhythm and cadence to it prior to the burning of Tunkan. There were no doubts about where they would live or what they would do day-to-day. No conflicts of loyalty or duty. The biggest decisions were where to take a nap or how quickly to finish a meal. At the same time, Stone had always had something of a fantasy, a daydream, about calling the wild mountains his home. He’d thought before of what it might be like to be a wolf, live in a wild pack, travel where you please and stay where you want to. He’d never really imagined himself doing so, simply admired the beauty of the free and wild life. Now, it had been suggested that he join the pack, to live in the wilderness along with their wolf cousins, and the appeal was overwhelming. True and dedicated to Tun, he could even see his way to believing Tun would understand, and in his inimitable way, would wish them “Good journey!”.

They sprinted into the village and fanned out. Dak and Stone headed to the main Lodge building in search of Tun. Umka, accompanied by Alexei, ran all over the campus checking the Storehouse, the run-in, the shed, and even the outhouse, looking for the big man. Anchu followed his sister to the Dogs’ House. She began calling from some distance, and as they arrived at the building, Kotka emerged through the dog door.

“Well, well. The wanderers have returned! Did you find Larik?” Kotka greeted them with a relaxed smile.

“Yes!” answered Anchu, excited to deliver the news. “He was at the fish wheel, but he doesn’t want to come live here.” he blurted out.

“Oh?” Kotka answered casually, “Well, we are free to leave if we choose. What about Alexei?”

“We had a meeting.” Sasha began, so nervous she didn’t even acknowledge his question, still unsure of how to approach the subject with Kotka. Looking into his face, she was reminded not only of how greatly she loved him, but also how greatly she trusted him. She knew she could say this any way it came out, and Kotka would be understanding, accepting, supportive, honest and open. This is one of the greatest values of the truest of friends. Come what may, including our own errors and shortcomings, a true friend will always understand, always love you.

“We decided- if Tun’s not here-” she spoke in starts and stops, “that we’re going to live as a wild pack. In the wilderness. If Tun’s not here.” She concluded thusly, leaving the question unasked. She could find no way to come right out and ask if he would go, or ask if he thought he was capable, or ask how a hunting pack would accommodate a handicapped dog.

Kotka sucked in a breath of surprise. His eyes widened and his whole face became brighter. Before he could speak, a tear welled in his eye. He spoke softly and evenly, and stared intently into Sasha’s eyes.

“I’ve always dreamed of living free in the wilderness. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought of it, wished for it. Just running away to the mountains. Freedom.”

“Really?” Sasha responded, “You’ve never said so.”

“But I have a pack. I couldn’t leave my pack over such a selfish notion.”

“Now your pack is ready to go!” she beamed. “But…” Sasha paused, swallowed and stammered, “Will you be alright? With your bum leg?” There. She said it. Her stomach was in knots and she wanted to cry, but she said it.

“Bum leg?” Kotka laughed as he dismissed her concerns. “It may stop me from racing on a sled team, but not much else. I was the fastest there was in my day, you know, and even with a bum leg, I bet I’m still faster than most!” His eyes were wide and a broad grin stretched across his face. “But Tun’s here.”

“What?” Sasha leaped to her feet, “Where?”

“I don’t know where, around here somewhere. He came back yesterday, and then all the others started to pack out and leave, heading seaward.”

“I must find him!” Sasha exclaimed as she leaped from the porch and began to run through the campus, calling out for Tun. Excited barks were coming from two packmates, near the center.

Racing directly to the front entrance of the main Lodge building, Dak and Stone found Tun’s cargo sled with a team in harness. They were acquainted with six of the eight dogs, the remaining two complete strangers. Behind the large cargo sled stood the narrower and shorter decorated racing sled, but pulling it was a single reindeer. Both sleds were heaped with everything imaginable; clothing and furs, cookpots and tools, traps and blankets and food.

The door burst open with a bang, someone moving swiftly, flinging the door open with his backside. A fur clad figure backed through the door, his arms barely managing the pile he carried. As he turned, the dogs recognized Rol, who dropped his load in shocked surprise.

“Dak! Stone!” he shouted.

A loud and fast pounding then met their ears. The sound of a giant, running through the Lodge.

Tun burst from the door, his eyes wide as saucers, with a look of disbelief on his face.

The moment his eyes met Stone’s, he fairly screamed. A high-pitched squeal formed of the simple word “O!”. He leaped in a single step from the doorway to Dak and Stone, fell to his knees, and wrapped one arm around each dog, as they wiggled and whined and licked his face.

“Rocky! Dak!” was all he could squeak out, and the big man cried unabashedly, his chest heaving with sobs. “Oh, Rocky! Dak!” he repeated. Basking in their attentions, his heart and senses were overwhelmed by the appearance of the cherished dogs, these ghosts from the trail. Dogs he had resigned himself to accept as gone forever. In a moment Sasha came running up to him, leaped up onto his chest and smothered him with paws and kisses.

Hearing the gleeful yips and barks, Anchu, Umka and Alexei streaked to the source of the exclamations. Tun opened his arms to Sasha, and held all three dogs, now kissing them atop their heads as they squirmed with delight. The next three appeared before him, and he could hardly believe his eyes. They were all here! Wait. All except Larik. Larik must be the only one lost to him. Tun laid on his back in the snow and let the dogs climb all over him. They pawed, they kissed, and few celebrations prior or since could compete with the level of joy and exhilaration.

Larik watched from the edge of the wood as the dogs swarmed into the Lodge campus and tore off in every direction. He saw Kotka emerge from the Dogs’ House and was immediately reminded of how much he liked, admired, even revered the old legend. He felt a bit sad and guilty, and disappointed with himself for having thought of him as simply an old, broken down dog. Kotka’s pride and character could be seen and sensed by his posture alone, the way he carried himself. Larik hoped his remarks would not make their way back to the honored veteran. Over at the Lodge, Dak and Stone suddenly ceased their staccato of barks, and now delighted yips and whines were heard. From the door emerged a man so tall he needed to duck down to exit the building. When again he stood upright, he could be seen to tower over everything but the buildings and the trees.

Larik’s stomach leaped into his throat as his heart started to pound. His knees went weak for a moment and he nearly stumbled where he stood, his eyes burning with tears. He watched the gentle giant hug two, then three, then six dogs at once in his massive arms, tears streaming down his cheeks. He saw the man lie flat on the ground to be smothered by the affections of his dearest friends. Without consciously willing it, Larik suddenly found himself sprinting across the clearing, barking all the way, “Tun! Tun! Here I am! Tun!”

Tun stood and looked to the barking. A voice he recognized. Larik flew through the air the last two meters and quite literally threw himself onto the man. “Larik! Larik! Larik!” Tun repeated as he held the dog, tears and sobbing continuing in unrestricted torrents.

As they gathered themselves, Sasha saw Rol, standing beside the reindeer. She ran to him, and gave him the same treatment as Tun; wiggles, whines and wet kisses abounded.

“The Great Spirit has smiled on us.” Tun said when again he was able to speak.

“I can hardly believe it.” replied Rol, “Just in the nick of time!”

“Okay guys,” Tun addressed the pack, “a couple more things and we’re ready to leave.”

There was a hurried nature to their movements, swiftness uncalled for if running a trap line or driving to the trading post. Their eyes kept turning toward the west trail leading up the mountain. Several sleds left just ahead of them, driving fast, as if they were racing.

Tun threw another parcel on the cargo sled, walked the gangline to check connections and dogs, and set his feet on the runners. He paused here, and looked for quite a while at each building, the grounds, the surrounding wood, as if saying goodbye.

“Let’s go. Eik! Det! Det!” he commanded, and his eight-dog team struggled to move the heavily laden sled, their driver lending welcome assistance. Sasha’s pack trotted alongside as Tun proceeded to the East Woods trail. Somehow, they sensed they would not be returning. Each dog looked back at the place they had called Home, some holding long gazes. They would remember fondly their times at their mountaintop hideaway, their retreat and respite.

As he entered the trail followed by Rol’s reindeer-driven sled and surrounded by his beloved dogs he thought he’d lost forvever, Tun did not look back again. He was grateful to be leaving with the things of true importance; Rol, and his closest canine companions.

The last tears of the joy of reunion mingled with new tears of parting as they left the Castle of The Giant, and set their course for The Mountain In The Sea.

 

Rabbit Rabbit

 

“Here! Here! Here!” Anchu’s barks sounded more distant than any had expected, and they all sprinted to follow his voice.

“Over here!” they heard Larik call in the low light of the foggy morning, still unable to see anything beyond the next tree.

“Here! It’s here!” came Dak’s voice from a different direction.

“I’m right behind him…Oh! Shoot!” was Larik’s reply.

“Here! Here!” barks came simultaneously from Anchu and Umka, at opposite ends of the group, now strung out in a long oval in the woods.

“How can it be in two places at once?” Stone shouted through the fog.

Dak again barked out, in broken fragments of sentences. One could almost hear the leaps and turns he was making. “Almost…got it…Almost!…”

At the opposite end of the oval, Umka and Sasha could be heard making the same fragmented calls, “Here!…Oh!…This way…Oh!”

It had been, previous to the dog attack, a perfect morning for Rabbit’s grazing. The thick fog reducing visibility,  providing some protection from predators. Green shoots still poked their way up through the season’s first snows. All the woods were quiet and peaceful. She froze at the sound of footfalls in the snow, approaching rapidly.

RUN! RUN! Escape her only defense. The dog saw her and let out a resounding call. Suddenly, the dog multiplied. It was a pack! They were everywhere, and a couple of them were very fast. One caught her scent trail, and was but a breath behind as she went through the drills: straight line across the opening then right turn and circle around to where you were. Stop. Freeze. Blend in. Listen.

Another dog from another direction and she was moving again. This time sprinting in a zig-zag line, changing course every few meters. Then the sound of dogs was in front of her. She bolted left, crossed the trail, and entered the dense thicket. Now she could hear the dogs’ barking begin to fade, as they raced off in a different direction. It sounded like they were now after her cousins, who had joined her for breakfast in the quiet dawn. Thicket drill: The smallest openings in the largest tangles make the best hiding places. She made a circle around the brush to throw the dogs off her trail, entered her secret lair and froze, stock still.

“It’s here! Here!” barked Larik.

“No! No! Over here!” Dak returned the call from the opposite end of the oval.

“No! Over here!” insisted Umka.

“I think we’re chasing more than one rabbit.” Stone called out. “Concentrate on the one nearest you.”

They worked in teams around the thick undergrowth. One dog prancing and pawing around front while the other traced around behind, waiting for their quarry to burst from the tangle. They tracked scent trails, noses pressed to the snow. They formed a perimeter around the area they believed held their target. They ran, they barked, they pawed and beat the brush.

Rabbit relaxed, breathed a sigh of relief as she heard the dogs circling the thickets on the other side of the trail. The coast clear, she left the safety of her hiding place and dashed back the way the whole party had come from. One large circle to throw down a masquerade scent trail, and she darted into the warren. She did a quick head count. They were all still here. Safe and warm and sleeping until Mother returned, and now they all stirred. She had a little laugh to herself at how easily dogs could be misled, then laid down to let her litter nurse.

“You’re going the wrong way! It’s back here!” Sasha called to the pack, running still further from the rabbit den in their frenzy. “I’ve never been able to catch a rabbit.” she said to herself, and laid down, panting. She began to think about life as a pack. It would be this every day. Of course they’d have all day every day to hunt without humans restraining them or hooking them to sleds.

“He’s got it!” The excited shout came from Larik. “Anchu’s got one!”

All the pack ran to see Anchu’s prize. Anchu held his head high as he walked among his tribe, the trophy draped in his jaws. He laid it down in the center of the group.

“Breakfast is served.” he said with a big grin.

All the dogs were elated with the catch. It wasn’t about breakfast, or even food. This demonstration showed they could work together as hunters, and that they stood a fair chance of feeding themselves this way. Between rabbits and the Fish Wheel, food would not be a worry. They ate at a relaxed pace, like a pride of lions in the heat of the savanna, lying on their bellies.

“This is really good rabbit. Thanks ‘Onch’.” said Stone, shortening Anchu to a single syllable. The rest reaffirmed this with random comments and smiles. Split seven ways, it was more of a snack than a meal, but it was symbolic of their potential success. They bathed in the snow after finishing, and otherwise lounged about, preening, and some napping.

The sun rose higher and burned away some of the fog. By mid-morning, Rabbit crept from her nest to go to the other side of the brambles, home of her cousin. Normally, by this time of day, they would all return to their homes to care for their young, and to avoid the harsh light of mid-day, which served to increase their visibility to predators. As she entered her cousin’s fur-lined den, the brood raced to her. Her cousin was nowhere in sight, and here her eight charges remained hidden, awaiting her return. They were very hungry now, having missed the morning meal, and nursed hastily at the teats of their mother’s cousin. She would let them have their fill. It may well be their last meal. If Mother didn’t return, it was not starvation that would kill them, but the unrelenting cold. She didn’t know why, but Rabbit was compelled to adopt the orphans, and she regularly visited to nurse the litter until they were big enough to go out on their own.

In the first night, two succumbed to the frigid temperatures. Two nights later, a third. Taxing as it was,  Rabbit’s efforts paid off, and in little more than a week, five new faces emerged to populate the warren.

It was more of a celebration than a meal, or even a snack, to the Wild Pack. Spirits were high as they once again got underway, and set an overland course crossing Silver Creek, and on to Tun’s Mountain Lodge. The mists of morning lifted, and the sun shone brightly on the forest, filtering down through the ancient spruces, painting dappled shadow patterns on the snow. The air was crisp and the snow crunchy, and it seemed nothing could despoil this day.

Sasha thought again of her dear friend Kotka, and considered Larik’s premise, that a hunting pack has no place for a dog with a physical handicap. Suppose her pack went to the wild woods to live, and Kotka was unable to do so? How could she choose? Would she desert her pack, or the closest and longest friendship of her short life? How could she have both?

Answers eluded her, as she vowed to find a way, and lose neither.

 

A World Of Their Own

 

The dawn broke still and gray. A thick fog had enshrouded the world, the magical mist transforming the landscape. The spruces, the trail, the creek, the fish wheel and all the wilderness vanished. Now merely a cloud, slumbering on the ground. Without the slightest breeze, the air did not stir, and no sound fractured the crystal silence of daybreak. As each dog awoke, they beheld a tiny microcosm floating in smoky space. Each could see only the others in the pack, and the small patch of Earth that held them, seemingly all there was remaining of the universe. After a quiet round of stretches and yawns, and time enough to look about, taking in the curiously vaporous world, Larik was first to speak.

“I’m sorry I got so carried away yesterday.” he addressed the pack in a voice barely above a whisper. “I’ve been thinking about it all night. It was really nice of you guys to come back for me. I know I owe a certain duty to the pack.”

“You owe us nothing…” Stone began.

“Please.” Larik cut him off politely. “Let me finish. I’ve been thinking all night of what to tell you.” He paused, looking to Stone to ensure there was no offense. “Sasha should be able to go see Kotka, and Umka should see Tun. Anchu should be able to don a racing harness again. Really, it’s just selfish of me to pressure you guys into living in the wild wood. I don’t know myself if I can do it, or if that’s even what I really want.” He looked up into the fog where there previously stood trees. He looked beyond them, to the fog hiding the distant mountain tops from view. “One thing I know for certain,” he began again in a serious tone, then cracked a smile, “and that’s that you guys really stink like rotten fish!” He feigned disgust at the smell. “Can we get out of here? Anywhere but here! How could I have lived here for two days?”

Larik’s apologies, followed by humor, broke the mood of sadness and contention that had reigned over the pack. A feeling of bright good cheer and camaraderie again filled their hearts and spirits, as the pack began to trot eastward on the familiar trail obfuscated by fog. The world seemed to have evaporated, and all the cosmos was reduced to this caravan, loping through a ceaseless heavenly veil.

Conversations were simple, clear, honest and open. Feelings were expressed without undue emotional weight, without requirements for solemnity or serious consideration. It was as if the entire group had become a single mind, and these were the thoughts it thought in unbounded contemplation.

“Well, I hope there are no wolves, or wild dogs, anywhere around. We smell like a pack of marching salmon.” said Dak.

“I didn’t notice so much until you pointed it out.” Anchu added with a giggle, sprinting ahead to be upwind of the rest. He nearly vanished into the fog, just a dark Anchu-sized shadowy ghost, nearly indiscernable. Almost more sensed than seen.

“I’m curious to see what home looks like. To see if the band of vagabonds remains encamped.” Stone stated casually, trotting in his usual place, shoulder to shoulder with Dak, at the fore of the pack save for anxious Anchu.

“I wonder if Tun is there. And Rol.” spoke Sasha, in that moment a sense gripping her heart and stomach, as she considered the younger may well have moved on. “Rol.” The name rang from her with no further purpose than to hear it again, to evoke a smile and a slight shake of the head at her recollections.

“I just want to eat something besides fish.” Larik interjected. “Keep your eyes out.”

“Eyes out!” parroted Alexei, then he moved closer to his brother and asked quietly, “For what?”

“For food!” Larik nearly scolded. “Rabbits and weasels. Whatever you see.”

“I can see nothing in this cloud.” Alexei remarked, as he eased away from Larik a bit, maintaining the pack’s pace, then dropping back a little.

“I think we should do both.” Stone raised his voice and turned his head to address the group as they floated along, alone in the world but for the surreal passing ghost tree or ghost rock, half-solid in the translucent air.

“Weasels and rabbits?” Dak threw a crooked, questioning glance at Stone.

“To try living in the wilderness. If the Lodge has become a village without Tun, I’m game to give it a try with Larik.” Most in the group raised eyebrows or looked at one another.

“What do you mean “both”?” Sasha inquired.

“And you should see Kotka, Tun or Rol,” Stone responded, “Anchu can return to the team. Larik can remain in the woods and we can visit, and bring food.”

“That’s not exactly a wild pack, is it?” asked Dak, “How does that equal both?”

“And,” Stone continued, “if the Lodge is a village with no sign of Tun or Rol, we head out on our own.”

Thinking aloud, Larik parroted like Alexei, “On our own.”

“How can we go live wild if I’m with Tun and Alexei is with the team? And what about Kotka?” Umka moved closer to Stone as he spoke.

“And Rol?” Sasha added.

“Suppose none of them are there?” Dak looked to a passing ghost pine as he spoke, almost more to the ether than the pack, “At the Lodge.”

“Like Tunkan.” Larik expressed the remainder of Dak’s thought.

“RABBIT! RABBIT! RABBIT!” Anchu’s barking accompanied the rapid fading away of his ghost backside and tail into the dense fog.

Larik burst into a run up the center of the trail, barking orders.

“You two on the left,” he nodded without slowing, “and you guys on the right.”

He disappeared into the cloud behind Anchu.

Away they all flew, and the Wild Pack was off, on its first hunt together.

Wild Dogs

 

“I don’t think I’ve ever been to Wilderness.” Umka said plaintively, “What’s so different about it?”

“I’ve never heard of it,” Anchu responded to the open forum, “Where is it?”

“The wilderness is not a place.” Larik began with an uncharacteristically positive and bright tenor. “Well, I mean it isn’t one single place like a village or Home. I mean The Lodge.” His face and voice took on the lively and engaging beam of the storyteller, the vendor, the preacher. “The wilderness is everywhere around us in every direction. Any place that has no humans. Woods to provide hunting grounds, meadows in which to sleep out under the stars. Rivers for drinking and ponds for swimming, and all ours any time we want it!”

“Any time we want!” Alexei parroted, “Whenever we want.”

“I myself would rather sleep in my own bed any day.” Dak shook his head as he spoke, “Any night, I mean. Especially when it’s brutally cold and the wind is blowing.”

Larik continued with his energetic air of persuasion. “We’ll make our beds in caves! Warm and sheltered. And, may I remind you, there are no more beds for us at home, I mean The Lodge, from what I hear.”

“No more beds.” Alexei confirmed Larik’s statement.

“Actually” Sasha chimed in, “I had the shed almost to myself. Just me and Kotka.” Only at this moment did she remember her oldest and dearest friend, expecting her to return to The Lodge with her team.

“We’ll need to go get him.” she finished.

“What?” countered Larik, “That old gimp?”

Sasha spun swiftly and put her nose up to Larik’s, the offense of the remark like a personal insult to her.

“I’ll thank you to keep a civil tongue!” she snarled, “I won’t have you disrespect him.”

Larik took two steps back from Sasha’s toothy growl, a bit stunned by her reaction. Anchu swiftly moved to his sister’s side. “That goes for me, too.” he said.

Larik was unperturbed by their emotional outbursts, and began to speak before being interrupted by Stone. “That was uncalled for.”

Larik dismissively stated “Aw, it’s just a phrase.”

Alexei had mirrored Anchu’s move, and stood at his brother’s shoulder, “Just a phrase.”

Dak stepped toward the pairs and barked authoritatively, “Alright, let’s get back on track.”

“Okay, okay.” Larik resumed, “I didn’t mean anything by it. I’m just asking what kind of pack has an old…” he searched for a word, “…encumbered dog that can’t run and hunt.?”

“The kind of pack that came back for you!” Sasha snapped.

Dak spoke again to divert attentions away from Sasha, and from Larik’s remark.

“I don’t know any wild dog packs, so I couldn’t say. How many wild dogs are there? How many have you seen?”

“I’ve never been allowed to live in the wilderness,” Larik answered defensively, “so how would I know?”

“I’ve seen plenty of wolves and wolf packs without living in the wilderness.” Dak responded.

“If there are no wild dogs,” Umka added, “perhaps it’s for good reason.”

Larik was getting irritated hearing questions and objections for every point he made. He couldn’t conceive why the other dogs were not as enthusiastic as he was about living wild and free.

“So maybe we’ll be the first wild dog pack ever.” Larik said with some frustration in his voice. Sensing his concept was not favored by the majority, he softened his tone.

“What are you guys afraid of? You’re telling me little rabbits and baby reindeer and tiny birds can all live well and free in the forest, but we can’t?”

It was an excellent point. One that made the group stop their picking apart the plan and consider its merits.

“But I’m not a deer or a rabbit or a bird.” Stone stated with an edge of annoyance in his voice, “I’m a domestic dog. Born in a human’s nest and hand-raised by people. Learned their rules and commands. And I’ve lived a great life of comfort and adventure. I’ve never needed to worry where my meals came from or where I’ll bed down. On top of that there are a lot of bonuses to life with people, including attention and petting, treats and a certain sense of security.”

“Where was the security when Willow and Rika were being ripped to shreds by the bear?” Larik’s voice grew louder and faster. An underlying fear disguised as anger drove his thoughts and emotions, including his dream of a life in the wilderness. Away from gang lines and polar bears. “I had to stand there and watch them stomped and I couldn’t even reach the the bear because I was lashed to that abominable sled.” Larik’s fear-driven anger continued to boil. His eyes fixed to a single point of focus as he relived the horror in his mind’s eye. Again. He pounced on his forepaws, and in a frenzied rush of words he laid bare his resentment of any compromise to his liberty.

“I can’t!” he shouted, still pouncing, each pounce accentuating a word. “I can’t go back to the harness, being tied to anything. I don’t want to be tied to anything. I don’t want to be restrained in place while I watch my friends killed or I get my nose ripped off. I can’t do it, understand?” his voice reached a crescendo, “I can’t!”

Somewhat stunned at his sudden outburst, the rest of the pack looked on in silence. Larik turned from the group and trotted to the treeline, speaking in a low voice, addressing himself, the sky, the trees, the wilderness, “I can’t. I won’t.” The rest of the group remained still, looking at the ground. Those that witnessed it remembered fully the details of the attack, and knew Larik was close to being the third dog killed before the bear was stopped.

Sasha inquired quietly of Dak, “Is that how he got that scar on his nose?”

“Yes it is.” he replied, shifting his gaze to Larik, who stood facing away from them. He realized how much more traumatic it was for Larik, inches from the bear yet unable to defend Willow, Rika, himself, or the rest of the team. It was a horrible experience for them all, but undoubtedly the worst for Larik. The other witnesses, Stone, Umka and Alexei, were spellbound by their own recollections of the event, and their own realizations that this terrifying encounter had left more scars on Larik than the one that could be seen. Scars deep in his heart and mind.

Anchu walked slowly to the place Larik stood and heard him repeating his mantra through tears, “I can’t. I won’t.”

“Gosh Larik,” Anchu spoke gently, “I didn’t know about all that. I’m sorry those things happened to you, and your team. Your pack.” He paused, and stood beside Larik in a brief moment of reverence. A moment mourning for those lost, and for Larik’s loss of peace of mind. His loss of an innocent and peaceful life that knew no such torment before that day. “Now I understand why you’re so determined to live wild and free.”

Larik looked up at Anchu, his face distorted in a grimace of anguish. “You weren’t there.” he said softly, between sniffles. “It was before your time so you don’t know. It was horrible… I’m sorry, it has nothing to do with you.” He turned and walked further from the group. Once out of sight, he threw himself to the ground, sobbing.

Back at the fish wheel, the group remained paralyzed in silence. Alexei moved a short distance away and laid down, pouting. The rest stared into the darkness, or at the snow beneath their feet, deep in agonized and conflicting thoughts.

In a voice barely audible to the rest, Umka whined, “I want to go home.”

“Well,” Stone concluded, “I guess we’re going to be the first wild dog pack ever.”

Consortium

 

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!”.

Unbroken

 

“Down to five again.” Stone said to Dak. They trotted side by side at the front of the group as they started down the mountain trail, Umka, Anchu and Sasha close behind. Dak gave a long and knowing look at Stone, and made no reply.

“Maybe we can catch up with Alexei.” Stone accompanied the statement with a quickening step, and encouragement for Dak and the others to follow suit.

“Wait! Wait!” Sasha stopped in her tracks and called to the rest. “I need to go back and tell Kotka where I’ve gone.” The group stopped in response and looked back, still facing down the hill. “I’ll be right back. You go ahead and I’ll catch up.”

With little more than nods of acknowledgement, the panting dogs resumed their trot, and disappeared into the woods. Sasha galloped near top speed back up the draw, and crossed the meadow to the Lodge Village. When she arrived at the shed, she found it empty. Wishing to avoid delay, she began a circle around the perimeter of the occupied spaces, calling Kotka. Near the Lodge she heard his deep voice answer her call, and she found him lying on the porch of the Dogs’ House.

“What’s going on?” Kotka asked, rising to his feet and sounding genuinely concerned at the sight of his hurried and winded friend.

“The pack…” she started, and was struck by the fact that she considered him a part of it, yet somehow separate. In the same way Tun stood out as one among many. There was something about both of them that made you feel you were in the presence of greatness. Awe and reverence filled those fortunate enough to know them. “Some of us…” she started again, “The team…”. Any words she chose seemed inadequate. Somehow excluding Kotka, bordering on insult.

“Sosh.” he interrupted, sensing her plight. “You don’t need to mince words with me. With a bum leg, I’m never going to be on a team again. But you’re young and strong. You run for both of us.”

“Gosh, I..I” she stuttered.

“I heard your team is going to look for Tun. You go, and I’ll see you when you return, okay?”

“No. Change of plans.” Still winded, she spoke in bursts, “We’re going down the mountain. To get Larik. Back to Tunkan.”

“A much better idea!” he exclaimed, “When are you leaving?”

“They’re on the trail already. I came back to tell you.” She went to the water dish on the ground beside the porch. She licked at the clear surface but discovered it was frozen. She gave it a few more licks.

“Gee, that was thoughtful. I would have been sick with worry. But you better get going, to catch up with your team!”

“I need to say goodbye to Rol.”

“That will be some trick!” Kotka laughed, “Have you learned to speak human?”

“Well, I need to see him, at least, before I go.” She was already searching intently the faces of those that filled her field of view, anxious to keep moving. Anxious to catch up with her comrades on the trail.

“You’d better not spend too much time looking for him or you’ll be alone on the trail!” He took a step to imply urgency, with a bright encouraging gleam in his eye.

She spun and darted off. “We won’t be long.” she barked over her shoulder, her parting words fading as she raced out of sight.

She made a complete circle again, all around the grounds, but could find no sign or scent of Rol anywhere. She thought perhaps he may be in the Lodge or another building with doors. Running up to the front entrance of the Lodge, she began barking repeatedly. A loud “Pay Attention!” bark, repeated twice for every breath, a non-stop stream of resonating calls. The door opened, and a woman stuck her head out, waved her hand at Sasha and bade her away. Sasha took advantage of the open door and bolted through it, running down the hall of the building, looking and smelling for Rol.

“Sasha!” she heard called from behind her, a room she’d just passed, and in an instant, Rol was in the hall running toward her. She ran to him, panting and tail wagging as he knelt to wrap his arms around her. She enjoyed the hug for one luxurious moment, and returned the gesture, pressing her face to his.

Then she stood, took a step, and faced the door. She looked back at Rol with another bark, “Come on!”

“Whoa! Whoa! Where are you going? You just got here.” the boy’s heart quickened. He was glad she had returned to him, somehow his favorite among the team he’d joined briefly. At least it was a living thing known and akin to him in some way. He had hoped to set out again with a team, cobbled together as best he could, to head north to search for his family. When he saw the team running away, his heart nearly burst. Not only did they leave him stranded for a dog team, he felt they were as fond of him as he was of them. Then, like Alexei, in a village full of people, he somehow felt alone.

Sasha repeated the step, stop and bark message. “Come on, Rol. We’re going to get Larik!”

“You want to go out?” Rol followed her to the door, his heart aching in his chest. He didn’t want her to run away again, but wouldn’t think of leashing her. He could only hope she wanted to stay here with him. This voluntary act made by every dog he has ever loved and who loved him. The freedom to leave answered by the desire to remain. It was a loving bond of trust. Rol was truly a dog person. He felt dogs were a special species among all. To be able to live with us as family. If she wanted to leave, Rol would not deny her liberty. He opened the door and trailed her outside.

She took two steps and let out two barks this time, trying to look impatient, trying to imply the direction of the trail.

“Where are you going?” he called to her. She ran back to him and barked again, took two steps.

“What do you want? Food? Water?”

She repeated the barking and stepping and pointing toward the trail, but Rol did not recognize any of the clues. She trotted a distance from him, toward the trail that beckoned to her to hasten.

“Okay. You want to go, don’t you?” Rol was resigned, but joy filled his heart that she had tried to bring him along. He looked on the beautiful dog with a great grin. “Okay. I can’t go with you, but you go ahead.”

She barked again, each unable to fully understand the other. Somehow, it seemed, a certain communication was still to be had between them. Rol smiled and waved his hand.

“Yes! Go!” he said cheerily, as one giving permission to a child to do as she pleased.

Sasha heard the word “Go”, yet saw Rol made no move to follow. A smile on the young man’s face was the final clue she needed. It seemed he was unable or unwilling to join her, but embraced her determination, trusting that she knew what she wanted, and reconciling himself to acceptance. She knew he would not be so sad after this exchange. She hadn’t really taken Rol to her heart until she saw how disappointed and melancholy he was as the team ran off. Barely a man, still half-child, she could not have gone knowing this, and knowing that he, too, seemed one apart from the other villagers. As if his pack, too, was scattered across the frozen plains.

Rol raised a hand and held it as Sasha sprinted for the mountain trail. He watched, this time baring a smile, until she again disappeared over the hill.

She’d gone just a short distance, to the first turn, where the trail curved sharply around the back of a large rock outcropping before a plunging descent. As she came around the turn she had to quickly side step to keep from running face first into Anchu. There the four members of the party were gathered. Umka lying on the ground licking at his foreleg, Stone pacing at the edge of the drop off.

“We had to wait for you.” Dak greeted her. “All set?”

She smiled and nodded in breathless, enthusiastic agreement.

Stone caught her eye as they got underway, “A pack needs to stick together.”