Through midday the troupe trod briskly toward their destination, Tun’s Lodge. Crisp, cold air and unbroken sunshine greeted the pack as they made their way up the mountain. There was more snow on the ground than when last they traversed this route. Along the way each would point out a hunting sign. A scent deposited by a tree, tracks on the ground, evidence of passing and feeding wildlife.
They were jubilant, and conversations bubbled throughout. The re-telling of the hunt, dreams of the future, and curiosity at what they would find at The Lodge dominated the jovial exchanges. They stopped to drink at Tear-In-The-Rocks Creek, most of it now frozen over. Eddies and inlets were sought for open water. All tongues occupied, the chattering voices ceased, and upon getting underway again, a quiet mood settled in. Each dog was lost in their own thoughts of what the future would bring.
It was exciting and a little scary at the same time. So many unknowns. Some of these unknowns were bound to be pleasant surprises, experiences new to all, sometimes learning about themselves in the process. Some of the unknowns were bound to be unpleasant. Things no one had thought of. Troubles not yet imagined. Yet herein lies the essence of adventure and discovery. If we always stick to the familiar trail, we will never see new horizons. If we don’t sometimes test ourselves, how will we know what we are capable of? Each day to come was filled with such bright promise, the wonders yet to discover.
By late afternoon, the pack crested the last hill before the Lodge, and beheld the campus that had become home to the inhabitants of Tunkan. Now they were greeted with another change. Half of the New Lodge Village was empty. All the Chavchu, their reindeer and yarangas included, were already gone. A half dozen dog sleds stood with teams in harness, their owners piling their possessions on board. Two teams were ready, and they started off eastward on the Woods Trail, which ascended still higher, to the summit of Tun’s Mountain.
The team raced across the clearing at the west side, into their former home. Sasha was anxious to find Kotka and speak with him. Umka and Anchu hoped to see Tun. Alexei wanted to do whatever the group did, and begged his brother to come to the Lodge with them. Larik stopped at the edge of the clearing, staring into the village, searching for good reason to go there. Finding none, with his eyes or his heart, he refused, and lingered at the edge of the woods.
Dak desperately wanted to know where Tun went, and hoped with all his will that he would once again find the giant man. Dak felt closest to Tun on a personal level, and worried for his safety. Anchu had not thought much about returning to the Lodge, but upon seeing it was overwhelmed with homesickness. He was overjoyed to be home, and hoped everything could go back to normal now.
Stone’s thoughts ran deeply. This was the strangest time of his long life. Everything in his world had a rhythm and cadence to it prior to the burning of Tunkan. There were no doubts about where they would live or what they would do day-to-day. No conflicts of loyalty or duty. The biggest decisions were where to take a nap or how quickly to finish a meal. At the same time, Stone had always had something of a fantasy, a daydream, about calling the wild mountains his home. He’d thought before of what it might be like to be a wolf, live in a wild pack, travel where you please and stay where you want to. He’d never really imagined himself doing so, simply admired the beauty of the free and wild life. Now, it had been suggested that he join the pack, to live in the wilderness along with their wolf cousins, and the appeal was overwhelming. True and dedicated to Tun, he could even see his way to believing Tun would understand, and in his inimitable way, would wish them “Good journey!”.
They sprinted into the village and fanned out. Dak and Stone headed to the main Lodge building in search of Tun. Umka, accompanied by Alexei, ran all over the campus checking the Storehouse, the run-in, the shed, and even the outhouse, looking for the big man. Anchu followed his sister to the Dogs’ House. She began calling from some distance, and as they arrived at the building, Kotka emerged through the dog door.
“Well, well. The wanderers have returned! Did you find Larik?” Kotka greeted them with a relaxed smile.
“Yes!” answered Anchu, excited to deliver the news. “He was at the fish wheel, but he doesn’t want to come live here.” he blurted out.
“Oh?” Kotka answered casually, “Well, we are free to leave if we choose. What about Alexei?”
“We had a meeting.” Sasha began, so nervous she didn’t even acknowledge his question, still unsure of how to approach the subject with Kotka. Looking into his face, she was reminded not only of how greatly she loved him, but also how greatly she trusted him. She knew she could say this any way it came out, and Kotka would be understanding, accepting, supportive, honest and open. This is one of the greatest values of the truest of friends. Come what may, including our own errors and shortcomings, a true friend will always understand, always love you.
“We decided- if Tun’s not here-” she spoke in starts and stops, “that we’re going to live as a wild pack. In the wilderness. If Tun’s not here.” She concluded thusly, leaving the question unasked. She could find no way to come right out and ask if he would go, or ask if he thought he was capable, or ask how a hunting pack would accommodate a handicapped dog.
Kotka sucked in a breath of surprise. His eyes widened and his whole face became brighter. Before he could speak, a tear welled in his eye. He spoke softly and evenly, and stared intently into Sasha’s eyes.
“I’ve always dreamed of living free in the wilderness. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought of it, wished for it. Just running away to the mountains. Freedom.”
“Really?” Sasha responded, “You’ve never said so.”
“But I have a pack. I couldn’t leave my pack over such a selfish notion.”
“Now your pack is ready to go!” she beamed. “But…” Sasha paused, swallowed and stammered, “Will you be alright? With your bum leg?” There. She said it. Her stomach was in knots and she wanted to cry, but she said it.
“Bum leg?” Kotka laughed as he dismissed her concerns. “It may stop me from racing on a sled team, but not much else. I was the fastest there was in my day, you know, and even with a bum leg, I bet I’m still faster than most!” His eyes were wide and a broad grin stretched across his face. “But Tun’s here.”
“What?” Sasha leaped to her feet, “Where?”
“I don’t know where, around here somewhere. He came back yesterday, and then all the others started to pack out and leave, heading seaward.”
“I must find him!” Sasha exclaimed as she leaped from the porch and began to run through the campus, calling out for Tun. Excited barks were coming from two packmates, near the center.
Racing directly to the front entrance of the main Lodge building, Dak and Stone found Tun’s cargo sled with a team in harness. They were acquainted with six of the eight dogs, the remaining two complete strangers. Behind the large cargo sled stood the narrower and shorter decorated racing sled, but pulling it was a single reindeer. Both sleds were heaped with everything imaginable; clothing and furs, cookpots and tools, traps and blankets and food.
The door burst open with a bang, someone moving swiftly, flinging the door open with his backside. A fur clad figure backed through the door, his arms barely managing the pile he carried. As he turned, the dogs recognized Rol, who dropped his load in shocked surprise.
“Dak! Stone!” he shouted.
A loud and fast pounding then met their ears. The sound of a giant, running through the Lodge.
Tun burst from the door, his eyes wide as saucers, with a look of disbelief on his face.
The moment his eyes met Stone’s, he fairly screamed. A high-pitched squeal formed of the simple word “O!”. He leaped in a single step from the doorway to Dak and Stone, fell to his knees, and wrapped one arm around each dog, as they wiggled and whined and licked his face.
“Rocky! Dak!” was all he could squeak out, and the big man cried unabashedly, his chest heaving with sobs. “Oh, Rocky! Dak!” he repeated. Basking in their attentions, his heart and senses were overwhelmed by the appearance of the cherished dogs, these ghosts from the trail. Dogs he had resigned himself to accept as gone forever. In a moment Sasha came running up to him, leaped up onto his chest and smothered him with paws and kisses.
Hearing the gleeful yips and barks, Anchu, Umka and Alexei streaked to the source of the exclamations. Tun opened his arms to Sasha, and held all three dogs, now kissing them atop their heads as they squirmed with delight. The next three appeared before him, and he could hardly believe his eyes. They were all here! Wait. All except Larik. Larik must be the only one lost to him. Tun laid on his back in the snow and let the dogs climb all over him. They pawed, they kissed, and few celebrations prior or since could compete with the level of joy and exhilaration.
Larik watched from the edge of the wood as the dogs swarmed into the Lodge campus and tore off in every direction. He saw Kotka emerge from the Dogs’ House and was immediately reminded of how much he liked, admired, even revered the old legend. He felt a bit sad and guilty, and disappointed with himself for having thought of him as simply an old, broken down dog. Kotka’s pride and character could be seen and sensed by his posture alone, the way he carried himself. Larik hoped his remarks would not make their way back to the honored veteran. Over at the Lodge, Dak and Stone suddenly ceased their staccato of barks, and now delighted yips and whines were heard. From the door emerged a man so tall he needed to duck down to exit the building. When again he stood upright, he could be seen to tower over everything but the buildings and the trees.
Larik’s stomach leaped into his throat as his heart started to pound. His knees went weak for a moment and he nearly stumbled where he stood, his eyes burning with tears. He watched the gentle giant hug two, then three, then six dogs at once in his massive arms, tears streaming down his cheeks. He saw the man lie flat on the ground to be smothered by the affections of his dearest friends. Without consciously willing it, Larik suddenly found himself sprinting across the clearing, barking all the way, “Tun! Tun! Here I am! Tun!”
Tun stood and looked to the barking. A voice he recognized. Larik flew through the air the last two meters and quite literally threw himself onto the man. “Larik! Larik! Larik!” Tun repeated as he held the dog, tears and sobbing continuing in unrestricted torrents.
As they gathered themselves, Sasha saw Rol, standing beside the reindeer. She ran to him, and gave him the same treatment as Tun; wiggles, whines and wet kisses abounded.
“The Great Spirit has smiled on us.” Tun said when again he was able to speak.
“I can hardly believe it.” replied Rol, “Just in the nick of time!”
“Okay guys,” Tun addressed the pack, “a couple more things and we’re ready to leave.”
There was a hurried nature to their movements, swiftness uncalled for if running a trap line or driving to the trading post. Their eyes kept turning toward the west trail leading up the mountain. Several sleds left just ahead of them, driving fast, as if they were racing.
Tun threw another parcel on the cargo sled, walked the gangline to check connections and dogs, and set his feet on the runners. He paused here, and looked for quite a while at each building, the grounds, the surrounding wood, as if saying goodbye.
“Let’s go. Eik! Det! Det!” he commanded, and his eight-dog team struggled to move the heavily laden sled, their driver lending welcome assistance. Sasha’s pack trotted alongside as Tun proceeded to the East Woods trail. Somehow, they sensed they would not be returning. Each dog looked back at the place they had called Home, some holding long gazes. They would remember fondly their times at their mountaintop hideaway, their retreat and respite.
As he entered the trail followed by Rol’s reindeer-driven sled and surrounded by his beloved dogs he thought he’d lost forvever, Tun did not look back again. He was grateful to be leaving with the things of true importance; Rol, and his closest canine companions.
The last tears of the joy of reunion mingled with new tears of parting as they left the Castle of The Giant, and set their course for The Mountain In The Sea.