Caravan Draft Chapter Three

 

Chapter Three
Man Down

Tun was awakened by his lost-balance alarm as his hands slipped off the back bow. He swatted at the air for the handle as the sled moved out from under him, and he fell, flat on his back on the rock-hard ice, intense pain radiating from his pelvis and lower back. He looked up to see Rol’s reindeer about to walk over him, and he rolled painfully out of the way.
“Whoa! Whoa! Hold up! Whoa!” Tun called as loudly as his hoarse throat allowed, but it was to no avail. The team could not hear him over the roar of the raging storm, and continued to walk at their slow, steady pace.
Rol pulled the reins and halted his sled, stepped off to assist Tun to his feet. Trembling, he moved slowly, stooping awkwardly as an old man. He could provide little help, his muscles weak, and he groaned with his efforts. Tun winced, holding his hand to his back, and urgently spoke to Rol.
“The team! Stop the team!”
The young man chased after the dog sled, taking up a slow and steady trot into the wind. He tried to increase his speed, but his body could not respond. He held this pace as the sled kept moving steadily eastward. The movement generated a little heat, precious little, and Rol welcomed it. Yet simultaneously, the heavy breathing required became painful as the sub-freezing air burned at his throat and lungs. He tried to call out to stop the team, but found his throat dry and frozen. A strange sound barked from his mouth, and he tried again, but now only raspy gasps came out.
Hot blood rushed to his hands and feet, awakening frozen nerves, and the pain grew greater with each step. Several agonizing minutes passed as Rol incrementally gained on the sled team, until he could reach out and grab the back bow, and hop onto the runners. He stepped both feet onto the claw brake, and it dug into the solid ice.
The dogs, who had been plodding so hypnotically they never noticed Tun’s weight come off the sled, now sensed the drag of the brake, the pull on their harnesses. There was not one among them that wasn’t thankful for the stop, and they longed for a camp and a fire. They stood, eyes closed and heads hanging down, hoping in the next few minutes for a man to unhitch them so they could huddle together. They all were desperate with thirst.
The pain in Tun’s lower back was so intense it wracked him with every step. In agony, he walked to the racing sled, stepped onto its runners, picked up the reins and snapped them on the reindeer’s backside. She lurched forward, and stabbing pains ran up Tun’s back. He gritted his teeth and gripped the handle of the sled. There would be no nodding off for him again, as long as this fire burned in his back and stabbed at his shoulder blades.
Several minutes passed as the ambling reindeer caught up to the halted dog sled. Here, Rol stood still as a statue on the runners. His exercise had warmed him, but also formed perspiration on his skin. Every movement brought a new sensation of cold, and Rol tried to keep his skin from touching the insides of his apparel. The pain in his toes continued to increase as warm blood flowed to them. It felt like being stepped on by a reindeer’s solid hoof, multiplied a hundred times. He tried to wiggle his toes inside his mukluks, but doing so was more painful, and so he ceased.
At the edge of hypothermia, coupled with physical exhaustion and dehydration, Rol’s eyes, too, closed as he stood gripping the sled. His knees unlocked and he awoke instantly, catching himself by wrapping a mitt around the handle at the wrist, like a paw, his hands unable to clasp fingers to thumb. Every muscle in his body was shaking, as if in the grips of Saint Vitus’ dance.
The blustering gale jostled both men, shoved at them like an insolent jester. It pushed dogs off their feet, causing them to stumble, and pressed at the sleds as if begging them to remain still. It roared and howled with power, whistled and screamed with ferocity.
Every bump in the solid ice was felt in Tun’s back, as he finally caught up to Rol. For a moment, he stood still as the younger man, clinging to the sled to hold himself upright against the badgering wind. He had achieved this goal, his mind told him, drunk with exposure, spent from his exertions. His brain stood idling. No thought entered into it. “I’m here.” he thought, “I made it.”
Deep from the recesses of his mind, his consciousness called to him. It seemed his inner voice was as muted by the storm as the men were. He called to himself again. An iron will and strong heart broke through the fog. “Keep moving.” was all it said.
“Move!” the voice repeated, and Tun heard the address. “Move!” it said again, as if to imply the last chance to do so may be rapidly approaching. Tun could sense his unresponsiveness. The thought of moving pranced across his mind, but made no connection to the neural and muscular systems required.
It was not logic that parted the curtain of consciousness, but fear. Healthy fear that Tun had acquired through his many years of living in this merciless country. Fear of frostbite, fear of freezing to death. “Frostbite. Death. Frostbite. Death.” The voice continued until he began to move. Slowly at first, as if unsticking himself from the sled. Then awkwardly, as he tried to keep his ailing spine from flexing as he walked.
Suddenly, a picture flooded his senses, returned him to a day and time long, long ago, when freezing and death visited him in the most cruel fashion. He sucked in a breath in shock, as he did that very moment in the past, and immediately his heart was filled with worry for Rol. He made his way to the young man, or the boy, as Tun thought of him, for he was somewhere between the two.
Rol stood hunched over the back bow of the sled. His hood was drawn completely closed, without so much as a gap through which to exhale. Tun placed his hand on the lad’s shoulder, and felt his quaking frame. Rol did not move.
“How are you doing?” the big man shouted at the side of the hood.
Rol made the slightest turn toward Tun, and shrugged his shoulders. He moved his numb, mitted hands to the hood, fumbled with it, trying to find the opening, his hands visibly shaking. He pressed the hood to his face so his mouth was at the gap.
“Wa-when w-will w-we s-stop?” he shuddered forth words in a strange, growling sort of voice, immediately pulling the hood closed again.
“We must keep moving, Rol.” Tun shouted to the hood, “If we stop moving out here, we’ll die.”
Rol made no response for a moment. One could only guess what was happening inside the hood. Then it moved up and down twice, in a silent nod of affirmation.
There was little by way of shock or drama in Tun’s statement. For men or almost-men that live in this harsh place, these were simply facts. Freezing and death were natural elements, like the sun and the snow, and their presence loomed over these men, and all other animals of the peninsula, human or otherwise. Like the wind and cold, death is an everyday part of life for those who live hand-in-hand with the Ice Queen.
Rol stepped off the runners and went limp. He fell face-forward and slammed onto the ice like a rag doll thrown down by an angry child. If not for his thick fur hood, pulled closed all around his head and face, he might have cracked his skull. He laid there, unmoving.
With every ounce of strength, ignoring the searing pain in his back, Tun dragged the boy to the racing sled. He would have lifted Rol, but was unable to do so in his present condition, and he rolled the lad up onto the heap of belongings on the sled. He tied the trailing line of the cargo sled to the reindeer’s harness, and placed several hides over Rol, covering him entirely. He had to lash these in place to keep them from blowing off. With those preparations complete, he moved in his stilted fashion to the cargo sled.
“All dogs up! Let’s go! Eik! Eik! Eik!” he barked out froggy commands. The team did not respond, could not hear him over the wailing wind. In stiff, painful steps, he walked the length of the sled and the fourteen-dog team until he came to the lead at the end of the long gang line. There remained hope as long as his loyal team could hold up. He had pressed them harder than he had ever pressed dogs. Well beyond the limits of reason, bordering now on abuse. Their flight was desperate, and all members of the party were pushing their luck. They needed to keep moving, or die doing so. He found he could not bend, and so fell to his knees and shouted.
“Pick it out, Dak! Eik! Pick it out!”
The dog looked at him in confusion. The sled was not moving and the driver was not on the runners, prerequisites for such a command. His voice weaker with each word, Tun pleaded now.
“Eik! Dak, please! Eik! Pick it out. Eik! Eik!”
Dak sensed urgency and desperation in his human friend’s cries, and responded to Tun’s orders without further delay. He stood on four painful feet, thirteen dogs doing the same behind him, and again the weary entourage moved on.

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.