Caravan Draft Chapter Four

Tundra

 

Chapter Four
Makeshift

 

Every cruel bump of the solid tundra transferred directly to Tun’s aching back. He clenched the back bow of the sled and pressed on into the unrelenting headwind. The constant pain awakened his weary mind, delivered him via endorphins back from the sleepy brink of hypothermia, fueled his brain with fear-riddled adrenalin.

Now his mind raced. He hadn’t slept for two days. The threat of the approaching war party drove him and the many others that had gathered at The Lodge to make haste. A grueling round-trip was made to deliver displaced families to safety. Following this, he helped the remaining families to cobble together dog teams, reindeer teams, sledges and sleds to embark on their forced emigration.

It was this penchant to care for all the others that had left Tun last to leave, with his young friend and surrogate charge, Rol. This now haunted Tun, as he soberly appraised their current and potentially deadly circumstance. Their hurried exodus had left them ill-prepared to face the worst of the Arctic, in which they were now immersed.

He had loaded all the food available at the Lodge, and it was a great deal, in order to provide as best he could for the large party, knowing they would face a week of travel across the barren tundra. These provisions were loaded onto Tulaen’s large sled hauled by a team of two reindeer, and on several dogsleds as well.

Tun had anticipated that he and Rol would catch up to the rest once they reached the open plain. The timing of the storm could not be worse, and now it hobbled them, and he feared the pack train had traveled farther than he’d estimated, and had made extensive progress before the onset of the gale.

He had only frozen fish, and then only enough to provide perhaps a half each, which went for all the dogs and the men as well. He had little by way of shelter, save the handful of hides that had made their way onto the sled. They’d left behind many things Tun now wished for. Things that seemed easily replaceable, but now seemed invaluable. Extra boots, gloves, hats. Wool blankets, long coats, tarpaulins. It would have required another sled to carry all this, a luxury they did not have. Working tirelessly in the sheltered campus of the Lodge, the men were dressed in a single light layer of clothes, their industrious activities keeping them warm, if not sometimes overheated.

He’d expected to be with the pack train by now. Here the vast reindeer herds would march into the sub-freezing wind with little care. They would form a windbreak for their fellow travelers, who followed closely behind, sometimes driving their sledges right into the herd to benefit from the shield. The reindeer would naturally alternate at the brutal forward edge, a rotation of leaders sharing the onslaught until their turn was complete, and they could slip back into the herd to warm up.

The Chavchu would have sedans on sledges. Small, rectangular hide litters in which mothers and children would share body heat, remaining sheltered and warm within.

Tun stepped suddenly on the claw brake, and the team halted. In his rush to catch up to the pack train, his weary mind had suggested he could just load Rol up like household goods and haul him along. He couldn’t simply leave Rol where he was or he’d likely freeze to death.

Now Tun felt he faced two poor choices. He could try to forge on, in hopes of catching up to the well-equipped convoy. Or, he could stop here and shelter in place, in hopes the storm would pass soon.

“In hopes…” he said to himself, for both options relied heavily on this. Something needed to be done for Rol, and every minute counted as his core body temperature would continue to drop. This was Tun’s deciding factor.

Pain following him with each movement, he proceeded to turn the cargo sled perpendicular to the wind. He pulled the racing sled up behind it, forming a windbreak, marginally effective against the fierce gale. He laid a hide on the ice in the lee of the barrier, and pulled Rol onto it. Larik, Omok and several other dogs wasted no time joining Rol on the blanket, and they curled beside him, pressing as closely as they could.

Tun then set out on the arduous task of walking the length of the gang line, and unhitching all the dogs. Men and dogs alike needed one another now, to huddle close and share one of few remaining assets, body heat. This was not a camp pitched of necessity, but one pitched somewhere between desperation and death.

As Tun unhitched the dogs he held the conscious thought that this action might save some of them. They were needed for warmth, and Tun was concerned for their lives as well. If the men were to die here, there was no reason the dogs should be sentenced similarly by being restrained.

Tun used two more hides attached to the top rail of the sled and stretched to the ground to form a small, tent-like structure. More dogs added to the pile forming around Rol, and the rest made their way to the windbreak, curling themselves beside and atop one another. The escape from the full-on wind, and body-against-body, brought incremental but desperately needed and welcome relief from the worst of the penetrating cold.

Beginning to benefit from arrangements, too, Rol’s mind half-woke in the hide tent, dogs piled atop him, and Tun shivering beside him. In the darkness, he thought for a moment that he must be home. Or encamped in the expansive Oloy Valley with the herd, sleeping with his own dogs and his father. It was colder than it had ever been in the yaranga, and Rol thought perhaps he was fevered. That would also help to explain the trembling and pains in his extremities, the swirling sensation his mind felt as he laid still. The vicious wind pulled up a flap of the shelter, and it coursed its way over the men and dogs, fully awakening Rol’s mind now to the present reality.

Tun scrambled, dogged by back pain, to pull the flap closed. He turned to see Rol moving his arms, and was thankful he was coming around.

“We’ll warm up now.” he shouted to the boy. “You’ll be alright.”

Tun decided to believe this with all his will.

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.