Caravan Draft Chapter Ten

Chapter Ten
Breath And Life

 

Long before the humans heard the ringing reindeer bell of Dorik’s team, the racing wind brought the scents to the dogs assembled in Tun’s desperate camp. Speeding past was a rich blend of smells; reindeer, people, leather, smoke and traces of food aromas. Mixed in were familiar signatures, dogs that belonged to this pack.

“Larik!” Alexei was first to respond, and began straightaway to sprint into the headwind to meet the approaching party.

Sasha smelled her brother. She cleared her nostrils of embedded scents and sniffed the air again in short, rapid whiffs. It was true. It was Anchu. Still reeling from the shock that he had ventured out into the deadly storm, a feeling haunted her that she could not yet be certain what might come next. Either her brother will have returned with an excuse, an explanation; or kind-hearted neighbors were returning his corpse to his driver.

The clanging bell now could be heard, and seemed quite near, but the wind-driven snow still obliterated any view of the yet-unseen travelers. Now the click-clack of the reindeers’ hooves could be heard, and the scraping, creaking, rattling noises that accompanied a wood-railed sled as it made its way over the solid ice. Then, Alexei could be heard to yip with excitement. The balance of the team, waiting breathlessly, felt some instant relief knowing Larik had been found. This raised Sasha’s hopes, but did not fully allay her fears.

The first visible thing to emerge from the blinding snow was Anchu, sprinting top speed even after all of his ordeals, and now with a tailwind. He streaked into camp and skidded to a stop. Despite the bone-chilling cold and rampaging wind, an ice-crusted smile stretched across his face, and beneath crystal-flocked eyebrows, his eyes gleamed with energy and enthusiasm.

Sasha instantly felt angry with Anchu. Seeing that he was clearly alive and well, her worries and fears were dismissed, and they vanished behind the curtain of her present emotions. Her brain lined up a dozen things to say to him; “Why would you do such a thing? Larik is much bigger, you shouldn’t have gone with him. You could have died out there! How do you think I would have felt if you died? I almost died from fright!” She was choosing which would be first.

“Sis!” Anchu yelled as soon as he laid eyes on her. He spoke in a fiery, staccato barrage of exclamations. “We’re back! I can’t believe we made it so fast, but this wind! Wow! It really helped on the backtrail.” He was wagging fast and sort of wiggling all over, ebullient, even glowing with excitement. He continued with another flurry of sentences.

“I was starting to get scared! I thought I was going to die! Wow! It is really freezing out there! Then I ran into a guard and almost got into a fight. But I didn’t know Larik followed me, and boy you should’ve seen them run when he showed up!”

Seeing his face, hearing his voice, watching the light in his eyes as he told his tales brought Sasha back from her state of anger. She realized just how much she loved him, and how much he has been and continues to be an integral piece of her life. She remembered her fears and heartache when she thought only moments ago that he might never return. Such a sickening feeling it was to think about life without Anchu. Now she was overwhelmed with the joy of having him back, snatched from the jaws of death, and she was immensely grateful. She ran to him and kissed his face, lavishing her affections on him, interrupting his effervescent narrative.

“I’m so glad to have you back.” She said. “I don’t know what I would have done…”

“And we brought help for the people.” Her brother continued, oblivious to any worries or concerns he may have caused the rest. Oblivious to the import and intent of his sister’s words. “Did you know Larik killed a bear and fought off six dogs at Umkat? Everybody knows Larik. ‘Larik The Bear Killer’ they call him. He’s the best!”

Just then, ‘The Bear Killer’ emerged from the oppressive storm, ambling at a casual trot and talking to a small fan club that trailed him.

“Larik!” Anchu ran off to greet him. They high-pawed one another like old sled-school buddies.

The other five members of the team looked on in astonishment. To be jovial and well accompanied, and enthusiastically friendly with Anchu, or anyone else, was entirely out of character for Larik. The sullen reprobate, unsociable Larik. Larik the rebel. Larik the loner. But Larik ‘The Bear Killer?’ What strange transformation must have taken place deep in the dark night, in the midst of the williwaw, out on the frozen black tundra?

These two, at the least, were laid in the lap of the Ice Queen, for her to do with them as she would. Yet instead of clutching them to her frozen bosom, and keeping them forever for herself, she returned them.

“Don’t you boys do such a thing again.” She would scold them, and the wailing winds now rose in camp, to remind them all of how truly fortunate they had been.

Dorik could hardly believe his eyes. When Keru, his youngest daughter, insisted the dog that woke them wanted help to follow him, he had some doubts. She was of keen insight with all living things, however, and he trusted her instincts in such matters more than he did his own. Indeed, it appeared the dog that materialized out of a deadly blizzard was calling them. Stepping west and stopping, calling again and returning. Larik was still wearing his racing harness, which he’d been in since quitting the team at Tunkan. The trademark color pattern was recognized to be Tun’s.

Now the dim morning light revealed to Dorik an eerie sight fading forth from the snowstorm as he neared the makeshift shelter. At first there was no movement at all, and an alarming feeling struck Dorik in the gut. Then a dog flashed up out of the snow and ran to those alongside the sledge. As the shelter came to be viewed more clearly, a few more dogs rose, and looked to identify and greet the newcomers. This brought hope that the conditions may have been survivable.

From the firepit of the yaranga, Keru had loaded burning dung coals in a cast iron kettle which was then slung from the bottom of the sledge. A rectangular litter covered the top, providing a small cabin. She now moved the coals to the inside of the litter, stoked the fire, and placed a bucket of chipped ice on it to melt.

Dorik proceeded hastily to the windbreak, and found the tiny tent. The hides were rendered solid and inflexible, and were frozen down to the ice. He pulled at the place where the two skins overlapped, and they noisily separated, making crunching sounds, bits of ice falling from them. It was dark inside, and the day itself was dull. It took a moment of staring into the space before Dorik’s eyes could sense and discern the shapes within. Two dogs stirred and scampered out, and what appeared to be several more remained coiled and crowded into the lair. Then a large mass covered with a thin layer of snow began to move. It startled Dorik at first, his nerves tense with anticipation of what he might discover. Sitting upright with a groan, the shape was clearly a man.

“Good morning, Dorik.” Called out a voice, or rather, a sound similar to that of dragging a large rock across hard ice.

“Is that Tun?” Dorik replied.

“Yes!” rasped the frozen giant, “It is Tun. How are you?”

“I’m well. Might I ask the same of you?”

“I’m glad to see you, old friend.” Tun’s throat tightened for a second. He paused to regain his voice. “I’m as best as can be under the circumstances, but my young friend Rol here is not holding up so well. Do you think you could assist me getting him up?” the grating voice faded in and out.

“Keru and I will help you both. Here, let me give you a hand.”

“Thank you, no, Dorik. Please, I must raise myself from this bed. Something I hadn’t expected to do.”

Keru joined Dorik, and they assisted Rol to his feet, then into the litter. Tun was next, gritting his teeth and wincing at the sharp pains in his back. The two laid beside the fire in a state of euphoria, partly induced by exposure, and partly so by this unexpected and miraculous salvation. They had each kept a brave face for one another, while lying down for what they thought would be their final sleep. And now – saved! Had they not been numb with cold and dumb with hypothermia, they would no doubt have danced and sung of their joy and happiness, their love of life, their elation at their return to it. Warmth, relief, rescue. Water. Safety. Caring friends. In a matter of moments, both were sleeping deeply, nearly comatose with exhaustion.

Keru and Dorik set about caring for the animals; their reindeer and Rol’s, and all the dogs. Huddling the three sleds together, and Dorik’s carrying the litter, much better shelter from the wind could be had, and all the animals crowded into this corral of sorts. All were given water in a long, slow process of melting ice one pail at a time. While it melted, a hatchet was used to chip the next bucketful from the rock hard tundra. The dogs and reindeer would go without feeding. The rescue team did not anticipate a congregation of thirty dogs would be encountered, and had aboard enough food for seven or so. It could be cut thinner and stretched to fifteen, but would provide little more than a teasing morsel, or fuel for argument, if split thirty ways.

Neither would the reindeer eat. Some sedge grass was brought expecting two hungry reindeer. Supply was good, but the wind was bad, and grass would be blown away the moment it left one’s hands. For now, the group would hunker down. The day would be spent chipping away at the endless ice, distributing life-saving water in sparing doses. Circle and repeat.

In the span of the next several hours, the frigid breath of the Ice Queen ebbed from its blustering blow, down to a steady wind. Dogs began to rise from their piles and move about, stretch, account for one another. Sasha was riding a joyful high; her brother returned, Larik too; rescue from their perilous situation; the storm waning and hope rising.

“Your brother is amazing.” Omok said, as Sasha suddenly noticed he was standing beside her.

“What?” Her brain was slow, almost reluctant, to shift from the wash of ecstasy in which she was now bathed, the beauty of life itself.

“Your breath and life.” she said.

“Pardon me? What did you say?” Omok asked.

“Oh. Nothing.” Sasha returned to the present. “Yes. Yes he is.”

Caravan Draft Chapter Nine

Chapter Nine
Curfew Rings

Rol was in pain, exhausted and plagued by fears. He had no idea where his parents and sister were, caught in the upheaval wrought by the uniformed invaders. He held his eyes closed and huddled close to the dogs. Still, he felt secure and cared for with Tun, whom he had known all his life. A very close friend to his father. One of those men referred to as Uncle, though bloodlines do not define the relationship so.

Often we find the bonds of heartstrings ignore such empirical identification. Indeed, it is our threads of heartstrings that strengthen and embroider the fabric of our lives, build them up and embellish them in so many ways, regardless of their origin. A truth found in every pack.

Comfort and rest were denied the men crammed in the tiny hide shelter in the wailing, brutal, sub-freezing night, buried under a mound of dogs seeking the same, elusive relief. Rol painted a dreamscape for himself. Perhaps distraction would tempt his weary mind to sleep. Perhaps partly to will away the stabbing pain in his feet, the constant chill across his shoulders. The dread feeling he has no respite from the cold, save one.

The image began to form in his mind. It was home. Great herds of reindeer milled about on the hill beyond. The sun was shining, and crystal waters made tinkling sounds as the ancient glacier slowly melted with the season. He was in the hot yaranga of early summer. His father Evgenii sat bare chested beside his mother, telling a tale of his childhood, of herding with his own father. Mother was feverishly conditioning hides to make a new mackinaw for his sister. She would work the skin vigorously, then shake it out, crumple it up, and begin again scraping with a mussel shell. The younger sibling, now sporting most of a mouthful of second teeth, lay curled in a ball between three dogs coiled similarly, and napped in the quiet afternoon.

Rol could smell the smoke of the fire, and tea, freshly brewed and ready to serve. He sat cross-legged and poured the steaming beverage into three cups. In spite of the milder weather and the heat of the dwelling, the hot tea was still satisfying. As they drank, his father continued speaking, telling him the best place to go for fish tomorrow, and plans to rebuild their fish wheel on the creek, destroyed by an early ice-up on the waterway last fall.

Mother sipped at her tea. She paused to stare at Rol, which brought a smile to both.

“You’re getting so big, Alban.” she called him by her pet name for him. “You look identical to your father when we first met. He must have been about your age.”

“Younger!” his father insisted, “Your mother is a baby-stealer!”

The three laughed heartily, causing his sister to rise from her sleep.

All three dogs picked up their heads simultaneously. They looked toward the door of the yaranga, and sniffed at the air. Badna, the oldest dog, pressed his snout against the leather flap door, and squeezed his way outside. He let out a single “Woof!”.

A moment later, they began to hear a bell ringing from a reindeer team. Friends or neighbors or perhaps new acquaintances, approaching Evgenii’s camp. Visitors at this time of year often brought the bounty of their winters to trade for reindeer to replenish their supply. Pelts and hides, antlers and bones, meats and fish to be made into jukkola and jerky. Sometimes a kindly giant would bring treats for children, gifts for parents.

The ringing of the bell drew nearer and repeated with the steady rhythm of a walking team. It competed with the bellowing wind until it cut through the darkness, and Rol suddenly realized the tones rang out from the real world. He listened intently to the sound as it kept its steady canter and grew louder. He reached his frozen hands to his hood. He had to check to see if he was hallucinating. The bitter cold felt real. The stinging pain in his toes felt real. Still the bell rang out, drawing nearer with each surreal moment.

Rol stood abruptly, throwing off like a madman the hide that had shielded him from the black night and the Arctic gale. Both feet were numb, and failed him immediately. He stumbled and fell onto a heap of dogs and Tun, all of whom sprang up with indignant surprise. Without apology, Rol scrambled hastily over the pile, disregarding placement of hands and knees, digging frantically over the annoyed dogs. He crawled as one pursued by wolves around the edge of the windbreak. He was sure he was awake and alive now. Nightmares and death itself could never be this painful, nor could a simple clarion be a hope as bright as the sun.

Rol tried to call out to Tun, but found his lips frozen together. He pressed his tongue against them and pulled at his mandible with one hand until they separated, tearing away a few layers of skin.

“Ell!” croaked forth frigid air driven by his frozen lungs through numb lips, barely at the level of speech. His lips would not obey the command to nest together and form a “b”.

“A gell!” he groaned, heaving at his diaphragm to be heard above the deafening wind. He raked at his hood with two mitted paws, trying to throw it back so he could hear, so he could stare off into the pelting snow and be pummeled with ice pellets. He forgot the drawstring pulled tight at his throat, and swatted at the hood as if a swarm of bees had attacked him.

The hurricane-force breath of the Ice Queen took no pity, made no notice of this tiny mammal clinging to its life by threads. She exhaled a gust for fun, enough to rock a lazy ship drifting at sea. Enough to blow down those mighty spruces and ancient hemlocks and weakening willows whose time has come. The wind struck the boy square on, filled his hood like a sail, threw all of his weight onto his frozen toes and he tumbled backward and sideward onto the ice. His arms and legs made helpless repeated motions, trying to rise, as depleted muscles and frozen joints were unable to respond, unable to comprehend their own state of inability.

Tun leaped for Rol, his heart pounding. Shock and heartache added to the freezing wind and pelting snow, his hands shaking.

“Gell! A gell!” Rol repeated, lifting his arm in the direction of the sound, immediately ahead of them on the trail.

Tun’s stomach sank, as he thought he was watching the death throes of his dear charge. His only concern was to bring the boy back from the hypothermia and dehydration. The former could be done with dogs and body heat. The latter remained a challenge at this temperature, so far below freezing that water turned solid instantly. Even the salty tears that now froze to Tun’s eyelashes.

He tried to lift Rol, but the younger resisted his efforts. Stood, as it were, on his knees and gestured toward the trail.

“Deer gell. Trail. Here.” Rol barked out.

Tun next heard the clanging, and spun to face the wind and sound, momentarily perplexed. The thought crossed his mind to grab the rifle from the scabbard. In these strange days, nerves were on edge. He quickly reasoned that the soldiers would not, probably could not, traverse this desolate, featureless tundra in the black Arctic night.

Rasping breaths could barely repeat the words, but Rol continued, “Gell! Gell!” With this, he collapsed onto Tun.

Tun cradled the boy in his arms and leaned in close so he could be heard.

“Yes,” he said almost at a whisper, into the hood of the parka, hugging the lad, “I hear it.”

Caravan Draft Chapter Seven

Chapter Seven
Legends And Spies

Anchu held closed his eyes, shielding them from the stinging, wind-driven ice crystals, as he pressed as quickly as he could into the raging blizzard. He was desperately cold even before he emerged from the impromptu shelter Tun had erected. Now the wind whisked away all the warmth it could steal, and called upon him to expend double the effort to overcome its immense power. It slowed him considerably from the top speed he was capable of, a fact not lost on Anchu. Striving to reach the caravan somewhere ahead in the void of the Arctic tundra night, his feet endured more pain with each passing minute. The muscles required to maintain this pace called for oxygen, and he sucked in the subfreezing air, chilling him from within, as his exhalations took with them still more of his body heat.

He’d been out here running at this gait for an interminable length of time, his spirit and focus driven by an all-consuming compulsion to save the lives of his loved ones; his sister, the pack, Tun and Rol. So, too, the many uprooted dogs that accompanied them.

“How far could it be?” he asked himself, and the answers that rushed into his brain were unwelcome. The first twinges of rational fear and doubt began to creep in, to drive out the adrenaline and adroitness. To claw at the calls for compassion and courage that propelled the young dog on his potentially suicidal mission.

Suddenly, he slammed face-first into a solid object, running full speed in the dark with his eyes closed. His snout was shoved down into his chest, and he heard a little cracking noise in his neck as the rest of his body weight pressed his wrenched head against the black wall until he crumpled to a heap on the ice.

Anchu looked up from where he lay, and saw the storm-filled predawn sky had taken on an umbrageous cobalt glow. Against it, he saw a dark silhouette, nearly imperceptible. It was a dog. A big one.

“Stop right there!” barked out an authoritative voice. “This is a private camp. Move on.”

Still a little dazed, Anchu was tremendously relieved his trial was over, and he had reached his destination without dying.

“My friends…” he began to explain breathlessly, “I’ve come to get help for my friends. They’re out…”

“There’s no help for you here.” the silhouette cut him off mid-sentence. Now the barely-perceptible silhouettes of two other dogs faded forth from the dark to stand just behind the first.

“Move on.” the voice said pointedly.

“Do you think he came from the invaders?” number two shadow asked of the first. Anchu had apparently run into a dawn patrol outside the caravan. A lieutenant and his platoon.

“It doesn’t matter. Keep moving!” the lieutenant shadow took a step toward Anchu.

“We’re all part of the same group!” Anchu offered excitedly, “We got left behind and now all the rest are stuck out on the tundra!”

“It’s a trick!” number three, a young corporal, barked as he mimicked the lieutenant’s step toward the intruder.

“I’m Anchu. Part of Bek’s team. I mean Tun’s.” he stammered as much from fright as the cold, “Tun and Rol are back there…”

“Tun sent you?” the lieutenant asked.

“I came by myself. To get help for the people. They’ll die if we don’t…”

“We can’t take on any more, little guy. You need to move on.”

“But I…”

With a snarling growl that would have shown teeth if it was light, the lieutenant lunged toward Anchu, “Beat it! Move on!”

As Anchu laid down on the ice in a gesture of surrender, a deep, gravelly voice rang from the darkness behind him.

“He’s with me.” Larik said confidently and boldly. Two corporals had now become three, and they bunched up just behind the lieutenant.

“Well, you can move on with him.” was the reply, “Hit the trail.”

“Perhaps you didn’t hear me.” Larik said in the same level and confident tone, as his shadow stepped over the prostrated Anchu and walked up to the lieutenant, nose to nose. “I said he’s with me.”

The lieutenant shadow puffed out his chest, tensed his muscles, held his tail out straight and still. In spite of his best efforts to stretch, Larik was still taller by a head.

“No one gets in this camp, I don’t care who you’re with.” the lieutenant growled, bravely standing his ground against the larger dog. He took his responsibility very seriously. And had backup.

“I’m Larik.”

Despite the howling wind, Larik’s utterance was apparently heard by the whole platoon. At the mention of his name, all three corporals snapped their ears flat, lowered their heads below their shoulders, held their tails down and close, and spun around to take two steps away before turning again to face the confrontation.

Hearing his name, the lieutenant’s ears fell back slightly, his swelled chest deflated, and he took half a step backwards.

“Oh!” the lieutenant said, as if this meant the end to conversations. Then, in a tone that sounded more curious if not flat-out conciliatory, he asked “What are you doing here?”

Anchu had made his way to his feet and stood slightly behind Larik.

“I’m here to support my brother Anchu on his mission. He’s going to the camp to fetch help for our pack.” Larik spoke matter-of-factly, as if he was now in charge. As if the lieutenant had had the misfortune to encounter and defy a general. “Right, Onch?” he finished, shortening Anchu to his pack nickname.

Anchu took a step forward, though still maintaining a comfortable distance from the lieutenant. His mouth opened, but no sound came out. Then a squeak in his voice preceded his nervous reply.

“Yeah. Yeah, the camp.”

With this, the three corporals turned as if on command, and began a trot toward the encampment, still out of view in the half-light of dawn.

“Gosh, I’m sorry, Larik.” the lieutenant continued apologetically, “I didn’t know it was you!”

Larik spoke smoothly again, with conviction and authority, “You shouldn’t be denying shelter to any dog, or any other animal, in this weather.”

“Of course,” the lieutenant agreed readily, “it’s just that it’s been crazy the last few days. The war party and escaping to the tundra. We didn’t know if you were with the invaders.”

Larik seemed to ignore the lieutenant’s explanations, and brushed his shoulder against him as he walked past.

“Come on, Onch.” He looked behind him but saw no Anchu. Turning the other way, he found him snugged up against his side, keeping Larik between himself and the patrol.

Despite their exhaustion, Larik and Anchu trotted at a steady gait toward the camp, the lieutenant driveling on in apology to Larik. The corporals had disappeared into the darkness.

The low light of dawn tried to press through the storm clouds, though it was still too dark to see any distance, or objects in detail. Bit by bit they drew nearer, and sensed more than saw an encampment that appeared to grow larger with each passing step. Now large dark patches could be seen. The light of the ice beneath the sky’s dim glow was painted black by the occupants, and the reindeer herds spread out across a massive area. They could smell the smoke of dung fires burning within the yet unseen yarangas assembled in their midst.

“So who are you looking for?” the lieutenant asked Larik.

“Anyone who will help. Maybe someone we know. Tulaen? Evgenii?”

The lieutenant shook his head, recognizing neither name.

Larik searched his memory for the names of other people that would have accompanied Tun. “Evgy? Sarut? Dorik?”

“Dorik!” the lieutenant shouted. “I know where he is! Follow me!” He turned abruptly left and evaporated into a great herd of reindeer. Larik was gone right behind him, and Anchu hastened to keep up while finding his way through the thousands of reindeer legs. He lost track of Larik twice, but found him once again, just as they emerged from the herd in front of a large yaranga. It actually consisted of two such structures combined, with a doorway inside to pass between the two.

The sun cresting the horizon brought up the brightness of the grey-blue sky, and a dusky twilight revealed the vast reindeer herds circling the yaranga on all sides. There was barely enough room to accommodate a few dogs, and after their passing, the herd filled the gaps and squeezed closer. Larik was tracing the wall of the shelter, looking for the entrance. When he found it, he immediately launched into a barrage of “ATTENTION!” barks directed at the hide flaps of the door. He repeated them again and again, bouncing on forepaws, staring at the entry.

The herd parted slightly, and one of the corporals approached, accompanied by another half-dozen dogs. They crowded together some distance from Larik, and could be seen to be conversing closely. Just a moment later, another corporal emerged from the forest of legs, also followed by a small group. They stopped behind Anchu.

“Is it really Larik?” he heard one ask.

“He said he was. He’s big enough to be.” replied another, as they shifted laterally to get a better look, but ventured no closer.

Larik continued an unabated volley of barks, inches from the fur-covered door. Finally, it flipped open, and a person crawled out and quickly closed the flap behind him. The flap opened again and another person joined the first. Larik barked and turned westward, then barked again in the universal gesture of “Follow me!” He repeated the motions several times as the people approached to address him.

“You know Larik?” Anchu asked of whosoever was speaking behind him.

The group responded with a chorus of yeses and a “who doesn’t?”

“Everyone knows Larik, The Bear Killer.” one said.

“Did you see his face? His snout is half scars!” another observed with a shudder.

“You came here with Larik?” Anchu recognized the shadow and voice of the corporal.

“Well, yes. Actually, he followed me. We’re on the same team.”

An instant shift could be sensed and seen in the group crowding Anchu. It was as if some magic radiant light had begun pouring out of his eyes. Most took a quarter-step back and seemed to bow slightly in reverence. All eyes were fixed and wide, and a few mouths hung open briefly, before the bitter wind snapped them shut. There was absolute, awe-struck silence, broken only by Larik’s continued barks, and the barks being exchanged by the people.

“What do you mean ‘Larik the Bear Killer?’” Anchu asked the corporal.

“Everyone has heard of how he killed a bear to save his pack.”

Anchu snickered, “What?”

The corporal gave a questioning look at Anchu. “I thought you said you were on his team.”

“Well, actually it’s Tun’s team, but Larik and I are both on it.”

The corporal continued to eye Anchu suspiciously.

“So you’re the only dog on the peninsula that doesn’t know Larik, but you’re on the same team.” He posed the question as a statement. He stared intently, recalling the original suspicions this stranger had aroused, and moved closer to Anchu.

“Of course I know Larik!” Suddenly, Anchu felt threatened by the questions, the inquisitive looks of the corporal, the attention of the mob of dogs that surrounded him. A moment ago he was a hero, now he seemed a spy. “We just won the race at Festival together!” Anchu raised his voice insistently while trying to take a step back from the corporal, only to have his movement blocked by a wall of bodies.

“Everyone knows Larik’s team won at festival. That proves nothing. How about the Ukliat? Can you tell us how you did there?”

Unknown to Anchu, Tun and his team, with Larik, had attended the race at the village named. The story had already spread about a fight Larik had with a dog on an adjacent team. It actually amounted to little more than a scuffle at the starting gate, a place where dogs are crowded together, and anxious to start the race, nerves wound tightly. The fight only became elevated to noticeable when Larik inadvertently drew blood, a gash on the nose of his opponent, which forced the replacement of the injured dog on that team in order to continue the race. By the time the story was repeated from place to place, the legend had Larik sending an entire team of six dogs running off with their tails between their legs.

“I don’t know what you mean. We’ve only been together a couple of moons.” Anchu offered in defense.

“What did you say your name was?” the corporal now scowled, as he moved even closer, menacing.

“Anchu. I’m Anchu.”

“Don’t know it.” The corporal fanned his head symbolically at the mob, “Anybody ever heard of an Anju?”

The mob shook their heads in unison, and pressed ever closer.

“Anchu!” Larik bellowed across the space between them, “Let’s go!”

It was as if a bolt of lightning had struck the ice in front of them. The corporal spun quickly, tucked his tail, laid his ears flat. The entire mob expanded instantly, moving backward, moving away from Larik’s teammate, fearing they might meet their demise if their previous actions were observed by The Bear Killer.

Now emboldened by this testimony to his position, and feeling Larik, his body guard, was mere steps away, Anchu could not help but express his displeasure, his disdain for the corporal and the crowd’s treatment of him. He made a lunge, snapped at the air, and watched as the corporal threw himself to the ice, belly-up.

Anchu straightened and composed himself. He addressed the crowd in Larik’s level, confident tone.

“Let that be a lesson to you.”

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 Three

 

Chapter Three
Man Down

Tun was awakened by his lost-balance alarm as his hands slipped off the back bow. He swatted at the air for the handle as the sled moved out from under him, and he fell, flat on his back on the rock-hard ice, intense pain radiating from his pelvis and lower back. He looked up to see Rol’s reindeer about to walk over him, and he rolled painfully out of the way.
“Whoa! Whoa! Hold up! Whoa!” Tun called as loudly as his hoarse throat allowed, but it was to no avail. The team could not hear him over the roar of the raging storm, and continued to walk at their slow, steady pace.
Rol pulled the reins and halted his sled, stepped off to assist Tun to his feet. Trembling, he moved slowly, stooping awkwardly as an old man. He could provide little help, his muscles weak, and he groaned with his efforts. Tun winced, holding his hand to his back, and urgently spoke to Rol.
“The team! Stop the team!”
The young man chased after the dog sled, taking up a slow and steady trot into the wind. He tried to increase his speed, but his body could not respond. He held this pace as the sled kept moving steadily eastward. The movement generated a little heat, precious little, and Rol welcomed it. Yet simultaneously, the heavy breathing required became painful as the sub-freezing air burned at his throat and lungs. He tried to call out to stop the team, but found his throat dry and frozen. A strange sound barked from his mouth, and he tried again, but now only raspy gasps came out.
Hot blood rushed to his hands and feet, awakening frozen nerves, and the pain grew greater with each step. Several agonizing minutes passed as Rol incrementally gained on the sled team, until he could reach out and grab the back bow, and hop onto the runners. He stepped both feet onto the claw brake, and it dug into the solid ice.
The dogs, who had been plodding so hypnotically they never noticed Tun’s weight come off the sled, now sensed the drag of the brake, the pull on their harnesses. There was not one among them that wasn’t thankful for the stop, and they longed for a camp and a fire. They stood, eyes closed and heads hanging down, hoping in the next few minutes for a man to unhitch them so they could huddle together. They all were desperate with thirst.
The pain in Tun’s lower back was so intense it wracked him with every step. In agony, he walked to the racing sled, stepped onto its runners, picked up the reins and snapped them on the reindeer’s backside. She lurched forward, and stabbing pains ran up Tun’s back. He gritted his teeth and gripped the handle of the sled. There would be no nodding off for him again, as long as this fire burned in his back and stabbed at his shoulder blades.
Several minutes passed as the ambling reindeer caught up to the halted dog sled. Here, Rol stood still as a statue on the runners. His exercise had warmed him, but also formed perspiration on his skin. Every movement brought a new sensation of cold, and Rol tried to keep his skin from touching the insides of his apparel. The pain in his toes continued to increase as warm blood flowed to them. It felt like being stepped on by a reindeer’s solid hoof, multiplied a hundred times. He tried to wiggle his toes inside his mukluks, but doing so was more painful, and so he ceased.
At the edge of hypothermia, coupled with physical exhaustion and dehydration, Rol’s eyes, too, closed as he stood gripping the sled. His knees unlocked and he awoke instantly, catching himself by wrapping a mitt around the handle at the wrist, like a paw, his hands unable to clasp fingers to thumb. Every muscle in his body was shaking, as if in the grips of Saint Vitus’ dance.
The blustering gale jostled both men, shoved at them like an insolent jester. It pushed dogs off their feet, causing them to stumble, and pressed at the sleds as if begging them to remain still. It roared and howled with power, whistled and screamed with ferocity.
Every bump in the solid ice was felt in Tun’s back, as he finally caught up to Rol. For a moment, he stood still as the younger man, clinging to the sled to hold himself upright against the badgering wind. He had achieved this goal, his mind told him, drunk with exposure, spent from his exertions. His brain stood idling. No thought entered into it. “I’m here.” he thought, “I made it.”
Deep from the recesses of his mind, his consciousness called to him. It seemed his inner voice was as muted by the storm as the men were. He called to himself again. An iron will and strong heart broke through the fog. “Keep moving.” was all it said.
“Move!” the voice repeated, and Tun heard the address. “Move!” it said again, as if to imply the last chance to do so may be rapidly approaching. Tun could sense his unresponsiveness. The thought of moving pranced across his mind, but made no connection to the neural and muscular systems required.
It was not logic that parted the curtain of consciousness, but fear. Healthy fear that Tun had acquired through his many years of living in this merciless country. Fear of frostbite, fear of freezing to death. “Frostbite. Death. Frostbite. Death.” The voice continued until he began to move. Slowly at first, as if unsticking himself from the sled. Then awkwardly, as he tried to keep his ailing spine from flexing as he walked.
Suddenly, a picture flooded his senses, returned him to a day and time long, long ago, when freezing and death visited him in the most cruel fashion. He sucked in a breath in shock, as he did that very moment in the past, and immediately his heart was filled with worry for Rol. He made his way to the young man, or the boy, as Tun thought of him, for he was somewhere between the two.
Rol stood hunched over the back bow of the sled. His hood was drawn completely closed, without so much as a gap through which to exhale. Tun placed his hand on the lad’s shoulder, and felt his quaking frame. Rol did not move.
“How are you doing?” the big man shouted at the side of the hood.
Rol made the slightest turn toward Tun, and shrugged his shoulders. He moved his numb, mitted hands to the hood, fumbled with it, trying to find the opening, his hands visibly shaking. He pressed the hood to his face so his mouth was at the gap.
“Wa-when w-will w-we s-stop?” he shuddered forth words in a strange, growling sort of voice, immediately pulling the hood closed again.
“We must keep moving, Rol.” Tun shouted to the hood, “If we stop moving out here, we’ll die.”
Rol made no response for a moment. One could only guess what was happening inside the hood. Then it moved up and down twice, in a silent nod of affirmation.
There was little by way of shock or drama in Tun’s statement. For men or almost-men that live in this harsh place, these were simply facts. Freezing and death were natural elements, like the sun and the snow, and their presence loomed over these men, and all other animals of the peninsula, human or otherwise. Like the wind and cold, death is an everyday part of life for those who live hand-in-hand with the Ice Queen.
Rol stepped off the runners and went limp. He fell face-forward and slammed onto the ice like a rag doll thrown down by an angry child. If not for his thick fur hood, pulled closed all around his head and face, he might have cracked his skull. He laid there, unmoving.
With every ounce of strength, ignoring the searing pain in his back, Tun dragged the boy to the racing sled. He would have lifted Rol, but was unable to do so in his present condition, and he rolled the lad up onto the heap of belongings on the sled. He tied the trailing line of the cargo sled to the reindeer’s harness, and placed several hides over Rol, covering him entirely. He had to lash these in place to keep them from blowing off. With those preparations complete, he moved in his stilted fashion to the cargo sled.
“All dogs up! Let’s go! Eik! Eik! Eik!” he barked out froggy commands. The team did not respond, could not hear him over the wailing wind. In stiff, painful steps, he walked the length of the sled and the fourteen-dog team until he came to the lead at the end of the long gang line. There remained hope as long as his loyal team could hold up. He had pressed them harder than he had ever pressed dogs. Well beyond the limits of reason, bordering now on abuse. Their flight was desperate, and all members of the party were pushing their luck. They needed to keep moving, or die doing so. He found he could not bend, and so fell to his knees and shouted.
“Pick it out, Dak! Eik! Pick it out!”
The dog looked at him in confusion. The sled was not moving and the driver was not on the runners, prerequisites for such a command. His voice weaker with each word, Tun pleaded now.
“Eik! Dak, please! Eik! Pick it out. Eik! Eik!”
Dak sensed urgency and desperation in his human friend’s cries, and responded to Tun’s orders without further delay. He stood on four painful feet, thirteen dogs doing the same behind him, and again the weary entourage moved on.

Caravan Draft Chapter One

Chapter One
Summit

Sasha could hear the pounding of her own heart in her ears as she hastened along the snow-covered frozen trail. Without conscious will, she had assumed the same demeanor and posture as the other dogs. Her tail was pulled down and close, and she hunched as she ran to reduce her profile, ears laid back on her head. She breathed heavily but held in her tongue. Her muscles trembled though she wasn’t cold, and her stomach seemed to be rolling and roiling inside her. These were the physical manifestations of fear, something of which she had learned a great deal in a very short time.

The party with whom she was fleeing stretched out in a single-file line, racing their way over the East Woods trail at a punishing, reckless pace. Ahead of them drove their beloved human companion and driver, Tun, an eight-dog substitute team pulling his overloaded cargo sled. Behind Tun rode their young friend Rol, driving Tun’s slim, ornate racing sled, it too heaped with belongings. Rol drove a single reindeer in harness, and slapped the reins across its flanks, compelling it to move faster. They stole looks over their shoulders, hunching and trembling like the dogs.

Surrounding Sasha was her pack, her dogsledding teammates, her family. Ahead was Dak, the skilled lead dog, and Stone, the oldest. Beside her, her own brother Anchu, and behind them energetic Alexei and his brother, strong wheel dog Larik. Umka, the seventh on the team, ran beside Kotka, Sasha’s mentor and longest-held friend, a slight limp betraying his healed broken leg. The entire entourage ran as fast as they could manage toward the summit of Tun’s mountain to escape their pursuers.

What had been one of the finest days in Sasha’s short life was subsequently overshadowed by harrowing and mysterious events. The Summer Festival at the tiny village of Tunkan brought Sasha and Anchu to their first dog sled race. An unexpected and exciting win was a sweet surprise, and the team reveled in their success.

Before a day passed, they were called upon to travel with Rol to Sasha and Anchu’s birthplace, the homestead of Bek, Nina and their son Jiak, to determine the reason for their absence from Festival. Sasha was eager to see Jiak, her first love and dogsledding driver, after two moons in her new home. She was equally eager, if not perhaps more so, to see Mother again, and relate to her all the exciting things that had passed since their parting. She would see Kotka, and all the dogs of her former team.

Upon arrival the home was found to be deserted, and every dog in the yard was gone except Kotka, who had fled to the woods. He described a frightening incursion by strangely-clad invaders, taking all the dogs and people with them. Bek had called them “soldiers”.

When they returned to Tunkan, the laughing village, host of the Summer Festival, they found it pillaged and torched. The fearsome intruders from the west were responsible for this, and none of it made the least sense to Sasha or her teammates.

Now Tun and Rol pressed eastward, fleeing their persecutors, last to leave in a long string of refugees. Chavchu reindeer herders drove their animals ahead of them, and more than a dozen dog sleds carried people, families and their belongings. A number of orphaned dogs followed with the group, similarly driven from the only homes they had ever known.

Both sleds were loaded to capacity with all that could be hurriedly made to fit. The air was crisp and cold, and the snow well-packed, yet Tun’s team struggled as the trail pitched uphill. He stepped off the runners and trotted behind the sled to reduce the load. Higher and higher they continued to climb until they emerged from the forest near the peak of the mountain. The next leg would be the most difficult, as the steep slope loomed before them.

“Whoa now.” Tun called to the team, ”All dogs down.”

Most of the dogs laid down in their traces, panting hard and welcoming the rest stop. Two dogs up front, who looked enough alike to be twins, stood staring ahead at the trail, awaiting the command to move again.

The imposing peak of the great mountain stood before them. Ancient etched and jagged granite, with strips and stripes of glacier, snow and ice. An intimidating incline without a trail or cover, the wind careened up its face and threw itself from its top to form billowing clouds of blowing snow in the sky.

Tun spoke to Rol and rifled hastily through his sled, extracting a gang line extension and a bag of harnesses. He called his loyal team to him; Dak and Stone, Alexei and Larik, Anchu and Sasha and Umka. One by one he placed their mushing harnesses on them, assisted by Rol, and commenced to connect tug lines to the long gang line, already equipped with eight strong Chukchi dogs. Despite calls, Larik did not report for duty, but Tun wasted no time returning to their climb. With fourteen dogs in tandem, the tiring troupe again attacked the ascent.

The early winter wind brought with it a haunting scent, climbing the slope and stampeding past the party. All the dogs seemed to detect it simultaneously as they lifted their noses to the air.

“The strangers!” Stone called to the pack, and they turned their heads to the timberline as it receded.

Fourteen dogs and a man were no match for the million-ton mountain which has stood for millennia. They slowed to a crawl, frequently coming to a complete halt. Tun would shove and heave, and more than once Rol needed to join him to move the long cargo sled foot by foot up the steep slope. Both men turned their eyes often to the backtrail.

At long last the crest of the summit drew near, as Tun continued to push the heavy sled, and every dog strained at the long gang line. One more step, one more step. Each inch of progress purchased with exhausted muscles and heaving breaths.

Dak, in the lead, was first over the top, right behind him Stone. Before Sasha reached the ridge, they disappeared over it, and so it went with each of the dogs in the long procession.

As Sasha crested the ridgeline, she was startled to discover they were on a bluff that towered hundreds of feet above the base. A narrow shelf ran perpendicularly, barely wide enough for a sled. The whistling wind inundated all with blinding clouds of blowing snow. Winds driven up the face of the cliff would collide with and part the curtain to reveal a vast, featureless plain below. As far as she could see, nothing but flat, frozen windswept tundra greeted her.

“Haw! Haw! Haw! Haw! Haw!” Tun’s powerful, booming voice could barely be heard above the Arctic din cascading over the mountaintop and shrouding everything in white. If not for Dak’s recollections of vague familiarity of this rarely-trod route, the sharp turn might well have resulted in disaster, and a blind helpless plunge into the rock-strewn abyss.

The group skirted along a narrow ledge, twenty feet below the driftcap, parallel to the cliff. The overwhelming blowing snow whited out everything beyond a few feet, making for a nerve-wracking transit, the precipice beside them a constant threat. It seemed one misstep could find them in mid-air at any moment, though the buffeting wind served to shove them back against the wall of granite. They continued along this seismic cut, guided only by Dak’s nose and their faith in his instincts. It crept its way down from the peak of the mountain, leading them eventually to the wide open tundra.

When finally they were on level ground again, they turned due eastward and struck out across the stark landscape. Sunset was drawing near, and here the wind raced across the open terrain without hindrance, and reached phenomenal speeds. Ice bits and even tiny shards of rock peppered the party like miniature gunfire, as they bore down directly into the Arctic headwind. They followed a freshly-laid trail, preceded by the others that had fled before them.

Their breakneck pace waned as the blistering wind blinded them and hammered them with brutal gusts. The sky grew darker and the numbing temperatures grew ever colder. The frantic pace of the hillclimb and the sprinting undertaken when they reached the plain began to ebb. Gallops slowed to trots. Trots slowed to walking.

Now as darkness fell, the gale increased in its fury, and cold was driven through dog’s coats and humans’ alike. Sasha pondered at these strange days.

“Why do the strangers persecute us?” she wondered. Surrounded by all those she knew and loved, led by their strong friend Tun, Sasha was less fearful now, yet apprehensive about the future. Mystery loomed before her, and she thought now of all those she had longed to see since the odyssey began. Her mother, her human family of the homestead on the moraine, all of her former teammates and other dogs from her first home. Dear Jiak.

In the howling wind Sasha swore she heard their voices calling out to her. From someplace deep in the darkness, perhaps high above the smothering storm, they sent their spirits to her.

“We are all of us a pack,” came their soothing thoughts, “and a pack is a forever love.”

The sounds faded into the roar of the polar barrage, and Sasha leaned into her harness, ignoring the pain in her paws.