Caravan Draft Chapter Eight

Cold Light Of Day

Sasha’s eyes opened. It seemed just a moment ago they had closed as she awaited the approaching dawn. Now she could see, through her tiny eye-sized portal to the outside world, the sun had risen above the storm, and it washed the dusty grey sky with a strange pink-orange radiance. She was eager to find her brother, and the rest of her pack, her family. Strife and danger always seem to elicit this response. A compelling need to seek out those we love and who love us. The trusted few. “We find that together we can face that which we could not face alone.” Mother had taught her.

Buried beneath a mountain of dogs, she began to worm her way up and out into the frigid Arctic world. She pressed against the bottom edge of the hide that formed their shelter but found it frozen fast to the ground. She pressed her snout along the surface until she found the place where two hides overlapped, and they parted. Bitter cold bit the end of her nose, and the brutal wind howled insatiably. She was alone in her movement. All the others seemed frozen solid. A mound of dogs were heaped against the hide tent and were covered with a dusting of snow like so much cordwood.

All around in every direction was a sense of vast emptiness. The sun’s light would brighten here or there, and wherever it did it revealed the same nothingness. Flat, windswept ice as far as one could see. It was a surreal scene, this one amassed pile of life a solitary island in a sea of frozen wasteland.

Sasha began to search for Anchu’s scent, or that of the other pack members. She sniffed at the ice and carefully stepped around the edges of two mounds of dogs. Umka was the first she found, curled at the outer edge of the first furball pile. He rose and looked to her, but said nothing as he came to stand by her side. She resumed the hunt, and now Umka joined her, their mission telepathically understood. Next they found Dak, who slowly crawled out of the pile to join his packmates, a noticeable limp in his step. He began right away to inquire as to which dogs Sasha and Umka had found, and how the two had fared in the night. The conversations attracted the attention of Stone, next to emerge from the huddled group. The oldest of the team, he moved slowly and stiffly, and his pains revealed themselves in his face and voice. He asked as Dak had, how many packmates had been accounted for, his speech raspy and weak. He curled again at the edge of the shelter, shivering a little.

The other three continued their quest until Alexei was found, still within the tiny tent. He immediately asked if the group had yet found Larik. He related how he’d seen Larik rise and walk out into the fierce storm, how he heard him speaking with someone, but had not seen him return from the black night. Now the group began to call his name as they continued to seek his scent. On hearing this, Omok scrambled his way out of the pile to address the others. They crowded close together to be heard above the relentless, cacophonous wind.

“Were you guys with Larik?” Omok asked.

“We’re his pack.” Sasha answered, and introduced herself and the other dogs.

“What do you mean ‘were with Larik’?” Dak barked hastily.

“He went out with the little guy and I haven’t seen them since.”

“Went out?” Sasha exclaimed.

“What?” Dak interjected, “When?”

“Went where?” Alexei was panicked by the news, “Which direction?”

Stone had slowly made his way to the percolating group.

“What’s all the excitement?” he asked.

“Larik’s gone!” Alexei responded, visibly shaken, “He left in the night.”

“The fool.” Stone replied as he shook his head. “Bound and determined to live in the wild, I guess. This is no place to set out on your own.” He shook his head again, looking at the ground, as if he knew already Larik’s fate.

“He went with someone else.” Alexei babbled with a certain numbness, as much from shock as the penetrating cold air, “Out into the storm.” He turned his head and looked outward onto the empty ice, and scanned his field of view as if he might miraculously find his brother standing a stone’s throw away. No such vision met his eyes, and he began to whimper.

“He’ll be okay.” Sasha soothed. “He’s one tough old brute.”

“Who could live out there in this?” Dak blurted out, somewhere between worry and anger. “Why would he do such a thing? Why now?” He turned from the group, seemingly fuming, and scanned the empty tundra as Alexei had.

“Shut up!” Alexei spun and pressed his face to Dak’s, “Shut up! He’s not dead!” A sudden quaking sob burst from him. “You’ve finally driven him away!” he continued through tears, an eruption of angry words. “Nothing he did was good enough for you. Every idea he had you had to kick to pieces. All his dreams and hopes of freedom and happiness, and you guys treated them like worthless scraps.” He turned his railing, crumpled face to each as he accused them of alienating his brother. “It wasn’t enough that he fought a bear for you. That he would rather have died to save Willow and Rika. It wasn’t enough that he invited you exclusively to join his wild dog pack. It was never enough. Nothing was ever good enough, was it? Now he’s gone!” Tears were freezing at the edges of Alexei’s eyes as he looked upon the remains of the pack. These who he loved and trusted, though now it seemed those bonds were to be tested. 

To love someone and be indefatigably angry with them at the same time was a complex, vexing and painful dichotomy. The thought raced into Alexei’s mind to yell out ‘I hate you!’, but his heart arrested this before it reached his tongue. No matter his rage, he knew this could never be true. He howled with heartache, and fell to his belly on the ice. “You killed him!” he sobbed. “You killed him! You killed him!”

“He killed himself!” Dak responded in the heat of the moment.

“Stop now!” Sasha raised her voice, “Stop. You don’t know what you’re saying. This is our own Larik we’re talking about.”

“Why don’t we go look for him?” Umka added.

Stone interrupted with the calming voice of the elder, though it croaked a bit. “Hey, hey. Calm down. No one knows Larik to be dead. Let’s don’t get ahead of ourselves. He may even be right here under the dog pile for all we know. Anyway, we won’t help anything by turning on one another.”

Dak reined in his emotions, still hurt by Alexei’s accusations, but more so empathetic to his troubles. “I’m sorry Lexi.” He said, shifting his weight between paws, “We’ll find Larik.”

“Sure we will!” Umka encouraged.

With this, Alexei’s sobbing subsided, and the others stood close, nudged him from time to time, until he could again feel their love. The love of a pack. It is a forever love. Omok held close to the group, and lent his own thoughts, “They’ll be okay.”

Sasha looked up from Alexei, and counted the faces in the circle of hope that surrounded him. An exhilarating rush of true joy raced through her veins, and she vowed to add this moment, this feeling, to her account of good things for which she was grateful. She counted again. She looked behind her, and suddenly her head was spinning like an owl’s. She began to walk, then trot, all around the windbreak and the reindeer and the tent and two heaping piles of freezing dogs.

Her heart sank and pounded against her rib cage. She could barely speak, and kept moving even as she started feeling dizzy and lightheaded. It took will to call out, fearing the answer, the telling silence that might follow.

“Anchu!” she barked, “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.