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.

Strangers

“Oh, I know where we are now.” Umka said, “We’re almost to the place where we picked up the new dogs.”

Sasha was eager to see her former home, pack and people. It had been nearly two moons since she and Anchu had left the Homestead to join Tun’s team. She recalled how she could have sworn she’d smelled Jiak at Festival in Tunkan. That just couldn’t be, or the scent of their passing here would linger on the trail.

The team was beginning to grow weary, having been on the trail most of a day, immediately following the strenuous race. Rol had not stopped for a break the whole trip. He was eager to get to Bek and Nina’s, and didn’t think like a musher. Experienced drivers know a team could not be pushed too hard, or one might find oneself unexpectedly without transportation. The team sensed a certain urgency from Tun and Rol, and forgave the young man’s errors, pressing on without complaint in spite of tired, aching muscles.

As the group topped the next rise, Rol was overjoyed to see the dense, near-black spruce forest not too far distant. Tun had said there would be just a single trail henceforth to the moraine. Sasha yipped with excitement, and did a little hop. Anchu, too, wiggled and barked, anxious to see Mother and all the dogs of the old Homestead.

The sun remained a quarter set as the team transited the forest. Its golden glow illuminated the snow and woods, a deep amber cast thrown on everything. The cloud cover continued to move off to the east, and temperatures plummeted as the unblanketed Earth was now exposed to deep space. The Spirit Lights danced and fluttered through the heavens, green and gold, red and purple, their great fingers of light arching over Sasha and the team. Behind the fluid atmospheric light show could be seen stars, welcoming the return of night to Kamchatka, the steppes, the Katmai and the Chukchi Sea. The sun refused to dip more than a quarter of itself below the horizon. It would be a dozen more days or so before it would set in totality.

Soon the team emerged from the forest and beheld the vast moraine, their destination in sight. Sasha was beside herself with anticipation as they reached the sidecut trail descending the valley wall. She half-expected to see Mother still standing in the place on the trail from which she bade her offspring farewell. No such vision welcomed her, and though she knew it seemed unlikely, she felt some disappointment nonetheless. Sasha began to notice some peculiarities, some things that just seemed irregular, which started her thinking.

“There’s no scent on this trail from any recent passing. This is the East Trapline trail, and would be run at least once a week.” The trail itself was dusted with the day’s snow, and otherwise looked untrod. No runner marks or paw prints in the soft earth. Once at the bottom of the sidecut, the team pulled Rol across the flat expanse of the valley floor, now less than a mile from the island of Spruce Trees encircling the Homestead.

Then a strange scent met the noses of the team. So unusual was it that they all took notice. Aside from the smells of a large group of people that were unfamiliar, came an animal scent none on the team had hitherto known. It was a strong scent, indicating a likelihood that a number of these mysterious animals accompanied the party. There was a similarity to moose, maybe a little like reindeer, yet it differed enough to eliminate those species.

“Something strange here.” Sasha spoke aloud, more to herself than another. “What odd new animals could have been here? Why can’t I smell Bek, Nina or Jiak? Or even Nona the Cat?”

“And there’s no smoke.” added Anchu.

Now Sasha looked to the spruce stand and sniffed the air in rapidly repeated short bursts. There was no smell of the ever-present Home fire, no plume of smoke rising from the center of the grove.

“Who are these people? And what is that animal?” Dak posed the questions to his team, especially the oldest, Stone. “These are not people of our peninsula. I’ve never smelled some of these things.” His nose was almost touching the snow as he pulled the sled.

“Strangers.” Stone stated, with a tone expressing concern. Caution was in order.

“It’s so fun to meet new people!” Umka added, with inflections of excitement and welcome wonder.

As they entered the spruce stand, there were more signs on the trail, here where the wind did not obfuscate all with drifting snow. Two furrows could be seen, the tracks of a sledge. They were immediately recognizable as foreign due to their extreme width.

“Nobody from here to the End of the Cliff would use a sled that wide. It won’t even fit on some trails.” Stone shared his observations as the team rounded the last turn leading to the Homestead, and the buildings came into view.

Sasha and Anchu simultaneously barked out calls to Mother, Lema, Kotka and their people. They were all, Rol included, struck by the silence. No barks pealed forth welcomes or warnings, no people walked to the edge of the yard to greet the visitors.

Dak passed the door of the cabin and stopped, the rest of the team following suit without direction from Rol. Sasha’s heart nearly stopped as she looked to the cabin and saw the door standing wide open, snow covering the floor, drifted into piles around the wood stove, the table legs, the woodbox and the pantry door.

An eerie stillness hung in the air and over the team. All barking had ceased, all eight of them dumbstruck in consternation. As they looked around, they beheld one unsettling thing after another. Every dog house was empty. The primary team and secondary team were gone, as well as the other dozen dogs; the retirees, breeding stock, those on the mend, adopted orphans. Both Bek and Jiak’s sleds were gone. The smells of the strangers were strongest here. They had gathered, lingered, rested, conducted business.

“Hello?” Rol called tentatively, remaining on the runners of the sled. He peered into the empty cabin, and the shed where the door also stood open wide. “Hello!” he called more loudly. At this, Sasha, Anchu and Dak were compelled to bark a reinforcement to Rol’s voice. In the orange glow of the late summer night, the silent homestead seemed surreal.

“Am I dreaming?” Sasha asked aloud.

“If this is your dream I hope you wake up soon. I’m tired.” Larik replied.

Rol hesitantly disembarked and walked to the cabin. He leaned a hand against the doorframe and poked his head inside, and again called “Hello?”. The two tiny rooms could be seen in entirety from the door. “Bek? Jiak?” Rol called into the empty dwelling. He looked more closely into the home. It appeared as though the occupants vanished in the midst of an ordinary day. A few items remained on the table from a meal. A sewing kit laid open, the thread of the needle drawn through a new sole being attached to an old boot hung off the side of the table. A full bucket of dog chow waited to be served, now frozen solid beside the door.

“They’re gone.” Rol spoke aloud again. Perhaps to the team, perhaps making notes. Perhaps some human sound to fill the disconcerting void. He should be having energetic conversations now with Bek and Nina, petting the cat as they plied the welcome guest with hot food and beverages.

To say Sasha was disappointed would be a gross understatement. She felt she missed Jiak, Bek, Nina, even Nona the Cat, more now than she ever had. With this also came a nervousness, an anxiousness, bordering on fright. There were just so many odd circumstances here. Everyone, all the people, all the dogs, had simply vanished without reason or trace.

Then in the woods behind the dogs’ yard she saw movement. Low, and black and white, it was a dog. He was carefully placing trees between himself and these newcomers. Cautiously eyeing and assessing them. Suddenly, the head lifted.

“Sasha?” the black and white husky called out.

“Kotka!” Sasha barked in a joyous reply, repeated it as she hopped on her forelegs and whipped her tail in a wag of elation. The fugitive residents had returned, and Kotka was first to have arrived!

Kotka remained where he was, in the woods, behind a tree.

“Who is here with you? People, I mean.” He spoke in low tones, stared at the racing sled, his ears folded back on his head.

“It’s Rol. Tun sent us with him from Tunkan to fetch Bek and Jiak to Festival.”

“They’re all gone.” Kotka continued, slowly walking forward, scanning his horizons as one under threat, watching Rol for suspicious motives. “Strangers came and took them all. Many strangers. Rude, loud, shouting and shoving people.” Now Sasha noticed how disheveled Kotka appeared, and he was visibly shaking, trembling with fear. “Bek called them ‘Soldiers’.”

Duty Bound

The lightest of snowflakes drifted Earthward through the still air, flitting about their wandering courses as Rol drove the team eastward on the Tunkan Trail. Or, rather it may be said that Rol gripped tightly the handle of the dogsled as the team charged toward their destination.

Rol was not as well-practiced in dogsledding as some. His Chavchu family of reindeer herders typically drove sledges pulled by the big, hoofed animals built for the Arctic. His father held little stock in dogs as beasts of burden. “A man does more work caring for dogs than the dogs will ever give in return.” Evgenii had said. Rol’s family had three dogs, but all were herders treated as pets, and were not harness trained. The young man had ridden upon and driven a number of dogsleds, nonetheless, and though he felt less skilled than the best, he was confident in his capabilities. There really was no work for him on this trek, for now. Besides holding on to the back bow, he need do little else as the team seemed to follow Tun’s spoken orders, and knew where they were going.

The dogs splashed their way across Silver Creek, but Rol’s lack of dogsledding experience showed as he remained on the runners. The sled ground to a halt the moment it entered the creek and struck the rocky bottom. Rol hopped off the sled, recalling he’d seen it done this way when one encountered open water. As they cleared the creek, Rol was about to call out “Gee!” to the team, to put them on the westbound trail, but before he could, the team turned and did so on their own without commands.

Not far up the trail, Rol came to the first of several choices among the routes. Here, a sidecut bore off south, to the left. The right fork held more of a westbound heading. Again, before calling out a command, the team pulled onto the right fork, and continued up a long, shallow incline.

The air temperature fell through the afternoon, rather unusual at the onset of a light snow. As the team plied the trail, the muddy ruts and dog tracks through soft snow began to freeze solid, making it a bone-jarring bumpy ride for Rol. As they topped the rise, the trail split again. Here the main trail took a gentle turn to the left, while a side trail intersected it, and ran parallel to the ridgeline. The dogs held to the main trail, and a twinge of anxiety flowed through Rol. He had to trust that the dogs knew their course, as he did not. He could only hope that they were bound for the forest, and not running a trapline or following the scent of someone or something of greater interest to the dogs. The route they took coursed up and down over drumlins and low hills. At the top of each, Rol would crane his neck and stretch and try to look westward, seeking the edge of the spruce forest. Alas, he could see no further than the next hill or two, as each seemed to rise slightly higher than the last.

The light snow continued to float about in the air. Individual snowflakes that seemed to flit and dart like birds on the wing. So sparse were they, it seemed the clouds were carefully cutting each one from delicate lace before dropping them gently to the Earth below. As the clouds continued to move to the east, a slim band of clear sky could be seen on the western horizon. The edge of the cloud bank was clearly defined as if its clean edge had been cut with a sharp knife. Below the cloud cover, the orange-red summer sun slowly sank in the sky. As Rol rode along, he watched as, for the first time in weeks, it began to dip below the horizon.  The air remained still, and felt continually colder as the snowflakes increased slightly in number, drifting down like so much white confetti.

At the top of the next hill, the trail split in numerous directions and was trammelled wide by passing herds of reindeer. One trail was a switchback to the east, disappearing into a ravine. There were four trails that headed generally west. Here, Dak stopped, awaiting a command from the driver. Rol, unaware that Dak was trained to stop at such an intersection, feared the team did not know which trail to take. His stomach flipped in a moment of nervousness. He wasn’t concerned with becoming lost, a back trail will always lead you home. He was bound to keep his promise. Bek’s homestead may have troubles and he was to discover them. He worried, too, that Tun anticipated his return tomorrow with word of his findings. There was no time to be on the wrong trail, but to Rol, each looked the same.

“The one in the center, up the hill.” Sasha called to Dak from her position behind Stone. Dak did not hesitate or wait for Rol, but got the team underway on the trail she indicated.

Rol harbored some concern that he couldn’t be certain this was the right way. He considered stopping the team to try to discern somehow for himself which was the trail to the forest. Once again, he had to trust that the dogs, particularly Sasha and Anchu, would know the way that led to the moraine.

The sun continued its dip below the horizon, and now a quarter of it was set. All of the sky and snow around Rol and the team took on a golden-red glow, and the clouds above darkened in hues of purple.

“Not darkness!” thought Rol, realizing he hadn’t planned on the possibility. Now it occured to him that he really had not prepared for this trip at all. In the exuberance of youth he simply hopped onto the sled and rode off, relying on the responsible adults for any serious need or considerations. If not for Tun packing provisions, he would have ridden off without food for himself or the dogs.

He thought now of those long, impatiently-waiting minutes when his father would tick down his well-memorized checklist. He’d assure everything was packed on the sledge. He’d open packs to verify if he couldn’t remember seeing this thing or that properly stowed. Rol realized how, over many trips, his father’s preparations had saved them time and again from tight situations, the elements, hunger, possibly even agony and death. He wished now that he had a checklist of his own, and that he’d employed it for this trip. Now, as the team climbed westward along the trail, Rol’s mind was preoccupied with the list of things he did not bring.

No spare boots to wear while his mukluks were drying, soaked in the creek crossing. Nothing for shelter. No tent or canvas or even a hide to pull over oneself, the extents of the trip seemingly an overnight stay at a friend’s home. His father would never leave home without some option for shelter. Who could know when a storm will arise, or perhaps one of your reindeer will suffer injury or death? His stomach turned until he thought he might vomit when he realized he’d brought nothing to start a fire. This raised such panic that he immediately halted the sled.

“Whoa! Whoa team! Whoa!”.

The dogs responded instantly to their training, and stopped three-quarters of the way up the long draw.

“Ugh! Starting on a hill.” Larik barked out. “What is this guy doing?”

“Maybe there’s something ahead. A bear or something.” Anchu volunteered.

Rol almost stepped off the sled to pull the lead dog around one hundred eighty degrees to begin straightaway to return to Tunkan. His father’s face came into his mind. He spoke no words, but looked confidently and proudly at the young man. In spirit, he conveyed calm. Rol recalled the many days afield with his father, and his mentoring to prepare for life in the Arctic. “First, we don’t panic. There is no circumstance to which we cannot apply our keenness. Your will can create solutions. We respect the Ice Queen, but must not withdraw. If it is our day to die, we must do so. We can believe it is a good day to die.” In an instant, a sense of peace washed over Rol. It was as if his father were here with him, watching over him.

“We will not withdraw.” Rol called aloud to the team, who swung their heads around, wondering what his barks meant, recognizing no commands or even words. All the fear and anxiety in Rol seemed to ebb as he imagined what his father would do, were he here.

“We will not withdraw!” Rol now shouted to the trail, the dogs, the sky, the snow, the three-quarter sun, and the Ice Queen. “Today may be a good day to die, but we have other plans.”

He realized he was cut from the same stock as his father, and trained by one of the best for life in this frozen wilderness. Fire or no fire.

“Mush! Go! Mush you dogs!”

Finally, words the team could comprehend. They began again to pull up the long hill.

“Starting on a hill…” Larik grumbled.

Circles Expanding

When Sasha awoke, the camp was devoid of people. Dak was gone, too, presumably with Tun. The rest of the dogs remained, tethered by their leads. Most were sleeping, although Umka was up, looking eagerly into the village and the hubbub of activity. His tail swung side to side slowly, an unconscious action as he watched people and dogs and reindeer going about the business of Festival.

Unbeknownst to the dogs, Tun had found the best doctor he could, a grandmother called Vetna, from Ogrut, a tiny village far to the north.  He took Tati to Vetna’s camp to be cared for. Through the long, sunlit night, the young woman slept, all the while shivering, her teeth chattering. Tun sat the whole time beside Tati, and continued to remain by her side as Vetna prepared herbal infusions and poultices to apply to the patient.

A runner was sent to deliver word to Tati’s father, Sarut. He had received word that his wife, at home in Kantuc, had taken ill. He had left Tunkan while Tati was running the race, asking Tun to look after her, and to bring her home to Kantuc if he was unable to return. Tun assured Sarut that he would care for Tatiana as if she were his own, to which he replied “I know you will. Thank you, Tun.”

Tun headed back to his camp, summoning Rol and beginning to pack provisions in a sled bag. When the young man arrived, Tun had a serious look on his face, and addressed Rol in a low voice. His speech was slow, metered, as it is when one is thinking deeply and simultaneously composing sentences. His hands moved, not quickly but steadily as he continued loading the bag onto the racing sled.

“I am concerned about my friend Bek and his family. I would have gone to their home today but for Tati taking ill. Now Sarut has been called to Kantuc, and I am responsible for caring for her, and therefore cannot leave. Will you go to Bek’s in my stead? Will you check that they are alright, or find out if they are not?”

“Surely there must be a simple reason for their delay.” Rol expressed in comforting tones to the big man. He had never seen Tun vexed by anxiety. It was a little unsettling to think the situation was so worrisome that Tun could be shaken by it. What tragedy must have passed to affect the ever-smiling giant so? “Perhaps Nina’s had a baby. Or a dog a litter of pups.” he said encouragingly.

“Perhaps the latter!” Tun managed a giggle, briefly unfurrowing his brow. “Still, Jiak would have come with a team. For the race.”

The young man grew uncomfortable, unaccustomed to dealing with such weighty, grown-up matters. He was, however, coming of age, and understood that he would need to learn to navigate such things. He would need to be bold and brave and decisive as men like Tun, Bek, and his own father.

“I’ll go as quickly as I can. I can leave now.” While Tun did not smile, his stern face relaxed a little at the welcome assistance. “But the racing sled…”. Rol placed his hand on the back bow, and could swear he could feel the energy of years of racing, countless dogs, the many drivers.

“It will be much faster than the cargo sled.” Tun answered his unspoken query. “This is more important than keepsakes.”

Without further conversation, Tun and Rol harnessed the team, each man deep within his own thoughts. In silence, they hitched them to the ornate sled. The dogs sensed something odd. Tun packed a sled but didn’t break camp. Now he was hitching them up to race when there were no other signs of racing in the entire village. Where was Tati? Why did Tun seem so forlorn? Why is Rol readying to board the racing sled? As they finished preparations for departure, they again addressed one another.

“Do you know the way to Bek’s? The homestead in the moraine, west of the Dezhnevo trail?

“I know of the place, though I’ve never been there.” Rol replied.

“West from Silver Creek crossing, through the forest and down into the valley. There’s only one trail once you reach the forest.” Tun spoke as he checked tug lines and the condition of the dogs’ paws. “It will take most of a day to get there, so I hope to see you at the end of tomorrow or the day after. I’ll stay here in Tunkan.” He paused, and looked across the village to Vetna’s camp.

“Or I may need to go to Kantuc.” he thought aloud. “I’ll leave a sign for you if I do.” his eyes wandered from the sled to Rol to Vetna’s camp as he spoke, focusing on none of them. “Find Chimlik. He’ll know if I’ve gone, and where.” Tun referred Rol to the person that amounted to Chief in Tunkan, the Donat. This was really more of a mayoral position, being selected by the village populace for leadership.

“I’ve packed three days’ provisions for you and the dogs.” the wheels turned behind Tun’s eyes as he spoke in a level tone. “But I have no more bread. Only salmon and jerky. You should have some biscuits…” the big man spoke almost unconsciously. Meandering and repeating thoughts as he added Rol to the list of those who would consume his waking and sleeping hours with his worry for their safety.

Rol felt himself growing, aging, maturing with each passing minute. No longer the boy fulfilling demands of adults. No longer the young man without skills or means. Now a revered leader, a hero, called on him, entrusting him with the most valuable things in his life; his dog team, his racing sled, and most importantly, the security of those he loved.

“I’ll be just fine, Tun.” he heard himself say. Or rather, he heard a man that sounded not unlike his own father and this mentor before him. A man that understood community and loyalty and commitment. “You take care of Tati,” he continued emboldened by this hitherto unknown sense of duty that filled his entire being now, to every corner of his soul. “and yourself. Thank you for calling on me Tun. Rest assured, I will not fail you.”

“You can never fail me, Rol.” Tun looked into his eyes, “so long as your heart is true. Do your best.”

Suddenly, Rol, who had felt a little taller, a little stronger, sensed the child within. A flash of fear struck him in the gut, charged with such an important duty. Self-doubt rocked him, leaving him uncertain about his ability to do all of this.

“Thank you, Rol. Your father should be very proud of you.” Tun stood, towering over the youth, removed his mitt, and held out his hand. As the glow of the low sun and the flickering fire illuminated the big man’s face, Rol could see in it the anguish he carried as he held Rol’s hand in his own. In the next moment, he saw this soften with relief that here was someone whom he could trust to care for such delicate things, our loved ones. And in that moment, Rol began the lifelong internal dialogue known to all men.

The man here standing addressed the child within. To share joys and laughter with child-like wonder. To reassure the child that there was now a grownup to care for it, always. Grown Rol grabbed Tun’s hand with a strong grip, reminding child Rol that all the teaching and learning and growing has led to this moment, and many more grownup moments that lay ahead.

“It’s what we do.” Rol commanded the finish to the conversation. The time for talk had passed. “Get up, dogs. Let’s go! Hike!” The team rose, but paused, confused. Alexei and Umka took a couple of steps at the command, but Dak simply looked to Tun, his mouth hanging half-open in a dog smile.

“Go! Go with Rol, go!” Tun gestured and clapped his mitted hands together. Dak took two steps and the line behind him tightened, unmoving. Stone and Larik shifted their weight between paws, looked at Rol, then at Tun. “Yes! Yes!” continued the giant, “Go to Bek’s with Rol!”

Sasha heard Bek’s name among the human words. In a moment, it came to her; Tun wanted the team to take Rol to the Homestead. She swung her head rapidly addressing the team, and barked her “Let’s go!” bark.

“What are we supposed to be doing?” asked Anchu.

“We’re going to Bek and Nina’s.” Sasha replied in an excited but businesslike tone.

“We’re going Home? Now? But what about Tun?”

“I don’t know, brother. I’m not certain what the plan is, but I know this is what Tun is asking of us. That’s enough for me.”

“Me, too!” Dak called from the lead with an edge in his voice, and implied impatience.

“Me, too.” Anchu replied to his sister, Dak and the team, resolving himself to duty and abandoning questions.

“Me, too!” said Stone, and then Umka, followed by the remaining three.

“Come on you dogs, mush!” newly-minted grownup Rol took his responsibility seriously, “Hike! Let’s go!”

Now the team burst from the start, snow and mud flying as they raced their way across the village, and away from Tun. The gray sky hung silently over them, as a few small snowflakes began to fall. He stood and watched the team disappear, and remained until their barks and calls could no longer be heard.

Tun looked skyward, stretched his arms as wide as he could.

“Great Spirit, watch over these innocents.”