Caravan Draft Chapter Six

Chapter Six
Two Fools

 

When Rol stopped the sled, Anchu’s senses awoke. Hitherto, endless eyes-closed plodding into blackness had become hypnotic. One step after another, then another. Any change from the monotony was noticeable, and none more so than halting the sled.
He began to sense the troubles in the party. Tun approached with the reindeer-driven racing sled, while suddenly Rol was driving the dog team. Tun could barely move, walked with a frozen stiffness, and could not bend down. Then Anchu saw Rol collapse and fall to the ice in a heap. The night grew ever colder, and the team moved ever slower with each step, into the barrage of wind-driven snow and ice. Finally, Tun unhitched the team and pitched a tiny shelter in the midst of the frozen plain.
Dogs were whimpering, limping as they nearly crawled their way to the makeshift windbreak. Tongues and lips grew pale as the dogs’ thirst went unquenched, and brutal air constricted capillaries at the surface of the skin to conserve body heat.
When Rol remained unconscious and Tun curled beside him shivering, Anchu suddenly recognized the imminent danger. Thoughts flooded his senses with the clarity born of life and death circumstances. When an old dog knows his time has come, he would curl up the way Rol and Tun had, to close the circle, to face the end of the trail.
“We need a runner.” he thought. Someone to forge on to the caravan ahead, to fetch help for Tun’s beleaguered party. “I’m the fastest.” he concluded his thought, and began to rise through the dogs piled atop him. He breached the flap that held the vicious wind at bay, several dogs stirring at the disruption.    He sneaked his way out into the howling, sub-freezing night. The wind blew so hard it pushed him, caused him to stumble and misstep. He turned to take a long look at the group before leaving them behind, then turned seaward, smelling for the scent of the trail.
“What are you doing?” A voice called to him from the edge of the dog pile. It was Larik, who now took several steps into the raging blackness to stand beside Anchu.
“I’m going for help.” Anchu shouted, to be heard above the wailing storm, “To catch up to the rest and bring people to help us.”
“It’s deadly out there, little brother.” Larik spoke, his face nearly pressed to Anchu’s. “And we have no idea how far away they are. If you just start walking you could freeze to death and die without a pack to keep you warm.”
“If I stay here, we’ll freeze to death and die anyway.”
They both stood, facing away from the wind, and held a long gaze into one another’s eyes. There was an inescapable truth to both their statements. The choices seemed to be winnowed to two: stay here and die for certain, or strike out into the featureless black, an act which held their only hope, yet did not guarantee survival.
“I’ll go.” Larik said, as he faced seaward, staring into the darkness.
“I’m the fastest.” Anchu replied.
“But I’m rested.” Larik continued. “You’ve been hitched to the team and pulling the sled since the afternoon.”
“So have you.” Anchu answered, as he, too, now faced seaward, and took an extra step to be further from the shelter than Larik.
“I wasn’t on the team,” Larik shouted as he took two steps to be more seaward than the youngster, “I was at the rear. I’m fit and rested.”
“But I’m the fastest!” Anchu insisted.
“I don’t think you understand what you’re talking about. What is this, your first winter? Your second? You have no idea what awaits you out on the tundra. I’ve been there. I’m older.”
“But I’m faster.” Anchu repeated. “Watch.”
With that, he burst into his fastest sprint, and disappeared immediately.
“No! No! Wait! What will your sister do if you never come back? Come on! You have family…”
Only the growling wind answered Larik’s calls.
“Anchu!” he barked as loudly as he could, walking toward the place he’d last seen the young dog. “Anchu!”
The unrelenting wind and cold berated Larik, compelled him back to the relief of the shelter. He stood, blasted by ice shards, struggling to open his eyes to look for Anchu.
“Sure! Go kill yourself!” he shouted into the void, “Make your sister cry!” He listened for a response. “That should make him think.” He waited for Anchu to come back out of the nothingness, to defer to his elder teammate.
A strange feeling overcame Larik. A new and unfamiliar sense. His stomach turned, though not from hunger, and despite the onslaught of the storm he could not tear himself away from his watchful stance. It would be normal for Larik to leave someone to their own devices, to seek comfort for himself. To write off such a foolhardy plan and the fool who created it. But his mind kept a vision of Anchu, alone and far from his pack, as he lay freezing on the tundra ice.
“Anchu!” he called again into the dark, and felt a lump climb into his throat. “Anchu!”
Larik thought of the innocent young dog and his beautiful sister. How could a world take such youth and beauty when here he remained, healthy and strong? This embittered and cantankerous old dog, who so recently craved escape from all of this. The world of man, the pressures, duties and responsibilities of a pack member. The inescapable heartbreak, the price to be paid for letting someone into your life.
“Anchu!” he called again, with frightened desperation in his voice. The new and strange feeling gripped Larik. He could not will himself to return to the safety and comfort of the windbreak. He could not take his mind from the fact that Anchu was in peril, and his stomach flipped again thinking of it.
“I can’t go after him.” He thought to himself. “Only a fool follows a fool, I say.” He tried to remind himself how often he’d thought he’d be content living as one alone. “Besides, then we’d just have two dead bodies out on the ice instead of one.”
He then realized that, instead of pacing back and forth while his thoughts raced, he’d paced in a straight line; seaward.
“Well, I probably don’t want him to get too far.” He quickened his pace to a trot, ignoring the blinding spray of ice and shale against his face. “When I get hold of him…” he growled.
He broke into a brisk gallop.

Larik’s fragile heart shielded itself as best it could from pains. Keeping to one’s self was the simplest course. If something got too close, Heart would paint the scene with a disguise of selfish emotions.
Scene One was Ridicule, and had played out. The fool followed the fool off stage.
Scene Two, Selfish Logic, had also crossed the footlights.
“Return to the shelter!” said one character.
“Two bodies instead of one? Posh!” said another.
Scene Three, Annoyance, sang its coloratura to the tunes of sarcasm.
“What good is youth and beauty, wasted on the young and foolhardy?”
“There are old dogs, and there are bold dogs. But there are no old bold dogs.” Said the hardscrabble veteran of a decade on the Arctic Tundra.
Scene Four, Anger, was unfolding.
“This is just what we need. As if we don’t have troubles enough.”
“Why must he run so fast?”
Larik’s gait broke into the fastest sprint he could muster. The strong and hearty wheel dog, liberated from sled work for days now, dashed off stage as the curtain fell.
Scene Five opens. The stage is dark. The orchestra fills the air with the sound of Nature’s fury, gusting crescendos.
A tiny spot slowly fades up, centered in the air mid-stage. Fading in is an image of Larik. Time is slowed, and we watch the sleek animal stretch eager forelegs to their fullest. Rear feet plant, haunches tighten, we see the rippling muscles of this graceful and powerful being, as every ounce of energy and passion propel his flight, headlong into the roaring darkness.
The image and the light fade into blackness. We hear the clickety-clack of claws on ice.
“Anchu!” the call stretches and reverberates, competing with the shouting wind, it echoes off the distant mountains and fills the air. We hear the slightest quiver in the voice. “Here I am! Anchu!”
The voice repeats as it, the clickety-clack, and the orchestral wind fade, bringing down the curtain on Act One.
“Anchu!”

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.