Lodge

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.”

A Pack Divided

 

Restful sleep eluded Sasha her first night in the new iteration of Home. Her bed, designated by no more than her scent, had been scattered and re-purposed in her absence. Two dogs, nearly twins, now occupied the space, and so it was with the six other scented-and-otherwise-undesignated beds of her teammates. She wandered about, looking for a quiet, comfortable place to rest. A long overdue rest. Finally, sneaking in through a slim gap in the door, she found the shed from which the racing sled had emerged to contain none other than Kotka. He lay sleeping on a crumpled oilskin tarpaulin, directly in front of the door, and in the darkness she set a foot down on his snout. He leaped up with a yelp, sneezing twice and chuffing between.

“I’m sorry!” Sasha quickly offered to the unknown dog in the dark, “I didn’t see you. I’m terribly sorry!”

“I’m okay, Sosh.” Kotka said softly, recognizing her voice.

“Kotka!” She ran up to snuzzle him. “I’m so glad it’s you! Well, I don’t mean I’m glad it’s you I stepped on,” she continued in a nervous flush, “I mean I’m glad it’s you in here. I’m glad you found a quiet place. I didn’t see you…”

“It’s okay.” Kotka interrupted her blithering, “I’m glad you found me, too.”

The simple comfort of familiar company was enough to warm their hearts as the cold grew deeper through the night. Curling beside one another added the practical benefit of warmth, and they slept soundly for the first time after their long ordeal afield.

In her dream, Mother arrived at the Lodge. Unable to find Sasha, she stood in the center yard calling her name. She repeated it three times, then another voice joined in the search. In that strange world of sleep Sasha felt herself lying still, eyes closed, while Mother called over and over. She felt paralyzed, unable to open her eyes, move, or even speak. Kotka’s deep voice came through next, and on his second repetition of her name, her mind began to shift from sleep to waking. A moment of confusion and panic gripped her, in that space between dream world and the real one. In a moment, she fully awoke and took in the surroundings.

“Sasha!” Kotka called again, more loudly, adding a nose nudge.

Then she heard her name called again from the yard. And then again in the second voice, though now neither belonged to Mother.

“They’re searching for you in the yard.”

She leaped to her feet and squeezed out through the door of the shed, out into the gray morning. She was immediately struck by the cold, the world having fallen into a deep, frigid slumber while they all slept.

“Sasha! Sasha!” It was Umka, trotting the perimeter, scanning the faces of the innumerable dogs encamped now in these environs.

“Here! Umka!” She answered.

He snapped his head in the direction of the call, and galloped the short distance to her.

“Your brother is looking for you. He’s been trying to find you.”

She accompanied Umka at a fast trot across the snow-covered yard to an area behind the Dogs’ House. There stood Anchu, with Stone and Dak beside him.

“Anchu!” she called out, “What’s the matter?”

“There you are!” he replied, his tone of relief underpinned with impatience. “We’re going to find Tun.”

“What do you mean? I mean, how?”

“We caught a trace of scent on the Coldward trail, and we’re going to follow it.”

Dak and Stone nodded their heads and looked to the forest at the Coldward trail as if readying to go, hoping for Tun’s return, or imagining what fate may have befallen him.

Sasha replied hesitantly, “I’m not sure that’s such a good idea. Suppose he returns here?”

“It’s the six of us here, and no one else knows us. We belong with Tun.” Dak offered.

“Five of us.” Stone interjected. “Alexei left this morning to find Larik.”

Stunned, they all stood in silence for a long moment, each sorting and weighing the situation in their own hearts and heads.

“This isn’t good. Not at all.” Sasha shook her head. “We’re a pack, and we need to stay that way. What’s happening to us? We should all be going with Lexi to find Larik. We never should have left him.”

“We didn’t really have much choice.” came Umka’s response. “We had to follow our driver’s commands. And we were starving. If Larik had come with us he could have gorged himself on fish.”

“No, no. We should have gone right back.”

“We were bound by duty,” Dak volunteered. “Getting Rol home safely was our priority.”

“Oh, I know.” Sasha said with reluctant resolve. “I know. Of course. But we should have gone back after we got Rol home.”

Silence again reigned over the group, sorting the many and sometimes conflicting feelings.

“But Tun.” Anchu posited, wavering in his commitment to the only plan he’d yet thought of. “We’re not a team without a musher.”

Sasha looked from one to the other, momentarily holding the gaze of each; Dak, Stone, Umka, Anchu. They stood in a sort of semi-circle, all eyes fixed on her. Silent. Beckoning. Almost pleading, as if she alone had the answer to all of this.

Clarity came to her quickly, as it so often did when she let her true and valiant heart guide her thoughts, feelings and actions. She raised her head as she confidently and matter-of-factly stated her summation.

“We need a musher to be a team, but we only need us to be a pack. We need to be a full pack before we can hope to be a full team again. Tun is capable of taking care of himself and everyone around him. Larik is one of us, and without us, may as well be one alone.”

Her last word, alone, seemed to float in the air around them, to ring in the trees and bounce from the snow beneath their feet, at which they were all now looking, heads hung.

“Of course you’re right, Sis.” Anchu acknowledged, seeing in her brief soliloquy the simple logic, the truth that is the heart of a pack.

“Thanks Sosh.” Dak said, raising his head to address her.

“Yeah, thanks.” Stone added, the others nodding their heads in agreement.

Without further conversation or hesitation they began, and headed for the trail back down the mountain. Nearing the trailhead, Sasha looked back at the crowded campus. The New Lodge Village was waking. Thick smoke billowed from fires starting up for the day. The sounds and signs of myriad activities began to fill the yard as it receded.

Then, at the edge of the clearing, she saw Rol. He was standing and watching Sasha and her teammates trot away down the trail. His face seemed to grow longer, his shoulders drooped. His hand went to his eyes as he turned and walked slowly and forlornly back toward the buildings.

Then The Lodge disappeared behind the hill.

Almost Home

“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.”

Flight To The Mountain

Alexei continued his low whimpering as the team plied the eastbound trail, having left his brother Larik behind at the devastated village that had been Tunkan. The trail paralleled the river, and presently they came to the village fish wheel. This is a water wheel with baskets instead of paddles. Fish lifted in the baskets would be dumped to the side as the wheel came around to the holding bin. Herein could be held a hundred fish or more. Normally, folks from the village would empty the holding bin every day or every other at most. Now neglected several days, the bin overflowed, with many frozen, rotted or half-eaten fish lying on the ground. Fish now thrown onto the pile slid off, and they flipped and flopped until gravity returned them to the safety of the water.

Rol stopped the sled a few meters from the wheel, grabbed a fish for each dog, and tossed it to them. Having traveled two days without food, the team was ravenous, and Rol offered a second helping to those that ate their fill and looked for more. He then filled the sled bag with all the frozen fishes that would fit, all the while watching his perimeter for any signs of threat.

With the best intentions for feeding the hungry dogs, inexperienced Rol inadvertently hobbled the team. Now with full bellies they would be lethargic, and any strenuous work would result in stomach cramps and vomiting. As the boy tried to press the team eastward, the dogs ambled along slowly, until finally Stone stopped and sat behind Dak at the lead, halting all progress. The rest of the team followed suit, exhausted and stuffed with their meal, and laid down on the spot. No amount of coaxing from the driver could force them to stand, and finally Rol capitulated. They would rest here several hours, during which Rol sat on the sled until he dozed off. When he woke, snow was falling heavily. He and the sleeping dogs had a thick layer of snow on them. The boy rose, returned to the river to fetch water for the dogs, slaking his own thirst as well. Afterward, the group again began their eastward trek.

Before traveling far, the trail split around a spruce bog. The main trail bore right, leading around the swamp, back into the forest, the route to the river and the Dezhnevo Trail. The track to the left was much less worn, clearly used more by the wild inhabitants of the area than humans or dogs or sleds. With intent to avoid the merciless soldiers, Rol drove the team onto the narrow, northbound trail that skirted the bog before ascending the steep terrain. Snow continued to fall heavily, and the sky grew darker. The end of the day drew near. The sun, blocked from view by the snow storm, commenced its half-dip below the horizon. The occasional deciduous tree could be seen preparing for winter, dressed now in its autumn raiment of yellow, red, gold and brown leaves. Low growing plants set forth seeds, falling or blowing about, or transported by wild friends. The squeaky honking of a flock of snow geese could be heard crossing the sky, bound for milder climes. The air grew colder with each passing hour. The trail underfoot became hard as rock, and the snow accumulated on it.

As the team left the bog behind them, Rol spotted a flag hanging from a tree branch that arched over the trail. Several strips of leather had been tied together and hung. Perhaps this is a marker for a cache of goods, Rol thought. As desperate as his situation was, Rol would not disturb such a cache. Not only would it be unheard of to take something that doesn’t belong to you, but a cache on a trail could be a re-supply someone may be counting on. To rely on such a repository on a trek then find it to be missing could spell tragedy under the harshest conditions. As the team passed the flag, Rol saw the strips were fringes with a distinctive color pattern. When he saw it was the same pattern repeated on the racing sled and harness, he realized this flag was left by Tun. This caused him to pause and consider perhaps this was a message meant for him. Could Tun have cached provisions for the boy, having known he had just two days’ food and would find no re-supply at Tunkan? Maybe the fleeing group chose to lighten their loads by leaving some cargo behind. Knowing Tun’s thoughtfulness, it would be like him to leave something for Rol. Something from the Gifting Giant.

The sense of familiarity, the known, the link to someone fond of him brought Rol some warm comfort out on this lonely, cold trail. He stopped and secured the snow hook, and walked to the tree to look for a secreted stash. He walked all around the tree, kicking at the snow, and looked up the trunk for a pack tied above the reach of bears. He explored the adjacent area and trees, searched intently for anything that looked disturbed, out-of-place, or heaped in a pile. He could find nothing. Perhaps the flag was reference to something that no longer existed, or was simply a trail marker. Returning to the sled, the party again commenced to move steadily along in the snow-filled evening.

Not infrequently, the trail seemed to vanish through Larch stands, thickets, gaps between huge boulders. Often Rol could see no trail at all, and more than once feared he had missed a turn or made some misstep that led to a dead-end. Dak at the lead and the rest of the team never hesitated, and seemed to pick out the trail where none could be discerned, continuing on with steady uphill progress.

Before long, the group came upon another flag made of Tun’s jacket fringe. Rol again searched for a cache of goods, a map, anything that might be indicated by the marker. Again, his efforts were fruitless, and they pressed onward, presuming these were trail markers, yet encouraged by the thought that this was Tun’s trail. The team continued their ascent up the craggy side of the mountain, through narrow ravines in the ancient bedrock, across flat spans of granite covered in ankle-deep snow, across a tiny frozen creek where Rol stopped for water.

The half-set sun cast a surreal orange glow in the snowy sky as they came to a lean-to. Here, high on this hill, far from the main trail, Rol finally felt they could stop and pitch camp. He started a fire, keeping it small to avoid a plume of smoke that might advertise his presence. He gave another fish to each dog, and roasted one in the fire for himself. The first mouthful of fish seemed the finest thing Rol had ever tasted. He ravenously ate all the flesh he could strip from the bones, and crunched a few of the bones down as well. Fed and tired, he curled in a corner of the lean-to, wishing he’d grabbed a hide or blanket from the pile around Chimlik. The air grew increasingly colder, and just as he began to shiver a little, the wild Black and White Husky came over and curled beside him, pressing his body close to warm the boy. Rol was asleep in minutes, and in his slumber laid his arm across the big dog.

All the dogs slept deeply, except Alexei.

He would wake often, and stand facing the backtrail, staring for long periods of time. The steady snow piled atop him as if he were a statue. Only the occasional soft cry betraying his thoughts.