“Down to five again.” Stone said to Dak. They trotted side by side at the front of the group as they started down the mountain trail, Umka, Anchu and Sasha close behind. Dak gave a long and knowing look at Stone, and made no reply.
“Maybe we can catch up with Alexei.” Stone accompanied the statement with a quickening step, and encouragement for Dak and the others to follow suit.
“Wait! Wait!” Sasha stopped in her tracks and called to the rest. “I need to go back and tell Kotka where I’ve gone.” The group stopped in response and looked back, still facing down the hill. “I’ll be right back. You go ahead and I’ll catch up.”
With little more than nods of acknowledgement, the panting dogs resumed their trot, and disappeared into the woods. Sasha galloped near top speed back up the draw, and crossed the meadow to the Lodge Village. When she arrived at the shed, she found it empty. Wishing to avoid delay, she began a circle around the perimeter of the occupied spaces, calling Kotka. Near the Lodge she heard his deep voice answer her call, and she found him lying on the porch of the Dogs’ House.
“What’s going on?” Kotka asked, rising to his feet and sounding genuinely concerned at the sight of his hurried and winded friend.
“The pack…” she started, and was struck by the fact that she considered him a part of it, yet somehow separate. In the same way Tun stood out as one among many. There was something about both of them that made you feel you were in the presence of greatness. Awe and reverence filled those fortunate enough to know them. “Some of us…” she started again, “The team…”. Any words she chose seemed inadequate. Somehow excluding Kotka, bordering on insult.
“Sosh.” he interrupted, sensing her plight. “You don’t need to mince words with me. With a bum leg, I’m never going to be on a team again. But you’re young and strong. You run for both of us.”
“Gosh, I..I” she stuttered.
“I heard your team is going to look for Tun. You go, and I’ll see you when you return, okay?”
“No. Change of plans.” Still winded, she spoke in bursts, “We’re going down the mountain. To get Larik. Back to Tunkan.”
“A much better idea!” he exclaimed, “When are you leaving?”
“They’re on the trail already. I came back to tell you.” She went to the water dish on the ground beside the porch. She licked at the clear surface but discovered it was frozen. She gave it a few more licks.
“Gee, that was thoughtful. I would have been sick with worry. But you better get going, to catch up with your team!”
“I need to say goodbye to Rol.”
“That will be some trick!” Kotka laughed, “Have you learned to speak human?”
“Well, I need to see him, at least, before I go.” She was already searching intently the faces of those that filled her field of view, anxious to keep moving. Anxious to catch up with her comrades on the trail.
“You’d better not spend too much time looking for him or you’ll be alone on the trail!” He took a step to imply urgency, with a bright encouraging gleam in his eye.
She spun and darted off. “We won’t be long.” she barked over her shoulder, her parting words fading as she raced out of sight.
She made a complete circle again, all around the grounds, but could find no sign or scent of Rol anywhere. She thought perhaps he may be in the Lodge or another building with doors. Running up to the front entrance of the Lodge, she began barking repeatedly. A loud “Pay Attention!” bark, repeated twice for every breath, a non-stop stream of resonating calls. The door opened, and a woman stuck her head out, waved her hand at Sasha and bade her away. Sasha took advantage of the open door and bolted through it, running down the hall of the building, looking and smelling for Rol.
“Sasha!” she heard called from behind her, a room she’d just passed, and in an instant, Rol was in the hall running toward her. She ran to him, panting and tail wagging as he knelt to wrap his arms around her. She enjoyed the hug for one luxurious moment, and returned the gesture, pressing her face to his.
Then she stood, took a step, and faced the door. She looked back at Rol with another bark, “Come on!”
“Whoa! Whoa! Where are you going? You just got here.” the boy’s heart quickened. He was glad she had returned to him, somehow his favorite among the team he’d joined briefly. At least it was a living thing known and akin to him in some way. He had hoped to set out again with a team, cobbled together as best he could, to head north to search for his family. When he saw the team running away, his heart nearly burst. Not only did they leave him stranded for a dog team, he felt they were as fond of him as he was of them. Then, like Alexei, in a village full of people, he somehow felt alone.
Sasha repeated the step, stop and bark message. “Come on, Rol. We’re going to get Larik!”
“You want to go out?” Rol followed her to the door, his heart aching in his chest. He didn’t want her to run away again, but wouldn’t think of leashing her. He could only hope she wanted to stay here with him. This voluntary act made by every dog he has ever loved and who loved him. The freedom to leave answered by the desire to remain. It was a loving bond of trust. Rol was truly a dog person. He felt dogs were a special species among all. To be able to live with us as family. If she wanted to leave, Rol would not deny her liberty. He opened the door and trailed her outside.
She took two steps and let out two barks this time, trying to look impatient, trying to imply the direction of the trail.
“Where are you going?” he called to her. She ran back to him and barked again, took two steps.
“What do you want? Food? Water?”
She repeated the barking and stepping and pointing toward the trail, but Rol did not recognize any of the clues. She trotted a distance from him, toward the trail that beckoned to her to hasten.
“Okay. You want to go, don’t you?” Rol was resigned, but joy filled his heart that she had tried to bring him along. He looked on the beautiful dog with a great grin. “Okay. I can’t go with you, but you go ahead.”
She barked again, each unable to fully understand the other. Somehow, it seemed, a certain communication was still to be had between them. Rol smiled and waved his hand.
“Yes! Go!” he said cheerily, as one giving permission to a child to do as she pleased.
Sasha heard the word “Go”, yet saw Rol made no move to follow. A smile on the young man’s face was the final clue she needed. It seemed he was unable or unwilling to join her, but embraced her determination, trusting that she knew what she wanted, and reconciling himself to acceptance. She knew he would not be so sad after this exchange. She hadn’t really taken Rol to her heart until she saw how disappointed and melancholy he was as the team ran off. Barely a man, still half-child, she could not have gone knowing this, and knowing that he, too, seemed one apart from the other villagers. As if his pack, too, was scattered across the frozen plains.
Rol raised a hand and held it as Sasha sprinted for the mountain trail. He watched, this time baring a smile, until she again disappeared over the hill.
She’d gone just a short distance, to the first turn, where the trail curved sharply around the back of a large rock outcropping before a plunging descent. As she came around the turn she had to quickly side step to keep from running face first into Anchu. There the four members of the party were gathered. Umka lying on the ground licking at his foreleg, Stone pacing at the edge of the drop off.
“We had to wait for you.” Dak greeted her. “All set?”
She smiled and nodded in breathless, enthusiastic agreement.
Stone caught her eye as they got underway, “A pack needs to stick together.”