Consortium

 

Sasha quickly descended the mountain with Anchu, Umka, Dak and Stone. With no sled in tow, they moved rapidly and were able to take several shortcuts, and by afternoon, smelled the fish wheel. Or rather, it should be said, they smelled the heaping pile of fish, the stale and putrid aroma filling the surrounding landscape. As they approached, they spotted Alexei, standing not far from the wheel. And there was Larik! He laid in the snow, motionless, as Alexei leaned over him.

“Lexi! Larik!” Sasha called loudly, a couple of the other dogs adding their hoots and bellows, thrilled at having caught up with the errant brothers, overjoyed to have the pack together again.

Alexei lifted his head slowly and regarded the oncoming dogs with a forlorn countenance. His head turned back to look again on Larik, who remained stock still. Alexei sniffed and sounded on the verge of tears.

“This is terrible. We never should have left him!”

“What’s wrong?” Sasha asked, freezing in place, shifting her gaze from Alexei to Larik, laying there without the slightest stir.

“Larik’s dead!” Alexei cried, “He ate too much fish!”

The hitherto joyful group stood in shock, their mouths hanging open. Then at the last of Alexei’s comments, they heard a snicker.

Stone trotted over to Larik, pressed his snout into the corpse’s rib cage.

Larik leaped up, laughing uproariously. Alexei joined in with a howl, and they could hardly contain themselves, falling and rolling on the ground in front of the stunned onlookers, effervescent with delight.

“Oh! I should bite you just for spite!” Stone laughed, as he jumped up to wrestle Larik.

“You guys!” Sasha scolded, “I could have died from the shock! That wasn’t funny!”

“Well, you didn’t die,” Larik chortled, “And we thought it was hysterical!”

“Howl-larious!” Alexei echoed.

The joy of their reunion easily overcame any temporary fright wrought by the gag, and they all pranced and wrestled around one another in joyous revelry. Greetings abounded for Larik, as each had a remark.

“We’re so glad we found you!”

“It wasn’t the same without you.”

“Did you miss us?”

“I voted we go look for Tun instead!”

Larik guffawed and chuffed his way through the wave of mushy emotional stuff.

“I thought Lexi was the only one to remember me.” he pretended to sniffle.

Hence ensued the most jubilant afternoon any could remember of recent days.  Oblivious to everything but one another, the day filled with golden moments, laughter and touching, eyes meeting and gazes held. Joviality, favored company, rambunctious playfulness and heartfelt thoughts populated the hours. Gloriously long, rich hours, sharing of mutual affections, embracing the synergy. Indeed, the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Hearts filled to overflowing, inscribing these warm memories indelibly on their souls. This tiny patch woven into the fabric of time, stitched to the quilt of their lives. All seven wore bright smiles as they regarded one another, together again. The wrestling continued between various pairs until they became weary from their exertions.

They all had a filling fish dinner and laid about preening themselves and telling tales of the best of times. Satiated and exhausted, physically and emotionally, one by one they curled beside one another for a welcome afternoon nap.

When again they began to stir, the skies were darkening, the quarter moon had already risen, and the clouds above were painted gray and lavender and purple at the last light. The sky hung low and blanketed the Earth. Though it was very cold, the still air was comfortable. The group formed something of a circle, most lying down, Dak and Stone pacing as they conversed.

“Well, now we need the next step in our plans. Where to from here?” Dak asked.

Six in the party were all ears, and all eyes turned to Sasha. It took a moment for her to realize the question was directed to her, and the group sat awaiting, seemingly expecting her answer. She recalled the first day she and Anchu had met the new team. How The Original Five spoke of the tragic loss of their pack mother, Willow. Alexei concluding with his plea to Sasha, “Will you be our mother now?” Clearly they trusted her guidance, and eagerly anticipated new orders. She gathered her thoughts and was about to begin to detail their options when Larik spoke.

“Why do we need to go anywhere? We could just live here.”

“Plenty of fish!” Alexei added.

“Or,” Larik continued “we could just go up the mountain and live in the forest like the wolves. Wild and free.”

“”And come back here for fish whenever we want!”  came Alexei’s follow-up. Misty clouds of vapor floated from their mouths at each expression.

“But The Lodge is Home.” Sasha offered contemplatively. “What about Tun?”

Focus shifted between Sasha and Larik, presenting points and couterpoints.

“Alexei tells me Home is overrun by more dogs and people than the place will hold. And no Tun.”

“Yes, that’s true. Still, Rol is there.”

“Rol? Who needs him? And without Tun, it’s not Home.”

“Suppose Rol or Tun need us?”

“There are lots of dogs.” Larik dismissed the question, “Let them need someone else. They just want more work out of us anyway. Pulling their sleds.”

Between blackened clouds could be seen the first stars of the evening slowly lighting in the heavens. The world had fallen into the silence of night, all activities of the woods in daylight ceased, no bird graced the air, nor their song, and similarly, an uncomfortable silence settled over the group. It hung on the air around them like a fog, as each considered Larik’s remark. One couldn’t argue with the fact that life with humans was work much of the time. Between tasks, however, there was more to the relationship, and this, it seemed, Larik overlooked. There was affection shared in both directions, and sometimes play. Comforts abounded: hot chow, a warm bed, good company, shelter from inclement weather.

“But Tun loves us.” Umka chimed in, not eager to contemplate life separate from people. A lot of good things came along with the association. “Don’t you think he’d miss us?”

“He can get new dogs.” Larik countered nonchalantly, “Just like when Willow and Rika were killed.”

The mention of their names, the reminder of their deaths and the events that preceded today filled their minds. The packs and teams, families and households they belonged to before this longest of winters. The struggling along with a team of five. The welcome new recruits and how they quickly became part of the team, the family, the pack. Sasha and Anchu recalled the lives they were living when these beloved dogs were killed. Though they never knew them, they were part of the pack ancestry.

“How can we be a racing team without a musher or a sled?” Anchu was next to share his thoughts. His newfound skills at dog sledding made him feel accomplished and valuable. Without racing, he would once again be Plain Old Little Anchu.

“What do you guys want to be?” Larik posed the pointed question rather flatly, as if calling for a vote, “Free and wild dogs or pets and workhounds?”

Stone walked to the middle of the circle and stood, slowly shifting his gaze to each of the dogs before him, indicating his desire to be heard.

“You’ve given us a lot to think about. Don’t we deserve to be free?” He walked and paused as he spoke, letting the words sift into the listeners’ ears. “But are we prepared? Are we trained to live as a wild pack,” making eye contact again with the group, he finished, “in the wilderness?”.

“Don’t think of it as the wilderness.” Larik responded with a sparkle in his eye as he stood, took a step toward Dak and turned to the group, “Think of it as Home!”.

A Pack Divided

 

Restful sleep eluded Sasha her first night in the new iteration of Home. Her bed, designated by no more than her scent, had been scattered and re-purposed in her absence. Two dogs, nearly twins, now occupied the space, and so it was with the six other scented-and-otherwise-undesignated beds of her teammates. She wandered about, looking for a quiet, comfortable place to rest. A long overdue rest. Finally, sneaking in through a slim gap in the door, she found the shed from which the racing sled had emerged to contain none other than Kotka. He lay sleeping on a crumpled oilskin tarpaulin, directly in front of the door, and in the darkness she set a foot down on his snout. He leaped up with a yelp, sneezing twice and chuffing between.

“I’m sorry!” Sasha quickly offered to the unknown dog in the dark, “I didn’t see you. I’m terribly sorry!”

“I’m okay, Sosh.” Kotka said softly, recognizing her voice.

“Kotka!” She ran up to snuzzle him. “I’m so glad it’s you! Well, I don’t mean I’m glad it’s you I stepped on,” she continued in a nervous flush, “I mean I’m glad it’s you in here. I’m glad you found a quiet place. I didn’t see you…”

“It’s okay.” Kotka interrupted her blithering, “I’m glad you found me, too.”

The simple comfort of familiar company was enough to warm their hearts as the cold grew deeper through the night. Curling beside one another added the practical benefit of warmth, and they slept soundly for the first time after their long ordeal afield.

In her dream, Mother arrived at the Lodge. Unable to find Sasha, she stood in the center yard calling her name. She repeated it three times, then another voice joined in the search. In that strange world of sleep Sasha felt herself lying still, eyes closed, while Mother called over and over. She felt paralyzed, unable to open her eyes, move, or even speak. Kotka’s deep voice came through next, and on his second repetition of her name, her mind began to shift from sleep to waking. A moment of confusion and panic gripped her, in that space between dream world and the real one. In a moment, she fully awoke and took in the surroundings.

“Sasha!” Kotka called again, more loudly, adding a nose nudge.

Then she heard her name called again from the yard. And then again in the second voice, though now neither belonged to Mother.

“They’re searching for you in the yard.”

She leaped to her feet and squeezed out through the door of the shed, out into the gray morning. She was immediately struck by the cold, the world having fallen into a deep, frigid slumber while they all slept.

“Sasha! Sasha!” It was Umka, trotting the perimeter, scanning the faces of the innumerable dogs encamped now in these environs.

“Here! Umka!” She answered.

He snapped his head in the direction of the call, and galloped the short distance to her.

“Your brother is looking for you. He’s been trying to find you.”

She accompanied Umka at a fast trot across the snow-covered yard to an area behind the Dogs’ House. There stood Anchu, with Stone and Dak beside him.

“Anchu!” she called out, “What’s the matter?”

“There you are!” he replied, his tone of relief underpinned with impatience. “We’re going to find Tun.”

“What do you mean? I mean, how?”

“We caught a trace of scent on the Coldward trail, and we’re going to follow it.”

Dak and Stone nodded their heads and looked to the forest at the Coldward trail as if readying to go, hoping for Tun’s return, or imagining what fate may have befallen him.

Sasha replied hesitantly, “I’m not sure that’s such a good idea. Suppose he returns here?”

“It’s the six of us here, and no one else knows us. We belong with Tun.” Dak offered.

“Five of us.” Stone interjected. “Alexei left this morning to find Larik.”

Stunned, they all stood in silence for a long moment, each sorting and weighing the situation in their own hearts and heads.

“This isn’t good. Not at all.” Sasha shook her head. “We’re a pack, and we need to stay that way. What’s happening to us? We should all be going with Lexi to find Larik. We never should have left him.”

“We didn’t really have much choice.” came Umka’s response. “We had to follow our driver’s commands. And we were starving. If Larik had come with us he could have gorged himself on fish.”

“No, no. We should have gone right back.”

“We were bound by duty,” Dak volunteered. “Getting Rol home safely was our priority.”

“Oh, I know.” Sasha said with reluctant resolve. “I know. Of course. But we should have gone back after we got Rol home.”

Silence again reigned over the group, sorting the many and sometimes conflicting feelings.

“But Tun.” Anchu posited, wavering in his commitment to the only plan he’d yet thought of. “We’re not a team without a musher.”

Sasha looked from one to the other, momentarily holding the gaze of each; Dak, Stone, Umka, Anchu. They stood in a sort of semi-circle, all eyes fixed on her. Silent. Beckoning. Almost pleading, as if she alone had the answer to all of this.

Clarity came to her quickly, as it so often did when she let her true and valiant heart guide her thoughts, feelings and actions. She raised her head as she confidently and matter-of-factly stated her summation.

“We need a musher to be a team, but we only need us to be a pack. We need to be a full pack before we can hope to be a full team again. Tun is capable of taking care of himself and everyone around him. Larik is one of us, and without us, may as well be one alone.”

Her last word, alone, seemed to float in the air around them, to ring in the trees and bounce from the snow beneath their feet, at which they were all now looking, heads hung.

“Of course you’re right, Sis.” Anchu acknowledged, seeing in her brief soliloquy the simple logic, the truth that is the heart of a pack.

“Thanks Sosh.” Dak said, raising his head to address her.

“Yeah, thanks.” Stone added, the others nodding their heads in agreement.

Without further conversation or hesitation they began, and headed for the trail back down the mountain. Nearing the trailhead, Sasha looked back at the crowded campus. The New Lodge Village was waking. Thick smoke billowed from fires starting up for the day. The sounds and signs of myriad activities began to fill the yard as it receded.

Then, at the edge of the clearing, she saw Rol. He was standing and watching Sasha and her teammates trot away down the trail. His face seemed to grow longer, his shoulders drooped. His hand went to his eyes as he turned and walked slowly and forlornly back toward the buildings.

Then The Lodge disappeared behind the hill.

Flight To The Mountain

Alexei continued his low whimpering as the team plied the eastbound trail, having left his brother Larik behind at the devastated village that had been Tunkan. The trail paralleled the river, and presently they came to the village fish wheel. This is a water wheel with baskets instead of paddles. Fish lifted in the baskets would be dumped to the side as the wheel came around to the holding bin. Herein could be held a hundred fish or more. Normally, folks from the village would empty the holding bin every day or every other at most. Now neglected several days, the bin overflowed, with many frozen, rotted or half-eaten fish lying on the ground. Fish now thrown onto the pile slid off, and they flipped and flopped until gravity returned them to the safety of the water.

Rol stopped the sled a few meters from the wheel, grabbed a fish for each dog, and tossed it to them. Having traveled two days without food, the team was ravenous, and Rol offered a second helping to those that ate their fill and looked for more. He then filled the sled bag with all the frozen fishes that would fit, all the while watching his perimeter for any signs of threat.

With the best intentions for feeding the hungry dogs, inexperienced Rol inadvertently hobbled the team. Now with full bellies they would be lethargic, and any strenuous work would result in stomach cramps and vomiting. As the boy tried to press the team eastward, the dogs ambled along slowly, until finally Stone stopped and sat behind Dak at the lead, halting all progress. The rest of the team followed suit, exhausted and stuffed with their meal, and laid down on the spot. No amount of coaxing from the driver could force them to stand, and finally Rol capitulated. They would rest here several hours, during which Rol sat on the sled until he dozed off. When he woke, snow was falling heavily. He and the sleeping dogs had a thick layer of snow on them. The boy rose, returned to the river to fetch water for the dogs, slaking his own thirst as well. Afterward, the group again began their eastward trek.

Before traveling far, the trail split around a spruce bog. The main trail bore right, leading around the swamp, back into the forest, the route to the river and the Dezhnevo Trail. The track to the left was much less worn, clearly used more by the wild inhabitants of the area than humans or dogs or sleds. With intent to avoid the merciless soldiers, Rol drove the team onto the narrow, northbound trail that skirted the bog before ascending the steep terrain. Snow continued to fall heavily, and the sky grew darker. The end of the day drew near. The sun, blocked from view by the snow storm, commenced its half-dip below the horizon. The occasional deciduous tree could be seen preparing for winter, dressed now in its autumn raiment of yellow, red, gold and brown leaves. Low growing plants set forth seeds, falling or blowing about, or transported by wild friends. The squeaky honking of a flock of snow geese could be heard crossing the sky, bound for milder climes. The air grew colder with each passing hour. The trail underfoot became hard as rock, and the snow accumulated on it.

As the team left the bog behind them, Rol spotted a flag hanging from a tree branch that arched over the trail. Several strips of leather had been tied together and hung. Perhaps this is a marker for a cache of goods, Rol thought. As desperate as his situation was, Rol would not disturb such a cache. Not only would it be unheard of to take something that doesn’t belong to you, but a cache on a trail could be a re-supply someone may be counting on. To rely on such a repository on a trek then find it to be missing could spell tragedy under the harshest conditions. As the team passed the flag, Rol saw the strips were fringes with a distinctive color pattern. When he saw it was the same pattern repeated on the racing sled and harness, he realized this flag was left by Tun. This caused him to pause and consider perhaps this was a message meant for him. Could Tun have cached provisions for the boy, having known he had just two days’ food and would find no re-supply at Tunkan? Maybe the fleeing group chose to lighten their loads by leaving some cargo behind. Knowing Tun’s thoughtfulness, it would be like him to leave something for Rol. Something from the Gifting Giant.

The sense of familiarity, the known, the link to someone fond of him brought Rol some warm comfort out on this lonely, cold trail. He stopped and secured the snow hook, and walked to the tree to look for a secreted stash. He walked all around the tree, kicking at the snow, and looked up the trunk for a pack tied above the reach of bears. He explored the adjacent area and trees, searched intently for anything that looked disturbed, out-of-place, or heaped in a pile. He could find nothing. Perhaps the flag was reference to something that no longer existed, or was simply a trail marker. Returning to the sled, the party again commenced to move steadily along in the snow-filled evening.

Not infrequently, the trail seemed to vanish through Larch stands, thickets, gaps between huge boulders. Often Rol could see no trail at all, and more than once feared he had missed a turn or made some misstep that led to a dead-end. Dak at the lead and the rest of the team never hesitated, and seemed to pick out the trail where none could be discerned, continuing on with steady uphill progress.

Before long, the group came upon another flag made of Tun’s jacket fringe. Rol again searched for a cache of goods, a map, anything that might be indicated by the marker. Again, his efforts were fruitless, and they pressed onward, presuming these were trail markers, yet encouraged by the thought that this was Tun’s trail. The team continued their ascent up the craggy side of the mountain, through narrow ravines in the ancient bedrock, across flat spans of granite covered in ankle-deep snow, across a tiny frozen creek where Rol stopped for water.

The half-set sun cast a surreal orange glow in the snowy sky as they came to a lean-to. Here, high on this hill, far from the main trail, Rol finally felt they could stop and pitch camp. He started a fire, keeping it small to avoid a plume of smoke that might advertise his presence. He gave another fish to each dog, and roasted one in the fire for himself. The first mouthful of fish seemed the finest thing Rol had ever tasted. He ravenously ate all the flesh he could strip from the bones, and crunched a few of the bones down as well. Fed and tired, he curled in a corner of the lean-to, wishing he’d grabbed a hide or blanket from the pile around Chimlik. The air grew increasingly colder, and just as he began to shiver a little, the wild Black and White Husky came over and curled beside him, pressing his body close to warm the boy. Rol was asleep in minutes, and in his slumber laid his arm across the big dog.

All the dogs slept deeply, except Alexei.

He would wake often, and stand facing the backtrail, staring for long periods of time. The steady snow piled atop him as if he were a statue. Only the occasional soft cry betraying his thoughts.

Circles Expanding

When Sasha awoke, the camp was devoid of people. Dak was gone, too, presumably with Tun. The rest of the dogs remained, tethered by their leads. Most were sleeping, although Umka was up, looking eagerly into the village and the hubbub of activity. His tail swung side to side slowly, an unconscious action as he watched people and dogs and reindeer going about the business of Festival.

Unbeknownst to the dogs, Tun had found the best doctor he could, a grandmother called Vetna, from Ogrut, a tiny village far to the north.  He took Tati to Vetna’s camp to be cared for. Through the long, sunlit night, the young woman slept, all the while shivering, her teeth chattering. Tun sat the whole time beside Tati, and continued to remain by her side as Vetna prepared herbal infusions and poultices to apply to the patient.

A runner was sent to deliver word to Tati’s father, Sarut. He had received word that his wife, at home in Kantuc, had taken ill. He had left Tunkan while Tati was running the race, asking Tun to look after her, and to bring her home to Kantuc if he was unable to return. Tun assured Sarut that he would care for Tatiana as if she were his own, to which he replied “I know you will. Thank you, Tun.”

Tun headed back to his camp, summoning Rol and beginning to pack provisions in a sled bag. When the young man arrived, Tun had a serious look on his face, and addressed Rol in a low voice. His speech was slow, metered, as it is when one is thinking deeply and simultaneously composing sentences. His hands moved, not quickly but steadily as he continued loading the bag onto the racing sled.

“I am concerned about my friend Bek and his family. I would have gone to their home today but for Tati taking ill. Now Sarut has been called to Kantuc, and I am responsible for caring for her, and therefore cannot leave. Will you go to Bek’s in my stead? Will you check that they are alright, or find out if they are not?”

“Surely there must be a simple reason for their delay.” Rol expressed in comforting tones to the big man. He had never seen Tun vexed by anxiety. It was a little unsettling to think the situation was so worrisome that Tun could be shaken by it. What tragedy must have passed to affect the ever-smiling giant so? “Perhaps Nina’s had a baby. Or a dog a litter of pups.” he said encouragingly.

“Perhaps the latter!” Tun managed a giggle, briefly unfurrowing his brow. “Still, Jiak would have come with a team. For the race.”

The young man grew uncomfortable, unaccustomed to dealing with such weighty, grown-up matters. He was, however, coming of age, and understood that he would need to learn to navigate such things. He would need to be bold and brave and decisive as men like Tun, Bek, and his own father.

“I’ll go as quickly as I can. I can leave now.” While Tun did not smile, his stern face relaxed a little at the welcome assistance. “But the racing sled…”. Rol placed his hand on the back bow, and could swear he could feel the energy of years of racing, countless dogs, the many drivers.

“It will be much faster than the cargo sled.” Tun answered his unspoken query. “This is more important than keepsakes.”

Without further conversation, Tun and Rol harnessed the team, each man deep within his own thoughts. In silence, they hitched them to the ornate sled. The dogs sensed something odd. Tun packed a sled but didn’t break camp. Now he was hitching them up to race when there were no other signs of racing in the entire village. Where was Tati? Why did Tun seem so forlorn? Why is Rol readying to board the racing sled? As they finished preparations for departure, they again addressed one another.

“Do you know the way to Bek’s? The homestead in the moraine, west of the Dezhnevo trail?

“I know of the place, though I’ve never been there.” Rol replied.

“West from Silver Creek crossing, through the forest and down into the valley. There’s only one trail once you reach the forest.” Tun spoke as he checked tug lines and the condition of the dogs’ paws. “It will take most of a day to get there, so I hope to see you at the end of tomorrow or the day after. I’ll stay here in Tunkan.” He paused, and looked across the village to Vetna’s camp.

“Or I may need to go to Kantuc.” he thought aloud. “I’ll leave a sign for you if I do.” his eyes wandered from the sled to Rol to Vetna’s camp as he spoke, focusing on none of them. “Find Chimlik. He’ll know if I’ve gone, and where.” Tun referred Rol to the person that amounted to Chief in Tunkan, the Donat. This was really more of a mayoral position, being selected by the village populace for leadership.

“I’ve packed three days’ provisions for you and the dogs.” the wheels turned behind Tun’s eyes as he spoke in a level tone. “But I have no more bread. Only salmon and jerky. You should have some biscuits…” the big man spoke almost unconsciously. Meandering and repeating thoughts as he added Rol to the list of those who would consume his waking and sleeping hours with his worry for their safety.

Rol felt himself growing, aging, maturing with each passing minute. No longer the boy fulfilling demands of adults. No longer the young man without skills or means. Now a revered leader, a hero, called on him, entrusting him with the most valuable things in his life; his dog team, his racing sled, and most importantly, the security of those he loved.

“I’ll be just fine, Tun.” he heard himself say. Or rather, he heard a man that sounded not unlike his own father and this mentor before him. A man that understood community and loyalty and commitment. “You take care of Tati,” he continued emboldened by this hitherto unknown sense of duty that filled his entire being now, to every corner of his soul. “and yourself. Thank you for calling on me Tun. Rest assured, I will not fail you.”

“You can never fail me, Rol.” Tun looked into his eyes, “so long as your heart is true. Do your best.”

Suddenly, Rol, who had felt a little taller, a little stronger, sensed the child within. A flash of fear struck him in the gut, charged with such an important duty. Self-doubt rocked him, leaving him uncertain about his ability to do all of this.

“Thank you, Rol. Your father should be very proud of you.” Tun stood, towering over the youth, removed his mitt, and held out his hand. As the glow of the low sun and the flickering fire illuminated the big man’s face, Rol could see in it the anguish he carried as he held Rol’s hand in his own. In the next moment, he saw this soften with relief that here was someone whom he could trust to care for such delicate things, our loved ones. And in that moment, Rol began the lifelong internal dialogue known to all men.

The man here standing addressed the child within. To share joys and laughter with child-like wonder. To reassure the child that there was now a grownup to care for it, always. Grown Rol grabbed Tun’s hand with a strong grip, reminding child Rol that all the teaching and learning and growing has led to this moment, and many more grownup moments that lay ahead.

“It’s what we do.” Rol commanded the finish to the conversation. The time for talk had passed. “Get up, dogs. Let’s go! Hike!” The team rose, but paused, confused. Alexei and Umka took a couple of steps at the command, but Dak simply looked to Tun, his mouth hanging half-open in a dog smile.

“Go! Go with Rol, go!” Tun gestured and clapped his mitted hands together. Dak took two steps and the line behind him tightened, unmoving. Stone and Larik shifted their weight between paws, looked at Rol, then at Tun. “Yes! Yes!” continued the giant, “Go to Bek’s with Rol!”

Sasha heard Bek’s name among the human words. In a moment, it came to her; Tun wanted the team to take Rol to the Homestead. She swung her head rapidly addressing the team, and barked her “Let’s go!” bark.

“What are we supposed to be doing?” asked Anchu.

“We’re going to Bek and Nina’s.” Sasha replied in an excited but businesslike tone.

“We’re going Home? Now? But what about Tun?”

“I don’t know, brother. I’m not certain what the plan is, but I know this is what Tun is asking of us. That’s enough for me.”

“Me, too!” Dak called from the lead with an edge in his voice, and implied impatience.

“Me, too.” Anchu replied to his sister, Dak and the team, resolving himself to duty and abandoning questions.

“Me, too!” said Stone, and then Umka, followed by the remaining three.

“Come on you dogs, mush!” newly-minted grownup Rol took his responsibility seriously, “Hike! Let’s go!”

Now the team burst from the start, snow and mud flying as they raced their way across the village, and away from Tun. The gray sky hung silently over them, as a few small snowflakes began to fall. He stood and watched the team disappear, and remained until their barks and calls could no longer be heard.

Tun looked skyward, stretched his arms as wide as he could.

“Great Spirit, watch over these innocents.”

Around The Fire

“There they go.” Alexei referred to the string of people that flowed through Tun’s camp after the race, congratulating him and Tati. “First they all try to beat each other in the race, and now they’re all hugging. I don’t get it.”

“Is there anything people won’t take credit for?” Larik interjected. “After all, we did all the running.”

“That’s not entirely accurate,” added Dak, “Tati runs as fast as you!”. Larik was not amused by this, but the rest of the team snickered at the remark.

“Well, we are Tun’s team. We wouldn’t be here without him, or have a sled or a driver.” Sasha felt compelled to defend Tun.

“I could run a lot faster if I wasn’t dragging this dogsled, you know.” Larik replied.

“I think they just want to know what it feels like to be us.” Anchu added, looking at the people gathered around the camp. “They only have two legs, like birds, but they can’t fly. Their wings or forelegs or whatever you call them are deformed. No pads, no feathers. It must be a little frustrating. With us, they can feel what it’s like to run down a trail, to have the wind whistle past your ears.” He laid down and placed his snout on his forepaws, contemplatively shifting his gaze from one musher to another.

“I’ve never thought of that.” Stone now joined the conversation, “People envying dogs.”

“Why wouldn’t they?” Alexei continued. “Someone makes our meals for us, someone makes our beds. We don’t need to do anything but pull a sled, which is really just walking and running anyway.”

“Maybe that’s why they keep so many dogs around.” Anchu added, “Maybe they know they’re inferior.”

Inferior?” Umka interjected, shocked, even insulted on behalf of humans. “They get us food and houses and boots for the ice. We would have none of these things without Tun.”

“And we’d be free as the wolves to do as we please.” Added Larik, cleaning the mud from his legs.

“Yes,” Stone added, “free to starve and die in the wilderness.”

“If you were a wolf you wouldn’t be afraid of the wilderness.” Larik countered.

“True. I guess you’re right about that.” Stone conceded, his eyes wandering to the top of the glacier and the mountain beyond, imagining what it might be like to be out there on his own.

“Do wolves really live all by themselves?” Anchu asked his more worldly teammates. “Where do they sleep? How do they eat?”

“They sleep wherever they please!” Larik replied, “They eat when they feel like eating.”

“But where do they get the chow?”

“Come on! You know animals in the wild hunt for other animals or eat trees and things like that. They don’t need people.”

“Sounds like a lonely life.” Umka chimed in, unable to imagine a world without people. He really loved people, all people. The way some people love all dogs. “No one to pet you or talk to you or make you a fancy harness.”

“You don’t need a harness if you’re free and wild.” Larik’s tone became contentious with no one following on his line of thought. “They talk to each other. They pet each other.

“I think people are confused.” Alexei continued, still staring at each person that passed. “I’m not sure they understand what kind of animals they are. You really must pity them.”

“Right about that.” Umka added. “I feel sorry for them. They’re lousy at building nests. They’re all way too big and far from warm. They need to get their fur from other animals. How sad is that? The only fur they have is on the top of their head. They have very delicate feet. Notice they can never go anywhere without boots.”

“That’s why they need us so much.” Dak stated flatly. “They need us to keep them warm, to pull them where they need to go on their sleds. To protect them from real wild animals that would kill and eat them.”

At the west end of the village, the crowd could again be heard cheering and congratulating another team crossing the finish line.

“And there they go again!” Alexei mused. “It’s like it doesn’t matter if you won.”

Dak, more caught up in the lives of humans and their world responded. “It matters to me!”

Tati approached the team with Akej at her side. They were involved in intense conversations as they walked.

“Here he is!” Tati stopped in front of Dak and gestured, “The fastest lead dog of the day!” She reached out with both hands behind his ears and fluffed them, and bent down to kiss him on the top of his head.

Dak wagged. “But it was Anchu who…” he began to say, but unable to understand, Tati and Akej continued.

“Yes, you’re excited to be the star, eh boy?” Akej addressed the dog, and petted his head to express his admiration.

“It takes a whole team.” Dak barked out, looking to Anchu with a nod.

Oblivious to the dogs’ comments, the people continued their conversations. Tun greeted Tatiana with open arms, a long hug, and gentle pats on the back.

“Fine job young lady!” Tun’s eyes sparkled, “That was an amazing finish.”

“That was the greatest ride I’ve had in a long, long time.” Tati replied, pulling her mackinaw over her head, bits of sticks falling from her hair.

Two children ran up to Akej, one grabbing each hand. He bade Tun and Tati “Good race” and farewell, as he was hauled away to the next excited group of Festival attendees.

“Sasha acted up a little, not sure what that was about. Smelled a wolverine maybe.” She pulled more sticks and debris from her hair. “Then Anchu!” she continued, removing her muddy pants and pulling on a dry pair, “Anchu was faster than the rest of the team. That dog can sure run! He really set our pace.”

Her mukluks were soaked through, and she laid them on the hot stones of the fire ring to dry, walking barefoot in the muddy camp. She continued to relate the events of the race to Tun; falling on the hill climb, cutting her forehead; getting snagged in the bog; the team’s racing spirit, the thrill of passing Akej and Ilja. A cheer could be heard at the finish line, not far off, as another team completed the course.

Tun poured hot water on a wash cloth, wrung it out, and began gently to wash the dried blood from the girl’s face and neck. She paused her tale long enough to purse her lips and close her eyes, turning her face upwards, a child trained to anticipate the grownups’ propensity for such preening. He listened intently to her account, watching her eyes widen and shine at the glorious parts, watching her brow furrow as she described the team’s struggles. As Tati continued to talk excitedly, her lips lost their color and began to look bluish. A rosey flush showed on her cheeks, but the rest of her face grew pale. Without realizing it, she began to shiver and hunch toward the fire.

“You need boots.” Tun interrupted the narrative. “Put this parka on, you’re chilled to the bone.”

Her shivers turned to pronounced shakes as she reached for the parka, holding her elbows close to her sides. Tun took the parka back from her and helped her to don it. He pulled the hood up over her head and drew it close under her chin. He then took a pair of sealskin mittens from the tent, and pulled them over her feet. Next, he steeped a cup of hot tea, then stood behind the girl, vigorously rubbing her upper arms. Tun threw several pieces of wood on the fire and stirred it. The man who always was smiling and gay bore a solemn countenance. He worried about Tati, that she might be taking ill. One at a time he removed her mittens and rubbed her hands to warm them. He borrowed a fur and a blanket, and made a bed beside the fire.

“Lie down, child, and warm yourself by the fire.”

Tatiana, still chilled and shivering, was also exhausted from the rigors of the race. Within a few minutes, she was fast asleep. Tun placed his giant hand on her forehead to check for fever. He tucked the blanket in around her, and again pulled her hood close. The big man lowered himself to the ground and sat by Tati’s head, placing his great arm across the sleeping girl.

Few things could make Tun fret. Tatiana was one of them. Now, in the quiet camp, he also worried about his dear friend Bek and his family. It was most unusual for them to miss Summer Festival. He knew Tati would be looking forward to seeing Jiak, as was he. He would make a fine son-in-law, Tun thought.

As he caught himself thinking this, a lump climbed into his throat. He stared at the sleeping girl’s face, deep in thought. Thoughts of long ago, unavoidable, undeniable. He smiled as tears filled his eyes, imagining what might have been. Tun lowered his face to his hands, and, for just a minute, allowed himself to cry, quietly.

Dak was instantly beside him, cocked his head, whimpered, placed his paw on Tun’s.

“Yes, thank you.” Tun smiled as his eyes met with the dog’s. “Oh, Dak.” he said, putting his arms around the Husky, hugging him as his tears subsided.

“My Anka-Ny would have been this age by now.”

Finish Line

Ilja was quite surprised, his senses momentarily bewildered at being overtaken by Tati’s team. An odds-on favorite to win, the only other competitor likely capable of beating Ilja’s team was Bek’s. Jiak had piloted his team to several victories over Ilja’s, and it seemed the two men almost took turns winning over the course of this past season.

Tati looked closely at Ilja’s dogs as she passed them with her own. They didn’t look particularly weary, and their eyes shined with the thrill of running and racing. She hunched low to reduce wind drag and urged the team onward, though it seemed they couldn’t possibly move faster. Over her shoulder, Tatiana could see Ilja’s head jerk upright. He renewed his grip on the handle and reset his feet on the runners as if demonstrating his conviction to correct this unexpected and unacceptable encroachment. As he called out, the dogs eagerly responded, and one could see the entire team redouble their efforts, their quarry in their sights.

There were several heaves of the glacial base that ran perpendicular to the course, like a long, stretched-out set of ice stairs, sized for a giant, the cracked edge a foot above the step below. Dogs would jump one after the other in a line, giving a flowing effect, like water over a fall. The sled would glide off the stair, its whooshing sound of the rails through the soft snow suddenly silencing, a breath held,  then in a second beginning again as they struck down on the firm snow-covered glacier.

Tatiana used her knees as hinges, her leg muscles as springs, anticipating each jump of the ice stairs. She’d feel the sled drop away below her, and, pulling upwards on the back bow, would apply just enough pressure to keep her feet from coming off the runners. As the sled returned to Earth, she would bend her knees and gently lower her weight onto the sled. Behind her, Ilja, so large he carried just one handicap stone, could not navigate the jumps as gracefully and delicately as Tati. His weight fell full force with the sled as it banged down each step, jarring his knees, elbows, back and neck. This was not without effect on the sled, as its momentum slowed incrementally from the dogs’ speed. Lines would tighten, the weights jerking on the team. Step by step, Tatiana opened the gap between her sled and Ilja’s.

Tunkan once again came into view. People could be seen gathered at the west end of the village, the end of the race course. Now could be seen another team ahead of Tati’s, and it cruised into the settlement greeted by cheers and hand clapping. Several people ran to the sled, shook the driver’s hand and congratulated him. Many folks were still looking up the hill. Supporters, friends and family members strained their eyes, each searching for their own party.

“Isn’t that Ilja?” comments rose.

“But who is ahead of him?”

“Wasn’t Akej after Ilja? Who’s that?”

“Is that Tun’s team? It is! There’s Dak!”

The major upset in the race and the record-setting pace of Tun’s team drew the attention of the crowd. Now, any who knew her were calling out Tati’s name, encouraging her onward. Tati saw the finish approaching, and looked over her shoulder to see Ilja and his team slamming down the last ice step, still a considerable distance behind her. She laughed out loud, a kind of giggle erupting from deep within her belly, the thrill and excitement overwhelming her.

Within the village, Tun was amazed as any at the early arrival of Tati and the team. This was not the first win for Tun. In these recent years with young, energetic and light Tatiana as a driver, the team had scored several victories. This, however, was quite an upset, quite the turn of events, as the Summer Festival drew the stiffest of competition. Akej and Ilja were two of the top competitors in the area, and elsewhere in the race were two more teams that frequently took wins and second-place finishes. If Bek was here with Jiak, they would rank among these successful racers.

The cheers of the crowd reached a crescendo as Tun’s team crossed the finish line. Tati drove the team further a bit, leading them to an area away from the throngs of race watchers. Here, a watering trough had been filled for the benefit of exhausted teams and drivers finishing the race. Each team had their own special fans, and Tun’s was no exception. Typically, a half-dozen people would have followed Tatiana, helping cool and water the dogs, fetching a drink for the driver, reveling in all that is the racing spirit, congratulating musher and team. On this occasion, more than a dozen people, some unknown to Tati, approached the finely decorated sled and team, petting dogs and patting backs.

Their conversation was an energized buzz, marveling at the incredible time the team had made, the upset of it, and the victorious finish. Sasha and her team were exhausted yet still excited and exhilarated by their first race experience together. Certainly it was Anchu that was the subject of many exchanges between humans and dogs alike. His eagerness and high level of racing spirit, his indefatigable stamina, and of course, his amazing speed.

The attention was a bit overwhelming, and despite his elation at the race results and his own newly discovered talent for speed and endurance, Anchu eschewed the praise. For the first time in his life he felt truly a part of something meaningful, and this meant more to him than winning. He looked with love and great admiration at the other dogs, and addressed them

“It takes a whole team to win a race.”

Proud For Tun!

The solid frozen foot of the glacier was topped with a thin layer of wet snow, and it angled downward slightly, making the last leg of the race almost a downhill run.

“Let’s Go! Go! Go!” Anchu barked, eagerly pressing muscles to action, his stamina and energy unwavering. Immediately behind him, Alexei was not to be outdone by such an inexperienced youngster, and he, too, pushed himself to maximum speed.

Sasha’s line slacked with the acceleration of the dogs behind her. Even Larik, at the wheel position, was meeting the pace of Anchu and Alexei. Now she clenched her paws and dug her claws into the solid ice beneath the snow, and worked her legs as hard and fast as she could. She felt the line gently tension behind her, as Umka, ahead, sensed the increasing speed as well, and picked up his pace.

Dak looked over his shoulder at the team and saw they were all gleefully striding flat-out, challenging one another to go faster still. While the pitch of the terrain lent its advantage equally to all the teams, the gap between Tati’s and the one ahead could be seen to be closing.

Anchu was still pulling a little faster than the rest of the team, Sasha’s line slacking behind her occasionally. “Dig!Dig!Dig!” he barked as all the dogs were dumbstruck to see he could move even faster. Still, he hardly seemed strained or winded, his breath and step coming easily and naturally.

The other dogs were astounded by his energy and agility. Each pressed their muscles to the extreme, sailing across the slick glacier at a speed that was nothing short of phenomenal. Within just a few minutes, they closed on the team ahead, and trailed them now by only ten meters.

Seeing this, the driver, Akej, commanded his dogs to full speed. His team now noticed the competitor gaining, and this inspired them to increase their efforts. Incrementally, Tati’s team gained on the second-place leader. Now they were alongside, and could see they’d outpaced a veteran musher, and his strong and well-trained nine dog team.

Then, as if Akej had conceded and slowed, Sasha and the sled passed them, and began to pull away. Akej was in disbelief at the speed of Tati’s team, and his mouth fell open, speechless.

Tatiana’s team was running flat-out, except for Anchu. He kept a constant tension on his tugline, yet was not in the least winded, nor going as fast as he wanted to. If not for this team and dogsled anchoring him, he would have streaked across the glacier at twice this speed. He’d never known such enthusiasm and exhilaration. He’d always been quiet Brother Anchu. Middle of the pack. A little smaller than most, perhaps. A bit less likely to win at wrestling in the yard. Not likely to be first to smell an intruder or bark an alarm. Last in line when it came to tearing up a carcass and sharing with the pack.

But now, he had found something he loved, and it was running. He found something that he was especially good at. Something that made other dogs look to him with some admiration, perhaps even envy. From the moment Tun had placed the racing harness on him, he felt a change. His was not the last or the least of the harnesses. And now he, quiet Brother Anchu, was far from the least or last on this team of dogs. This was not only the thrill of running and racing, but the thrill of being the best.

“Come on! Go! Go!” he called out to his teammates, his smile a mile wide, tongue flapping about.

“Where did we get this guy?” Larik barked out, catching Anchu’s racing fever, and driving harder to faster and faster gaits. Likewise, each member of the group was thrilled tremendously to be on such a fast and winning team. Just one musher still ran ahead of them. In all, they’d passed six dog teams over the length of the course, one of which never saw them, overtaken sight unseen during the switchback shortcut maneuver.

Tati realized she was smiling with such effort her cheeks began to hurt. She’d been on a number of sleds and ran her share of races, but never experienced a team this fast. They were rapidly gaining on the race leader, and likely setting a new record time for the course.

Sasha regarded the team they’d just passed. There was no hint of Jiak scent anywhere on Akej’s sled. The scent trail of the leading team also revealed no Jiak. Now she wondered if she’d just imagined it. Wishful thinking, perhaps. Within that moment, another face and name appeared at the forefront of her thoughts. It was Tun. Suddenly she was stricken with a little guilt. She didn’t mean to place Jiak on a pedestal. She couldn’t help but to love and miss him.

Still, she was here with Tun. Part of Tun’s team now. A part of his life, and he a part of hers. She thought of his smiling face and gentle hands. She thought of the comfort and freedom he provided his dogs, remembered her thrill and surprise when he produced the ornate, personalized racing harness, even for the new and untested recruits. She had nearly derailed the team during a race with her selfish insistence on seeing Jiak. But it was Tun that had brought her here. Tun that made all of this possible. The exquisite sled, the team’s matching harnesses, Tati for a driver, the trip to Tunkan and the Summer Festival.

As much as she loved Jiak, and he would always be precious to her, she realized how much she was now part of something bigger than herself. Tun and her new team were now her family. She didn’t feel she owed Tun her loyalty, as much as she felt deeply indebted to him.

“Proud For Tun!” She barked out between gasps of the mild air.

The rest of the team, still running flat-out, could hardly gather enough breath to return the rallying cry.

“Proud for..” some barked in one breath, followed by “…Tun!” in the next. Some could only manage “Tun!”

Anchu, looking like he was trotting at a relaxed pace, sang out all of Dak’s greeting to Tunkan.

“Here we come!

Second to none!

Ready to race!

Proud for Tun!”

And with that, this phenomenal team running top speed accelerated further, and overtook the next musher, becoming the race leader.