Caravan Draft Chapter Two

Chapter Two
Dark March

 

At the lead, Dak held his eyes tightly closed, marching blindly at a plodding pace in the brutal Arctic night. The tornadic wind shoved menacingly at his chest, resisting his efforts, and hurled a never-ending onslaught of tiny frozen particles at him. Even if daylight, he would be unable to keep his eyes open.

Behind him, thirteen weary dogs shared the burden of the heavily laden cargo sled, similarly holding eyes closed, ears folded down, the bitter cold biting at their feet, their noses, their thinly-coated bellies.

Stone was behind Dak, so drained and tired that his closed eyes often convinced him he was asleep, and he would nod off while walking. He’d awaken to the harsh reality of the merciless night, suddenly feeling the frigid air and the relentless wind. Again he would remind himself that he’d seen worse. This malevolent storm still did not equal the pain felt the time he fell through the ice into the nearly-frozen water of the river.

Never before had he been rendered helpless. The water, a fraction of a degree above solid ice, almost instantly numbed muscles and arrested their motion, stabbed at every inch of skin like a thousand knives, drove the very breath from his lungs. A strong swimmer, he now found all four legs unresponsive, and they made just the slightest ellipses despite his greatest urging. He watched the water rise to consume him, to flood his open eyes and wash in agonizing waves into his ears.

He stopped breathing. His next breath would be his last, he knew. He was scared and saddened, but ready to escape the unendurable pain. He ceased his efforts to fight, and surrendered. A strange calm enveloped him, and he was surprised to find himself admiring the beauty of the sunlight as it danced on the crystal ceiling of ice above him.

It was not Stone’s time, however, and a force that seemed as mighty as the gods themselves clenched a great talon onto his vertebrate lifeline, catching at the last possible moment the last talonful of tail. Swords of pain shot up his back and up his neck as his entire body weight was hauled by this delicate appendage, against the current of the river and carrying the added weight of saturated fur. The agony of his spine rivaled that of being frozen alive, and with this he said goodbye to this life, and exhaled.

Instantly, his pain subsided, and for a moment, everything became brighter. Then he was running to his favorite thing in the world, Tun’s open arms. Then, as quickly as it came, the light faded.

Excruciating pain rapidly returned to Stone’s world when he awoke to find himself inches from the coals of a hot fire. It was not the heat that caused his suffering, but the return of warm blood to partly-frozen extremities. He couldn’t move, and saw with horror that his coat was solid ice as if it had been painted on layer by layer. It clad him like a suit of armor, prevented his movement, and laid on him like a ton of rock.

Stone stumbled and awoke again on the desolate tundra behind Dak, walking through the frozen night. His ears felt as if they were on fire, and he again recalled how this minor discomfort paled in comparison to the worst he’d felt.

Every dog, and Rol, maybe his reindeer, too, wondered how long they would continue. Some, perhaps, wondered how long they could continue without dropping from exhaustion. Mile by mile the world grew colder and the gale grew greater. Barely walking now, they moved slowly, step by step ever eastward into the withering wind, and there was no sign of stopping. More than one dog began to limp, hold up a paw occasionally, hopping along on three.

Anchu’s regular place was fourth in line, right behind his sister. On the East Woods Trail he first thought they were simply bound for another adventure. Still in his first year, he was slow to sense the fear in the air. Running to escape looks a lot like running a race on the surface of it. The clues slowly revealed themselves to the young dog. A lack of encouraging calls from humans, or rallying cries from teammates. No jovial exchanges between the people, or sidebar challenges between canine athletes. No one was talking, no one was laughing. No one was smiling.

Then Anchu saw the hue of trepidation and anxiousness, smelled the apprehension and dismay. Now the fear reached him and flooded over him. He was afraid, and didn’t even understand the reason to be fearful. Afraid of the fear itself. Now he trudged through the coldest, windiest, blackest night he’d ever experienced. In a place he was sure he’d never been, even further from his peaceful home on the moraine than he had been at Tun’s mountaintop Lodge.

He called to his sister, barely a dog’s length away, and could hardly hear his own voice above the hurricane. He tried again, but gulping the loads of frozen air required for barking brought sharp pains. He abandoned the effort. He was thirsty, but the windswept tundra was as clean as a kitchen floor. No snow to eat. Nothing but rock hard ice with bits of shale in it. He wished they’d pitch camp. Wished there was a fire and a hot meal. Wished he could talk to his brave sister, who always made him feel safe and protected. He wished they were Home, and this thought caused him to begin a whimpering that would continue through the night, unheard by any but the Ice Queen.

Behind Anchu walked people-loving Umka. After a separation from Tun, he was overjoyed they were together again, and eagerly anticipated the time they would go back to their regular, adventurous and fun lives. Following Tun as he puttered and worked. Curled beside his bedroll at a trail camp, or winning a race for him at Summer Festival. Umka thought of the innumerable evenings on the porch of the dogs’ house at The Lodge, Tun singing his songs, patting and petting his dogs as each drifted off to sleep. He dwelled on this vision, and despite the bitter cold, felt warm within.

Alexei was equally grateful for having reunited with his brother Larik, after Larik quit the team to stay behind in the smoking ruins of Tunkan. After the grueling round-trip to Bek’s, and Rol continuing without a break, he refused to stand and return to the trail. The pack would not accept this, and returned to retrieve him after their duties were fulfilled, delivering Rol safely home. Alexei vowed he would never be apart from Larik again. He would stick beside him through anything, even face death itself by his side.

Umka, too, would make such a silent pledge. Once together again, he swore never to separate himself from the smiling giant.

Behind Rol’s sled, out of view of Tun and the team, Larik followed amidst several orphan dogs who had attached themselves to their fellow emigrants. The hasty nature of their meetings, without introductions, left them unaware of one another’s names. The subsequent race up the mountain then into the storm perpetuated this condition, and the insistent wind extinguished any possibility of conversation.

His thoughts argued with themselves, alternately seeking to justify or curse his presence here on this pitiless plain. He should have stayed in Tunkan, where he’d decided he would separate from the team, live independently, emancipate himself from the harness and the sled and the life of a working dog. The vision of living free in the wild expanse of the Chukchi Peninsula called to him. He was ready to get on with it when his brother returned, and Alexei was keen to do anything for Larik, to be together as they had since birth. Apart barely a day, Alexei could see no light in his world without his ever-present brother, and went to find him. He made no consideration of what he would leave behind, and without knowledge of what the future would bring, it was then Alexei vowed that it was life with Larik, or he’d as soon have no life at all.

Now Larik thought of that day, when the rest of the pack came to find him and Alexei. How they decided democratically that as long as they were separated from Tun and at a loss as to his whereabouts, they would join Larik and form their own wild dog pack together. That mild morning was like a dream, and the happiness, joy and revelry of the day was Larik’s fondest memory.

Still, he was thankful and glad to be running with Tun, now that they’d found one another again. He hadn’t realized until he saw him again just how much he loved him.

“Great.” came the response from the other side of Larik’s thoughts, “so now we’re out here and not even with the pack. Surrounded by dogs we don’t even know. Freezing. This is the worst storm I’ve ever tried to mush through, and the people aren’t stopping to camp.” He thought again of the dream, striking out on his own if need be, to live the wild and free life. “I could start right now I suppose.” The debates continued in his head. “I could pitch my own camp and make a bed right here. Well, if there was anything to make a bed in. Can’t just sleep on the ice on the open tundra, you’d just freeze solid.”

He continued to walk as he argued with himself, occasionally opening one eye as best he could against the stinging ice pellets. He’d look to assess the dogs around him, maybe recruit them for his wild dog pack. Sometimes he’d try to look ahead, to see his brother, Tun, Stone or Willow.

This thought startled him, as he remembered Willow, the pack mother that partly raised him, had died last winter in a bear encounter. It was Sasha now. Sasha was now their pack mother.

Sharp pains flashed up his left foreleg as the sub-freezing miles wore on. He could see nothing ahead, not even Rol’s back, darkness and wind-driven snow unyielding.

Now he felt he wished he had reported for duty in answer to Tun’s call. At least he would be near them. Behind Stone and Mother, and Tun right behind him. He longed to be with them now, and tried to move through the train to catch up to them, but the pain in his leg was amplified by the effort, and he could make no gains.

Larik saw the dog beside him begin to lift the same paw. He drew closer to him to be heard above the raging storm.

“I’m Larik.” He shouted into the dog’s ear. The other leaned in, “Omok.” he replied.

They each opened ever-so-slightly the eye facing the other. The blistering wind and stinging snow seemed to subside a bit, seemed more bearable now, to facilitate this meeting. They held this look for a moment. This was not an ordinary introduction. This was the kind of instant bond born of shared calamity.

To be vexed by life’s ills and difficulties is unavoidable. To face them alone is unimaginable. Larik and Omok, who had each felt the isolation of this desperate flight, muzzled by the roaring winds, now felt some kinship.

Kindred in the face of their foe, the mighty Ice Queen. Each thinking that now they felt less alone as they began to wonder if they had pressed too hard, gone too far.

As they began to wonder if this is the place they would die.

 

Caravan Draft Chapter One

Chapter One
Summit

Sasha could hear the pounding of her own heart in her ears as she hastened along the snow-covered frozen trail. Without conscious will, she had assumed the same demeanor and posture as the other dogs. Her tail was pulled down and close, and she hunched as she ran to reduce her profile, ears laid back on her head. She breathed heavily but held in her tongue. Her muscles trembled though she wasn’t cold, and her stomach seemed to be rolling and roiling inside her. These were the physical manifestations of fear, something of which she had learned a great deal in a very short time.

The party with whom she was fleeing stretched out in a single-file line, racing their way over the East Woods trail at a punishing, reckless pace. Ahead of them drove their beloved human companion and driver, Tun, an eight-dog substitute team pulling his overloaded cargo sled. Behind Tun rode their young friend Rol, driving Tun’s slim, ornate racing sled, it too heaped with belongings. Rol drove a single reindeer in harness, and slapped the reins across its flanks, compelling it to move faster. They stole looks over their shoulders, hunching and trembling like the dogs.

Surrounding Sasha was her pack, her dogsledding teammates, her family. Ahead was Dak, the skilled lead dog, and Stone, the oldest. Beside her, her own brother Anchu, and behind them energetic Alexei and his brother, strong wheel dog Larik. Umka, the seventh on the team, ran beside Kotka, Sasha’s mentor and longest-held friend, a slight limp betraying his healed broken leg. The entire entourage ran as fast as they could manage toward the summit of Tun’s mountain to escape their pursuers.

What had been one of the finest days in Sasha’s short life was subsequently overshadowed by harrowing and mysterious events. The Summer Festival at the tiny village of Tunkan brought Sasha and Anchu to their first dog sled race. An unexpected and exciting win was a sweet surprise, and the team reveled in their success.

Before a day passed, they were called upon to travel with Rol to Sasha and Anchu’s birthplace, the homestead of Bek, Nina and their son Jiak, to determine the reason for their absence from Festival. Sasha was eager to see Jiak, her first love and dogsledding driver, after two moons in her new home. She was equally eager, if not perhaps more so, to see Mother again, and relate to her all the exciting things that had passed since their parting. She would see Kotka, and all the dogs of her former team.

Upon arrival the home was found to be deserted, and every dog in the yard was gone except Kotka, who had fled to the woods. He described a frightening incursion by strangely-clad invaders, taking all the dogs and people with them. Bek had called them “soldiers”.

When they returned to Tunkan, the laughing village, host of the Summer Festival, they found it pillaged and torched. The fearsome intruders from the west were responsible for this, and none of it made the least sense to Sasha or her teammates.

Now Tun and Rol pressed eastward, fleeing their persecutors, last to leave in a long string of refugees. Chavchu reindeer herders drove their animals ahead of them, and more than a dozen dog sleds carried people, families and their belongings. A number of orphaned dogs followed with the group, similarly driven from the only homes they had ever known.

Both sleds were loaded to capacity with all that could be hurriedly made to fit. The air was crisp and cold, and the snow well-packed, yet Tun’s team struggled as the trail pitched uphill. He stepped off the runners and trotted behind the sled to reduce the load. Higher and higher they continued to climb until they emerged from the forest near the peak of the mountain. The next leg would be the most difficult, as the steep slope loomed before them.

“Whoa now.” Tun called to the team, ”All dogs down.”

Most of the dogs laid down in their traces, panting hard and welcoming the rest stop. Two dogs up front, who looked enough alike to be twins, stood staring ahead at the trail, awaiting the command to move again.

The imposing peak of the great mountain stood before them. Ancient etched and jagged granite, with strips and stripes of glacier, snow and ice. An intimidating incline without a trail or cover, the wind careened up its face and threw itself from its top to form billowing clouds of blowing snow in the sky.

Tun spoke to Rol and rifled hastily through his sled, extracting a gang line extension and a bag of harnesses. He called his loyal team to him; Dak and Stone, Alexei and Larik, Anchu and Sasha and Umka. One by one he placed their mushing harnesses on them, assisted by Rol, and commenced to connect tug lines to the long gang line, already equipped with eight strong Chukchi dogs. Despite calls, Larik did not report for duty, but Tun wasted no time returning to their climb. With fourteen dogs in tandem, the tiring troupe again attacked the ascent.

The early winter wind brought with it a haunting scent, climbing the slope and stampeding past the party. All the dogs seemed to detect it simultaneously as they lifted their noses to the air.

“The strangers!” Stone called to the pack, and they turned their heads to the timberline as it receded.

Fourteen dogs and a man were no match for the million-ton mountain which has stood for millennia. They slowed to a crawl, frequently coming to a complete halt. Tun would shove and heave, and more than once Rol needed to join him to move the long cargo sled foot by foot up the steep slope. Both men turned their eyes often to the backtrail.

At long last the crest of the summit drew near, as Tun continued to push the heavy sled, and every dog strained at the long gang line. One more step, one more step. Each inch of progress purchased with exhausted muscles and heaving breaths.

Dak, in the lead, was first over the top, right behind him Stone. Before Sasha reached the ridge, they disappeared over it, and so it went with each of the dogs in the long procession.

As Sasha crested the ridgeline, she was startled to discover they were on a bluff that towered hundreds of feet above the base. A narrow shelf ran perpendicularly, barely wide enough for a sled. The whistling wind inundated all with blinding clouds of blowing snow. Winds driven up the face of the cliff would collide with and part the curtain to reveal a vast, featureless plain below. As far as she could see, nothing but flat, frozen windswept tundra greeted her.

“Haw! Haw! Haw! Haw! Haw!” Tun’s powerful, booming voice could barely be heard above the Arctic din cascading over the mountaintop and shrouding everything in white. If not for Dak’s recollections of vague familiarity of this rarely-trod route, the sharp turn might well have resulted in disaster, and a blind helpless plunge into the rock-strewn abyss.

The group skirted along a narrow ledge, twenty feet below the driftcap, parallel to the cliff. The overwhelming blowing snow whited out everything beyond a few feet, making for a nerve-wracking transit, the precipice beside them a constant threat. It seemed one misstep could find them in mid-air at any moment, though the buffeting wind served to shove them back against the wall of granite. They continued along this seismic cut, guided only by Dak’s nose and their faith in his instincts. It crept its way down from the peak of the mountain, leading them eventually to the wide open tundra.

When finally they were on level ground again, they turned due eastward and struck out across the stark landscape. Sunset was drawing near, and here the wind raced across the open terrain without hindrance, and reached phenomenal speeds. Ice bits and even tiny shards of rock peppered the party like miniature gunfire, as they bore down directly into the Arctic headwind. They followed a freshly-laid trail, preceded by the others that had fled before them.

Their breakneck pace waned as the blistering wind blinded them and hammered them with brutal gusts. The sky grew darker and the numbing temperatures grew ever colder. The frantic pace of the hillclimb and the sprinting undertaken when they reached the plain began to ebb. Gallops slowed to trots. Trots slowed to walking.

Now as darkness fell, the gale increased in its fury, and cold was driven through dog’s coats and humans’ alike. Sasha pondered at these strange days.

“Why do the strangers persecute us?” she wondered. Surrounded by all those she knew and loved, led by their strong friend Tun, Sasha was less fearful now, yet apprehensive about the future. Mystery loomed before her, and she thought now of all those she had longed to see since the odyssey began. Her mother, her human family of the homestead on the moraine, all of her former teammates and other dogs from her first home. Dear Jiak.

In the howling wind Sasha swore she heard their voices calling out to her. From someplace deep in the darkness, perhaps high above the smothering storm, they sent their spirits to her.

“We are all of us a pack,” came their soothing thoughts, “and a pack is a forever love.”

The sounds faded into the roar of the polar barrage, and Sasha leaned into her harness, ignoring the pain in her paws.

 

Skunks And Yoga

On The Widowmaker

 

Snow! Snow! Snow! Gosh I love snow. You can eat it and dig in it and run through it. You can spin three turns and have yourself a bed in an instant. And you don’t get overheated on your hike.

My person is excited about the third volume of my stories, as he finally got started on Caravan. I’m glad it’s fiction, because it’s a lot colder up above the Arctic Circle than it is here. It’s 16 degrees (F) here today, and with the wind, feels like 2 below zero (F). My team on the tundra is facing far lower temperatures and far greater winds. It must be fifty below where they are. I’ll just lay here by the wood stove and watch the old man write.

I took up two new hobbies. One is Yoga. I don’t know what it’s about but they have this thing called “downward dog”, and I’m a natural at it. This Yoga thing must be right up my alley.

The other thing is macrame. You know, tying knots. The only thing I have to work with is my jorring lead, but I’m making progress.

Had a skunk come around this week. Time for them to come out of hibernation. He was close to the house in the night, but in the morning was nowhere to be found. I suppose that’s good, cause every time I get a decent layer of skunk scent on me, my people wash it off with this awful-smelling, perfumey shampoo. Eww! And it will be three moons before I’ll be able to find a dead thing to roll in.

I know that skunk’s here somewhere.

 

Clear trails!

 

Sasha

 

My Stories

 

Hello:

I was totally surprised when my person published the first volume of my journals!

This is my story from the moment I open my eyes as a puppy, and follows me through my first spring.

I remember it like yesterday. Learning about home, family and people. Learning how to chase a bunny. I remember the first time I put on dog boots, how clumsy I was as a little puppy!

In this volume I also start my lessons in dogsledding, and learn what it’s like to be part of a team.

It just gets better from there!

Volume 1: Homestead is available in paperback and e-book on Amazon.com

If you enjoy the story, look for my second volume Lodge soon!

 

Clear trails!

Sasha